By Colin Woodward
Ethel Armes’s 1936 book, Stratford Hall: The Great House of the Lees, is the most comprehensive history of Stratford. It still stands up well, eighty years after it was published. In it, Armes says, “During the War between the States, Stratford had a narrow escape from destruction.” To back up her claim, Armes includes testimony from Susie Reed, daughter of Captain Samuel Baker Folke. Reed told Armes: “My father got orders to burn Stratford to the ground and burn every other house on the lower Potomac.” Armes assets that this happened “at the outbreak of hostilities.”
The fact that Stratford still stands is proof that no one burned it during the Civil War. In fact, the house was never seriously harmed, though Union troops apparently vandalized the site later in the war. Reed’s claim that Stratford would have been burned but for her father’s good will, while dramatic, is dubious. It is unlikely that anyone ordered Stratford burned during the Civil War. Yet, Reed’s claim warrants discussion of what happened at Stratford as Federal and Confederate forces, including those of John Singleton Mosby, were operating in the area.
Reed’s testimony raises a number of questions. First, who was Capt. Folke, and why would he have been in a position to burn Stratford and other houses in the Northern Neck?
Captain Folke was never an officer in the United States military. And in doing research to write this blog entry, I’ve been unable to find much information about him. According to Susie Reed, he father was captain of the Wawasett, which traveled along the Potomac before the war. Since Folke apparently was never an officer in the U.S. military, he would not have been given orders to burn Stratford, or anything else.
Even if Folke were given such an order, who would have given it? The U.S. navy was never in the house burning business during the Civil War in Virginia as a matter of policy. Such a policy would have been met with outrage early in the war, when officers such as George McClellan were conducting operations in Virginia according to the rules of “civilized warfare,” which meant leaving civilian houses alone. And in McClellan’s case, “civilized” meant returning slaves to disloyal masters.
Early in the war, it is highly unlikely that any commander, let alone one as obscure as Folke, would have been ordered to burn houses in Virginia, especially the ancestral home of the Lee family, which was still occupied. After all, the federal government did not order Arlington burned. Later in the war, men such as James Montgomery and William Sherman burned homes in Georgia. But in 1863 and 1864, such actions were met with revulsion even among northerners, let alone southerners. In fact, in June 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had to remind an officer, “in future no furniture be taken from private houses under any circumstances.”
The Northern Neck was the scene of raids by the Union army during the war. The Federals did not burn houses, though looting and the seizing of crops, slaves, and animals did occur. Stratford avoided major destruction. What actually happened in or around the house is uncertain. Little has been written about wartime Stratford.
In the 1920s, Evelyn Ward began writing a memoir, which was published in 1941 as The Children of Bladensfield. Ward was born in 1853 and lived at Bladensfield plantation in Richmond County, which borders Westmoreland County. She wrote about one Union raid at Stratford.
The lady of the house at Stratford during the war was Elizabeth McCarty Storke. She had a controversial past. As a young woman, Elizabeth had an affair with the married Henry Lee, IV. Henry was her brother in law and legal guardian. The scandal ruined Henry’s reputation and contributed to the financial troubles that forced him to sell Stratford shortly after. Elizabeth returned to Stratford in the late 1820s after her husband Henry D. Storke bought it.
In her memoir, Ward wrote that during the Civil War, Union troops rummaged around, scaring old Mrs. Stork [sic] almost to death. They found her bonnet in its bandbox and seemed to get a great amount of fun by tossing it about on their bayonets.
She said to them, “What good can destroying my best bonnet do you?”
“Is this old thing your best bonnet?” they jeered. “Mrs. General Lee ought to be ashamed to call such a thing her best bonnet.” Because General Lee was born at Stratford, they thought Mrs. Stork must be his wife.
Armes also relates the driving off of the Stratford slaves.
At Stratford when Mrs. Storke lay ill in bed the Northern troops came and drove away the slaves. They even took Mrs. Storke’s house servant, Uncle Billy Payne. Mrs. Storke, sick as she was, was left alone in the house. Uncle Billy begged and pleased to be allowed to go back to Stratford. Finally the soldiers let him go and he walked back a long, long distance. He never left the place again.
How accurate was Ward’s account of the event? Evelyn Ward was not living at Stratford at the time of the Union raids. Nor was she kin to Elizabeth Storke. Ward was a child during the war, and whatever she heard concerning wartime Stratford was second or third hand information, at best. She did not pen her recollections of the war until 60 or 70 years later.
The story of the driving off of the slaves has elements of Lost Cause history: brutal Yankees take advantage of a lone, ill old woman, and despite the disappearance of most of the slaves, one remained loyal to his mistress. Such stories were told countless times in accounts of the Civil War.
Regardless of what occurred at Stratford in the 1860s, residents of the Great House or the surrounding neighborhoods had reason to fear Union troops. As teenager Nannie Simpson Bowie (pronounced “Booie”) wrote to her brother in December 1862, “There are so many rumors in circulation relative to the Yankees in the Northern Neck that it keeps me constantly uneasy for fear they may go down in our neighborhood and treat the citizens badly.”
Elizabeth Storke might have encountered some rude Yankees during the war, but the house survived the struggle. Elizabeth Storke might have been ill when Yankees trespassed on her property, but she was not at death’s door. She survived the war and died in 1879 and was buried in the garden at Stratford.
Despite the unwanted presence of Union forces in Westmoreland County, Stratford was lucky. Many homes throughout the Confederacy were destroyed by marauding Union forces. Sherman never passed through Westmoreland County, but citizens in the Northern Neck had a right to be fearful. The most notorious event to happen in the Northern Neck was the Draper Raid of 1864, which will be the subject of a future blog post.