A Fredericksburg Family Caught in the Ravages of War

John Henry Myer before the Civil War, as a young entrepreneur.

John Henry Myer before the Civil War, as a young entrepreneur.

By John F. Cummings III

John Henry Myer came to America to escape the turmoil of mid nineteenth century Germany. He would settle in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1846. He began his professional life as a saddler. Interestingly, in 1852, he changed vocations, becoming a baker and confectioner, a switch that proved highly successful. He operated his business at 212 William Street which backed onto Market Square. The operation had an expanded kitchen attached to the rear of the building, and the Myer family residence were on the upper two floors. By the time of the Civil War he had three young children. Mary Elizabeth, John Jr., and Annie.

The approaching battle of Fredericksburg forced the Myer family to become refugees out in the Spotsylvania County countryside, west of town. The Union bombardment of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862 left much of the downtown commercial area severely damaged or destroyed, but the Myer home amazingly survived. The overall devastation however, would no longer be suitable for his young family and by late April 1863, just days before the Battle of Chancellorsville, and yet another battle in the heart of town, Myer had finished negotiating the purchase of a sizeable farm near Spotsylvania Courthouse. It was an idyllic location, on a hill overlooking the Ni River.

As the spring of 1864 approached, two warring armies prepared to leave their winter camps, and John Henry Myer was conscripted into the 40th Virginia Infantry. His first taste of battle would be in the horrors of the Wilderness, and from there the fighting moved on toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, erupting just north of the village, along the Brock Road where it intersects Block House Road. As both sides shifted into position the 40th Virginia settled into a section of entrenchments now referred to as Heth’s Salient, a leg of works that dangled south of the larger, and more infamous, Muleshoe Salient.

By early morning of May 14, 1864, the Union army shifted men from its right flank to extend its left, in a plan to strike at the Confederate’s weakly held right flank just past the Courthouse. The weather however, conspired against this stealth maneuver, and the troops were slowed by mud they churned up as several days of rain had preceded the move.

Confederates occupying the Myer property were able to observe this slow, but steady stream of Union Blue heading up the Courthouse Road. The attack failed to materialize, and General Lee expressed little concern about the Union’s maneuvering. Union Army of the Potomac commander George Gordon Meade however was intent on having the observers driven from the hill top.

After a sweeping assault by a small contingent of Union infantry, the Confederates removed themselves.
Sadly, the Myer family were once again forced to leave their home as refugees. Tragically, the next day Union troops burned the home and outbuildings after the Myer caretaker had recklessly fired on retreating Union soldiers during a second, late day scuffle on the 14th. Undoubtably, Myer, entrenched still with his regiment less than two miles away, could observe the pillar of black smoke emitting from his home site. He was captured a week later near the North Anna River. He served as a POW until that December when he took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and returned home. His postwar years are noted by renewed commercial success and civic duty as a member of the Fredericksburg Common Council. He passed away on December 5, 1909, a well-respected man in the community.

John Cummings is a visual historian and the author of three books on the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania region. He provides battlefield guide services, and research assistance to visitors. He has also written for several national and local magazines and newspapers and provided historical research and commentary for five documentary films. He served on the former Spotsylvania Courthouse Tourism and Special Events Commission, and Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, (FoFAB).

Contact information is available on his blog at: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/

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