As Civil War troops traveled through Virginia, they often vandalized and burned nearby courthouses, causing massive collections of legal documents and records to be lost. Now, historians and visitors can put the puzzle pieces back together during a visit to the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties suffered what the Library of Virginia considers “catastrophic losses” in which incredible amounts of loose papers and bound files like order books, deed books and will books were compromised. Spotsylvania experienced a “considerable loss” in which some unbound records were lost, but larger bodies of text got by unscathed.
Losses like these can stop Northern Virginia genealogists’ research right in its tracks. However, by taking a trip to the Lost Records Localities Collection at the Library of Virginia (whose 1,430 records can also be accessed online), historians might be able to uncover some of the area’s lost past. Some researchers may also make use of this commonwealth-wide tool.
“As we realized that the original records were gone, we started making photocopies of the records that we could find,” Greg Crawford, the local records program manager at the Library of Virginia, says of the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program. “In the 1990s, we started scanning those documents and created a database to make them accessible via a digital collection.”
Some of these lost documents were found because duplicates were also filed or processed in another county that did not suffer a significant loss. A lot of slave documents were recovered this way because after the Civil War, a freed slave would have to carry a document vouching for his or her freedom. If a freed slave moved from Fairfax County (which suffered catastrophic loss) to Page County, he would have to get a new document made in Page County, where it would then be filed in the local court records where library staffers could recover it.
One of the library’s greatest recoveries is that of the Stafford County Order Book, which Crawford calls the “diary of the locality.” It was stolen and taken up north by Union soldiers.
“Clerks recorded in the order book events happened in the courts on a daily basis, and because the courthouse was a repository of all local records, you really get insight into a locality by looking at its order book,” Crawford says. “By recovering that order book, that part of Stafford County history has returned to Northern Virginia.”
Images of the Stafford County order book’s pages can be found online, and the library is asking volunteers for help transcribing the often hard-to-read handwriting. This can be done by simply filling in the text box that appears when an image is selected.
In addition to this recovery, the Library of Virginia has made over 90 site visits to various Virginia courthouses, examining their records and identifying preservation needs. Some courts transfer their records to the Library of Virginia, where chancery records (records pertaining to equity) take top priority.
“These cases can be hundreds of pages long, so you get a tremendous wealth of local history and local knowledge,” Crawford says. “An example of a chancery case would be if someone who owns a lot of property and has 10 heirs dies without a will. There will be a dispute about who gets what, and the court will divide up property among all the heirs.”
One of Crawford’s most interesting finds comes from a series of letters exchanged between William Stewart Jr. and Catherine Flood McCall between 1800-1818. McCall owned the Alexandria nail factory and blacksmith shop where Stewart worked as a manager, and when Stewart died with unpaid debts, Stewart’s administrator went after McCall to repay the debts Stewart incurred, claiming they were amassed in association with the nail factory. McCall used the letters as evidence to show Stewart always had to ask consent for financial matters, so any remaining debt had to be personal debt that McCall was not responsible for repaying. In these letters, Stewart confessed his love for McCall though McCall did not reciprocate.
“These letters were used in a debt case, but you get to see more of a personal angle in this,” Crawford says. “These records have so much genealogy, African-American history, women’s history and church history, and they give you more of a narrative about individuals’ lives.”
Arlington chancery records are set to be scanned soon, but there are already chancery collections assembled for Loudoun, Fairfax, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties. Because some documents date back to as early as 1730, for preservation purposes, the library rarely serves its guests the original document.
“I encourage people to do their homework before they come so that they at least know what collections are available,” Crawford says. “When you come into the building, come up to the second floor and see the staff there. They will point you in the right direction.”