Civil War Profiles

The Civil War according to ‘Gath’: White House Plantation

When we last left George Alfred Townsend, the reporter for the New York World traveled by ship to Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort, Va. From there, he moved on toward his next destination, White House Plantation, owned by William H.F. “Rooney” Lee, the son of Gen. Robert E. Lee, but now occupied by the Union army.

To reach White House, “Gath” — Townsend’s penname — went by horseback to Yorktown, 22 miles to the northwest of Fort Monroe, and passed through Hampton and nearby Big Bethel, where one of the earliest Civil War battles took place. Arriving near Yorktown, the reporter marveled, “Every foot of ground, for fifteen miles henceforward, had been touched by the shovel and the pick” to construct defensive positions.

“The mind shudders,” Gath recorded in his memoir, “Campaigns of a Non-Combatant,” at the human toll “a thousand cannon and two hundred thousand muskets” would claim. Yet, George Alfred was surprised to find such a “paltry settlement” at Yorktown, where “Lord Cornwallis surrendered his starving command to the American colonists and their French allies” in the revolutionary days of 1781.

Oddly, Townsend did not write about the siege that had taken place during April and early May 1862 by Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac some 100,000 strong against a paltry 10,000 Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, otherwise known as “Prince John.” The Rebels outfoxed McClellan by maneuvering in such a way as to stop him cold under the belief he was facing a much larger force.

McClellan attempted to blast Magruder’s troops out of their works with his heavy guns, but, after delaying the Yankees for a month, the Rebels disappeared into the night falling back toward Richmond.

When Townsend arrived at Yorktown, he visited the house where President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee had met with Magruder. Gath explained that the “fine works” the Rebels built around Yorktown resulted from Davis’s decree that every slave owner in the region would send half of their male slaves to help build these fortifications.

The next day, Townsend left Yorktown and went up the York River by boat past West Point, the junction of the Mattapony and Pamunkey rivers, and continued on the Pamunkey to White House Plantation. Along the way, Gath observed old residences dating from “manorial and baronial times,” and “negro quarters of logs, arranged in rows … with mud chimneys” that were nearby.

When the boat finally reached White House, the “camp fires of the grand army lit up the sky, drums beat in the distance; sentries paced the strand [and] soldiers were bathing in the river.” George Alfred found his way to army general headquarters, and inquired about the location of Maj. Gen. William Smith’s division.

A young officer who spoke broken English attempted to be of assistance. The Good Samaritan was the Duke de Chartres, a French nobleman who had volunteered to serve as an officer in the Union army. He arranged to have Gath escorted to his destination.

Upon arrival, George Alfred met with Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, a brigade commander who during the war earned the sobriquet “Hancock the Superb” for his heroics on the field. The general invited him to join his mess.

The industrious World reporter gathered details about Hancock’s four regiments. He noted the 5th Wisconsin men, under Col. Amasa Cobb, were “rough-mannered, great-hearted farmers, wood-choppers, and tradesmen,” who were known for their “impulsiveness, selfishness, and bravery.”

Col. Francis Vinton, a West Point graduate, commanded the 43rd New York. He was a passionate officer with “peculiar views.” Before the Civil War, Vinton was involved in a “filibustering” scheme to conquer the Central American country of Honduras.

Col. Hiram Burnham, “a staunch old yeoman and soldier” led the 6th Maine. The 49th Pennsylvania fell under the command of Col. William H. Irwin, a strict disciplinarian and former lawyer from Lewistown, Pa.

Having spent another busy day, the young Delawarean “penciled the facts at once, made up my letter, and mailed it early in the morning.” George Alfred Townsend was getting closer to the danger and uncertainty of the battlefront.

To be continued….

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, Card Smart in Milford, and on Contact him at


By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point