Mysterious Millner Imprisoned in New York

By Sarah E. Mitchell

J. K. Millner, a “speculator and man of means” of Danville, was arrested in New York on September 10, 1861, and charged with having one thousand sheets of bills lithographed (printed) for the Bank of Pittsylvania in Chatham, Virginia at the cost of $135.00, and being caught in the act of entering into a contract to buy gun-making machinery, hire men to operate the machinery, and transport the machinery and men to Virginia. In the “sting,” Bethel Burton, who invented the patent rifle and sold the patent to Millner; Robert Walker, who allegedly was going to help transport the operation; and Benjamin F. Corlies, who was a partner in the company that printed the money, were all arrested. Robert Murray, U. S. marshal, gave his account of the situation:

“I am the marshal of the southern district of New York. I arrested J. K. Millner who is now in Fort Lafayette; he stated to me that he was a Virginian; that he came on here some three weeks previous; that he was introduced to Bethel Burton by a Mr. Walker (these men are now in Fort Lafayette). Walker stated to him (Millner) that Burton was the inventor of a patent rifle or gun which was a very effective weapon; that if they could introduce it into Virginia they would make a large sum of money. After negotiation Burton went down to Virginia with Millner to see what arrangements could be made with the leaders of the rebellion. They took one of the guns with them — taken apart and packed in their baggage. They saw at Richmond the Confederate Government with which they made a contract to make 40,000 of the rifles at a stated price.

“Burton and Millner then returned to New York to get the machinery and workmen to manufacture the guns and ship them to Virginia by the way of Hatteras Inlet, the capture of which disconcerted their plans. So far this is the statement of Millner. When I arrested Millner he was in the act of paying $15,000 to Burton for an interest in the gun and contract. I arrested Millner on a warrant issued by a U. S. commissioner, a copy of which is appended. After the arrest of Millner on inquiry I found quite a number of men who had been hired by Millner and Burton to go on to Virginia. They were mechanics such as would be employed on such work.

“With one of these men was found the paper money, a sample of which is annexed. Millner admitted that he had ordered this paper money made….

“To Mr. Walker's place of business I traced George Miles [a Richmond man who was charg-ed with “collecting moneys in loyal States for persons residing in the insurrectionary States”] and [John Garnett] Guthrey [a Petersburg man who was charged with “holding unlawful intercourse with persons in insur-rectionary States”] and they were coming from there when they were arrested. We found here $30,000 of Mr. Millner's money which he offered to the officers if they would let him go and take his paper money with him. He also offered it to me on same conditions.”

S. C. Hawley, a Chief Clerk in New York, described his view of the alleged crimes to William H. Seward, Secretary of State:

“The testimony shows that Millner and Bethel [Burton] are particeps criminis, engaged in the same transaction; the testimony relates to both. I therefore make one report for both cases…. I think it is shown that Burton was the in-ventor of a new implement of war in the character of a rifle; that Millner was a specu-lator with means; that they put their heads to-gether, went to Richmond and contracted with the military authorities in command of the armies now making war against the Government to supply them with 40,000 or 50,000 of the rifles; and that they were arrested here in New York while making preparations for performing their contract. They had not only intended and agreed to do this thing but had taken steps and done overt acts, such as engaging machinery and hiring men to manufacture the guns. All this can be amply and clearly proved I do not doubt. I therefore do not doubt that J. K. Millner and Bethel Burton have committed an offense against the United States for which they can be legally held and punished.

“I will add that in this case as in many others the mercenary and not the political motive pre-ponderated in inducing the acts of the parties, and also that the men are men of talents, enterprise and courage, well calculated and very likely to pursue money-making schemes regardless of law and patriotism.

“I do not notice the matter of the paper mo-ney because one good reason for holding the men prisoners is enough; and further because I think that the uttering of the money was pro-bably to have occurred at the South as a private speculation, in no way calculated to injure the United States Government or to aid the States or people who are engaged in rebellion. Punish-ment for that crime ought probably to proceed from the States where the money should be put in circulation. [B. F. Corlies, who co-owned the printing company that lithographed the money, was released after swearing an oath of allegiance on September 18th, 1861.]”

Protests of Innocence

Mr. Millner, of course, disputed all these claims and argued that he was a loyal Union supporter:

FORT LAFAYETTE, September 21, 1861.
Hon. W. H. SEWARD, Secretary of State, Washington.

DEAR SIR: I wish for you to give me written permission to send to Virginia for my wife as I am confined here and do not know when I will be able to get out, and in case that I get my release (which I am sure that I would get if I could see you) I would prefer remaining in New York until the war is over. I can employ a man to go to Virginia for my wife if you will give the per-mission and give me a chance to see the parties.

In regard to my money that the Government has libeled here in the city of New York it has been there ever since before the proclamation of the 15th of April issued by the President, and I have not taken it home for the reason that I be-lieved it was safer here than at home and never had any idea of moving it until I got afraid of having it confiscated. And so far as the rebellion is concerned I have never taken any hand in it in any way, as I voted for Union men for my State convention, and when the ordinance of secession was voted on by the people I left home for the reason that I could not vote for it and was afraid to vote against it.

I have been here in this fort for some ten days, and if you would give me a chance I could prove to your entire satisfaction that I have neither committed treason nor intended any. If you will order a deputy marshal to convey me to Washington I will pay all of his expenses and my own and also his salary during the time, and I will guarantee if you will see me that you will order my release.

Hoping that you will comply with some of my request, I remain, yours, respectfully,

J. K. MILLNER, — Formerly of Danville, Va.

P.S. — You will please not publish anything in this letter. J. K. M.

A few months later, Mr. Millner wrote President Lincoln. (In the meantime, he had hired lawyer William H. Ludlow and written again to Seward.)

FORT WARREN, Boston Harbor, December 30, 1861.

President of the United States, Washington.

SIR: I was arrested in New York on September 10, 1861, by Marshal Murray acting under orders received from the Department of State and have been confined since that time in Forts Lafayette and Warren, the latter being my present place of confinement. Since my arrest suits have been instituted in the courts of New York against me amounting to over $30,000, which amount I have on deposit there and has been there since April 1, 1861. The object of the suits is the confiscation of my property. My object in writing to Your Excellency is that I may be allowed my liberty to attend the said suits upon such terms as you may designate. Although a native of Virginia my property is in New York. I have therefore no desire to go South. I only ask to be permitted to defend my property in suit. Evil-disposed persons, my enemies, are endeavoring to have my property confiscated whilst I am here, well knowing were I at liberty they could not accomplish their designs. I am willing to enter into any obligation the Government may require of me.

Hoping this matter will receive your speedy attention I am, with great respect, your obedient servant,


Free at last

J. K. Millner had written to Seward on October 24, 1861, “I am a Union man and voted in Virginia against my own uncle who was a secession candidate. I have never been engaged in intentional treasonable acts against the United States Government, and have never conveyed any political or military intelligence or intelligence of any other kind detrimental to the Government of the United States. I am willing to give the same parole as that given by Mr. Guthrey, of Virginia . . . .” The following year, Millner was finally allowed to take the oath:

MAY 7, 1862.

I, J. K. Millner, of Danville, Va., do hereby give my parole of honor that I will render no aid or comfort to the enemies in hostility to the Government of the United States and that I will not go into any of the States in armed insurrection against the authority of the Government of the United States nor correspond with persons residing therein without permission from the Secretary of War.

Signed in the presence of —

What happened next?

It is not perfectly clear whether J. K. Millner returned to Virginia. On the 1870 and 1880 census, there are a few individuals by the name of J— Millner (Jackson, John, etc.) in Danville and Pittsylvania County, but it is not definite that any of these men were the same individual. A J. K. Millner is credited with helping to start land development in 1875 in the area that became North Danville, and area historian Danny Ricketts notes that there was a John K. Milner (with only one “l”) living on Belle View Street in North Danville in 1879.



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

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Melton: Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Melton: Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

This article is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.