In the summer of 1864 Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter laid waste to part of the Shenandoah Valley. On July 19, his men burned the homes Alexander Boteler and Edmund J. Lee, II, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Lee was away, but his wife Henrietta was home. She wrote to General Hunter asking why he had burned her home.
Hunter was employing a scorched earth policy as he moved through the Valley. The previous month he had burned the Virginia Military Institute for having sent cadets to fight in the Battle of New Market. He also burned the home of former governor John Letcher for writing a proclamation “inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerilla warfare on my troops.”
In July, Hunter again put buildings to the torch. This time it was in retaliation for the burning of Lincoln Cabinet member Postmaster General Montgomery Blair’s home in Maryland. Their first target was the home of General Hunter’s cousin Andrew Hunter, who had been the lead prosecutor in the John Brown trial. After that, they burned the home of Alexander Boteler, a Confederate congressman. The final target was Bedford, the home of the Lees.
The house actually was the childhood home of Mrs. Lee. Her husband, too old for military service, was away in exile. But he was first cousin to Robert E. Lee and their son, Edwin Gray Lee, was a colonel in the Confederate army. It was enough reason for Hunter to burn the house. Henrietta Lee was there to witness the destruction of her home and other property.
In her anger and grief, Mrs. Lee wrote the following letter to General Hunter. A copy of it reached Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early. To avenge the atrocities, Early led his men north into Pennsylvania on an expedition that resulted in the burning of Chambersburg. What began with the burning of one home eventually led to the destruction of a town. Such is often the case in times of war.
Yesterday your underling, Captain [William F.] Martindale, of the First New York cavalry, executed your infamous order and burned my house. You have had the satisfaction ere this of receiving from him the information that your orders were fulfilled to the letter; the dwelling and every out-building, seven in number, with their contents, being burned. I, therefore, a helpless woman whom you have cruelly wronged, address you, a Major-General of the United States army, and demand why this was done? What was my offence? My husband was absent, an exile. He had never been a politician or in any way engaged in the struggle now going on, his age preventing. This fact your Chief-of-Staff, David Strother, could have told you. The house was built by my father, a Revolutionary soldier, who served the whole seven years for your independence. There was I born; there the sacred dead repose. It was my house and my home, and there has your niece (Miss Griffith) who has tarried among us all this horrid war up to the present time, met with all kindness and hospitality at my hands. Was it for this that you turned me, my young daughter and little son out upon the world without a shelter? Or was it because my husband is the grandson of the Revolutionary patriot and “rebel,” Richard Henry Lee, and the near kinsman of the noblest of Christian warriors, the greatest of Generals, Robert E. Lee? Heaven’s blessing be upon his head forever. You and your Government have failed to conquer, subdue or match him; and disappointment, rage and malice find vent on the helpless and inoffensive.
Hyena-like, you have torn my heart to pieces! for all hallowed memories clustered around that homestead, and, demon-like, you have done it without even the pretext of revenge, for I never saw or harmed you. Your office is not to lead, like a brave man and soldier, your men to fight in the ranks of war, but your work has been to separate yourself from all danger, and with your incendiary band steal unawares upon helpless women and children, to insult and destroy. Two fair homes did you yesterday ruthlessly lay in ashes, giving not a moment’s warning to the startled inmates of your wicked purpose; turning mothers and children out of doors, you are execrated by your own men for the cruel work you give them to do.
In the case of Colonel A. R. Boteler, both father and mother were far away. Any heart but that of Captain Martindale (and yours) would have been touched by that little circle, comprising a widowed daughter just risen from her bed of illness, her three fatherless babies—the oldest not five years old—and her heroic sister. I repeat, any man would have been touched at that sight but Captain Martindale. One might as well hope to find mercy and feeling in the heart of a wolf bent on his prey of young lambs, as to search for such qualities in his bosom. You have chosen well your agent for such deeds, and doubtless will promote him!
A colonel of the Federal army has stated that you deprived forty of your officers of their commands because they refused to carry on your malignant mischief. All honor to their names for this at least! They are men—they have human hearts and blush for such a commander!
I ask who that does not wish infamy and disgrace attached to him forever would serve under you? Your name will stand on history’s page as the Hunter of weak women and innocent children; the Hunter to destroy defenceless villages and refined and beautiful homes—to torture afresh the agonized hearts of widows; the Hunter of Africa’s poor sons and daughters to lure them on to ruin and death of soul and body; the Hunter with the relentless heart of a wild beast, the face of a fiend and the form of a man. Oh, Earth, behold the monster! Can I say, “God forgive you”? No prayer can be offered for you! Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back again, and demons claim their own. The curses of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright and the hatred of the true and honorable, will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name infamy! INFAMY!
Again, I demand why you have burned my home? Answer as you must answer before the Searcher of all hearts, why have you added this cruel, wicked deed to your many crimes?
Henrietta B. Lee