February 6, 2009
It seems that the prevailing thought about Confederate deserters in the central Shenandoah Valley is that they simply hid in the mountains. However, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, more and more evidence is being found that shows that there may have been just as many who deserted and went North, where they would set up housekeeping as well as they could and make a living working as laborers on the lands of farmers there. So far, of those identified from Page County as having done this, most returned to the county after the war, while a smaller number remained or moved West.
In a letter written to the Page News & Courier in March 1926, Jacob H. Coffman told the story of how he and his father helped the families of seven deserters in going North to join with the former soldiers who had gone there before them. As the story reveals, a couple of these deserters were Jacob Coffman’s brothers; another was listed as Calvin H. Cave. Most, it seems, were from Marksville District #2 and it also appears that most, if not all seven, were from the “Page Grays” of Company H, 33rd Virginia Infantry.
An Experience In ‘Dixie’
I think it was in the winter of 1863 that two of my brothers [Cumberland George Coffman and Reuben Yancey Coffman] who belonged to Co. H, 33rd Va. volunteers with five others deserted the Southern Army to make their way north I only know one of the other five who was Calvin Cave. I remember that they came home a few days before leaving for the north, and the ‘conscript officers,’ as we called them were ??ing them up and the two brothers were in the barn about 400 yards from the house when they noticed two men ride up to the house and stop and that was all the tip they needed to flee. They had made ready for an emergency of this kind by taking off two boards on the back side of the barn and only a few leaps and they were in the woods. They had set the day, or night rather, when they would go with the other five companions, as well as I remember. It was only the next night after they left the barn that I went with my father after dark to take clothing and food to a pre-arranged place in the woods not far from the David Judy place near Stanley. The place was a thick patch of ivy where they were. It was understood that we should whistle like the partridge, which we did, but very low, and they answered thus. Getting the clothing and provisions we had for them, they struck out for a place in or near Printztown where they were to meet, which they did this completing all arrangements for the final move. They kept to the Blue Ridge as near as possible walking by night and resting by day. I think they said they were seven days getting to Hagerstown but once there were safe.
Down the Valley in ‘64
Now, it had been previously arranged for my father to leave on April 10th, 1864, with the brothers’ two wives and children (each of them having two) for Martinsburg and he stated on time, I going with them, April 10th fell on Sunday and there had been much rain and getting a late start we got no farther than the White House that day and Monday morning we could not cross the river which we had to do by ferryboat. We stayed until next day when we were taken over. We had a fine horse but he was blind and did not belong to us. The wagon was of the old bowl type and tent with not a spring to it.
The first night after leaving the White House we stopped with a family one mile below Mt. Jackson.
The next day we looked for trouble as we had to make some excuse to get through the Southern pickets located near Woodstock. Well, they called on us to ‘Halt’ and wanted to know our destination. We told them we were only visiting friends in Strasburg. They told us to go on but our real trouble came on arriving in Strasburg. Getting there just at dark we got permission to stay over night at a place just at the edge of town, where we found shelter for the horse, also and we thought we had such a nice stopping place.
Hot Reception at Strasburg
We felt sure we had permission from the lady of the house, but soon other feet were heard to patter on the floor and fire seemed almost to fly from her snapply eyes as she said to her daughter, ‘Who in the h—l is all this crowd, you have here;’ The daughter tried to explain matters but she said, ‘Not a d—n bit will they stay here.’ So, we had to pack up and move on. We found a place a mile ahead where we stayed over night but the people were not a bit kind to us, seeing we were refugees.
Crossing into the Yankee Lines
Our next point of interest to make was Winchester, some 15 or 18 miles north. Getting an early start we made for Winchester. We could not travel fast on account of the women and children and there was but little room in the wagon, it being taken up with boxes of provisions and baggage, horse-feed, &c. The horse was not trained to work with line and there wax in the gang three boys of us all near the same age, about thirteen years, who would alternate in riding the horse and driving but with all our disadvantages we were all happy singing war songs, as we went down the Valley pike, one of which I remember was ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’
We knew there was another obstacle we would have to meet some time that day – that was the northern picket line, although we felt sure they would vie us a royal welcome, which they did. It was near sundown when we were looking down on Winchester, our objective point. Just outside town we met an old man in an open buggy. Father asked him whom he could send us to that would give us shelter for the night, and he told us where to go and we should tell them that Mr. Gining sent us there. He said, ‘Now can you remember the name?’ I said ‘Yes, we will just think of jinny,’ and father scolded me for it. The people’s name was Longacker. We had lodging and nice treatment. It was here we got our tips for Martinsburg.
We were told on reaching Martinsburg where to go and ask for a man by the name of Tabler. But I must not get ahead of my story for it is 20 miles or so from Winchester to Martinsburg, and we did not make it in one day, making about half the distance and stopping all night at a farm house near the poke. Their name was Kiter. We boys helped them to churn next morning for buttermilk, and I think yet it was about the best contract I ever made for I had nothing to lose and now for the last lap.
We Make Martinsburg
We arrived in Martinsburg O.K. and found the Mr. Tabler, who sent us to a vacant farm house not far out of the town. Just as we got out of the town and turned to the let we crossed a dry bridge over the B. & O. R.R. and a little further we crossed a much swollen stream called the ‘Opequon’ pronounced I think ‘Opkon.’ Again turning to the left and keeping close to the stream , for say a ¼ mile, we came to a fine house in a thick cluster of cedar trees. Here we soon had the fires going in the old time fire-places. This was a fine place, good farm, large barn and all necessary out-buildings. I think the farm was owned either by Mr. Tabler or Longacker. They wanted my father to stay there and work the farm which he would have done if he had had the rest of the family there.
Now comes the most important part our trip which was to go back to town and look for the two Coffman brothers, the sole object of the journey, but they were not on hand and it began to rain hard and it was important that we find them soon as the bottom of our ‘grub’ box was in sight and I do not think there was 50 cents in the bunch from start to finish. I know I had not a nickel for I went to a store and offered to trade the storekeeper a very common steel watch chain for an orange but the smile he put up indicated there was no deal. I had not seen an orange during the war.
In regard to meeting the two brothers we began to think there had been some misunderstanding, until just at this time, we met Mr. Calvin Cave, one of the seven that went North with them. I think he gave the information and the fare for them to go on to Hagerstown which they did and met their husbands there and from there they went to Chester County, Pa. where they had been working on the farm. Some time after the war their wives put up a howl, ‘Carry me back to old Virginia.’
It was here on the street of Martinsburg under an umbrella that the afore-said Calvin H. Cave gave my father a message to take to this fiancé then Miss Julia Lucas, daughter of the late Levi Lucas. I well remember the day father delivered the message. She after the war became the wife of Mr. Cave and had quite a family of much respected children, nearly all still living.
And now for the home run. We had gotten only a half mile or so out of town when several men on horses came galloping up and took our horse and bridle and began to talk rough to us like Joseph did to his brothers in Egypt. They accused us of running the blockade and smuggling goods through the lines, but searching the wagon and finding only horse feed. They allowed us to pass on. We made the trip home in much less time than we did going. While we had provided food for the trip, a place of shelter for the sights ahead was a game of chance. However, we found no trouble to securing a suitable place. Both the Union and Confederate pickets allowed us to go through unmolested and so all went well until we got to Alma 3 ½ miles of home when the monkey wrench was thrown in the machinery, as the night before a picket line had been placed all along the New Market and Gordonsville pike, in stations only a few hundred yards apart. We were stopped as soon as we got in Alma and questioned. They said they would have to hold us so we considered ourselves fast.
Trouble 2 Miles from Home
Old Mr. Rodgers was living there at the time, so father asked him to speak a word for him. The picket then asked Rodgers if he knew us. He said he did and that my father was a peaceable man and after pausing a few minutes he told us to go. This was about sundown and to our agreeable surprise we found not a picket on the pike. All had been called in a few hours before. Getting home we had supper, and the horse cared for we took blankets and went and camped in the woods that night as we thought it safer. Next morning we returned the horse to the owner, the late Samuel Varner, and the wagon to its owner, the late Jacob Brubaker.
Now, in conclusion, I will say the other two boys with us, one was the late Wm. D. Knight, of Stanley, and the other was A.J. Jenkins, who was born and partly raised at what is now Forestdale, about a mile east of Mauck, Page Co., Va. This was a very bright boy. He in some way got to Baltimore where he got a position with the firm of Cushing, Bailey & Co. I think they were wholesale stationers. It was there that elevation awaited him and promotion came in rapid succession until he became a clerk, a position he held until old king consumption laid the hand of fate on him, that meant eternity. He never married. He corresponded with me for many years. In his summer vacations visits to Page he would call to see me. He always made his stopping place at the Reuben Long farm on the Hawksbill where he had an aunt living, who was Lucinda Jenkins. This is all written from memory as I kept no diary but for the truth of it I will guarantee it all wool and a yard wide.
Now when I tell you I worked on the Joseph Grove farm at 20 cents a day to pay for my education you will certainly excuse the grammar I am using in the make up of this letter.
As an interesting sidebar about this Coffman family, over a year before this journey, they had taken care of an ailing soldier from Alabama – William A. Moore – who stayed with the family for seven months before he headed back and rejoining the army in time for the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite the pleasant respite from war with the Coffmans, Moore was later killed in action.
*At the opening of the Civil War, Jacob H. Coffman saw several brothers enlist in local units, seemingly without hesitation. Cumberland George Coffman and Reuben Yancey Coffman enlisted in the “Page Grays” (later designated as Co. H, 33rd Va. Infantry) in June 1861. Both of these men were frequently listed as AWOL. Cumberland was captured at Gettysburg and exchanged in time to make it back to the ranks by November 1863. However, both deserted on February 4, 1864. James Harvey Coffman enlisted in the “Page Volunteers” (later designated as Co. K, 10th Va. Inf.) on June 2, 1861, was detailed as a drover, but was AWOL by March 1864. Isaac F. Coffman was enrolled in (possibly conscripted) Capt. Thomas Keyser’s Boy Company (boys between the ages of 17 and 18 ) of Page County Reserves on May 28, 1864.
**Calvin H. Cave is listed in the service records as having deserted in May 1862.