Saturday, January 18, 2014

Righting a Wrong: The Civil War, Stolen Documents, and a History Sleuth

Editor's note: A version of this story originally ran in The Berkshire Eagle

The court document ordered tobacco farmer Robert Ashby Jr. to pay the local mercantile 3 pounds he owed, plus a fine of 79 pounds of tobacco.
It was dated 1753. And it was issued in Stafford, Virginia.
So how that document and another one dated some 20 years later ended up in an attic in South Worthington in 2005 was puzzling.
Dr. George Bresnick was digging through ``the proverbial old trunk in the attic’’ at a neighbor’s South Worthington home when he stumbled across the documents.
``They had absolutely nothing to do with the other papers,’’ said Bresnick, an ophthalmologist who now resides in St. Paul, Minn. ``I was confused for a while.’’
After some research, Bresnick came up with the only reasonable explanation: They were stolen by Union forces from Western Massachusetts during the Civil War.
And now he plans to return them to where they belong.
It was November 1862 and Union forces, including the 37th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which had been mustered in Pittsfield earlier that year, were occupying the town of Stafford, Va., as part of the Fredericksburg campaign.
The area around Stafford was overrun by 130,000 Union troops and the once pristine woods were decimated by the force for housing, defensive fortifications and heating. Farmland was torn up, homes were looted, and fences ripped out.
The county courthouse in Stafford received similar maltreatment as the locals’ homes, two thirds of the county’s records, which likely dated back to the 1660s, were ``burned, stolen or scattered,’’ Bresnick said.
He believes the documents were taken as souvenirs by Pvt. John D. Smith, a West Chesterfield resident who had enlisted with the 37th and would later be killed during the Battle of The Wilderness in 1864. Bresnick surmises that Smith sent the papers home and they ended up in the trunk in the attic of an old Methodist Episcopal parsonage that had once belonged to a Smith descendant.
Back in 2005, Bresnick and his wife were living in the village of South Worthington, across the road from the old parsonage where an elderly woman resided. He helped go through the neighbor’s home after her death and that’s when he discovered the legal documents. They, along with everything else in the house, ended up with an antiques dealer. Bresnick later bought the documents, along with many others related to Chesterfield and Worthington, for $100.
One of the documents, dated 1776
Eventually, he came up with a plan to return the documents from whence they came, in order, he said, to ``right a wrong.’’
According to Bresnick, there are both ``practical effects’’ of the loss of Stafford’s courthouse records, the inability to verify a deed on a property before 1862, for instance , and the psychological effect that comes with the loss of written records that help tell the story of Stafford’s history.
Bresnick’s plan was two-fold. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to hand over the papers to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who in a symbolic gesture gave the documents to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.
``For documents that were clearly removed from their place of origin to be returning after more than a hundred years, it’s certainly symbolic,’’ Neal said. ``History has an interest in seeing these artifacts, and I think it speaks well (of Bresnick), who wants to really respect these documents by returning them to the people of Stafford, Va.’’
Neal, besides being a congressman, is a professor who lectures in history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He told The Eagle he was interested in seeing these documents returned ``in the context of their importance to history.’’
The congressman said that people contact his office on a regular basis ``looking to reconnect with things from the past. Sometimes it’s about a memorial, an event or a place. This is something different.’’
A day after Bresnick’s meeting with the two congressman, he presented the documents to Barbara Decatur, the Stafford County clerk of court, at a ceremony at the courthouse in Stafford. The documents now permanently grace the courthouse walls.
``I’m happy (the documents) are going back to their home,’’ Bresnick said.
The two legal documents that were found in an old trunk in South Worthington were believed stolen from the courthouse in Stafford, Va., by Union troops during the Fredricksburg campaign of the Civil War.
The first document, dated 1753, is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring a tobacco farmer named Robert Ashby Jr. (c.1720-c.1780) to the courthouse for a hearing that May. Ashby owed the mercantile firm of Patrick and William Bogle a little more than 3 pounds, likely from a past due store account. The court ordered Ashby to cough up the 3 pounds along with a hefty court fine of 79 pounds of tobacco. If he didn’t pay, the court could then order Ashby’s personal property sold to pay the debt.
The second document was a promissory note dated Feb. 24, 1776, obligating Joel Reddish (c. 1748-1826), to pay 11 pounds, four shillings, six pence, half-penny on a loan from James Ritchie & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. According to Bresnick, Ritchie was one of the ``Tobacco Lords’’ of Glasgow who imported tobacco from the colonies and sold it in Europe. The company was also in the business of loaning money to farmers in order to get their tobacco crop into the ground. Reddish was a Virginia tobacco farmer who had taken a loan out with the company.

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