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In the Wake of Battle: A Woman’s Recollections of Shepherdstown during Antietam Week

From 1884 to 1887 a popular magazine called The Century ran a series called “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” and later reprinted it in a variety of formats.  The Historic Shepherdstown Museum recently acquired a copy of Volume 32, which contains Mary Bedinger Mitchell’s memories of Shepherdstown during and after the Battle of Antietam.  Even though the book is available online, its etched illustration show up more clearly in the printed version.

The historian and journalist, Alan Nevins, in his 1967 Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography, wrote that the series contained “Opinionated and rationalizing memoirs by high-ranking officers on both sides,” and made this work “one of the most quoted in Civil War literature.”  While this is true, it was also by design. The editors of The Century wanted to get personal accounts by leading figures of the War before they died. But they also sought out people they knew had an axe to grind, because controversy always has a good audience.

Perhaps it’s remarkable that the editors at The Century even got accounts from private soldiers and women (if they had asked some African-American participants in the War for their accounts, they would have done us a great service…but sadly they did not). Volume 32 contains the account of Mary Bedinger Mitchell of Shepherdstown during and after the Battle of Antietam, as the town was turned into a hospital for Confederate wounded, and the townspeople into nurses, orderlies, and , predictably, grave-diggers. It is rightfully one of the best sources for what the experience of the Battle of Antietam was like for the town, and that has accordingly drawn the most attention from people writing about it.

Mary’s father Henry had been ambassador to Denmark, but died soon after his return in 1858, when Mary was 8 years old. Her mother Caroline moved the family for a time to Flushing, NY to her parents, but soon moved back to Shepherdstown to purchase Poplar Grove. Mary would return to Flushing sometime around 1869, meet and marry a former Union officer, John F.B. Mitchell, and live there until her death in 1896. When her article was published, she was raising three children.

Mary had two axes to grind. “A Federal soldier once said to me, “’I was always sorry for your wounded: they never seemed to get any care”. We can suspect the soldier was her own husband, but in Flushing there would be others who could tell her how the Union cared for its wounded, to compare with her memories of  the Confederate doctors who eventually arrived in town, “ most of whom might well have stayed away. The remembrance of that worthless body of officials stirs me to wrath”.  But caring for his troops was not a great priority for Lee when he took them to Maryland.  He remarked to his officers at the planning of the campaign that it was going to be unnecessary to provision them, as they’d be marching through cornfields and could eat green corn.  His soldiers begged for food at any door they passed, and it is not surprising that they were mostly left to beg for care of their wounds, as well.

Mary was also indignant that they had to beg care of Shepherdstown, because in 1862 it was not the prosperous, bustling market town for the northern Shenandoah Valley that it had been in 1820. After the Erie Canal could feed the East more cheaply than would be possible with wagon traffic, the Valley farmers stopped going through town with their produce and livestock. Industrialization had put Shepherdstown craftsmen out of business, and the town was stuck on a spur of the railroad. It was not a place that could afford to be filled with the wounded and dying.

Shepherdstown’s only access to the river was through a narrow gorge, the bed of a small tributary of the Potomac, that was made to do much duty as it slipped cheerily over its rocks, and furnished power for several mills and factories, most of them at that time silent. Here were also three or four stone warehouses, huge, empty structures, testifying mutely that the town had once had a business. The road to the bridge led through this cleft, down an indescribably steep street skirting the stream’s ravine, to whose sides the mills and factories clung in most extraordinary fashion; but it was always a marvel how anything heavier than a wheelbarrow could be pulled up its tedious length, or how any vehicle could be driven down without plunging into the water at the bottom…..

   As the wounded began to be brought across from Maryland, the empty structures turn out to be useful: Men ran for keys and opened the long empty shops and unused workrooms; other people got brooms and stirred up the dust of ages.

The unfinished Town Hall had stood in naked ugliness for many a long day. Some-body threw a few rough boards across the beams, placed piles of straw over them, laid down single planks to walk upon, and lo, it was a hospital at once. The stone warehouses down in the ravine and by the river had been passed by, because low and damp and undesirable as sanitariums, but now their doors and windows were thrown wide, and, with barely time allowed to sweep them, they were all occupied; and even the “old blue factory.” This was an antiquated, crazy, dismal building of blue stucco that peeled off in great blotches. It had been shut up for years and was in the last stages of dilapidation. The doorways were boarded up; its windows looked eyeless sockets; boards were missing from the floor, leaving only rafters to bridging gaps; while, in one place at least, it was possible to look down through successive openings, from the upper story to the basement,   whence came back the sound of rushing water, for the stream, that had once turned the machinery (long since departed), still ran under archways in the foundations of the building.

This was the background to her story.  Not the heroics of patriotic Southerners, no Scarlet O’Haras managing to look beautiful while carrying water to the gallant soldiers, but only a poor little town that just happened to be near a slaughterhouse. After having lived through that, at the age of 12, it’s no wonder she preferred New York.

An illustration from The Century magazine’s “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” vol. 32

A New Addition to the Museum’s Collection: The General’s Table

A New Addition to the Museum’s Collection: The General’s Table

The latest addition to the Museum’s collection of early Shepherdstown furniture is a table that was once in the home of Col. John Francis Hamtramck, Jr.

The mahogany drop-leaf dining room table is on loan by Wanda Perry of Charles Town, WV.

Col. Hamtramck was the son of a Revolutionary War General and graduated from West Point. He led Virginia’s volunteers in the Mexican-American War and subsequently served as governor of the Mexican State of Saltillo.  He was elected mayor of Shepherdstown in 1850.

In the fall of 1986, following the death of Elise Selby Billmyer, the owner of the Wyncoop-Morgan- Selby-Hamtramck-Shepherd-Billmyer house on East German Street in Shepherdstown, the home’s contents were sold at public auction. The sale grossed $90,515.00 at a time when the house and lot were appraised at $135,000.00. At the sale, Wanda Perry of Charles Town, WV, purchased this dining room table.

Mrs. Perry recalled that family members often referred to this piece as the “General’s Table,” a reference to Col. Hamtramck, who lived in the German Street home with his wife, Sarah Ellen Selby Hamtramck.   The couple moved into the German Street house in 1855, following the death of Sarah’s father, Walter Bowie Selby.  Colonel Hamtramck was the great-grandfather of Elise Selby Billmyer,

The table, dating to the period 1830-40, has had some alteration over the years, but is in excellent condition. Ms. Perry, whose family has lived in Jefferson County for several generations, loaned the piece to the Historic Shepherdstown Museum so that the table would remain as part of the county’s rich heritage.

For more information on Col. John Francis Hamtramck, visit:  https://historicshepherdstown.com/portfolio-item/john-francis-hamtramck/

A Shepherdstown Murder Mystery

In the middle of an upstairs room in the Historic Shepherdstown Museum is a detailed scale-model steam boat, made of tin and about three feet long.

 The boat was built by Henry Snyder, a Shepherdstown resident who was murdered in 1864, in a violent robbery by masked bandits.  The crime caused a stir in Shepherdstown at the time, and for some years after.  One of the stories in the Shepherdstown Register, shortly after it resumed publication at the end of the Civil War, was a reprint of an article that had appeared in a Baltimore newspaper in November of 1864. The article told of the robbery at the Snyder farmstead and the murder of a young family member, Henry Snyder.

Who was Henry Snyder and who was responsible for his death?  Were they Northern sympathizers or “carpet baggers” as some claimed, or perhaps others closer to home? And why?

Henry Miller Snyder, “a good citizen and esteemed by all who knew him” according to the Shepherdstown Register,  was born in 1836 at the family farm, Rock Springs, located off of Ridge Road, a few miles outside of Shepherdstown.  A loyal Virginian, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army in May of 1861, a month after the state joined the Confederacy.  Just two months later, his unit was sent to Manassas, Va., where he was wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run.  Sent home to recuperate, he began work on his model steam boat. Partially painted red, it would never be finished.

Henry Miller Snyder

Still in the Confederate Army, in 1863 he married Mary Virginia Moler.

Whenever his unit was encamped nearby, he would at times sneak away from camp without leave to visit his wife and family.

One such occasion was on November 9th, 1864.  According to the article in the Shepherdstown Register, four men on horseback— three wearing masks and one wearing blackface — approached the Snyder farmstead at about 8:00 PM and  knocked on the door.  The robbers apparently knew the area and likely assumed that the elderly Snyders were alone in the house.  Mrs. Snyder, Henry’s mother, expecting the return of a family member, opened the door and three of the men barged in. Demanding money, they grabbed Mrs. Snyder and blindfolded her. Henry’s father, John Snyder, who had been sitting by the fire, stood up, only to be knocked down by one of the intruders, who then tied him to a chair.  The robbers again demanded money.  Mrs. Snyder agreed and they removed her blindfold.  She went to an upstairs bedroom to retrieve the money, which was kept in a small purse.

Henry, who lived with his wife in another part of the house, heard the noise and rushed to his parents’ aid.  In the scuffle, Henry was shot in the arm and the bullet passed through his abdomen and lodged in his back.

Mrs. Snyder gave the robbers her purse with forty dollars in it. They took the money and then threw the purse on the floor, threatening to shoot the two men’s wives if they didn’t stop their “hallooing.”

Henry Snyder lay bleeding in the front hall of the Rock Spring farmhouse and died some 36 hours later.  A tall-case clock that stood in the room still has a hole where another bullet entered, and it is said that the blood stain on the floor where Henry lay dying is still visible.

After leaving the Snyder Farm, the bandits went to the house of Christian Rhinehart, a few miles away.  They called for him to come out on his porch and demanded money, saying that just as they knew him, he would know them if they took off their masks. They told him that they had already killed one man and would kill Mr. Rhinehart as well if he didn’t hand over his money.  They then hit him with a revolver, knocking him down and taking what money he had in his pockets.

Were the robbers members of a Confederate raiding party, as reported in the Daily National Republican, a Washington, D.C., newspaper a few days later?  According to this article, on the evening of the 9th, Major Harry Gilmor, well known at the time for leading daring raids on Union positions, and his men were on their way to attack Chambersburg, Pa.  Passing through Shepherdstown, they robbed stores and individuals, and murdered a man named Henry Snyder.  Gilmor, in his autobiography, Four Years in the Saddle, admits to being in Shepherdstown at the time, but claims to have gone there to “discover the perpetrators of the fearful robberies, murders, and outrages of all kinds that had been committed in that neighborhood, scarcely a house having been free from such depredations.”

The Snyders apparently knew the identity of the bandits, but never revealed their names “for the sake of their families.” It wasn’t until 1991 that Henry Miller’s niece, Mary Saum, revealed to a select few, who have also remained silent, the names of the murderers. She did add, howeve, that they all died horrible deaths.

In July 1865, the Shepherdstown Register reported that a man named Enoch Thompson was acquitted in the murder of Henry Snyder. No further information was given.  Records of the trial could not be located at the Jefferson County Courthouse, so the full details of the murder may never be known or if the other bandits were ever arrested or even identified.

But the story doesn’t end here.  Even though Enoch Thompson was acquitted in this instance, he apparently went on to live a life of banditry and crime. In 2017 an interesting medallion appeared at an auction in Connecticut. The medallion is inscribed:

“We Honor the Brave
Presented to
Sergt. J.F. Wilt
by the citizens of
Shepherdstown, VA
for killing a
noted highwayman
Enoch Thompson”

The donors of the medallion are “J.W. Grant, & many Friends.”

Sergeant Wilt has yet to be identified; no date or other information was given on the medallion, although it is known that J.W. Grant was treasurer of Shepherdstown in the years after the Civil War. It would seem that Enoch Thompson met his fate shortly after his acquittal.

Who was really responsible for killing Henry Snyder will likely continue to remain a Shepherdstown murder mystery.

Sheetz Family Bible Returns to Shepherdstown

Sheetz Family Bible Returns to Shepherdstown

The Historic Shepherdstown Museum recently received a Bible that belonged to the Sheetz Family.

The donor, Christine Saulsbury, of Desert Center, California, was helping a friend clear out her mother’s bookstore, when she came across a Bible that once belonged to William Miller Sheetz.  Inscribed inside the cover were “Shepherdstown” and the date, May 12, 1842. Knowing that the book would be of historical interest, she researched the Sheetz Family and contacted the Museum.

Although a bit tattered, the Bible contains some family genealogy and a hand-written prayer.  The Bible was originally published in Philadelphia in 1835.

The Sheetz were a prominent family in Shepherdstown and were known throughout the Shenandoah Valley for the production of fine firearms. Several generations of Sheetz produced rifles for almost a century, from the time of the Revolution until the Civil War.

William Miller Sheetz was born in 1810.  He was the son of John Jacob Sheetz and grandson of Philip Sheetz, all gunsmiths in Shepherdstown. He was probably the last of the Sheetz family to make rifles.  There is evidence that his son, William Miller Sheetz, Jr., repaired rifles but not that he made any.

The Sheetz Family dwelling and workshop was located on Lot 1, at the corner of King and German Streets, across from McMurran Hall.  The building is now a restaurant.

William Miller Sheetz married Juliann Barnhardt.  Juliann’s date of birth (May 6th, 1815) is recorded in the Bible, along with notations for two of their nine children:  Mary Elizabeth (October 3rd, 1848) and Emma Kate (January 4, 1855).

William Miller Sheetz died in 1866 and is buried in Shepherdstown’s Elmwood Cemetery.

Several rifles produced by the Sheetz Family, including one made by William Miller Sheetz for Rezin Shepherd, grandson of Shepherdstown’s founder, are on display at the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.

An interesting entry in the Bible is a prayer in which Sheetz writes that he has purchased the Bible “as a remembrance of the most true and holy and merciful God.

William Miller Sheetz died in 1866 and is buried in Shepherdstown’s Elmwood Cemetery.

Several rifles produced by the Sheetz Family, including one made by William Miller Sheetz for Rezin Shepherd, grandson of Shepherdstown’s founder, are on display at the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.