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.
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