County History

George W. Silcott
Peregrine Hays

The defeat of the Confederate States (Moccasin) Rangers at Arnoldsburg on May 6, 1862, was a severe blow to the morale of the Rangers and it further weakened their position in Wirt, Calhoun, and Roane counties. As a result of the ill-fated attack and Rathbone's incorrect report of a Confederate victory, Federal troops were pouring into the area. Captain Downs and his men beat a hasty retreat to Braxton County to re-group. Because of the large number of Federal troops in the area, many of Downs's men were anxious to visit their families to check on their safety. Also many of these men had spent the winter hiding out in Braxton County and had not seen their families for some time. Captain Downs agreed to this request but rather than allow the men to furtively travel to their homes he decided to attempt to obtain a truce with Colonel Rathbone for a cessation of hostilities so his men could travel openly. He called in two of his men, Peregrine Hays and George W. Silcott, to try to work out a plan to convince Rathbone of the need for a truce.

The choice of Hays and Silcott was a wise one. Prior to the war Peregrine Hays had been the sheriff of Calhoun County and prior to that he was the sheriff of Gilmer County. Hays had also served as a member of the 1850 Virginia Constitution Convention and as a member of the Virginia Legislature. He had a great deal of influence in the central counties and his name commanded respect. Silcott had been the Calhoun County clerk and the circuit clerk prior to the war and he was a close business and political ally of Hays. Because of their position they undoubtedly knew Rathbone personally before the war, a factor which would be important in the next few days.

The plan that was devised revolved around the visit to Spencer of the district military commander, Brigadier General B. F. Kelley and Rathbone's gullibility. Kelley was in Spencer in response to Rathbone's incorrect report of a Confederate victory and, satisfying himself that all was well, he and his men left for their headquarters in Weston on May 16. The following evening Captain Downs, Peregrine Hays, and George Silcott entered Spencer carrying a flag of truce. They informed the startled guards that General Kelley had requested them, by messenger, to visit Colonel Rathbone for the purpose of settling a truce. Since there was no way to contact Kelley to double check the story, Rathbone chose to take them at their word and the men were allowed to enter the town. Quarters were provided for them and after a dinner, negotiations for the truce were begun. This is where Circuit Court Judge James H. Brown enters the story.

At the time Roane County was in the Eighteenth Circuit of the Ninth District of Virginia. Judge Brown, who was from Charleston, was in Spencer conducting court when Downs, Hays, and Silcott arrived. Brown played the crucial role of a mediator between the two sides and it was largely through his influence that a truce was agreed upon. In fact the truce was written in the judge's handwriting. It read as follows:

"It is agreed by and between Col. J. C. Rathbone, commanding United States forces in Roane and Calhoun and adjacent counties, and Captain George Downs, commanding Confederate forces in said counties, that all hostilities shall cease between them and their respective forces in said counties for and during the space of eight days from this date, and each party is to preserve the peace and good order of the community in the mean time. And if this truce between the parties and their respective forces shall continue longer than the time specified, the parties shall give each other notice thereof, ratified and approved by General Kelley, commanding United States force in the Railroad District, without whose consent and ratification no continuance of this truce shall be had unless by mutual agreement of the parties hereto, which notice shall be given at the dwelling house of William Starcher, in Calhoun County, Virginia."

"Given under our hands this 18th day of May, 1862, at Spencer, in Roane County, Virginia. Signed: Col. J. C. Rathbone: Commander, Eleventh Virginia Infantry, Capt. George Downs, Commander, Confederate States Rangers."

The meeting place, William Starcher's home, is at the mouth of Henry's Fork, near Rocksdale. This house is still standing today.

The following day Rathbone supplied a company of men to escort the rangers back to their camp. This company returned to Spencer with a lieutenant from Downs's company who requested a pass to pass through Federal lines. Rathbone promptly complied with the request. That same day a Roane County ranger by the name of Dick Greathouse was arrested and jailed on a charge of horse stealing. When Rathbone heard of this later in the day, he felt that it could be construed as a violation of the truce and he ordered the immediate release of Greathouse and provided him with an escort out of town.

When General Kelley received word of the truce on the nineteenth, he was reported to have "exploded with anger" toward the gullible Rathbone for concluding a truce that was in direct violation of his orders. General Kelley immediately sent a message to Rathbone: "You will at once give notice that the armistice is revoked, and that the only terms that will be entered into with Capt. Downs and his men is that if they return to their homes and families and in good faith lay down their arms and take the oath of allegiance to support the government of the United States ... then you will protect their persons and property. If they refuse to do this you will move at once on them and kill or capture their whole force if possible."

Kelley's patience with Rathbone was running short. After the incorrect report of the action earlier that month, which Kelley had to correct with his superiors in Washington and now an illegal truce with the enemy, it is a wonder that Rathbone was allowed to retain his command.

Source: Jim Mylott, Historian of Roane County Library, published in the Roane County Reporter.


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