Scenic Bath County, Virginia, was home to Company K of the 52nd Virginia, Its ranks were filled with hardy mountain men who were not strangers to guns, spartan lifestyles, or outdoor living.Their Civil War experience would take them to the vicinity of York, Pennsylvania.
More than 10,000 Confederate soldiers passed through York County, Pennsylvania, between June 27 and July 1, 1863. Very few left any written accounts of their brief visit, which was too lengthy for most Pennsylvanians of the day. Perhaps surprisingly, the fewest accounts that I have located to date come from the brigade of William “Extra Billy” Smith, a former Governor of Virginia who would resign during the Gettysburg Campaign to resume his political career. I have only uncovered a handful of references to York County, despite the brigade’s two-day stay north of York along the road to Emigsville (now North George Street; then the turnpike to Harrisburg).
Here is one such story, used by written permission of Duke University, where the original letter is archived. The writer used flowery, outstanding penmanship, and was lucid and well educated, because the entire four-page letter has few spelling or grammatical errors, unlike many other rural soldiers on both sides.
Bath County is located in the rural, mountainous extreme northwestern portion of Virginia. The county seat of Warm Springs was known for its healing mineral springs, and, even today, the area is extremely beautiful and scenic. It is also in the middle of nowhere, and the 2000 U.S. Census lists only 5,048 people. In the 1800s, the population was a fraction of that.
Among the names that frequently show up in the census lists throughout the middle of the 19th century was the Cleek family. Adam G. Cleek was born in 1826 in the “Wilson settlement” in Bath County, not far from Jackson’s River. His grandfather Jacob had moved to Bath County from Rockbridge, Virginia, in the late 1700s; he died in 1813.
Adam Cleek purchased 86 acres, with the deed transfer being signed on February 29, 1848. He married a local girl, Mary Jane Miller, in August 1849, raised a family, and lived a rather common life as a farmer not far from his father, John Cleek, Sr., and his brothers. The 1850 census indicates his mother-in-law Jane Miller came to live with the young couple. An 1858 entry in the Annals of Bath County indicates Adam was the county sheriff at the time. He would be reelected later in his life.
In April 1861, Adam Cleek enlisted as a private in Company K of the 52nd Virginia Infantry. He would rise through the ranks to become an ordnance sergeant by the end of the war, which he survived. A. G. Cleek appears in the census through 1880.
In the late spring of 1863, Cleek and his comrades in the 52nd Virginia completed a “hard march” into Maryland and Pennsylvania in the brigade of Extra Billy Smith, who had replaced Jubal Early in command of the brigade following Early’s ascension to divisional command. On July 19, during the retreat of the Confederate army into Virginia, Cleek paused in camp near Darkesville, Va., to send a letter to his father in Cleeks Mills, Va., describing the campaign so far, and listed the men who had been wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and their specific injuries.
He also discussed his brief stay in York County, Pennsylvania. His veteran brigade had “went as far as little York Pa,” where they stayed two days and nights. He mentions that a portion of the Confederate troops went as far as the Columbia bridge, which had been burned by the enemy. Hence, the Rebels had to turn around and return to York. Having received “little or no opposition” on the march there, the men were in good spirits.
He added, “The people all treated us very kindly and the most of them seemed anxious for the war to end, though I think their kindness was more through fear than anything else.” He later added, “We captured a large quantity of wagons. horses, mules, and beef cattle in Pa.” Much of that, of course, was ransomed from the citizens of York by Jubal Early and distributed tthoughout the division.
The 37-year-old Cleek summed up the expedition to Pennsylvania with an opinion I’m sure he shared with many of his fellow Virginians, “I don’t know upon the whole whether we made much by the trip over their (sic).”
However, he was not dispirited, bitter, or depressed, and he most certainly did not think the Confederate cause was lost at Gettysburg. He did add, “I don’t know where we are going.”
That unforeseen path from little York would end eventually at Appomattox Court House.
A photocopy of Adam G. Cleek’s letter was sent to me courtesy of Duke University. The rest of Cleek’s life story was pieced together by me using Internet sources and Google searches of old on-line books and records.