Why Didn’t They Burn the Mill?

By Howard Means

In 1876, a Rhode Island army chaplain looked back on the summer a dozen years earlier when he had been serving in the Shenandoah Valley and wrote as follows:

“The 17th of August [1864] will be remembered as sending up to the skies the first great columns of smoke and flame from doomed secession farms, stacks, cribs and mills, and the driving into loyal lines of flocks and herds. The order was carefully yet faithfully obeyed…. The order led to the destruction of about 2,000 barns, 70 mills, and other property, valued in all at 25 millions of dollars” — roughly $340 million in current dollars.

The Burwell Morgan Mill in Millwood, Virginia was dilapidated in 1964 prior to being given to Clarke County Historical Association - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

A Pennsylvania soldier provided a similar account of the Valley, from the same time. (Both can be found in Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox.)

“Previously the burning of supplies and outbuildings had been incidental to battles, but now the torch was applied deliberately and intentionally. Stacks of hay and straw and barns filled with crops harvested, mills, corn-cribs; in a word, all supplies of use to man or beast were promptly burned….”

All of which leads to the larger question: Why? Not the “why” of the Union strategy in torching barns and mills. That seems clear enough. But why our Burwell-Morgan Mill was spared the consuming flames, especially with battle raging all around the area in that last summer of the War. Is it sheer luck that the Mill survives and is still grinding today? Or was some more specific factor involved?

Theories abound at Clarke County Historical Association and among Burwell-Morgan millers. Perhaps the Mill was spared because the balance of power between opposing armies was ever-shifting in Clarke and Frederick counties, or because Millwood itself was mostly populated by African-Americans. Why burn down what you might soon want to use to your own advantage? And why inflict further suffering on slaves and former slaves who had paid so dearly already?

But these are only guesses, and you — readers and CCHA members — might well have better insights to offer as to why Burwell-Morgan Mill survived the War in tact.

Howard Means is president of the Clarke County Historical Association. The Clarke County Museum & Archives is located at 32 East Main Street in Berryville, Virginia

Editors Note: Clarke County’s history, like much of the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s, was shaped by the events of the Civil War fought 150 years ago. Many people in Clarke have ancestors who played important roles in the conflict. With those historic connections in mind we invite CDN readers to offer their views on why Millwood’s mill was spared from the Union’s torches. Or if you have other stories about Clarke County and the Civil War we invite you to post below.

Mr. Ernest Alger working in the Mill in 1936. The mill was known then as Alger's Mill after its owner - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

View of the mill from Spout Run, circa 1915 - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

View of the Mill from west side in 1964 - note the service station in the foreground - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association

View of the Mill's west side (then called Alger's Mill) in the 1920s, with attached office - Photo courtesy Clarke County Historical Association


  1. I found this article very informative and would welcome other historical features.

    • Sandy, I agree! Clarke Daily News-please run more of these articles. It’s fascinating to learn the county’s history!

  2. In regards to the mill being spared the torch is that the owner at the time may have taken an “Oath of Allegiance” to the USA. I’ve read of similar incidents. In Culpeper,Va in winter of 1863 the Army of the Potomac was encamped in the region and there were “Unionists” that lived in the area and were given preferable treatment and rations.