None fared well under occupation by Union
By Charles Culbertson/contributor
It was over. The South’s beloved Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his starving,
tattered Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, effectively ending the War Between
But for the defeated people of the South, including those in Staunton, the
April 1865 surrender didn’t immediately translate into peace. Lincoln, who wanted
to "let ’em up easy," was assassinated within days of Lee’s capitulation,
and a spent, defenseless South was turned over to the mercies of men who wanted
it to pay dearly for its bid for independence.
No one in Staunton, white or black, was to enjoy the ensuing occupation by Union
Staunton residents first tasted Federal invasion and occupation in June 1864
and learned very quickly how hard the heel of the conqueror could grind. Lawlessness
and atrocities proliferated during that and subsequent occupations. By the end
of the war, Staunton was a wreck, and its inhabitants were too weak to resist
Federal troops occupying Staunton after the war made things as hard as they
could on everyone, including returning Confederate soldiers. Residents were
nearly starved to death as Union troops and raiding parties stole meager supplies
of food and, in some instances, maliciously prevented staples such as potatoes
from being smuggled into town beneath layers of clothing.
Added to this mix were former Confederate soldiers who straggled back to Staunton
exhausted, footsore and in rags. Well-fed and hostile Union troops were there
to greet them. Bluecoats stood on the streets of Staunton watching for returning
Rebels and, when they came, made a point of harassing them. If the former Confederate’s
uniform bore insignia or military buttons, the Yankees ripped them off.
Just in case anyone slipped through the dragnet, an order was issued that all
Confederate military buttons were forbidden. The ladies of Staunton came to
the rescue and made sure the buttons of their fighting men folk were covered
with a layer of cloth.
To make their point in a general manner, the Federals occupying Staunton ordered
that the flag of the United States be flown from every business in town.
But it wasn’t just the white, former Confederate population of Staunton who
tasted harsh treatment at the hands of Union soldiers. Blacks, who theoretically
should have prospered under Federal occupation, often found themselves shabbily
treated by the conquering bluecoats.
A hint of just what occurred from April 1865 until January 1866 can be found
in an article that appeared in the Staunton Spectator on Jan. 16, four days
after the occupiers left town. Apparently, prostitution among the town’s black
women had risen to satisfy the army’s sexual appetite, and was a source of unhappiness
among the black men of Staunton.
To boot, the conquering heroes treated the recently freed blacks somewhat less
"Our citizens, observing one of the well-established canons of politeness,
did not fail to ‘speed their departing friends,’" noted the Spectator following
the Union army’s departure. "Whatever may be the sorrow of sable feminines
of easy virtue, we have no doubt the colored males experienced a relief akin
to joy, as some of the soldiers seemed to take pleasure in cuffing, beating
and maltreating generally the inoffensive colored men."
On Jan. 23, 1866, the Spectator noted that Staunton did not appear on a Federal
list of towns that required further occupation. Its editor elaborated:
"In the list of places where garrisons of soldiers are to be established,
Staunton is not mentioned, from which we infer that there is no purpose, at
this time, to send any more soldiers here. We hope no garrison will be established
here, for there is no use for them of which we can conceive.
"When soldiers were here, they rendered no service, but were the cause
of a great deal of disorder. They drank liquor, became intoxicated, used profane
language, maltreated the Freedmen, had difficulties with citizens and caused
disorder generally. There was but little disposition, or great want of ability,
on the part of the officers, to restrain them and make them behave themselves
"Since their departure, the order and quiet of the town has been vastly
improved. Such was the conduct of the soldiers, that their presence was a cause
of annoyance by day and of dread by night."
Although Staunton’s post-war occupation was shorter than some communities had
to bear, no one was sad to see the last Federal contingent march out of town
in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 12, 1866. As an interesting side
note, just four days later Staunton was visited by a man who most certainly
would have been harassed had he showed up earlier — Gen. Robert E. Lee
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