Creigh-Preston Connection

Prosecutor Preston’s wife was from the Creigh family in Leesburg, probably a niece of David Creigh.

DCopyright, 1997.  David L. Phillips.  All rights reserved.
This article cannot be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.
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David Creigh and the Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
By David L. Phillips

The Civil War had been going on for nearly three years when a fateful order was sent out from the Headquarters of the Department of West Virginia, then located in Clarksburg. The Department commander, General Benjamin F. Kelley, sent an order on October 26, 1863, to one of his subordinates, General William W. Averell:
"You are directed to move, with all the troops of your brigade… as soon as you can possibly get ready, on Lewisburg, in Greenbrier County, and attack and capture, or drive away, the rebel force stationed at that place or in the neighborhood….If you deem it practicable you will move on with the cavalry force, including General Duffie's, to Union, in Monroe County, and thence to the bridge on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad across New River, and destroy the same…Measures will be taken to prevent interference with private property by the soldiers of the command while on the expedition."

The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad was a vital supply line linking the industrial and agricultural centers of Virginia with Tennessee - particularly with the Army Corps under Longstreet that had been detached from the Army of Northern Virginia and were in the process of besieging the army under Ambrose Burnside that they had trapped inside Knoxville. The raid that had been ordered by Kelley had a much larger tactical significance than simply capturing Lewisburg and Union before advancing to destroy the high bridge over New River in the vicinity of the Confederate supply depots at Salem. It had the strategic goal of severing the supply line that was sustaining Longstreet as he sought to compel Burnside to surrender a large Union force at a time when the Confederacy was in clear need of a victory. They had just lost a major battle in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg and the Confederacy had been split into two sections as the entire Mississippi River fell under Federal control after the fall of Vicksburg. A victory by Longstreet would permit the Confederacy to regain the initiative in the long war and as hard as the South tried to win, the North had to try to prevent a loss. A significant key in this strategic puzzle was the high bridge over the New River and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad that it carried - and Lewisburg had to be cleared of Confederates before it could be approached safely.

General Averell left his base area at Beverly on November 1 and General Duffie's command left Charleston on November 3 as a part of the plan to engage the Confederate defenders from two directions. They hoped that this would confuse the defenders as to the true direction of the main assault that they would soon be facing.

He and his men moved south by the most direct route available to them as they pushed guerrilla bands before them and swept light forces before them. After a significant skirmish at Mill Point on November 5, the Confederates were found in force in a strong position on Droop Mountain. Averell's regiments moved in to attack the Confederates on Droop Mountain on November 6 and they were routed with heavy casualties.
On November 7, 1863 General Averell's advance parties entered the town of Lewisburg and found the town occupied by General Duffie, who had arrived there during the morning after marching from Charleston. The main body of the Confederates moved toward Union where there were additional men who would rally to delay any additional Federal advance toward the strategic railroad bridge to the south.

Finding the road to the south blocked by felled timber and determining that Duffie's men were incapable of further movement, Averell used the discretion given to him to order a return to their base areas at New Creek, now Keyser, and they withdrew - skirmishing as they did so at Covington and along the route.

It was, however, during the short period of Federal occupation of Lewisburg that a tragedy would occur with a local family and the people of the community, but the event would mark a significant change in the way the Civil War would be fought by both sides. There were atrocities that could be laid at the hand of either side up this point in the war, but it is fair to state that the Federal authorities permitted far more destruction of civilian property as they moved through an area than did the Confederates. Part of the reason was that much of the war was actually fought inside the boundaries of the Confederacy where their men were defending their own relatives as well as personal property. It was the Union army that was frequently involved in burning and looting of personal property and it seemed to many bystanders that an unofficial policy had developed that actually permitted the destruction of private property as the Northern army sought to punish Confederates and their sympathizers for their "great crime of secession."

Kelley had issued orders to prevent looting by the soldiers under his command as the inhabitants of the region were new citizens of the State of West Virginia, people they were hoping to attract to the new state government - rather than alienate them completely. Unfortunately, a single unknown straggler would change all of this when he entered the home of David Creigh on the Davis-Stuart Road near the small town of Lewisburg, West Virginia.

David Creigh had been born in Lewisburg in 1807, the son of an Irish immigrant who had settled in Greenbrier County in 1792. David Creigh lived in Lewisburg for over 50 years where he was a relatively prosperous merchant and a member of the local Presbyterian church - where he was quite active. This well-respected man was related to the leading families of the area.

The tragedy actually began during the two or three days - November 7,8, and 9 - that Averell's small army occupied Lewisburg. David Creigh entered his home and was informed that a Union soldier, a straggler, was inside in the act of robbing the house. Creigh, with a small pistol in his pocket, went up the stairs where he saw the contents of his daughter's trunks scattered on the floor. The man had also tried to break into the trunk of a lady employed as a family teacher. Demanding that the man stop, Creigh was shortly faced with a cocked pistol that was held in his face by an angry and, possibly intoxicated, Union straggler.

They struggled at the top of the stairs, fell down them after firing their pistols at one another, and the men rose as the straggler was reported to have fired again - missing his intended victim. A female household slave arrived with an ax which was used to kill the straggler before he could regain enough strength to renew his assault on Creigh.

The elder Creigh was a Confederate sympathizer, with several sons serving in the army at that time, and he knew that he could expect little justice and no mercy if his actions were revealed to the Federal authorities in the nearby town. He and a hired man, another Irishman, hid the body in an abandoned well and all was well as Averell's army departed the area. Unfortunately, the Irish laborer or the female household slave told of the killing to a male slave on an adjoining farm.

Creigh safely resumed his former activities until June, 1864, when Averell and George Crook were once again in the area - ordered to join Major General David Hunter in the vicinity of Staunton, Virginia, as he and his small army tried to sweep through the Shenandoah Valley to get into Lee's rear. While Averell and Crook were camped nearby, the male slave from the adjoining farm went to them and told of the killing of the straggler. A short time later, a search party had located the well, recovered the body, and arrested David Creigh for the murder of the soldier.

He is reported to have stated clearly that he had done the act for which he was accused and that he would have done the same with any soldier, Union or Confederate, who attacked his family and that he felt entirely justified in his actions. Shortly afterwards, and in the night, a special military commission - a drumhead court - was formed to hear the evidence in the case. Creigh's wife and two daughters were brought to the court late at night, but they were not allowed to testify or see Creigh. David Creigh requested that they call John Dunn as a witness and they did so, but they didn't permit him to answer any questions.

Creigh was found guilty of the killing and Averell's army moved out of Lewisburg the next morning - leaving the Creigh women to find their own transportation back to their home - and David Creigh, 57 years old, was forced to walk from Lewisburg to Staunton, Virginia, where Averell joined forces with the Department commander, David Hunter, for an attack against Lexington with the goal of the destruction of Lynchburg. It was at this time, June 10, 1864, that Hunter reviewed the findings of the commission that tried Creigh and approved them - sealing the old gentleman's fate.

On June 12, Averell ordered the execution to be carried out. Army headquarters are generally short of enlisted soldiers to whom such duties would be assigned and one of Averell's staff officers, Captain Jack Crawford, called on several of Averell's well trained scouts to do the job. A volunteer scout from the First West Virginia Cavalry Regiment, Archibald Rowand - a young man less than 20 years old - was assigned the duty of hanging Creigh. He told about his actions in an interview long after the end of the Civil War:

"As I was going up to headquarters the next morning I met Captain Jack Crawford, of Averell's staff, who said to me, 'Rowand, you hang the prisoner.' I indignantly told him I would do nothing of the sort - I hadn't enlisted for an executioner. It was the general's order, he told me angrily; and of course that settled it. I sent a couple of boys for some rope from a bed…, and put the rope around the prisoner's neck, tied the other end to the limb of a tree, mounted him on the scout's wagon, and drove the wagon from under him… I have seen some civil executions since, but I didn't know to tie the hands and feet of the condemned."

David Creigh had been killed for defending his family against a marauding Union straggler and he was left hanging from that limb as a warning to others who might consider the killing of a Union soldier. A local minister's wife later cut him down and as the Union Army moved on toward its objectives, one of Creigh's sons who had been serving with Breckinridge's small force in the area was allowed to take the body of his father back to Lewisburg for permanent burial as word of the execution spread through the entire region.

Hunter continued his march toward Lexington, captured the town, and ordered the burning of Virginia's Military Institute as he permitted the looting of nearby Washington University. His men even stole the statue of George Washington from the college's grounds, but they were delayed in their approach to Lynchburg by hit and run attacks to their leading elements by a small cavalry brigade under the command of John McCausland, a West Virginia Confederate. He was able to delay Hunter and Lynchburg was reinforced by both Breckinridge and Jubal Early - and was saved from certain destruction. Hunter and his army, out of food and short of ammunition, were forced to retreat into the mountains of West Virginia to Meadow Bluff and Gauley Bridge before reaching food and safety.

In Lexington, Hunter's men had managed to create additional outrage by the completely non-judicial execution of another man, this time a Confederate officer who was accused of being a "bushwhacker." Captain Matthew White was captured in his home, marched about until his captors got him into some lonely woods where he was killed by being shot in the back. This, on the heels of the outrage created by the hanging of David Creigh, was followed by orders from Hunter to burn the Lexington home of Virginia's former Governor Letcher. The Civil War had become more ugly than it had been before and the Confederates looked for ways to stop the Federal destruction.

David Creigh's brother, Thomas, had been a prominent physician as well as a member of both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates where he represented Greenbrier County's citizens. Another prominent gentlemen who was a member of the Presbyterian church attended by Creigh had become Virginia's Lieutenant Governor and it was not long before the hanging had been brought to the attention of the Confederate Secretary of War. The letter he had written on the subject has not been located, but a reply written on July 18 has been:

"Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th instant and the accompanying papers relative to the murder by the enemy of Mr. Creigh and Captain White… As I have said before, if the guilty parties could be taken, either the officer who commands or the soldier who commits such atrocities, I should not hesitate to advise the infliction of the extreme punishment they deserve, but I do not think it right or politic to make the innocent, after they have surrendered as prisoners of war, suffer for the guilty.

I think, however, that something should be done, if possible, to put a stop to the barbarities of the enemy. I can see no remedy except in refusing to make prisoners of any soldiers belonging to commands in which these outrages are perpetrated…"

Robert E. Lee, a professional soldier, was considering a policy that would result in no prisoners being taken from either Averell's or Hunter's commands for the killings of David Creigh and Matthew White. The anger felt in the south would become contagious and it was only a matter of time until some Northern property would suffer equally.

Jubal Early, the commander in Lynchburg, soon moved northward into the military vacuum created as Hunter evacuated to the West. He wrote of what he witnessed:

"The scenes on Hunter's route from Lynchburg had been truly heart-rending. Houses had been burned, and women and children left without shelter. The country had been stripped of provisions and many families had been left without a morsel to eat. Furniture and bedding had been cut to pieces, and old men and children robbed of all clothing except what they were wearing. Ladies' trunks had been rifled and their dresses torn to pieces in mere wantonness. Even Negro girls lost their little finery. We now had renewed evidences of outrages committed by the commanding general's orders in burning and plundering private houses… In the same country a Christian gentlemen, Mr. Creigh, had been hung because he killed a straggling and marauding Federal soldier while in the act of insulting and outraging the ladies of his family…."

Soon, Hunter was back in the Shenandoah Valley and the destruction of private property became a Federal Army policy. David Hunter Strother, Hunter's Chief of Staff, wrote in his diary of the arrival of another fateful order and the incendiary tendencies of his cousin, by now "Black Dave," even to his own men:

"July 17, Sunday - Received a telegram from General Halleck informing General Hunter…He was to devastate the valleys south of the railroad as far as possible so that crows flying over would have to carry knapsacks. This need not involve the burning of houses, dwellings. I have begged off Charles Town from being burnt for the third time…

July 18, Monday - The house of Andrew Hunter was burned yesterday by Martindale. I am sorry to see this warfare begun and would stop it, but I don't pity the individuals at all. A war of mutual devastation will depopulate the border counties….."

On July 28, an unusual order arrived for John McCausland, the aggressive young cavalry commander who had delayed Hunter's march on Lynchburg. Jubal Early had had enough of the new Federal policy of destruction. McCausland wrote:

"My men had just dismounted and were making camp and getting ready to eat what rations they could find. I was sitting there on my horse talking to Nick Fitzhugh, my adjutant, when this courier handed me a dispatch from Early.

"I opened it up and when I read those first lines I nearly fell out of the saddle. He ordered me in a very few words to make a retaliatory raid and give the Yankees a taste of their own medicine."

Early had selected Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, as the location where the retaliation would be made, but unlike the Federal commanders, the town's population would be able to ransom their town from certain destruction. Early demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency in compensation for the homes destroyed by Hunter. The town's leading citizens could not - or would not - pay and McCausland, the West Virginian who was now a Confederate brigadier general, ordered torches to be ignited. Fully three-quarters of the town was soon in flames: the Confederate response to the atrocities of the Union army that were now a matter of open policy ordered from Washington's War Department.
Early had been heavily influenced by the death and destruction he had witnessed in the wake of Hunter's retreating army from Lynchburg. His decision to destroy Chambersburg - the only Northern town destroyed during the entire Civil War - was not questioned by Lee. Less than two weeks earlier, he had been reviewing the papers related to the execution murder of David Creigh.

[This lecture was recently given to the Greenbrier Historical Society. Additional reading on this episode can be found in Tiger John: The Rebel Who Burned Chambersburg by David L. Phillips and The Sunny Land by Beuhring H. Jones.]

Copyright, 1997.  David L. Phillips.  All rights reserved.
This article cannot be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.



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