Monticello and the Civil War
From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
The Civil War had been underway for less than a year before casting its long dark shadow on Jefferson's "little mountain." In 1862 the authorities of the secessionist government in Virginia seized the house as alien property. This lasted until the post-war era when such seizures were returned to their rightful owners. The house was given back to the heirs of Captain Uriah Phillips Levy who had died in New York City on March 22, 1862.
The paucity of public records dealimg with local administration in Albemarle County makes it difficult to trace the history of Monticello during these years. The people active in county administration were little known before September, 1864. 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. But even then local residents were restive and they talked of taking away the property and not permitting Levy to return. Physical possession was taken between August, 1861, and February 8, 1862, under the Seqnestration Act and not as tax delinquent property as was the practice in similar situations. The initial attempt by local authorities was blocked for a time by George Carr, acting as executor of Levy's estate. This resulted in a suit before the District Court of the Confederate States of America for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Richmond. And since Joel Wheeler was living at Monticello, he was included as a party to the suit, Confederate States of America us. 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 and for cash in Confederate treasury notes of the new issue the following real and personal estate the property of Captain U. P. Levy, deceased, an alien:"
1. Monticello, a tract of 218 acres of land . . . with all buildings thereon, consisting of a large commodious Brick Dwelling House, with a variety of outbuildings . . .
2. After the Sale of the real estate there will be sold at the same time and on same terms, nineteen Negro slaves, a variety of household Furniture, Farming utensils, Horses, Cattle, Sheep, Hogs . . .
The sale was held Thursday, November 17, under direction of D. M. Pattie, a Confederate Marshall living in Charlottesville. The house and farm buildings along with the acreage were bid in by Benjamin F. Ficklin of Albemarle County for the inflated figure of $80,500. Ficklin's reasons for buying are not known, hut 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.
There are few records about the condition of the house while it was held by the Confederates. Neither of the standbys of local history, Woods, Albemarle County, nor James Alexander, 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 . . ."
The only account of any length is found in the suspect volume, G. A. Townsend, Monticello and its Preservation, published, and probably written, by Jefferson M. Levy, Uriah's nephew:
"But finally the Commodore's slaves were sold, and the dismantling of the furniture began, the losses were 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 rlch men In New York. Captain Jonas P. Levy, when he visited the place to save it from confiscation, was held as a hostage . . ."
Miss Sarah Stickler, 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 . . ."
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 believes 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 parlour, 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. There is nothing to support the claim that soldiers were ever on the premises either as a detachment of the Confederate armed forces or otherwise.
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 not finally resolved until 1879, long after the demise of the Confederacy. Given the limitations of space and the chronological boundaries established for this article, this next phase of Monticello's history must be left for another time.
Original Author: James A. Bear, Jr.; originally published as a Monticello Keepsake, April 12, 1970.
- Leepson, Marc. Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, New York: Free Press, 2001.