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Monticello and the Civil War
The Civil War had been under way for less than a year before casting its dark shadow on Thomas Jefferson's "little mountain." Monticello was then owned by New Yorker Uriah Phillips Levy, and therefore was considered "alien property" by the secessionist government in Virginia. In 1862, the Confederate State of Virginia seized the house and held the property until the post-war era when such "alien seizures" were returned to their rightful owners. Eventually, the house was restored to the heirs of Captain Levy, who had died in New York City on March 22, 1862.
The paucity of public records dealing with local administration in Albemarle County makes it difficult to trace the history of Monticello during the war years. The people active in county administration before September 1864 were little known and left few records. After this date, however, it is easier to assemble a cast of characters and piece together the Monticello story.
Visitors' accounts prove that the property was in the hands of Uriah Levy, or of his representatives, as late as August 1861. By then, local residents were restive and they talked of taking away the property and not permitting Levy to return. The state took physical possession at some point between August 1861 and February 8, 1862, under the Sequestration Act, and not as tax delinquent property as was the practice in similar situations.
The local authorities' initial attempt to take possession of Monticello was blocked for a time by George Carr, acting as executor of Levy's estate. Carr's actions resulted in a suit before the District Court of the Confederate States of America for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Richmond. Since overseer Joel Wheeler was living at Monticello, he was included as a party to the suit, Confederate States of America v. George Carr and Joel N. Wheeler.
The case was heard in the Confederate capital in late September 1864, and decision was rendered on the twenty-seventh. Henry L. Brooke, Receiver for District No. 3, was directed to sell at public auction "on the premises, for cash, in Confederate Treasury notes of the new issue the following real and personal estate, late the property of Captain U. P. Levy, deceased, an alien enemy":
1. MONTICELLO, a tract of two hundred and eighteen acres of land, ... with all the buildings thereon, consisting of a large and commodious brick dwelling-house, with a variety of out-buildings ....
2. BUCK ISLAND, ... once the property of James Monroe, and ... conveyed to the said U. P. Levy ....
3. After the sale of the real estate, there will be sold at the same time, and on the same terms, nineteen NEGRO SLAVES, a variety of HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, FARMING UTENSILS, HORSES, CATTLE, HOGS, SHEEP, &c.1
The sale was held November 17, 1864, under the direction of D. M. Pattie, a Confederate Marshall living in Charlottesville. The house and farm buildings along with the acreage were bid on by Benjamin F. Ficklin of Albemarle County for the inflated figure of $80,500.2 Ficklin's reasons for buying are not known, but a Harper's Weekly news note stated that he would present the property "to the State." Ficklin held title for only six months, until the fall of the Confederacy in April 1865, after which all confiscated property reverted to previous owners.
Few records survive about the condition of the house while it was held by the Confederates. Neither of the standbys of local history — neither Edgar Woods's Albemarle County nor James Alexander's Early Charlottesville — allude to Monticello at this time. Only Edward C. Mead in his Historic Homes of the Southwest Mountains makes a brief and unsupported statement: "During the Civil War it was confiscated by the Confederate Government and fell into rapid decay; at one time being used as a hospital ...."3
The only account of any length is found in the suspect volume, G. A. Townsend's Monticello and Its Preservation, published, and probably written, by Jefferson M. Levy, Uriah Levy's nephew:
But finally the Commodore's slaves were sold, and the dismantling of the furniture began, the losses amounting to several hundred thousand dollars. Soldiers broke off the carved sculpture of many mantels. Other people peddled the bust of Voltaire by Houdon and several similar treasures to rich men in New York. Captain Jonas P. Levy, when he visited the place to save it from confiscation, was held as a hostage ....4
Miss Sarah Strickler, a young visitor late in the summer of 1864, has left her impressions:
The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now. It is the property of Commodore Levi I believe. There is a large clock in the hall, you get up to wind it by means of a ladder. The parlour retains but little of its former elegance, the ball room is on the second floor, and has a thousand names scratched over its walls .... There are some roses in the yard that have turned wild, and those are the only flowers .... The family burying ground shows the same want of attention that the house and grounds do ....5
Another interesting and untold episode of this time is the disposition of the furnishings after the seizure by the Confederate government. Which pieces, if any, were removed by Confederate soldiers, as claimed by Townsend, which went under Deputy Pattie's hammer at the November 17 sale, and which remained unsold are unanswered questions and are likely to remain so. Townsend believed that there was a substantial amount of furniture in the house in 1862, much of it Jefferson's. Unfortunately, the only item specifically mentioned is a "Bust of Voltaire and similar treasures." Probably three of the "similar treasures" were the pier mirrors attached to the walls of the parlor, the folding ladder in the hall, and the Great Clock above the entrance door. There is no evidence to suggest that Uriah Levy owned other Jefferson furnishings.
The oft-repeated story that Confederate soldiers (who were as capable as any others in such matters) looted the house and carried away thousands of dollars worth of furniture has no basis in fact. A Union army detachment of around 20 soldiers under General Philip Sheridan did conduct a raid on Monticello on March 4, 1865. According to an official claim by Joel Wheeler, the men took two horses, bacon, and flour.6
Another aspect of the Monticello story, the contesting of Uriah Levy's will and the question of the legal disposition of his estate, began to unfold at this time. In 1863, the heirs challenged the will in a New York State court while the United States Senate considered the possibility of taking over Monticello and running it as an agricultural school for the orphaned sons of Naval warrant officers, as Levy had requested. The question of establishing legal title to Monticello was extremely complex and was not finally resolved until 1879, long after the demise of the Confederacy.
- James A. Bear, Jr., 1970. Originally published as "The Confederate Period," in Monticello Keepsakes 14 (April 12, 1970).
- 1. "RECEIVER’S SALE OF MONTICELLO AND BUCK ISLAND ESTATES, AND OTHER VALUABLE PROPERTY," Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Va., November 11, 1864. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
- 2. "THE SALE OF MONTICELLO," Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Va., November 25, 1864. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters. See also "Sale of MONTICELLO," Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Va., November 22, 1864. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
- 3. Edward D. Mead, Historic Homes of the Southwest Mountains (Bridgewater, Va.: C.J. Carrier Co., 1898; reprint, 1962), 33-34.
- 4. George Alfred Townsend, Monticello and Its Preservation, Since Jefferson's Death, 1826-1902 ([Washington, D.C.]: [Gibson Bros., Printers], ), 17-18.
- 5. Diary of Sarah Strickler, August 1, 1864, Accession #5633, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
- 6. Claim Number 168, June 1877, Southern Claims Commission Papers, Record Group 56, National Archives: RG 217, Box 332, Entry 732, Settled Case Files for Claims Approved by the SCC, 1871-1880.