Despite the stillness that fell across the killing fields of Williamsburg when the bloody battle of May 5, 1862 ended, the struggle to decide the town’s fate was far from over.
Inside the houses lining Duke of Gloucester Street, the daughters and granddaughters of Revolutionary War heroes set their jaws, intent on resisting the blue-clad oppressors who marched past their doors playing “On to Richmond” and “Yankee Doodle.”
And just outside the westernmost Yankee sentry post in the College of William and Mary’s Wren Yard, rebel scouts looked on from hiding, eager to dash back and bloody the defenders of what for much of the Civil War was the Union’s closest stronghold to Richmond.
Three times they raided Williamsburg in force, sparking running gun battles that killed, wounded and captured so many Federal troops that — 150 years ago today — the humiliated garrison burned the Wren Building in retaliation.
Rightly suspecting the townspeople of aiding their foes, they would have torched much more had not the Union high command prevailed. Yet even then it was the Williamsburg women’s steely devotion to their homes — and their decision to stay and protect them from looters and vandals — that preserved so many of the colonial capital’s historic structures.
“Southern women weren’t supposed to be independent thinkers. They were supposed to be guided and protected by their men,” says Carol Kettenburg Dubbs, author of “Defend this Old Town: Williamsburg during the Civil War.”
“But when their men left and the Union marched in, these women were the ones who saved the town. They showed tremendous courage and resolve.”
As the Stars and Stripes rose from a half-dozen Federal outposts scattered across the Wren Yard, Duke of Gloucester Street and the Palace and Courthouse greens, Williamsburg’s women lost no time finding ways to show their disdain for what one called “the degrading yoke” of the Yankee invaders.
Whenever they approached a Union man on the street, they veiled their faces with their hats and compressed their billowing dresses so that they could not be seen or touched, a Federal officer reported. And if they had to stop, acknowledge and talk to a Northern soldier, their replies were strained if not openly hateful.
“I give you the water,” one young woman said as she nursed a wounded Yankee following the battle.
“But if you were well I would gladly kill you.”
Teenage girls treated the U.S. flag with scorn, sneering and sticking out their tongues, then stepping off the sidewalks into the 6-inch-deep mud rather than walk beneath the detested banner of what one described as “fiends in human form.”
In response, the Federal troops “got a long flag and stretched it completely across the Main Street,” lamented a 16-year-old refugee girl from the nearby burned town of Hampton.
So bitter was one old woman over her son’s Unionist bent that she moved from their home at the Armistead House into a backyard cottage. And as such displays of Secessionist zeal mounted, many Federals hardened, too, compelling one suspicious officer seeking a drink of water from a town woman to make her taste two glasses before he accepted one.
Few Union men doubted the reasons behind the constant clatter of cookware and coughing of children that seemed to signal their movements whenever they went on patrol, either.
“They called Williamsburg a nest of sympathizers and spies,” Dubbs says.
“And it was.”
The South strikes back
That tension came to a head on the night of Sept. 8, when it took a desperate bucket brigade of old men, women and children to save the Wren Building from a mysterious fire.
At dawn the next day, 500 Confederate cavalrymen stormed the Union positions as if exacting revenge, killing 7, wounding 13 and capturing the provost marshal and 66 others before racing back up Richmond Road almost as swiftly as they had appeared.
The town’s cheers were still ringing in the ears of the angry 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry troopers as — addled by drink — they set the Wren Building ablaze, then kept its would-be rescuers at bay with their sabers.
“It wasn’t the building we know today,” says historian Carson Hudson, author of “Civil War Williamsburg,” describing the structure rebuilt after an 1859 fire
“But it was still a devastating loss for the town.”
Two more Confederate raids bloodied the garrison in 1863, igniting running gun battles on Duke of Gloucester Street and artillery fire from Federal guns at nearby Fort Magruder.
Yet even before former Virginia Gov. Henry Wise’s Confederate legion liberated the exuberant town for 6 days in early April, Federal Brig. Gen. Richard Busheed was so frustrated by the potshots at his pickets and the stealing of boots from “murdered” Union troopers that he asked for permission to destroy Williamsburg.
“Conclusive evidence has been furnished…that the attack was aided, if not planned, by the citizens of Williamsburg,” he declared following a March 29 raid.
Just days before he’d condemned the defiant town as “a stronghold of rank traitors.”
Tightening the knot
Despite misgivings from Washington, D.C., Maj. Gen. John A. Dix quashed the looming threat from Fort Monroe, ruling that “We must not destroy towns unless they are actually taken possession of by the enemy, and then not unless absolutely necessary for our own safety.”
But he also restricted the town’s supplies and suspended its residents’ right to trade or travel within Union lines without first taking an oath of allegiance.
Some Williamsburg women fled from this tightening of martial law. But many more stayed, refusing to utter the detested oath while still struggling to defend their homes.
Among them was Sallie Galt, who evaded taking the oath twice, was shipped off to Norfolk and then wrangled her way back through the help of sympathetic Northern friends. An aging Lucy Tucker returned, too, only to discover that her beloved house had been ransacked in her absence.
“Her family home was here. Her late husband’s library was here. Her whole life was here,” Hudson says.
“If she hadn’t stayed, they might not have survived.”
Many deserted buildings failed to outlast the war, including two large survivors from the Governor’s Palace complex pulled down for their bricks.
Occupied structures fell prey, too, looted by Federal soldiers who exploited any absence or lapse of oversight to carry off everything from Revolutionary War letters to pianos.
By the winter of 1864, conditions had hardened so much that Tucker was forced to meet her visiting daughter at the front lines on the edge of town, where a sympathetic sentry allowed them to kindle a fire and celebrate Christmas in the snow-covered ruins of an abandoned house.
Sitting on logs under umbrellas, they set aside their misfortunes and the bleak war news to renew their devotion to the South and the legacy of their historic town.
“(We) ate our cake and drank toasts to our Confederate heroes in the hearing of a Sentinel whose forbearance we rewarded with a glass of wine,” recalled daughter Cynthia, who later founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
“Prisoners and Lunatics are grateful for very small favors.”