Robert Dickey: Killer Turned Soldier

Henry St. Clair flew off the porch of Henry Bicksler’s tavern and shouted into the evening air, “God damn your soul, Bob Dickey, what did you hit me for?” Onlookers watched as Robert Dickey turned to face his accuser, and the two men were soon landing blows on one another. But the fight did not last long before St. Clair fell, soon dying in the cool December air.

Dickey was left standing above St. Clair’s body, a knife in his left hand. A witness said the blade was “dripping with blood as if he had dip’d it up to [the] elbow in a tub of blood.” After running into some nearby woods, Dickey was apprehended and brought back to the scene of the crime. It was December 30, 1854, and for the 30-year old Robert Dickey, the murder would eventually lead into the uniform of a Confederate soldier.[1]

Both Dickey and his victim St. Clair (sometimes also spelled Sinclair) were natives of Fairfax County, Virginia, and both knew each other before the night that saw one of them die. When it came time for the 1850 census, St. Clair was 17 years old, and living with his aunt. Robert, nine years older than the man he would one day kill, lived with his large family, and made his wages via carpentry. The Dickeys even worked on the homes of St. Clair’s aunts and uncles through the 1840s and 1850s.[2]

December 30, 1854 was slave hiring day in Dranesville. People from all over the county arrived in the small town to hire out enslaved people. The practice saw slaves essentially rented out for a year while their owners pocketed the money of the contracts. It was a social occasion, with even those who did not own or rent the enslaved, like Dickey and St. Clair, present. St. Clair had “just reached his majority”—21 years old—and he spent the evening hanging out with a friend, Charles Gunnell. When the slave hiring ended, the social crowds moved down the Leesburg Pike to Henry Bicksler’s tavern to continue their festivities.[3]

The town of Dranesville. Robert Dickey killed Henry St. Clair in the front yard of Henry Bicksler’s Tavern. (Map by Ryan Quint)

Still with his friend Gunnell, St. Clair seems to have picked a fight with Thomas Dickey, Robert’s younger brother. The three—Gunnell, St. Clair, and Thomas Dickey—began to tussle in the bar room, shouting over the rising noise, “Let’s have a fair fight!”[4] Seeing the commotion, the bar tender, James Waldron moved to separate the trio and told them, “they must fight out of doors.” Waldron reached out, grabbed St. Clair, and pushed him towards the door. But the melee was joined now, and fists began to fly in all directions as allies and foes entered the fray. The overwhelmed Waldron continued to try and push the malcontents out of the bar, and for his trouble got one of Thomas Dickey’s fingers pushed in his eye. Finally, though, the combatants were pushed outside onto the porch and Henry Bicksler, the tavern owner, testified that he “barred both doors to keep them out.” Stepping onto his porch, Bicksler saw a flustered St. Clair who “pulled off his two coats and vests. . . and said, by God he knew who struck him.”

Only Robert Dickey remained in the now empty bar room. James Waldron saw Dickey put “his hand in his pocket. . . and opened it, and says he’d kill the d—d son of a bitch,” before stepping outside. Waldron tried to talk Dickey down from any impetuous decisions, but it was too late. Spotting Dickey, St. Clair profanely accosted him and the two began to wail on one another. Dickey though, armed with his knife, made quick work of his opponent. As the stunned crowd looked over the gruesome scene, one of the onlookers said, “Robert, you’ve killed him.” Apparently unphased Dickey replied, “I know, I’ve killed him” and wiped the blood onto his sleeve. Perhaps as Dickey’s adrenaline wore off, he realized his deeds and quickly ran off.[5]

Local constables caught up with him about ¼ a mile away, and dragged him back to Bicksler’s, where an inquest had already formed. One of Dranesville’s doctors testified that, looking over St. Clair’s body, he found bruises on his face from the initial fight and then seven individual stab wounds, the last “over the femoral artery. . . and it seemed death was occasioned by that one.”[6]

With so many witnesses, the inquest brought together on December 30 certainly had enough evidence to put Dickey in jail. His court case began on June 4, 1855, and by June 7 he had been found guilty of second degree murder. Dickey’s sentence was passed down as 18 years in the State Penitentiary. If he served the whole term, he’d be in jail until 1873.[7] But Robert Dickey would not be jail until 1873. His get out of jail card came with George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862.

As McClellan’s Army of the Potomac moved closer and closer to Richmond, it seemed like the last straw for the Confederacy was at hand. New Orleans had already fallen, and the fall of Richmond appeared to be imminent. It would be the final nail in the Confederacy’s coffin.

On June 18, 1862, seven years into his sentence, Robert Dickey was pardoned and let out of jail. The reason why is found in the communications of Virginia’s governor, John Letcher. In explaining his reasoning for letting Dickey, a convicted murder, free, Letcher wrote, “As I now thought that the law had been vindicated, and as the prisoner desired to enter the service in defence of his native state and her institutions, and had been faithful and obedient while in confinement, I decided to grant a discharge” [emphasis added].[8]

Dickey was good on his word. Pardoned on June 18, he quickly found his way into Confederate service. His surviving Confederate Service Record notes he enlisted in the Letcher Light Artillery, under the command of Greenlee Davidson, on June 19 or 20, 1862. He did not serve long, though. Every card from his record lists him as sick, and finally on October 24, 1862 he was discharged from service due to “hypertrophy of the heart.”[9] The disease led to enlarged ventricles in the heart, which in turn ran the risk of impeding the heart from pumping enough blood to the rest of the body. By all accounts, Dickey did not see any action during his brief stint with the Confederate army. But nonetheless the Confederacy offered him a chance to get out of jail, and he took it.

Dickey returned to Great Falls, the murder and the war behind him. He died in 1905 at the age of 81.

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[1] Henry St. Clair Coroner Inquest, Fairfax Court House Historic Court Records, Folder 58, Deposition of William Walker and John B. Farr. Hereafter cited as St. Clair Inquest.

[2] Janet Hofer, “A Most Foul Murder,” in Great Falls Historical Society Reflections, 1984-1985, 3-4.

[3] The Daily Express (Petersburg, VA), Jan. 2, 1855.

[4] St. Clair Inquisition, James Waldron Deposition.

[5] St. Clair Inquisition, Moses Williams Deposition.

[6] St. Clair Inquisition, William B. Day Deposition.

[7] Hofer, 4.

[8] Message of the Governor of Virginia and Accompanying Documents (Richmond: William F. Ritchie, 1862), 114.

[9] Robert Dickey Compiled Service Record, Letcher Artillery, National Archives and Records Administration.

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