The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Grandpa Burned The Barn

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1986

September, 1986

Today we fail to realize how innovative many of our grandparents were. My grandfather Worrell lived in Carroll County. He was a schoolteacher of some renown, a Major in the Confederate army, a farmer and a community leader. In addition he was an excellent blacksmith and a fair carpenter.

My grandfather Swartz was of Dutch descent, was a Mennonite and lived in Rockingham County [Virginia]. His grandparents came to this country in the mid-to-late 1700's landing at Philadelphia. After stopping in the Lancaster, PA. area for a period they settled in Shenandoah County some five miles west of Mt. Jackson, Virginia. My grandfather Abraham Swartz was born there in 1839. Around 1850 his family moved to the adjoining county of Rockingham near the cross roads community of Dale Enterprise located some five miles west of Harrisonburg, Virginia. By the time he was eighteen years old he was an excellent farmer, he had served an apprenticeship and had become a Master-Cooper. Coopers served an important function in the community making wooden barrels, buckets, tubs, casks, legs, firkins, bushel and peck measures. (Metal barrels, buckets, tubs and containers did not come into general use until the late 1800's).

Grandfather's proficiency as a cooper led him to become a cabinet maker and a furniture craftsman also. By the time that he was twenty-one years old he was working as a farmer during the daytime and as a cooper and furniture craftsman at night and during inclement weather, for which there was a good and constant demand.

When the Civil War developed, the Valley of Virginia was termed by General Robert E. Lee as the granary and food supply backbone of his army. He established Quartermaster officers at each county seat to supply the Confederacy with horses, mules, hay, grain and foodstuffs. Things went along very well in 1861 and 1862. Grist mils, cattle buyers, farmers and suppliers were paid for their sales by the Confederacy Treasury in Richmond, Virginia. In 1863 the South began to experience money and credit problems. Bills required longer and longer for payment. Finally the army ran into a short supply and began "Living off the Land" as they termed it. This meant confiscating, and according to the citizenry "stealing" whatever they could find. Be it said, however, Confederate as well as Union army raiding parties came through the countryside as the armies maneuvered back and forth. Such were the conditions when 1864 arrived.

The Quakers, the Brethren, the Amish and the Mennonites were opposed to war and forbid their members to join either war. By 1863 conscription, today we call it the draft, of the young and able bodied men for army service became a reality. Conscription officers were stationed in each county seat to fill army quotas which they began implementing through the postmasters. Grandfather Swartz's name appeared on a conscription list. He was a devout Mennonite. A way around the situation was found by allowing a conscripted man to employ an able-bodied man who was above the conscript age to enlist in his place, if one could be found. My grandfather Swartz found such a man in one Henry Feldman who agreed to take his place for the sum of $900.00 in gold. That was considered a fortune when there was little money and a day's wages was 35 or 40 cents.

In 1861 grandfather Swartz became very interested in one of the daughters of a fellow Mennonite, a prosperous farmer named Reuben Swope living in the Dale Enterprise community. His farm was a mile plus south of the combination store and post office directly on the road and two and half miles north of the small village of Dayton, Virginia, located on present day S.R. 42 some four miles south of Harrisonburg, Virginia. An understanding was reached between the bride-to-be, my grandfather and her father. The wedding would take place when: (1) Reuben Swope would cut out of his farm and give to bride and groom seventy acres of land; (2) Grandfather Swartz would pay when and as he could a stipulated sum therefore, but which neither of them would ever divulge; (3) Reuben Swope and his sons would help grandfather Swartz cut timber, clear the land for a house, barn, and outbuildings without pay in as much time as could be spared from their farm duties; (4) They were to help load the logs on the wagon, grandfather Swartz had to haul them to the mill where they would be sawed into boards and dimension stock, planed, then hauled back to the building site where all would assist in stacking them into stacks to air dry for sixty days; (5) All would then work together along with volunteering neighbors to erect the buildings; (6) Then the wedding would take place, hopefully by the end of 1862. But conditions of war interfered with the schedule.

The first delay came when grandfather's name appeared on the Conscription List which required some time to take care of. Then the army raiding parties or "Army Grabbers" as they were called began coming through the country and taking any and everything that they could lay hands on. To circumvent losing everything they had to live on, Reuben Swope who was to become my great-grandfather and who was always referred to by the family as Grandpa Swope, joined with his neighbors in sending their sons with all of their horses, cattle and wagons loaded with all of their food supplies fourteen miles west into the Alleghany mountain hollows where they could not be found. They always referred to this practice as "Refugeeing our property." Such provisions as those remaining at home would need to live on until they could be re-provisioned from time to time were buried in earth caches or covered up in the woods. Grandpa stayed with "the womenfolk" as he called his wife and daughters. This situation continued from 1863 until the spring of 1865 when the war concluded. The men in the mountains returned home from time to time to plant and harvest crops all of which was hauled into the mountains as soon as it was completed.

In the spring of 1864, the Union General Phillip Sheridan and his corps of Infantry had been dispatched to the Shenandoah Valley to halt all food supply to the Confederacy with his headquarters established between Harrisonburg and Staunton. In the late afternoon of May 11, 1864, Major John Miegs with two of his staff were returning to an encampment of a contingent of General Sheridan's forces located one mile north of Dayton, near the intersection of present day S.R. 42 and a road from the east then known as "The Swift Run Gap Road." About two hundred yards from the encampment they were surprised by a Confederate scouting party of three soldiers. In the ensuing skirmish Major Miegs was killed. When word of this reached General Sheridan at his headquarters, the report was unclear and somewhat garbled, and General Sheridan came to the conclusion that Major Miegs had been killed, not by a Confederate force, but by partisan citizens whom he referred to as "Bushwhackers."

General Sheridan became infuriated, and in the heat of his anger, hot-headedly - called an emergency meeting of his staff and ordered every building within a five mile radius of the scene of the killing burned to the ground. He specified that retaliatory military parties be dispatched in all directions starting at 7:00 AM the following morning to carry out his order. The following is what transpired that night and the following morning.

Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes was in charge of the Dayton encampment from whence the burning parties were to be sent out. He was a close friend of General Sheridan, his commanding officer. That same night after receiving the order Lt. Col. Wildes sent a detail of soldiers into the Village of Dayton with whom his encampment had enjoyed excellent relations during their period of encampment, to notify the citizenry of the order and to afford them an opportunity to remove their household furnishings. The village then consisted of 23 residences, a tavern, a blacksmith shop, a store and two churches all of which were to be burned the following morning. He further instructed the officer in charge that his men were to help the householders to carry the furnishing out of the house. Many of the householders spent the night with their furnishings after they had been carried out. More important, during the night the people gathered in small groups and prayed throughout the night that God would intervene and save their homes in some miraculous manner. Afterwards everyone agreed that there had never been a more intensive time of prayer and supplication in their lives. From then on the citizenry thanked God that they knew that He did hear and answer prayer.

Early the following morning, May 12, 1864, Lt. Col. Wildes sent out the burning parties and he personally took charge of the party that would burn the town. He proceeded with his men to the south side of the town to start the burning. Actually, his heart was not in his task, as the people had shown his encampment many acts of kindness and favors. The first house selected was a tenant house on the William Herring farm. It still stands about 300 yards east of SR 42 and just outside of the town limits. The occupant was Ms. Valentine Bolton whose husband was serving as a soldier in the Confederate Army. She was told that she would have to be moved out and the house would be torched in 5 minutes. Lt. Col. Wildes sent his men into the house to carry out the furnishings. One of his men, knowing that Lt. Col. Wildes was a Mason, returned and informed him that there was a Masonic apron hanging on the wall. Lt. Col Wildes immediately went into the house and verified the report. Turning to Mrs. Bolton he asked, "Is your husband a Mason?" She replied, "Yes, he belongs to the Blue Lodge in Bridgewater, two miles away." Knowing that his commanding officer, General Sheridan, and himself were both Masons, he took it upon himself to countermand the General Order to burn the town. He commanded, "Burn no houses in Dayton." In 1912 a former Union soldier stated in a letter, "I was the torch man who was to torch that house in five minutes. When the order was rescinded, the men out cheered the noise of a bayonet charge because they were so glad that the burning of the town had been called off." Only Dayton escaped however.

While the above events were transpiring the other burning parties had set off in their assigned directions. One party headed out of town in a north westerly direction on the Dale Enterprise road. This part arrived at Grandpa's farm shortly after eight AM . The womenfolk's were washing clothes out in the yard. Their method consisted of first scrubbing the clothes on a scrubbing board, followed by placing them in a large iron pot of boiling water heated by a wood fire underneath. In after years they always maintained, "Those thieving Yankees stole the clothes, towels, men's shirts and underwear right out of the boiling wash-pot and carried them away."

The Corporal in charge of the burning party said to grandpa, "I have to burn your house and barn and confiscate the contents." Grandpa replied, "You are too late to get much contents. They have all been carried off. Only the womenfolk's and myself are here. Don't burn us out." The Corporal replied, "I have to carry out my orders but I will only burn your barn." Grandpa replied, "Please don't do that. The sparks from the barn fire can not avoid setting the house roof shingles afire and there is no way that we can 'outen' it." The Corporal replied, "I have my orders and that is the best that I can do for you." With that he ordered his men to take straw from the barnyard, pile it against the wall and fire it, which they did. As he was leaving he said in a stern voice to grandpa, "I will be returning by here this evening and if I find that you have put this fire out I will have my men be sure that your barn and house is burned to the ground. Then I am going to personally find you and shoot you." With that they left and disappeared up the road and over the next hill.

Grandpa thought about the situation and concluded, "They are going to make a circle and burn the buildings in as wide an area as possible. They will not be back by here this evening." Grandpa immediately ordered the womenfolk's to start carrying water and helping him to put the fire out. He soon had the fire out with relatively little damage having been done. But, his troubles were not over. He failed to reckon with the womenfolk's.

As soon as he started pouring water on the fire, and from then on, they began begging him "Don't do it, Papa. Don't put the fire out. Please stop. The Yankees will shoot you. If they don't shoot you today, they will come back and shoot you tomorrow. Please don't save the barn. We want you alive. Please don't save the barn." In the after years Grandpa always said, "The whole thing was over, the Yankees had come and gone, and I had the fire out before ten o'clock. But those womenfolk's kept up their hollering, begging and pleading, following me around, and not leaving me alone for a minute. I was pretty sure that those Yankees were not coming back but just about dinner time I gave in to hush them up. I got some fresh straw, piled it up against the side of the barn, set it afire and watched it burn. The Army Grabbers were a lot of bother, but I would as soon put up with them as I would womenfolk's when they get to gabbing."

Sure enough, it all happened just like Grandpa said it would. The barn burned down. Sparks from the fire set the house roof on tire and the house burned down. Distant neighbors saw the smoke, came and carried out the most of the house contents. They took Grandpa and his family into their homes for a few day. Then the neighbors and church members gathered up all the lumber, shingles, nails and building materials, and on an appointed day everyone gathered, went to work, and in three days, built a small temporary house and a temporary stable. The Yankees never came back. By the early fall Grandpa had the boys come out of the mountains, go to work early and work late, cut logs, and with all the neighbors and friends helping, they had built a better house and barn than the original.

By then, the end of the war was in sight and all of the military action had moved out of the valley area. It ended in early April 1865. By then grandfather Swartz had married Grandmother and their first baby was born while they were living with grandpa and building their own new house and barn. Their new house was a two story building with the down stairs used for cooking and eating and the upstairs for sleeping. They lived in it for fifteen months while they built their own house. In building the first temporary house grandfather Swartz had an eye for the future. When they vacated it, he had his ideal shop building. The first floor was his cooper shop and his second floor was his cabinet and furniture shop with lumber storage space and facilities. He made grandmother happy by putting a sink and pump in her kitchen and a large Dutch oven out in the yard. On one occasion she had baked in it in the morning. It turned cold in the late afternoon, and she could not find two of the smaller children. Finally they were found. They had crawled into the still warm Dutch oven where they were lying down and watching the wind blow.

Grandfather Swartz was a very superior individual. He was inventive, innovative, a fine craftsman and one whose farm was cultivated and kept like a garden. Henry Feldman came back from the war service. He said, "It was not too bad. I am ready and I wish I could go back again for another $900.00."