In the summer of 1864, war raged in the Shenandoah Valley. In June, Union forces under David Hunter burned much of the Virginia Military Institute, at least partly in retaliation for the cadets’ participation in the Battle of New Market. Confederates then burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In August, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps impatient with the tit-for-tat, replaced Hunter with Philip H. Sheridan and tasked him with driving Confederate general Jubal A. Early out of the Shenandoah Valley. More than that, Grant relayed to Sheridan one of his previous orders to Hunter: that he should “eat out Virginia clear and clean … so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.”
Sheridan had largely succeeded by October. Much of the valley’s harvest had been burned, many homes destroyed, and, on October 19, Early soundly beaten at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Late in February 1865, Grant, whose Army of the Potomac was entrenched before Petersburg, issued new orders. Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions should ride south from Winchester, destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and James River Canal, and, if possible, capture Lynchburg. From there, they could perhaps link up with General William T. Sherman in North Carolina.
Sheridan’s men left Winchester on February 27. Having pushed Early east across the Blue Ridge Mountains, they routed him at Waynesboro on March 2. From there they marched in the direction of Charlottesville, with George A. Custer’s division in the lead.
The Union Approach
Rumors swirled that Sheridan’s men were heading toward Charlottesville and the nearby University of Virginia. It had been raining for days and town leaders hoped that mud might slow the Union approach. Indeed, the roads had become so bad that, according to the later recollections of a Union cavalry veteran, “in many places the stirrups and horses’ bodies dragg[ed] in the mud. Frequently a horse was abandoned through inability to extricate him.”
In his diary, the law professor John B. Minor suggested that there was widespread concern about the intentions of Sheridan’s men, presumably because of the previous summer’s violence. “Most persons think they will destroy the University,” he wrote. “I am not of that opinion, but I cannot avoid much anxiety in consequence of so many having a contrary impression.” As it happened, on April 4 Union troops burned the University of Alabama, whose architectural design was modeled after Thomas Jefferson‘s Academical Village. Unlike at Alabama, however, Virginia administrators had long attempted to distance their institution from the war, even seeking exemptions from service for their students.
On March 1, members of the University of Virginia faculty met. Attesting that “the safety of the University may be endangered,” they appointed a committee to greet the Union troops when they arrived and to request protection. The committee included Minor and Socrates Maupin, the faculty chair and a professor of chemistry. The rector, Thomas L. Preston, also was enlisted to help.
In her own diary, Sarah A. G. Strickler, a nineteen-year-old student at the Albemarle Female Institute, in Charlottesville, noted on March 2 that “Everything is in an uproar tonight.” After Early’s defeat that day at nearby Waynesboro, civilians were fleeing with their valuables in tow. “I do not think that [Union troops] will have any Charlottesville to take when they get here,” Strickland wrote the next day; “the merchants will carry it off.”
“Nothing intervenes now between us and the Yankees, but the mud,” Minor wrote, “and we may not flatter ourselves that we shall escape the visitation.”
The Union Arrival
Custer’s men arrived on Friday, March 3. “The long expected hordes have come at last …” Strickler wrote; “they came shouting & galloping through town, waving their banners aloft.” Eleven-year-old R. T. W. Duke Jr. was playing with his slave, Caesar, when he heard the soldiers’ music. In an unpublished memoir, he recalled that, soon after, “A long blue line of horsemen filled [the road] as far as we could see & the band which was playing loudly was just about the foot of Carr’s Hill. I never shall forget the horror & rage and indignation with which I looked upon these dreadful invaders.”
Minor wrote that he, Maupin, and Preston “repaired to the grounds opposite Carr’s Hill” sometime between one and two o’clock in the afternoon. There they joined the Charlottesville mayor, Christopher L. Fowler, and a few others. “Our town friends had already arrived,” Minor wrote, “and had displayed a flag of truce.”
The group met with passing members of Custer’s staff. “We announced to these men, who were accompanied by a dirty-looking lieutenant, that no defense of Charlottesville was contemplated,” Minor wrote that night, “that the town was evacuated, and that we requested protection for the University, and for the town.” Protection was granted and later confirmed by Sheridan.
“Immediately afterwards,” Minor recalled, “Gen Custer passed in triumph, with 3 of our battle flags displayed.”
The Union Occupation
While a single soldier stood guard at the university, a force of cavalrymen burned the Charlottesville Manufacturing Company (later the Charlottesville Woolen Mills), which produced Confederate uniforms, and a nearby iron bridge over the Rivanna River. “The conflagration was magnificent, sublime, it illuminated the whole canopy of heaven, with a lurid glare,” Strickler wrote on the evening of March 3.
Other soldiers, whose five days’ worth of rations had run out, fanned across the area in search of food. Asa B. Isham, of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, later recalled that “The surrounding country had thus far escaped the ravages of either army and was rich in forage and food … to say nothing of the wet goods, such as applejack and wine, and last, but not least, with generous quantities of that sweet and deceptive beverage, methylin, the unhappy effects of which were felt by some for a day or two after drinking.”
Duke wrote of a group of Union soldiers, at least one of whom was “evidently drunk,” looting his family’s home, threatening his mother, and engaging in what the Staunton Vindicator described as “characteristic vandalism.” Union troops also visited the home of Rector Preston.
The occupiers “encamped all around here,” Strickler wrote from her dormitory in Charlottesville; “the hundreds of camp fires are gleaming brightly in the dark.” Isham, whose regiment arrived on March 3, wrote that he and his men stayed in “quarters in and about the residences formerly occupied by the officers and professors of the University of Virginia”—although these were likely not in the Academical Village, which remained under guard. Sheridan, Custer, and other officers stayed in the homes of several prominent Charlottesville citizens.
Meanwhile, some of Charlottesville’s enslaved African Americans used the Union occupation as a means of escape. Although accounts by slaveholders such as Duke mostly portray slaves as remaining loyal to their owners, the accounts of Union soldiers tell a different story. Frederic Denison, of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, remembered being met by African Americans singing the praises of Union troops and even offering freshly cooked biscuits. A history of the 6th New York Cavalry suggests that the generosity ran both ways. “A great quantity [of foraged food] was turned over to a large body of colored people who were following the column,” the authors wrote, “much to their surprise and gratification, many of whom declared they hadn’t had such a feast in ‘yeahs.'”
Escaping slaves provided the subtext for a joke played on Confederates by Union troops. As reported in the Richmond Daily Dispatch and later recalled by a member of the 1st New York Cavalry, Union troops seized the printers for the Jeffersonian Republican, a Charlottesville newspaper. They used the equipment to produce a single-page broadsheet, the Third Cavalry Division Chronicle, that advertised for “runaways,” such as Confederate generals Jubal Early and Thomas L. Rosser. According to the Daily Dispatch, “Among the advertisements is one offering ‘Two Dollars Reward, Confederate Currency,’ for the whereabouts of ‘Jube,’ answering to the name Early,’ and One Cent Reward for General Rosser.”
Strickler reported that two enslaved maids escaped, “taking two of my dresses & several skirts, together with things from other girls.” (Changing clothes sometimes allowed fugitive slaves to more easily pass as free or even as white.) Several slaves belonging to Preston were “lured away,” as the historian Philip Alexander Bruce put it, and according to Minor, Union troops “attempted a rape on my servant Nancy, a woman of 45 probably.” Another slave belonging to Minor, whom he had hired out in Staunton, also ran away. In his diary, the professor suggested that the man would have been better off enslaved: “I lament [his escape] more on his account than my own.”
A Union guard, increased to twenty-five men, continued to keep watch over the University of Virginia, and on March 5, Sheridan ordered the grounds searched. A university-owned cannon was subsequently destroyed on Observatory Hill.
On March 6, Sheridan’s men left, riding south in the direction of Scottsville, on the James River. “Our train of negroes now numbered thousands,” Denison, of the 1st Rhode Island, wrote, “and was constantly increasing.” Rather than meet up with Sherman, Sheridan led his cavalry to Petersburg and participated in the subsequent Appomattox Campaign and Confederate surrender.
Aftermath and Commemoration
The University of Virginia faculty met again on March 6 to inventory the damage. In addition to the cannon, the school had lost two horses, all their provender, and one slave in the service of, but likely not owned by, the institution. (Most enslaved people at the university were owned by hotelkeepers or professors.) By and large, however, “the Faculty and others connected with the University have reason to congratulate themselves that the institution and its inmates fared better than could have been anticipated during the presence of the enemy in our midst.”
In July, the school graduated five students, but by the end of the year 100 students were enrolled and the General Assembly had resumed its funding. The historian Ervin L. Jordan Jr. has argued that this turnaround was “a testimony of the faith former Confederates placed in their surviving institutions.” And the University of Virginia’s survival was in no small part the result of Sheridan’s easy occupation.
In March 2000, the Department of Historic Resources approved a state historical highway marker commemorating the “surrender” of Charlottesville, to be placed at the corner of University Avenue and McCormick Road on university grounds. The marker, proposed and paid for by the pro-Custer group Little Big Horn Associates, was dedicated during the summer. However, by the end of the year, university officials had begun to object. A letter to the state by Rector John P. Ackerly III, dated December 11, 2000, claimed that the Department of Historic Resources had not consulted the university about the marker’s text or location and that the text was, in fact, inaccurate; while the town had surrendered, he wrote, the university had not.
In March 2001, the state approved a new marker, titled “Union Occupation of Charlottesville,” and moved it off university grounds. In 2012 the marker was reported missing; by 2018 it was replaced.