Confiscating Confederate Tobacco: Thomas Hyde at Gaines’ Mill

Thomas W. Hyde (Maine State Archives)

Thomas Worcester Hyde served as a distinguished inspector general and infantry commander in the VI Corps for much of the war. His bold assault at Antietam earned him the Medal of Honor and his New York Times obituary championed him as leading the “wedge assault” on Petersburg in 1865. This earlier story from his service in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign is less dignified. While an officer in the 7th Maine Infantry, Hyde sought revenge of a famous Richmond planter, scoring a souvenir that survives to this day.

After slowly treading his way up the peninsula with George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, Hyde arrived at “Powhite,” the Hanover County home of Dr. William Fleming Gaines in late May 1862. Gaines owned an expansive plantation, including the mill to be forever after associated with the bloodiest of the Seven Days’ Battles. Hyde placed guards at the home, icehouse, and barns in the interest of protecting the property of the elderly Gaines. “Strict orders to respect private property were given on the march,” recalled a Vermonter, “and they were obeyed to the extent of permitting a Virginia farmer to station his negro servant at a well and sell water to the thirsty soldiers at two cents a glass!”[1]

“Few more charming places than Gaines’ Farm could be found on the Peninsula,” admired the 77th New York Infantry’s surgeon George T. Stevens. “The broad wheat fields, alternating with wooded hills, afforded a scene, of enchantment to the weary soldiers. A single wheat field contained four hundred and fifty acres, and a delightful grove in rear of the superb old mansion, furnished a cool retreat during the intense heat of the day. The extensive gardens were filled with rare exotics and most beautiful native plants and trees, and birds of varied and brilliant plumage sported among the flowering shrubs and charmed the air with their lively notes.”[2]

The usually brash and abrasive Phil Kearny noticed the Gaines’ family garden and inquired if he could buy some roses to send home to his wife. The Gaines matriarch initially said no, but eventually allowed one of the slaves to sell them to the Union soldiers camped in the area. Fannie, one of William’s daughters, thus recalled, “So every morning Uncle Anthony would get a great big waiter and go into the garden and cut all the flowers and make them up into bouquets… and carry them to camp and sell them to the soldiers, and they would be perfectly delighted to get them.”[3]

Dr. Gaines House, “Powhite” (Richmond National Battlefield Park)

“We were in their hands for six weeks, and they were always kind and polite to us,” Fannie claimed. “They never came into the house. The guard had orders never to let a private enter the yard. There were three gates to the yard, and a guard was stationed at each to keep the privates out.” The guards also served to keep the elderly Gaines inside the house. Despite the concern placed for his property, William had nothing but contempt for the Yankees and was placed under house arrest for promising that if any Union soldiers were buried on his place he would dig them up and burn them after the army moved away.[4]

Chickahominy fever claimed the lives of several Federals camped nearby and their bodies were buried on the property despite Gaines’ protest. He again declared they would soon be driven away and he would unearth the bodies and feed their remains to his hogs. When the armies returned at the end of June to fight the famous battle near Gaines’ Mill, the doctor sarcastically changed his tone on the eve of the engagement, offering to give his entire plantation as a burial place for Union casualties.[5]

Slaves belonging to Dr. William F. Gaines (Library of Congress)

In the meantime, Thomas Hyde hunkered down on the Gaines property as McClellan slowly and methodically sought to besiege Richmond. “I had nothing whatever to do but watch the birds flying and listen to the grasshoppers,” he recalled. Hyde hoped to remedy the situation by requesting a book from the extensive library inside the house his men protected. The only light summer reading the “grizzled old rebel Gaines” produced for Hyde to borrow was a copy of the Patent Office Report of 1856.[6]

“The blow as a good one, but what could I say? – the laugh was on me,” Hyde admitted. Soon he found a way to get even. His command found a large barn near the river full of that Virginia tobacco they so greatly coveted. That night when the picket was relieved, “each man had on his back all the poultry and tobacco he could carry.” Annoyed by the elder Gaines, Hyde confessed, “I am ashamed to say I looked the other way, and I think then the laugh was on him.”[7]

A Fifth Corps artillerist remembered finding $5000 worth of cured tobacco still in the leaf packed five feet thick in a barn near his position. “Our officers told us to help ourselves. It is far superior to that which we buy at home. All the men who smoke have plenty of cigars, for it is very easy to roll one out.” A comrade joked, “I am afraid Dr. G. will have some difficulty in finding any one to pay for it.”[8]

Another Federal recalled, “Considerable foraging was done, on the sly, about the neighboring plantations, but as a rule foraging was severely condemned by our commanders. There was much tobacco raised in this section of the country, and we found the barns filled with the best quality of tobacco in leaf; this we appropriated without objection on the part of our officers. As all trades were represented in the ranks, that of cigar-maker was included, and the army rioted in cigars without enriching the sutlers.”[9]

During his stay, Hyde mailed several packages home that contained memorabilia he wished for his mother to save for him. Once included a “secesh knife” and a saber bayonet found after a recent skirmish. He also wrote to his friend John Marshall Brown on May 29th, “Enclosed is a cigar made by one of our men from tobacco taken while on picket from the Gaines Estate on the Chickahominy. The men make large numbers of them and we call them the Chickahominy brand. This tobacco is the best raised in Virginia.”[10]

Apparently Hyde had done more than just turn a blind eye to plunder. The Maine Historical Society still preserves this liberated tobacco.

Maine Historical Society

[1] George G. Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Volume 1 (Burlington, VT: The Free Press Association, 1886), 275.

[2] George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1870), 65.

[3] Fannie Gaines Tinsley, “Mrs. Tinsley’s War Recollections, 1862-1865,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 35, Number 4 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, October 1927), 395.

[4] Tinsley, 394. Rochester Union and Advertiser, June 23, 1862.

[5] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 213. History of the Fifth Massachusetts Battery (Boston: Luther E. Cowles, 1902), 335.

[6] Thomas W. Hyde, Following the Greek Cross (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 61.

[7] Hyde, 61-62.

[8] History of the Fifth Massachusetts Battery, 292-294.

[9] Warren Lee Goss, Recollections of a Private: A Story of the Army of the Potomac (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1890), 47-48.

[10] Thomas W. Hyde to “My Dear Mother,” June 4, 1862, John W. Hyde, ed. Civil War Letters by General Thomas W. Hyde (Privately Printed, 1933), 18. Thomas W. Hyde to “Dear John,” May 29, 1862, Maine Historical Society.

3 Responses to Confiscating Confederate Tobacco: Thomas Hyde at Gaines’ Mill

  1. As one who is “obsessed” with the Peninsula Campaign, I say keep this great material coming. Is this the same Hyde who was counseled by Kearney that he must never be afraid?.

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