Freedmen’s Bureau letters tell a sad truth in Loudoun County, Virginia

civil war general photograph
Major General O.O. Howard, national director of the Freedmen’s Bureau from May 1865 until its termination in June 1872.

The National Archives in Washington, D.C. contain thousands of Freemen’s Bureau documents and letters. Many of the letters are online for the public to access and they tell, for the most part, a painful story. The two letters shown in this post were written in January 1866, to Bureau headquarters in Washington.

The first was written by a Reverend Joseph Ross. It records a frightening incident that took place in Loudoun County on a quiet road between Leesburg and the Quaker community of Waterford. I had originally mis-read the signature on this letter (thinking it was James A. Ross) but thankfully, research done by intrepid historian L. Paige Whitley, caught my mistake. Paige noted this letter to have been written by Reverend Joseph A. Ross, a Methodist minister who had served as a Union chaplain during the Civil War. He was from Pennsylvania, and after the war ended he became involved with the Freedman’s Bureau. Thank you, Paige, for your correction!

Reverend Ross’ letter is here, with a transcript below the image.

                                                                                     Washington, D.C. jany 18th/66

I was appointed by Bishop Clark of the M.E. Church to take charge of the M.E. Church at Leesburg & vicinity. I have services at Leesburg at Harmony 6 miles – Waterford same distance, & Rehoboth.  – I represent about 100 real Union men who have during the rebellion suffering [sic] everything but death. Urged by all Union men – I am here.

On Sunday 14th Jany I was preaching in Leesburg in the a.m. & on my way to Waterford about 2 o’clock p.m. I was saluted by three men in Rebel uniform with “Halt you God-damned Yankee Son of a bitch” – I halted – & observing the men standing but a shot distance from me – (about 10 paces) one of whom presented a revolver stating that Andrew Johnson had sent the God damned Yankees from Leesburg – & that I must leave or they would blow me into hell. They wanted me to consent at once to agree to leave, or die. – I then said that I had an appointment at Waterford & that they ought to allow me to preach – and that night to consider it. – The one having the revolver then advanced & demanded my pocket book, which I at once gave him. – he examined it & throwed [sic] it down, he then fell back – soldier like about 4 paces – saying that Andrew Johnson was their friend. – & that the damned Yankees must leave with the Yankee soldiers – then damning the Secty [Secretary] of War.– I suppose they had heard me speak of the Secty in private conversation as a [?] man  – They then ordered me to leave – saying that if I looked back – or to the right or left they would blow my brains out. –

            That same evening about dusk six confederate men observed on the Harmony Road, armed with revolvers.                               Jos. [Joseph] A Ross

dirt road with trees photograph
This Loudoun county road near the community of Harmony (now called Hamilton) and near Leesburg must be much like where Reverend Ross was stopped on his way to Waterford from Leesburg. Photo taken by author


The second letter was written by Reverend James Ferree. He ran the Leesburg Freedmen’s Bureau subdistrict office, part of the Washington, D.C. region. Since the Freedmen’s Bureau was operated through the U.S. War Department district offices were usually staffed by military officers, comfortable with authority. Reverend Ferree had been a Chaplain in the 9th Illinois Infantry, so was an exception to the policy of putting field officers in charge of Bureaus. He was having a hard time in his role.

Ferree wrote the following letter to Major General O.O. Howard, Freedmen’s Bureau national director. In his letter, Ferree mentions the incident involving Rev. Joseph Ross. Transcript of the letter is below the image.

19th century handwritten letter
handwritten 19th century letter
handwritten 19th century letter
19th century handwritten letter


                                    Bureau Refugees Freedmen

                                    Leesburg  Va Jany  24th 1866

Maj. General O.O. Howard

— Bureau


                                                            When I entered upon my duties at this place in Nov last, I applied to the officer in command of the forces at this Post for a detail of men to take the – of the Freedmen to which he replied that he could not do it until he procured horses, to mount a portion of his force with & as he was in constant expectation of horses for that purpose I did not insist on his detailing me unmounted men.

            His repeated applications were always met by promises while promises were not  fulfilled & my repeated efforts to the same end were unsuccessful in procuring an order for 6 horses the execution of which was defeated by the order directing the commanding officer to take his command to Harpers Ferry to be mustered out of the service which order he obeyed leaving here on the 13th of this month.

            I have in process of collection many claims of the Freedmen for wages and – for labor performed & not paid for since the 1st of Jany 1863 & some cases when former masters have collected – from those to whom they hired the freedmen – — hire since the appointment of are – of the Bureau in this subdistrict & without a military force at hand these persons cannot be compelled to pay to the Freedmen what they have so collected & others will not pay for work done for them by the freedmen except under like compulsion & the most of the freedmen need what is due them to enable them to get along through the present season.

            The disloyalists to a man protest against the presence of troops here. The Really loyal to a man affirm the necessity of a force here to protect the loyal & secure justice to the Freemen.

                                                            There are some who claim to be loyal but who like Gov. Pierpont have thrown themselves into the arms of the reconstructed rebels who join the disloyalists in their clamor against the presence of the military & it seems that this latter class have sufficient influence with the authorities to have matters as they wish.

                                                            Now permit me to add my deliberate conviction that if it comes to be understood that there will be no military force sent here every decidedly loyal man will hold his right to speak his sentiments to maintain his rights & his life at the will of a drunken & acrimonious ex rebel soldiery.

            The next day after the departure of the troops the Rev. Mr. Ross, a missionary of the M.E. Church & a member of the East Baltimore conference was waylaid & his life threatened by three of this class of men clad in Confederate overcoats & armed with Govt. revolvers who told him he must leave Virginia or they’ll “blow him to hell” & that is the class of men who will have everything their own way unless some force is sent here. An officer with 8 mounted men is the smallest force that ought to be sent.

                                                            Respectfully yours

                                                      James I. Ferree Supt Freedmen Loudoun Co Va

Reverend Ferree stayed in his position at the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Leesburg for less than a year, mustered out of service on March 12, 1866.

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