Plundering, Death, and Culpeper National Cemetery: A Twisted Military & Civilian Interaction

Ever find a really good research rabbit hole, but can’t solve the mystery in the end? Once in a while, I’ll give myself permission to chase the research trail for the length of the commute journey home. If I can’t figure it out and haven’t found any really possible leads, I’ll have to let it go at the end of the trip. The following account is real and I’ve added my contextual but speculative notes. Perhaps you would like to continue to chase the mystery and solve it…or just find something to read in this twisted tale of theft, murder, and Culpeper National Cemetery. (Sources and links at the end of the post.)

It starts with an account in the unit history of the Little Fork Rangers which became Company D of the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Recruited from Fauquier Country in the rural areas around Rixeyville, Warrenton, and Jeffersonton, the civilian homefront was left behind as the younger men went to war. As the war progressed civilian interactions with Union soldiers was inevitable. The unit history points out that the region “did not suffer from the depredations of the Union army as some other sections of the State” but there were still annoying and frightening moments. 

“On the 25th of December, 1864, the section around Jeffersonton and Rixeyville was visited by a marauding party of Union cavalry, for the most part Germans. They never committed murder nor burnt dwellings, but plundered and robbed the citizens unmercifully…. The raiders scarcely missed a house in the section which they visited… Small parties of Confederates, composed of Mosby’s men, Little Fork Rangers, or the Black Horse Cavalry, annoyed the raiders somewhat by picking up stragglers, but at least one of the ruffians paid dearly for his behavior at the hands of a citizen. It happened in the following manner:

“The man entered the house of a Mr. Timberlake near Rixeyville. Mr. Timberlake was there with his daughters. The Yankee went from room to room, plundering as he went. Mr. Timberlake followed him. Finally, the Yankee arrived in the attic and opened a trunk containing the clothes of Mr. Timberlake’s dead wife. Mr. Timberlake commanded the fellow to quit, telling him the contents of the trunks and threatened to kill him if he did not desist. Unheeding the threat, the Yankee began to pull the things from the trunk, and Mr. Timberlake, true to his word, struck the soldiers over the head with a shovel, killing him instantly. As the neighborhood was full of the enemy’s troops, the corpse had to be disposed of quickly. Mr. Timberlake, with the help of the colored cook, hastily carried the corpse to the cellar and covered it with apples, while Mr. Timberlake’s daughters washed up the blood. When the next squad of Federals arrived, fortunately they did not discover the corpse, but did discover a spot of blood which had been overlooked. They inquired the meaning of that, and one of the girls informed them that it was some preserves that they had spilt on the floor. The answer was satisfactory. Late that night Mr. Timberlake put the body in his oxcart and took it out and buried it. On the Culpeper road he met J.R. Coughtry, a member of the Little Fork Rangers. “Well, Mr. Timberlake,” said Coughtry, “you are making an early start to town.” “Yes,” agreed Mr. Timberlake, “my oxen travel slowly, and I like to have plenty of time.” The secret was kept, but after the war, when the Federal authorities were collecting the Union dead for interment in the National Cemetery at Culpeper, Mr. Timberlake went to the officer in charge and reported the location of the grave. On being asked in what fight the soldier was killed, Mr. Timberlake related the true story.”

The story seems likely true. (Why would Mr. Timberlake invent a story like this?) It’s an example of a military and civilian interaction gone wrong at almost every level. Could it be verified, I wondered? What if I could figure out the name of the murdered thief and if he was actually buried in Culpeper National Cemetery? After thinking over a strategy for a few weeks, it was time to do some research.

Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert
Courtesy Library of Congress

I started with the military movement. Could I confirm Union cavalry in the Rixeyville area on December 25, 1864? In the Official Records, yes. Union General Alfred Torbert wrote his report on December 28, explaining that he “started from Winchester on the 19th of December, with the First and Second Division of Cavalry, without artillery, about 5,000 men, across the Blue Ridge.” The cavalry column passed through Front Royal, crossing the mountains at Chester Gap and heading southeast into Central Virginia. They went as far as Madison Court House and Gordonsville, skirmished and battled their way against Confederate cavalry. Finding infantry and trenches near Gordonsville, Torbert turned his cavalrymen back. “December 24, at daylight started from Madison Court House, marched, via James City, Griffinsburg, and Stone House Mountain, to near Rixeyville. December 25, at daylight marched to Fauquier White Sulpher Springs, crossing in the meantime the Hazel and the Rappahannock Rivers, the former with great difficulty indeed.” Toward the end of the ride, the divisions split temporarily, but both ultimately recrossed the Blue Ridge at Ashby Gap and returned to respective camps at Millwood and Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. The military action from the account looks confirm-able.

The next military clue I tackled was the “mostly Germans” comment in the story. Any units in Torbert’s First and Second Divisions that could be quickly identified as heavily German in their ethnicities? Yes. The 4th New York Cavalry in the Second Brigade, First Division were nicknamed “German Cavalry.” Does this automatically mean these Union cavalrymen around Rixeyville on Christmas Day were from the 4th New York? No. There could be other units that would fit the description, but there is a strong possibility it could’ve been men from this regiment. Right time, right place, right ethnicity but not a solidly conclusive match to this particular account.

Third task: search for Mr. Timberlake. I pulled 1860 Census records for the Fauquier and Culpeper Counties and started entering the Timberlake name. I found “Jas W. Timberlake” – a 47 year old farmer in 1860, living with his wife Mary Jane Timberlake and six children. His 1860 residence was listed in Culpeper, but it would not be a stretch to guess that he may have had property or a farm near Rixeyville. According to the 1860 census, his four daughters ranged from ages 18 to 12. According to death and cemetery records, Mary Jane Timberlake died in February 1861. This could probably be taken further with property records, but my research time was ticking, and I still wanted to check the cemetery roster. Is this conclusively THE Mr. Timberlake of the story? Conclusively, no. Very likely, yes.

National Cemetery records from the 19th Center seem to be…well, never in one place. Last autumn the discrepancies became evident between the original handwritten ledger and the printed Roll of Honor while researching soldiers interred in Winchester National Cemetery. Sometimes there are multiple sets of records and not all the details match from document to document. With my remaining time, I decided to search and read through the transcribed Roll of Honor for Culpeper National Cemetery printed in 1868.

(Culpeper National Cemetery was established in 1867, originally with 6 acres of burial ground. Fallen Union soldiers from Cedar Mountain battlefield, camps/hospitals, and smaller skirmishes in the Culpeper county region were reburied here.)

Culpeper National Cemetery (Library of Congress)

I started with searching the document. “Timberlake” yielded nothing. “Rixeyville” a little but nothing that looked helpful. I tried a few other words, then entered “4th New York.” While it’s still speculation that that’s the regiment, it’s a starting point. The soldiers buried in the cemetery connected to any 4th New York units did not have death dates that matched the story and known cavalry movement. Next, I decided to search terms for “December 1864.” While some soldiers did have recorded death dates even on the 25th of that year, most were infantry or otherwise not likely. Realizing that the section in Roll of Honor for Culpeper National Cemetery wasn’t very long, I decided to just read the whole thing with my final research time. Maybe there was something in the original burial location notes that would be helpful or something I’d the keyword search was overlooking in the regimental or death date columns.

Ultimately, I was looking for something in the notes that would be an answer or clue to prove Timberlake’s story or a death date and cavalry regiment that lined up with the account. In the end, that document did not yield a soldier buried at the Timberlake farm. It is possible that the location could have been recorded differently and he may have been buried on someone else’s farm. In the printed version, there were no notes that corroborated Timberlake’s story, but perhaps they existed in the original records for Culpeper National Cemetery which may be located at the National Archives. None of the recorded deaths by December 1864 provided an immediate connection to the murdered soldier. 

When the train pulled into my station and my research time was up, I was both disappointed and satisfied. I’d given this story about two hours of searching, but had not conclusively proved it. At this point, I still think the account in the Little Fork Ranger’s unit history is probably true. I would have liked to have proven it by other sources and discovered if the Union soldier was actually interred in the National Cemetery; my guess is “yes” and probably in an unknown grave. 

It’s intriguing to think about the scenario. Certainly it is a military and civilian interaction gone wrong. The cavalryman seemed to make efforts to be especially provoking in his rummaging and thieving. Mr. Timberlake committed murder and hid the body, but then later told authorities where to find the body. If the burial crews found and interred the cavalryman in Culpeper National Cemetery, perhaps it is a strange capstone to a twisted tale.

If you’re intrigued to pursue this further, please feel welcome. I’m sure I could be missing something rather obvious somewhere!

Sources:

Woodford B. Hackley, The Little Fork Rangers, 1927. Accessed through Google Books. Pages 76-77.

National Park Service, Culpeper National Cemetery: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/virginia/culpeper_national_cemetery.html

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 43, Part 1, Reports and Correspondence. General Torbert’s Report, December 28, 1864. See pages 677-679.

New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, “4th New York Cavalry” https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/cavalry/4th-cavalry-regiment

“Jas W. Timberlake” 1860 Census, Culpeper County, Virginia. Accessed through Ancestry.com

“Mary Jane Mason Timberlake” Find a Grave, Culpeper Virginia. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/122088130/mary-jane_mason-timberlake

Roll of Honor, Volume 15, (1868) – accessed through HathiTrust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112047578213&view=1up&seq=161



11 Responses to Plundering, Death, and Culpeper National Cemetery: A Twisted Military & Civilian Interaction

  1. Thanks, Sarah, for another interesting article. First question that came to me: Who keeps a shovel in the attic? Second question: How did the squad that saw the blood not find the stash of apples in the cellar that hid the body? It seems to me that if they searched the house (which apparently they did since they found the blood), they would have found the apples and helped themselves, thereby finding the body. Also, it would take a lot of apples to cover a body.

    The story seems very suspect to me. Perhaps Mr. Timberlake made it up to impress the neighbors. More likely, he found the soldier dead along the road and buried him. Where is Columbo when you need him?

    1. Fair points, certainly. The apples are a little odd and to have to move a body with a head wound from the attic down to the cellar is a distance. I do think the apples are strange. I’m under the impression that the next group of Union soldiers to show up weren’t necessarily looking for a missing comrade or a dead body which could be why they didn’t further investigate or heavily question the “jam stain” on the floor.

      Maybe some details were misremembered. Maybe it was a hoax. Perhaps time will time?

  2. I’m not sure you would want to tell a Union officer that you killed a Union soldier, even given the circumstances. I would think a confession like that could lead to arrest and trial.

    1. Yeah…I was hoping to find the other side of the story – what he actually told the officer overseeing the cemetery. I do have some doubts that he would have told that man the full version of the story.

  3. What a gem! The start of the story has a ring of truth to it, and the brief research led quickly to compelling results, but the ending sounds similar to Gordon’s story of meeting up with Barlow after the war, sort of reconciliationish. It’s something I’d like to believe. And the well written article inspired me to offer my take, caveat – An inch is as good as a mile in my guesswork. I can’t imagine making up your mind to tell the authorities you killed a trespassing German cavalryman in cold blood, even after the war. But a man with that sense of right and wrong – to allow his property to be stolen but to defend to the death his deceased wife’s honor, may have had the constitution or religion to fess up after the war. He had the advantage of choosing when to report it. Maybe the official he reported it to was anti-German, maybe there was a masonic bond between the farmer and the official. But why not just say he found a dead Yankee on his farm and buried him there. My guess is that one of the daughters was the source of the story to the unit historian, it sounds very detailed in the killing part, which a daughter would have been a party to, and sort of general in the fessing up part. And if so, the daughter made her dad more heroic. But what a gem. PS. Sorry to the German horseman who fought for a gloried unit to defend the US, but there’s an unwritten law.

    1. Good points, and thanks for commenting. I suspect there could be more to the story!

  4. I love stories like this! Thank you for sharing! I wish I could pick up the trail, so intriguing!

  5. I don’t find the presence of a large amount of apples at all odd. Apples were/are grown in large numbers in Virginia and many farm families would have a large supply on hand during the winter. Apples keep well and provided a welcome addition to the dried vegetables found on the table during the winter in the South.

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