Thursday, September 22, 2022

The fighting Averys

   “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy,” is a well-known last request made during the war. It was uttered by Col. Isaac Avery after he was mortally wounded at the battle of Gettysburg. Isaac Avery was just one of five Avery brothers who rose to prominence in the 19th century. They were all the sons of Isaac and Harriet Erwin Avery. The Avery family were large landowners in western North Carolina.

William W. Avery
   The oldest brother was William Waightstill Avery. Born in Burke County in May 1816, W.W. Avery graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1837. He later studied law under Judge William Gaston and was admitted to the bar. Avery became a trustee of the University in 1850, and in 1857, became a director of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Avery served several terms in the General Assembly, and in the 1856-1857 term, was speaker of the North Carolina Senate. He, along with Thomas L. Clingman, was a strong advocate for secession. In 1858, he ran for a seat in the US House, but lost to Zebulon Baird Vance. In 1860, Avery was chairman of the state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention, meeting in Charleston. Appointed Chairman of the resolution committee, Avery “favored the majority report denying the right of congress or territorial legislation to prohibit slavery in the territories, demanding federal protection for all property in those territories, upholding the Fugitive Slave Act, and advocating the acquisition of Cuba from Spain as soon as practicable.” Many delegates walked out, but not the North Carolinians. They would walk out when the convention met again in Baltimore. Once North Carolina left the Union, Avery served as a member of the provisional Confederate Congress and as chairman of the committee on military affairs. Avery failed to win an appointment to the Confederate senate and returned to western North Carolina, where he worked on raising a regiment for Confederate service. W.W. Avery was mortally wounded while leading local home guard in a skirmish with raiders in northern Burke County in late June 1864, dying on July 3, 1864. Avery was married to Mary Corinna Morehead, daughter of Governor John Motley Morehead, and they had several children.[1]

Clark M. Avery
   Clark Moulton Avery was the next son with a wartime connection. He was born in October 1820 and, like his older brother, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike his brother, he was not a politician, but instead farmed a large piece of property in Burke County. In February 1861, friends enticed Avery to run for the state secession convention, and election that he won. However, the convention did not meet. Avery would not serve when the actual convention met in May. Instead, when the principles of the foundation of the United States came under attack, Avery joined the military. On April 25, 1861, he was elected captain of Company G, 1st North Carolina Volunteers, fighting at the battle of Big Bethel in June 1861. Then-colonel D.H. Hill wrote that "Captain Avery Company G displayed great coolness, judgment and efficiency in the battle of Bethel." As the regiment neared the end of its six-month term of enlistment, Avery was elected lieutenant colonel of the 33rd North Carolina Troops, and then in January 1862, colonel. In March 1862, Avery was captured at the battle of New Bern, being released seven months later. He returned to his regiment and was wounded in the fighting at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg. At the battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Colonel Avery was struck in the left arm. When he refused to go the rear, a stretcher was brought forward, and he was carried along the lines, encouraging his men. Avery was eventually struck four times that day, including in the leg, neck, and through the body. Avery survived for six weeks before dying of his wounds on June 18, 1864. Avery was married to Elizabeth Tilghman Walton and was survived by four children.[2]

Isaac E. Avery 
   Isaac Erwin Avery was born in December 1828 in Burke County. For one year, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but then left the school to help manage his father’s farms in Burke and Yancey Counties, North Carolina. He also worked with Charles F. Fisher and Samuel McDowell Tate to construct the Western North Carolina Railroad. When the war came, he worked on forming a company that became a part of the 6th North Carolina State Troops. Avery was elected captain of Company E on May 16, 1861. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel of the 6th NC and was wounded at the battle of Malvern Hill. On July 2, 1863, while leading Hoke’s brigade in an attack on the Confederate left, Avery was mortally wounded, penning the famous note after his wound: “Major, tell my father I died with my face toward the enemy.” Avery died the next day. Colonel A.C. Godwin, 57th NC, wrote in his official report that, upon the death of Avery, “the country lost one of her truest and bravest sons, and the army one of its most gallant officers.” His slave, Elijah, began to return to Burke County with the body, but he was forced to stop and bury Avery in Williamsport, Maryland. Avery’s body was later moved to Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown.[3]

   Alphonso Calhoun Avery was born in September 1835. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Avery studied law under Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson and was licensed in June 1860. AC Avery helped his brother Isaac raise a company and was then elected first lieutenant in that company in the 6th NCST. Following the battle of Seven Pines, he was promoted to captain, but by the end of 1862, he was transferred to the staff of Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill as assistant inspector general. Major Avery later served on the staffs of John C. Breckinridge, Thomas C. Hindman, and John B. Hood. At the end of the war, Avery was commanding a battalion in the western parts of North Carolina, attempting to curtail some of the damage being done by Federal raiding parties and bushwhackers. Avery was captured in Salisbury by some of Stoneman’s men and was imprisoned at Camp Chase until August 1865. After the war, Avery practiced law and was elected to the state senate; he lost his seat when the radicals came to power, served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1875, and then served as judge of the superior court. Trinity College (now Duke University) conferred upon him a MA, and the University of North Carolina honored him with an LL.D. In 1888, A. C. Avery was elected an associate justice of the Supreme Court, serving for eight years. In 1892, he assumed the position of dean of the law school at Duke University. Avery retired in 1897 and became a prolific writer, respected historian, and prominent member of the Southern Historical Society. His first wife was Susan Washington Morrison, daughter of the Rev. R. H. Morrison. His brothers-in-law included D.H. Hill, Stonewall Jackson, and Rufus Barringer. Avery’s second wife was Sarah Love Thomas, the daughter of Col. William Holland Thomas. A.C. Avery died in June 1913.[4]

   The last Avery brother to serve in the war was Willoughby Francis Avery, born in Burke County in May 1843. He was attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when the war broke out, and, leaving the school, he joined the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry, where he was elected third lieutenant. When the company was reorganized, he failed to win reelection and resigned. Avery was then appointed a second lieutenant in Company C, 33rd North Carolina Troops. Promotion to first lieutenant came on January 14, 1863, and on December 15, 1863, he was promoted to captain and transferred to Company E. A month later, he was transferred to Company I. Captain Avery was wounded in the mouth and throat at the battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, returned to duty in November 1864, and was captured at Salisbury on April 12, 1865. He was confined at Camp Chase and released in June 1865. After the war, Willoughby Avery edited newspapers in Charlotte and Asheville before returning to Burke County and establishing a newspaper in Morganton. He was married twice and died November 1876.[5]

   There are, of course, the Avery daughters as well. Adelaide Leah Avery (1822-1897) never married but became one of the first librarians in Burke County. Mary Ann Martha Avery (1831-1890) married Joseph Franklin Chambers. Harriet Justina Avery (1833-1902) married Pinckney B. Chambers, a major in the 49th North Carolina Troops. The last daughter, Laura Myra Avery (1837-1912), never married.



[1] Warner and Yearns, Biographical Register of the Confederate Congress, 9-10; Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:67.

[2] Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:111; Allardice, Confederate Colonels, 68.

[3] Jordan, NC Troops, 4:266; Allardice, Confederate Colonels, 47; The Herald-Mail, November 4, 2007.

[4] Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:66-67.

[5] Manarin, NC Troops, 2:221; Jordan, NC Troops, 9:220; Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1:72.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Refusing to serve under Stonewall Jackson

   In all honesty, he was not “Stonewall” Jackson yet. He was still the eccentric Thomas J. Jackson, professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Instructor of Artillery Tactics at the Virginia Military Institute. And the 12th Virginia Infantry wanted no part of him.

   Parts of the 12th Virginia predated the war. The Petersburg Old Grays were organized in 1828 and fought in the Mexican War. The Petersburg City Guard was organized in 1852. Those two companies served as a detail during the hanging of John Brown in December 1859. Several of the other companies were also organized prior to the war. Once the war came, these companies were organized into the 12th Virginia Infantry.

   Like every other infantry or cavalry command, the new regiment needed a colonel. Virginia Governor John Letcher was considering Professor Thomas J. Jackson for the post. On one hand, Jackson was extremely qualified for the post. He was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and had seen service in the Mexican-American War in an artillery battery, earning several brevets for his actions. His tour in Mexico also saw him serving in the quartermaster’s and commissary’s offices. Jackson was then posted at Fort Columbus, New York; Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (court-martial duty); then at Fort Hamilton, New York. In December 1850, Jackson and his company were sent to Florida. He then left the army to begin teaching at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.[1]

    Jackson was not the most engaging teacher, and his rigid teaching style soon earned the enmity of many of his young pupils. “[S]o difficult & taught by such a hell of a fool,” wrote one student in an optics class. A fellow professor wrote that “As a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy -, Major Jackson was not a success. He had not the qualifications needed for so important a chair. He was no teacher, and he lacked the tact required in getting along with his classes. He was a brave man, a conscientious man, and a good man, but he was no professor.” That fellow professor would add “His genius was in the Science and Art of War.” [2]

   That view of Jackson, a genius in the science and art of war, had yet to emerge when the 12th Virginia was being formed. In April 1861, Jackson delivered the VMI cadets to Richmond to serve as drillmasters for the many new companies and regiments in the capital. Not having an assignment, Jackson volunteered to instruct artillery companies. Jackson was then appointed a major in the topographical engineers. Then Jackson was appointed colonel by Governor Letcher. But, what regiment to assign him to? Word arrived at the camp of the forming 12th Virginia Infantry that Letcher was considering Jackson to be their colonel. When his nomination came up before the Virginia legislation, someone asked “Who is this Thomas J. Jackson?” A post-war newspaper reported that,  at the beginning of the war, Jackson “was assigned by the Governor of Virginia to command of the Twelfth Virginia Infantry, stationed at Norfolk, and composed of crack companies from different parts of the State. The regimental officers had been told that Jackson was of ‘an eccentric and ascetic disposition,’ and they protested against him so strongly that the Governor assigned him to another field duty. He was soon heard from as Stonewall Jackson, and the Twelfth Virginia kept very quiet about a certain little matter.”[3]

   Jackson was promoted to colonel, then sent to Harpers Ferry to take command of all the troops present. On June 17, 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. The 12th Virginia “kept very quiet about a certain little matter.” If you would like to learn more about the 12th Virginia Infantry, check out John Horn’s The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War (2019).



[1] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 77.

[2] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 121, 125.

[3] Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, 219; The Somerset Press, February 15, 1875.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Halifax County

    Formed in 1758 from Edgecombe County, Halifax County was named for George Montague, second earl of Halifax (England) and President of the British Board of Trade and Plantations. At times, Halifax County has been called North Carolina’s “Cradle of History.” It was in the community of Halifax that the Halifax Resolves were drafted, debated, and signed in April 1776 by the delegates at the Fourth Provincial Congress. These resolves authorized North Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. The resolutions were unanimously adopted. The county seat, also named Halifax, was established in 1757 and became the county seat in 1759.

   In 1860, Halifax County boasted a population of 19,442 people, including 10,349 slaves and 2,450 free people of color. In the 1860 presidential election, local voters cast 757 votes for John C. Breckinridge, 545 votes for John Bell, and 22 votes for Stephen Douglas. No votes were recorded for Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln (he failed to garner enough support to get on the ballot in North Carolina).

   During the February 1861 call for a convention to consider the question of secession, 1,049 cast their votes for the call, with 39 against. Only Edgecombe, Warren, and Martin Counties had fewer votes against the convention. Considering the population of Halifax County, two delegates were selected. An early history of Halifax County considered both men “union men.” Those two were Richard H. Smith and Littleberry W. Batchelor. Smith was born in 1810 in Scotland Neck and graduated from the University of North Carolina, later reading law. He was a member of the House of Commons in 1852 and 1854. He was in favor of the Union until the inauguration of Lincoln “when he became an ardent supporter of [the] war.” Batchelor was born in Halifax in 1823. He attended the Bingham School and later studied medicine in Philadelphia. He practiced medicine and was a Justice of the Peace. Batchelor “was a devoted Southerner and firm believer in the right of a State to secede.”

   There were several companies that enlisted in Confederate service during the war. These included: Companies I and K, 1st North Carolina Volunteers; Company K, 1st North Carolina State Troops; Company F, 2nd North Carolina Artillery; Companies G & I, 12th North Carolina State Troops; Company A, 14th North Carolina Troops; Company D, 24th North Carolina Troops; Company D and F, 43rd North Carolina Troops; Company G, 3rd North Carolina Cavalry; and Company K, 2nd Regiment North Carolina Junior Reserves. There does not seem to be an adequate list of men from the county who served in the Federal army. However, based upon the 1890 Veterans Census, several men served in the 14th United States Colored Heavy Artillery. There are four African Americans who applied for Confederate pensions after the war. 

Lawrence Branch
   Several high-ranking Confederate officers were born in Halifax County. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch was born near Enfield in 1820. He was brought up by his uncle, U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Branch. Lawrence was tutored by Salmon P. Chase, and in 1838, graduated from Princeton University. Branch practiced law, living in Tennessee and Florida before returning to North Carolina. He was a banker and served as president of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. From March 4, 1855, to March 3, 1861, Branch represented his district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Branch served as North Carolina’s quartermaster early in the war. He then accepted a position as colonel of the 33rd North Carolina Troops in September 1861. In November 1861, he was appointed brigadier general. Branch commanded on the coast, losing a battle at New Bern in March 1862. He was assigned command of the Second North Carolina brigade about three days after the battle and sent to Virginia the first of May 1862. Branch would again lose a battle at Hanover Court House on May 27, 1862. He and his brigade were then assigned to the Light Division under A.P. Hill, and Branch became a dependable brigade commander. At one point, he led the division and was complimented by Stonewall Jackson. On September 17, 1862, Branch was killed during the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Branch is buried in the Old City Cemetery in Raleigh.

 Also from the area was Junius Daniel. He was born in Halifax in 1828 and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851. He resigned from the army in 1858 and lived in Louisiana for a time, but he was back in North Carolina by 1860. Daniel was colonel of the 14th North Carolina State Troops, then colonel of the 45th North Carolina Troops. He was appointed brigadier general in September 1862 and commanded a brigade in the Second Corps until mortally wounded at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, on May 12, 1864, dying the same day.

   David Clark was born in Scotland Neck in February 1829 and attended the Episcopal Male School of Raleigh. He was colonel of the 15th North Carolina Militia, then brigadier general of the Ninth Brigade, North Carolina Militia, in March and April 1862. He died in Halifax County in October 1882.

   William Ruffin Cox was born in Scotland Neck in March 1832. Four years later, he moved to Tennessee. He attended Franklin College and then Lebanon Law School. In 1852, Cox returned to North Carolina. In 1861, he was a member of the North Carolina Militia, then elected major of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry in June 1861. Cox was wounded at Malvern Hill in July 1862. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on September 17, 1862; promoted to colonel on March 20, 1863; wounded at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863; and wounded in the right shoulder and face at Rappahannock Station, Virginia, on November 7, 1863. On May 31, 1864, Cox was promoted to brigadier general. He led a brigade in Ewell’s Second Corps. On April 9, 1865, Cox was paroled at Appomattox Court House. After the war, he returned to the practice of law and later served as a judge. Cox represented North Carolina in the US House of Representatives from 1881 to 1887 and was Secretary of the US Senate from 1893 to 1900. He passed in 1919 and is interred in Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh.

   James R. McLean was also born at Enfield in September 1823. He attended Bingham School and the Caldwell Institute, later reading law under John A. Gilmer. He practiced law in Greensboro, and later, in Rockford. He represented Surry County in the General Assembly in 1850-1851 but then moved back to Greensboro. In November 1861, McLean won a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives. In Congress, he usually supported the Davis Administration. McLean did not seek re-election due to poor health and later served as major in the senior reserves. He died in 1870 and is buried in Greensboro.

   Halifax County played a major role in the war. M. Fannie Whitfield of Enfield actually sent Vice-President Alexander Stephens five flag proposals early in the war. These were found after Richmond was captured in April 1865. The community at Weldon was an early mobilization and training camp for Confederate soldiers. The railroad that ran through Weldon also played a major role in the war, moving supplies from the Wilmington area to Virginia and transporting troops. Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes made his headquarters in Weldon early in the war, as did Brigadier General L.S. Baker later in the war.  A Wayside Hospital opened in Weldon Methodist Church in December 1862. Near Scotland Neck, at Edwards’ Ferry, the ram Albemarle was constructed beginning in the spring of 1863. The Albemarle helped to capture the town of Plymouth in April 1864. In November 1863 there was a skirmish near Weldon. Between March 25 and April 11, 1865, there was a Federal expedition from Deep Bottom, Virginia, towards Weldon, North Carolina. On April 12, 1865, the Confederates abandoned Weldon and moved toward Raleigh. What was left, like trains and engines, were driven onto the bridge over the Roanoke River and set fire. 


War Memorial in Enfield recently bulldozed. 

   After the war, Halifax County became home to at least two United Confederate Veterans camps. The Cary Whitaker Camp 1053 was established in Enfield, while the Bill Johnston Camp 1275 was in Weldon. Halifax had the Halifax Chapter 1232, Enfield had the Frank M. Parker chapter 1096,  and Weldon had the Junius Daniel Chapter 600, United Daughters of the Confederacy. There is no recorded post for a Grand Army of the Republic Post in Halifax County. A monument to Confederate and World War I soldiers was erected in Enfield in June 1929. It was later expanded to honor soldiers of other wars. In August 2022, the mayor of Enfield bulldozed the monument. Another monument was dedicated in Halifax in 1929. There are North Carolina Highway Historical Markers near Scotland Neck and in Halifax denoting the ram Albemarle. There are North Carolina Civil War Trail Markers at Roanoke Rapids concerning the Roanoke Canal and in Weldon concerning the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Trestle. There is also a war memorial at the Weldon Confederate Cemetery with the names of those who died at the hospital and are interred nearby.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Wilmington, Fort Fisher, and Historiography

Monument at Fort Fisher. 

   Has the importance of Fort Fisher and the great Wilmington area been missed in the historiography of the past 160 years? I recently came up with this question during our annual visit to the greater Wilmington area. In working on my upcoming book on food and the Army of Northern Virginia, I came to the conclusion that Wilmington, at least during the second half of the war, was second only to Richmond.

   So what do the historians say? How important were Wilmington, Fort Fisher, and the Cape Fear River area? Charles Roland, The Confederacy (1960), William C. Davis, Look Away! A History of the Confederacy (2002), and Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War (2000) make no real mention of the importance of the area.

   Keegan, while making mention of Fort Fisher and the ensuing battle, does not really get to the importance of the area, writing that  “The most important military operation in North Carolina during the closing phase of the war was not the work of Sherman’s army but a deliberate and separate operation to close down the South’s last large blockade-running port at Wilmington…”[1] Vandiver writes that “In Wilmington. . . the best of the blockade ports outside of Bagdad, Mexico, things settled into a pattern of hard work. Most citizens decamped in fear of invasion or of pestilence from foreign ships, or because the town became little more than a military depot.” Once again, he does not really seem to get the importance that Wilmington had to the entire war effort.[2]  

   There are a couple of historians who kind of get it. James McPherson writes that “Wilmington became the principal Confederate port for blockade runners because of the tricky inlets and shoals at the mouth of the Cape Fear River…”[3] Edward Pollard, in his early (as in 1867) history of the Confederacy, concludes that Wilmington was the “the most important sea-coast port left to the Confederates, through which to get supplies from abroad, and send cotton and other products out by blockade-runners.”[4]

Only two of the texts in the sample survey (i.e., books on my shelf) seem to get the importance. Robert S. Henry writes in 1931 that Wilmington was “most important of all” ports in the South. Due to this, it became “one of the great centers of the business of blockade running.”[5]    One other example comes from the pen of Shelby Foote. Foote tells us that in the last nine weeks of 1864, supplies landed at the port of Wilmington included “8,632,000 pounds of meat, 1,507,000 pounds of lead, 1,933,000 pounds of saltpeter, 546,000 pairs of shoes, 316,000 pairs of blankets, 520,000 pounds of coffee, 69,000 rifles, 97 packages of revolvers, 2,639 packages of medicine, 43 cannons,” along with other munitions. “Just how important those cargoes were to the continued resistance by the rebels was shown by the fact that R.E. Lee himself had sent word…that he could not subsist his army without supplies brought in there.”[6]

   Overall, I think the importance of the port of Wilmington, with its surrounding fortifications, has been underrepresented in the greater portion of the historiography of the past 160 years.



[1] Keegan, The American Civil War, 278.

[2] Vandiver, Their Tattered Flags, 107.

[3] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 380.

[4] Pollard, The Lost Cause, 671.

[5] Henry, The Story of the Confederacy, 239, 437.

[6] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 3:741.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Destroying Federal naval vessels at the end of the war.

The Neuse River, looking toward the site of the sinking of the USS Mystic at Maple Cypress.


   In early April 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia had abandoned the lines around Richmond and Petersburg, and the Army of Tennessee had retreated to Greensboro. In many aspects, the war was drawing to a close. Yet there were still military actions taking placs. On April 5, 1865, Colonel John N. Whitford led a raid against two Union vessels on the Neuse River in North Carolina.

   Whitford was a Craven County, North Carolina, native and a merchant in New Bern prior to the war. When the war came, he commanded Company I, 1st North Carolina Artillery, and was a part of the Fort Fisher garrison. Whitford went on to serve as major in the 1st Battalion, Local Defence Troops, and then colonel of the 67th North Carolina Troops. He was wounded at the battle of Fort Branch but returned in time to command a brigade at the battle of Wyse Fork and the greater Bentonville Campaign.[1]

   Whitford’s small brigade was composed of the 67th and 68th North Carolina Troops. Whitford had been left behind as a rear guard when the Confederates pulled out of Kinston. On March 16, they had retired to Goldsboro (where the 68th NCT joined Whitford). His brigade was said to number 1,000 men. On March 18, they were ordered to Cox’s Bridge on the Neuse River. When they were attacked on March 19, Whitford fired the bridge and fell back, after a sharp skirmish. It is not clear if they took part in the actual battle of Bentonville. When the rest of the Confederate army pulled back west, toward Raleigh and Greensboro, Whitford’s command, augmented by cavalry, remained behind, skirmishing with the Federals and tearing up the railroads. Writing on April 9, 1865, Whitford stated that on April 5, Lieutenant [James] Marshall [of] Company F . . . burned the steamer Mystic, near Maple Cypress [on the Neuse River].” On that same day, “Captain [James] Tolson, Company A . . . destroyed a transport loaded with commissary stores near Cowpen Landing [also on the Neuse River]. Finally, on April 7, “four privates of Company A. . . captured and destroyed (burned) 1 side wheel steamer, the Minquas, and 2 barges, all loaded with quartermaster’s and commissary stores.”[2]

   Five naval vessels all destroyed by a land force within two days! Finding information about these vessels, only two of which are named, is quite a chore. The USS Mystic was built in 1853 in Philadelphia and when acquired by the U.S. Navy prior to the war was known as the USS Memphis. The Mystic was on blockade duty along North Carolina in 1862, and along the York River and Chesapeake Bay in 1863. Nothing seems to be mentioned about her bearing burned by the Confederates in April 1865, only that she was sold in June 1865 to a private party and renamed General Custer. Chances are she was salvaged and raised and then sold.[3]

   The other mentioned vessel was the USS Minquas or Minquass. The Minquas was a side-wheel steamer built in 1864 in Wilmington, Delaware. It is not clear if the USS Minquas was ever raised.[4]   

   Maybe there is some type of paper trail someplace with more information on these five vessels. The event does not seem to appear in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Federal naval officers, probably in the glow of helping win the war, seemed to have neglected the loss of these five vessels. 


[1] Allardice, Confederate Colonels, 394.

[2] Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 15:425.

[3] Gaines, Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, 150.

[4] Gaines, Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, 123.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Old Capital Prison

   In November 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward told Lord Richard Lyons, British Ambassador to the United States, “My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen of Ohio; I can touch the bell again, and order the imprisonment of a citizen of New York; no power on earth, except that of the President, can release them.” Of course, this type of tyranny is one of the things the South most feared. The lowest estimate of the number of people arrested by the Lincoln Administration during the war was 14,401 civilians, or, one out of every 1,563 Northern citizens. Anyone was liable to be arrested by the Lincoln Administration. This included sitting judges, U.S. Senators, U.S. Congressmen, farmers, businessmen, and even foreign citizens. Of course, the U.S. Constitution forbade just this type of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. That topic is one that bears further explanation in a different post.[1]  

Old capital Prison (LOC) 

   Many of these political prisoners were incarcerated at the Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C., awaiting trial and a chance to face their accusers (which seldom took place). The Old Capital Prison in itself has an interesting history. Sitting directly behind the US Capitol building, where the US Supreme Court building now sits, the structure was constructed in 1800 as a boarding house and tavern. Following the burning of the capitol building by the British in August 1814, the government purchased the building, renovated it, and used it as the meeting place for the US House and Senate while renovations were taking place across the street. Hence the name, Old Capital Building. In 1861, the city’s provost marshal commandeered the Old Capitol building. One historian consider the prison complex “a depressing jumble of structures strewn along today’ Capitol Hill.”[2]  

   Speer, in his history of military prisons during the war, writes that the “first inmates to be moved into this facility were mostly political prisoners.” Following the battle of First Manassas, the first Confederate prisoners of War arrived. The building was divided into different rooms. Room No. 19 was the Superintendent’s office. It was here that those incarcerated where interrogated by the Superintendent or a detective. Rooms No. 14, 15, and 18 were for citizens from Virginia. Those confined in Room No. 17 were Federal officers. Room No. 16 contained both “Western prisoners” and honorable representatives of the learned professions, merchants of the highest character and standing…”Another building in the complex housed blockade runners, bounty jumpers, and people that Commandant Wood deemed “tough citizens generally.” Another building in the rear held those accused of defrauding the government, spies, or otherwise dangerous.[3]

   Prison Commandant William P. Wood, a cabinet maker from Alexandria, Virginia, estimated that over 30,000 women and men passed through the Old Capitol Prison. Colonel Levi C. Turner believed the number closed to 150,000. Many of them were Confederate soldiers, usually officers, whose stay was short as they were quickly funneled to other prison camps. But what of those prisoners of state? That list is rather long.[4]

Bell Boyd, Virginia Lomax, and Rose Greenhow, with Greenhow’s eight-year old daughter, were three of the most famous women incarcerated at the Old Capital Prison. Three other women, one from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, were imprison there for disguising their identity and enlisting in the Federal army as soldiers.[5]

Among Northern citizens incarcerated were farmer Joseph Kugler, of New Jersey, who told several that “Lincoln had no right to call out seventy-five thousand troops, without first convening Congress; and that if the South had her just dues there would never have been a rebellion…”. Doctor Israel Blanchard, of Illinois, arrested for speaking disrespectfully of President Lincoln, discouraging enlistments, and attempting to raise a company to burn in bridge in Illinois. John W. Smith was known as the “Wandering Jew.” He was old, homeless, and partially blind. Smith had lost his store to John Brown’s extremists in the 1850s. When the war began, he designed a bomb that would disable a locomotive, but not damage the train itself. Smith tried to get the Federal government interested in his invention, and his letters to a friend in St. Louis were intercepted, and thinking he had “some diabolical design against the Federal government,” was arrested and sent to the prison. The reason Dr. A. B. Hewitt was arrested, of Chatham, Illinois, is still unknown. George W. Wilson, a Maryland newspaper editor, was arrested for an editorial criticizing “the unjustness of the apportionment of the population of his State, which included white and black, freeman and slaves, in the basis for a draft.” Thomas W. Berry, of Virginia, was arrested for being a Confederate officer who had killed Union men. Every one of these above were later discharged from the Old Capital Prisoner without a trail.[6]

Among the Confederate officer imprisoned there were famed cavalry leader John Mosby, captured in July 1862, spent just ten days at Old Capital Prison before he was sent south for exchange. Confederate General Rufus Barringer, captured on April 3, 1865, was also incarcerated in the Old Capital Prison, after meeting Lincoln. Captain Henry Wirz was kept there, and executed in the prison yard.[7]

Several with ties, or thought to have ties to the Lincoln conspirators were held at the Old Capital Prison, including Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt, were held there while they tried. Others with supposed connection held were Actor Junius Brutus Booth and theater owner John T. Ford, along with two of his brothers.[8]

Southern governors John Brown of Georgia, Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina, and John Letcher of Virginia occupied a cell together in the summer of 1865.[9]

Secretary of War Stanton ordered the prison closed towards the end November 1865, and the adjacent Carroll Prison Annex was also torn down.[10]

It is surprising that there is no current book on the history of the Old Capital Prison. The closest we have is David L. Keller’s Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study, released in 2021. The book looks at both the Old Capital Prison and Castle Thunder in Richmond.


[1] Miles, “To All Whom it May Concern.” The Conspiracy of Leading Men of the Republican Party to Destroy the American Union, 5; Neely, “The Lincoln Administration and Arbitrary Arrests,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 5, Is. 1, 1983.

[2] Speer, Portals to Hell, 41; Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 207.

[3] Speer, Portals to Hell, 41; Marshall, American Bastile, 322, 324.

[4] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 208.

[5] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 214.

[6] Marshall, American Bastile, 127, 176, 243, 266, 463, 485.

[7] Mosby, The Memoirs of Col. John S. Mosby, 128; Davis, The Confederate General, 1:62; Williamson, Prison Life in the Old Capitol, 143.

[8] https://www.fords.org/blog/post/photos-from-the-archives-the-old-capitol-prison-and-the-lincoln-assassination/

[9] Davis, “The ‘Old Capitol’ and Its Keeper,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, 2214.

[10] Speer, Portals to Hell, 310.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Education of the Confederate Cabinet

   Sixteen men served in the Confederate cabinet, the closest advisors to President Jefferson Davis. Some, like Judah P. Benjamin, John H. Reagan, and Stephen Mallory, served for the duration of the war. Others, like John C. Breckinridge and William M. Browne, served for just a few weeks. What background and experience did these men bring to the job?


      There were four men who served as Secretary of State: Robert Toombs (February 25, 1861- July 25, 1861); Robert M. T. Hunter (July 25, 1861-February 18, 1862); William M. Browne (February 18, 1862-March 18, 1862); and Judah P. Benjamin (March 18, 1862-1865). Toombs was born in Georgia in 1810. He was a graduate of Franklin College in Georgia; Union College, New York; and University of Virginia (law). He served in the Georgia House of Representatives (1845-1853); U.S. House (1845-1853); and the U.S. Senate (1853-1861). Toombs resigned to accept a commission as a Confederate brigadier general. Robert M. T. Hunter followed Toombs as Secretary of State. Hunter was born in Virginia in 1809. He studied at the University of Virginia, then read law under Judge Henry St. George Tucker. Hunter served in the Virginia House of Representatives (1834-185=37); the U.S. House (1837-1843 and 1845 -1847), including as Speaker (1845-1847); and the U.S. Senate (1847-1861). When he was elected to the Confederate senate, he resigned from his cabinet position, serving in the Confederate senate until May 10, 1865. William M. Browne was born in 1823 in Ireland and served as acting Secretary of State upon the resignation of Hunter. His early education is unknown, but he was a newspaper publisher in Georgia prior to the war. Browne was appointed Assistant Secretary of State, and when Hunter resigned, served for about a month ad interim. Following his brief time as Secretary of State, Browne was appointed a cavalry colonel and aide-de-camp to Davis, and then in 1864 as Commandant of Conscription for the state of Georgia. Browne was replaced by Judah P. Benjamin. One biographer considered him a “Jack-of-all-Trades.” Benjamin held many jobs in the Confederate cabinet, including Attorney General and Secretary of War. He served longest as Secretary of State. He was born on Saint Croix  in 1811 to Jewish parents and grew up in Wilmington and Charleston. He studied at local schools, then spent three years at Yale University before heading to New Orleans, where he studied law. Benjamin served in the Louisiana House (1842-1852) and in the U.S. Senate (1853-1861). Benjamin escaped through Florida to the Bahamas and then to France. He never returned to the United States.[1]

   There was one man who served as Secretary of the Navy: Stephen Mallory. Born in 1812 or 1813 on the island of Trinidad at the Port of Spain, Mallory grew up in Key West and attended school in Mobile and Pennsylvania before returning to Key West to work in customs and to study law. Mallory served in the U.S. Senate (1851-1861) and for a time, was chairman of the committee on naval affairs.[2]

   There was also only one man who served as Postmaster-General: John H. Reagan, who was born in Tennessee in 1818. He attended local schools, then what is now Maryville College. By 1839, he was in Texas, where he studied law. Reagan served in the Texas House of Representatives (1847-1849), and the U.S. House (1857-1861). After the war, he served two additional terms in the US House.[3]

   Five different men served as Attorney-General: Judah P. Benjamin (1861); Wade Keyes (1861); Thomas Bragg (1861-1862); Thomas H. Watts (1862-1863); Wade Keys (1863-1864); and George Davis (1864-1865). Following Judah P. Benjamin’s five-month stent, Wade Keyes stepped into the position. Keyes was born in Alabama and attended LaGrange College and the University of Virginia. He studied law, moved to Florida, and wrote on legal topics, then moved to Montgomery. In Alabama, Keyes was elected Chancellor of the Southern Division of the Court of Chancery. He also taught law, eventually founding what became the law department at the University of Alabama. Benjamin was appointed assistant attorney general, the position he held for the duration of the war, serving as Attorney General ad interim on several occasions. He returned to Alabama and the practice of law after the war. Thomas Bragg replaced Keyes in November 1861. Bragg was born in North Carolina in 1810 and studied at the Norwich Military Academy before studying law under Judge John Hall. Bragg served one term in the North Carolina House of Commons (1842-1843); as Governor of North Carolina (1855-1859); and as a U.S. Senator (1859-1861). He returned to North Carolina following his resignation and worked to support the Confederacy. Following the war, Bragg was one of the lawyers who prosecuted Governor William W. Holden. Bragg was replaced by Thomas H. Watts. Born in Alabama in 1819, he attended Airy Mount Academy and then the University of Virginia, where he obtained a law degree. He apparently held no elected office until the secession convention in Alabama in 1861. Watts ran for governor, but was defeated and instead, organized and became colonel of the 17th Alabama Infantry. He served as Attorney General from March 18, 1862, until October 1, 1863, when he was elected governor of Alabama. He returned to the practice of law after the war. Keyes again served for a brief time until George Davis was appointed to fill the position. Davis was born in North Carolina in 1820 and graduated from the University of North Carolina with “highest honors.” He then practiced law in North Carolina. His first political appointment came as a member of the Peace Convention in Washington, D.C., in February 1861. Davis then served in the Provisional Confederate Congress, then as a Confederate Senator. Jefferson Davis appointed him to the Attorney General position. George Davis held that position until he resigned on April 24, 1865, becoming the first cabinet member to leave the administration at the end of the war.[4]

   There were also five men who served as Secretary of War. LeRoy P. Walker was the first. Born in Alabama in 1817, Walker attended the University of Alabama and the University of Virginia. Walker then practiced law, and was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives (1843-1850?, 1853), serving a couple of terms as speaker of the house. He also was president of the Alabama Democratic Convention, and judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit. His sojourn as Secretary of War only lasted about seven months. Following his resignation, he served a short time as a brigadier general, then resigned, and in 1864, was commissioned a colonel and placed on military court duty. After the war, he served as president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention. Judah P. Benjamin followed Walker, serving from September 1861 to March 1862, when he was replaced by George W. Randolph. Born at Monticello in Virginia in 1818, Randolph was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. He attended a private school in Massachusetts, then served in the US Navy, then attended the University of Virginia, obtaining a law degree. He set up practice in Richmond. His political experience was in the Virginia Secession convention in 1861. He was then appointed a major and commanded the Richmond Howitzers, and was later colonel of the 2nd Virginia Artillery. He was promoted to brigadier general in February 1862, and then appointed Secretary of War in March 1862, serving until November 1862 when he resigned. Randolph later served as a Confederate Senator. James Seddon, also from Virginia, served next. He was born in Virginia and attended law school at the University of Virginia. He represented his district in the US House (1845-1847, 1849-1851). Seddon also served in the Washington Peace Conference, in the Virginia Secession Convention, and in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Following the war, he was arrested and imprisoned. He returned to Virginia and practiced law. The last Secretary of War was John C. Breckinridge. Born in Kentucky, Breckinridge was a graduate of Centre College, a lawyer, and a Mexican War veteran. He served in the Kentucky House (1849-1850), the US House (1851-1855), as Vice President of the United States (1857-1861), and as US Senator (1861). Breckinridge was commissioned a brigadier general in 1861, and April 1862, as a major general. He commanded troops through numerous battles and campaigns. He served as the last Secretary of War. He escaped to Canada, but later returned to the United States.[5]

   There were three men who served as Secretary of the Treasury. First was Christopher Memminger.  Born in 1803, in the Dutchy of Wurttemberg, he studied law at South Carolina College. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1836-1852, 1855-1860?), and was a member of the South Carolina secession convention, then a delegate to the convention in Montgomery where he helped draft the Provisional Confederate Constitution. He was then appointed Secretary of the Treasury. Following his resignation, he lived in North Carolina, then returned to Charleston, serving again in the South Carolina House. George Trenholm followed Memminger. Trenholm was born in South Carolina in 1807, and by the age of fifteen, was working as a clerk in a cotton brokerage. By 1853, he was head of the company, then director of the bank of South Carolina. He served in the South Carolina House (1852-1856). During the first part of the war, he became a major blockade-running entrepreneur. Trenholm served as Confederate Secretary of War July 18, 1864, to April 27, 1865, and was the second cabinet member to resign. Following the war, he was again in the South Carolina house (1874-1876). For a brief amount of the time, Postmaster-General John H. Reagan served as Secretary of Treasury as the Davis party fled south.[6]  

   As a whole, the men who served in the Confederate cabinet were highly educated with considerable political experience. All but three – Browne, Trenholm, and Mallory – were college graduates. Several had more than one degree. Watts, Keys, Seddon, Davis, and Browne had no prior political experience before the war. However, Seddon and Davis served in the Confederate House or Senate prior to their service in the cabinet. Breckinridge was the most politically experienced member of the cabinet secretaries, serving in the Kentucky House, US House, as Vice President, and as a US Senator. Bragg had served in the North Carolina General Assembly, as Governor of North Carolina, and as a US Senator. (Maybe at some point, we’ll compare Lincoln’s cabinet.) 


[1] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 78-9; 90-91; 101-2; 155-56.

[2] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 247.

[3] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 276-78.

[4] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 299-302; 303; 311-312, 314; Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 49, 52.

[5] Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 131-38; Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 20-127, 135-148,149-55.

[6] Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 76, 79-83.