«Mecklenburg County, Virginia, emerged from the Civil War unscarred by battle within its boundaries. The only obvious physical evidence now that the ...»
Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and the War Between the States
“God grant some better day may come.”
Mecklenburg County, Virginia, emerged from the Civil War unscarred by battle within its
boundaries. The only obvious physical evidence now that the war had even touched the county is
a marker or two and the statue of a Civil War soldier before the courthouse. No earthworks. No
cannonballs in the sides of buildings. The scars the war did leave are harder to see.
The Scene Is Set When the war started, Mecklenburg and neighboring counties were generally known as being rich counties. In the July 4, 1861, issue of the Richmond, Virginia, Daily Dispatch, a correspondent noted that “Old Mecklenburg is by no means the least among the counties of Virginia in size, wealth and numbers. In refinement of its population, she is among the first rank, and … in patriotism perhaps the first of the State. Glorious Old Dominion!” The correspondent had mentioned a point to keep in mind: Virginia — the glorious Old Dominion. For many Southerners, loyalty to one’s state was paramount. Many U.S. Army and Navy officers resigned their commissions, followed their home states out of the Union, and accepted Confederate commissions. They included Mecklenburg County natives J. Thomas Goode (Lieut. Col., CSA) and William Conway Whittle (Commodore, CSA). Robert E. Lee resigned from the U.S. Army as well, “[p]erhaps … tugged by what his cousin Anna Maria Fitzhugh called ‘a sweet binding to this spot of earth, this soil of Virginia that is irresistible.’ ” In 1853, writer J.G.
Baldwin, with tongue firmly in cheek, observed:
Patriotism with a Virginian is a noun personal. He loves Virginia … He loves to talk about her. It makes no odds where he goes he takes Virginia with him. He never gets acclimated elsewhere. He never loses citizenship in the old home. He may breathe in Alabama, but he lives in Virginia.
Mecklenburg County was formed in 1765 from Lunenburg County (to the north), which in turn had been formed from Brunswick County (now Mecklenburg’s eastern boundary) in 1745. EuroAmericans were settled in the area that eventually became Mecklenburg prior to at least 1722.
African American slaves were possibly there then also; they were definitely in the future Mecklenburg by 1733. Native Americans had been there long before that.
Mecklenburg is a large county — about 625 square miles. The Meherrin River to the north; the Roanoke River and North Carolina to the south; Brunswick County on the east; and Halifax and Charlotte Counties to the west. At the time of the Civil War the county had farming operations of various sizes, up to plantations of thousands of acres. Then, and into the 20th century, gristmills “Calamitous War”; Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and the War Between the States © 2014 Susan Bracey Sheppard and/or sawmills — large and small — operated on rivers and creeks. There were blacksmiths and tanneries (both often part of the plantations); country stores; doctors, dentists, and lawyers (and most not within a town or settlement); at least one pharmacist (in Clarksville); various means of education (including but not limited to academies — male and female — and a college, for men — Randolph-Macon College, in Boydton, the county seat); one reasonably navigable river, the Roanoke; the terminus at Clarksville of a short (22 miles) railroad, between Clarksville (Virginia; western Mecklenburg) and Ridgeway, North Carolina; large brick tobacco factories;
two coach factories; a wagon factory; a plow manufacturer or two; saddle makers; ferries across the Roanoke and bateaux plying the river; a mineral springs resort west of Clarksville; in Clarksville, a branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia; a newspaper (The Tobacco Plant);
taverns; bars; privately owned stills; and a multitude of churches.
Many horses had prestigious bloodlines. Before this war the area was famous for its horses.
The county did not lack for small mercantile establishments. Often located at intersections or along well-traveled roads, a store might serve as post office, polling place, meeting place to transact business — both public and private, and a general socializing site. A great place to catch
up on the local news. They sold just about anything:
There were plank roads, in various states of repair or disrepair. Dirt — often mud — roads, with stream crossings that ranged from fords that were in such bad shape that they weren’t really fordable, to good fords, to bridges that were there only in theory, to bridges kept in good repair.
Storms and often-resulting floods could change travel conditions quickly. Creeks might leave their banks after a severe storm, flooding out onto the lowgrounds beside the streams. The Roanoke often did the same, with results proportionate to its size. When there were no crops on the lowgrounds, the floods were a positive — depositing rich organic matter over the lowgrounds and making the lowgrounds very desirable farming acreage and more expensive per acre. But when crops were in those fields, flooding was economically disastrous. Almost a hundred years later that problem was dealt with by the construction of a massive concrete dam just upstream from Bugg’s Island, with gates that could control the water levels of the reservoir behind it, how much water was allowed to move downstream, and how much electrical power was generated by water turning the turbines in its powerhouse. Of course the lowgrounds are now permanently flooded, by both Kerr Lake (Buggs Island Lake) and Lake Gaston, downstream.
“Calamitous War”; Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and the War Between the States © 2014 Susan Bracey Sheppard As the 1860s began, unfortunately, the Boydton and Petersburg Plank Road (east from Boydton), although only a few years old, was already in disrepair and its bridge over the Meherrin River had collapsed. But the plank road extension west from Boydton to the ferry landing opposite Clarksville was in good shape and the county purchased the section from Boydton east to Lombardy Grove (north of present-day Big Fork; where Rts. 1 and 58 split, south of South Hill), after the Boydton and Petersburg Plank Road Company went out of business, prewar. In 1857, in northwest Mecklenburg, such part of the Christiansville and Keysville Plank Road as had been completed was open and collecting tolls. (Christiansville is present-day Chase City; Keysville is in Charlotte County.) The Roanoke Navigation Company had been chartered in 1812 in North Carolina, to construct and maintain canals and locks in certain parts of the river and to collect tolls. In 1859 river traffic using the canals having become so light, the company was relieved of its obligation to keep up those canals. However, it remained in business, and continued to collect tolls on all river traffic.
The Roanoke Valley Railroad, with its office and terminus in Clarksville, had begun operation in
1855. The county had been overjoyed to finally have a railroad outlet. The 22-mile track ran from Clarksville southeast to a junction with the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad at Ridgeway, North Carolina, and provided an outlet for agricultural goods from “the fertile Valley of the Roanoke River.” By the opening of the war an extension of the railroad, crossing the Roanoke and running north to join the Richmond & Danville Railroad at Keysville, was well on the way to completion, but the original stretch of the Roanoke Valley Railroad was already in poor condition.
However, despite the state of the railroad, its existence did initially prove beneficial for the Confederate war effort. The Confederate States of America (CSA) had quickly set up in Mecklenburg part of its overall quartermaster system, with Clarksville as the base. And commodities vital to the war effort were soon being produced in Clarksville — saddles, bridles, harnesses, and even (human) shoes — and were being shipped out on the Roanoke Valley Railroad.
Many people — in both the county and the Confederate military — pushed for the completion of the extension of the railroad to Keysville, seeing it as vital. As early as May 1861 Major General Robert E. Lee (then of the Virginia forces, not USA or CSA) had expressed that “[a]s a military road... the [Roanoke Valley Railroad] would be both desirable and important [as]... an additional means of communication between Richmond and the South... [and]... in the event of obstruction on one road, the other might be kept open for travel and transportation.” He did, however, recognize that Virginia did not then have sufficient financial resources to take that on.
The Roanoke Valley Railroad Company felt the pressures of the “calamitous war” almost immediately. The company president, in his 1861 report to shareholders, noted that freight and travel were less than half what they had been, the road needed repair, and their locomotives had not been serviced in a year and yet were unable to get repaired because the shops in Richmond, Petersburg, and Raleigh were refusing the work. Not until almost a year later was the president able to persuade a shop to take them.
“Calamitous War”; Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and the War Between the States © 2014 Susan Bracey Sheppard In 1862 the railroad company president’s report brought good news: income had improved, the track was in “fair order,” they had repaired their boxcars, and on all the bridges at least some trestles had been repaired or replaced and were “believed to be perfectly safe.” The president was optimistic and was not even discouraged by the continued suspension in construction of the Keysville extension.
Unfortunately, within three months of his report the Confederate government was ordering the impressment of the rails, both laid and unlaid, of several railroads in North Carolina and Virginia, including the unlaid rails of the Keysville extension. The rails were needed for repairs to other, more vital roads, and for the construction of the Piedmont Railroad. Then, a few short months later, the CSA also impressed the laid rails of the active Roanoke Valley Railroad, as well as its rolling stock and scrap iron. In spring 1864 the CSA did reimburse the company — not enough according to its president — and the company did invest the money: in 8 percent bonds issued by the CSA, which of course became worthless. The Roanoke Valley Railroad became a casualty of the war.
StatisticsTo place the county and its residents in perspective, mathematically:
When the 1860 federal census was taken, Virginia had 148 counties, two independent cities (Petersburg and Portsmouth), and a total human population of 1,596,318. (1,047,299 white, 58,042 free persons of color [here they will be referenced as free blacks], and 490,865 slaves.) Southern Virginia had a concentration of slaves and slaveholders. In Mecklenburg County the total population of the county was 20,096. Of that total, 6,778 were white, 898 were free blacks (so, total free population, 7,676), and 12,420 were enslaved, held by 760 households.
Five counties or cities in Virginia had more slaves than Mecklenburg. Slaves accounted for about 62% of the total population in Mecklenburg. In Halifax County the enslaved accounted for 56% of the population; in Charlotte, 64%; in Lunenburg, 61%; and in Brunswick, 62%.
To be defined (in the census) as a slaveholder one had to own at least one slave, as did 77 of the 760 slaveholding households in Mecklenburg in 1860. The 760 slaveholders account for approximately 48% of the 1,595 households in Mecklenburg; 17 counties or cities in Virginia had a higher total number of slaveholders.
The cash value of Mecklenburg’s 726 farms was $3,606,956.
The value of personal property was $12,090,434; eight counties/cities in the state had higher valuations.
Mecklenburg also had industry: 65 manufacturing establishments, with an annual value of products totaling $518,398. These businesses employed a total of 629 persons, 489 male and 140 female.
“Calamitous War”; Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and the War Between the States © 2014 Susan Bracey Sheppard Timeline to Secession By the Virginia constitution in force then, the county court was the governing body of the county, with both executive and judicial powers. The day each month that the court was to meet in each county was set by law, but not all counties had the same day, which allowed lawyers to attend courts for clients in different counties. “Everyone” came to Boydton on court day, for official business but also to trade or sell horses, or other wares; for socializing and hearing the news from around the county; and to hold a meeting on a particular topic, give speeches to the meeting, and make decisions.
On the eve of the war, although the citizens of southern Virginia were not unanimous in their opinions, those who supported states’ rights, slavery, and secession were in the majority and were certainly the most vocal and demonstrative. Those who did not support “the cause,” being fewer, were harder to hear.
Following the “invasion of our soil at Harper’s Ferry” some “citizens of Mecklenburg county” met in Boydton, on court day, November 21, 1859. They appointed a chairman (Henry Wood), secretary (John G. Boyd), and then a committee (John G. Boyd; William Baskervill, Jr.; Col.