Joseph Rizzo, the Executive Director of Loudoun Museum, shared the fateful life of political prisoners in Loudoun County during the American Civil War period, spring of 1983.

Imprisoning suspicious secessionists

In the spring of 1863, the Loudoun Rangers’ commander, Samuel Means of Waterford, was in the northern bottom area and wanted to show locals “that he wanted some retaliation” and used this moment to capture prisoners who he deemed “worthy of being imprisoned for some previous acts.” So they set out to arrest a couple of secessionists in the area; most notably, among them was a man named Henry Ball.

Means accused Ball—who lives around the Lucketts area—of being the one who led the Confederate soldiers into the Waterford Baptist Church, where the former’s men and recruits were caught in the firefight and captured by Confederate cavalry chief Elijah White.

Waterford Baptist Church c1860s
A battle was fought around the Baptish Church on the left during the Civil War at Waterford, Virginia. (Image Source: Waterford Foundation)

The Loudoun Rangers also arrested Albert Campbell Belt, a notable secessionist in the Lucketts area. Soon after, the news spread across town, sparking outrage and fear among the locals.

Upon learning of this, the Confederates planned to free the two captives. However, it was put on hold when the Battle of Gettysburg transpired in July. While waiting for their rescue, Belt and Ball were sent across the Potomac River and behind the notorious prison walls of Fort Delaware.

Two-for-two exchange

In the latter part of the summer of 1863, the cavalry commander, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, started looking into getting the prisoners back home. He devised a plan and wrote to his comrade White, ordering him to abduct Asa Bond, who happened to be Samuel Means’ father-in-law.

With Asa Bond on their hands, they could then demand an exchange for the freedom of two secessionists. But, on the other hand, White took the plan one step forward and suggested seizing one more prisoner so it would be a “two for two” exchange, thus taking insurance company chief William Williams.

Fort-Delaware-1860s
Fort Delaware was the infamous prison used by the Union to place its prisoners-of-war spies and other criminals during the American Civil War. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

White and his men first went to the Williams’ residence on Sunday evening, knocked on their door, and pointed a revolver at the latter’s head as soon as he opened. Then, despite the pleas of Williams’ wife, the Confederate cavalrymen carried him away. Since this is a small community, news travels as quickly as a tweet in the 21st century.

As soon as they arrived at the Means residence, White realized their mistake for taking Williams first, and as they knocked on their door, the cavalrymen were greeted by Mrs. Means and Ms. Bond instead of Asa Bond.

Rizzo read the account written by Nettie Dawson, who was there at the scene:

“Mrs. Means and Ms. Bond stood [at] their door and dared the Southerners to enter. They did enter, slapped Mrs. Means’ jaw, and Ms. Bond fired a revolver at them.”

Amid the commotion, their prime target fled the house and evaded capture.

White and his men realized this, and not wanting to spoil the plan, they got hold of Robert Hollingsworth, a local Quaker schoolmaster, instead.

Innocent civilian captives

These two unionists, Williams and Hollingsworth, were innocent compared to the two captured secessionists, Ball and Belt. They were “charged with horse stealing and burning some products” during their attempt to escape from arrest. The accusation of Means against Ball was that the latter was responsible for their ambush at the Waterford Baptist Church.

Anger and mostly fear stirred the townsfolk. Both unionists and secessionists in the county pleaded for these men to be released before it could escalate to retaliation. But White stood his ground and refused to release his prisoners. He, however, let them go for three weeks on parole and sent Williams and Hollingsworth to convince the Union to let Ball and Belt go. “If they can’t do that, they’ll have to come back,” Rizzo recounted.

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Unfortunately, Williams and Hollingsworth were unsuccessful in their mission, and at the end of their parole, they headed back to White’s encampment.

“At this point, Samuel Means and the Loudoun Rangers said they didn’t have to go back,” Rizzo continued, “but the two (Williams and Hollingsworth) choose [otherwise] because they gave their word to White [saying] that they will be back in three weeks’ time.”

When they returned, White informed the two unionists that they would be marched to Castle Thunder in Richmond and held there, where “they’re going to be treated like the rest of the prisoners of war.”

Castle-Thunder-1860s
Castle Thunder in Richmond, VA, housed the prisoners of war—including Union spies, political prisoners, and individuals charged with treason—of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Efforts to set the four prisoners free

Both their families came and worked together to set these prisoners free. Most notable was Williams’ wife, who went around Virginia to gather signatures from unionists and appeal to the United States. She even traveled to the White House in the fall of 1863 to talk to and convince then-President Abraham Lincoln to let the innocent union captives go in exchange for the freedom of the federate prisoners.

“And he did,” Rizzo perked. “He (Lincoln) wrote a note saying to the head prisoners to help this request out if possible, but the head of the prison, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, countermanded the request.” Stanton refused to grant the request, concerned that “copycats” would transpire in the future.

Joseph Rizzo
Joe Rizzo at the Loudoun County Museum fundraising event, recounting the political prisoners of Loudoun County during the American Civil War. (Screenshot from C-Span)

So the disappointed Mrs. Williams returned to Waterford with her husband’s guaranteed freedom. Nevertheless, at this point, the issue has already gotten enough attention that secessionists have started appealing to their side of the government. They submitted an appeal to the Secretary of War, and even Henry Ball wrote his own, saying not to take prisoners on his account.

Fortunately, Ball’s letter had a good impact on the case. The two prisoners in Castle Thunder were eventually released on the condition of taking an oath in exchange for their travel permits. Finally, after months of the debacle, Williams and Hollingsworth returned home.

“They’re able then to walk back home and in dramatic fashion, William Williams and Robert Hollingsworth arrived back to Waterford—looking beleaguered, longer beards, Williams even had smallpox from prison—but they make it back to Waterford on Christmas Day 1863,” Rizzo said.

He continued: “When word was getting out in early December that the two Unionists were out of prison, then Stanton relented and the two secessionists were released from Fort Delaware and they return home just before the New Year to Loudoun County.”

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Rizzo’s story showed that “people get caught up in war, even if you’re not directly involved in it,” especially if you’re living in an area like Loudoun County, “where you’re near the Potomac River—you have varying degrees of belief in the war, for or against; you will have enemies.”

“Sometimes, you might bring it upon yourself [to have] a notable secessionist who may have led troops. Sometimes you might be a schoolmaster caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rizzo said as he concluded his story. You’d still be at war in one way or another, and it doesn’t take breaks for anybody.