Westmoreland County and Stratford during the American Civil War

The Northern Neck is commonly associated with the Colonial era due to the history of families such as the Washingtons and the Lees. Stratford is known as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, but due to financial problems the Lee family relocated to Alexandria and lost the property. Still, the Lee family continued to build on the impressive pedigree established by their ancestors. By 1861 Robert E. Lee, an established military officer like many of his comrades, chose to side with his home state of Virginia and the seceding Southern states. While in the ensuing war many of the battles erupted on the fields of Northern Virginia, the farms and waterways of the Northern Neck attracted the attention of war.

For decades conflict between the North and South seemed inevitable, but many hoped after previous crises that secession would not come to fruition. Many Southern states opposed Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln and, after his election, seceded. Virginia did not. In fact, electoral history shows secession was not appealing to voters. While slavery in Virginia was slowly decreasing, many still relied on slave labor. Virginia voters reflect this as John Bell, a member of the newly formed Constitutional Union Party, took Virginia. This new party, which supported slavery but not the expansion of slavery into western territories, also opposed secession. This candidate appealed to farmers who were no longer involved in the tobacco trade as Bell won 73% [1] of the vote in Westmoreland County and a majority through the entire Northern Neck. The election was not this close throughout the entire state as Bell very closely won Virginia.

USS Pawnee (1859)

Lower Southern states hoped Virginia would quickly follow them but instead she lingered debating secession. States that left the Union sent envoys to sway the delegates since Virginia would be the key to longevity for the Confederacy. The lower South produced major cash crops, not food items needed for an army. These states also needed a flow of slave labor to maintain their plantations, both of which the Commonwealth of Virginia had in abundance. Virginia’s farming had shifted from tobacco to food production and remained highly profitable. With this shift, slaves became a financial liability due to the change in practice. Virginians began selling excess chattel and became the dominant power in the interstate slave trade. A year before the war, with 2,382 [2] farms operating on the Northern Neck, wheat saw a 67% increase while corn saw a 13% (from 1790) increase, yielding around $1.3 million in profit (close to $35.5 million today). While productivity increased, the population decreased with the white population seeing a 5% decrease and the slave population dropping by almost 20% by 1860. Virginia also had the largest population of any Southern state, at over 1.5 million residents. This gave Virginia a strong base for troops and a workforce to fuel the war.

While no major battles took place on the Northern Neck during the war, the economy of the area still drew the attention of the Union. The Anaconda Plan was Winfield Scott’s plan to quickly subdue the Confederacy by blockading the Southern coast as well as capturing the Mississippi river. Doing so stopped the flow of trade domestically and internationally. By taking the Mississippi, the Federal Government could control the West. Blockading the Atlantic Coast line, the Union stopped the cotton from going to England and other buyers, therefore preventing profit for the Confederacy. It also limited massive shipments of provisions from entering the Confederacy from European nations. As well as a coastal blockade, employing similar tactics made famous in the western theatre, smaller ships patrolled the rivers and other waterways, further preventing shipments of supplies.

Samuel Phillips Lee

At the outbreak of the war, the vital farms and waterways of the Potomac made the area a key target for the North Atlantic Blocking Squadron, whose commander from 1862 to 1864 was Robert E. Lee’s cousin Samuel Phillips Lee. Trade in the Northern Neck depended on the river, but gunboats quickly took the place of grain shipments. The Northern Neck had no real home guard to protect the area. This persisted throughout the entire war and, by 1864, Robert E. Lee could do little more than offer a few lines of advice to the people: “operate against the enemy as Mosby has done in the Piedmont country.” [3] This is how the people resisted–and in Lee’s backyard. In the opening months of the war a group of partisans tried to block the USS Dana from pushing up river when one of its crew members remarked, “I was fired into by the rebels with rifles at Stratford Mill.”[4] After attempting to land on the beach, the crewmen again met with small arms fire; the ship turned away and retreated to a safe position. Residents soon found that the Union military could do more than control the waterways. As the war dragged on, Union forces pushed through the area by land.

Charles B. Ward, age 18. He was killed at Beverly’s Ford in 1864.

Point Lookout, established in 1862, is remembered as the most infamous Union Prisoner of War Camp. While serving as a prison its strategic position on the coast gave the Union a perfect spot to raid into Virginia, in such areas as the Northern Neck. Rich with natural resources, crops and livestock, it made a prime target for Union forces to forage. In addition, after 1862 in accordance with the Confiscation Act and the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops also took slaves. The most noted raid was in June 1864 when the 36th United States Colored Troops, commanded by Alonzo Draper, crossed the river to forage. They raided the area around Washington’s birthplace as well as Stratford Hall, taking supplies and the slaves that resided there. Official records are unclear about casualties of the raid, with conflicting reports from Northern and Southern accounts. We know of at least one fatality from the Ward family of Warsaw when their son Charley was killed during the raid– “shot in his own Virginia fields.”[5] He served with a small group of men organized to protect against raids and with the 9th Virginia Cavalry.

–Nicholas Tarchis, 2017 Paul Reber Intern, Gettysburg College



[1] William C. Bryant Jr, “Virginia, The Northern Neck, and the coming of the Civil War,”(Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine) (2010) 7346.

[2] William C. Bryant Jr, “Virginia, The Northern Neck, and the coming of the Civil War,” (Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine) (2010) 440.

[3] Peter Luebke, “What does the Northern Neck Have to Do with the Crater” in Encyclopedia Virginia. http://blog.encyclopediavirginia.org/2009/07/explaining-a-massacre/ accessed June 8, 2017.

[4] William T. Street report to Thomas Craven commander of the Potomac Flotilla, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 1, The Operation of the cruisers, pg 711.

[5] Evelyn D. Ward, The Children of Bladensfield (Sand Dune Press, New York, New York 1978) pg. 94.