- Sheridan’s James River Campaign: Background
- The James River Campaign: Winchester to Charlottesville
- The Hard Hand of War
- Sheridan’s Raid on Scottsville, Virginia and Commemoration
If you live in central Virginia and are available this coming weekend visiting Scottsville and the commemoration of Sheridan’s Raid. Scottsville is a small town at the big bend of the James River. Sheridan’s force of cavalry and infantry raided the town in early March of 1865. Among his commanders were George Armstrong Custer, Wesley Merritt and Thomas Devin.
Sheridan led a force of 10,000 soldiers which marched down the Scottsville Road from Charlottesville, about a 20 mile march. His goal was Scottsville’s tobacco warehouses and other military supplies. He also wanted to destroy the James River and Kanawha Canal, a key transportation link with Richmond.
After four long years of war, the enemy and devastation came to Scottsville. On March 6, 1865, Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s expedition of nearly 10,000 Union soldiers departed Charlottesville. Their mission was to destroy the James River Canal and the Virginia Central Railroad.
The expedition separated into two columns with Sheridan and Brevet Major General George A. Custer leading the 3rd Cavalry southwest through North and South Gardens to destroy the railroad. Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt and Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin headed south to Scottsville with the 1st Cavalry and orders to destroy the canal, bridges, mills, manufactories, and rebel food stores.
The destruction of Scottsville began at 3 p.m. on that March day, as noted in General Devin’s official report:
At this point, three canal boats were captured, one loaded with shell (9600) and two with the Government commissary stores and tobacco. These were totally destroyed and burned, together with a large cloth mill, a five-story flouring mill, candle factory, machine shop, and tobacco warehouse. Each of these buildings was crammed with products of its manufacture to a surprising extent, and all were totally destroyed.
The intense heat of the flour mill fire charred nearby homes, although no loss of life occurred. Canal locks and bridges above and below town also were destroyed or severely damaged. The last of Devin’s men departed Scottsville on March 7th and headed west up the towpath to continue their canal destruction duties and join Sheridan’s column at New Market (Norwood).
On March 8th, Sheridan’s united command moved back down the James River towards Columbia, arriving in Scottsville on Thursday night, March 9th. The roads were horrible due to the spring thaw and heavy rains, and the soldiers were tired and hungry. Legend has it that Sheridan and Custer rested the night at Cliffside while Merritt commandeered Old Hall. (These homes still exist.)
By this stage of the expedition, Sheridan’s men were down to their last ‘coffee and sugar’ rations, and their horses suffered from fatigue and hoof rot. They relied on the Scottsville countryside for ‘subsistence and forage’ and ransacked and looted homes, barns, and any potential hiding place for food, horses, and valuables. Cliffside’s carriage house and barn were torched, although the jewelry, which Mrs. John O. Lewis buried earlier near their chicken house, went undiscovered.
Yankees stuffed hams in their knapsacks and strapped dead chickens to their saddles. At age 5, Fannie Patteson stood at a second floor window and watched her backyard fill with strange men, who upset their beehives and crammed honey into their mouths.
As the Yankees snatched up every horse they spotted, twelve year-old Luther Pitts hid two local horses in the basement of the Barclay House on Main Street. Miletus Harris and his son, Charles, beat back the flames on their Main Street store as the nearby Columbian Hotel went up in smoke.
Finally on March 10th, Sheridan’s army departed Scottsville and continued along the James River to Columbia, leaving Scottsville charred and hungry. It would take forty years for the town’s economy to recover.
You can read about the entire James River Campaign here.