The Willow Del Commissary:
Pittsylvania's Secret Confederate Supply Base

By Herman E. Melton

After the eruption at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, hundreds of Pittsylvanians ralled to the Confederate colors as the first tocsin sounded. At their forefront was the popular Isaac Hughes Watson, a man of property, mainly in the manufacture of tobacco. Isaac Watson descended from Thomas Watson I, known as “The Scotsman” and the founder of the Watson family in Pittsylvania County. He was a very early settler, having patented land on Cherrystone Creek around 1740. Thomas Watson II maintained his father's holdings and perpetuated the dynasty near Chatham.

John Watson Sr. was a son of old Thomas and purchased land on Harpen Creek during the Colonial era, thus forming another branch of the family. It was into this family that Isaac Hughes Watson was born, and by 1861, he was the owner of Willow Del, the Watson plantation of Harpen Creek.

Isaac Watson was in full sympathy with the Southern cause, and soon headed up a company of volunteers called the Pigg River Invincibles. Watson was commissioned a Captain and the Invincibles became Company C, 2nd Battalion of the 46th Virginia Regiment — a part of the Wise Legion CSA. This unit, also known as the Wise Brigade, saw most of its service in what is now West Virginia.

Watson was not reelected to his command in 1862 and returned home. There was chaos on the home front and the Confederate government needed his service badly. As a Captain, he was assigned to the Confederate Quartermaster Corps and given the task of collecting all kinds of farm produce such as corn, wheat, cattle and hogs to be delivered to General Lee's Army.

The need was critical and eventually the Tax in Kind Bureau was formed and administered by the Confederate Quartermaster General. A “tax in kind” was levied on agricultural produce beginning in 1863. After reserving specified quantities for their own use, farmers and planters were required to pay and deliver to the Confederate government, one-tenth of the wheat, corn, oats, rye, buckwheat, rice, potatoes, hay, beans, sugar, molasses, cotton, wool, tobacco and peas.

Depots were founded and maintained by the Subsistence Department of the Commissary General's Office. According to records in the archives of the Government of the CSA, Virginia's depots were located at Richmond, Danville, Lynchburg, Dublin, Boykins, Milford, Charlottesville and Staunton.

The Tax In Kind Act provided for the appointment of Quartermasters by Congressional Districts, and their assistants were appointed to collect and distribute the produce received.

With service to the Confederacy foremost in his mind, Isaac Watson went at this job with alacrity no doubt.

In almost complete secrecy, the dynamic Watson founded a huge commissary at Willow Del. According to a Watson descendent/chronicler, Henson Overbey, now deceased, he operated the commissary without the knowledge of county citizens. Overbey wrote that Willow Del consisted of hundreds of acres and that the commissary was located in an obscure part of the plantation where its stores would be safe from foraging Yankee troopers. Indeed he could have had several facilities scattered over the plantation.

Pittsylvania County Court records contain some entries that appear to shed some additional light on the CSA supply base at Willow Del. In the year 1862, William Watson, an older brother of Isaac, filed an application with the Court to erect a grist mill on Harpen Creek. It is significant that Watson's application came in July, only two months after his brother Isaac returned from the battlefront. Whereas most applications to erect grist mills in that era required from one to two months and sometimes longer, Watson's took only four days. Something was in the wind.

This potentially historic mill site is on the right bank of an open bend of Harpen Creek at a point approximately a mile from the Willow Del mansion house. The mill's locations was known to native Ella Osborne, the present owner of the site and to former Pittsylvanian, Rodney Hudson of Durham, NC, who visited it forty years ago. They came to the assistance of a team of Pittsylvania Historical Society researchers headed up by Buddy Overbey, a Watson descendant.

The team found the site easily after being directed by Osborne and Hudson. Its location was remote and obscure in its time, and it appears to have been a well engineered mill. It had two “runs” or pairs of millstones — four of which remain on the site. The large size of the dam ruins and that of the millstones suggest that it was a facility with considerable grinding capacity.

Overbey believes that since this was the only grist mill erected in Pittsylvania County during the Civil War, and that it was built on what was once a part of the Willow Del plantation, it was meant to serve the Confederacy, at least in part, as a Willow Del facility.

Herman Melton, a county mill historian, agrees. Like its parent, the Willow Del Commissary, the existence of the mill has only recently come to light. Additional research should give the mill more historical importance. There is little doubt that some of its output went to the Army of Northern Virginia — and perhaps most of it did for the next three years.

As for Watson's operation of the commissary, he used the resources at hand. slaves from the region were placed under military orders, and under the supervision of Captain Watson, ranged far and wide collecting produce from county farms to be stockpiled at Willow Del. It is logical to assume that Watson's operation was under the command of Major William T. Sutherlin of Danville, who was Lee's chief Quartermaster for the region.

After the carnage ended at Appomattox and the trying days of the Reconstruction came to a close, Willow Del once more became a tobacco plantation. Watson resumed his position of leadership in the county and crowned his career by representing it in the Virginia General Assembly.

Finally it is appropriate to note that the Willow Del Commissary is no product of the imagination of latter day romantics. According to Henson Overbey, the existence of the Confederate supply center has been proven by the pension department of the Commonwealth. Several men who worked under the supervision of Captain Watson received pensions, giving proof to that effect. She wrote that after Appomattox, the location of the commissary was made known. It became a landmark and a symbol of pride for Pittsylvanians who, with inordinate personal sacrifice, yielded their measure of supplies to the Army of Northern Virginia.


Notes


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On


Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse



Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County


An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina


Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town



Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.