A dangerous family visit

Published 10:24 pm Saturday, July 19, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: One hundred fifty years ago, the Civil War raged on, and Suffolk remained under the sway of Union forces. Following is an account from original sources of what it was like here in the summer of 1864.


As the months of 1864 wore on, the civilians who remained in Suffolk used whatever means they could find to survive the Union’s restrictions on food or other supplies passing through their lines.

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In order to get salt for preserving meat, many people resorted to digging up the dirt from old smokehouses and soaking it to retrieve whatever salt they could from the residue.

With time, though, other methods were devised to fool the Yankees. An “underground railroad” was devised whereby bales of cotton were loaded onto carts at Murfree’s depot on the Blackwater River. From there they were taken to the mouth of the Washington Ditch on White Marsh Road.

The storekeeper at that location transferred the cotton for shipment on to Norfolk. That same storekeeper discreetly paid the drivers in salt — one sack of salt for one bale of cotton. The round-trip took about three days. The price was high, but the civilians were pleased to have made the deal.

On White Marsh Road, several miles south of Suffolk, 36-year-old James Saunders looked after three families that included his invalid wife, Diana, their five children, his widowed sister and three nieces, two in-laws and two children of slaves who had been left behind when their families had left.

Saunders had previously been in the local militia and was in danger of being “called up” to enter the Confederate army. At his request, a letter, signed by a number of prominent Suffolk citizens, was sent to the Confederate Secretary of War in an appeal for exemption from army service.

He eventually was excused from service, but only after he hired a substitute to fill his position in the army.

During these months, Confederate soldiers on leave from the army sometimes risked capture by visiting their homes in Suffolk. On one occasion Capt. Wallace Kilby and Cpl. William Berry took such a chance, traveling home under cover of darkness. On the second day of his visit, Kilby was warned by a loyal servant that the Yankees were coming to get him.

Emma M. Ferguson, a Suffolk resident, related the story:

“On the second floor of the house, there was a narrow hall running the length of the building, and at the end of the hall there was a large old-fashioned press or case in which blankets, counterpanes, quilts, etc., were kept, and just above tie press there was a small square hole cut in the ceiling, which led into the open space between the joists and the roof, and which was partly concealed by the press. Captain Kilby hastily climbed upon the press and, passing through the aperture, hid himself in the intervening space.


“The soldiers soon surrounded the house, and the captain, accompanied by a private, knocked at the door and said, ‘We have come for Captain Kilby, we hear he is here.’ They made a thorough search on the lower floor, then went upstairs and did likewise. During this search they were accompanied through every room by Miss Kilby, a sister. Having passed through the entire house without meeting their object, the Yankee Captain, while standing near the hole in the ceiling, cast his eyes upward and inquired if there was a garret (an attic) in the house. The sister replied, ‘If there was, would you not see the steps?’ The soldier said, ‘I beg your pardon, Miss, how stupid I was to ask such a question.’ “ The soldiers left, and Kilby made good his escape.

Corporal Berry was not as fortunate as Captain Kilby. He received no warning and was captured. He died later that year in a Union prisoner of war camp.


Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at khobbs5@aol.com.