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January 26, 2017 / Joanne Yeck

The Courthouse Burned: Incendiaries!


Buckingham County’s Deed Room (2010), Photo by Joanne L. Yeck

On March 2, 1869, a letter was sent from Buckingham County to the Editor of Richmond’s Whig. Signed under the pseudonym Lucius, the correspondent from Buckingham County had strong opinions about the burning of the courthouse and the politics of postwar Buckingham:


Burning of the Courthouse – Destruction of the Records – our Carpet Baggers, etc.

[Correspondence of the Whig.]


You have no doubt ere this learned of the recent fire at this place, by which the courthouse building, together with the accumulated records of more than a century, were destroyed in less time than required to pen these lines. The venerable building now rears only its ragged and dismantled walls, a fitting reflex of the ruin and desolation which the baleful spirit of Radicalism has in its wrath showered upon the old Commonwealth. It was the pride of the village in the county, and its walls had oft re-echoed the shrill voice of John Randolph, the classic eloquence of Rives, and resounded with the plaudits of a free and unterrified constituency. Within its sacred precincts and able and independent judiciary have been wont to dispense that equal and exact justice between citizens of every station and degree, which it is to be feared will not flow in unpolluted streams, should our seats of justice be usurped by seedy and rapacious adventurers, as has been done in some other counties.

Reconstruction is needed here, and we shall probably have it soon; but it may be said of the old building as of the old Commonwealth, “We never shall see its likes again.”

The records, too – and those mute yet speaking monuments of the voiceless past, disdaining the polluting touch and scrutiny of carpet-bag vandals – have sought the silent shades of that oblivion which kindly shields from insult the heads that created and the hands that tend them. May winter’s chilly winds and summer’s gusts sing sweet requiems, as they beat and bluster through the old ruins, to the ashes of both creator and creature – the sad relics of a mighty past.

Lucius went on to inform the readers of the Whig that “everyone” believed that the fire which took down Buckingham County’s courthouse was the work of an incendiary. Yet, he wrote, no one person had been identified as the arsonist. He recalled the night of the catastrophe:

Silently and stealthily the act was perpetrated, while the peaceful inhabitants of the village were wrapped in midnight slumbers, and the barking of watch dogs, coupled with the awful roaring and crackling of the flames, gave them the first intimation of the presence of the dread fire fiend in their midst, when suddenly they awoke to find the red glare of the burning building cast all athwart “the night’s plutonian shore” and penetrating the gloom of their silent chambers.

Not a whole book of paper was saved from the clerk’s office, that being located in the main building, which was wrapped in flames before any one reached it. The next morning, as the citizens were gathered around the still smoldering ruins, some fragments of very old deed books were rescued from the fire, and many persons expressed their purpose to preserve them as mementos of the olden time.

Very few of our landholders can now boast of a title . . . for we all hold our lands, as it were, in common for the present, at least so far as metes and bounds are concerned.

These were, to be sure, tumultuous times, when a man would rather have his records destroyed than be touched by carpetbaggers!

To be continued. . .

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