Culpeper Goes to War: April 1861 – April 1862

The Culpeper Times will be running a series of articles commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War in an effort to inform residents of the county’s rich Civil War history.

During the winter of 1861-1862, the Confederate War Department faced a serious problem. Most of the army’s soldiers had enlisted in the spring and early summer of 1861 for a one-year term of service. Consequently, once campaigning began in the spring of 1862, most of the now-veterans—having completed their enlistments—would be eligible to leave the army and go home.

In response, on April 16, 1862 the Confederacy enacted a conscription act. This act allowed the War Department to draft white men between the ages of 18 and 35 for a three-year term of service. Those exempted from conscription included justices of the peace, sheriffs and deputies, district and State attorneys, commissioners of revenue, and postmasters.

The conscription act also extended the term of enlistment for each presently-serving soldier to three years from the soldier’s original date of enlistment. As an added inducement, units—companies and regiments—that had been raised for one year were allowed to reorganize and elect new officers. Most senior commanders, many of whom had served in the regular army before secession, were appalled by the election provision. They believed that soldiers would be unlikely to vote for good officers who imposed strict discipline within their units.

During late April through May, there was a flurry of activity throughout the Confederate army. In almost every company, the men voted to select their company-grade officers: one captain; one first lieutenant; one second lieutenant. The newly-elected company grade officers then elected the regiment’s field-grade officers: the commander, a colonel; one lieutenant colonel; one major.

In most regiments, the men showed good sense and retained capable leaders. However, within some regiments, reorganization was more disruptive. In the 1st Virginian Cavalry, one officer recalled “All discipline was suspended and every company became the theater for the arts of the demagogue.” The election for colonel of the 1st Virginia was also contentious. JEB Stuart, the first commander of the regiment had been promoted to brigadier general in September 1861. William E. “Grumble” Jones had been promoted to colonel of the regiment as Stuart’s replacement. Jones was a capable commander, later cited by Robert E. Lee as “the best outpost officer in the army.” However, there was great animosity between Stuart and Jones, and Stuart meddled in the election to ensure that Fitzhugh Lee, his favorite subordinate, was elected and Jones displaced. Jones, in a letter to the Secretary of War, wrote “being fully aware of my inability to repair the mischief done by the stupidity and wickedness of my superior officer [Stuart] I hereby relieve the department of all embarrassment by tendering my resignation.”

Meanwhile, Culpeper residents began adjusting to the requirements of the Conscription Act. In Brandy Station, John A. Stone, the owner of the building today known as the Graffiti House, wrote to Richmond to confirm that his duties as postmaster exempted him from military service. Catherine Crittenden, a widow living in the shadow of Cedar Mountain, had earlier written to Virginia’s governor regarding exemptions. Her son was serving as an officer in the 9th Virginia Infantry, and should her overseer, George Bowman, be drafted, there would be no man left to supervise her 19 slaves. In response to urgings from Mrs. Crittenden and others, the Confederate government eventually passed the “Twenty-Slave Act” exempting overseers on plantations that belonged to minors, single women, people of unsound mind, and those serving in the army or navy of the Confederacy.

However, with the return of good weather, the armies began to move. Soon the residents of Culpeper, including Mrs. Crittenden, would have much more to worry about than conscription notices.

Joseph W. McKinney is President of the Brandy Station Foundation and author of Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9, 1863: The Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War