Henry Clay had tried during his lifetime to help the North and the South remain united even with differences between the rural economy based on slavery in the South and the more urban economy based on industrialization in the North. After Mr. Clay’s death in 1852, the rift between North and South widened, and positions hardened. When Abraham Lincoln was elected as president of the United States in 1860 and in the following spring called out the Virginia militia against the rebellious forces in South Carolina, Virginians had to choose between their loyalties to the Union or to their state and the South.
During the ensuing debate about secession, Ashland’s Male Academy master St. George Tucker supported secession, but Hickory Hill Plantation owner and state Senator Williams C. Wickham called for cooler heads. Senator Wickham voted against secession when the issue came to the legislature, but once Virginia voted to secede, Senator Wickham called up his Hanover Dragoons and joined the fray.
Mr. Tucker closed the Ashland Male Academy and, along with several of his students, formed the Ashland Grays, which later became part of the 15th Virginia Infantry. Mr. Tucker did not survive the war, but Senator Wickham, who became a general during the war, not only survived, but continued as a state senator after the war. One of Mr. Tucker’s students who had followed him into war was Callom B. Jones. He survived the war, returning home to a farm just west of Ashland, training as a physician and founding one of Ashland’s oldest families.
In the early days of the war, the Ashland Hotel and Mineral Water Company and the defunct Ashland Racecourse was transformed from vacation resort to Camp Ashland, a training ground for part of the Confederate Cavalry. Catherine Cooper Hopley, who had described Ashland in an earlier day, wrote,
“The pretty village of Ashland, that we had passed, was—oh how changed! Tents, tents, tents, soldiers and horses. Nothing more to be seen. The latter were ranged along the sides of the roads under the trees, with heaps of fodder lying around, saddles and other accoutrements hung upon the branches, and all those pretty summer dwellings, and the long dining-hall, converted into barracks. It looked more like one great stable-yard than anything else.” From Life in the South from the commencement of the war by a blockaded British Subject
After the Cavalry left for the battlefield in late 1861, refugees began to pour into Ashland from war-torn areas in the north. Mrs. Judith W. McGuire, wife of Episcopal minister and educator Rev. John P. McGuire, brought her family here from Alexandria and wrote about the war in her diary for an entire year while she was in Ashland from 1862 to 1863. Civilian refugees rented rooms in the hotel and in private homes. They experienced the war daily, listening to cannon fire from as far away as Chancellorsville and Yankee yells from as close as their own front yards.
Intent upon disrupting the transportation and communication lines between the Confederate leaders in the capital at Richmond and forces in the field, Union troops attacked Ashland again and again, cutting telegraph lines, tearing up railroad tracks and burning the station but largely leaving the people and the houses alone.
Two major battles happened in Ashland in 1864: one as part of the Yellow Tavern campaign and the other a part of the Cold Harbor campaign. Writing in A Survey of Civil War Sites in Hanover County, Virginia, for the Hanover County Historical Commission, historian Robert Krick notes that the May 11, 1864, skirmish between Brigadier General Henry Davies’ brigade broke off from General Philip Sheridan’s forces to disrupt Confederate rail lines. The union forces were on their way to the Yellow Tavern in a major movement toward Richmond.
Writes Mr. Krick, “Members of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry were busily engaged in tearing up the rail line and setting fire to the station house when elements of Brigadier Gen. Williams C. Wickham’s brigade of Virginia cavalry arrived in Ashland from the north. Col. Thomas Munford dismounted his 2nd VA Cavalry and led it into the town.”
(For a discussion of the Battle of Ashland, June 1, 1864, which was part of the larger Cold Harbor campaign, please see the accompanying article.)
During the war, a number of dignitaries visited Ashland. According to legend, on the eve of the Seven Days Battle in June of 1862, General Stonewall Jackson spent the night, hardly sleeping, at the home of C. W. MacMurdo at 713 Railroad Avenue. Also, on May 18, 1863, on his way to Richmond to confer with Confederate President Davis, General Robert E. Lee visited Mrs. McGuire where she was staying on the west side of Railroad Avenue across from the hotel property.
“This morning we had the gratification of a short visit from General Lee. He called and breakfasted with us, while the other passengers in the car breakfasted at the hotel. We were very glad to see this great and good man look so well and so cheerful. His beard is very long, and painfully gray, which makes him appear much older than he really is.” Judith W. McGuire, Diary of a Southern Refugee. During the War, by a Lady of Virginia, 3rd ed. (Richmond, Virginia: J. W. Randolph & English, 1889) pp. 54, 515.
As soldiers were wounded in Ashland and in nearby Hanover battles, they were brought to hospitals established in private homes, part of the hotel property and at the Ashland Baptist Church. Ashland leader and one-time mayor William Mayo and his daughters cleared a space just west of Ashland for their final resting place. Over 400 of the fallen soldiers were buried there. Today it is Woodland Cemetery.
In the last days of the war, General Lee abandoned Richmond, and the retreating troops set fire to anything the Federal troops could use. But the fire spread out of control, and many of the records that Hanover County had sent to Richmond for safekeeping burned with the city. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Virginia. By the end of May, all the Confederate forces had surrendered. The South lost to the North, and the Union was one again. Union forces occupied Ashland, which was a parole post, where many Confederate soldiers promised their loyalty to the Union and were mustered out of their units to return home. Ashland was also the location of the local Freedman’s Bureau for a time after the war. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established after the war to assist former slaves as they moved from slavery to freedom.
After the war, Ashland, Hanover County and much of the South were bankrupt. It would take a miracle to bring Ashland back to its antebellum stature, but that is what happened.