Several households of McGees lived on near Chancellorsville and saw their land turned into battlefield on May 1, 1863. The Absalom McGee Family lived a little more than a mile east of the Chancellor Crossroads. They owned 100 acres, some cleared as farm fields and some still wooded. Thanks to the details recorded in the U.S. Southern Claims Commission Allowed Claims 1871-1880 the Absalom McGee Family left a solid record of their loyalty to the Union and the destruction of their home during the battle of Chancellorsville.
Absalom McGee’s Union views were known among his neighbors, and they regularly captured him and held him prisoner. It started in February 1862 when they took him Fredericksburg for a short time, later releasing him at the entreaties of his wife, Frances McGee. Not long after, Absalom was arrested again and held until May 1862 when Union General McDowell arrived in the vicinity of Fredericksburg. Absalom traveled across the Rappahannock River and toward Washington City; eventually General Wadsworth gave him a pass, and thinking all would be safe, Absalom returned home.
Unfortunately, for the McGee Family, the neighbors’ suspicious had increased with Absalom’s time away from home. Frances remembered, “The Union scouts used to come to our place for information and for food and my husband was suspected of giving information. The rebels just took Mr. McGee in the night when I had just given birth to a child. They threatened to kill my husband at the time they took him which so excited me that I came very near dying and my child died in consequence.” Absalom later reported that his neighbors threatened to hang him with a grapevine and repeated told him that they would not let him live.
Escaping death, Absalom took refuge in the Virginia Wilderness. His wife later testified: “My husband was so hunted by the rebels that he could not stay at home. He secreted himself about in the pines and bushes and occasionally came home stealthily in the night. I have carried him food on several occasion and left it where he could get it. I was watched by the rebels so I could not go where he was concealed without exposing him. On one occasion I attempted to go to him in the pines and was followed.” Absalom reported that he was hiding in the woods when the Union Army moved into position and fought the battle of Chancellorsville. He petitioned to go with the army across the river at the end of the fighting to find safety.
Meanwhile, Frances McGee and the children found their home incorporated into the Union battle lines on May 1, 1863. Most of the fighting took place east of their house, but troops marched and formed around the home and Union surgeons arrived. Harriet McGee who was in her teens at the time of the battle later testified:
“On the first day of the battle our house was taken for a Hospital…. They tore up five of our sheets and almost 12 dresses and under garments into stripes for bandages and carried off six pillows with the wounded men.
“The doors and windows of our house were taken out and the doors used to carry the wounded on and for amputating tables, the windows were taken out and subsequently run over and crushed with the ambulances. Our chairs were broken and other furniture much broken…and the stair rail entirely taken away…
The battle was raging all around us and while the wounded were being brought to house so that every room was filled. My Mother and all the children staid in the cellar, and while there, an officer with some men went to the meat house and got the meat. I could see them from the cellar…”
Frances corroborated the account, adding “The surgeons told me they wanted my sheets, and anything that would make bandages. They used all my sheets, my window curtains, my clothing and my children’s clothing. My counterpanes, my pillows, and bolsters, and three feather beds. All these were taken away….” Her use of the possessive adds to the picture of destruction. How would a woman basically on her own among hostile neighbors be able to replace the items? Even the clothing alone represented significant cost, time, and the labor of stitching.
In addition to the destruction to the home and household items, Union surgeons or soldiers took 200 pounds of flour, 25 bushels of corn, 12 cattle, 30 fowls (presumably chickens?), and one saddle. According to one of the McGee sons, Frances went searching for the cattle after the battle and found the hides somewhere near General Hooker’s headquarters, probably the Chancellor House. The best the family could hope for was some later compensation from the Federal army or government, which they did eventually receive in the 1870s.
The accounts and testimony in the McGee’s claims file provide another look at the battle of Chancellorsville. Already in danger and under surveillance from their pro-Confederate neighbors, the Absalom McGee family lived separate lives for much of the war due to their loyalty to the Union. That loyalty was put to another great test in May 1863 and the soldiers of their side took food supplies and left behind the carnage of war.
But the Union soldiers would come to the McGee farm again in 1864, a reminder that for civilians in Central Virginia war often visited their homes multiple times. Frances McGee’s words ring with plaintive determination: “I lived on our farm adjoining Chancellorsville all during the war, and live there now.” These were farms and homes turned into battlefields, and civilians’ loyalties were put to the test in multiple ways as the armies maneuvered and fought at their doorsteps.
To be continued…
All quotations and details taken from: Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 217; National Archives at Washington, D.C.Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims, 1871-1880: Virginia. Microfilm Publication M2094, 45 rolls. Absalom McGee file access through Ancestry.com