Priscilla McKaig held the military order in her hand and re-read it. It was short but it was impossible. Major General David Hunter, who was in command of the Union forces in Allegany County for a portion of the Civil War, was ordering her and her family to leave Cumberland for one of the Confederate States.
“I was thunder struck, no charges – no explanation,” she wrote in her journal.
Why shouldn’t she be? Her family was among the upper class of Cumberland. Her husband was a former mayor of Cumberland, a partner in the Cumberland Cotton Factory and president of the Frostburg Coal Company.
Her first reaction was to refuse to comply. This was her family’s home and she had every right to be here. However, she had no choice but to comply. Troops ringed her house and she and her family had been given 24 hours to leave. She must leave by 7 p.m. on July 12, 1863.
Unable to sleep that night, she and her family began preparing to leave. They sent household items like linens and silver, away for safekeeping with friends. Other things were considered too valuable to leave behind and too dangerous to take with them in case their belongings were searched by Union troops. So all of Priscilla’s letters from her sons and others with Confederate sympathies were burned.
When a soldier called on her in the morning with a pass to get Priscilla and her children through the Union pickets, she once again acted defiant. “I told him that I did not intend to obey that order, that I considered it was a most heartless, cruel order, that it was out of the question for me to think of going. My Husband was absent, my youngest son was away at school, and also my clothes were wet in the tub.”
The soldiers also went to the home of Dr. R.S. McKaig, Priscilla’s brother-in-law. He and his family had also been ordered south. When the doctor said he would not leave because it would ruin him, he was immediately arrested and sent west to a prison the following morning. Another brother and Maryland state senator, Thomas Jefferson McKaig, had been arrested in a similar fashion at the beginning of the war and imprisoned.
Rather than depress Priscilla McKaig, the event actually gave her hope that her order would not be enforced.
However, later that day, another order was received noting that they had half an hour to load a carriage of their choosing or a conveyance out of town would be chosen for them.
Oddly, only Priscilla and her son, Beall, left. Priscilla’s husband William and son, Merwin (though Merwin would join her later), were left behind. Priscilla was accompanied by her sister-in-law, Sarah, and Sarah’s two sons.
The first night away from Cumberland was miserable and Priscilla blamed her family’s woes on the fact that her nephew had joined McNeill’s Rangers against his father’s wishes, despite that fact that she had two sons fighting with the Confederate army. She wrote, “Oh, what a miserable night. I did not sleep an hour, here we heard that all the clothes, money and letter I had sent Tommy were captured. All our troubles were brought on by John McKaig’s imprudence and disobedience to his Father’s instructions.”
The group traveled south to Romney and then to Moorefield, staying with friendly families or paying for rooms in a boarding house. During this time, Priscilla continued to write to her sons, William and Tommy, who were serving.
While staying near Moorefield in August, she saw Gen. John McCausland’s troops surprised and routed by Union forces. “I never wish to witness another such a scene. The Federals captured between three and four hundred men, all the artillery and a large number of horses.”
During their travels they also began to experience the inflation of Confederate currency. At one boarding house, they paid $80 for a night’s lodging, supper and breakfast. Breakfast alone was $16 in one location.
Throughout much of their journeys in the Shenandoah Valley, Priscilla also experienced various ailments from headaches, stomachaches and colic. Sometimes they would keep her in bed all day.
Then in October as winter began to set in, they met Billy McKaig in Moorefield. Since she thought he was supposed to be off fighting, it surprised her. However, what surprised her even more was that her nephew said he had come to get her.
“I could not believe that he had come for that purpose, but supposed that he had returned to join the army. I again said to him, what did you come for Billy? He answered the same way and said pulling a paper out of his pocket, ‘here is the order for your return’ Oh! how thankful I felt to God for his goodness and mercy to me, the carriage was soon surrounded by friends to congratulate me on my good fortune.”
They spent a day packing up their belongings and making sure that all their clothes were clean, then they headed toward Cumberland. They arrived around 5 p.m. the next day.
“Oh how thankful I was, once more to see my home and to meet my dead Husband and my friends,” she wrote.
She could not return to house immediately, as it was serving to house officers. Instead she drove to her husband’s office. At first, she “could see no one for a few moments, the first one who came to meet me was my dear Husband, who was so filled with emotion that he could hardly speak, directly my Sister and others came running down to meet me. I felt very happy and gratified, we went up to her house and remained there all night.”
The McKaigs reclaimed their house next day and things slowly got back to normal. However, they would still run into suspicions throughout the remainder of the war. Once, soldiers searched the house thinking to find one of her Confederate sons at home. As the war wound down, Priscilla’s concerns were only for the safety of her sons rather than the Confederate cause.
She mentions events like the surrender of Richmond, surrender of General Lee and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in her journal, but only in a sentence or two and without any emotion pro or con. On her way back to Cumberland from a trip to New York, her train met the Lincoln funeral train. It was the type of event most people would get philosophical about. Not Priscilla. For her, as well as the rest of the country, the war was done.