Sheridan's men left Winchester on February 27. Having pushed Early east across the Blue Ridge Mountains, they routed him at Waynesboro on March 2. From there they marched in the direction of Charlottesville, with George A. Custer's division in the lead.
The Union Approach
Rumors swirled that Sheridan's men were heading toward Charlottesville and the nearby University of Virginia. It had been raining for days and town leaders hoped that mud might slow the Union approach. Indeed, the roads had become so bad that, according to the later recollections of a Union cavalry veteran, "in many places the stirrups and horses' bodies dragg[ed] in the mud. Frequently a horse was abandoned through inability to extricate him."
On March 1, members of the University of Virginia faculty met. Attesting that "the safety of the University may be endangered," they appointed a committee to greet the Union troops when they arrived and to request protection. The committee included Minor and Socrates Maupin, the faculty chair and a professor of chemistry. The rector, Thomas L. Preston, also was enlisted to help.
In her own diary, Sarah A. G. Strickler, a nineteen-year-old student at the Albemarle Female Institute, in Charlottesville, noted on March 2 that "Everything is in an uproar tonight." After Early's defeat that day at nearby Waynesboro, civilians were fleeing with their valuables in tow. "I do not think that [Union troops] will have any Charlottesville to take when they get here," Strickland wrote the next day; "the merchants will carry it off."
"Nothing intervenes now between us and the Yankees, but the mud," Minor wrote, "and we may not flatter ourselves that we shall escape the visitation."
The Union Arrival
Minor wrote that he, Maupin, and Preston "repaired to the grounds opposite Carr's Hill" sometime between one and two o'clock in the afternoon. There they joined the Charlottesville mayor, Christopher L. Fowler, and a few others. "Our town friends had already arrived," Minor wrote, "and had displayed a flag of truce."
The group met with passing members of Custer's staff. "We announced to these men, who were accompanied by a dirty-looking lieutenant, that no defense of Charlottesville was contemplated," Minor wrote that night, "that the town was evacuated, and that we requested protection for the University, and for the town." Protection was granted and later confirmed by Sheridan.
"Immediately afterwards," Minor recalled, "Gen Custer passed in triumph, with 3 of our battle flags displayed."
The Union Occupation
Other soldiers, whose five days' worth of rations had run out, fanned across the area in search of food. Asa B. Isham, of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, later recalled that "The surrounding country had thus far escaped the ravages of either army and was rich in forage and food … to say nothing of the wet goods, such as applejack and wine, and last, but not least, with generous quantities of that sweet and deceptive beverage, methylin, the unhappy effects of which were felt by some for a day or two after drinking."
Duke wrote of a group of Union soldiers, at least one of whom was "evidently drunk," looting his family's home, threatening his mother, and engaging in what the Staunton Vindicator described as "characteristic vandalism." Union troops also visited the home of Rector Preston.
Meanwhile, some of Charlottesville's enslaved African Americans used the Union occupation as a means of escape. Although accounts by slaveholders such as Duke mostly portray slaves as remaining loyal to their owners, the accounts of Union soldiers tell a different story. Frederic Denison, of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, remembered being met by African Americans singing the praises of Union troops and even offering freshly cooked biscuits. A history of the 6th New York Cavalry suggests that the generosity ran both ways. "A great quantity [of foraged food] was turned over to a large body of colored people who were following the column," the authors wrote, "much to their surprise and gratification, many of whom declared they hadn't had such a feast in 'yeahs.'"
Strickler reported that two enslaved maids escaped, "taking two of my dresses & several skirts, together with things from other girls." (Changing clothes sometimes allowed fugitive slaves to more easily pass as free or even as white.) Several slaves belonging to Preston were "lured away," as the historian Philip Alexander Bruce put it, and according to Minor, Union troops "attempted a rape on my servant Nancy, a woman of 45 probably." Another slave belonging to Minor, whom he had hired out in Staunton, also ran away. In his diary, the professor suggested that the man would have been better off enslaved: "I lament [his escape] more on his account than my own."
A Union guard, increased to twenty-five men, continued to keep watch over the University of Virginia, and on March 5, Sheridan ordered the grounds searched. A university-owned cannon was subsequently destroyed on Observatory Hill.
On March 6, Sheridan's men left, riding south in the direction of Scottsville, on the James River. "Our train of negroes now numbered thousands," Denison, of the 1st Rhode Island, wrote, "and was constantly increasing." Rather than meet up with Sherman, Sheridan led his cavalry to Petersburg and participated in the subsequent Appomattox Campaign and Confederate surrender.
Aftermath and Commemoration
In July, the school graduated five students, but by the end of the year 100 students were enrolled and the General Assembly had resumed its funding. The historian Ervin L. Jordan Jr. has argued that this turnaround was "a testimony of the faith former Confederates placed in their surviving institutions." And the University of Virginia's survival was in no small part the result of Sheridan's easy occupation.
In March 2000, the Department of Historic Resources approved a state historical highway marker commemorating the "surrender" of Charlottesville, to be placed at the corner of University Avenue and McCormick Road on university grounds. The marker, proposed and paid for by the pro-Custer group Little Big Horn Associates, was dedicated during the summer. However, by the end of the year, university officials had begun to object. A letter to the state by Rector John P. Ackerly III, dated December 11, 2000, claimed that the Department of Historic Resources had not consulted the university about the marker's text or location and that the text was, in fact, inaccurate; while the town had surrendered, he wrote, the university had not.
In March 2001, the state approved a new marker, titled "Union Occupation of Charlottesville," and moved it off university grounds. In 2012 the marker was reported missing.
May 15, 1864 - At the Battle of New Market, Franz Sigel's poor generalship leads to a disastrous Union defeat against Confederate forces under John C. Breckinridge. The Confederates are aided by about 250 young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute.
June 11–14, 1864 - Union general David Hunter's forces shell Lexington and burn the Virginia Military Institute before occupying the town for several days during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
August 6, 1864 - Union general Philip H. Sheridan takes command of the newly created Middle Military Division. Harpers Ferry becomes the base of operations for Sheridan's campaign against Confederate general Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley.
October 19, 1864 - In a last desperate bid to drive Union forces commanded by Philip H. Sheridan from the Shenandoah Valley, Confederate forces commanded by Jubal A. Early are defeated at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Sheridan's victory marks the end of conventional operations in the Shenandoah Valley.
February 27, 1865 - Philip H. Sheridan leads two divisions of Union cavalry south from Winchester with orders to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and James River Canal and, if possible, to capture Lynchburg.
March 1, 1865 - Members of the University of Virginia faculty meet to prepare for the imminent occupation of Charlottesville by Union forces.
March 2, 1865 - At the head of the Army of the Valley, Confederate general Jubal A. Early is defeated by Union forces under Philip H. Sheridan at the Battle of Waynesboro.
March 3, 1865 - Charlottesville and University of Virginia officials surrender the town to Union generals Philip H. Sheridan and George A. Custer. Union forces burn the Charlottesville Manufacturing Company.
March 6, 1865 - The Union occupation of Charlottesville ends as Union cavalry ride south, in the direction of Scottsville.
March 6, 1865 - Members of the University of Virginia faculty meet to report on the recent occupation of Charlottesville by Union forces.
March 30, 1865 - John A. McCausland, under the command of General Thomas Rosser, fights at the Battle of Five Forks. He remains with the Army of Northern Virginia until his escape from Appomattox.
July 4, 1865 - In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the University of Virginia graduates five students.
March 15, 2000 - The Board of Historic Resources meets and approves the texts of new historical highway markers, including one titled "Charlottesville Surrendered."
Summer 2000 - "Charlottesville Surrendered," a state historical highway marker, is dedicated.
December 11, 2000 - In a letter to the Department of Historic Resources, University of Virginia rector John P. Ackerly III objects to the "Charlottesville Surrendered" historical marker.
March 14, 2001 - The Department of Historic Resources approves a marker titled, "Union Occupation of Charlottesville." It replaces one that described the "surrender" of the University of Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. Union Occupation of Charlottesville (1865). (2015, April 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Union_Occupation_of_Charlottesville_1865.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Union Occupation of Charlottesville (1865)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 13, 2015 | Last modified: April 13, 2015
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.