Willow Hill

King George County saw several skirmishes but no great battles during the Civil War.  Still, the long tenure of the two great armies along the Rappahannock River in 1862 and 1863 insured a military presence in the county.  Southern soldiers crossed the Rappahannock River routinely seeking food and forage from the farms in the county.  The Confederate Signal Corps maintained a ‘Secret Line’ through the county, which facilitated Southern covert operations, Union deserters and eventually John Wilkes Booth.  Union efforts to counter the clandestine activity and intercept deserters, all while insuring the security of the Army of the Potomac’s left flank meant a rather heavy presence of Union troops, especially cavalry in King George County.

My last post, concerning the interaction of Union cavalry, notably the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, with the Lewis family at Marmion led to a discussion with Andy German, the historian of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Andy pointed me to the letters of Lt. Thomas Lucas, 1st Pennsylvania, and his family.  Dona Bayard Sauerburger and Thomas Lucas Bayard published the Lucas correspondence in a book titled I Seat Myself to Write You a Few Lines, Civil War and Homestead Letter from Thomas Lucas and Family.  I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the Union cavalry, specifically the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Andy, who wrote the very informative introductions to each of the book’s chapters, specifically drew my attention to the lieutenant’s letter of April 17, 1863, written from and describing activity at Cleve, a colonial-era home dating to 1729.  I neglected to consult the Lucas correspondence when I prepared the story on Marmion and the Lewis family, or I surely would have mentioned the letter as Henry Byrd Lewis, the son of Daingerfield Lewis of Marmion, owned Cleve during the war.

My discussion with Andy convinced me to investigate a letter written by Col. William Gamble, 8th Illinois Cavalry, to Gen. James Wadsworth, on January 2, 1863.  Gamble commanded the cavalry picket force in King George County, while Wadsworth had just taken command of an infantry division attached to the I Army Corps, encamped along the border of Stafford County and King George County.

I have received your letter of this date informing me of the arrest of Mr. Thompson overseer of Mr. Arnold, sent with an orderly to identify and have returned a wagon, four mules, cart and oxen stolen from Mr. Arnold last night by his Negroes.

Mr. Arnold is a blind man, eighty years old, entirely helpless and his family consists of his wife and a little grandson ten years old.  All his Negroes left him last night taking with them all the teams and wagons he had, leaving him without any means of obtaining food or other supplies for his family, who are now in a suffering condition.  His house is three miles inside my picket line near my headquarters – a reserve picket is near his house and the road in the vicinity patrolled every hour.

His wife called on me this morning, stated the case, and wished to know if our Gov’t authorized or permitted the Negroes within our lines to rob and plunder helpless families like hers of the necessaries of life, without any interference, and if not, she requested to have the wagon, mules etc. returned and that Mr. Thompson would identify them.  Under the circumstances I sent an orderly with Mr. Thompson to identify the property and have it returned.  I have found several citizens here with Gen. Burnside’s written protection, who have his permission to visit his headquarters on business, and from the knowledge I had in this case, did not think Mr. Thompson a dangerous man, especially under the surveillance of my pickets near his house.

I hope this explanation will be satisfactory to Gen. Wadsworth and that the property of Mr. Arnold will be returned to him.

I also hope that orderlies sent by me on official business, with dispatches to Gen. Pleasonton’s headquarters and to my regimental camp near Belle Plain, may not be delayed en route as has sometimes occurred heretofore.  I have faithfully served the United States seventeen years, and trust that my loyalty and efficiency as an officer is not now doubted.

The letter precipitating Gamble’s response has not been located, and thus the full context of Gamble’s reply, especially his angry closing retort, eludes us.  Several clues, however, help to give clarity to other aspects of the story, namely the identity of the Arnold family and the location of their home.  The Arnolds were a large family, with family members living at several locations within the county.  Two of the properties are highlighted on the war-date map.

I stopped recently at the King George County Historical Society, only to find the museum closed for the holidays.  Luckily, I found Jean Graham working on her day off, and she very kindly took time to lend her considerable knowledge of the county.  She believed the home in question was Willow Hill.  The society’s file on Willow Hill provided additional clues, and Mrs. Graham also directed me to the Arnold cemetery.


The area highlighted in blue on this map shows Willow Hill as well as the home owned by William Thompson.  The area highlighted in yellow shows a second Arnold family home.


I believe I have highlighted Willow Hill in blue on this Union cavalry picket map, and the second Arnold home in yellow.

The first map (above) appears to identify the Arnold home in question as being owned by James Arnold, and two men by that name are buried in the family grave yard, but Gamble’s description of Mr. Arnold as eighty years of age, confirms he is referring to John Arnold.  John owned Willow Hill, and almost two thousand acres, for nearly sixty years.

John Arnold is believed to have been born May 19, 1782, and thus he was eighty in January 1863.  He married Jane Humphries in 1800, and they had twelve children before she died in 1819.  He then married Frances Price in 1820, and she bore him seven children before she died in 1851.  One year later John married Jane Went.  Jane, twenty-five years younger than John, survived him by twenty years, but the marriage produced no children.  Eight of John’s children preceded him in death, two of them a week apart in January 1863.

The identity of Mr. Thompson is less certain.  The war-date map shows a William Thompson living just across the road (today’s Route 3) from Willow Hill.  According to the 1860 Census, William Thompson was about seventy years of age in 1863.  The proximity of Arnold and Thompson to each other is encouraging, but with one hitch – William Thompson was a free black.  Would John Arnold, a prosperous slaveholder, hire a free black to oversee his farm and his slaves?  And if Arnold did employ William Thompson as his overseer, did Thompson give Arnold reason to regret his decision?

John Arnold acquired slaves as he prospered.  He owned three slaves in 1810, twelve in 1820 and nineteen in 1830.  The 1830 Census also lists one male child less than ten years of age as a free person.

The timing of Jane Arnold’s complaint – the loss of property carried off by her slaves seeking their freedom – is noteworthy, as President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect the previous day, January 1, 1863.  Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, had notified both slaves and slaveholders of his intentions, and set January 1 as the date of emancipation.  The heavy presence of Union troops in King George County insured that all parties had knowledge of the president’s proclamation.

Mark Arnold, John’s son, later reported a total loss of thirty-three slaves during the war, as well as mules, oxen, wagons and an ox cart “all carried off by the slaves who ‘absconded to the Federal army.’”  Mr. Thompson’s role, if any, in the exodus remains unclear.

The Emancipation Proclamation reframed the war.  Rather than simply seeking to restore the Union, the war was now a struggle to restore the Union and abolish slavery.  Not every Northern soldier camped in Stafford and King George agreed with Lincoln’s controversial decision.  Combined with the horrors of the defeat at Fredericksburg, miserable winter weather, poor rations and uncertain pay, Lincoln’s proclamation led to another exodus, as soldiers began deserting in unprecedented numbers.  Many of these deserters followed routes through King George County, across the Potomac River into Southern Maryland before heading north for home.

Willow Hill stood for almost two-hundred and fifty years, surviving “frequent occupation and [wanton] ravage” from Union troops during the war.  In 2004 the home, greatly altered from its original appearance and floor-plan, stood vacant and deteriorating.  Much of the original property had already been sold; the family cemetery sits in the Presidential Lakes Sub-division, the headstones shaded by stately trees.



The first image is the Arnold Family stone in the family cemetery.  The second image is John Arnold’s headstone.

On October 15, 2004 a developer burned Willow Hill to make way for what is today Willow Hill Sub-division.


Thanks to my wife, Teresa, for her sleuthing on Ancestry.com, Jean Graham, with the King George Historical Society and John Hennessy, Fredericksburg National Battlefield Park.


Sources –

Documents from the National Archives

U.S. Census Records on Ancestry.com

Files from the King George Historical Society

Elizabeth Nuckols Lee and Jean Moore Graham, King George County, A Pictorial History

14 thoughts on “Willow Hill

  1. Very interesting story about Gamble. It touches on so many things: the local plantations, slaves self-emancipating, and cavalry-infantry command relationships. I presume from the Fredericksburg OOB that Gamble was Col of the 8th Illinois at this time. ’17 years of service’ confirms how Gamble felt about the 15 years he spent in the cavalry before moving to Chicago as an engineer.

    That picket map is very cool. I’d love to have a chance to study that in detail.



    • Thanks for your comment Bill. I apologize for not clarifying Gamble’s position with the 8th Illinois Cavalry. I have corrected that omission. I hope to find, at some point, the letter referred to by Gamble, as the missive appears to have upset several officers besides Col. Gamble.

      I believe, though I’m not certain, that Gamble saw an extended tour in King George County commanding the cavalry pickets, which suggests that his cavalry superiors held him in high regard. He would soon take command of a cavalry remount and horse rehabilitation camp near Stafford Court House. Much of what happens in the Stafford and King George area, at the cavalry picket level is pieced together from very brief one and two sentence communications, which allow some assumptions but little certainty.

      Check back here later today as I may add a couple of additional items to this story, thanks to your comment.


      • Thanks Bob. If Gamble, who had been wounded at a serious skirmish at Malvern Hill in 1862, was at a remount and rehab camp in 1863 (probably rehabing himself) it would be a preamble to his assignment to head up the Cavalry Depot in the wake of James Wilson going there to clean it up in February 1864. I will check back.


  2. Bob, your ongoing King George research efforts are presently uncovering new primary source material as well as heretofore unknown “military geography.” This ground-level documentary and field analysis helps fill in the holes underpinning an important winter in 1862-1863 and we are again reminded that the Civil War consisted of a great deal more military activity than actual combat. William Thompson’s “disloyalty” (if we can call it that) recalls a somewhat similar situation in Culpeper County during the following winter, ’63-’64. Richard Cunningham’s farm, “Elkwood,” north of Brandy Station, was left in the care and custody of his overseer, John Wiltshire. John Wiltshire then proceeded to steal and convert Elkwood’s many assets to his own purposes, resulting in a financially-ruined Richard Cunningham–who owned nothing after the war except barren fields. (But as a large slaveowner, perhaps Cunningham got precisely what he deserved.)
    Colonel William Gamble’s letter identifies a definite sense of sincere human compassion for Mr. Arnold’s plight, and no matter the circumstances of the previous communication igniting Gamble’s strong response, Colonel Gamble is herein revealed as a good man–and one who felt deeply on behalf of suffering innocents.


  3. Thanks Bud. The inter-action of soldier and civilian in the Civil War, and, for that matter, all wars, is, in my mind, vastly understudied and under-appreciated. With no training on the topic, and few guidelines, soldiers moved in and out of areas occupied by enemy non-combatants as well as guerrillas/soldiers. Generally speaking they had to find their own way, soldier and civilian alike. Just when one command struck a tenuous balance they moved and another unit started from scratch. I like to think most strived to do what was right. Some succeeded where others failed.
    Gamble, a no-nonsense soldier with a no-nonsense regiment, strived, I believe, to find the right balance. And, he had been there only six days when the Emancipation Proclamation took affect, making it that much more difficult to find the proper balance.
    Likewise I expect Wadsworth was a good man as well, striving to get his feet wet with his new command, and aware, from personal contact with Lincoln and Stanton, exactly how they wanted the war prosecuted.
    And, finally, who knows what Mr. Thompson said to Wadsworth that he may not have said to Gamble.
    I take the dangerous step of speculating in the most recent post.


  4. The sad part of this is we personally knew the last homeowners of Willow Hill and they told us there were still slave quarters on the property…When the owners passed away and the developer acquired the land – all that history was destroyed. Seems to be a trend in King George, VA…You might want to look up Office Hall and see how they are treating that piece of history in King George.


  5. John Arnold is my 4th-great-grandfather (not my favorite ancestral line for obvious reasons!). I really appreciate this well researched, well told story! I’m just starting to go through the numerous chancery records that appear to mostly be his family fighting about their inheritance.


    • Nice to ‘meet’ you Cousin Casey. John Arnold and Jane Humphries Arnold are my 3rd great grandparents. I was fortunate to attend what I believe was the last Arnold gathering at Willow Hill in the 1990s when I was probably a little too young of an adult to fully appreciate the history. There were, in fact, slave cabins there at that time. Along with bricks in the chimney that were inscribed by a few of the Arnold men. I remember my grandmother (Helen Arnold Dodd) telling me stories of her recollections of family stories about life at Willow Hill. Who knows how much fact is woven into family remembrances, but that history is fascinating to me now. Perhaps because I currently live in one of the most historically untouched places in Virginia – the Eastern Shore. I’m so sorry that history across the Commonwealth has been replaced by housing developments. I appreciate the work being done by you and the author of this article to try to capture facts and string together the past to document lives lived before it’s impossible. One of my cousins (who also attended the reunion at Willow Hill) is our line of the family’s historian. I would love to pass along to her any further information you may find about the Arnolds. Thank you for your work to preserve history.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. John Arnold was my 4th great grandfather too. I’ve just begun exploring my family history so this is fascinating. I’m related to John’s first son William and his grandson Charles. My immediate family is based in New England, so I guess that makes us the northern branch of the family tree. Thank you so much for sharing this research.


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