Ledger Stolen By N.Y. Soldier Is Returned To Virginia
By Scott C. Boyd
(January 2012 Civil War News)
STAFFORD COURTHOUSE, Va. – The stolen item was returned, but not by the man who took it. The thief was a Union Army officer who looted it when Northern troops occupied the courthouse in Stafford County, Virginia.
He even had the nerve to inscribe his name and the date he stole the priceless ledger: Captain William A. Treadwell, 4th New York Infantry Regiment, March 30, 1863.
It took 148 years, but after a library official in New Jersey noticed the old tome and realized the book belonged in Virginia, the ledger was returned to Stafford Courthouse in a ceremony on Dec. 1.
The ledger was hand-written in 1791. It is a copy of the court’s order book for 1749-1755, when Virginia was a British colony. An order book records everything brought before a court, such as deeds, wills, lawsuits and criminal trials. Bound in leather, it has 379 pages and two indexes.
“Big kudos” are due to John Beekman, assistant manager of the Jersey City Free Public Library, said Carl Childs at the ceremony. Childs is head of local records at the Library of Virginia and retrieved the ledger in New Jersey on Oct. 20. It stayed at the state library until it was taken to Stafford for the ceremony.
Beekman was looking through a box marked “Civil War” in the library’s storage when he discovered the Virginia court book. “It is time for this volume, after nearly a century and a half, to be returned to an institution where it can be preserved and made accessible to researchers,” Beekman is quoted as saying on the library’s website.
Local historian Jane Conner, author of Sinners, Saints, and Soldiers in Civil War Stafford, put the theft of the book in context.
It was Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ Excelsior Brigade which first occupied Stafford Courthouse on April 2, 1862, after brushing aside a nearby 40-man contingent of Texas cavalry, Conner said. Southern newspapers reported that Sickles’ men ransacked stores and houses, taking silver, money and clothing.
The Richmond Daily Enquirer reported, “It is said that Sickles was there drunk, and that among other excesses they dressed themselves in nightcaps and gowns, taken from private houses and danced through the streets.”
Another newspaper report stated, “We have it on pretty good authority while at Stafford C.H. the enemy destroyed and mutilated the records of the county.”
Several months later, a New York Times story on Dec. 11, 1862 – just two days before the nearby Battle of Fredericksburg – mentions the sad condition of Stafford Courthouse: “This little Virginia hamlet, which has figured so conspicuously during the rebellion … now presents a scene of utter ruin.”
The article said, “It is impossible to estimate the inconvenience and losses which will be incurred by this wholesale destruction of deeds, claims, mortgages, &c.”
Librarian of Virginia Sandra Treadway said it was “not surprising” that the looting took place in Stafford, since the area lies midway between the rival capitals of Washington and Richmond.
Treadwell mailed the book to himself at a Boston address, Childs said. Then it ended up in the family of a New Jersey state senator before being given to the Hudson County (N.J.) Historical Society. When it ceased operating the ledger was transferred to the Jersey City Free Public Library.
Treadway said she hopes that publicity from this story will encourage other libraries in other states to look through their collections for things that don’t belong there, such as public records.
The Stafford Court ledger is a “public record, and belongs to the people of Virginia,” Treadway said at the ceremony. “Our main concern is to conserve it and make the content available.”
This wasn’t the first Stafford court ledger returned to the county. In 1903, a ledger covering the years 1664-1669 was returned by the New York State Library, Childs said.
Although the Clerk of the Court in Stafford is the official owner of record, Childs recommends that the Library of Virginia keeps it in secure storage.
Following conservation, he said the pages of the ledger will be put on microfilm and also digitally scanned. Then a leather-bound color copy of the book will be presented to the Stafford Court clerk.
The cost of conservation will be about $2,500 and will be done by the state library’s in-house conservation lab. “It’s a lot cheaper than Stafford trying to do it themselves,” Childs explained.
Barbara Decatur, the Stafford Clerk of the Court, said “We’re excited to get the court ledger back from New Jersey. We can only imagine the stories that go with it, its travels over the years, where it’s been, where it’s been hiding.”
Local historians Conner and Jerrilynn Macgregor began poring over the ledger immediately after the ceremony, seeming to quickly find things of interest in the details contained in the ledger.