‘Til Secession Do Us Part: A Citizen of Rome, Georgia Faced A Schism In Business, Life, and Marriage

Peter Sheibley (used with permission from University of South Alabama)

ECW welcomes back guest author David T. Dixon

The two-day pursuit ended in northwest Georgia’s Floyd County in early December 1864. Peter Sheibley lay writhing in pain, courtesy of a blow to the head from a Spencer rifle wielded by Josh Irons.  Adnorium Lumpkin grabbed Sheibley’s hat and tossed him his own ragged chapeau, lambasting him with all the choice curse words he could remember.

The leader of the band of marauders bullying Sheibley, deserter-turned-regular-scout Jack Colquitt, leveled the charges against Sheibley. Colquitt accused his prisoner of disloyalty and spying for the Federal army. Acting on orders from Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, Colquitt had the authority to turn such men over to the local authorities or to confine them in a way that would prevent them from aiding the enemy. The notorious desperado decided to handle this case in his usual fashion, and a rope was prepared for Sheibley’s hanging.[1]

 Sheibley requested a hearing before the women of the community. As Lumpkin recalled, “Women were in the habit of controlling such cases,” and even Colquitt’s desperate men “generally did as they said to do.”

Three women were summoned. “These women were our friends and rebels,” Lumpkin explained. “They said they did not want to hang or shoot anybody in this settlement,” because, according to Lumpkin, “it would cause trouble for them.” The women knew that Sheibley was a Union man, but in a private meeting, they convinced Colquitt that he was not a spy. Sheibley was released and hurried home. He was one of the few Union men to encounter the infamous Jack Colquitt and live to tell the tale.[2]

The verdict of this impromptu country jury hints at a complex web of social relationships that shielded elite Union men from the wrath of their Confederate neighbors. Local authorities tolerated a “nest of privileged sedition,” from which Union men could retain their inner political beliefs while performing minor services to the rebel cause. Such actions were known as “Yankee layouts.”[3]

Peter Madison Sheibley was one of many northerners who moved south during the first half of the nineteenth century. He taught Latin, Greek, and mathematics at the Rome Collegiate Institute. Sheibley was described as “a young man of fine appearance and pleasing manners, a finished scholar [and] a firm, competent teacher.”

Judith B. Sheibley (used with permission from University of South Alabama)

In 1855, Sheibley married Judith E. Booton, the daughter of a wealthy slave owner. It seemed a good match at first, but as the country lurched towards civil war, Sheibley realized that he had married into a family of ardent secessionists. He would soon discover that his wife’s affections came with a high price.[4]

Sheibley’s political beliefs placed him in an increasingly untenable position with his in-laws and neighbors. Many Rome, Georgia residents knew that he was an abolitionist. It was an open secret that Sheibley educated blacks against the laws of the state, yet he was a respected man with close connections to Rome’s social elites. Zack Hargrove was one local leader who protected Sheibley from harm. “He and I were brother Masons,” Hargrove explained, “and I felt compelled to prevent any extreme measures.”

When Sheibley’s brother William left Rome in May 1861 to organize the 133rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, community pressure mounted. The Rome Weekly Courier warned the schoolmaster:  “It is the duty of every citizen to show by actions, as well as words, that he is with us, and we have a right to know the true position of all who are in our midst, whether they be of Northern or Southern birth, and whether they have relatives in the North or not.” Sheibley had to use “all kinds of diplomacy” to save his own life. His diplomatic efforts began at home.[5]

William S. Booten (Judith’s brother) a Confederate officer killed at Gettysburg. (used with permission from University of South Alabama)

Judith Sheibley described herself as “a Southern woman in sympathy with the Confederacy.” This was an understatement. Judith decided that her husband’s reputation required hasty repair, so she arranged to have him listed as a contributor to a soldier’s aid society. In fact, she alone gave the money.

Judith Sheibley allowed indigent soldiers’ families to occupy vacant buildings on their farm, under the banner of “homes for the homeless.” Years later, Sheibley tried to justify this act by maintaining that “the duress and threatening of my wife and my wife’s family and the secret feeling that I was a spy, prompted the disguise.”

Sheibley was persuaded to attend a town meeting in June, 1861 and introduce a tax measure to equip volunteer military companies. His later claim that his “object was by dilatory measures to break up the meeting” seems preposterous. More likely, an embarrassed Sheibley engaged in “survival lying” to deflect attention from his Union sympathies. His deceptions did not work.[6]

Conflict intensified inside the Sheibley household. With his school closed, Sheibley opened a shoemaking factory far from home. He was working there when news of the Confederate victory at Manassas reached Rome. The town erupted in spontaneous celebration. Homes were illuminated as a show of support for the troops.

When he returned home and learned that his wife had illuminated their house, Sheibley was furious. “I told her I thought it was very unkind of her,” he recalled, “to treat me in that way in my absence.”

Judith Sheibley was defiant. “I illuminated it when he was away from home,” she proclaimed, and her husband “was rather provoked about it. That I should rejoice in even one state seceding from the Union was against his principles and I knew it was.” Despite Judith’s efforts to conceal her husband’s true loyalties, neighbors were determined to eliminate a traitor in their midst.[7]

Soon after his return to Rome, Henry A. Gartrell, editor of Rome’s Southerner and Advertiser, assaulted Sheibley on Broad Street. James P. Ware entered Sheibley’s shoe shop with a loaded gun and threatened to kill him, only to be restrained by bystanders.

Judith’s brother, Major Daniel F. Booton, told Sheibley that he must go into the war “or die at his hands.” When he refused, Booton drew his sword and was restrained from killing his brother-in-law by the swift action of William B. Higginbotham, a free black merchant who caught Booton’s arm just in time.

Sheibley considered leaving Rome for the Federal lines, but his epileptic wife was too ill to travel; so instead of fleeing, he entered into a token contract with the Confederate government to manufacture shoes as a ruse to keep him out of service.[8]

In May, 1863, the Rome Courier accused Sheibley of being a Union spy. Public reaction was immediate. E.C. Hugh of Yeiser’s Legion bragged that he would “collar” Sheibley and force him to serve in the army, leading him “behind a wagon like a dog.” Sheibley fled into the mountains.[9]

Weeks later, Thomas D. Hamilton, post-quartermaster at Rome, described as “a man of inward Union sentiments,” gave Sheibley a “lock-proof” exemption and a string of shoemaking contracts from the Confederate government.

Romans were not satisfied. They demanded that Sheibley enlist in the regular army. He showed conscript officers his exemption, but they refused to recognize it. That evening, Sheibley joined the home guards, but never showed up at camp. Instead, he went into hiding.

On September 15, the Forrest Artillery expelled Peter Sheibley.  He was hanged and burned in effigy on a Rome street corner. Sheibley planned to sell his property and move north. Friends tried to obtain a pass for him to travel behind Federal lines, but were told that it would cost them more than their necks would be worth.[10]

When the Federal army appeared on Rome’s doorstep in May 1864, only women, children, and old men remained in town alongside a beleaguered circle of Union men. The exodus of fighting-age men, courtesy of the conscript agents, meant that Unionists like Sheibley could remain without daily threats to their safety. Judith Sheibley had lost one of her brothers at Gettysburg. She told her husband that she wanted to be near her family. As usual, she had her way. She and the children left by train for her sister’s plantation in Marshallville.[11]

In the meantime, Sheibley was on the run again. He spent little time in Marshallville. Was he truly welcome at the home of his wife’s family? In August, he rendezvoused with the First Alabama (USA) Cavalry and returned to Rome. Sheibley was given protection papers and passes to travel in and out of town at will. A month later, he swore loyalty to the Union.

Peter Sheibley survived the war with his life and family intact, but with little else. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and sold his plantation. Many Confederate survivors of the Civil War regarded such men as traitors to their section and used the Klu Klux Klan and other covert means to intimidate them. One day in 1867, Sheibley heard a knock at his front door. When he opened it, a coffin fell into his hands.[12]

David T. Dixon is the author of The Lost Gettysburg Address as well as a new biography of German revolutionary and Union general August Willich, coming September 2020 from University of Tennessee Press. Visit his website, B-List History at: http://www.davidtdixon.com/


[1] Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. Southern Claims commission (hereinafter abbreviated as “SCC”). Testimony of claimant and Adnorium J. Lumpkin. File now in USCC, docket #4997.

[2] Ibid. At this point in the war, there were few men left in many parts of Floyd County, which may help explain why women were called upon to pass judgment on Sheibley.

[3] Michael W. Fitzgerald, “From Unionists to Scalawags: Elite Dissent in Confederate Mobile,” Alabama Review 55 (April 2002) 106-121. Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Z.B. Hargrove

[4] Battey, A History of Rome and Floyd County, 258. The 1860 census shows that Sheibley’s household then included his mother-in-law, brother-in-law William S. Booton, and brother William.

[5] Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Z.B. Hargrove. File now in U.S. Court of Claims (hereinafter abbreviated as “USCC”), docket #4997.

[6] Ibid, Testimony of claimant, Judith Sheibley, and Defendants Brief on Loyalty.

[7] Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Judith Sheibley. File now in USCC, docket #4997.

[8] Ibid. Testimony of claimant, Judith Sheibley and William B. Higginbotham.

[9] Rome Weekly Courier, May 23, 1863. Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Levi R. Blakeman. File now in USCC, docket #4007. Claim #1497, Levi R. Bl;akeman, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Robert O’ Barr. File now in USCC, docket #3471.

[10] Claim #1497, Levi R. Blakeman, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant, William B. Higginbotham and Robert O’ Barr. File now in USCC, docket #3471. Investigator Thomas J. Perry says of Blakeman: “No man in this community stands fairer than he does as to honesty and correct dealing and for truth. In fact, this entire community regarded him as a Union man throughout the war.”

[11] Battey estimates that there were only about forty families left in Rome by this time. See Battey, A History of Rome and Floyd County, 198. Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant and Judith Sheibley. File now in USCC, docket #4007.

[12] Battey, A History of Rome and Floyd County, 209. Claim #1498, Peter M. Sheibley, Floyd County, 1878. SCC. Testimony of claimant. File now found in USCC, docket #4077. 

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