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The Life of Charles Henry Causey
By Fred D. Taylor

Article from Suffolk News-Herald,
August 2005



      Today when we think of intelligence operations, we are accustomed to hearing stories of James Bond and Britain’s MI-6, or our own Central Intelligence Agency. However, both of these groups found their early development in military operations and activities that had occurred many years before. In the United States, this developed through the Army’s signal service in the 1860s, and was quickly revolutionized during the War Between the States due to the necessity to quickly disseminate valuable information as to troop movements. Though many were involved in the day to day operations of the intelligence departments on both sides of this conflict, one figure stands out quite prominently. Though not a Suffolk native, the war and his activities brought him here, and eventually resulted in him making Suffolk his home.

      Charles Henry Causey was born on July 14, 1837, in New Castle, Delaware. He was the oldest of three children born to the Maryland native William Causey and his Scottish-born wife, Mary Colvin. By the age of two, however, Charles Henry and the Causey family moved to Elizabeth City County (present day Hampton), presumably following a job opportunity offered to his father, who worked as an engineer. In the same year, the second child of the Causey family was born, William N. Causey; and in 1841, the third and final child, James Colvin Causey. As a young man, Charles Henry attended local schools and excelled in his studies. It was no surprise then when in the mid-1850s he was accepted to Waynesburg College (formerly Madison College) in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a prominent Presbyterian affiliated school. Charles Henry graduated from Waynesburg in 1857, and returned to Virginia to seek a law degree from the University of Virginia. He graduated from UVA about 1860, but before starting his formal law practice, began teaching at a school in Elizabeth City County.

      In less than a year though, the political atmosphere of Virginia and indeed the country completely changed. Following Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the “rebellion” in the spring of 1861, the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union on the 17th of April by a vote of a special convention. One month later, the citizens of the state went to the polls, and voted overwhelmingly to secede, with the constituents of Elizabeth City County voting in favor of secession, 343-6. Despite their support for the Confederacy, however, Hampton was occupied by the Federal armies early on in the war due to its proximity to Fortress Monroe. In fact, on June 10 the first land battle of the war in Virginia was commenced from Hampton and occurred at Big Bethel in Newport News between Confederate forces under the command of Colonel John Bankhead Magruder and Union forces under General Benjamin “Beast” Butler. Though insignificant in numbers, this early battle was a sign of things to come for Virginia and the Peninsula.

      In the meantime, military units were springing up all across the South enlisting young men to defend their homes and sweethearts. On June 24, having been forced away from Hampton as refugees, Charles Henry and his brother James Colvin Causey heeded the call for troops, and joined the Old Dominion Dragoons, Company B of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry. With his vast educational background, and knowledge of the Peninsula region, Charles Henry was detailed to serve as a scout for Colonel Magruder who was quickly throwing up a line of defenses in Newport News in order to protect the new Confederate Capital in Richmond from attack.

      In October of 1861, Charles Henry Causey was conferred with a promotion to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the Confederate States Cavalry by President Jefferson F. Davis. Amazingly though, no records as to his particular assignment or unit are available with his promotion or included in his service records. Rather, he was issued a statement from his commander in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry announcing his promotion, and describing him as, “…5 ft. 8 in. high, dark complexion, dark eyes, dark hair, and by profession a farmer…” The only explanation to such a promotion and descriptive letter hint to Causey’s early service as a scout. Due to the nature of his work, affirming his position in Confederate military service was absolute necessary in the event of capture.

      From February to July of 1862, military service records show Charles Henry Causey as serving on the staff of then General John B. Magruder. Magruder’s own records reflect this, and in a May report to General Robert E. Lee, Causey was commended as an officer “of great advantage to the service” and whose “intrepidity and enterprise have been in the highest degree conspicuous on every occasion.” With the help of Causey, and others on his staff with the knowledge of the area, General Magruder was able to hold the Union army at bay for a number of months, when in reality they were vastly outnumbered.

      Following the Confederacy’s abandonment of the Peninsula, and subsequent fighting of the Seven Days Battles around Richmond, Magruder was transferred to the Department of Texas. Causey requested from Magruder to stay behind until which time he could gain an official transfer to a command closer to home, and the possibility of a promotion, if available. Being without a Command to report to, Causey was issued orders by the Adjutant General’s office to report to the North Carolina coast, a post he had first requested back in February of 1862 in the midst of the battle of Roanoke Island. With these orders, he was told to report to General Daniel Harvey Hill. More than likely, this was not his first interaction with Hill, as Hill had served for a number of months on the Peninsula during and after the Battle of Big Bethel. While Causey remained in North Carolina throughout the fall of 1862, he did not stop lobbying for the promotion which he believed had been long overdue. In September, Causey’s old friend Major General Magruder weighed in and sent a letter to the Secretary of War, George W. Randolph, urging for a promotion for his able Lieutenant.

      Commenting on his abilities as a scout and reconnoitering officer, Magruder explained, “I was indebted to him during the Peninsula Campaign for valuable information as to the enemy’s numbers, position, movement, and designs. On one occasion and at a critical period… he volunteered to undertake the perilous task of penetrating the enemy’s lines and succeeded in getting into their rear and reported to me the information he obtained which proved to be valuable as to their numbers, position, etc. During this expedition which he undertook alone and on foot, he was nine days in the enemy’s lines and endured great hardships from hunger, fatigue, and exposure to cold & wet in the woods and marshes on the Peninsula.” With such a high recommendation in hand, the future for Charles Henry Causey was destined to be interesting.

      Lieutenant Charles Henry Causey had received a rather favorable recommendation for promotion from Major General John Bankhead Magruder. This letter asked of the Secretary of War that Causey be given the rank of Major, and placed in command of a battalion of cavalry that was being mustered into Confederate service in North Carolina, where he was stationed at the time.

      Yet, that was not to be the fate of Causey. Instead, he was promoted to the rank of Captain in November of 1862, and ordered once again to report to General Magruder, who was by then stationed in San Antonio, Texas. From the records available, it appears that Causey never made it to Texas as ordered, but managed to get his assignment once again changed. By the close of 1862, he was serving on the staff of Major General Arnold Elzey, Commander of the Department of Richmond, responsible for defending the Confederate capital. Causey’s scouting services were once again employed in his new position, but were quickly interrupted in January of 1863. Unfortunately, the records do not indicate how it occurred, but Causey was captured and sent to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. He spent about three months in prison, but was quickly exchanged and returned to Confederate service by April.

      Upon his return, Charles Henry Causey was assigned to duty under Major William Norris, Commander of the Confederate States Signal Corps, and also a former staff officer under Magruder. For the most part, the signal service was comprised of detachments or small parties of signal “flagmen” who used flags during the day and torches by night using a binary code similar to the Morse code system of dots and dashes then used with the telegraph system. Most importantly, this signal system found great use on the battlefield between distant units, as well as across large rivers that made the use of couriers or water-passage impossible. However, while the Signal Corps operated out of a modest office in downtown Richmond, in reality its back room was the home of the Confederate Secret Service office, where a much greater degree of intelligence was relayed. Here, valuable information was disseminated, usually in secret code, from operatives as far away as New York City and Europe.

      Though assigned to service with the “Signal Corps,” it is more likely that Charles Henry Causey was as an agent with the more covert Secret Service. Specifically, his assignment was for duty on the lower James River, which by that point in the war was completely under the occupation of the Union army. His headquarters and rendezvous point was located across the James River, near Burwell’s Bay and Fort Boykin in Smithfield, a relative safe-haven given the nearby 20,000 Confederate troops involved in the Siege of Suffolk at the time. Each night, or as often as possible, Causey would cross the James River to meet with other agents and friendly Southerners within the Federal lines. On his first crossing on April 11 of 1863, Causey returned to Smithfield with valuable information as to Union troop movements on the Peninsula, including information as to whether reinforcements were being sent to Suffolk to block Confederate attempts to regain the city. By April 20, less than two weeks later, Causey had successfully breeched the enemy lines as far in as Fortress Monroe, and reported back to the Confederate War Department with copies of Yankee newspapers, troop strengths on the Peninsula and Suffolk, the number of rations being issued, and reports on the number of naval vessels in the James River.

      Charles Henry Causey maintained this system of nightly trips across the James River up through fall of 1863. At that point, Causey fell out of favor with his Commander, Major Norris, and was told that his services were “no longer important.” However, Causey’s operations during the year had put him in contact with another important branch of the Secret Service, a group known as the Independent Signal Corps. This group, stationed exclusively in the Tidewater area was not under the command of Major Norris. Rather, it was led by Major James F. Milligan, who had actually taught Norris the signal codes & operations, but was passed over for appointment to the regular Signal Corps. Rather than create a rift between two powerful and important leaders in Signal Corps operations, the Confederate government allowed Milligan to maintain his Independent Signal Corps without ever having to report to Major Norris.

      In his defense, Causey sought the support of Major General George Pickett, who he had worked with during the Siege of Suffolk campaign. In an October letter from his headquarters in North Carolina, Pickett stated that since April, Causey “has, with five assistants, organized a line of communication with the enemy’s line in vicinity of Fortress Monroe, and has to the present time obtained daily intelligence, the latest New York papers, and kept open mail communication with all parts of the North.” Ironically, the same day that Pickett issued this letter, he also appointed to his command Major James F. Milligan as his department’s chief signal officer. Not surprisingly, all of this opened up another bitter dispute between Major Norris, Major Milligan & the role of the Independent Signal Corps, and Major General Pickett. A week following Pickett’s letters, Norris again wrote to the Confederate high command that Causey’s services were no longer needed. Yet, this attempt to discredit Causey by Major Norris was in vain, as General Pickett made it clear in his last and final letter on the subject, stating that Captain Causey be ordered to report to him, that he was not in the Signal Corps, and that he be ordered to report for duty, “at these Hdqrs., irrespective of the Signal Corps and Major Norris.”

      This ended any questions on the subject, and on November 6, 1863, Captain Charles Henry Causey was ordered to report to the famed leader Major General George Pickett at Petersburg for assignment to duty.

      Charles Henry Causey had seen capture and parole, an assignment with the Confederate States Secret Service, and ultimately, an appointment to the command of Major General George Pickett. In this last and final column, I will relate Causey’s final days of the war, and how a young man born in Delaware ended up making Suffolk his home.

      By 1864, Charles Henry Causey had clearly found his niche and spent the remainder of the war as a scout and member of the famed Confederate Secret Service, working both in Pickett’s command and also through the War Department. Not surprisingly, his entire record remains a bit of an enigma due such secret and dangerous operations. Though a scant number of military service records, official reports, and letters do exist, for the most part Causey’s activities from 1861 to 1865 remain obscure. When the National Archives compiled these records, they too noticed the irregularity of his “official” assignments. In a statement filed by one of the records compilers, it was noted that there was “a slight endeavor on the part of Confederate authorities to make it appear that this man was on Signal Duty.” However, there was “no indication that he knew anything of a signal code, or of any action except as a scout or spy.” It was also pointed out that his support by General Pickett in 1863 was clearly emphatic as to the importance of his services, but “makes no mention of what they are.”

      The one thing that is known is that Charles Henry Causey’s role in the Tidewater area certainly had a lasting effect on his life. Apparently, during his time scouting in the Suffolk region he had the opportunity to meet the young Martha Josephine Prentis, daughter of Peter Bowdoin and Eliza Wrenn Prentis. Martha was eighteen when Causey met her in 1863, and their relationship blossomed from those occasions when he could avoid the roaming Union cavalry parties that passed through Suffolk in 1864. Despite the infrequency of their meetings in the midst of a raging war, they decided to take their courtship to the next level by the fall of that year. On September 26, 1864, Charles Henry Causey and Martha Josephine Prentis were married in Suffolk. But their time together was anything but a honeymoon, and was abruptly curtailed due to the dismal outlook of the Confederate army. By the winter of 1864, Union General Grant had placed a stranglehold on Lee’s army, and the Signal Corps’ operations were limited to Pickett’s thin defenses on the south side of Petersburg. Causey did manage to slip in and out of enemy lines and continue his reconnaissance work in the Tidewater region, but for the most part his previous services were no longer needed with the Confederate capital under siege. In April of 1865, when Petersburg and Richmond were evacuated, Causey was presumably in the Tidewater area and was not with the army during Lee’s retreat or subsequent surrender at Appomattox. Instead, he turned himself in to Federal authorities two weeks later on April 25, and was given a parole under the terms agreed upon by Lee and Grant.

      Upon his parole, Charles Henry Causey returned for his bride in Suffolk, and started a family. Their first child, William Bowdoin Causey, was born on June 11, 1865, and named for Charles Henry’s brother and Martha’s father. Their second child was a daughter, Marianna Causey, born in 1866, and the Causey family continued to grow with the birth of Charles Henry Causey, Jr., born in 1868; Peter Prentis Causey, born in 1872; James Campbell Causey, born in 1874; Margaret Webb Causey, born in 1876; and Josephine Causey, born in 1878. Records indicate two more children who died in infancy, but their names are unknown.
Causey's Headstone

      Besides the growth of his family, Charles Henry Causey’s law practice also took a turn for the better following the end of Reconstruction in 1870 and the removal of Federal troops from Virginia. Among his clients included the Atlantic and Danville Railroad, as well as the Seaboard Airline Railroad, putting him in almost daily contact with his fellow Confederate comrade, General Laurence Simmons Baker who served as railroad agent in Suffolk. This also gave Causey the opportunity to befriend former Confederate General William Mahone, a prominent railroad builder and the president of several railroad lines. It was through Mahone that Causey became active in state politics.

      In the late 1870s, Mahone became the leader of a somewhat unpopular group at the time known as the Readjuster party, which sought to lower Virginia’s prewar debt. This group was a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and African-Americans opposed to the Conservative Democrat platform that most ex-Confederates aligned themselves with. In 1881 though, the Readjuster Party won control of the Governor’s Mansion with the election of William A. Cameron, and swept a number of seats in the Virginia General Assembly. Charles Henry Causey supported these reform policies of Mahone, and became an active member of the Readjuster Party as a result. In return for his support, Causey was named Clerk of the Virginia Senate in December of 1881, appointed to the Board of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum in 1882, and served as Commonwealth’s Attorney for Suffolk.

      However, party politics would again change in the Old Dominion, and the Readjuster Party could not hold together its coalition of minority parties in order to stay in power. Sensing the change in the political climate, Mahone made the bold move of aligning himself and the Adjuster Party with the Republican Party in 1884. This created quite a storm in the state, as many considered then (and some still do today) the Republican Party as the “Party of Lincoln.” As a result, a number of citizens ostracized Mahone and other ex-Confederates like Causey as scalawags, but in reality the Virginia electorate remained split fifty-fifty.

      Locally, a number of Nansemond County and Suffolk citizens voted Republican in the 1880s. It was through their support that Charles Henry Causey became the first Republican elected from Suffolk to the Virginia State Senate in 1884. Charles Henry Causey served in the Senate until his term expired in 1887, and also became a Republican elector for the 2nd Congressional District.

      Besides his political activities, Charles Henry Causey was also a prominent Mason and Odd Fellow, and an active member of the Pickett-Buchanan Camp of the United Confederate Veterans based in Norfolk. At the time, the Tom Smith Camp in Suffolk had yet to be formed, and a number of Suffolk’s Confederate veterans held membership in the Norfolk camp.
Causey's Footstone

      In August of 1890, sickness struck Charles Henry Causey, and he was ill but for a few days when he suddenly passed away at 10:30 PM on Wednesday, August 27, at the young age of fifty-three years. His death was announced in both the Suffolk and Norfolk newspapers, and came as a great shock to the community and all that knew him. Prior to his passing, he had often remarked that he wished his funeral to be conducted by his comrades in the Pickett-Buchanan Camp, and per his wish, the old veterans of that group organized on the day of his funeral. Due to his position as attorney for the Atlantic and Danville Railroad, the railroad offered a special train car from Norfolk to carry the Confederate veterans to Suffolk as they paid the last honors to their fallen comrade.

      Captain Charles Henry Causey was laid to rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery on Friday, August 29, 1890. He left a wife, and five children. Of those, all rose to some prominence in the community, with Charles Henry Causey, Jr., and James Campbell Causey serving with the 4th Virginia Infantry from Suffolk during the Spanish-American War, William Bowdoin Causey serving as a Lieutenant Colonel of Engineers in World War I, and Peter Prentis Causey becoming a noted local doctor. There is no doubt that a respect and reverence for military service was instilled in the hearts and minds of the Causey children, especially in Charles Henry Causey, Jr. He rose to the rank of Captain during the Spanish-American War, and it was through his efforts that following the war Suffolk Post No. 57 of the American Legion was organized in our city.

      Clearly, the accomplishments of his children were a reflection on the character and example left by Charles Henry Causey. Yet, no greater testimony can be said of his life than the one given by the Norfolk Virginian newspaper (today’s Virginian-Pilot) at the time of his death: “He was a prominent citizen of Suffolk, foremost in all enterprises, looking to the advancement of the section in which he lived, and his loss will be keenly felt…He was a good husband, an affectionate father and a devoted friend.”

      Fred D. Taylor is a native of Suffolk, a graduate of Nansemond River High School and Old Dominion University, and the Immediate Past Commander of the Tom Smith Camp #1702, Sons of Confederate Veterans. Fred can be reached for questions or comments about his column via e-mail at FDTaylor @ cox.net

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