During the Civil War, loyalties in the Fredericksburg area were not entirely behind the Confederacy. There was a small community of northern born farmers and merchants who not only supported the Union, but actively worked for the Union war effort. Most prominent among these loyal Yankees was Isaac Silver, a native of New Jersey who moved to Spotsylvania in the 1850s and owned a farm along Orange Plank Road in the Chancellorsville area.
Not much is known about Silver prior to 1861, other than he was a widower. He remarried in 1857, taking Catherine Orrock as his bride. Catherine was the daughter of Robert Orrock, Sr., a Scottish immigrant who settled outside Richmond, Va.
Silver, in a postwar deposition, claimed that he began working for the Union army in 1862. Official Union documents confirm his employment as a paid Union scout working for Colonel George H. Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information. At Union headquarters, Isaac was often referred to as “the Old Man,” as he was 52 years old in 1863. Along with his neighbor, Ebenezer McGee, and a number of other loyal residents of the area, Isaac sent and carried information about Confederate troops strengths and movements to the Union General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters. An example of the type of information, and accuracy, he provided is evident in a March 13, 1863 report sent to Colonel Sharpe:
“I feel glad to have the privelege of giveing all the information that I can to support a couse worthy of suport the preservation of the union.
Jackson is down around or near hamilton crossing or below to wards the rappehanick river and A.P. hill Early And [Ewell] they are all below the crossing [with] perhaps 30 or 40 thousand men at [Bank’s] ford thare is wilcoxes briggade they say about 3 or 5 thoussand [McLaws’s] & andersons divisions is above salem church with 5 or 6 thouseand their is two divisions gone to Petersburg they still think their is over one hundred thoussand [Federals] hear yet it is true from last fall they ordered more men out from eightteen to forty five they have been cuming in all winter they have much larger army then I expected they have several batterreys fitchew Lee is stationd a little east of culpeper court house with his calverry it is said near 3 thoussand general Lee is on the telegraph rad near or within 3 or 4 miles of fredericksburg they have but little forage according to the best I can learn
I cannot say but little more at present try to let your messenger come onst if possible before the battle I will try to be better posted about the rebble armey
they are stealing your horses and saddles from forkear [Fauquier] and the lower part of louden.
They have got intrenchments dug at the bark mill and Ealeys ford but no artillery as I can learn I think it is certain there is none…
the rebbles now say hear they only want one more battle and their independence is sure.” – Isaac Silver Report, dated March 13, 1863, quoted in Edwin C. Fischel, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996) pp 316-317. Misspellings are Silver’s, bracketed inserts are Fischel’s.
Silver and his fellow operatives remained active in the weeks preceding the Chancellorsville Campaign and sent numerous updates to Sharpe on Confederate dispositions. It is highly likely that Silver was not at home during the actual battle. His farm was, in fact, part of the battlefield for May 1 and Confederate troops swept across his fields and camped on his property that night. Silver managed to keep his identity as a Union scout secret and in an area teeming with Confederates he showed bravado. On May 21, Silver filed a claim with the Confederate army, seeking damages done to his property by southern soldiers during the battle. Such a claim included an investigation by Confederate officers, which surely meant a visit to his farm. The following day, the board of officers charged with checking into Silver’s claim rendered an opinion that Silver should be reimbursed for the loss of his fences. Confederate quartermasters were ordered to pay the Union scout $923.00.
A close read of Silver’s claim reveals a very interesting statement. His inability to identify the units responsible for destroying his fences is explained as Isaac “was taken by the Yankees and could not inform the board what troops did it.” It goes without saying that he certainly had not been arrested by the Union forces, but he may in fact have been a guest at Hooker’s headquarters. Dated May 8, 1863, two days following the conclusion of the Chancellorsville Campaign, an official military pass from Army of the Potomac Headquarters shows the freedom that Silver, and his fellow Unionist Jackson Harding, had in passing in and out of Hooker’s lines.
Follow up: a general pays a visit, incarceration and Silver’s home today can be found here.
Eric J. Mink