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On the Margins of the War: The Case of David Creigh   Leave a comment

In an earlier blog entry, I discussed the Battle of Droop Mountain in West Virginia as an example of a Civil War battle that was fought on the margins of the war. It had no great impact on the outcome of the conflict, and most people have never even heard of it. Yet, men fought and died there. As a result, if we examine these events, we find that, while the casualties and the damage are small in scale, they are more individual, more personal, and the pain of loss somehow greater because they are not lost in the enormity of the event itself. Tragically, these events that take place on the margin sometimes involve the innocent, those who were not even active participants in the war. The case of David Creigh is an example of this kind of tragedy.

Ironically, the events I will describe were actually related to the same campaign by General William Averell that resulted in the battle at Droop Mountain and the subsequent capture of Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Greenbrier County was, perhaps, the classic example of a place that was on the margins of the war in that its resident experience first-hand the horror, pain, and very personal suffering of a civil conflict in a small place, a place of no strategic consequence, just a once quiet and serene place that would become torn by violence and death.

Throughout the war, the people of Greenbrier County lived with an underlying and often overwhelming sense of fear. As a county with strong secessionist sentiments that found itself caught up in the process of creating a new Unionist state, Greenbrier residents feared what might become of them under a Union occupation. The county’s residents believed their Yankee enemies to be monsters who would wreak havoc on both persons and property. Therefore, from the outset of the war, they begged for assistance and protection from both the Commonwealth and Confederate governments, but never received what they felt they needed. Admittedly, the people and the leaders of the county suffered from a natural tendency, born of a desire to protect their homes, to see their county as strategically vital to both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Confederacy. Unfortunately, after an initial period of interest from Richmond, which even saw the assignment of the venerable Robert E. Lee to the county, Greenbrier County, as well as the entire northwest region of Virginia that became West Virginia, became a backwater to the governments of both sides. As a result, the people would see themselves beset by Union raiding and, eventually, the occupation they feared so much.

Unfortunately, to some extent, the fears about Federal occupation were not entirely unjustified. For much of the war, Greenbrier County and large portions of West Virginia were home to guerillas and “bushwhackers.” Some of these men were individuals truly trying to fight for the Confederate cause, but, many, if not most, were nothing but a criminal element who found the margins of the war to their liking. Some of these partisan units were formally recognized by the Confederate military, but even most of those were eventually shut down because of their lawless behavior. Meanwhile, the Federal reaction to these elements was harsh and uncompromising. As Union forces occupied Greenbrier County after the Droop Mountain campaign, the inhabitants found themselves subject to military law and trial by courts martial. The results could be tragic and unjust, as Davis Creigh and his family would discover.

Creigh was a prosperous merchant and farmer who had lived his entire life in the Lewisburg area. At the time of the Droop Mountain campaign in late 1863, he was 54 years old, had been married to his wife, Emily, for 30 years, and had a family of 11 children. Creigh was a slaveholder and, like many Virginians before the war, a political conservative, opposed to secession and war, but supportive once that course was decided upon by the Commonwealth. As a result, his three oldest sons would enlist in the 14th Virginia Cavalry and fight for the Confederacy. In the meantime, as the war raged on, Creigh and his family desired nothing more than to peacefully work their land, and quietly pray for the war’s end and the safe return of their sons. Soon, however, the war would come to them, and enter through their front door.

The Creigh home todayIn early November 1863, as Averell’s troops occupied the Lewisburg area, there was the inevitable foraging and, worse, scavenging. Foraging is distinct from scavenging, in that foraging is an organized, sanctioned activity, while scavenging is typically conducted by individual soldiers who are operating outside military authority, and acting as nothing more than common thieves. The latter is what David Creigh and his family encountered on the night of November 8. On that evening, Creigh was visiting the nearby home of a friend, John Dunn. As the two men chatted, a Union cavalryman entered the house without knocking. He demanded that Dunn tell him where his horses might be. Dunn tried to be evasive, so the soldier set about searching the house. Concerned that this man would visit his home next, Creigh left and hurried home.

Once he arrived at his home, he told Emily that a soldier was searching the Dunn home looking for things to steal and that he would likely be coming to their home shortly. He urged his wife to remain calm, while he went to the nearby home of another friend, a Mr. Arbuckle, whose wife was at Creigh’s home helping tend to his sick daughter, Elizabeth. He told his wife that he wanted to see if he might borrow a pistol from Arbuckle. This is probably where Creigh made a grave error, in that is unlikely that the soldier would have become violent. Still, however, the soldier was armed and he was obviously operating outside military authority. Therefore, Creigh was justifiably concerned and fearful for his family’s safety.

When Creigh returned home, as he entered the front door, he heard raised voices upstairs and quickly realized that, as he feared, the soldier had come to his house. His wife was arguing with the soldier, telling him that she would remove things from a trunk. When Creigh reached the top of the stairs, the soldier, who had been madly emptying trunks in search of booty, entered the hallway and confronted Creigh. He asked Creigh if he had the key to a trunk that could not be opened. Creigh responded that the trunk in question belonged to Miss Lewis, his children’s teacher, and that he did not have a key. At that moment, Creigh’s daughter, Elizabeth, rose from her sickbed, came out of her room, and told the soldier that there were more trunks at the rear of the house.

The soldier turned and walked to where Elizabeth indicated and began rummaging through a set of trunks. As he did so, Creigh quietly cocked the pistol he held beneath his coat and moved towards the soldier. About that time, the soldier found a set of cards in one of the trunks and inquired as to what they were. Elizabeth told him that they were merit cards from school and he shouted at her that they were not. At this moment, as the soldier raised his voice, Creigh became increasingly nervous, removed the pistol from his coat, and told the soldier to leave his house.

As Creigh raised the pistol, the cap exploded and the round slammed harmlessly into the wall. Immediately, the soldier lunged at Creigh and began grappling with him. Creigh used the now unloaded pistol as a club and pounded on the soldier’s head. The soldier went down initially, but rose back up and locked his head under Creigh’s arm. As he did so, the Federal trooper pulled his own revolver, raised it, and aimed it at Creigh’s head. Emily leaped to her husband’s aid, jerking the soldier’s arm down. The revolver lowered until it was aimed at the bodies of both men and, as it did so, a shot was discharged. The soldier now shoved Creigh and his wife toward the head of the stairs, and all three tumbled down into the foyer of the house, and the soldier’s revolver dropped from his hand, skittering across the foyer floor. Creigh continued to wrestle with the soldier and soon discovered that the trooper must have been struck by the revolver shot, as he was bleeding. As the two men continued to struggle, Emily and Mrs. Arbuckle tried to pick up the now loose revolver.

As they grabbed the weapon, it went off again, striking the soldier again. Holding him upright, Creigh carried him to within 10 feet of the portico, then dropped him, believing him to be dead. Suddenly, the soldier’s fingers twitched and, fearing he was still alive, Creigh grabbed a nearby axe and crushed the soldier’s skull. Now, Creigh debated what to do. He knew he would never receive a fair trial for his actions and he feared a Union patrol might happen by at any moment. The only viable option seemed that of hiding the body. With the help of one of his sons and an Irish farmhand, they loaded the soldier’s body into a cart and covered it with hay. They traveled about three-fourths of a mile down the road, where they dumped the body in an abandoned well, then covered it with again with hay. With this grizzly task complete, they hurried back to the Creigh home.

Gen. David HunterAs spring of 1864 arrived, no one had come looking for the dead soldier. Union authorities probably assumed he was just another deserter. Meanwhile, the war continued unabated and there had been changes in the Federal hierarchy for the Department of West Virginia. General David “Black Dave” Hunter was now in command. Hunter was an ill-tempered brute of a man, a poor soldier, and a fanatic abolitionist who hated the South and all those who sympathized with its cause. He was determined to crush any local resistance to Union authority and to provide ready examples what would happen to those who opposed Federal authority. Tragically for David Creigh, he would become one of those examples.

On May 15, a slave entered the camp of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry and told the commander that he had discovered the body of a soldier in a nearby well. Captain Howe, an officer in the regiment, was ordered to accompany the slave back to the well along with a detachment of men and investigate the report. Howe did so and, as he and the slave entered the well, he found a decomposing body dressed in a cavalry uniform. The body was too far gone to be removed, so it was left there, and Howe returned to camp to report on his findings. As the well was on David Creigh’s property, he was immediately arrested and taken to Bungers Mill, four miles from Lewisburg for trial by courts martial.

The court convened on June 2, with five Union officers chosen to pass judgment on David Creigh. The formal charge was murder and the specification stated that Creigh murdered an unknown Union soldier with an “axe or other weapon” at his residence on November 8, 1863. Creigh entered a plea of “not guilty” to the charge and “guilty” to the specification. Two witnesses for the prosecution were called, Captain Ricker, an Assistant Inspector General who had spoken with Creigh about the incident after his arrest, and Captain Howe. One witness was called for the defense, John Dunn, to whom Creigh confided the events of November 8. Finally, Creigh was allowed to present his own story, and he did so with complete honesty, hoping the court would see him as a man protecting his home.

Gen. William AverellWhen he was finished, the court did not ask him a single question, did not challenge his statements, or cross examine him in any way. Rather, they closed the court so that they might deliberate the findings and reach a verdict. That verdict was soon in coming, and, within a couple of hours, David Creigh was found guilty of both the charge and the specification. Despite what should have been mitigating circumstances, they sentenced him to be hung with a sign around his neck stating that he was a murderer of a Union soldier, and that his home be burned to the ground. The next day, Union forces began withdrawing from the county for an advance on Lynchburg, Virginia, and they took Creigh with them. On June 9, Generals Averell and Crook approved the court’s findings and forwarded them to General Hunter for review and final approval.

Of course, there was no chance Creigh would find any mercy at Hunter’s hands—he was just the kind of example Hunter needed. Hunter approved the findings and sent Averell orders to execute the sentence immediately. Averell and his brigade were on the march when the orders arrived. He promptly halted the column near Brownsburg, Virginia, at the home of Reverend James Morrison. Creigh was taken inside and told that he was to be hung. However, General Averell had given orders that, despite Hunter’s approval of the court’s recommendations on sentencing, the Creigh home would not be destroyed or molested in any way. Creigh was given the evening to make his peace and write Emily a final letter.

David Creigh's tombstoneThe next morning, he was taken to a nearby tree to be hanged. But, no one on Averell’s staff wanted to do the job. They not only stated to a man that they had not enlisted to be executioners, but they had also come to like and respect David Creigh. Finally, a 19-year old private was ordered to carry out the execution, which he did with great reluctance. A Union army chaplain who was present later said that, of the 300 men who witnessed the execution, there was not a single dry eye. Despite Hunter’s orders that Creigh’s body remain hanging as an example to others, the Morrison’s lowered his body as soon as the Federal troops departed and buried it quickly in a blanket. Six days later, David Creigh’s son, Cyrus, arrived, procured a coffin, and reburied his father in a nearby churchyard. It remained there until a month later, when Cyrus returned and had the remains taken home to Greenbrier County. David Creigh is still buried there, resting along side his wife, Emily.

David Creigh was a man simply defending his home. But, in war, especially when one lives on the margins of the war, self-defense can quickly become a crime. For David Creigh, there was no justice, only the satisfaction of a need by Union authorities to ensure the occupied feared their occupiers. His story is, indeed, tragic and perhaps more so because he was almost certainly not alone in his fate. Any war, and especially a civil conflict, can strip people bare of their humanity, of simple decency, of any sense of justice. The ends seem to justify any means, and, in this case, the end was the brutal pacification of Greenbrier County with David Creigh paying the ultimate and terrible price to achieve it.