When Mills Riddick’s 21 room Greek Revival townhouse was completed next to the Nansemond County Courthouse in 1839, his neighbors referred to the mansion as Riddick’s Folly — a mock tribute to the decidedly ostentatious edifice. Riddick could scarcely have envisioned that his grand residence would serve as headquarters for Federal troops when the Civil War came to Suffolk, Virginia in 1862.
While Mills Riddick was fortunate enough to be among the dearly departed when the Civil War divided the nation, his son Nathaniel had inherited the stately mansion and resided there with his family until the impending influx of Federal troops forced him and his wife Missouri Kilby Riddick to “relocate” to Petersburg.
Nathaniel Riddick, a prominent attorney, represented Suffolk and Nansemond County in the Virginia General Assembly before and during the conflict, and his duties required his frequent presence in Richmond, the Confederate capital. Under the uncertain circumstances, Riddick regarded Petersburg as an environment more conducive to his political designs.
Their five children found sanctuary in other locations. Anna Mary, the eldest daughter, “refuged” with friends and family in North Carolina, Smithfield, Chuckatuck, and Suffolk. Mills Edward Riddick served in the Confederate Army, and John Thompson Riddick was a VMI cadet before he became a Confederate lieutenant. Daughter Missouri (Zousi) Taylor Riddick and son Nathaniel Henley Riddick were away at school.
Before the initial contingent of Yankees arrived in Suffolk, Missouri Riddick buried her china and crystal under the smokehouse; she took a few personal belongings and fled with the family silver.
On May 12, 1862, Colonel Charles Dodge and the First New York Mounted Rifles rode into town. The frightened citizens stayed inside their homes, keeping an attentive eye on the enemy soldiers and their activities. The Federal cavalry tied their horses to the shade trees and looked around town. They left that same afternoon without arresting anyone or disturbing anything. The anxious citizens were relieved, if only temporarily.
Returning a few days later, the cavalry officially took possession of the town. Colonel Dodge personally pledged to Mayor Benjamin Riddick that all “peaceable citizens” under certain specified constraints would receive Federal protection.
Additional troops — cavalry and infantry regiments — soon arrived. General J.K.F. Mansfield commanded the entire occupying force until he and his command were transferred to the Army of the Potomac.
With the arrival of additional Federal soldiers, life changed dramatically for the civilian populace. The Yankees were inept when it came to making friends and influencing people; they seemed to have a knack for alienating Suffolk’s citizens. Although the Federal soldiers generally showed great restraint in dealing with peaceful civilians, the occupying troops infrequently burned rail fences for firewood and made occasional assaults on chicken coops for meals, which aggravated the local populace. Singing Southern songs — such as “Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie” — was forbidden. All prominent citizens were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States; those who refused the oath had their property seized. When Suffolk ladies politely declined invitations to a “Grand Ball” hosted by the Union officers at the Central Hotel on Christmas Eve, rumors quickly spread that the ladies’ homes would be torched unless they demonstrated a change of heart.
“The more I see the Yankees, the worse I hate them,” wrote Mattie Prentiss in a period letter that described the oppressive circumstances that the populace endured during the Federal occupation of Suffolk.
When General John Peck arrived in Suffolk from Fort Monroe in September 1862, he promptly established his headquarters at Riddick’s Folly and immediately directed that defensive works be constructed around Suffolk. Soon a host of artillery batteries, entrenchments, and bulwarks encompassed the town. Union gunboats steamed up the Nansemond River to support the elaborate network of Federal defenses. Peck viewed Suffolk as a critical base for the Union Army because it commanded approaches to the James River and was situated on the railroad lines to Petersburg and Weldon.
When General James Longstreet’s 20,000 Confederates threatened the town in what became known as “The Siege of Suffolk,” life for local civilians became increasing austere. The population was totally isolated from the outside world and no merchandise of any sort could be secured without the written consent of the Federal provost marshal.
In May 1863, Longstreet withdrew his troops from Suffolk to assist General Lee in turning back General Joseph Hooker’s push toward Richmond. When the Federal troops left Suffolk in July 1863, the citizens feared that the town would be torched, but Suffolk was mercifully spared additional destruction. The shutters and doors of houses evacuated by the Federal troops waved back and forth in the summer breeze.
General Michael Corcoran advised Assistant Adjutant-General Captain Barstow from Headquarters Defenses near Portsmouth that Suffolk had been evacuated. “The evacuation of Suffolk was completed at noon yesterday. The works are destroyed and every article of public property removed,” wrote Corcoran. “No private property was injured in the least, and your directions were in every respect complied with,” he added.
Suffolk’s war ordeal was almost over. Although units of Confederate and Union soldiers sporadically passed through Suffolk, the town was not strategically significant during the last two years of the war.
Several days after the news of General Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox reached Suffolk, the Yankees returned to Suffolk — and Riddick’s Folly served as headquarters for the 3rd New York Cavalry. Captain Samuel Pierce wrote a letter dated April 29, 1865 to his sweetheart in Rochester, New York describing a “Grand Ball” that the 3rd Cavalry had recently hosted at Riddick’s Folly. “When all the party had assembled, we found there were nearly two hundred people,” wrote Pierce. “Judging by the remarks made by nearly everyone, the affair was a magnificent success,” he added. By July 1865, Federal forces had again withdrawn from Suffolk.
When the war ended, Nathaniel Riddick and his family were unable to return to Suffolk immediately. Their farm at Jericho had been destroyed during the Siege of Suffolk, and Riddick had to appeal to the Federal government for possession of his family’s townhouse. Upon their return to Suffolk, the Riddicks discovered that their elegant residence had been pillaged and vandalized. Graffiti disfigured the walls, and their household furnishings had vanished. The brass hardware and locks on the doors had disappeared. Union soldiers — with the aid of the Riddick’s servants — had even discovered the china and glass that Missouri Riddick had buried in the dirt of the smokehouse floor. The Riddicks were able to recover a few of the household furnishings that had been given away to their neighbors or appropriated by the Yankees.
Years later, Nathaniel Riddick likely discovered a cordial message from a Union officer written inside a book, “The Acts of the Virginia Assembly Passed 1855-56,” in Riddick’s library that had been used as an office during the Yankee occupation.
“Mr. Riddick – Dear Sir – Whilst you were away from home striving to subvert this Government, the necessities of war made me an inmate of your office. I have great respect for your evident desire to promote the agricultural interest of the Eastern Virginia, great respect for the taste displayed in ornamenting your grounds, and I’ve no doubt a better acquaintance would make me a more admirer of the talents which you evidently possess. But whilst I am no abolishionist [sic] I must confess that I believe the cause in which you are engaged decidedly wrong. We shall see; however, I hope to meet you on friendly terms in more peaceful times and enjoy you socially.”
The courteous letter was signed by Lt. Amos M. Thayer who was a signal officer in the Union Army.
Note: Following the Civil War, Amos M. Thayer read law and later became a Federal judge — eventually serving as a justice on the U. S. Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri. Whether or not Nathaniel Riddick ever read Lt. Thayer’s cordial note is uncertain.
-By Bob Ruegsegger