Friday, July 29, 2011

Eppa Hunton Returns to Leesburg

In which we name check Prince William, Fauquier, and Loudon

Eppa Hunton II
"We made our march to Leesburg, the citizens all along the road greeting the victorious soldiers with tumultuous joy, and welcoming their safe return to the County of Loudoun," Eppa Hunton remembered about the days following Manassas. Hunton was colonel of the 8th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which had guarded the two major Potomac River crossings near Leesburg (Edward's and Conrad's Ferries) while Charles P. Stone's Rockville Expedition was ongoing. When Irvin McDowell began his march on Washington and Stone went west to Harper's Ferry, the 8th Virginia and a South Carolina regiment that had reinforced them had scurried south to Manassas to bolster the Army of the Potomac, then under G.T. Beauregard.

At a crucial moment on Henry Hill, Hunton had thrown his regiment into the fray after deciding on it with another regiment's colonel and helped turn the tide decisively. But in the confusion it was unclear whether the result was going to be a Union retreat, or the forces were just repositioning themselves closer to Stone Bridge to try to flank. Hunton's eight company regiment would have been the only ones to defend such an attack and the colonel became very grim until it became clear the Northerners had broken and were running for Washington. Hunton wrote in his autobiography:
I had up to that time passed with my soldiers for an exceedingly pious man, but I lost my reputation as such, then and there. After I discovered that this force that I thought I would have to fight, had broken into pieces, I was extremely relieved and galloped back to my regiment, only a hundred yards off; and they said, and proved, that I proclaimed with a hearty oath that the Yankees were running like dogs. I was utterly unconscious of using an oath, but have no doubt I did. They proved it on me conclusively, and I never recovered my reputation for piety during the war.

The 8th Virginia was happy to be back in Leesburg. At Manassas there were dead bodies in the summer heat, only hurriedly buried (on July 29, Thomas Jackson's brigade had to move their camp, because soldiers were becoming sick by proximity to the corpses). Hunton had made a quick stop to see his wife in Brentsville (to Beauregard's irritation), then the regiment had marched away from the slaughter ground to where there was a sizable town and very few other soldiers to romance the young women or try the hospitality of the locals. Not that the men needed a lot of help making friends. Six of the original eight companies of the regiment were from Loudoun County. The remaining two were from Fauquier and Prince William Counties.

Since the volunteer regiments were building off the militia system, rather than a mass conscript system (such as used in World War II), they were built from companies of men that each locality was responsible for raising and - at first - equipping. It also meant that regiments were frequently family affairs. For instance, the 8th Virginia had four Berkeley brothers, Norborne, Charles, Edmund, and William. It also meant that a regiment on the wrong part of the battlefield could turn into a very hard day for some small towns or families (miraculously, all four Berkeleys would survive the war, though Charles would die from TB shortly after it ended).

In the time honored American militia tradition, the 8th Virginia companies elected their officers. Before even joining the regiment, most companies voted for their head officer (the captain) and two or three officers who could act in his stead (lieutenants). When the regiment formed, it would elect from among the captains, a major, a lieutenant colonel, and a colonel. Through political patronage and shelling out a good deal of personal money to equip the men, the colonel usually ended up being a person of standing in the community.

Eppa Hunton was no exception. He had been born in Fauquier County on his parents' farm "on the road from New Baltimore to Thoroughfare Gap" [either Georgetown Rd or Beverlys Mill Road, probably the former]. He could trace his family back to England, and his father, also Eppa, had fought in the War of 1812. His mother's family immigrated with Lord Baltimore to Maryland (suggesting that they were Catholic), and moved south to Virginia. The Huntons had eleven children (Eppa, Jr. was number eight) and nine were still alive when Eppa, Sr. died at age 41, leaving massive debts that forced the family to scrape by. Eppa, Jr. was educated at the New Baltimore Academy, and then became a teacher himself near The Plains.

Hunton briefly started his own school in Buckland in Prince William County [on US 29, right after crossing the county line], then moved to the county seat (Brentsville at the time) to start a law business. As business picked up, he launched his political career, winning a tight election for Commonwealth's Attorney, and celebrating by marrying his sweetheart, Lucy. "This marriage was a most happy one," he recorded. "My wife was in every respect an affectionate, loving help-mate."

Hunton settled down to a life of family, politics, and the state militia in Brentsville. He had two children in 1853 and 1855, Elizabeth, who lived only a year, and Eppa III, who would go on to found Hunton & Williams, one of the premier lobbying and law firms in the United States today. He would adopt his niece, Bessie, on the death of her mother in 1877, and there are indications that he may have fathered the son of one of his slaves in 1855.

In politics he was a staunch Democrat. "I was a Democrat from my earliest youth. My father before me was a Democrat. All of the Hunton name were Democrats." Hunton was at the National Convention that nominated James Buchanan in 1856. When 1860 came around, he campaigned as an elector for John Breckenridge (before electors were bound to a candidate, people would vote for the elector themselves to cast his vote in the Electoral College for the president). Hunton strongly disliked Lincoln, years after his death describing him as "a rough man... one of the most vulgar men that ever attained high position in the United States."

As the secession crisis broke, Hunton campaigned in Prince William County to represent his area as a pro-secession candidate and won by a large margin. Even long after the war, even after serving as U.S. Senator from Virginia, Hunton wrote:

I have often thought that if we could have seceded the next morning before breakfast, how much better it would have been than to waste the time from February until the 17th of April in useless debate. How much preparation could have been made in that time to meet the troubles ahead of us!

But he was part of a minority and it took many months and the bombardment of Fort Sumter to sway a majority of the convention. Only a few days after the vote, Hunton was on his way to Leesburg to assemble the Loudoun militia companies into the 8th Virginia and the long months guarding the Ferries. Hunton spoke highly of Charles Stone:
General Stone was a very superior man — a man of fine intelligence and military attainments. He was a gentleman, and conducted the war in the most gentlemanly manner. He would not allow his soldiers to cross the river surreptiously and steal property from the people of Loudoun, and if he found out any such case he made them return the property.
But the general found Colonel Sloan's 4th South Carolina as annoying as Stone had:
The South Carolinians boasted very strongly of what they were going to do. They said they had come there to fight the war and to conquer a peace. They did not want the Vir- ginians to do any of the fighting, but just to stand back and look on and furnish them with bread and meat. They would win the independence of the Confederacy.
On July 29, it was just Hunton and the 8th Virginia again, though they had been joined by a new company of Fauquier men (and in a week would get a company from Fairfax). It was, however, still war. A Northern regiment, the 1st Wisconsin under Colonel John Starkweather, had taken up Stone's old position north of the Potomac, and on the 29th a brief skirmish not big enough to warrant a report by either side occurred. The war was going on.


It's outside of our area of coverage, but check out a brief naval skirmish at the mouth of the Potomac River today in history. U.S. Navy and Confederate batteries.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, this guy really likes Eppa Hunton: