1868: Stafford Gibbs Cooke to John Newton Van Lew

This letter was written by Stafford Gibbs Cooke (1820-1894), an attorney and the son of William Cooke (1786-1847) and Mary Elizabeth Gibbs (1793-1871) of York county, Virginia. Stafford was married to Sarah Virginia Gibbs (1828-1887) in 1845. In the 1850 Slave Schedules, Stafford was identified as the owner of 11 slaves ranging in age from 4 to 70 years of age.

We learn from the letter that out of fear of being caught between enemy lines when McClellan’s army marched up the Peninsula towards Yorktown in the spring of 1862, Stafford and his family fled their home one and a half miles below Yorktown. Prior to this date, the Confederate army had purchased from him various provisions and fodder, logs for the building of winter quarters, and hired some of his slaves for the construction of nearby fortifications. Receipts indicate he was fairly compensated by the Confederate quartermasters though this letter suggests it was entirely against his will.

Alexandria Gazette, March 5, 1867

His letter describes the losses he experienced due to the Union occupation of his property throughout the war and afterwards when it was used as a settlement by the Freedman’s Bureau against his will and though records survive to show that he was compensated in the post-war period by the Freedmen tenants, it was a paltry sum of money that he had difficulty collecting (see the adjoining newspaper article published in March 1867). I can’t find any evidence that Stafford was successful in getting additional compensation for his losses and the use of his farms which he called “Newmans” and “Edgehill” in York county but the Virginia legislature, in 1875, did award him relief from paying taxes on those properties for the years 1865 through 1871 when the farms were “withheld from him.”

Stafford wrote the letter to his friend, John Newton Van Lew, a Richmond hardware merchant, who was during this postwar period regularly billing the Freedman’s Bureau for various commodities and rents. John was the brother of famed spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew, sometimes called “Crazy Bet.” John assisted his sister in her espionage efforts even while serving against his will in Co. C, 18th Virginia Infantry from February 1864 until he deserted in August of that year and spent the remainder of the war in Philadelphia.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Adam Ochs Fleischer and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]

Contraband put to work by the Union Army near Yorktown in the summer of 1862 (LOC)


Gloucester county, Virginia
September 15, 1868

To Jno. N. Van Lew, Esqr.
My dear Sir,

In accordance with your suggestion made during our last interview, you will find a subjoined statement containing the circumstances which caused me to leave my home when Gen. McClellan appeared with the “Union Army” before Yorktown. Also my reasons why the U. States Government should indemnify my losses sustained at that time, by its use of, and consumption of my personal property, and for the use of and injury to my real estate by Freedmen, they being first settled on my lands by the military authorities in the winter of 1863 & 4, and continued to occupy it by authority of the Freedman’s Bureau until the close of last year, 1867.

1st. My home being one and a half mile below Yorktown and lying immediately on the public road leading from that place to Fort Monroe, was between the contending armies and consequently, I with a wife and seven children—six of whom being daughters—could not have remained at that time between those armies. That about four days previous to Gen’l. McClellan’s arrival before Yorktown, I with my family and a part of my furniture were taken and carried by Confederate wagons in the night and placed on the shore at Yorktown to seek shelter wherever we could find it. On the same day we were sent up York river in a sail vessel and on the third day thereafter found shelter about twelve miles above Yorktown between Bigler’s Mills and the City of Williamsburg where we remained until nearly the close of the year 1862 when we removed across the river to Gloucester county and since resided where we now are.

All my crops made in 1861 were in my farm houses which together with all of my stock of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, &c. were taken and consumed by Gen’l McClellan’s Army excepting my crop of oats and a portion of my crops made in 1860 and on hand, were impressed by the Confederate authorities.

I could have disposed of all my crops made in 1862 and stock to the Confederate Army but declined and withheld them because I wished to take no part in the unfortunate sectional strife, and believed there would be a great scarcity of bread stuffs and stock among the people of my own and adjoining counties, because of having been consumed by the Confederate Army.

Now in as much as I could have disposed of all my crops, stock, &c. to the Confederate Army, but did not, and refused for the reasons above given, and as the Union Army had the entire benefit of them, is it anything more than just and right that I should be allowed by the U. States Government a fair and reasonable compensation for what it thus used and consumed of mine?

2nd. General Howard (Chief Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau) published his Circular dated the 5th day of September 1865 defining abandoned property, in strict accordance with the Act of Congress approved July 2nd 1864; which says, “Property real or personal shall be regarded as abandoned when the lawful owner thereof shall be voluntarily absent therefrom engaged either in arms or otherwise in aiding or encouraging the rebellion.” Now I did not voluntarily leave my home nor was I ever engaged in arms or aided the rebellion in any capacity whatever; and therefore I do not believe my lands should have been declared abandoned, and if necessarily used as they have been by the U. States Government for the occupancy of Freedmen, thus I submit the following query. If I neither voluntarily left my home, and never aided the rebellion in any way whatever, could my lands be fairly considered abandoned according to the Act of Congress and Gen’l. Howard’s Circular before referred to. And if not abandoned, and of necessity used by the U. States Government for the occupancy of its wards, should I not be allowed a fair and reasonable amount for its use and injury?

At the close f the war, I found on my tillable land (amounting to about 400 acres) 219 families of Freedmen. They remained thereon until March 1867 when they were removed by the Bureau except 86 families to which the Bureau gave permission to remain to the end of the year 1867; as they had paid the nominal amount of $5 each to rent for the preceding year (1866). These lands were turned over to me on the 1st day of the present year (1868) with this 86 families on it, many of them being unable to pay any rent; and I have never received any more for their living on my lands than what they have thought proper to pay me, which has been very little; and consequently the approbation of my lands to the use and occupancy of Freedmen by the U. States authorities causes me at this time to be a resident of Gloucester county, although I have repeatedly requested and begged of the Bureau to remove them and I be allowed to return to my home and engage again in agricultural pursuits to support my large and expensive family. About 250 acres of my woodland has been entirely stripped of its timber which included about 2,000 cords of pine on a navigable creek and very saleable for cord wood. The large amount of chestnut trees on this land, and now required to re-enclose my farms, has with a large quantity of excellent ship building timber, has been consumed by the Freedmen in firewood.

You will also find a subjoined statement of the items of my losses and what I consider to be their respective valuations, but should you consider any estimate of mine too large or small, you can alter the same to what may be regarded as right and proper. I have now, my dear friend, given you a true statement of this matter and said nothing more than I can prove, and hope you will put forth your strongest efforts, and give me the benefit of all your influence to get something allowed as indemnity for my losses—use and injury of my real estate—for which I am willing to allow liberally a portion of the same, even to the extent of one-third if it will not be attended to for less. Please let me hear from you at your earliest convenience about what you think of this matter. Also about the Bureau buildings.

Kindly & truly yours, — Stafford G. Cooke

Statement of Losses, &c.

700 Bu. white wheat at $1.50 per bu. $1050.00
1500 Bu. corn 80 cents per bu. $1,200.00
15,000 lbs. Fodder 1.5 per lb. $225.00
8 Horses and mules $1,000.00
30 Head horned cattle at $10 each $300.00
40 Head horned sheep at $5 each $200.00
60,000 new bricks $600.00
Farm machinery $300.00
Buildings $7,000.00
4 miles of costly substantial chestnut enclosure $2,000.00
To use of 400 acres of tillable land for
four years as $3 per acre per year $4800.00
2,000 cords of merchantable fine timber at $3 per cord $6,000.00
To timber on 250 acres consumed by Freedmen in firewood
Say 50 cords to the acre at $1 per cord $12,500

[Total] $38,725.00

Hoping again to hear from you and something that may indicate the success of my claim and that you are in the enjoyment of good health.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s