This post is part of a three-part series. See part one here.
The day after the sickly, 54-year-old Henrietta Bedinger Lee watched her home be consumed by flames, there was still an angry fire burning in her. While she lashed out at Captain Franklin Martindale, the commanding officer tasked with burning Lee’s home, Bedford, and nearby Fountain Rock, her daughter said that Henrietta “was pallid, save for two red spots upon either cheek. Her eyes were ablaze with righteous indignation.”
Nothing would get her house back, but Henrietta could not go away quietly. She put pen to paper and addressed it to Martindale’s superior officer, General David Hunter. The result was one of the most incredible letters written during the Civil War.
July 20, 1864
General Hunter — Yesterday your underling, Captain Martindale, of the first New York Cavalry, executed your infamous order and burned my house. You have the satisfaction ‘ere this of receiving from him the information that your orders were fulfilled to the letter; the dwelling and other outbuildings, seven in number, with their contents, being burned, I, therefore, a helpless woman whom you have cruelly wronged, address you, a major-general of the United States Army, and demand why this was done? What was my offense?
My husband was absent – an exile. He had never been a politician or in any way engaged in the struggle now going on, his age preventing. This fact your chief of staff, David Strother, could have told you. The house was built by my father, a Revolutionary soldier, who served the whole seven years for your independence. There was I born; there the sacred dead repose. It was my home and there has your niece (Miss Griffith) who has tarried among us all in this horrid war up to the present moment, met with all kindness and hospitality at my hands. Was it for this you turned me, my young daughter, and little son out upon the world without a shelter?
Or was it because my husband is the grandson of the Revolutionary patriot and ‘rebel,’ Richard Henry Lee, and the near kinsman of the noblest of Christian warriors, the greatest of generals, Robert E. Lee? Heaven’s blessings be upon his head forever! You and your government have failed to conquer, subdue or match him; and disappointed rage and malice find vent on the helpless and inoffensive. Hyena-like you have torn my heart to pieces, for all hallowed memories clustered around that homestead; and demon-like you have done it without even the pretext of revenge, for I never saw or harmed you. Your office is not to lead like a brave man and soldier your men to fight in the ranks of war, but your work has been to separate yourself from all danger, and with your incendiary band steal unawares upon helpless women and children to insult and destroy. Two fair homes did you yesterday ruthlessly lay in ashes, giving not a moment’s warning to the startled inmates of your wicked purpose; turning mothers and children out of doors, your very name is execrated by your own men for the cruel work you give them to do.
In the case of Mr. A. R. Boteler, both father and mother were far away. Any heart but that of Captain Martindale (and yours) would have been touched by that little circle, comprising a widowed daughter just risen from her bed of illness, her three fatherless babies – the eldest five years old – and her heroic sister. I repeat, any man would have been touched at the sight but Captain Martindale! One might as well hope to find mercy and feeling in the heart of a wolf bent on his prey of young lambs, as to search for such qualities in his bosom. You have chosen well your agent for such deeds, and doubtless will promote him.
A colonel of the Federal Army has stated that you deprived forty of your officers of their commands because they refused to carry out your malignant mischief. All honor to their names for this, at least! They are men, and have human hearts and blush for such a commander! I ask who that does not wish infamy and disgrace attached to him forever would serve under you? Your name will stand on history’s pages as the Hunter of weak women, and innocent children; the Hunter to destroy defenseless villages and beautiful homes – to torture afresh the agonized hearts of widows; the Hunter of Africa’s poor sons and daughters, to lure them on to ruin and death of soul and body; the Hunter with the relentless heart of a wild beast, the face of a fiend, and the form of a man. Oh, Earth! Behold the monster! Can I say ‘God forgive you’? No prayer can be offered for you! Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back again, and demons claim their own. The curse of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright, and the hatred of the true and honorable, will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name infamy! Infamy!
Again, I demand why have you burned my house? Answer as you must answer before the Searcher of all hearts; why have you added this cruel, wicked deed to your many crimes?
Henrietta B. Lee
Stay tuned for part three of this series