Maj. William Atwood and George Washington’s Portrait

Jeb Stuart wrote his wife, Flora, on September 4, 1862, following the victory at Second Manassas. Several weeks earlier, Col. Thornton Brodhead and his 1st Michigan Cavalry had unceremoniously driven Stuart and his staff from their slumbers, forcing them to beat a hasty and humiliating retreat. Forgotten and left behind in the rush to safety was Stuart’s hat, which was picked up by one of Brodhead’s troopers. The loss of the hat still rankled Stuart, who can therefore be forgiven for boasting to Flora, “We knocked Buford’s Brigade into Bull Run, capturing 220 – killing a Colonel.” The colonel was Thornton Brodhead, and the majority of the prisoners were from his 1st Michigan Cavalry.

Most of the captives were paroled near Gainesville, Virginia, on or about September 2. Lt. Daniel Wells was paroled and put in command of the enlisted men, who were sent trudging north toward Harpers Ferry and then parole camps, to await exchange and eventual return to the army. The other officers were sent to Libby Prison. Among this group of disheartened young men was Maj. William Atwood.

The majority of the captured officers were paroled on September 16, 1862, but not Atwood. My interest in Atwood was peaked after reading the following in the Detroit Free Press. “Major W.S. Atwood was also released, and was on his way with the rest to Aiken’s Landing, some distance from the rebel capital, when he was stopped by the Provost Guard and returned again to captivity. The reason given for this proceeding was that some outrage had been committed on rebel property in the Shenandoah Valley, by Major Atwood’s command.” I first saw this reference about 25 years ago, and over the intervening years I have been able to piece together most of the circumstances behind Atwood’s detention.

ATwood 2

The Richmond Daily Dispatch carried the story on September 25. Atwood was reportedly detained by order of Brig. Gen. John Winder, “a charge of grand larceny having been entered against Atwood. It appears that while Atwood’s regiment was prowling in the vicinity of Mount Vernon he and a number of his comrades proceeded to depredate on the premises, by virtue of their belonging to the family of Col. [John] A. Washington, a rebel, and in pursuance of Pope’s proclamation. Atwood selected as his share of the plunder the celebrated picture of George Washington, painted by Stuart, and which for eighty-odd years had been hanging in the venerable mansion undisturbed.” Atwood stood accused of sending the painting home “as a prize, and doubtless felt very few twinges of conscience while performing the act of spoliation and sacrilege…. Maj. Atwood was offered the option of ransoming himself by producing the picture, but giving no satisfactory assurance that it would be done, he was brought back.” The editor closed, stating, “The Yankees profess great veneration for Washington, but we never imagined that it was so intense as to embrace the stealing of his likeness, especially from Mt. Vernon, a place sacred in the eyes of the world.” I was certain the theft had not occurred from Mount Vernon as neither the regiment, nor Atwood, was in the vicinity of the mansion during the spring and summer months of 1862.

The October 7 edition of the Detroit Advertiser & Tribune provided a couple additional, though conflicting, clues to the story, as related by Capt. Thomas Howrigan, 1st Michigan. Howrigan had also been captured at Lewis Ford, but he had been released when Atwood was again detained. Howrigan “assures us that Major Atwood did not take from the residence of the Washington Family, near White Plains, the portrait of Gen. Washington, with which he is charged by the rebels. The devastation of the property of John A. Washington was committed by Gen. Blenker’s Garibaldi Regiment before our cavalry came in that vicinity.” Howrigan assured the editor, “Major Atwood was at no time nearer the house than six miles, the picket force was sent out which occupied this house as a station, when everything being in a state of ruin, an officer in charge of the picket picked up this portrait, which subsequently was found to be an original of much value and presented it to Mrs. Atwood.” This account, as will be revealed, is also inaccurate, though there is a common thread – the theft of a famous portrait of George Washington.

William Atwood’s prewar and postwar career remains largely elusive. He was from Ypsilanti, and entered the service as captain of Company E, 1st Michigan Cavalry, on August 15, 1861. Seven days later he received a commission as major. He was 21 years of age. The regiment was organized at Detroit, and the men were mustered on September 4, 1861. At the end of the month the men boarded train cars for the long ride to Washington, D.C. Two months of intense training followed, during which the men received their weapons and horses. In mid-December the regiment headed to Frederick, Maryland, where it was assigned to the command of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, guarding the Potomac River.

In late-February, Maj. Gen. George McClellan opened his much anticipated spring offensive. He intended to drive the Confederate forces from the heights around Centreville, Virginia and Manassas, but in a preliminary move he ordered Banks to cross the Potomac and clear the Southern troops out of the Shenandoah and Loudoun Valleys. Banks took the bulk of his command into the Shenandoah Valley, but sent Brig. Gen. John Geary and the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry to clear the Loudoun Valley. The 1st Michigan was split between the two commands; Major Atwood, with one battalion, was attached to Geary’s expedition.

Over the next several weeks, Atwood’s troopers led the way for Geary’s infantry as they tramped back and forth across the Loudoun Valley, skirmishing frequently with cavalry led by Col. Tom Munford and Capt. Elijah V. White. On March 27, Geary fought a brief but sharp skirmish through the streets of Middleburg, and Atwood’s Wolverines were in the thick of the affair.

On April 1, Atwood’s Adjutant, Lt. Ralph Phelps was killed by the accidental discharge of his revolver. Several hours later a squad of at least eight men from Phelps’s company went into Salem in search of a coffin for the officer. With tensions running high, the men went into the town unarmed to avoid a confrontation. While they waited for the coffin they were surrounded and captured by a detachment of Munford’s cavalry. A search party was sent into town looking for the men. Learning they had been captured, the Yankees set out in pursuit. As the Wolverines charged the rear of the Southern column, one of the Confederates “threw up his hands in token of surrender.” As a corporal and the local guide approached the soldier, he drew a revolver and fired two shots, killing the corporal and mortally wounding the guide. The Southerner was captured, but his actions allowed his comrades to escape with the prisoners.

The perceived treachery of the “cowardly outlaws” at Salem, combined with the confrontational and antagonistic policies dictated by Geary, had tempers at a raw edge in the Loudoun Valley. As one of Geary’s Pennsylvanians explained to the folks back home, “We had now traversed four counties of Virginia…disseminating lessons of wisdom guiding many misguided citizens to the haven of tranquility from which they had wandered and sowing the seeds of a Union feeling.”

Geary’s proselytizing soldiers more than met their match in Amanda Edmonds. The attractive, sharp-tongued diarist would be neither cowed nor converted by anyone in Yankee blue. By the second week of April, however, her wrath was turned from Geary’s soldiers to the “vagabond Irish and German Dutch,” of another commander, Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker.

On April 1, Blenker’s division was transferred from the Army of the Potomac and instructed to report to General Banks, at Strasburg, in the Shenandoah Valley. Just after leaving Warrenton on April 6, Blenker’s men were caught in several days of violent winter storms, and his superiors lost track of him for several days. By the twelfth, he was believed to be near Salem. Without tents to provide shelter, Blenker’s soldiers, many of them of German birth, exacted a heavy toll from the local citizenry whose homes and barns were looted and turned into barracks. Blenker claimed his men had maintained “perfect” discipline while camped near Warrenton, but that was before the weather turned. Trapped around Salem by the storm, Blenker complained, “No kind acclimations received us. No word, even in private was spoken that showed any sympathy with the Union.” With his men desperately seeking shelter, Blenker continued, “Many houses had been left tenantless. Those dwellings whose residents had remained were opened to us with politeness, but with the understanding that it was done not for the sake of political sympathy, but for the sake of protection.”

About two miles south of Salem (modern day Marshall) sits Waveland. Built about 1835, Waveland is a two-story, brick plantation home in the Greek Revival style. The property was purchased in 1859 by George Washington’s great-great nephew, John Augustine Washington III, after he sold Mount Vernon to the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association. With the outbreak of the war, John Washington accepted a commission from the Confederacy as a lieutenant colonel. He was killed on September 13, 1861, while serving as an aide to Robert E. Lee. Washington’s children lived with his brother, Richard Washington, in Charles Town, West Virginia. James Thomas Ford served as caretaker of Waveland during the war. His son, Robert Newton Ford, would later murder Jesse James.


When the soldiers reached Waveland, “the caretaker…removed all of the wines and liquors from the wine cellar, putting them in a huge…hogshead container, piling empty bottles on top. When General Blenker’s men saw the empty bottles, they were said to pick them up and hurl them, cursing violently. Thus, Washington’s fine libations were saved.”

Fiery Amanda Edmonds spoke for all of the beleaguered residents of the Loudoun Valley, when she referred to Blenker’s gangs “of rough, unmanageable German and Irish,” or the “hateful little upstart Hessian[s].” After being taunted by a German soldier singing Dixie, she wished he might “find a final resting place in Dixie – and soon!” When the weather finally cleared, and the men began crossing the Shenandoah River, she rejoiced, “Good news from Blenker’s division – fifty more drowned…!”

On June 26, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln consolidated the several defeated commands from the Shenandoah Valley into the Army of Virginia, and named Maj. Gen. John Pope as the army’s commander. On July 17, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, allowing the property of “traitors,” to include slaves, to be seized. At the same time, Pope issued a series of general orders to his army, escalating the manner in which the war would be prosecuted. The orders, especially General Orders, Number 11, which allowed for the execution of persons deemed to have violated the oath of allegiance, infuriated the South. On August 1, the Davis administration issued Order 54 in an attempt to counter Pope’s abhorrent directives and to protect Southern lives and property.

On August 15, Virginia Governor John Letcher proposed prosecuting Union officers criminally for acts of theft and willful destruction of property. Fifteen days later, Maj. William Atwood was captured at Lewis Ford, and sent to Libby Prison. On September 16, Atwood, along with his fellow officers from the 1st Michigan, was to be paroled, but Atwood was taken back into custody at Aiken’s Landing, and returned to Libby Prison, as his comrades sailed to freedom.

The following day, Atwood wrote to General John Winder, Provost Marshal of Richmond. Atwood had been interviewed regarding the theft of the Washington portrait from Waveland on the fifteenth. He told Winder, “The questions were direct and the answers as much so,” though he admitted he had offered no explanation for taking the painting. “At the time, I did not think of being misapprehended…but from the fact of not being paroled yesterday after being notified that I was to be, I have [thought] that perhaps the officer with whom I conversed was of opinion that it was a pillaging matter.” Though never stated, Atwood was facing criminal prosecution for theft under the policy suggested by Governor Letcher.

Realizing the gravity of his situation, Atwood offered the following explanation. “My reason for taking the picture was simply for the purpose of preserving it. I have the pleasure of knowing Mr. Richard Washington (the Executor of the Estate) and more intimately his nephew Mr. Cooke…they both having been at one time in my hands as prisoners which gave us each an opportunity of exchanging kindly actions. At the time I visited the estate Gen. Blenker’s Div. was in the vicinity and many quite irresponsible persons were running over the country despoiling and pillaging property, some having already been to this house. When I saw the picture I at once recognized it as one of great value and took it, giving to the overseer a memoranda of the fact and my address, advising him that it would be returned whenever called for by the parties interested. My action in the matter was intended as a kindness and from what I have learned of the action of other troops in that vicinity I am satisfied that had I not taken it, it would have been lost entirely. If the fact of my leaving my address and the statement of the [overseer] (which I presume you have) are not sufficient evidence of my motive I can, situated as I am, only give you the assurance of an officer and a gentleman, that this was my only purpose…. The picture, now as it has always been since I have had it, is subject to the order of anyone authorized to receive it.”

On October 5, Federal authorities were advised, “Major Atwood (of Pope’s officers) will be sent down…on the next flag-of-truce boat. He was detained before by mistake.” What steps Winder took to confirm Atwood’s explanation have been lost to the record, but he was still not released as quickly as the above communication might suggest. His official parole date is October 17, though a letter dated October 27, suggests his release was still being negotiated.

Atwood was back in Washington by mid-November, as a paroled prisoner awaiting exchange, when he, along with Maj. Angelo Paldi, 1st Michigan Cavalry, sought permission to raise a regiment of heavy cavalry, modeled after the European Cuirassiers, to include the men wearing armored breast plates. His proposal was wisely turned down by the War Department. In a fit of pique at being overlooked for promotion, and possibly angered at his offer to raise a regiment being denied, Atwood tendered his resignation on November 21, 1862, asserting “my honor as a soldier and my self-respect as a man alone forbid my retaining my present position.”

On December 22, Atwood, who was still awaiting word as to the acceptance of his resignation, asked Senator Zachariah Chandler to intercede on his behalf. Reiterating the reasons previously stated, Atwood added, “I have another, and a much greater reason for desiring to temporarily quit the service, and that is my wife’s health. She has been pronounced by my physicians consumptive, and is now in a rapid decline, so that I am so situated as to be forced to either sacrifice my wife, or my position in the army – of course there is no question as to which, but I dislike much to be dropped from the rolls as absent ‘without leave’ (I am now exchanged) and my name published among disgraced officers, if I can avoid it…. Will you be kind enough to go to Sec’y Stanton and procure his signature to the enclosed order?” His resignation became effective January 2, 1863.

On January 4, Atwood, now in Detroit, was contacted by the Adjutant General’s Office; Washington’s portrait had been received by the War Department, but had not yet been returned to the owner. Atwood was asked to explain “to whom the portrait of Washington…belongs, and from what house it was taken at the time it came into your possession?”

In his final statement regarding the painting, Atwood explained, “On the 14th day of November last, I delivered to Major [Thomas] Vincent, A.A.G. the picture in question together with a statement of all the facts connected with it in compliance with an order from your office – or rather I gave them to the doorkeeper with instructions to deliver, as the Major was not in at the time.

“The picture was taken by me from the residence of the late Col. John A. Washington in Fauquier Co., VA., near the village of Salem, sometime in the month of April 1862. I had a picket post at the place (having been detailed by Gen. Geary to guard the Manassas Gap R.R.) and on visiting it on this occasion I found a number of straggling German troops marauding around, and who as I could [not] speak or understand German, and having no one with me but my bugler I could not control. The overseer (there was no one on the premises but himself and four Negroes) was very much alarmed, and told me of many things that had been taken and showed me others that they were taking of among which was this picture which I at once recognized as valuable, particularly so to the heirs.

“I took the picture with the consent of the overseer, giving to him a written statement that I would keep it until called for by the heirs or their authorized agent and gave my name, rank and P.O. address. I should not have taken it but for the fact that Mr. Richard Washington, the executor of the estate, and Mr. Cooke, one of the heirs, both of Jefferson Co., VA., had been arrested and detained for some time, by me under orders from Gen. Banks, during which time quite a friendly intimacy sprung up afterwards, which led me to intrust myself more than I should have done otherwise. And I am satisfied that had I not taken the portrait, it would have been entirely lost to them.

“When I was a prisoner in Richmond, there was some question raised about it, and I was detained until Gen. Winder could procure the written statement referred to. So soon as it came to hand I was at once paroled the same as the other officers. When I delivered the picture at your office I wrote Brig. Gen. Winder of what I had done, through Maj. Gen. [John] Dix.

“The immediate heirs of Col. Washington are, I believe, all minors. The executor, Richard Washington resides near Charlestown, Jefferson Co., VA…”

From here the trail of the painting has gone cold. Attempts to confirm whether the painting was ever returned to Waveland have been unsuccessful. Likewise, attempts to confirm whether, in fact, this was a Gilbert Stuart portrait have also failed. The success of Stuart’s original portrait and the lasting fame of George Washington induced Stuart to paint many additional versions of the original over the remainder of his lifetime.

William Atwood re-entered the service as a lieutenant, Company A, 30th Michigan Infantry in 1864. Promoted to captain shortly thereafter, he remained with the regiment until mustered out of the service on June 30, 1865.

Sources include:

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Advertiser and Tribune

Philadelphia Inquirer

Richmond Daily Dispatch

Nancy C. Baird, Journals of Amanda Virginia Edmonds

Robert E. L. Krick, Staff Officers in Gray

George Thompson, History of Waveland

The Official Records

Numerous unpublished documents from the National Archives

And a special thanks to David Finney and Rich Gillespie

8 thoughts on “Maj. William Atwood and George Washington’s Portrait

  1. No matter his reasons for doing so, one imagines Major Atwood thoroughly regretted “rescuing”
    the Washington portrait from Waveland as it caused him nothing but trouble. Assuming good intentions on his part, such a deed was non-military in its design and execution, thereby opening Atwood up to the “theft” charge.

    Did he want the painting for himself?

    And this is the abiding question, is it not?


    • It most certainly is, and I debated closing the story with that question, but opted not to as I knew it would be quickly pointed out. I personally would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the fact he sent it to his wife is the troubling idea for me. I had hoped to find some official Confederate communication on the issue, in order to get a better sense of how they officially viewed the matter, in the anti-Pope climate, but was not that lucky.


  2. Interesting story Bob and well written. Waveland is undergoing restoration by Mr. George Thompson and is looking better and better as each year passes. As to the motives of Major Atwood…. I am suspicious that he ever intended to return it had his association with it not been uncovered.


  3. A curious, entertaining and very detailed story. If Maj. Atwood did intend to take it permenantly, he certainly knew more about who he took it from than would seem to be consitent with a clear conscience. He certainly seems to have been able to convince his captors of his honorable intentions.


  4. Bob,
    I really enjoyed your essay on this fascinating incident. The Civil War was filled with interesting episodes but, unfortunately, many modern writers often rehash the same tired events. Your thorough research in a wide array of sources and especially at the National Archives is commendable and is an example that should be emulated by our current generation of authors.


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