Hugh White Sheffey: a study in Northern ideals & Southern sensibilities

Hugh White Sheffey in the Sheffey family tree
Hugh White Sheffey in the Sheffey family tree – click for larger image

Hugh White Sheffey was a name I already knew and had become somewhat familiar with in the course of doing the usual family history research thing. That is to say I knew where he fell on the greater family tree. I knew he was a judge. I also knew he served in Virginia’s State Congress. I also knew that, like many of his Sheffey contemporaries, he was an educated and deeply religious man. That being said, I’d put him on the proverbial back burner – yet another Virginia-born Sheffey who was respected legal practitioner and a political servant as well as steadfast American Constitutionalist. I shouldn’t have been so quick to by-pass his story.

As with my more interesting finds, Hugh White Sheffey re-emerged on my radar due to an unexpected research result. I had spent an afternoon doing some casual research trying to track down portraits of 18th and early 19th Century Sheffeys in Virginia. Google gave me an intriguing result for dear old Hugh in an obscure book entitled Twelve Virginia Counties: Where the Western Migration Began written in 1937 by John Hastings Gwathmey:

There’s an entry for Hugh Sheffey. In writing about the various portraits of judges which hang in the Staunton Court House in Augusta County, Virginia, which reads: “The other portraits in the courtroom are likenesses of the following men, all judges and lawyers who practiced at the Augusta bar: …Hugh W. Sheffey (1815-1889)…”

This was pretty cool to find. As far as I know – and as far as many of my extended family members know – there were no known images or photos of this man. There wasn’t a single image of him online. No one on had one. And a flurry of conversations on Facebook yielded no results. Simply put, no one in the length and breadth of the Sheffey family knew what this man looked like.  So I sent an exceedingly polite email to the Clerk of the Staunton Court House asking, if at all possible, could he or she take a photo of the portrait of Hugh and email it to me. The Clerk not only took a picture of Hugh’s portrait…he emailed it to me the very next day (again, a huge thank you for that!) And here it is:

Portrait of Judge Hugh White Sheffey
The portrait of Judge Hugh White Sheffey which hangs in the courtroom of the Staunton Courthouse in Virginia. Image courtesy of the Court Clerk, who kindly took a picture of the portrait for me.

This image of him sent me down the rabbit hole. I wanted to find out more about the man behind the portrait. To say I hit pay-dirt is an understatement. I came across a self-penned biography he provided for his Alma Mater, Yale University.

Hugh Sheffey’s Autobiography

Hugh White Sheffey autobiographyin Yale Alumnus Magazine

The impression which struck me as I read the history that he relayed was one of a humble, modest and diligent man. Hugh was the grandson of German immigrants Johann Adam Scheffe (John Adam Sheffey) and Maria Magdalena Loehr (Madeleine Lohr Sheffey). Born in 1815, he was one of five children born to Henry Lawrence Sheffey and Margaret White. He was orphaned at a young age and, went to live with one of his uncles, Major Daniel Henry Sheffey and his wife, Maria Hanson at Kalorama, the name of Daniel Sheffey’s home in Staunton, Virginia. His siblings were sent to live with other aunts and uncles.

Kalorama - Daniel Henry Sheff's home
Kalorama (upper left in the picture) – Daniel Henry Sheffey’s home in Satunton, Virginia. This was Hugh’s adopted childhood home. Maria Hanson Sheffey, Daniel’s widow, founded The Virginia Female Institute here in 1831. The property was destroyed in 1870.

What emerges is a story of a loving and profoundly nurturing childhood household reflected in the terms of endearment he uses for his father-uncle and mother-aunt. The parents of daughters, Daniel and Maria treated Hugh literally like the son they never had.

This was a deeply political household. Daniel Sheffey was an old fashioned Federalist and had served in Congress from 1816 to 1817. He’d been an outspoken opponent of the War of 1812. Roughly speaking, as a federalist Daniel believed in a decentralized form of central government which he felt was necessary in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created and the American Constitution would enshrine (an interesting historical factoid: it took YEARS for the American Constitution to be ratified. It was largely ratified due to the ceaseless campaigning efforts of the Federalist Party). For more information about Federalism, see

Daniel was also a highly respected lawyer.

I believe the measure of regard Hugh had his for his Uncle Daniel is easily witnessed throughout his life; how he conducted it, his ideals and the concepts he fought for. He too became a legal practitioner, eventually becoming a respected Judge. He too became a politician. By his time, the Federalist political party had dissolved. Hugh was an American Whig. Let’s think of the Whig party as the son of the former Federalist Party. They fundamentally shared the same concerns, goals, causes and philosophies. Both parties tended to support protectionist tariffs, development of infrastructure, particularly canals, and tended to favor northern business interests over farming interests. William Blair’s book Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 gives a small insight into Hugh’s Whig beliefs:

William Blair’s book Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865,+slave+schedule&source=bl&ots=wSbMWBHZug&sig=3xg_tl5jZlEqI9zofJJsBVRsGKU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=s1A7U4qXG_DgsATRo4BI&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sheffey&f=false

New England & The Civil War

Daniel attended Yale University where, by all accounts, he excelled academically. Indeed, he returned to lecture in law for a number of years. And here lays the basis of a fundamental question I would love to go back in time to ask Hugh.

Hugh was a southerner – and not just any old southerner but a Virginian – living in the New England heartland. He came from a family of modest wealth…but a slave owning family nonetheless. Now New England was never the bastion of freedom for free blacks that we’ve been led to believe from American history classes. Far from it. Slavery persisted in New England far longer than I was ever led to believe. And a system of apartheid existed between the end of the Revolutionary War and the commencement of the American Civil War. Yet, when Hugh attended Yale, there was a slow-growing abolitionist movement. There isn’t anything in his writing to indicate the subject of slavery troubled his mind while a student at Yale. What I do find interesting is there is no mention of slavery, or his own ownership of slaves in his short autobiography. It is a glaring omission and, I believe, hints at his own unease.

Hugh White Sheffey 1860 Slave Schedule
Hugh White Sheffey 1860 Slave Schedule – click for larger image

New England left an indelible mark on Hugh. When Civil war eventually broke out he was torn between his Old Dominion roots and his own family’s standing within that society, and his loyalty to the Union. I have no doubt that he understood and appreciated the southern complaint and perhaps supported parts of that complaint. He did not, however, agree or support succession. He was an outspoken opponent against southern succession. He went so far as to move from his beloved Virginia to West Virginia (Wakelyn, Jon L. 2002. Confederates Against the Confederacy: Essays on Leadership and Loyalty ) to illustrate his belief in the ideal of Union, which his grandfather and his uncles had fought to establish in the American Revolution. I don’t envy his predicament.

This doesn’t appear to have gone against him within Virginian society when the Civil war ended. Indeed, he fashioned himself something of a diplomat between the old Commonwealth of Virginia and the Union. He remained a resident of Staunton and Wythe in Virginia and was a prominent Virginian. He covers this with candour in his autobiography.

I keep coming back to the issue of slavery and how the institution of slavery was at odds with many of his fundamental beliefs and life experiences. I don’t know how he came by his slaves. My gut instinct – which, of course, requires verification – is that he inherited them. Given how much of his history I’ve read, I am surprised he didn’t free them before the close of the Civil War. I’d love to ask him why he didn’t– not in an accusatory way. This was a highly intelligent man of conscience, sense and sensibility. He possessed those classic Sheffey family traits: a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to swim against the populist tide. No, I’d much rather ask to understand his thinking. He had a reason.

My thoughts on this are pretty simple. I think that understanding Hugh’s conundrum will help me finally understand the reason behind the depths of the bonds which linked the African and European descended sides of this family over the two generations of its slave owning history. What was the bond which saw African descended and mulatto Sheffeys risk their lives to save European descended Sheffey family members and their property? And what was behind the custom of so many within the extended European descended Sheffey family bending over backwards to ensure that the slaves they owned (kinsmen or not) were kept together as a family generation after generation? What was the nature of that bond that would tie these two family groups together well into the 1940s?

I can’t help but feel that Hugh White Sheffey is a key to this enigma.

In the meantime, Hugh has introduced me to facets of American history I previously didn’t know anything about. I’m currently doing some extensive reading on the Federalist and Whig parties, as well as other American political parties that existed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Did you know that at the close of the American Revolution there were over 100 political parties in the thirteen states? No? Me neither. Even more interesting is understanding that the issues, challenges, problems and ideals which were fought over amongst this myriad of parties at the dawn of the birth of the USA were never resolved and echoes down to us in the here and now.

What a rabbit hole.

More information about Hugh White Sheffey:

Waddell, Joseph Addison. 1866. Annals of Augusta County, Virginia: With Reminiscences Illustrative of the Vicissitudes of Its Pioneer Settlers ; Biographical Sketches of Citizens Locally Prominent, and of Those who Have Founded Families in the Southern and Western States ; a Diary of the War, 1861-‘5, and a Chapter on Reconstruction

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