“I was in the Secret Service of the Army of the Potomac…” – Isaac Silver of Spotsylvania County, Part 2


From Mink:

Part 1 can be read here.

Joseph Hooker had ordered the creation of the Bureau of Military Information under Colonel George H. Sharpe. Even after Hooker’s removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, Sharpe stayed on as the head of the bureau and Isaac Silver continued to work for it.

Not much is known about Silver’s activities during the period between the Battle of Chancellorsville and the spring of 1864. He must certainly have been working for Sharpe, as his neighbor Ebenezer McGee is known to have acted as a guide for the Army of the Potomac during the Mine Run campaign in November and the Ulric Dahlgren Raid in March. McGee is reported to have been killed during the latter operation.

Monument at the site of Ebeneezer McGee's Spotsylvania home.

The spring offensive brought the Union army once again into Silver’s backyard. In a postwar deposition, Silver claimed that he was “a guide for Gen. Sheridan at the time of the battle of Spottsylvania Court House in May 1864. He was at my house.”

Philip Sheridan

On the night of May 8, 1864, Union Major General Philip Sheridan gathered his cavalry divisions around Isaac’s farm on Orange Plank Road. While the armies were engaged at Spotsylvania Court House, Sheridan prepared for his ride to Richmond. In a dispatch sent that afternoon, Captain Edwin B. Parsons informed army headquarters that “Major-General Sheridan’s headquarters will be at Silver’s to-night, on the plank road to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania.” The following morning the Union cavalry mounted up and began its ride that resulted in the Battle of Yellow Tavern and the mortal wounding of Confederate cavalry chieftain Major General J.E.B. Stuart.

As the armies moved south, Silver continued to provide information on Confederate activities in central Virginia. Amazingly, went undetected for almost three years before Confederate authorities finally caught up with him. In late January 1865, Silver, along with Fredericksburg resident John B. Timberlake and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Superintendent Samuel Ruth were rounded up. The charge against the three was treason against the Confederate States, specifically “carrying information to the enemy.” The prisoners were placed in Castle Thunder in Richmond.

Castle Thunder - Richmond, Va.

Confederate authorities released Ruth and Timberlake a month later, acknowledging a lack of sufficient evidence to hold them. The case against Silver must have been stronger, as he was shipped to the prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He presumably sat out the few remaining weeks of the war at that place and returned home following the Confederate surrender.

It is interesting to ponder Silver’s return home. His cover had been blown and his arrest and charges were written up in the Richmond newspaper. His wartime activities must have certainly been a topic of conversation among his neighbors and the local community. By 1870, however, Isaac, his wife Catherine and their six children moved across the Rappahannock River to Stafford County.

Isaac Silver’s contributions to the Union war effort and strategy in central Virginia should not be overlooked. He and his operatives supplied important and timely reports to the Army of the Potomac. It might even be said that Isaac Silver, albeit a Unionist, was quite possibly the most influential man in Spotsylvania County during the war. It is no exaggeration to say that Silver’s information proved instrumental in developing Hooker’s strategy for the Chancellorsville Campaign. His overall correct identification of Confederate units and their locations ensured an early Union success, which of course fell apart once contact between the two armies was made.

Isaac Silver passed away on Christmas Eve 1901. He was 91 years old. In reporting his death, the Fredericksburg newspaper described him as “a prosperous farmer and during the war of 1861 and ’65 was conspicuous for his fidelity to the cause of the Union.” His wife, Catherine, followed him to the grave in 1908.

The graves of Isaac and Catherine Silver - Tabernacle Church Cemetery, Stafford County. The open ground in the distance is Silver Ridge Farms, which is still farmed by the Silvers.

The house that Silver owned and lived in during the Civil War still stands in Spotsylvania County, barely.

Isaac Silver's house in Spotsylvania County - 2010

It is in worse than poor shape and beyond help. The end chimney has fallen into a rubble pile. The back porch has also collapsed, taking a good portion of the north façade with it. Holes in the roof are expansive and vegetation covers the building. Overall, the structure is a danger to be in or near. Within this now dilapidated and unstable structure, Issac and Ebenezer McGee likely planed scouting missions, sifted through gathered information, and wrote their reports to Colonel Sharpe.

The Silver House is private property and well posted with no trespassing signs. Please respect the owners’ rights and privacy and do not enter the grounds without prior permission.

* One small side note. Silver’s brother-in-law, Robert Orrock, Jr., of Hungary Station, Henrico County, Virginia, was also on Colonel Sharpe’s payroll. In fact, it was on his farm that Richmond Unionists buried the remains of Captain Ulric Dahlgren, following his disastrous March 1864 raid on Richmond.

Information and access to resources was provided by Mike Silver and D.P. Newton of Stafford County, and Dr. Art Tracy of Spotsylvania County.

Eric J. Mink

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16 thoughts on ““I was in the Secret Service of the Army of the Potomac…” – Isaac Silver of Spotsylvania County, Part 2

  1. This is truly a piece of buried local history. Hollywood needs to put this story on the “Silver” screen. Excellent fact gathering here, Mr. Mink.
    I am curious now if Delegate Bobby Orrock is a descendant of the Robert Orrock, Jr., you mention in the concluding side note?

    • Robert Orrock, Jr would be, if I’ve counted correctly, the great, great uncle of Delegate Bobby Orrock. Bobby’s Great, Great Grandfather James Orrock was also the brother in law of Issac Silver and brother of Robert Orrock, Jr.

      According to retired NPS historian Robert K. Krick’s history of the 30th Virginia Infantry, H. E. Howard, 1985, second edition, James Orrock was a 38 year old nurseryman (employed at H. R. Robey’s Hopewell Nursery just down the road from Issac’s farm) in Spotsylvania County when he was conscripted sometime after June 30, 1864. He was captured by Federal forces at Five Forks in Dinwiddie County on April 1, 1865.

  2. Eric —

    Excellent post. This is a fascinating story and like Mr. Cummings said, it deserves a Hollywood movie or at least, an article. I always wondered if the Silver House still stood. Any idea from where in New Jersey the Silver family came?

    -Todd

    • Todd – Nice to hear from you. Tracing Isaac’s location prior to his 1850s arrival in Spotsylvania has been frustrating. The census and Isaac’s own words say he was a native of New Jersey, but placing him there hasn’t quite worked out. I haven’t found him in the earlier census records. Unless he went by another name, I’m not quite sure we’ll find him. Perhaps John Orrock and other Silver-Orrock descendants may know. I’ve been in contact with a couple and will ask them.

      Eric

    • Isaac Silver is my second great grandfather and I have been researching this family for many years. I gathered this same information in the early 1990’s but had not posted it to the internet — I’m glad you have. I am a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans through the accomplishments of Isaac’s Civil War service. It’s great to have this blog so that the information surrounding his Civil War activities can be shown and made known.

      Someone asked if his heritage is known — it is. Isaac was the son of James Silver and Rachel Hutchinson of New Jersey. The family lived in and around Mercer County but Isaac’s actual birth locale within the state is currently undetermined. James and Rachel were the parents of six children, Caroline, James, Maria, Clark, Isaac and Ezekiel. The parents are buried in Hamilton Square Baptist Church Yard, Hamilton Twp., Mercer Co., NJ. Rachel was the daughter of James Hutchinson and Sarah Tindall, also of New Jersey. Rachel and her husband James Silver both died within a month of each other in 1823. Their deaths were prior to the will (dated 22 August 1829) and death (1830) of her father James Hutchinson. Her children are named and left an inheritance in the will of their grandfather Hutchinson. The great grandparents of Isaac Silver on his maternal Hutchinson side were Jonathan and Elizabeth Dusowa/Dissoway/Du Sauchoy. The Du Sauchoy lineage extends back to Marc Du Sauchoy, Huguenot immigrant ancestor who came to New Amsterdam in 1665.

      One of my very favorite genealogical findings are “original” handwritten notes that Isaac penned and passed along to his commanding officers to warn or inform them of the Confederate troop movements. They have been preserved in the National Archives, Washington DC: Record Group 393, Box 10.

      Again, as descendant of Isaac Silver and wife Catherine Orrock. He fought for the North in the midst of the South, he fathered seven children all but one lived to adulthood, he owned considerable land in Stafford/Spotsylvania Co., VA., and left many proud descendants to futher research and record the areas of his life he did not boast about.

      Thank you!

      Karen Avery Miller

      • Karen – Thank you so much for that information!! With it, I was able to track Isaac in the early census records for Mercer County. I hope to find some time this winter to root through Isaac’s reports at the National Archives. Thanks for reading and chiming in here. – Eric

      • Some insight into a few of the extant intelligence reports retained in the National Archives is mentioned in an exert from Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage and The Veteran with New Introduction by Peg Campbell”, published by The American History Company, Fredericksburg, VA, 1998. The introduction by Campbell, entitled “Fighting Joe Hooker and the Battle of Chancellorsville”, beginning on page 27, tells of three reports provided by Isaac to the Union forces and shows a personal side of the man in the way he penned his messages – as the article says, spelling notwithstanding.

        BEGIN EXERT ON SILVER, p. 31 — Isaac Silver, originally from New Jersey, owned a farm on Plank Road not three miles east from Chancellorsville. Married to a native Scotland, Catherine, Silver was thrilled to be asked to spy. His first report, the most comprehensive information, spelling notwithstanding, received to date, opened

        “I feel glad to have the privilege of giveing all the information that I can to support a couse worthy of suport the preservation of the union.”

        He goes on to approximate the size of the commands of General Stonewall Jackson, A.P. Hill, Early, Ewell and McLaw and their locations. Silver moved freely around the area as he had another farm in Orange County wehre Lee’s army was headquartered.

        Silver’s second report was equally vital because he reported Confederate movement toward the south. Lee was convinced that the Union was leaving as they had done nothing for such a long period of time. In fact, the third report provided significant information. There were no standing troops (infantry and artillery) around Chancelorsville. Silver quotes the troops as saying:

        “there is nothing to hinder the yankeys from cutting (us) all to pieces with their shells . . .”

        He also gave Hooker some advice:

        “I do not think you would have a better time to make a rade on them at bankses ford . . . I think if you would cross about twenty thousands at the united states ford you could sweep your way down as far as the old mine road at the tabernicle church then agein at bannkeses ford about thirty thousands and you would sweep your way out.”

        Ebenezer McGee also lived on the turnpike just west of Fredericksburg and worked for the Union army on the railroad between Falmouth and Aquia. At night at unguarded banks, he would slip across the Rappahannock on a raft and pick up reports from Isaac Silver. ”

        The code term used to identify Isaac Silver was “old man”. He was 53 years old in 1863.

        Karen Avery Miller

  3. Excellent bit of research, Eric. The various enclaves of Union sympathizers in and around Fredericksburg is an intriguing story that is only now getting told. I am curious how any of this played out in the post war period. While the Ladies Memorial Association saw to the burial of Confederate soldiers, there does not appear to have been any great desire to embrace the lost cause in public spaces. As an example, there is no statue of a Confederate soldier in the vicinity of the court house, as has occured in so many other Southern towns. Instead, the many monuments on the Washington Avenue mall relate to Colonial times and the Revolution. Discussion with other historians has suggested that Fredericksburg’s war experience was more direct and much longer than most other places and folks were simply tired of it all. If that is the case, then reconciliation between local factions may not have been too difficult.

  4. Hi, I was out at the First Day Of Chancellorsville battlefield yesterday and noticed the McGee-Timberlake Cemetery was overgrown with weeds and sprouting trees. It is enclosed by a barbwire fence. Was wondering if anyone knows if there is anyone to take care of this cemetary. Two of the people buried ther are young ladies who only lived into there teens and it seems like a shame to leave their gravesites in disrepair and no flowers. I would be glad to help out if anyone knows anything. Thanks and great information here! Brian

    • Brian – Like most family burial grounds, I suspect the legal ownership of the McGee-Timberlake Cemetery rests with the descendants of those buried there. I don’t know if anyone is actively maintaining the cemetery. Perhaps one of our readers has some information. – Eric

      • Hi Eric, That’s kind of what I figured. Been doing some internet searching I’ll re-post if I have any luck. Thanks for your reply. Brian

      • spoke to some people living near the cemetery a couple years ago. they were connected to St. Mary’s in Fredericksurg. I mentioned the situation to them and long story short, I drove by a few months later and it had been cleaned up totally. Don’t know who did it but Merry Christmas to them!

    • Curious as to whether you’ve been able to see and read the names/dates on all the remaining stones in this little abandoned cemetery. You mentioned two young girls —I am looking for the burial of Isaac Silver & Cathernie Orrock’s baby daughter who only lived briefly after her birth in 1865. No grave has been found to-date. Since the McGee’s were friends of the Silvers, could it be possible the baby was buried in the McGee-Timberlake Cemetery?

      Karen

      • Hi Karen, There are eleven headstones and all are readable but hard too see because of the fence. However there are a couple of small grass covered small markers I am not sure what they are. Gracie and Edna Timberlake are the two girls born 1889 and 1891 died two years apart one death was 1908 and 1906. Have you checked the Tabernacle Church Cemetery, Stafford county, which is pictured above in this blog? I will look around the internet to see if I can find anything. Also one of the markers at the battlefield states that Mrs. MaGee lost a baby when her husband was taken from their home for questioning and she became upset. Hope it can be found. Brian

  5. Thank you! I have visited the Tabernacle Church Cemetery where Isaac and Catherine are buried. No stone for their baby girl was found and no early records that might point to a burial without a stone. Just thought maybe she died and was buried before the family moved in to Stafford Co. and the small graveyard you mentioned piqued my interest. Thanks again! KAM

  6. Hi Eric, Congratulations on a nicely researched article. I was interested in Isaac Silver’s deposition. Do you have a copy? I’ve just about finished a biography of Gen. George H. Sharpe, head of the BMI. Silver’s statements would be of great importance. I’d appreciate anything you can do. Pete Tsouras

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