Governor John Letcher

Rockingham Rebellion

The Rockingham Rebellion in April 1862 occurred when several militiamen from Rockingham County, Virginia, violently resisted their incorporation into the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). The incident came at a time when the Confederacy faced a crucial manpower challenge, but not all members of the state militia, in particular the German Baptists of the northern Shenandoah Valley, agreed with an executive order from Virginia governor John L. Letcher forcing them into Confederate service. Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson dispatched troops from his Valley Army to crush the rebellion, which they did after briefly shelling the militiamen's hiding place at Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jackson had a reputation for discipline, but, more important, the incident marked the Confederacy's willingness to use force against dissidents, in some instances even going after civilians who were harboring deserters. MORE...

 

In the spring of 1862 the Confederacy faced a manpower crisis. Soldiers who had enlisted in the heady days of the spring of 1861 were reluctant to reenlist, threatening the Confederate war effort at the outset of the spring military campaigns. On March 12, 1862, Letcher attempted to relieve the pressure by issuing an executive order authorizing Confederate authorities to incorporate the Virginia militia into existing Confederate units. In the Shenandoah Valley, Stonewall Jackson eagerly awaited these recruits to his army, which was stationed in the vicinity of Rude's Hill.

Many local militiamen were slow to heed the call, however. By March 21 militias from only two counties, Shenandoah and Augusta, had reported for duty. In mid-April Jackson reported to Virginia officials that "the militia have not turned out as well as I was induced to believe." One veteran surmised that the militia was reluctant to join Jackson's army because "they considered it certain death to be put into the Stonewall Brigade."

Men from Rockingham County in the northern Shenandoah Valley seemed especially reluctant to obey the governor's directive. Many of the residents in the area were members of the German Baptist Brethren sect, commonly known as Dunkards. Being pacifists, many of the men either refused to serve or provided substitutes. Jackson promised to assign these religious objectors as teamsters, but returns from Rockingham remained small. One Rockingham soldier in the Stonewall Brigade expressed disappointment that his county's militia had not answered the call. He confessed to his wife, "We are looking for the Rockingham Militia but they are like a dog's tail always behind and I am sorry for it."

On April 2—in the midst of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign—Jackson received word that a number of militiamen from Rockingham believed that Letcher's order was illegal and so determined to resist incorporation into the Confederate army. They took refuge in the vicinity of Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Estimates of the number of resisters range from 60 to 500 (overly optimistic Union officials estimated the number at 1,000). As Jackson biographer James I. Robertson has observed, "Jackson could have ignored this small display of disloyalty—but he would not have been Jackson if he had."

Staff officer Jedediah Hotchkiss noted, "There will be an example made of some of those that failed to come." Jackson ordered four companies of infantry, a company of cavalry, and two pieces of artillery to quash the "rebellion." One old woman living near the area where the militiamen had taken refuge later recalled that they "had mortified in the Blue Ridge, but that General Jackson sent a foot company and a critter company to ramshag the Blue Ridge and capture them."

Early in April, Jackson's force, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John R. Jones of the 33rd Virginia, "ramshagged" the resisters in a wooded area. Captain W. E. Cutshaw placed his artillery on the heights and shelled the woods that harbored the resisters. The militia, led by a man named Gillespie and armed with "shot guns and squirrel rifles" proved no match for the artillery. Staff officer William Allan observed that this shelling "increased the panic among the simple mountaineers." One man was killed and twenty-four surrendered in the brief skirmish. Jones scoured the region for five more days; those captured were to be arrested and charged with desertion. On April 14 the Confederates captured Gillespie, who was described as "a tigrous looking fellow" by Hotchkiss.

Two days after Gillespie's capture, the Confederacy enacted its first conscription law; the United States would follow suit nearly a year later. Jackson's reaction to the Rockingham Rebellion initiated a trend toward harsh discipline in his army. Ten days after quelling the rebellion, Jackson instructed his quartermaster to "arrest every man whom you possibly can find from this District, unless he produces proper permission to be absent[,] and send all such delinquents to their posts in irons as deserters."

Jackson's wrath reached its height in August 1862 when he executed three men for deserting the army. One Confederate who witnessed the scene remarked, "in one sense it is a cold-blooded thing but when we reflect we come to the conclusion that it is necessary to keep the army together." Indeed, the Rockingham Rebellion marked an important shift away from leniency and toward severe government action against offending soldiers and civilians, a shift made possible by the establishment of a more firm executive authority in Richmond by 1862. Confederate president Jefferson Davis also enjoyed the political will to enforce these actions, as Confederate citizens began to grasp the nature of the wartime crisis.

Time Line

  • April 14, 1862 - A man named Gillespie, the leader of a group of Virginia militiamen from Rockingham County who are resisting incorporation into the Confederate army, is captured by Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's forces.
Further Reading
Allan, William. Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign. New York: Smithmark Publishers, Inc., 1995.
Carmichael, Peter S. "So Far from God and So Close to Stonewall Jackson: The Executions of Three Shenandoah Valley Soldiers." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 111 (2003): 33–66.
Horst, Samuel. Mennonites in the Confederacy: A Study of Civil War Pacifism. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1967.
Moore, Albert B. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Berkey, J. M. Rockingham Rebellion. (2011, April 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Rockingham_Rebellion.

  • MLA Citation:

    Berkey, Jonathan M. "Rockingham Rebellion." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: December 17, 2009 | Last modified: April 12, 2011


Contributed by Jonathan M. Berkey, an assistant professor of history at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. He is completing a study examining how civilians in Virginia's lower Shenandoah Valley shaped their Civil War experience.