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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The Fire That Time: David Hunter in Charlestown

Although I am not a student of Civil War history, one episode did grab my attention recently as it has some resonance of the John Brown story: when Union General David Hunter brought the war to Charlestown (formerly Virginia), West Virginia in the summer of 1864.   The incident has provoked a ticklish interest for me in that it involved the burning of the home of John Brown's prosecutor, Andrew Hunter, who was also the general's cousin.  

There is a good description of Gen. David Hunter on the Fort Pulaski National Park Service website, so I will only mention a few biographical points.   Although Hunter had relatives in the South, he was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1802.   After being graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1822, Hunter did a stint in the army, then sold real estate in Illinois, and then reenlisted in 1842, the year that John Brown filed bankruptcy in Ohio and Abraham Lincoln got married.  Hunter was stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1860, corresponded with Lincoln, and rode on the train with the President-elect to Washington the following year.  

Gen. David Hunter
The Fire That Time

In 1862, Hunter was Commander of the Department of the South, and after taking Fort Pulaski, in South Carolina, he famously issued the ill-fated General Order No. 11, which emancipated enslaved people in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.  His premise in doing so was that martial law in the rebellious states he occupied was incompatible with slavery, and so enslaved people were "declared forever free."  

The general's emancipation was a great idea that quickly fell prey to Lincoln's friendly fire.  Always a moderate in matters of black freedom, Lincoln was more concerned with the impact that Hunter's actions would have on the loyal border slave states.  And so the "Great Emancipator" shortly un-emancipated the victims of Southern "stewardship" in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, until he felt it was more politically expedient to do so with the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863).

. . .But John Brown's Man

Although Hunter never fell into the hands of rebel armies and leaders, it is plain that they were infuriated at him for striking at the very heart of Southern secession--the continuance of African enslavement.  Jeff Davis, the rebel "President," even issued a warrant for Hunter's death if captured.  To Davis and the rest of the rebel ilk, Hunter was but another felon--another John Brown, "to be executed if captured."

But if Hunter appeared to be a Brownian figure worthy of death to the slaveholding rebels, the general would not have been offended by the comparison.  He was, perhaps more than any other Union officer, the most like John Brown, since he not only wanted to immediately end chattel slavery, but also wished to arm black men to fight.

According to Edward A. Miller, Jr., one of Hunter's biographers, John Brown "was well known" to Hunter while in Kansas.  "To Hunter," writes Miller, "[John] Brown was a hero, and he thought that a million Union soldiers shared this view."1  Gary C. Walker writes that Hunter "felt that it was his mission to reap vengeance on Virginia because of the ‘suppressing (of) John Brown.”2  I am not impressed with the tone of these biographers regarding Brown, especially Miller, who makes a gratuitous reference to Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings in Kansas, as if that mattered in the context of this episode.  

Since the 20th century, many Civil War scholars, including the "big name" guys of the academy, were deeply biased against John Brown.  That tradition has often continued among many of the leading Civil War/Lincoln set.   Boyd Stutler dealt with this bigotry in the middle of the 20th century, referring to them in tongue-and-cheek manner as "scientific historians," even though he knew far more about Brown than the best of them.  Over a half century later, the tone that many military historians and Lincoln writers take toward Brown often bears the same tone of prejudice and unstudied bias, engendered by a somewhat sterilized view of the Civil War.  It is no wonder that there is little sympathy for what marks General Hunter's contribution to the John Brown story in this episode.

Burning Down the House

According to Miller, General Hunter's decision to burn the home of Andrew Hunter was spurred by the burning of the home of Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford on July 11, 1864.  In fairness to the rebels, however, the burning of Bradford's home was itself in retaliation for the burning of the home of Governor John Letcher (the successor of Governor Henry Wise, who engineered Brown's execution in Virginia).  Of course, the more obvious reason for General Hunter's choice was that Andrew Hunter had spearheaded the prosecution of John Brown in the fall of 1859, having made it legally certain that the abolitionist would hang, along with his surviving raiders.

Andrew Hunter
Slaveholding Prosecutor
of John Brown
On Sunday, July 17, 1864, General David Hunter thus issued orders, sending Capt. Franklin G. Martindale with a detachment of the First New York Cavalry to Charlestown, directing them to burn both the "dwelling-place and outbuildings" of his cousin, Andrew Hunter.   By now, the latter Hunter had added more treachery to his curriculum vita besides have pushed John Brown up the gallows' steps.  With the rebellion, he had become a "state senator" among rebel Virginians.  He was the enemy.

It appears that Andrew Hunter was hidden and then hustled to another site at the time that his house was burned; he was eventually found hiding at a neighbor's home and was arrested.  One source says that he was jailed for the remainder of the war.3  Andrew Hunter's family were all removed, and were allowed only what they were wearing, and took refuge in a neighbor's home.  The "outbuildings" that were burned probably included former slave residences, although I assume by 1864, John Brown's prosecutor had been stripped of his slaves.   (I wonder what ever happened to the young "mulatto" boy of his--ostensibly his sire--who was listed in the 1860 slave census?)  Men in blue uniforms carried hay into the house and set it afire, and burned the elegant mansion to the ground.   Perhaps what goes around, as they say, comes around.

Hunter's mansion, November 1859 by Berghaus (detail from an image sold by Swann Galleries in 2014)

The Hunter mansion was perhaps the most impressive structure in Charlestown.  It was constructed in 1820 in the Greek Revival style.  An interesting view of the mansion survives as part of a larger sketch that the German-born sketch artist, Alfred Berghaus, made at the time of John Brown's incarceration in Charlestown, in late 1859, in his labors for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.   Andrew Hunter kept race horses on his property, so we should assume the "outbuildings" also included stables.  (After the war, Andrew Hunter reconstructed his house on the foundations of the original house, and it remains a historic site of Charles Town today.)4

After burning Alexander Hunter's mansion, General Hunter authorized the burning of two other rebel properties, that of Alexander Boteler, a secessionist who served as a state congressman prior to the rebellion, and the home of a near relative of Robert E. Lee, the supreme rebel general.  According to another historian, General Hunter was prevented by President Lincoln himself, when he sought to burn down the home of  secessionist Charles Faulkner in Martinsburg.  Apparently, Lincoln intervened because Faulkner had previously been a congressman before secession.  The general would likely have done more had he not been restrained by moderate Mr. Lincoln.  One source says he threatened to burn down all of Charlestown.5  However, the best summary of the Charlestown episode came from a young soldier at the time, who observed that General Hunter "spared no rebels 'for relation's sake.'"6
Evidently historians of the Civil War trade consider the house burnings as deplorable, and perhaps tend to be heavy-handed in their judgment of David Hunter because of his evident devotion to the memory of John Brown.  Brown himself burned no buildings in Virginia and would never have driven women and children from their homes; this was always the behavior of the racist thugs that he opposed, such as in Kansas.   
However, the Civil War required extreme measures, and perhaps Lincoln would have done better had he employed extreme measures from the onset, instead of struggling with inactive and unproductive generals for the first years of the war.  The contemporary Civil War historian often lives in a bubble.  He thinks of the war as a worthy contest between two noble opponents; he extends generosity and sympathy to both sides, and sentimentalizes it to the point of bleaching out the political realities of the war.  As my friend Larry Lawrence says, military historians especially treat the Civil War like a big football game, with two worthy teams going at it.
The South rebelled from the Union in order to win its own "freedom" to harden its oppression of four millions of black people, like Pharaoh hardening his heart against Moses.  Virginians and South Carolinians in particular had been lusting for independence for a decade before John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry.  The South wanted even more--to expand slavery into new territories in order to expand its tyrannical profits in human trafficking and stolen black labor.  This was the political reality of slavery, and this was the stuff of men like Governor Henry Wise, Andrew Hunter, JEB Stuart, and the other "beloved" Confederate characters that feature in the story of John Brown's last days in Virginia.   
General David Hunter, whatever his flaws, understood the realities of the Civil War.  He was not primarily a politician, but a soldier--and a soldier with a memory.  He not only remembered the role that men like Andrew Hunter and Alexander Boteler had played in the demise of John Brown and his men.  But he realized that their rebellion could not be soft-gloved.  There was nothing honorable in Southern secession, nothing noble about the slaveholders of the South like Andrew Hunter.  By our own standards today, they were contemptible men who talked of liberty and the gospel, and kept their bastard "mulatto" slave sire in plain sight, though pretending to be men of nobility and standing.  
There is a certain hypocrisy when historians today are more critical of David Hunter for burning down a few buildings than they are of the racist leaders of the South, who violated the Union and threw their sons into the depths of war in order to secure slavery.  Even today, many people in the South continue to romance their forebears and pretend that they were basically good people.  It is not easy to admit when your forefathers were the bad guys.
Of course, were you one of their victims, you might have a very different view of these slaveholding so-called Confederates.  You might even see a certain beauty in the radiant light of their burning mansions.  Perhaps some of the local blacks of Charlestown did.
As for General David Hunter, any friend of John Brown is a friend of mine.--LD


I was, at my own request, relieved from the command of the 
Department of West Virginia, August 8, 1864."7

David Hunter (1802-1886)


      1 Edward A. Miller Jr., Lincoln's Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter (Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1997), p. 124.

      2 Gary C. Walker, Hunter’s Fiery Raid Through Virginia Valleys (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 2008), p. 32.

      3 “Old Charles Town Historic District,” NPS Form 10-900 (Oct. 1990), Charles Town, West Va., p. 225.

      4 Ibid.

      5 Steven Bernstein, The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2011), p. 95.

      6 Miller, Lincoln's Abolitionist General, p. 225.

      7 Report of the Military Services, Gen. David Hunter, U.S.A., during the War of the Rebellion, Made to the U.S. War Department, 1873 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, Publisher, 1873).

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