Preservation of Records During the Civil War


Bolivar Sheild, Clerk of Court, York County, VA from 1848 to 1868 saved the York County records from 1633 to 1862 by hiding them during the Civil War. The following newspaper article by Donald S. Knight was published on Sunday morning,  November 13, 1955.

Three Centuries of York Records Saved By Little Known Deed

…..and I do solemnly swear….that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as clerk of courts according to the best of my ability…. (From the oath of office).

“McClellan’s coming!”

Along tree-lined Main St., down the hill to the river and along the waterfront to the tobacco wharf, Yorktown residents of spring, 1862, heard the cry.

Clerk of Courts Bolivar Sheild, working in his cramped office at the corner of Main and Ballard Streets, heard the shouts too, but they came as no great surprise.

For two days he had watched Magruder’s riflemen and sword-wielding horsemen muster before the courthouse, draw extra rations, and then, during the early dawn, begin the evacuation of Yorktown.

Their gray ranks moved along the Williamsburg road and Yorktown, threatened by encirclement for weeks, was to remain without a defending soldier for nearly a day and night before the Federals, encamped above Fort Grafton, and beside batteries along the banks of Wormley Creek, would hear of the maneuver.

The so-called siege, during which one enemy cannon ball had found its mark on the town’s only pier, was over.

Sheild was among the first to learn that the revised battle plan included no pitched street defense for Yorktown, no last stand around the reactivated Revolutionary redoubts; and it was then that he had devised his dating plan to save the York County records.


The clerk was determined that his court books, containing the record of events in York for more than two centuries, would not be a part of the enemy’s gain in capturing Yorktown.

But time was running out and a Yankee scouting party had been sighted on the Yorktown highway.  Before another sunrise, enemy gunboats, patrolling at a safe distance in the Chesapeake, would steam into the mouth of the York.

As soon as the books could be loaded on the wagons Sheild and his helpers set off for the river.  The wagon nearly wheeled out of control as it bounced down the dusty road, barely passing a burdened ammunition carrier and a team of horses that struggled up the hill.

The carrier’s driver, with whip held high, cursed aloud and served notice that he did not intend to be the last of the town’s straggling garrison to travel the Williamsburg road on the morning of retreat.

Sheild, arriving at the waterfront, found it deserted and his sloop ready at the river’s edge.

Again the books were moved.  Then with the clerk at the helm, the craft was pushed into the York-with its bow pointed toward West Point, 30 miles upstream.


It was many years later before there were any official acknowledgement of Sheild’s deeds.  During the restoration of Williamsburg John D. Rockefeller financed the restoration of one of the older court record books in gratitude for the service the time-worn volumes had been in his program.

Full cognizance, however, came 75 years after that escape on the York-during the ceremony sponsored by the Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities at Yorktown on July 1, 1936.

About 30 descendants of Sheild were on hand to watch two of his grandsons unveil a plaque in the clerk’s honor and several speakers lauded the far-reaching effects of his deed and proclaimed that not only the county, but the country, was indebted to him.

Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin of Bruton Parish, for example mentioned the invaluable service rendered by the records in the restoration at Williamsburg and Bingham Duncan, government historian, spoke on behalf of the National Park Service and told how picture of life in Colonial York had been created from items in the old volumes.

The speakers also related how Sheild, after one night at West Point, learned that General Franklin-after going ashore at Yorktown just long enough to receive McClellan’s orders-had moved by transport to the Pamunkey River.


And he also heard the surprising news that these troops, following one skirmish with Confederates, had struck west to the Richmond highway, cutting off West Point from the capital.

Blocked in his plan to seek a safe hiding place for the books in Richmond he hurriedly devised a new plan and then turned his sloop towards the Mattaponi River on the east.

Sheild failed to enter a written record of his own adventures when he returned to Yorktown but it is known that after reaching the York tributary he navigated to the landing of a river plantation, probably that of some acquaintance.

He did not return to Yorktown until the sloop had been emptied of its precious cargo and the books safely hidden in the ice house on that plantation.

Later, on the night of Dec. 13, 1863, Yorktown residents and garrisoned Federal troops were jolted from their beds by an ear-splitting blast that rocked Main St.  The explosion sent a sheet of white flame into the night sky, stripping trees of their branches and demolishing historic Swan Tavern on the opposite corner.

No evidence was ever produced to show how heavy stockpiles of small arms ammunition in the courthouse came to explode that night.  But it was a tribute to Sheild that no court records were in Yorktown when the clerk’s tiny office was reduced to a pile of rubble in the blast.

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