The events of the American Civil War, 1861-1865, occurred far, far away in the eastern USA but during those years residents of Seattle certainly were aware of the conflict.
In the decades after the Civil War, veterans tended to migrate westward and many came to Seattle. Their influence on Seattle is still being felt today.
There is no exact pattern of what states these Civil War veterans came from, or what kinds of occupations they held in their years in Seattle after the war. Some veterans, like Captain John Marshall Hoyt of Wisconsin’s Iron Brigade, Union Army, did not arrive in Seattle until late in their lives, following adult children out to Seattle.
Civil War veterans in Seattle held all kinds of different jobs, some ordinary and some more prominent in their activities. As we trace the veterans we can see how they lived and how they left a heritage throughout Seattle and King County.
The majority of the Civil War veterans who came to Seattle, like Captain Hoyt, had fought with the Union Army, but there were some former Confederates who came to Seattle, too. This blog article is about a former Confederate soldier who made a new life in Seattle beginning in 1870.
Seattle awaits the outcome of the Civil War 1861-1865
The Civil War years were a time of economic slump and anxiety about what would happen to the USA, as to whether the nation would break apart and how western regions would be affected.
During the Civil War, Seattle was not able to get the federal government to pay attention to its concerns, such as development of trade routes through canals, ports, roads and railroads. Rail lines were privately owned but the federal government supported them with surveys and land grants. Finally, after the Civil War ended in 1865, the exploration of railroad routes began again and Seattle hoped for greater development. Seattleites lobbied for their city to become the terminus of a transcontinental line which would bring more commerce of products to port.
People in Seattle must have been excited when a civil engineer, John G. Scurry, came to town in 1870 as part of exploration for a transcontinental rail route. Perhaps it is for this reason, that when this railroad man showed up in Seattle, the fact that he had formerly served in the Confederate Army was ignored. Rather, Seattleites preferred to see whether Scurry’s arrival meant that the Northern Pacific Railroad would finally choose to put a terminus in Seattle.
Seattle was not awarded the Northern Pacific railroad terminus. On July 14, 1873, Seattle founder Arthur Denny read aloud the telegram to the crowd which had gathered at Yesler’s Mill to hear the news.
Seattle citizens’ resolute response, called Seattle Spirit, carried the city forward to start planning its own railroad. By that time in the mid-1870s, John G. Scurry had become part of the life of the City of Seattle and he made contributions to its growth and development. He went on to work in Seattle as a civil engineer and a surveyor, which is someone who marks property boundaries for future streets and house lots.
In this blog article I will speculate on whether John G. Scurry had a successful later life in Seattle despite having been on the losing side in the Civil War.
John G. Scurry was the eldest son in a family who lived in the prosperous industrial town of Lynchburg, Virginia. Before the Civil War, the census of 1860 listed the population of Lynchburg as 3,802 white people, 357 free blacks, and 2,694 enslaved African Americans. The wealth of the city came from the production of tobacco in plug, or chewing, form. Tobacco leaves were dried, crumbled and pressed into small bricks called plugs, held together with molasses or honey. Since all the work was done by unpaid labor (slaves) the tobacco industry was extremely profitable.
Located about 100 miles west of Richmond, Virginia, Lynchburg was a major transportation hub with river access and a crossroads of railroad lines.
At the onset of the Civil War in April 1861, the administration of the Confederate States of America realized that Lynchburg was an ideal place to keep supplies which could then be transported in several directions, to support the troops. The town was guarded and had only one close call, late in the war (June 1864) when forces commanded by Union General David Hunter threatened Lynchburg. The assault was repelled and Union troops were driven away by the forces of Confederate General Jubal Early.
A young man’s adventure and a nation torn apart
Only a few weeks after the start of the Civil War, a young man of Lynchburg, John G. Scurry, enlisted in Company A of the Virginia 11th Infantry, the Confederate Army. In Civil War units, a company could have up to 100 men and was grouped with others (in this case identified by letters of the alphabet) to make up ten companies, a regiment. Each of these companies had a distinctive name and John Scurry’s Company A was also called the Rifle Greys.
Scurry enlisted on July 8, 1861, and he was actually not yet sixteen years old as his birthday was on September 21st. We may ponder why John chose to volunteer for the Confederate Army, since we can only speculate on his reasons. Perhaps other young men in his community were joining up and he wanted to go, too. Although it shocks us that John was still so young, in those days young men were finished with their schooling by that age and then had to either go to work or, if their families could afford it, go on to train as a lawyer or other professional. John may have felt that it was time for him to get out of the house and embark on manhood in the military.
Another issue to ponder, is what motivated John Scurry to stick with the Confederate Army over the course of the next four years. During the war and increasingly toward the end, Confederate soldiers deserted their units, but John Scurry served for the entirety of the war. Some Confederate soldiers received letters from home with desperate pleas for help, and decided that they needed to go home to help their families. Conditions in the Confederate Army became so bad, with lack of food and clothing, that some soldiers just couldn’t stand it any more. Some realized that the Confederacy was losing the war and perhaps they hoped to evade capture by the Union Army.
In John Scurry’s case, one of the ameliorating factors might have been that throughout his time in the Confederate Army, he was seldom more than 100 miles from home. It is possible that family members helped supply him with some necessities such as shoes, to help keep him going. Another factor might have been, that he’d been appointed a sergeant over his group of men, and perhaps he felt an obligation of this leadership, to stick with it for the sake of the regiment and of the defense of his home state, Virginia.
The farthest from home that John Scurry ever got, was at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, about 200 miles from his home in Virginia. On the third day of that battle, July 3, 1863, John was wounded and was captured by Union soldiers. Incredibly, about five weeks later he was released from custody. I wonder if the Union officials in charge of prisoners, knew that John Scurry would go right back to re-join his unit in the Confederate Army?
John would continue to serve until the very end of the war in April 1865. He was “taken prisoner” again on April 9, 1865 at the last battle at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, when the few number of remaining Confederate troops were surrounded and General Robert E. Lee surrendered.
John was there among the assembled troops on April 14th when Lee met with General Grant to sign the documents of surrender. When General Lee emerged from the McLean House where he had met with General Grant, Lee admonished his men to go peacefully, return home and be good citizens. From there, John Scurry had only twenty miles to walk to get home to Lynchburg. Over the course of the Civil War he had marched many miles more than that.
After the war
Soldiers in the Civil War were acutely aware of the importance of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and rail lines. They were constantly either trying to improve roads for their own travel or they were trying to destroy bridges and railroad tracks to prevent the troop movements of the opposing forces. It may have been these experiences which led John Scurry to decide to become a civil engineer. After the war he completed his studies and got a job with a railroad company, to survey a route Out West.
In 1870 John once again left his home in Lynchburg, Virginia. This time he would journey across the USA until he found a new home in the Pacific Northwest. Given his intense loyalty to his home state of Virginia which kept him in the war for four years, it is surprising that John Scurry spent the rest of his life in Seattle. We may speculate on his new love for the frontier town of Seattle, at a time when no one knew whether Seattle would ever amount to anything.
Strong feelings about the Civil War
As read in Washington Territory newspapers during the Civil War years, strong feelings were expressed about secessionists as traitors because the Confederate states had fought to separate from the USA. Perhaps by 1870 in Seattle, these concerns were no longer uppermost and residents were more inclined to judge newcomers on what they could do, rather than what they had been in the past.
In the post-Civil-War years the effort to built a transcontinental rail line had gotten going again. John Scurry was one of the post-Civil-War group of locating engineers who surveyed for routes. He was only 25 years old when he arrived in Seattle in 1870 as a representative of one of the railroad companies, and perhaps Seattle embraced him eagerly due to the strong desire for a railroad terminus. In an era before cars were invented, the railroad was the best technological solution to travel and was of vital importance for development of trade routes.
Seattle from 1851 to 1870
As a newcomer in 1870 John Scurry found an atmosphere of optimism in Seattle as the white-settler population had edged up above 1,000 people and businesses were thriving. Real estate values increased and “the original pioneers now began to reap the benefits of their early hardships. Henry Yesler, William Bell and Arthur and David Denny became very active in platting and selling their land…..this building period meant prosperity.” (page 355, Four Wagons West).
The names of these founders of Seattle are familiar to us — the Denny Party of 1851, William Bell whose property became Belltown and Henry Yesler who had suddenly appeared in 1852 and offered to set up a sawmill on the Seattle waterfront. There are other influential early Seattleites who are less well-known, such as Charles Terry who died in 1867 at age 36.
Like the extended Denny family, Charles Terry had crossed the continent in a wagon train. He encountered the Dennys in Portland, Oregon, in 1851 and was part of the group who went on an exploratory trip to establish a homesite at Alki Point, West Seattle. When the rest of the group later decided to move over to Elliott Bay at what is now downtown Seattle, Mr. Terry stayed at Alki for a few more years.
While at Alki another early party of settlers, the Samuel Russell family, arrived to live there and Charles Terry married their daughter Mary Jane in 1856.
In the 1850s Charles Terry acquired property from Carson Boren and from Doc Maynard in what is now downtown Seattle. The Terry family moved there and had business interests such as stores and real estate investments. The Terrys lived at Third & James Streets with their four children, the last born on the same day as Charles Terry’s death from tuberculosis, February 17, 1867.
The railroad crisis of 1873
On July 14, 1873, Seattle city founder Arthur Denny received a shocking telegram from the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad, informing him that they had chosen Tacoma instead of Seattle, for the terminus of their transcontinental line.
Arthur Denny’s granddaughter wrote that “Seattle found that its very preparation for being a terminus had prevented it being one.” The railroad company “felt that it must follow the policy of building its own cities…if Seattle had been a wilderness its site would no doubt have been seized upon.” (Four Wagons West, pages 366-367.)
The Northern Pacific was able to buy land in Tacoma and build around it which would help underwrite the cost of the railroad; Seattle was already “too developed” and would not be amenable to coming under the control of the corporation.
We may wonder if any Seattleites expressed resentment toward John Scurry since he had worked for the Northern Pacific. However, he was a civil engineer, not one of the directors of the NP Railroad and perhaps he’d already settled in Seattle long enough to have decided that he would make his home here and find other work.
Marrying into the Establishment
Marrying into one of the elite families of a city is a proven way to get into society. Some Seattle newcomers were able to do this, in competition with all the other men in a frontier town where men greatly outnumbered women. Thomas Burke was 25 years old in 1875 when he arrived with a law degree and went into practice with wealthy, influential former judge John McGilvra. Burke soon married McGilvra’s daughter Caroline.
After the death of Charles Terry in 1867, Mrs. Terry, the former Mary Jane Russell, only lived until 1875, leaving her sixteen-year-old daughter Nellie May as head of the household. The next year at age seventeen, Nellie May Terry married John G. Scurry. The wedding was held four days before Scurry’s 31st birthday.
In early Seattle it was not unusual for there to be an age gap between married couples. It was written that “women did not remain single long after their arrival in the Territory, nor did the little pioneer girls as they grew up. The men still far outnumbered the women.” (page 262, Four Wagons West.)
Our first reaction might be to wonder if John Scurry was taking advantage of Nellie May Terry who was now an orphan. However, it appears that her guardians and her extended family approved of the marriage. Nellie May had family support from the Russells and she had guardians of her estate who had probated the wills of her parents. Two Seattle officials, Franklin Matthias and Erasmus Smithers, signed as witnesses at the wedding of John & Nellie May. Later events seem to show that John & Nellie May lived happily together.
The census of 1880 listed John, age 35, and Nellie May, age 21, living in the house inherited from her parents. As of 1880 they had two sons; two daughters would later be born to them.
Names given to the four Scurry children show John & Nellie May’s affection toward their families and their heritage. Their first son was named Matthew Edward Scurry; Matthew was John’s brother next to him in age, and Edward was the name of Nellie’s brother next to her in age. The couple’s second son was named Charles Terry Scurry, for Nellie May’s father and her younger brother of the same name.
The Scurry’s third child was named Martha Virginia. This was probably for John’s mother Martha, and his home state since there were no relatives of John’s or Nellie May’s named Virginia. The couple each had a sister named Betsey so in naming their fourth child Betsey, that name could have been in tribute to both of their sisters.
In 1880 the Scurry household included all of Nellie’s siblings: Bessie (Betsey) age 19, Edward 18, Charles 15, and Mamie (Mary) 13. A schoolteacher, Helena Smith, lived with the Scurry family and a German immigrant, Lola Bender, was listed as household servant. Nellie May’s grandfather, Samuel Russell, lived nearby at Fourth & Cherry Streets as well as Nellie May’s eldest uncle, Thomas Russell, her mother’s oldest brother.
Marriage plus merits
We can assume that his association with these respected Seattle pioneer families, the Russells and the Terrys, would help John Scurry’s reputation, but we also believe that he was making his way on his own merits: his enthusiasm for Seattle and his work as a civil engineer. Scurry had fallen in love with Seattle before falling in love with Nellie May.
John Scurry came to Seattle to do a job, surveying and scouting out railroad routes for the Northern Pacific, but after doing that he never left Seattle. He began a life in Seattle with its business investments and civic enterprises. Scurry and an associate, Henry K. Owens, established their own civil engineering firm and they later became the civil engineers for the City of Seattle.
By 1885 Seattle mover-and-shaker Thomas Burke had given up waiting for railroad corporations to come to Seattle. He and Daniel Gilman began lining up eastern USA investors as well as local ones, and they employed Scurry & Owens to help lay out and build the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. In this the two civil engineers were “going against” the Northern Pacific whom they had formerly worked for, when the directors of the NP refused to place the terminus of the line in Seattle. When he aligned himself with Seattle’s home-grown railroad, the SLS&E, John Scurry probably permanently established a reputation as a loyal Seattleite.
At age 41 in 1886, more than twenty years after the Civil War, John Scurry was still in hardened physical condition and able to camp outdoors even in December. In that month he led a survey crew eastward from Seattle to the Snoqualmie Falls and beyond to the foothills of the mountains. In January 1887 a competing railroad of the Oregon Improvement Company arrived at the Falls and found that the right-of-way of the SLS&E was already staked out. In April 1887, starting from downtown Seattle, “all through the spring showers Chief Engineer Scurry pushed the roadbed speedily along Lake Union and Lake Washington, as scows ferried men and material to the advancing front.” (quote from pages 106 & 108, Orphan Railroad, see source list)
Civil engineering work in crisis years in Seattle
In his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, John Scurry’s father James “was a native of Ireland, who immigrated to Lynchburg in the 1840s. He was a master stone mason, who was often hired by the city to build and maintain downtown streets, sidewalks, steps and walls. Perhaps it was watching his father struggle to engineer these streetscapes that inspired John Scurry — and prepared him for the challenges to come in his career.” (Old City Cemetery blog, see source list.)
From 1888 to 1890 Scurry & Owens were the civil engineers for the City of Seattle. The cataclysmic event of those years was the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. About thirty blocks of the downtown core burned, including the present Pioneer Square.
Far from destroying the city, however, the Fire was an opportunity for a do-over. Scurry & Owens did the engineering work of re-platting and regrading the business district after the fire. It is due to them that there is an “underground Seattle” below Pioneer Square, where the streets were raised after the Fire, as well as widened.
Fire and water
After the Fire, an associated project was the creation of a better water source for the city. This initiative had started in 1888 under Mayor Robert Moran while Scurry & Owens worked for the City. The Fire in June 1889 caused Seattle voters to overwhelmingly approve construction of a publicly owned water supply, but the process of bringing it into being was a very long one.
Scurry & Owens were civil engineers, not politicians, so after making recommendations they left it to the City to make the decisions about a water system. Although they did the planning of streets and regrading after the Fire, their involvement in City projects decreased during the long process of getting a new, reliable water supply for Seattle.
During the administration of the next mayor of Seattle, James T. Ronald, in 1892 he appointed as City Engineer the man who had the will and determination to put through the new water system, Reginald H. Thomson. Thomson had to work on how to fund and build a municipal system to bring water from the Cedar River. Thomson later became well-known for his regrading projects including the removal of Denny Hill, and for his re-organization of Seattle street names.
The 1890s economic ups and downs
Seattle grew by leaps and bounds after the Fire in 1889 but an economic crash in 1893 caused many people to lose money in real estate investments. The Scurry family felt the pinch as their real estate holdings fell in value. There was less work available, and they moved to a smaller house to save money.
Finally in 1897 with the start of the Klondike Gold Rush, economic conditions improved as Seattle became the mercantile launch pad for gold miners. John G. Scurry returned to railroad work and surveyed for the Alaska Central Railroad as well as railroad lines on the Olympic Peninsula in the northwest corner of Washington State. Though by this time Scurry was in his fifties and sixties, he remained a vigorous outdoor person. He thrived on exploration of the backwoods and the challenges of surveying through uncharted territory. He barely slowed down until just before his death from cancer in 1915 at age 69.
John Scurry and the Seattle Spirit
Clarence Bagley, author of History of Seattle, wrote that “No history of the northwest would be complete without mention of John G. Scurry, who was a prominent civil engineer, actively connected with the development of the railway systems of this section of the country… It was in 1870 that Mr. Scurry came to Seattle. He always had great faith in the city and was active in promoting its interests in every possible way.” (History of Seattle, pages 972 and 977.)
Bagley, the writer of Seattle history, mentioned that John G. Scurry had served in the Confederate Army out of love for his home state of Virginia, but Bagley went on to say what a great guy Scurry was. It seemed that, according to Bagley, Scurry’s love for and investment in Seattle atoned for all past sins, such as having been a Confederate. Bagley’s assessment seems significant to me because it is known that he omitted from his history overview, people whose activities he did not approve of such as saloon owners.
Newspaper articles as well as the death notice for John Scurry did not mention any organizational or club affiliations, unlike many other professional men like Thomas Burke, who belonged to the Rainier Club and other groups. This doesn’t mean that Scurry was a lone wolf, but we may wonder whether he tried to keep out of confrontations with those who would be hostile towards him about the Civil War issues.
A Confederate among Unionists
As shown on the census of 1880, a near neighbor of the Scurry-Terry household was the family of Judge Joseph R. Lewis. Lewis had been a practicing attorney in Iowa until, at the time of the Civil War, he served as a Union Army Provost Marshal which was an administrative position helping with recruitment and organization of troops. As of 1875 Lewis was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be chief justice of Washington Territory.
Judge Lewis moved to Seattle and built a house for his family at Third & Cherry Streets, present site of the Arctic Club building. In 1881 Lewis’s son Howard, also an aspiring attorney, married Bessie Terry, Nellie May Scurry’s sister.
We may wonder how Judge Lewis, a Union Army veteran of the Civil War, regarded the Terry-Scurry household, headed at that time by former Confederate soldier John Scurry. We may wonder whether Judge Lewis might have considered that John Scurry’s Seattle Spirit and sterling character qualities overrode his past affiliation with the Confederacy.
Later in the 1880s, the two men, Judge Joseph Lewis and John Scurry, worked together as part of the group that helped bring about the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad.
Pondering the Confederacy
On April 18, 1861, Robert E. Lee, a career military officer, learned that his home state of Virginia had seceded from the Union. That same day, President Abraham Lincoln had asked Lee to become the head of the Union Army. Lee regretfully declined, saying that “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home….”
Others who were natives of Virginia made similar decisions to resign their U.S. Army commission and go with the Confederate States of America.
At the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, George Pickett was on duty at Fort Bellingham, Washington Territory. Born in Richmond, Virginia, he resigned from the U.S. Army and journeyed back to Virginia to join the Confederate Army.
Loyalty to his home state of Virginia may have been what kept John G. Scurry in the Confederate Army for the duration of the Civil War. Perhaps he felt that he’d had no other choice, but it came with a high cost in personal hardship.
We may wonder whether, in later years, John’s perspective on the war changed any. We can see that it was due to divine providence that John survived the war, including major slaughters such as Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. People who have life-threatening experiences sometimes acquire a sense of destiny, that there must be some purpose yet to fulfil in their lives.
Late in the war, in July 1864, John’s younger brother, Matthew, also joined in, but not in a regular military unit. Mathew joined Mosby’s Rangers, a guerrilla-warfare band which engaged in lightning strike raids on Union supply lines.
After the war Matthew attended the Virginia Military Institute but died in 1871. Perhaps John Scurry might have regretted his influence upon his younger brother which may have led to Matthew’s shortened life.
Interactions of Union and former Confederate soldiers
During his years in Seattle, John Scurry probably noticed the increasing numbers of Union veterans in town, so many that the Grand Army of the Republic veterans group had to establish several branches to accommodate the numbers in different neighborhoods around the city. We wonder whether Scurry ever interacted with Union veterans as he surely must have encountered some of them in Seattle, such as H.C. Henry, who was also a railroad man.
Horace Chapin Henry was literally on the opposite side of the battle line from John Scurry at the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. H.C. Henry served in a Vermont unit of the Union Army and he might even have been one of the men who shot at John Scurry at Pickett’s Charge.
Today you can stand at the graves of H.C. Henry and John Scurry in the same cemetery (Lake View on Capitol Hill) and ponder the journeys of these Civil War veterans who spent the rest of their lives in Seattle.
“A Lynchburger in Seattle,” Old City Cemetery Blog, August 5, 2014, by Ted Delaney.
“Lynchburg during the Civil War,” EncyclopediaVirginia.org
“Terry Avenue,” Writes of Way blog, September 7, 2021.
“Terry House at Third & James,” Paul Dorpat blog, January 10, 2015.
Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson, 1988.
Four Wagons West by Roberta Frye Watt (a granddaughter of Arthur Denny), 1931.
History of Seattle, Volume Two, by Clarence Bagley, 1916.
Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911, by Kurt E. Armbruster, revised edition 2016. John G. Scurry is mentioned as the Chief Engineer of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad (pages 106 & 108).
Sons of the Profits by William C. Speidel, 1967. Chapter Two, “The Saga of Charlie Terry,” tells of Terry’s involvement in business and civic issues including the establishment of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Too High and Too Steep by David B. Williams, 2015. The story of Seattle’s regrading projects.
Census and City Directory listings.
Find A Grave: this wonderful free resource includes gravesite locations and background info such as names of family members.
HistoryLink Essay #922: “Northern Pacific Railroad announces Tacoma terminus on July 14, 1873,” by Heather M. MacIntosh and David Wilma, 1999.
HistoryLink Essay #2123: “Seattle voters authorize Cedar River water supply,” by Alan J. Stein and Cassandra Tate, 2000.
HistoryLink Essay #9462: “Arctic Building,” by Dotty DeCoster, 2010.
Newspaper references in chronological order:
“John G. Scurry,” Seattle Daily Times, July 15, 1915, page 9.
“Henry K. Owens,” Seattle Daily Times, May 16, 1919, page 9.
“Early Day Mansions,” Seattle Daily Times, January 14, 1945, page 29 by Margaret Pitcairn Strachan.
“Seattle at 150: Charles Terry’s Unlimited Energy Influenced a City,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 22, 2001 by James R. Warren.
Washington Digital Archives: dates of birth, death, marriage.
Writes of Way: a blog about Seattle street names. Here you can read about the origin of streets named for Boren, Denny, Terry and Yesler which are tributes to these early Seattle settlers.
And, of course, it is possible Scurry stayed in the Confederate army out of a belief he needed to help protect his home from the invaders. Remarkably, after the war, many Confederate and Union veterans would attend each other’s reunions and otherwise mingle rather well. Sometimes, not so well.