By Charles Culbertson/contributor
It was over. The South’s beloved Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his starving, tattered Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, effectively ending the War Between the States.
But for the defeated people of the South, including those in Staunton, the April 1865 surrender didn’t immediately translate into peace. Lincoln, who wanted to "let ’em up easy," was assassinated within days of Lee’s capitulation, and a spent, defenseless South was turned over to the mercies of men who wanted it to pay dearly for its bid for independence.
No one in Staunton, white or black, was to enjoy the ensuing occupation by Union troops.
Staunton residents first tasted Federal invasion and occupation in June 1864 and learned very quickly how hard the heel of the conqueror could grind. Lawlessness and atrocities proliferated during that and subsequent occupations. By the end of the war, Staunton was a wreck, and its inhabitants were too weak to resist Union depredations.
Federal troops occupying Staunton after the war made things as hard as they could on everyone, including returning Confederate soldiers. Residents were nearly starved to death as Union troops and raiding parties stole meager supplies of food and, in some instances, maliciously prevented staples such as potatoes from being smuggled into town beneath layers of clothing.
Added to this mix were former Confederate soldiers who straggled back to Staunton exhausted, footsore and in rags. Well-fed and hostile Union troops were there to greet them. Bluecoats stood on the streets of Staunton watching for returning Rebels and, when they came, made a point of harassing them. If the former Confederate’s uniform bore insignia or military buttons, the Yankees ripped them off.
Just in case anyone slipped through the dragnet, an order was issued that all Confederate military buttons were forbidden. The ladies of Staunton came to the rescue and made sure the buttons of their fighting men folk were covered with a layer of cloth.
To make their point in a general manner, the Federals occupying Staunton ordered that the flag of the United States be flown from every business in town.
But it wasn’t just the white, former Confederate population of Staunton who tasted harsh treatment at the hands of Union soldiers. Blacks, who theoretically should have prospered under Federal occupation, often found themselves shabbily treated by the conquering bluecoats.
A hint of just what occurred from April 1865 until January 1866 can be found in an article that appeared in the Staunton Spectator on Jan. 16, four days after the occupiers left town. Apparently, prostitution among the town’s black women had risen to satisfy the army’s sexual appetite, and was a source of unhappiness among the black men of Staunton.
To boot, the conquering heroes treated the recently freed blacks somewhat less than equals.
"Our citizens, observing one of the well-established canons of politeness, did not fail to ‘speed their departing friends,’" noted the Spectator following the Union army’s departure. "Whatever may be the sorrow of sable feminines of easy virtue, we have no doubt the colored males experienced a relief akin to joy, as some of the soldiers seemed to take pleasure in cuffing, beating and maltreating generally the inoffensive colored men."
On Jan. 23, 1866, the Spectator noted that Staunton did not appear on a Federal list of towns that required further occupation. Its editor elaborated:
"In the list of places where garrisons of soldiers are to be established, Staunton is not mentioned, from which we infer that there is no purpose, at this time, to send any more soldiers here. We hope no garrison will be established here, for there is no use for them of which we can conceive.
"When soldiers were here, they rendered no service, but were the cause of a great deal of disorder. They drank liquor, became intoxicated, used profane language, maltreated the Freedmen, had difficulties with citizens and caused disorder generally. There was but little disposition, or great want of ability, on the part of the officers, to restrain them and make them behave themselves properly.
"Since their departure, the order and quiet of the town has been vastly improved. Such was the conduct of the soldiers, that their presence was a cause of annoyance by day and of dread by night."
Although Staunton’s post-war occupation was shorter than some communities had to bear, no one was sad to see the last Federal contingent march out of town in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 12, 1866. As an interesting side note, just four days later Staunton was visited by a man who most certainly would have been harassed had he showed up earlier — Gen. Robert E. Lee
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