The Draper Raid of June 1864



[T]he Northern Neck of Virginia is a peninsula where the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers meet Chesapeake Bay, a modern-day National Heritage Area about 45 minutes from Richmond. At the time of the Civil War, this sparsely populated rural region was never a scene of major battles involving large numbers of troops. The small engagements that did happen there are known only by Civil War diehards. Nevertheless, the Northern Neck is of historical importance. It is the birthplace of George Washington, James Monroe, James Madison, and Robert E. Lee. During the war, it was the scene of various Federal raids, the most infamous being the Draper Raid of June 1864.

The raid’s notoriety is based on reports that African-American troops under the command of Colonel Alonzo Draper sexually assaulted at least one white woman and—if Confederate accounts are to be believed—many others. But were those rumors true? And what does the raid tell us about the Union’s conduct of war by the summer of 1864?

Draper’s raid was one of a series of Federal attacks on the Northern Neck that year. The Union’s objective was not to take key positions or strategic towns (there weren’t any), but rather to seize slaves, gather supplies, and destroy Confederate property. The raids were small-scale by Civil War standards, but they had Confederates there on edge. As far back as December 1862 one local woman had written, “There are so many rumors in circulation relative to the Yankees in the Northern Neck, that it keeps me constantly uneasy for fear they may go down in our neighborhood and treat the citizens badly.”1 Fears were made worse by the Northern Neck’s isolation from mainland Virginia. If the Yankees arrived on Confederates’ doorsteps, who would help them? Defense of the Northern Neck relied not on regular Confederate forces, but on a home guard whose size is unclear. One historian has described this force as “a loosely organized, unfunded, and unsupplied group of citizens who made a decision to provide the protection for their property and families that the Confederacy could not.”2 During Draper’s raid, Union estimates put the home guard’s number at between 300 and 600—including infantry and cavalry—under the command of Meriwether Lewis, a former soldier in the 9th Virginia Cavalry who had been seriously wounded earlier in the war.

Only three of the Yankee raids of 1864 are well documented, but they were part of the Union’s increasingly hard war strategy in the South designed to undermine civilian morale by attacking homes and farms supplying Confederate armies. In one raid in the Northern Neck in April 1864, Union soldiers confiscated $40,000 worth of tobacco. They also burned buildings and seized enslaved people, who were then resettled in Maryland. During the war, enslaved people had flocked to Point Lookout on the southern tip of Maryland—across the Potomac from the Northern Neck and not far by boat—where the Union maintained a fort and a large prison camp. By the spring of 1864, Union officials had decided to relocate refugees from Point Lookout to farms in nearby St. Mary’s County.3

That April, the U.S. Army appointed Colonel Draper, 29, commander of the prison camp. It had been built to hold 10,000 captives, but by then their number far exceeded capacity. The prisoner exchange system established between the warring armies in July 1862 had broken down because of the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize black troops as prisoners of war. The end of the prisoner exchange worsened both racial tensions between Union and Confederate armies and the take-no-prisoners nature of battles between Rebels and black troops. By then, Point Lookout already simmered with racial tensions; black Union soldiers, who had joined the fight in 1863, enforced discipline at the fort, and Confederate prisoners were incensed at the idea of black men guarding them.

One of the African-American regiments that guarded Confederate POWs at Point Lookout was Draper’s 36th United States Colored Troops (USCT). For Confederates, Draper was the perfect foil. Born in Vermont, he was raised north of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. An abolitionist, editor, and teacher, he had been active in the labor movement before the war. In 1863, he obtained the rank of colonel commanding the 2nd North Carolina Infantry, an African-American unit that later morphed into the 36th USCT. Described as “sleek” and “dapper” by a Richmond diarist, Draper might have struck a good pose but was reputed to be difficult to like and controversial. 4 In late 1863 in North Carolina, he briefly held captive a pregnant woman—who was hiding the location of local guerrillas—in order to obtain the release of black Union prisoners. At the headquarters of Colonel Frederick Wead of the 98th New York Infantry, the woman refused further time in Draper’s custody, nor did she want his black troops to escort her to Union authorities in Norfolk. A dispute over who had authority over her led to blows between Draper and Wead and nearly caused their respective troops to fire on each other.

Described by historian Frances Casstevens as “hot-blooded,” Draper was known to strike his own troops with his sword or even shoot at them if he thought they were being disorderly. His black troops also had a reputation for insulting white civilians and on one occasion threatening a white woman with rape.6 To deal with Draper, the army resorted to the time-honored practice of transferring a troubled officer to another command. Perhaps Draper’s transfer to Point Lookout would keep him out of trouble. But the colonel did not sit idle. His superior officer was Benjamin Butler, who authorized his proposed raids on the Northern Neck. In May 1864, Draper and his troops left Point Lookout on a 5-mile boat ride to their Northern Neck landing point at Mill Creek in Northumberland County. Draper went with the intention of destroying Confederate mines (or “torpedoes”) at the mouth of the Rappahannock. During the raid, his black troops engaged in a skirmish with Confederates, but the brief campaign garnered little attention. Draper, however, boasted of having disabled or captured nine torpedoes. He also burned a mill, stole 22 horses and 33 cattle, and made off with “quite a number of vehicles of various descriptions.”7


While many of the Civil War’s significant engagements were fought in Virginia (the red dots on the map above)—a number of them concentrated in the Richmond-Petersburg area—the state’s northern neck (highlighted in the white box) was a sparsely populated rural region absent battlegrounds and large numbers of troops. The northern neck was, however, the site of a series of union raids, including colonel Alonzo Draper’s in the summer of 1864.

A few weeks later, Draper undertook another, much longer raid. It began on Saturday night, June 11, and lasted for 10 days. Draper’s force of roughly 600 troops, 475 of whom were from the 36th USCT, departed again from Point Lookout for the dash across the Potomac. The raiding party consisted of infantry, cavalry, and transports. They landed early Sunday morning at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County—where George Washington had been born 132 years before.

By late spring 1864, the Union army’s strategy resulted in increased destruction of southern property and the liberation of slaves. The more conservative war policy of 1862 was long past. And now in Virginia, African-American soldiers were taking part in the destruction. Draper intended to wreck Confederate property while gathering horses, wagons, and farming tools that were “for the use of our contraband farm on the Patuxent [River],” north of Point Lookout.8

After landing at Pope’s Creek, Draper pointed his men south heading farther down the neck. In a few miles, he ran into armed Confederates in Montross (the county seat), but the enemy—consisting of guerrillas, home guard, and other irregulars—could not stop the much larger Union force. Before continuing south, Draper divided his men: Half of them, under Captain William H. Hart, veered west toward the Rappahannock. Draper and the rest went toward Warsaw, the seat of Richmond County.9

Before arriving in Warsaw, some of the men in Draper’s force visited Robert E. Lee’s birthplace in 1807, Stratford, located along the Potomac in Westmoreland County. Now the Lees were long gone, having left for Alexandria when Robert was 4, in the wake of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s mismanagement and imprisonment for debt as well as other financial and family scandals. Some troops believed the Lees were still there, but the place was occupied by a widow in her 60s, Elizabeth McCarty Storke, who had inherited the property in 1844. Stratford Hall was still a working plantation, though it was much diminished in size and stature from Lee’s time. According to the 1860 census, 31 slaves lived at Stratford, far fewer than in decades previous. Draper’s troops tried to take away the enslaved people; one man by the name of Billy Payne reportedly refused to go. Black troops entered the house and rifled through Mrs. Storke’s belongings, but they reportedly did no serious harm to her or anyone else on the property.10

During Draper’s Raid, some of his Union troops visited Stratford Hall (shown above), the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. Draper’s men—some of whom believed incorrectly that the Lees were still there— tried to take away the plantation’s enslaved people, at least one of whom refused to leave.

After several days of marching and skirmishing, Draper’s men concentrated at Union Wharf along the Rappahannock in Richmond County. The most significant fighting of the raid occurred on June 16 and 17 at Pierson’s Farm, not far from the river. On June 16, Draper and “about forty” white cavalrymen investigated Confederate firing nearby. The Union’s advance guard “reported 200 cavalry in the rebel column,” Draper wrote, “but subsequent information showed their force to be much smaller.” Draper called for an attack, but the cavalrymen failed to support him. He soon found himself virtually alone on the battlefield. “I tried in vain to rally my men,” he wrote in his official report. He called upon them “a dozen times to halt and face the enemy,” but his troops showed no interest in a pitched battle. Draper and the men with him were forced to retreat, and the Confederates briefly pursued before turning back. It is unclear how many Confederates opposed Draper, but they did little damage. He soon reached the main body of Union troops in the area and was determined to again attack the main Confederate force there.11

Late in the day on the 16th, Draper took the men of the 36th USCT along a 7-mile flanking march to drive away the Confederates. His move led the Rebels to abandon camp and flee. On June 17, skirmishing continued at Pierson’s Farm, where Draper said Union troops “threw the rebels into great confusion” into a wooded area. He estimated the Confederates in his front at 150 troops of the 9th Virginia Cavalry and 450 infantry. He was wrong about the cavalry being from the 9th Virginia (no such troops were in the area), and he probably overestimated the Confederates in his front, though they constituted a force similar in size to his own. Draper noted that the men he faced were “mostly home guard” and were not prepared for hard fighting, and that mounted Confederates began “cursing [their own men] for their cowardice.”12 Draper’s men scattered the Rebels without suffering any casualties.

After the fighting at Pierson’s Farm, action shifted closer to Tappahannock, across the Rappahannock. Draper had found the horse supply in the Northern Neck “scarce and poor” and hoped to find better animals on the southern bank of the river.13 In addition to outnumbering Confederates in the area, Draper had the help of several gunboats and transports in the Potomac Flotilla commanded by Foxhall A. Parker. The ships not only gave Draper more mobility, they protected his land forces by firing shells at pursuing Confederates.

On June 18, Draper launched another expedition. With the help of transports, he transferred his men from Union Wharf to Layton on the other side of the Rappahannock, about 15 miles north of Tappahannock. Here, on the Virginia mainland, he found “an abundance of fine horses, mules, and beef-cattle.” He feared there might be more than a thousand Confederate infantry and cavalry in the area, though no such numbers existed; in fact, they were considerably fewer than the regiment-size force Draper commanded. Fears of being outnumbered, though, did not stop the destruction. Near Leedstown—along the shores of the Rappahannock—Union troops burned a gristmill belonging to Robert M.T. Hunter, the president pro tempore of the Confederate Senate. Confederate troops approached Draper’s men but did not engage.

On June 19, Draper began loading his booty at Tappahannock supported by Edward Hooker, commander of the First Division of the Potomac Flotilla, who lobbed shells from his boats at the Confederates to make sure the Union men could embark unimpeded. Draper’s haul included “375 head of cattle, 160 horses and mules, about 600 contrabands, including between 60 and 70 recruits for the army and navy, and a large number of plows, harrows, cultivators, wheat drills, corn-shellers, harness, carts, and carriages, &c., for the use in the contraband settlement on the Patuxent.” On June 21, Draper’s troops returned to Point Lookout.14

For the Union, the raid was a success. The Hammond Gazette—a newspaper in Point Lookout where, remember, Draper was the commander— called the expedition “one of the most successful in all its operations of any that has ever been made in that part of Virginia.” 15 Draper had undoubtedly obtained a large amount of supplies along with “blockade goods” such as tobacco and whiskey, with little loss of life. He had also liberated some 600 enslaved people.16


Federal casualties during the action are uncertain, but they were minimal. At Pierson’s Farm on June 17, Draper reported none of his men were hit. A local overseer said Confederates lost only two men wounded, but Draper reported that an enslaved woman saw at least four dead Rebels and one wounded officer. Draper took four prisoners in the raid, while two of his own cavalrymen were captured. One black soldier and a contraband slave accompanying him were killed by guerrillas.

Draper was pleased with his results. His official report expressed anger at the white cavalrymen who had failed him in the fighting on June 16. But when it came to the black soldiers who fought with him the next day at Pierson’s farm: “The gallantry of the colored troops on this occasion could not be excelled,” he wrote in his after-action report, adding that their movements were as steady as if they were on drill. His black troops also seemed pleased. At the raid’s conclusion, they sang “John Brown’s Body” as they marched. Draper made no mention of attacks on civilians or their property. He said he ordered men not to “leave the column,” but apparently some soldiers disobeyed his order.17

Fellow officers were less enthusiastic about the raid, complaining of Draper’s attacks on civilians. Word of Union soldiers entering Confederates’ houses without authorization reached Thomas H. Eastman, captain of the USS Ella and fleet captain. In a letter of August 5, 1864, Eastman asked Lieutenant Commander Hooker if he knew whether “any sailors or officers behaved improperly toward unarmed or unprotected women, or if anything was stolen from women by your men.”18 Hooker, commander of the USS Commodore Read, reported on September 1 that sailors behaved well, but such was not the case with the infantry. Hooker said some troops were “severely punished” by Draper, but Draper himself made no mention of disciplinary action. 19 It appears no men were ever punished.

Draper’s conduct did come into question, and his men’s behavior on the march through the Northern Neck has been the subject of controversy ever since. Accusations of Union misdeeds included not just stealing and damaging civilian property, but sexual assault. One can find the earliest accusations in Confederates’ civilian and military correspondence and in Rebel newspapers. Later, news of the raid’s supposed atrocities made it into Union military correspondence and the press.

Within weeks, rumors of Yankee atrocities began to circulate, and Confederates looked for help from General Lee’s army. At some point in June, a committee of three local men—all of them civilians, two of whom had served in the Confederate army—wrote to Jefferson Davis, complaining of black troops’ “unbounded license in pillage and waste” that led to women being “insulted, cursed, and reviled.” They claimed that “twelve or fifteen escaped almost miraculously from successful violence, and four at least became unfortunate victims of brutal lust.”20 In the wake of such violence, the committee asked for reinforcements.

While Draper was pleased with his raid’s results, tales of misconduct by his men, some of it criminal, began to circulate. On June 26, Robert E. Lee expressed fear that there was “much truth” in the rumors. Above: an illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicts African-American troops liberating enslaved people during a late 1863 raid on coastal North Carolina, an operation in many ways similar to the Draper raid.

On June 26, Lee wrote that he hoped accounts of what had happened in the Northern Neck were “exaggerated,” but he feared there was “much truth” in them. But he could spare no troops; he was pinned down at Petersburg by Ulysses S. Grant’s besieging army. In a letter to Davis, he urged residents in the Northern Neck to destroy their own property rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Lee suggested that cavalryman John Singleton Mosby—who was not under his command—deal with marauding Union forces. Lee also thought citizens of the Northern Neck should “defend themselves, and take the consequences of their action.”21 Davis agreed, and no men from the Army of Northern Virginia were sent into the Northern Neck. Some of Mosby’s men eventually patrolled the area, but they did not stop the raids, which continued into 1865.

As Confederates in the Northern Neck sought better protection, rumors spread of black troops raping white women. On July 5, Captain Jonathan S. Braxton, a planter in Richmond County and working as an enrolling officer in eastern Virginia, wrote to a fellow officer in Richmond, saying rape had occurred during Draper’s raid at Hutt’s Store in central Westmoreland County. Braxton, who had not witnessed anything firsthand, wrote that Draper’s men had assaulted Sallie Broun George, the wife of Philander C. George, a soldier in the 9th Virginia Cavalry.

Private George was then in the trenches at Petersburg. He and his wife had been married since May 1863, and at the time of the alleged incident, they had a 6-week-old child. Braxton wrote, “She is now almost a maniac and begs that some one will kill her,” and said the crime could be verified by “a number of witnesses.”22 Some of Draper’s black troops, Braxton claimed, assaulted other women too. In one case, he noted, a woman fled into the woods rather than be attacked. In other cases, female slaves helped fight off the attackers. Union troops then continued into Essex County, where they destroyed more property, seized enslaved people, and shelled private homes.

On July 5, the Richmond Enquirer wrote of the “Rappahannock Outrages.” The newspaper decried the attacks “on the defenseless women and children” and urged its “gallant” soldiers to take no prisoners in future fights. The Lincoln administration had “demoralized the poor negro,” the paper opined, and “has unfitted him for the position [slavery] which God intended him.” The Enquirer included a letter from Lucy Bramham, an Essex County slaveowner living in Tappahannock, who called Draper’s African-American troops “imps of the infernal regions” and “black demons.” In contrast was the behavior during the raid of one of her own slaves, whom she called a “faithful servant.”23 The Enquirer of July 7 elaborated on the rumors, writing that Sallie George had been “violated” 11 times.24

“If the people will do nothing to defend themselves against such outrages, I can see no remedy for them.

In the Army of Northern Virginia, news of the raid passed from Captain Braxton to Major Theodore O. Chestney, who related news of Draper’s raid to General Richard Ewell. Ewell in turn forwarded the matter to Lee. On July 11, Ewell suggested Lee dispatch a force of 450 men to put a stop to further Union incursions in the Northern Neck. In response, Lee offered to ship weapons to the area, but again refused to send reinforcements, telling Ewell he could spare no men. “If the people will do nothing to defend themselves against such outrages,” Lee said, “I can see no remedy for them.” Lee’s response is surprisingly harsh, given that it was his birthplace and had defended itself, though it lacked sufficient forces to stop Union raids. But he didn’t think the region a priority. He believed people could “easily repel such marauding parties if they would exert themselves.”25 A few weeks later, they did. On July 23, a force of home guard organized in Northumberland County. Meanwhile, the news of the Draper Raid was reported in not only the Richmond Enquirer, but also the Western Democrat of Charlotte. On July 19, people in western North Carolina read reports of black Federal “demons” and the need to “raise the black flag”—to give no quarter to enemy troops in battle—in response.26

Those who wanted to “raise the black flag” soon got their wish. At the Battle of the Crater on July 30, Confederates showed “no quarter” to the African- American troops leading the assault on the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg. The battle resulted in the worst massacre of black soldiers during the war.27 It is likely that Lee’s men had heard about the Draper Raid, regardless of what exactly or how accurate the information was. Given that Lee and other high-ranking officers and officials knew about the raid, one can assume some of the rank and file also knew, including Private George, still in the trenches.

The story of the Draper Raid kept spreading. On August 11, the New York Daily Tribune, the newspaper edited by Republican Horace Greeley, responded to the accusations made against black troops in the Northern Neck. The Tribune addressed the charge that “horrible outrages were performed on women and girls by Union soldiers, mainly Black….” The Tribune hoped that “every villain, white or black, who
has disgraced the Union uniform by laying rude hands on a woman may be dealt with as a murderer, and punished with prompt and stern severity.” The paper was nevertheless skeptical. “The Rebels,” it noted, “having a strong and palpable interest in exciting their people against us, are very likely to invent and to magnify charges of this nature.”28

As the Tribune’s editors made clear, by August the raid had achieved notoriety. On August 12, Charles Warren Hutt of Westmoreland County, then a prisoner at Point Lookout, wrote in his diary that news of the raid had “brought tears to my eyes.”29 A few days later, Judith B. McGuire, diarist and the daughter of a prominent Virginia judge, heard from an aunt about what had happened during the raid on Tappahannock on June 19. Her aunt claimed—in a way customary among Confederate accounts—that the presence of Union forces caused enslaved people to lose all reason and self-control. It was “impossible to describe the madness that possessed them,” she related to her niece. Draper’s troops dragged away a young enslaved girl—a “great pet with us”—despite the aunt’s best efforts to keep her safe. But she could not overcome Draper’s soldiers, including the “most fiendish-looking negro I ever saw.” She and others tried to defend themselves with case knives, and she had the help of “faithful servants” in her efforts. But she could have done little to defend herself against the Union gunboats. The aunt encountered a Union boat captain, who told her in “broken German” that she should flee her house in order to avoid artillery fire. The raid made it clear that southern civilians must not get in the way of Draper’s men’s seizure of supplies and African-American contraband. Still, southern whites were surprised when they saw black people departing. Amid the destruction, the aunt saw a Federal steamer full of “deluded negroes” leaving the area.30 Confederates might have thought fleeing slaves “deluded,” but black people clearly had different thoughts about their enslavers.

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