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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Destruction of the Myer Farm, and the Death of a New Jersey Colonel at Spotsylvania

     The farm of John Henry Myer had been a bucolic delight, occupying a prominent rise above the Ni River valley, and scarcely a mile and a half east of Spotsylvania Courthouse.
     The Myer family had purchased the land in late April 1863, and the distance it provided from the horrors of war ravaged downtown Fredericksburg had been a major consideration in the transaction. John Myer, the father, had emigrated from the Kingdom of Hannover in 1846, making Fredericksburg the home for his growing family and the location of his prospering bakery enterprises on William Street, backing onto Market Square. Agriculturally, Myer was looking to transition the fields to wheat which would provide his own flour. The previous owner, Mordicai Gayle, had concentrated on tobacco, as many of the surrounding Spotsylvania farms had done.
John Henry Myer before the war, as a young entrepreneur.

     Just a year after their exodus, John Myer was conscripted into the Confederate service, and as if by fate, the war he was entering came virtually to the doorstep of his home. Positioned in a landmark earthwork known today as Heth’s Salient, the 40th Virginia Infantry were just two miles west of his farm, and on May 15, 1864, billows of black smoke ominously filled the sky above the idyllic homestead. The Union Army was burning his property in a retaliatory move caused the previous day by the rash actions of an entrusted tenant, Thomas Jett. Jett had introduced himself to the occupying Union forces on the morning of May 14, 1864 as noted in the Official Records. When the tide shifted later that afternoon, and overwhelming Confederate numbers took the ground back, Jett brashly fired upon the retreating blue coats with his personal weapon, but the Confederate victory was short lived, and the Union retook the hill with relative ease as the evening came on. Daniel M. Holt, the Surgeon of the 121st New York, reflected in his diary entry of May15th, "Again upon the ground lost yesterday. Our Brigade in front as skirmishers. Remain all day. The most quiet one of the campaign, so far. No picket or other firing heard. Encamp for the night in a log cabin, the last of Negro quarters. We burned the large house and outbuildings because the owner was a rebel and upon our evacuating yesterday, fired into our "demoralized" ranks. It was a good building and its destruction helped to pay for that shot."
Of course it was not Mr. Myer, the true owner of the house, who fired that shot, and thus he would unwittingly suffer for the misdeed of a man he entrusted as caretaker while he was away, fighting in a war he wanted no part of.
     Further exacerbating the Union force’s ire against the Myer property was the death of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wiebecke of the 2nd New Jersey Infantry. Wiebecke and his men had been thrust into the action of May 14th almost as an afterthought, providing a modest bolstering of the defensive line that afternoon. Sent forward as support for skirmishers examining a suspected Confederate advance, the Jersey men ended up taking the solid brunt of the attack when the suspicion proved all too real. The regimental chaplain for the 2nd later described the incident, “Suddenly, the enemy advanced in overwhelming force, and the Union skirmish line fell back thro’ its supports, thus leaving Colonel W with his men in front. Their well directed fire broke the rebels’ first line. But other lines of battle continued to advance. At this moment, Col. W. raised himself from behind the protection of a few rails, whence his men were firing, to reconnoiter the advancing foe. While so doing, he was struck by a bullet, which entered at the right eye, penetrated to his brain, causing instant death.” The Colonel’s body was left in Confederate hands for several hours before the Union retook the hill, and in that interim, the chaplain explains to Wiebecke’s widow, “…the barbarous foe had plundered your husband’s body of his watch, his money, and most of his clothing.”
    This maltreatment of the body inflamed the men of the rank and file, and by dawn of the next day much of the personal property was wrecked prior to being set to the torch. 
Lt. Colonel Charles Wiebecke of the 2nd New Jersey
from a reunion ribbon in the author's collection.
Your blog host portrayed Wiebecke in a documentary film in 2004.
Photograph by Robert Szabo.

     On May 22, 1864, seven days after his Spotsylvania home was destroyed, John Henry Myer was captured near the North Anna River and spent the rest of 1864 as a POW at Point Lookout, Maryland. He took the oath of allegiance on December 15 and returned home to Fredericksburg. In 1866 he sold his decimated Spotsylvania farm at a considerable loss, but went on in the postwar years to become one of Fredericksburg’s most successful business men and community leaders.

     Today the property sits begging for attention. The woods surrounding the house site were logged in recent years, damaging sections of delicate earthworks that remained from Union occupation. Much of the land is covered in heavy secondary growth.

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