Monday, July 17, 2017

David Parker and food's connection to morale in the Army of Northern Virginia.

I've been reading a lot of Confederate letter collections the past few weeks, and I have discovered something interesting in the letters of David Parker. Parker, from Yancey County and a member of the 54th North Carolina Troops, writes home about food (many soldiers did that), but ties in the morale of the army. We know that morale was tied to food, but it does not get mentioned very often.

In November 1862, Parker writes that all they are getting to eat is "dry crackers and beaf meat." He then confesses that he has lost weight in the past few months, and
David Parker
concludes: " I don't think I can stand the scarcities much longer." (45) Parker became lucky in January 1863. He was detailed to cook for the officers in his company. "I get plenty to eat. Thank god that is one good consolation and that is more than any of the rest of the Privates can say," he wrote home in February. (62)

It is unclear just how long these arrangements lasted, but by late summer 1864, Parker appears to be back in the ranks. His command was in the Shenandoah Valley and while rations were scarce, there were opportunities to supplement with apples and other fruits just coming ripe. In December of 1864, things were not so good. Writing from the trenches around Petersburg, Parker believed that "It is the hardest time in this army that I have saw since I have been out in the service and if it does not get better the soldiers will not stand it long. They are all threatening to run away if they don't give them more to eat." A few days later he wrote that the rations were a little better. We are faring very well at this time though I do not know how long it will last. What we get now we can live on very well. If it will only continue. I have not thought to run away yet though when I wrote last I was very much tempted. If they had not given me more to eat I do not know what I should of done though I do not expect to run away while I can help it for it never was my notion to run away. You know that I all ways was opposed to it but hunger will make men do that they do not want to do. So long as Jefferson Davis does feed me as he is at this time I will stay with him." (136)

Of course, we know that the North cut off supplies coming from the Deep South, and from the Shenandoah Valley, and that thousands did run away. David Parker held out until the end. He was wounded, probably on April 2, 1865, and admitted to a hospital in Richmond the next day. Parker succumbed to his wounds on April 14, 1865; he is buried in Richmond, a long way from his home in the mountains of western North Carolina.


If you want to learn more of David Parker's story, check out Pen in Hand: David Parker Civil War Letters, edited by Riley Henry. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Tar Heels buried with Stonewall Jackson.

A few weeks ago, on my return from the living history in Maryland, we stopped by Lexington and spent a few moments with Stonewall Jackson. We also stumbled over to the Confederate monument in the cemetery, and found the names of several Tar Heels chiseled on it. That got me to thinking - who were these men and how did they wind up so far from the front lines of the War? (Yes, the war visited Lexington in June 1864.)

So, who were these men?

On one side is the name of J. C. McKinney, Co. B, 34th N. C. John C. McKinney was from Cleveland County and was 39 years old when he mustered in as a private in February 1863. Four months later (June 17-19, 1863), he died of typhoid at a hospital in Lexington.

Below McKinney was G H B Huggins, Co.I, 2nd N. C. There are no Hugginses in Company I, but I did find a Henry B. Huggins in Company G. Huggins enlisted in Northampton County on July 18, 1861. He was wounded sometime around July 1, 1861, by the "explosion of a bomb shell at Camp Wyatt." Huggins was detailed as a nurse in Lexington on February 15, 1863, and died there of "typhoid pneumonia" on June 16, 1863.

On another side of the monument were the names W. G. Gilbert and A. T. Gilliam, both listed as having served in the 23rd North Carolina. There was a Willis Gilbert in Company D. His records state he was born in Caldwell County and enlisted at the age of 28 in September 1862. He died at or near Lexington around February 6, 1863, of "chr[onic] gastritis."

A. T. Gilliam is proving a challenge. There are no A. T. Gilliams in Company A, 23rd North Carolina Infantry. I tried looking on Soldiers and Sailors for A. Gilliam, and T. Gilliam, but I could not identify this soldier. I also looked at the compiled service records for the 23rd NC, but I did not really see anything there that matched. It could be that the inscription is totally wrong, or maybe this poor lad died of some disease after he enlisted but before he was mustered into the regiment.

I did a little online searching , but I did not find a whole lot about a war-time hospital. The Stonewall Jackson house was used as a hospital, but it is unclear if this happened during the war. Maybe someone has that answer as well.



I wonder how many other Tar Heels are tucked away in places, seemingly forgotten. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

On the field at Sharpsburg

The battlefield at dusk. 
Over three decades, this crazy life I live has taken me to some pretty remarkable places. The archives and libraries hold special treasures, but the fields themselves often hold the keys to whatever it is that I am writing. For years and years, I reenacted. There are still a few places, like Olustee in Florida, or Reseca, Georgia, where reenactors get to take the fields on the actual sites where the boys in Blue and Gray fought. A few years ago, I "retired" from reenacting. Yep - I hung up my sword. Instead, I became a volunteer interpreter. Instead of leading weekend warriors on some distant field, portraying for the masses what a Civil War battle might have looked like, I decided to get a little more personal. For several years, I (and my family) have volunteered at historical sites, trying to work closely with the public and interpret the events. And as a rule, we try to stay within two hours of our home here in the mountains of western North Carolina.  

Tarheels at the Dunker Church. 
Every once in a while, some event comes along that pulls me out of the mountains. When the opportunity came to portray elements of Branch's brigade at Antietam, and to talk about the General on the very ridge where he died, well, it was an event too good to pass up. So my son and I loaded up and headed to Maryland. We were able to camp behind the Dunker Church (and even slept in the church Friday night due to the rain), march onto the field, fire vollies from the Sunken Road, and interact with the public in a very special way.

Our camp for the weekend.
The highlight came on Saturday evening as I had a chance to stand by the cannon marking the site of Branch's death, which occurred on the evening of September 17, 1862. I had planned to speak on the life of General Branch, but my friend John Baucom read a brief biographical sketch of his life before it came to my turn. So just a couple of minutes before my turn came, I changed my talk, focusing on the men of the brigade as they came up from Harpers Ferry, the loss of Branch, James H. Lane's promotion, and the rest of their war. Some probably thought that it was all planned out. No, not really.  But 20 years of research into the Branch-Lane brigade can come in handy.

Camping on the ground where they fought, and marching over the fields where so many died, can give one a perspective very few others can get. It will be an event that I will always treasure, right up there with sleeping on Snodgrass Hill and in the Petersburg trenches. Three cheers for my friends in the 28th North Carolina Troops. It was a fantastic event! 
General Branch's memorial. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Was it really Witcher's Cavalry?


In November 1863, a group of dissidents left Wilkes County, bound for Knoxville, and the 10th Tennessee Cavalry (US). As the story goes, the group of fifty-seven men were being piloted by Wilkes County resident John Bryant. They passed through Watauga County, and on into Tennessee. In an area of present-day Unicoi County (then Carter County) they stopped at the home of Dr. David Bell, for breakfast. As the waited under some trees, "rebels... suddenly came insight, and the alarm was instantly given. The poor fellows tried to save themselves by flight, being closely pursued by the rebels, who were shooting at them and charging on them with their horses at a terrible rate."

According to this account, written by Daniel Ellis in 1867 (he was not present), eleven did not escape. Those killed were:

Calvin Catrel - shot in breast, knocked in the head and then bayoneted.
John Sparks - shot in head
Wiley Royal - shot in shoulder and back and then beaten to death with a fence rail.
Elijah Gentry - shot and killed.
Jacob Lyons - shot and killed.
B. Blackburn - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
Preston Pruett - shot in shoulder and then beaten to death.
James Bell - dragged from house and beaten to death.
____ Madison - wounded, but survived.
After killing Doctor Bell, the attackers burned down his house.

Ellis places the blame for the murder of these men on a Witcher, whose first name Ellis could not remember, but believed that it was either James or Samuel. Ellis wrote that Witcher came from Virginia, and had 400 men under his command. A whole host of later writers and historians believe that the man leading the attack was Col. Vincent A. Witcher, commander of the 34th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, also known as Witcher's Battalion. There are, or course, many who dispute the claim that Vincent Witcher and his men were involved.

Vincent A. Witcher is an interesting soldier. He gained the praise of J.E.B. Stuart. The famed cavalry leader wrote a letter of recommendation for Witcher, on November 26, 1863, stating that he had witnessed Witcher's "personal gallantry and the good fighting qualities of his command. These were particularly exemplified at Gettysburg, at Hagerstown, Funkstown, and subsequently at Fleetwood in Culpeper." However, there was also a dubious side to Witcher's battalion. The Bristol Gazette reported in early 1864 the capture of a Yankee in Lee County accused of rape. It was the prayer of the editor of the Richmond Sentinel, commenting on the Gazette story, that the man "may fall into the hands of Colonel Witcher." Clearly, the battalion's reputation was a fearsome one.

Vincent Witcher 
Were Witcher and the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry even in the area of east Tennessee in the fall of 1863? On October 20, 1863, Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones wrote from Abington, Virginia: "Colonel Witcher had a spirited skirmish yesterday 2 miles south of Zollicoffer, with enemy's rear guard." (OR vol. 29, pt. 2, 796.) Zollicoffer was an earlier name for Bluff City. Two miles south would put the skirmish near Piney Flats, Tennessee, in Sullivan County. As the crow flies, that is about twenty miles from Limestone Cove, probably a day's ride through the mountains. Edward Guerrant, a Confederate staff officer who left behind a diary, also makes mention of Colonel Witcher arriving in camp three miles west of Blountville on October 27, 1863. (Bluegrass Confederates 358)

One newspaper in Knoxville republished an order that Witcher issued on November 23, 1863: "Headquarters 34th VA Bat. Cavalry... To all whom it may concern: "Notice is hereby given to the people of Carter and Johnson counties that the Union men will be held responsible, in person and property, for all plundering and bushwhacking of Southern soldiers and citizens. Whenever deserters, bushwhackers, and marauders, are known to assemble or whenever they may steal or plunder, the house and barns of Union men shall be burned to the ground. Citizens may appeal to, to organize and destroy the gangs of scoundrels who are infesting the country. The above order will be executed to the very letter. By order of Lt. Col. Witcher." (Brownlow's Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator, August 19, 1864)

So, that places Witcher's battalion in the area.

Unfortunately, the trail runs cold at that point. There is a history of the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, by Scott Cole (H. E. Howard, 1993), but it is silent on the matter.
Parson Brownlow, in his Brownlow's Knoxville Whig [Knoxville] April 16, 1864, published this account five months after the events took place: "Hundreds of men have actually been hanged and shot in upper East Tennessee by Longstreet's thieves and assassins... Witcher's company of cavalry, piloted by Nathaniel [Benson], of Washington county, took James Bell, the brother of Dr. Bell, of Greene county, forced him to lay his head on a chunk in the road and with stones and clubs they beat his brains out. They took some of the blood and brains and rubbed them under his wife's nose, cursing her, and telling her to smell them! They then burned the house down, and its contents with it, allowing her and her children to look on at the flames. The notorious Wesley Peoples and his brother, son of old Bill Peoples, were in this crowd."

There are several interesting points here. One: Brownlow does not make mention of the ten others killed that Daniel Ellis lists in his 1867 account. Only James Bell, the brother of the doctor, is mentioned. Since Brownlow had heard of the death of Bell, the burning of the house, and of Witcher, then surely he had heard of the deaths of the ten.

Next, he makes mention of "Witcher's company of cavalry," not Witcher's battalion, which had several companies. That could simply be a mistake on Brownlow's part - I mean, there is a war going on and information is (probably) coming to him third or fourth parties. There is, however, another Witcher running around the mountains. James Witcher was forty-three years old when he enlisted June 13, 1863. Witcher was born in Virginia, but was living in Sullivan County, Tennessee. His command was known as the Zollicoffer Mounted Rifles, or the Sullivan County Reserves. We know next to nothing about the Sullivan County Reserves. It appears that there were six companies, and the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database shows 343 men on the roster. James Witcher's folder in the Compiled Service Records from the National Archives contains just three cards. One is a muster and descriptive roll dated June 30, 1863, in Zollicoffer; the next states that he is present from June 13 to December 31, 1863; and the final card states James Witcher's name appears on a report dated Bristol, September 5, 1864. It is doubtful that Capt. James Witcher had 400 men with him, as claimed by Daniel Ellis.

In the end, it is really not clear just who attacked the party at Doctor Bell's home in November 1863, or even who was actually killed.

Maybe there are other documents out there. Maybe we should have a better book on the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry (Witcher's Battalion). Maybe we should do some research into the Sullivan County Reserves. Once again, I am confronted with a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

William Wallace Rollins: Confederate Captain - Yankee Major.

   He probably started off as a Confederate soldier, deserted, joined the Union army, and even had a fort named for him. But when it comes to the life of William W. Rollins, plenty of questions remain.
   It appears that Rollins was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on July 14, 1838. He was the son of a L. J. Rollins, listed as a preacher in the 1860 census. By 1860, the family was living in Madison County, North Carolina.  From available online resources, it is unclear if Reverend Rollins was connected to the new Mars Hill College prior to the war. In the same census, William Rollins was listed as having $1000 of real estate and $250 of personal property.  
W. W. Rollins, in Federal uniform. 
  On August 13, 1861, Wallace W. Rollins enlisted in Company D, 29th North Carolina Troops. I believe that William W. Rollins and Wallace W. Rollins are the same person. There is no other Rollins with similar initials in the 1860 Madison County census. The enlistment cards list Wallace W. Rollins as being 23 years old when he enlisted in 1861, consistent with an 1838 birthday. Rollins was mustered in as a First Sergeant. On an unknown date, he was promoted to sergeant major of the 29th Regiment and transferred to the field and staff. On May 2, 1862, Rollins was elected captain of Company D and transferred back to the company (Capt. John A. Jarvis was defeated for reelection when the regiment reorganized.)
   It is really unclear what happens next (the records of the 29th North Carolina are some of the worst. One card lists that he was in the hospital in Atlanta on August 20, 1864. Another card reads "By Presdt G. C. Martial this man was on furlough and was ordered to remain in N C to attend the Court Martial." In a letter written on January 17, 1865, Maj. Ezekiel H. Hampton, 29th North Carolina,  asked that Rollins be dropped from the rolls of the regiment. "Capt W. W. Rollins... who deserted from Hospital in August, GA on or about the 12th of Aug. 1864... went to the enemy [and] took (20) twenty men with him, and is now commanding troops in the enemey's lines in East Tenn." Rollins is listed as being dropped as an officer in the 29th North Carolina on February 17, 1865.
   On March 14, 1865, William W. Rollins was appointed major in the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (US). His compiled service record tells us that he was 26 years old in 1865. The cards do not tell us where he was from. When Col. George W. Kirk ordered part of the regiment to Blowing Rock in Watauga County in April 1865, the earthworks they constructed were named Fort Rollins in his honor. Rollins did get a leave of absence in July 1865 to return to North Carolina and help the Governor (W. W. Holden) reorganize the civil government. Rollins was mustered out on August 8, 1865. One item I do not have that might clear up a question or two is his pension application, which was filed on January 23, 1893.

   In the 1870 Madison County, North Carolina, census, there is a "Wm Wallace Rollins" age 31. He is listed as a lawyer, with considerable wealth ($12,200/20,500). He is married to Elizabeth and they have one son, Wallace, and three servants. He is listed as living in Marshall, Madison County, in the 1880 census. Rollins is a farmer and lawyer. Eliza is listed as his wife, with four children, one nephew, and three servants. By 1890, Rollins has moved to Asheville. He is listed in the 1890 veterans census as a major, but no regiment is given. The 1900 census lists him as widowed, living in Asheville, and working as the postmaster. Wallace Rollins appears in the 1910 census in Asheville as a postmaster. And finally, W. W. Rollins, 1920 census, retired, still living in Asheville.
   Rollins ran for the state senate in 1866, representing the counties of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Yancey, but appears to have been defeated by Leander S. Gash of Henderson County. (Arthur, Western North Carolina, 449)
   According to William C. Harris's bio on William Woods Holden, Rollins was first tapped to lead the force that Holden wanted sent into Alamance and Orange and surrounding counties. Rollins declined, and upon Rollin's recommendation, George W. Kirk was given the job. This would eventually lead to Holden's impeachment.
   Looking through local newspapers, one can find that Rollins was involved in the railroad, serving as president of the Western Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad (Asheville Weekly Citizen April 11, 1878); some of his dealings with the railroad wound up in litigation for years (Asheville Weekly Citizen April 22, 1880); there were other court cases as well - "W. W' Rollins vs. Eastern Band Cherokee Indians (Asheville Weekly Citizen January 5, 1882); Rollins was one of the organizers of the Western North Carolina Fair (Asheville Weekly Citizen October 23, 1884); he was one of the directors of the First National Bank of Asheville (Asheville Citizen-Times December 15, 1885); a stockholder in the Asheville Gas and Light Company (Asheville Citizen-Times June 15, 1886); president of the Asheville Tobacco Association (Asheville Citizen-Times September 3, 1889); president of the Asheville Branch of the Building and Loan Association (Asheville Democrat March 27, 1890); collector of internal revenue for the fifth North Carolina District (Asheville Weekly Citizen October 2, 1890);
   Rollins was also very involved in local Republican politics, was a member of the G. A. R. Post 41; and was considered one of the largest growers of tobacco in Western North Carolina.
    When he died in 1925, his obituary mentioned his service as major of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry (US), but failed to mention his three years of Confederate service.
    So that is my question: is the Wallace W. Rollins, captain in the 29th North Carolina Troops, the same as Maj. William W. Rollins, 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry? Maybe that pension application will tell.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Was William Blalock imprisoned?

There are a half dozen people from the 1860s whom I have spent a great deal of time researching: Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, James H. Lane, John B. Palmer, Collett Leventhorpe, Richmond M. Pearson, and..... William M. Blalock. I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to the story of Blalock. There are a great many details that we just simply don't know about his life.

This evening, while reading through his pension application, I came across an interesting turn of phrase. In this affidavit, dated November 1874, Blalock states that he was "arrested by Maj. Harvey Binghams command[, had his] hands tied behind him, and sent to head Quarters in Watauga Co., N.C. and there put in the Guard House for a term of 8 days, and on the 9th day took said affiant [Blalock] out of guard house, tied his hands behind him and started with him to Castle Thunder, to wear the "Ball and Chain." Blalock later claims to have escaped.

When doing research for the Grandfather Mountain book (2014), I came across this anonymous riff:
     I'd ruther be on the Grandfather Mountain
          A-taking the snow and rain
     Than to be in Castle Thunder
         A-wearin' the ball and chain.

The late Frances Casstevens, in her book George W. Alexander and Castle Thunder, stated that it was a popular ballad of the time period. I have found the quotation in many other places, like Radley's Rebel Watchdog and Thomas's The Confederate States of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital. The fragment appears in 1952 in one of Frank Brown's Collection of North Carolina Folklore  and in 1951 in the Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1951 (volume 199). On an online search, I don't see it prior to 1951.


How many people, in the 1860s, actually knew of Grandfather Mountain? Probably just a handful. Was the phrase popular enough to be used in Blalock's Pension application? I wonder if he ever made it to Castle Thunder? Do the Castle Thunder records survive? (It appears that they do, at the National Archives.) Just something to ponder. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Project Updates

How about a few updates!
General's Lee's Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch-Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia is set for release on December 3, 2017. I'm really looking forward to getting the proofs this summer. More details about ordering signed copies and maybe about scheduling a visit to your area, will come later this year. I am really looking forward to seeing this project in print. The story has been part of my life for over 20 years.



Kirk's War: The Civil War Along the North Carolina-Tennessee Border (proposed title) is what my winter (and now spring) project has been. It's been interesting diving into some local history and folklore, trying to capture the War as it raged across the border area. I hope to wrap up the battle of Red Banks next week and move on to 1865. This book is being published by the History Press.






And then there is project X - which I'm not talking about yet, but which concerns the Army of Northern Virginia.  



And lastly... earlier this year, I submitted a grant proposal to the North Caroliniana Society for assistance for a new project, one focusing on the life of North Carolina Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson. It is my belief that he is the most influential North Carolinian of the 19th Century. The number of governors, US Congressmen, fellow judges, state representatives, etc., who studied at his Richmond Hill Law School is staggering.  The North Caroliniana Society awarded me the travel grant, and I'll be hitting the libraries this summer. This project will take a while to complete, as there is a wee-bit of a learning curve. Thankfully, I started reading law and researching the subject a year ago; I even have my own set of Blackstone's Commentaries.