Confederate Conscript Hunters!
I’ve mentioned them before, but conscript hunters presented a horror of war to Southern Unionists that I believe we cannot come close to understanding.
Conscript hunters had a difficult duty to perform. Not only were they to gather up those who had not yet volunteered for Confederate service and yet were age-eligible (under anyone of the three different conscript acts passed by the Confederate government), they were also tasked with finding and bringing back Confederate deserters; but that doesn’t excuse the zeal of some of these men in doing their work.
Even among non-Southern Unionists, the conscript hunter was no welcome character. In a letter written by John J. Moyer (1855-1940) of Page County, Virginia in 1924, a time was recalled when some might think a conscript officer had a perfect opportunity to recruit men for the Confederate service. In speaking of the “unhappy days of the sixties,” Moyer wrote that
…some of the experiences of the people in and around Luray when it was reported that Shields’ army was coming in this direction from New Market. He says that a number of persons went toward the top of the Massanutten mountains and catching a glimpse of the invading army the Luray and Page people, seeing that they were doubtless outnumbered many times, beat a retreat, those who lived in Luray not even stopping at their homes but pressing hard in the direction of ‘The Pinnacle,’ at that time a friendly knob at the top of the Blue Ridge several miles east of the home of Mrs. Bettie Sours, in the Printz Mill neighborhood. There was a conscript officer sent out by the Confederate army looking for conscripts and this officer was in Luray at that time. He went with the Luray and Page people to the ‘Pinnacle,’ and there tried his hand at he conscription business. The local folk, Mr. Moyer said, didn’t take very kindly to the idea and were getting ready to make quick dispatch of the officer, even having a rope around his neck and being ready to string him up. About this time, Jonathan Rowe [1810-1884], of this county, intervened in behalf of the officer and persuaded the men who were bent upon his destruction to desist.
Page County historian Jacob H. Coffman (1852-1939) also had a story about conscript hunters writing,
Now I know there’s but few living today that remember the days of the Conscript Hunter, as they were called at this time. They were men detailed from army to hunt up and take back to army deserters – that is soldiers who after many applications failed to get a furlough to visit their homes would take what they called ‘French leave’ that meant to run off.
I know a man who had recently been raised to the rank of Lieut. and was in charge of a squad of Conscript Hunters and he was disliked by many for the power he exercised in this office. One night a notice was put up at what was called the Butterwood Gate [near the Jacob C. Kite house and stage stop known as Mt. Hope], called so from the fact that it was hung on a butterwood tree. The notice was nailed up with wooden pegs and as I passed the place the next day I found near the tree, a fine 6-bladed pen knife which must have been used to make the wooden pegs the notice was tacked up with. The notice was to the effect that if the Lieutenant and his men did not leave the county they would be killed. Whether the warning had the desired effect I never learned.
Got any stories of conscript hunters to share?
Take a look also at this story about Chrisley Nicholson and his encounters with Confederate conscription hunters. Nicholson, by the way, was my third great grand uncle.