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The 1791 ledger, found at the Jersey City Free Public Library, was given to the Library of Virginia in October. It's one of the few Stafford records known to survive the Civil War.
The 220-year-old Stafford court ledger still bears the shipping label of the Union officer who took it in 1863.
County Administrator Anthony Romanello (left), historian Barbara Kirby, Supervisor Gary Snellings, Supervisor-elect Bob Thomas and author Jane Conner examine the ledger.
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
A long-lost chunk of Old Dominion history returned yesterday to the spot from which it vanished in the dark days of the Civil War.
Dr. Sandra G. Treadway, the Librarian of Virginia, brought newly discovered pre-Revolutionary records from Richmond to Stafford County so the public, historians and local officials could glimpse this rare treasure.
The court ledger book among the items had vanished from the county courthouse 148 years earlier, when the Union army--140,000 soldiers strong--occupied eastern Stafford. So did the bulk of the county's other court records, creating a huge headache for landowners, lawyers and historians that lingers to this day.
The leather-bound ledger, its entries written with quill pen, was found recently by a manager at the Jersey City, N.J., Free Public Library as he gathered materials to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
John Beekman, assistant manager of the New Jersey Room, realized the book didn't conform to his library's collection policy, and contacted the Library of Virginia to arrange its return.
Yesterday, local and state officials lauded Beekman for "doing the right thing," especially in an era when old documents are routinely sold--legally or not--to collectors via the Internet.
"It's really exciting for me to be part of this today," Treadway said yesterday as the 276-page volume was publicly unveiled back home in Virginia. "This discovery gives me hope that publicity about it may encourage other libraries in former Union states to take a look at what they have in their collections. They may say: 'Wow, we've got something similar. Let's pull it out. Maybe it doesn't belong here.'"
When Union troops occupied Stafford in 1862-63, from before the Battle of Fredericksburg to the Confederacy's "high-water mark" at Gettysburg, they sacked the courthouse area, local historian Jane Hollenbeck Conner recounted.
Pillaged court records were strewn all about the courthouse steps and yard, in drifts at least 15 inches deep, The New York Times said.
"It is impossible to estimate the inconvenience and losses which will be incurred by this wholesale destruction of deeds, claims, mortgages, &c" the newspaper reported on Dec. 11, 1862.
Some papers blamed it on the men of a notorious Union general, Daniel Sickles, said Conner, who tells the tale in her book "Sinners, Saints, and Soldiers in Civil War Stafford."
"We have it on pretty good authority while at Stafford C.H. the enemy destroyed [and] mutilated the records of the county," The Richmond Daily Enquirer reported. "It is said that Sickles drunk, and that among other excesses they dressed themselves in nightcaps and gowns, taken from private houses, and danced through the streets."
Other records were taken as spoils of war by souvenir-hunting troops.
The commonwealth's original Ordinance of Secession was taken by a Union soldier, Treadway noted. The parchment was later sold to a collector, and it wasn't until the late 1920s that, miraculously, it was repatriated to Richmond, she said. The fragile document was recently displayed in the Library of Virginia's "Union or Secession" exhibition.
"Now, when we tell that story, we're going to tell this one, as well," said Treadway, who does double duty as the state archivist.
AN OFFICER'S PRIZE
In the ledger's case, its Northern owner didn't try to conceal his deed.
Capt. William Augustus Treadwell of the 4th New York Infantry Regiment took the volume on March 30, 1863, and sent it to Boston, according to notations on the court-order book.
A university-educated native of Salem, Mass., Treadwell was then drilling U.S. Colored Troops in Washington. Later, he led Company G of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery in the Overland Campaign. After the war, Treadwell was military editor of the New York Press for 16 years, then moved to San Francisco and New Orleans, where he died in 1908.
Treadwell's red-and-white shipping label is still affixed to the Stafford ledger's cover. Inside is an inscription from when the captain gave the book to a friend. It changed hands several times before being given to the Hudson County, N.J., Historical Society, whose holdings were eventually acquired by the Jersey City library.
HISTORY, BORN AGAIN
Barbara Decatur, clerk of Stafford Circuit Court, warmly greeted the state officials and expressed the county's thanks to them and their New Jersey colleagues.
"This is the first time I can remember that such a unique historical document has been returned to Stafford," Decatur said. "I can only imagine the stories behind the entries in the ledger, stories that are now part of Stafford County's history."
Stafford historians Conner, Barbara Kirby and Jerrilynn Eby immediately began pouring over the ledger, gently turning its pages, and exclaiming again and again as new information came to light. Kirby uttered at least five "wows," making discovery after discovery.
Top county officials took a good look, too. Word of the ledger's presence lured sheriff's deputies and a custodian to the Judicial Center's jury assembly room to get a peek.
Compiled by deputy court clerk John Fox in 1791, the volume summarizes county court records from 1749 to 1755--"warts and all," said Carl Childs, director of the state library's Local Records Services. One entry notes a person fined for cursing in church. Another details a slave's theft of Samuel Washington's blue broadcloth coat. The bondman was hanged for his crime; the state paid his owner his value at auction.
But before research can start, the book is in dire need of conservation work that takes time and money, Childs said. The state library will clean the pages, stabilize the ledger, then scan and convert it to microfilm and digital images, he said. The Stafford clerk will have a copy of the log, which will also be available to the public at the state library's Reading Room and by interlibrary loan.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
YOU CAN HELP
The "Adopt Virginia History" program of the Library of Virginia Foundation, a tax-deductible nonprofit, seeks donations to conserve the state's collective memory.