The Odyssey of Claggett Fitzhugh

To the Confederate prisoners of war held at Fort Delaware, Emily Blackiston was a godsend. “Every week,” remembered Emily’s daughter Kate, Emily visited the prisoners “with food and clothes, and these were sent or given to the prisoners, for theirs was the greatest need.” During one of her visits, the post commander, Colonel Henry Burton, asked Emily, “You want to see Claggett Fitzhugh?” Emily, a friend of Fitzhugh’s, said she did. Burton ordered the prisoner to be brought to Emily. While waiting, Burton described the prisoner’s condition to Emily: “This young man is in a damp cell in solitary confinement, and will die unless he gets nourishment, food, and fresh air. My orders are to keep him there and let none see him but his friends. You are the friend of suffering humanity. That walk in the fresh air may save his life.” 

When the guards brought Fitzhugh to the office of Fort Delaware, Burton hardly paid him any attention. Emily Blackiston provided Fitzhugh with the needed fresh air and then the prisoner went back to his cell.

In 1873, writing of her mother’s efforts, Kate Blackiston wondered what became of his mother’s friend, Claggett Fitzhugh, “and why he was in solitary confinement.” Whether she ever received her answer is unknown, but now more of Fitzhugh’s story has been uncovered.

Little is known of Claggett Fitzhugh’s early and later years, but his experience during the Civil War was an odyssey. He was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1836. Fitzhugh had prominent family connections. He was a nephew by marriage of famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith (it seems Fitzhugh did not see eye to eye on the slavery issue with his uncle). 

By 1859, Fitzhugh served as the head clerk at the Mont Alto Iron Works along the Pennsylvania-Maryland line. While working there on October 26, 1859, a stranger walked out of the woods into an open field near the ironworks. The man explained to the workers he needed supplies. One of the workers, Daniel Logan, recognized this man. He leaned over to Claggett Fitzhugh and whispered, “That’s Captain Cook; we must arrest him; the reward is $1,000.” It was John E. Cook, a member of John Brown’s army (which had been funded by Gerrit Smith). Cook had managed to escape with others. Now, eight days after Brown’s failed raid concluded, Cook sought to escape north, but he needed help, and supplies, to do so. He stumbled into the wrong crowd.

John E. Cook

Logan told Cook of a nearby “store” where he could replenish his supplies. Cook, disarmed by Logan’s personality, agreed to follow. Logan walked on one side of Cook and Fitzhugh on the other. As they walked toward town, a crowd jumped Cook and seized him. Now a captive, the group led Cook to Fitzhugh’s nearby house. Once the group confirmed the raider’s identity, they loaded him into Fitzhugh’s buggy and transported him to Chambersburg. Less than two months later, Virginia authorities executed Cook in Charlestown, Virginia.

Fast forward to September 1862, when the Confederate army moved into western Maryland and occupied Fitzhugh’s hometown. He was a member of Company K, 1st Virginia Cavalry, a unit primarily made up of Marylanders. With their knowledge of the local roads and terrain, this company was likely detached to serve as guides for the Army of Northern Virginia’s columns. Fitzhugh likely joined this company only when they arrived in Hagerstown.

1st Virginia Cavalry in Maryland sketched by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

On the night of September 14, 1862, Claggett Fitzhugh served as Lieutenant Francis Dawson’s guide. Dawson was James Longstreet’s ordnance officer. As such, Dawson rode at the head of Longstreet’s ordnance train as it moved west toward Williamsport back to Virginia. During the movement, Union cavalry that had recently escaped from Harpers Ferry pounced on the column and captured between 72 and 104 wagons as well as around 100 prisoners. Claggett Fitzhugh was one of the Confederates hustled to Greencastle, Pennsylvania.

The morning of September 15 found Fitzhugh back in his old stomping grounds of south-central Pennsylvania. Greencastle’s citizens turned out in droves to see the paraded Confederate prisoners and victorious Federal cavalry march through their streets. A man with a “downcast eye, sun-burned, dusty, dressed in a suit of gray, with a feather in his hat” walked at the front of the prisoner column. Greencastle’s citizens recognized the man as a local: Claggett Fitzhugh. Incensed at his capture of John Cook years earlier and his decision to support the Confederacy, the Unionist citizens yelled at Fitzhugh: “Hang him!” “Shoot him!” “Kill the villain!” “Down with the traitor!” Some in the crowd tried to grab him. Federal soldiers stepped in to protect him, even leveling their bayonets at the crowd according to one account. Fitzhugh “cowed before the demonstration and showed himself an arrant coward,” wrote one eyewitness. “I would not give two cents for his chance of continuing this life if released to-night and left to the mercies of the populace.”

Fitzhugh and the other prisoners were relocated to Chambersburg, where similar angry crowds hurled threats his way. Federal troops took the threats seriously enough that John Reynolds, in command of the Pennsylvania militia, wrote to Governor Andrew Curtin, “I desire to send the prisoners one hundred and eight in our hands on tonight by the train going down as there has been some excitement here about a man amongst them by the name of Fitzhugh and not very good place to take care of them.”

The status of Fitzhugh as a prisoner plagued his chances of freedom. Was he a Confederate soldier, or a Southern-supporting civilian? While Federal authorities debated his status, Fitzhugh spent time in Fort Delaware in “irons and close confinement” for the first three weeks of his imprisonment. The accusation of him being a spy rose to the surface also. His Federal captors let their opinions be known. They “dubbed him ‘Captain’ and demanded a captain in exchange for him.”

At the end of November 1862, Federal authorities transferred Fitzhugh to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC. Technically, “all Confederate prisoners captured in Maryland or Virginia up to 1 Nov 1862…have been exchanged,” wrote one Union prison official. But they still kept Fitzhugh behind bars. Fitzhugh appealed his case with no luck. 

The odd case even made it to the desk of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who penned his decision regarding Fitzhugh’s status on June 21, 1863. Fitzhugh claimed he was “a prisoner of war” and that when he was captured, “he had been regularly enlisted in the rebel service, and as such must have been included in the exchange of prisoners heretofore carried out between the two armies.” But Fitzhugh’s claim did not sway Holt. According to the Judge Advocate General, the only proof supporting Fitzhugh being a soldier was “his own assertion.” Instead, Holt’s evidence indicated he was jailed “for aiding and abetting the enemy, acting as guide to the rebel General Longstreet, &c.” The records in Holt’s hands “show that he was, when arrested, acting in the character of a traitorous and disloyal citizen, and as such giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Recognizing that Fitzhugh’s neighbors harbored doubts about his loyalty to the United States, Holt recommended that he be returned to Franklin County, Pennsylvania’s authorities. But, amid “the present invasion of Pennsylvania by the rebels,” it would be for President Lincoln to decide. Lincoln kept Fitzhugh behind bars.

In 1864, still a prisoner of the Federal government, Fitzhugh bounced from Point Lookout back to Fort Delaware and ultimately to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became a member of the Immortal 600, a group of 600 Confederate prisoners held in Charleston in the line of fire of Confederate artillery. This was done in response to Confederates doing the same with Federal prisoners.

Fitzhugh finally received his freedom (twice) in Charleston in December 1864 and received a second parole in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the end of the war. Despite the reception he received from the residents along the Mason-Dixon Line, he returned home after the war and married Sarah Warton. His time back in Maryland did not last forever. His postwar career included a long-term trip to California to become a miner. Finally, in 1909, life caught up with Fitzhugh and he retired in Hagerstown. He died there on July 30, 1917, and is buried in Saint John’s Episcopal Churchyard.

Unfortunately, Fitzhugh took his accounts of his life’s story with him to the grave.

Claggett Fitzhugh’s Grave (Find a Grave)

1 Response to The Odyssey of Claggett Fitzhugh

  1. Well, to be fair, the Union forces outside of Charleston were deliberately shelling the city of Charleston. After refusing to stop said shelling, Confederates placed 50 Union officer prisoners in a house in downtown Charleston. Even so, the 50 officers were well-treated. They were actually visited by local Charlestonians. The 50 officers were on parole, meaning they had free run of the city. While, the Immortal 600 were deliberately starved over a period of about ten months and directly exposed to artillery fire. But, the starvation was far worse. Of the original 600, 44 died during the ordeal. Upon their return to Ft Delaware, 60 went straight to the hospital at Ft Delaware. More died at the hospital.

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