Thomas Laws

Thomas Laws

Birth
Death 16 Apr 1896 (aged 78)
Burial Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia, USA
Plot W-E-28 (West section, northern end)
Memorial ID 114939925 · View Source
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BERRYVILLE — Local historians says it’s not that a Civil War figure of tremendous importance has been forgotten. Thomas Laws wasn’t widely known to begin with, and that’s something they’re trying to change.

Laws was a Clarke County slave who gathered and relayed information about Confederate troop movements to Union Gen. Philip Sheridan ahead of the Third Battle of Winchester.

The Third Battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864, was the largest battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. The Union won after Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s army collapsed and retreated.

Before that, Laws and Rebecca Wright, a white schoolteacher and abolitionist living in Winchester, collaborated to deliver information to Sheridan. Their efforts would prove critical to the Union victory.

Sunday marked Laws’s 200th birthday. Local residents remembered him with a wreath-laying at his grave in Milton Valley Cemetery in Berryville, which was established in 1874 and is one of several African-American cemeteries in Clarke County. Among those buried there are many who died enslaved and were laid to rest in unmarked graves.

A performance of the play “Rebecca and Thomas: A Civil War Spy Tale” at Josephine School Community Museum and Clarke County African-American Cultural Center, located next to the cemetery, was postponed Sunday because of frozen pipes in the museum. The play has been rescheduled for Jan. 21.

As of Sunday, the plan was to keep the museum at 303 Josephine St. as the location for the play, though a larger venue may be sought, as it was a tight fit for the several dozen who came to the event. The performance will be free and open to the public.

The three-person play was written by Winchester resident Sharon Dixon, who previously wrote a play about legendary jazz musician and Winchester native John Kirby.

After her play about Kirby was presented last year, Dixon was asked to write the little-known story of Wright and Laws.

“The two of them changed the outcome of the Civil War,” said Dixon. She researched Laws and Wright online and worked with Rebecca Ebert, the archivist at Handley Regional Library, and the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society.

Later this year, the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society will publish history about Laws, as discovered by recent research conducted by William Austin, a retired researcher and volunteer with the National Park Service in Middletown.

“We knew a great deal about Rebecca Wright,” said Austin, explaining that the National Park Service was interested in learning more about an important local figure like Laws. “Essentially nothing” was known about who he was before the war and what happened to him later in life. “We saw a need for this particular piece of research.”

Laws was owned by Richard E. Byrd, Austin said. He was given a special pass to sell vegetables in Winchester, and he would pass over Union and Confederate lines to do so.

In September 1864, Sheridan heard that Confederate forces were leaving the Shenandoah Valley headed to Petersburg.

Days before the Third Battle of Winchester, Sheridan wrote to Wright, asking for the position of Early’s forces. He informed her that Laws would carry her reply.

Wright learned details about Confederate troops in Winchester and wrote a reply, which Laws carried in his mouth as he crossed back to Union lines.

“The fact that he willingly put his life on the line... is absolutely remarkable,” Austin said. “Think about that.” How many people, “white or black,” would have been willing to do such a thing in a time of war? he asked. “That singular act... was far above and beyond what most any person would have undertaken.”

Austin’s research began with a letter Laws wrote to James E. Taylor, an artist with Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper assigned to cover Sheridan. That letter provided enough information about Laws’s life to start a research project that would take Austin to Maryland, Richmond and other places in search of tax, census and other records.

Laws continued working in Berryville after the war, but why little was said about his role as a spy is debated.

Though the play was postponed, attendees stayed for an impromptu seminar about Laws and Wright. The idea was floated that there should be a statue to Laws in the area.

“Why isn’t Winchester famous for Thomas Laws?” one person wondered aloud.—Winchester (Va.) Star, Jan. 8, 2018

Gravesite Details Base of monument says, "Erected by son G.H.L."

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  • Created by: Jack Sanders
  • Added: 5 Aug 2013
  • Find a Grave Memorial 114939925
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Thomas Laws (17 Jun 1817–16 Apr 1896), Find a Grave Memorial no. 114939925, citing Milton Valley Cemetery, Berryville, Clarke County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Jack Sanders (contributor 47471688) .