'The rebels are coming!'– A Laurel Civil War Story
By Kevin Leonard
Jun 17, 2019 | 6:00 AM
During the Civil War, Union soldiers were camped at the end of Laurel’s Main Street on either side of the railroad tracks to protect the only railroad route between Baltimore and Washington. Even though there were no battles fought here, the presence of the Union Army affected local skirmishing.
This was the backdrop as described in a memoir written by a woman who lived here as a child during the Civil War and experienced personal tragedy.
Anna Pierpont Siviter, the eldest daughter of Francis H. Pierpont, wrote a memoir of her family’s times during the Civil War. The book, titled “Recollections of War and Peace 1861-1868,” has been out of print for many years, but a copy was found at the Alexandria Public Library.
A state divided
When the Civil War began, there was no West Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Kentucky and Ohio. Francis Pierpont, born in this “western Virginia” countryside, was a writer, lawyer and owner of a coal mine and tannery. He was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery, which was the popular stance of the majority of the western Virginians in contrast to the rest of the Commonwealth. Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861 was opposed by a large majority of the delegates – including Pierpont – from western Virginia.
In response, the western delegates met in June 1861 at Wheeling and formed the Restored Government of Virginia to govern the counties of the split commonwealth that were still loyal to the Union. In short order, President Abraham Lincoln recognized this loyal government and the U.S. Congress seated senators and representatives, making it the legal government of Virginia. Virginia essentially now had two governments, one in Richmond that supported the Confederacy and one in Wheeling that supported the Union.
Pierpont’s leadership and skill in managing the delegates led to his unanimous choice as the governor of the “Restored Government.” He became a trusted advisor to Lincoln throughout the war.
Initially reluctant, Pierpont eventually agreed with the growing sentiment of its residents that western Virginia should become a separate state. When, in 1863, West Virginia did indeed receive statehood, Pierpont was approached to become its first governor, but he turned it down to remain governor of the Restored Government of Virginia.
Since the Confederacy occupied Richmond, Pierpont moved the Restored Government to Alexandria, owing to its proximity to Washington.
These were dangerous times for Pierpont. In one incident at a train station, Confederate soldiers approached him with the intention of capturing him and making him a very visible prisoner in Richmond. As an engine and coal-car rode past before the soldiers reached him, the quick-thinking Pierpont jumped on board and escaped.
In her memoir, Siviter also mentions the danger her father faced, including that “a price had been set on his head.” She explained why Pierpont feared for his family’s safety after receiving a communication in Alexandria from the feared Confederate guerilla John Mosby:
“You did not see the farmer who rode by your hotel on a hay wagon yesterday, did you Governor? My driver pointed out your window, and I marked it plain. It’s just over the bay, and I’ll get you some night, mighty easy.”
Pierpont moved his family to Laurel for safety. He and his wife, Julia, had four children, including twins.
Siviter’s book, written more than 70 years later, contains an entire chapter about the family’s time in Laurel, described as a “a pretty little town near Washington.”
Siviter, who was only 6 years old at the time, describes a harrowing incident: Julia Pierpont and her sister Sarah Ann, who lived with the family since her son enlisted in the Union Army, were on the porch sewing, while the children played around them.
“She felt very secure as she sat there, sewing and talking; and then suddenly there came to her startled ears, a long, low rumbling ‘Boom, boom, boom!’
“‘Only thunder,’ mother assured auntie, as the two women gazed wide-eyed at each other; but no one who has heard a cannon’s voice ever can mistake it for any other sound, and when, a minute or two later there came again that ‘Boom, boom, boom,’ the women hurried out, seeking information. They met the frightened nurses in the yard shepherding us children back into the house, full of the news that word had run down the street, ‘The Rebels are coming!’
“‘Coming from where?’ mother cried; but that no one yet knew. A hurried visit next door only confirmed the news, the Rebels were coming, but no one knew when they would reach Laurel. There was no one to turn to for advice and help, most of the loyal men of the town being in Washington for the day; and the two women began, the best they could, to prepare bravely for the oncoming foe.
“Their home was connected with the Masonic Lodge, and a quick consultation led them to decide this might save it from being burned.”
Where was this Masonic Lodge? Laurel’s Wreath Lodge, which was formed in 1869, still occupies the hall at Route 1 and Montgomery Street, and was built in 1894. According to Laurel Mason Greg Sweitzer, prior to 1894, Laurel’s Masons met in a house on Main Street across the street from the current location of the First United Methodist Church. So it’s reasonable to assume that the Pierpont’s house was in the 400 block of what was then a very sparse Main Street.
The book describes the women and children fearfully anticipating being overrun by the Rebels:
“Each was given strict instructions to hold tight to a grown-up’s hand when we saw the Rebels coming. … All day, through the palings of the front gate, we children watched for the coming of the Rebels. Straggling soldiers went by at a swift run. Many wounded men were carried past, and for a time the booming of the cannon grew louder.”
What was all this activity and cannon fire that she describes? Daniel C. Toomey’s excellent book from 1983, “The Civil War in Maryland,” is a detailed day-by-day account of war activity in the state. In a series of emails, the author, who has written extensively on the Civil War, explained Siviter’s recollections:
“The Johnson-Gilmor Raid took place July 9-13, 1864. These two legendary Maryland Confederates rode around Baltimore wrecking trains and diverting troops away from ConfederateLt. Gen.Jubal Early’s march on the Capitol. Confederate Gen. Bradley T. Johnson, a brigade of cavalry, and two pieces of artillery were on their way to free the prisoners at Point Lookout [a Union prisoner of war camp in St. Mary’s County]. He crossed the Washington Branch of the B&O Railroad at Beltsville where he burned a work train and set fire to the woodwork on the Paint Branch Bridge. This was the only time the Washington Branch came under attack during the war. Seeing the smoke, a cavalry force was sent out from the defenses of Washington to investigate. A small battle broke out where the Department of Agriculture buildings are today. Johnson put his two cannons on the high ground near St. John’s Church and shelled the Yankee cavalry as they advanced along the Washington Road (Rte. 1). This cannon fire could clearly be heard in Laurel.”
Toomey also explained the rumors that the Rebels were coming: “There were a good number of Union soldiers in Laurel. Johnson was going to cross the Washington Branch there but had to shift his crossing to Beltsville to avoid them. There would have been a great amount of excitement there not knowing if the Rebels were going to attack Laurel. Easy for a child to get confused.”
A Daughter Dies
Sivitier’s memoir tells of the death of her 3-year-old sister, Mary Augusta (called “Mamie”), in Laurel in June 1864. Mamie and her twin brother, Francis, were three months shy of their 4th birthday.
Governor Pierpont was present when the child died, as described in the foreword of the book: “Fortunately for Mrs. Pierpont, the anxiety and sorrow of this bereavement was shared by her kindly husband who was present when his daughter died.”
There’s no way to tell why the child died from the description in the book. Her bed had been moved from the nursery to her mother’s room and the other children were not allowed to see her. Siviter said, “There was a strange man in the room and everyone was heating flannels and wrapping them around Mamie.” She died that night.
Pierpont, his wife and three of their children are all buried in Fairmont, West Virginia. It’s unknown where Mary Augusta, who died in Laurel in 1864, is buried. A check with three of Laurel’s oldest cemeteries, St. Mary’s, Ivy Hill and St. Phillips, turned up nothing.