Ruins of The Burning Raids of 1864

Potts-Neer Mill | Loudoun County, VA | c. 1840s

The stone ruins that stand today hold the stories of more than 160 years of area history. Built in 1842, this mill was an important part of the community that surrounded it until it was destroyed. And while it never operated again, it is still a significant area landmark that the current owners decorate festively throughout the year.

Early Area History

Before Europeans arrived in this area, this area was inhabited by various native tribes who relied on the plentiful bounty of the surrounding rivers, mountains, and woods. By the early 1700s, the new settlers began moving further into the region, trading and traveling along native paths. In 1722, Virginia Governor Spottswood signs the Treaty of Albany which restricted the Iroquois tribe and their allies, like the Piscataway from Loudoun, from crossing the Potomac River or the Blue Ridge Mountains. This new boundary ensured the safety of the Loudoun frontier and within the next decade, Quakers and Germans began arriving from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and English settlers from the Virginia Tidewater region.

Map of the Fairfax Grant portion c. 1736 that would become Loudoun County. Courtesy of Library of Congress- A survey of the northern neck of Virginia.

Settlement By Europeans

Some of these new settlers came looking for inexpensive farmland but others came looking for religious freedom and this split would come to cause a divide in this section. The slave-holding settlers established large plantations in the north and east part of this section while the Quakers, who were increasingly against slavery, settled west of the Catoctin Mountains. This divide would continue to characterize the county through the Civil War years.

The Fairfax Quaker Meeting House at Waterford, Virginia. Photo c. 1937, courtesy of the National Park Service.

The Quakers

The Quakers brought with them a rich heritage focused on agriculture, milling, and religion that they established quickly in their new home. Of the first of these settlers was Amos Janney who established a mill and the area’s first Quaker Meeting House at Waterford in 1741, the first house of worship dissenting from the Church of England. Besides their heritage and religious beliefs, they brought their crafts and skills with them. These early communities began to bustle with commercial activity around grain farming and milling. By 1762, the area was diverse with Quakers, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, and German Lutheran settlers as well as enslaved people. And after the beginning of the 1800s, many free blacks- a relative rarity elsewhere in Virginia. By 1830, African Americans headed ¼ of Waterford’s free households- many owning their own homes.

Old Potts Graveyard Marker. Photo courtesy of Craig Swain.

The David Potts Family

Around that time, another village began to emerge to the west, centered around the estate of David Potts, a Quaker from Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. In 1746, he leased 866 acres of land in this section and bought the property soon after. By 1755, he had set up his own Quaker Meeting at his home so that the local population didn’t have to take the full-day wagon ride to Waterford, 8 miles away. The area where he settled was known as The Gap, due to its location, so it was known as “The Potts Meeting” or “The Gap Meeting.”

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During the 1750s, David Potts and his sons built a two-story log mill on the South Run of the North Branch of Catoctin Creek. When David passed away in 1768, it eventually passed to his grandson, Edward. Eventually, they outgrew the original mill, and in 1824 built a new one.

Constructed of native stone, it is located one mile east of the original Potts Mill. The new mill had an interior water wheel and the race spilled onto it, then slipped out of the mill through a still-visible arched opening at the east.

Some portion of the mill was rebuilt in 1842 and the southwest cornerstone is the inscription: “E.D. Potts & Company 1842 A.D.” Edward Potts died in 1846 and in 1848, his heirs sold the mill to Nathan Neer, a neighbor and relative by marriage, for $4,165 along with 46 acres.

Portrait of Nathan Neer.

The Nathan Neer Family

Nathan Neer lived near the Potts’ Farm and when he married Elizabeth Potts, he was an obvious choice to sell the mill and acreage to. Nathan’s Family, originally Quakers, were some of the earliest settlers in this section and by 1776, were forbidden from slavery by their church. But as the generations went on, there are records of some members being disavowed for this offense, including Edward Potts, who sold the mill to Nathan. According to the records, Edward (E.D.) was disavowed in 1840 for having ‘purchased a slave and kept him in bondage.’ And while I have found no record of Nathan being disavowed, according to the 1860 census, he had 8 enslaved people on his farm that may have helped to work this mill.

Depiction of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Loudoun County on the Potomac River.

The Civil War Era

As war loomed over the country, this section would be as divided as it had been for years. While the large plantation owners favored secession, Quaker farmers had no allegiance to the Southern causes and were largely pro-Union. And due to its location, Loudoun County was destined to be an area of significant military activity during the Civil War.

Depiction of Union Soldiers looking for bodies in the Potomac after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Loudoun County. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Located on Virginia’s northern frontier along the Potomac River, Loudoun County became a borderland after Virginia seceded in early 1861. Loudoun County’s numerous bridges, ferried, and fords made it an ideal location for Union and Confederate armies to cross into and out of Virginia. Likewise, the county’s several gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains that connected the Piedmont to the Shenandoah Valley and Winchester were of considerable strategic importance. The opposing armies would traverse the county several times throughout the war, leading to several small battles.” [1]

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The Quakers of Loudoun County, who were pacifists, abstained from war, so while many area farms suffered while the men went off to fight, the Quaker Farms continued to prosper. This created an unfortunate situation whereby their farms became the targets of raids from both sides.

“The fertile Loudoun Valley, with its wealth of produce and livestock, was of vital importance to the Confederacy and ideal to provide forage for the Union army. Furthermore, Loudoun County’s population was deeply divided over secession- creating much tension with neighbors throughout the war. Bitter partisan warfare kept those hostilities active even when the armies were far from Loudoun County. Because of its importance to the Confederacy and the partisans who inhabited it, the Loudoun Valley was put to the torch in The Burning Raids of 1864. It has been said that no county in Virginia that did not witness a decisive battle suffered more than Loudoun.” [1]

Portrait of Col. John S. Mosby, known as the “Grey Ghost” and leader of Mosby’s Rangers.

Mosby’s Rangers

From 1863 to 1864, the 43rd Battalion of Virginia’s Cavalry, led by Colonel John Singleton Mosby, operated behind Union lines in this section, raiding Union supply trains and thwarting communication efforts. Mosby, who became known as “The Grey Ghost” was so effective in his efforts that this region came to be called ‘Mosby’s Confederacy.’ The unit was such a thorn in the Union’s side that General Ulysses S. Grant decided action must be taken to cut off the supplies that supported Mosby’s Rangers. This effort came to be known as ‘The Burning Raids.’

Map of the Burning Raids of 1864.

The Burning Raids of 1864

On November 27, 1864, as a result of General Grant’s orders, Major General Phillip Sheridan sent a communique to Major General Wesley Merritt’s reserve brigade:

“Burn down all barns and mills and their contents, and drive off all stock in the region.”

Major General Phillip Sheridan.

But the communication also included the information that many Loudoun farmers were Quakers, “all favorably disposed to the Union.” He emphasized that in “cleaning out the arms-bearing community of Loudoun County…exercise your best judgment as to who should be exempt from arrest and who should receive pay for their stock, grain, etc.” He added that: “no dwellings are to be burned and no personal violence offered to citizens.”

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It is apparent how strategic this area was to the war efforts as Grant went on to say: “As long as the war lasts they [Loudoun farmers] must be prevented from raising another crop.” [2]

On November 28, 1864, Merritt’s Cavalry Division came through Ashby’s Gap that would be the start of a week of destruction in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties as they scoured the section for ‘lawless bands.’ On November 30, 1864, when they arrived at the property of Nathan Neer, Mrs. Neer offered food and water to the cavalrymen in exchange for not burning their barns and mill. As the story goes, an agreement was made to spare Potts-Neer Mill, but due to a miscommunication, the cavalrymen burned the mill anyway. To make matter worse, a strong wind caught the flames, and the millers’ house behind the mill was also consumed by fire.

While numbers differed from one report to the next, it is estimated that burned in the raids were 230 barns, 8 mills, 1 distillery, 10,000 tons of hay, and 25,000 bushels of grain. Between 5,000-6,000 cattle, 3,000-4,000 sheep, and 500-600 horses were driven off while 1,000 hogs were slaughtered.  Most newspapers admonished the raids and reported that the effort did not achieve its purpose to drive out Mosby’s Rangers.

After The War

From the records I have been able to uncover, it seems the mill was never operational again and Nathan Neer’s estate would go to ruin. He would petition for restitution to the newly formed government in 1865 for damage and seizure of his property throughout the war by both sides, but he had to prove his allegiance in order to proceed. He would die later that year, leaving the matter unsettled.

Today

Locally known now as ‘Burnt Mill’ it is the only remnant of the Burning Raids that still stands in Loudoun County. Now, the mill sits along a well-traveled route and its owners add to its charm throughout the year with various decor: pumpkins in October, wreaths in December, and daffodils in Spring. It is located on private property but has been featured on local tours hosted by the Short Hill Historical Society.


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7 thoughts on “Ruins of The Burning Raids of 1864”

  1. It continues to break my heart every time I read about the South being burned and farms raided, not forgetting about the abuse the women endured when their husbands were away. To think of the punishment this land ( The South) received is just gut wrenching.
    . I was born and raised in the border state of Tennessee, which saw many , many battles. We were taught in school about all these battles and the name “ Shiloh”still haunts me.
    I know the Lord says to forgive, but what General Grant , his men , and the looters did to the South is unforgivable and will never be forgotten as far Z . Nor should it ever be

    1. I feel the same way about it dear! So many families, households, and history destroyed forever! Not to mention all of the records lost whenever a courthouse was burned down. It tends to be hard to find any history prior to 1865 out here in the tidewater region of Virginia due to record and deed loss. You also see many abandoned antebellum farmhouses that are still standing that the families could barely afford to upkeep following the financial disaster that plagued the south after the war. It’s really like a sad ballad.

  2. I am a Southerner and am proud of my heritage. After living in the north for two years I couldn’t wait to get back home to Tennessee. I found out to be proud does not mean being arrogant.

  3. Williams Debbie

    I loved this. Me and my family were born and raised in Loudoun County, I loved reading the history,like this of where Iam from I enjoy history anyway. And I have recently discovered that one of my ancestors fought in the Battle of Balls Bluff. Love these kind of stories. Thank you for posting this

  4. I enjoyed reading this story. I too am sickened at the destruction done in the name of war, here in the South and anywhere else.

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