6/20/2014

A Letter from Petersburg


Engraving of the Battle of Petersburg is from the website Son of the South.

The closest post office to my great-great grandfather Allison Dry’s farm would’ve been in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, about five miles away. That’s where the letter telling him that his son, Daniel, had been killed at Petersburg, Virginia on June 17, 1864 would’ve been sent.

It's been said that the post office was the only department in the Confederate States government that was operated efficiently, but it still would’ve been days or perhaps a week or more before word of Daniel’s death reached his family in rural Cabarrus County.
It was customary during the Civil War for commanding officers of soldiers killed in action to write letters to their families explaining how their kin had died. But officers – especially those commanding troops in combat – didn’t have a lot of spare time, and so days probably passed before Captain Jonas Cook, commander of Company H of the 8th North Carolina Infantry, could take a moment to write letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that one of Daniel’s friends in Company H scrawled a hasty note to his family telling them that he’d been killed, and that this letter reached Daniel's family before that of the company commander.

Whenever the letter was written, it would’ve taken several more days to move from Petersburg to Mount Pleasant. Rural free delivery of mail was decades away, and so Allison would’ve had to make a trip into Mount Pleasant to collect his mail. So the letter with the awful news may have waited for several more days in the Mount Pleasant post office until Allison had time to go check his mail.
I wonder how Allison and his family dealt with this latest dose of bad news. Daniel was the second of his sons to die in the war. His son Thomas had died of smallpox about five months earlier in the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And he’d also lost two brothers. His brother Henry had died of typhoid in Charleston, South Carolina in 1863, and his brother Moses had been killed at the Battle of Plymouth only two months earlier.

His son William, my great-grandfather, had been imprisoned at Point Lookout since being captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia in October 1863. About 50,000 Confederates were held there, barely surviving on a starvation diet.
By the summer of 1864, only a miracle could save the Confederate cause, but Southerners were more than willing to hold out for that miracle. And it could have come in the form of the U.S. presidential election in November. President Abraham Lincoln had doubts about whether he'd win reelection. He knew that if he lost, a new president of the war-weary Union might be willing to settle for a negotiated peace that would either have allowed the Confederate States to remain a separate nation or allowed the seceded states back into the Union with slavery preserved.

For months, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been trying to keep his Army of Northern Virginia between the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. He was stalling for time, hoping he could keep up some sort of resistance until the fall election. It was a long shot, but it was the only chance he had.
The regimental history of the 8th North Carolina Infantry doesn’t have a lot to say about the events of June 17, 1864. The unit was ordered to Petersburg on June 14. They arrived on the afternoon of June 16 and immediately dug into defensive positions near Petersburg where, only a few months earlier, they’d engaged in a raucous snowball fight with comrades in the 51st North Carolina Infantry.

 “There was no time to be lost,” H.T.J Ludwig wrote in the unit’s regimental history in 1900. “The enemy was advancing. The line of battle was formed in the (earth) works around that city and the approach of the enemy awaited.”
“On the morning of the 17th the firing began early,” Ludwig wrote. “All forenoon there was heavy skirmishing. About 5 p.m. it was evident that a heavy assault on our line was contemplated. The enemy was massing his troops in our front. Just before dark the assault was made. The enemy succeeded in breaking the line occupied by the brigade on our immediate right and rushed his forces into the breach thus made. The Eighth Regiment was ordered to assist in driving the enemy out and regaining the line. The work was done and the line re-established. After several hours fighting the enemy retired, leaving our line unbroken.”

At some point during this “several hours of fighting” that ended in the fading light of June 17, 1864, Daniel was killed. He was 20 years old. He's buried in a mass grave at the Petersburg battlefield.

Had Union troops broken the Confederate line that day, Richmond would have been vulnerable and the Civil War might very well have been over in a matter of days or weeks. But the stubborn Confederate resistance meant that Grant would have to lay siege to Petersburg, and the war would drag on for another 10 grueling months.

Sources for this post included Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, and an interview with Robert Krick, historian at the Richmond National Battlefield Park.


4/20/2014

Another Death in the Family at the Battle of Plymouth

This map from Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65 shows Plymouth in April 1864. Our house, built around 1870, is indicated by the orange and red triangle near the center of the map.

Years after the Civil War ended in 1865, author George Nowitzky visited Plymouth – where my wife and I live – as part of the research he was doing for a book. What he saw astonished him.

“There is no town or city in the United States that shows more scars of war than Plymouth, N.C.,” he wrote in 1888. “Every few steps within the business portion brought me to excavations and low stone walls which but too plainly show that they were formerly cellars and foundations to buildings that have passed into smoke, ashes and history.”
Plymouth’s location in northeastern North Carolina on the Roanoke River near the Albemarle Sound offered an important strategic advantage to whoever held it. So Union and Confederate armies battled to control the town throughout the war. And any town that must repeatedly endure being the object of contention between two hostile armies is going to be left in shambles.

Union troops occupied Plymouth in early 1862. Control of the town went back and forth until late 1864. It’s been said that at the end of the war, there were only 11 buildings in the town that had not been destroyed or heavily damaged. All that remained, Nowitzky wrote, were “nothing but ghostly looking brick chimneys and stone foundations which could not burn.”
Reminders and scars of the war are still visible. Former Union soldiers returned to Plymouth after the war to repair Grace Episcopal Church over at the corner of Madison and Water streets a few blocks from our house. But I’m told that there are a few holes made by cannonballs in some of the lumber in the interior of its steeple.

Less than a block down Washington Street from our home is a house with plainly visible bullet holes around one window, reminders of fierce street fighting that happened here on December 10, 1862 when Confederate raiders attacked Union troops and set fire to houses on Columbia Street, now Main Street.
Confederate forces regained control of the town during the Battle of Plymouth, fought April 17-20, 1864. On April 18, the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle chased Union gunboats down the Roanoke River and then shelled Union troops in the town.

Our house sits on ground that was occupied in April 1864 by Fort Williams, a Union fort. It’s possible that the shot that killed Moses Dry 150 years ago today was fired from this fort. Moses was the brother of my great-great grandfather, Allison Dry and the uncle of my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, and his brothers, Thomas Dry and Daniel Dry.
Moses was 45 years old when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863. His comrades-in-arms in the 8th North Carolina Infantry bore surnames that are common today in telephone books back home in Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan counties – Barringer, Blackwelder, Culp, Earnhart, Eudy, Fisher, Goodman, Honeycutt, Isenhour, Lowder, Misenheimer, Ridenhour, Ritchie, and Safrit, among others.

Moses may have met his end when his unit made a spirited but foolish and futile charge on the morning of April 20 to try to oust the defenders from Fort Williams, by then the last Union stronghold in Plymouth.
“The men charged up to the edge of the surrounding ditch, only to find that it could not be crossed,” wrote John W. Graham, a former Confederate officer who fought in the battle and contributed to a history of North Carolina troops that was published in 1901. “There was but one of two courses to take, to-wit: either to fall back or to surrender. The regiment chose the former. When the retreat began, the enemy poured a fearful volley into the ranks, killing and wounding many of the men. This charge was reckless and unnecessary. It was made under the flush of victory, and not by order of the commanding general.”

Fort Williams surrendered after being pounded by Confederate artillery. The Battle of Plymouth was over, and the town was back in Confederate hands – for a few months.

Union military strategists were determined to retake the town, but with the Albemarle anchored on the Plymouth waterfront, that was impossible. In October 1864, a young Union Navy officer named William Cushing led a daring nighttime raid in a small wooden steamboat and sank the Albemarle.
With the ironclad sitting on the bottom of the Roanoke, Union forces attacked and drove Confederates out of town. Part of the town caught fire when a Confederate ammunition storehouse exploded during the battle.

Back on the family farm in Cabarrus County, about 240 miles inland from Plymouth, the news of Moses Dry’s death was another crushing blow to his brother, Allison Dry.

Allison’s brother Henry, who enlisted in the Confederate Army in May 1863 at the age of 40, died of typhoid only three months later in Charleston, South Carolina. His oldest son William was taken prisoner at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October 1863 and confined in a hellhole of a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. And his son Thomas, who was captured during the first day’s fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, had been imprisoned at the same POW camp as William, where he died of smallpox in January 1864.
Allison would receive more terrible news in June 1864.

Sources for this essay included Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, by William R. Trotter; Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65, edited by Walter Clark; and Norfolk: The Marine Metropolis of Virginia and the Sound and River Cities of North Carolina, by George Nowitzky.


3/19/2014

Everything I Know About Wealth I Learned From Uncle Scrooge

The cover of "Uncle Scrooge" #19, drawn by
Carl Barks and published in September 1957.
A billionaire’s recent inane fretting about being an oversized target for radical progressives out to separate him from his immense wealth reminded me of a comic book character I loved when I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Walt Disney comic “Uncle Scrooge” featured the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, the world’s richest duck. The character was created by Carl Barks, an artist who developed his remarkable talent – and maybe his elaborate fantasies about great wealth – in his spare time while working a series of menial, low-paying jobs. And while he presumably made a living during the time he worked for Disney, he never approached the kind of wealth that he imagined for Uncle Scrooge.

I couldn’t wait to get the latest “Uncle Scrooge” comic. And I was far from alone. Although Disney had a stable of artists drawing Uncle Scrooge and other “duck” comics, Barks’s work made him a cult figure among young Baby Boomers who were just starting to read. His fascinating, well-researched stories and drawings full of detail and texture were immediately distinguishable from other Disney artists’ depictions of the same characters.

Barks’s humble jobs and his struggles to make an honest dollar undoubtedly influenced his characterization of Scrooge McDuck and shaped the wonderful stories he told of Scrooge’s adventures. But the work of all artists went out under Walt Disney’s stylized signature. So he was anonymous to his young Boomer fans, who referred to him simply as “the good artist.” They didn’t know who he was until late in his life after he’d retired and the Boomers, now grown, started spending big bucks to reacquire the comics their mothers had thrown out when they were kids.

Barks created a fascinating character who was obsessed with his wealth and had a personal attachment to every dollar he’d ever earned. Scrooge had lucrative business interests around the world and lived in a giant cube-shaped piggybank known as the Money Bin. It contained three cubic acres of cash, including the first dime he ever earned.

In one episode, Scrooge said it took him 13 years to count all the money in the Money Bin, which sat atop a hill overlooking the city of Duckburg, in the state of Calisota. In another episode, his wealth was expressed as a five, followed by 77 zeroes.

Scrooge had little use for those who made their money off of other people’s money and ideas. In one episode, he is asked if he made his money in banking.

“Banking?” he answered with a snort. “I made it on the seas, and in the mines, and in the cattle wars of the old frontiers. I made it by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties. And I made it square.”

Unlike some of today’s uber-wealthy – including the fretful billionaire mentioned earlier – McDuck avoided conspicuous displays of his wealth. He did not own a car, and he refused to buy new clothes or even replace his eyeglasses. And he wouldn’t buy newspapers, preferring to roam public parks looking for copies of yesterday’s papers left behind by less-thrifty Duckburg residents.

The sole pleasure that Scrooge took from his money was an odd and rather sensual one. For him, life’s greatest delight was diving into his piles of cash like a porpoise, and burrowing into them like a gopher, and tossing up coins and letting them hit him on the head.
Scrooge’s only relatives were his nephew, Donald Duck, who lived in a modest house in Duckburg with his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Donald and his nephews joined Scrooge for his adventures, and nearly all of the stories consisted of his efforts to either acquire more wealth or prevent it from being stolen, usually by his arch-nemeses, the Beagle Boys.

Although Huey, Dewey and Louie were kids, they were wise beyond their years and inevitably provided the knowledge needed to safeguard Scrooge’s fortune or crack an ancient code or solve an ancient mystery that added more treasure to their great-uncle’s holdings. And they usually obtained that valuable information from an infinite storehouse of the world’s knowledge and history – the Junior Woodchucks’ Guide Book.

But even though Donald and his nephews repeatedly rescued Scrooge from impossible difficulties, saved his vast fortune from being plundered by the Beagle Boys, and helped add immeasurable riches to his Money Bin, he always squawked loudly at having to cough up the pay – 30 cents an hour – he’d promised them for their help.

I read and re-read my “Uncle Scrooge” comics, and so I guess that’s where I formed my earliest impressions of how rich people behave. To me, Scrooge represented American capitalism, and he gave me the impression that somewhere in their souls, rich people were decent folks who would do the right thing for the common good when the time came.

I’m older now, and while I’ve somehow managed to avoid becoming wealthy, I do have a little more sophisticated understanding of how immense wealth sometimes affects human behavior.

Wealth obviously was affecting that billionaire I mentioned earlier. And his comments seem to have prompted other wealthy men to voice their own fears and frustrations about how the world perceives them.

Scrooge also was terrified of losing his money. But this comic book character differed from some of his real-life counterparts in one way – he occasionally showed a social consciousness. There were times during his adventures when he reluctantly realized that the only right thing to do was spend a sizeable amount of money to help someone who needed and deserved help.

Wealthy philanthropists aren’t fantasy characters confined to the pages of comic books, however. Henry Flagler was the son of a poor Presbyterian minister. He became John D. Rockefeller’s business partner at Standard Oil and used his great wealth to essentially invent modern Florida around the turn of the 19th century.

Flagler’s upbringing influenced his world view. “If money is spent for personal uses, to promote idleness, luxury and selfishness, it is a curse to the possessor and to society,” he said in 1907. “Wealth brings obligation, moral and governmental. It has but one legitimate function, and that is its employment for the welfare of the nation.”

Flagler obviously enjoyed his wealth, and unlike Scrooge, he didn’t try to conceal it. Whitehall, his home in Palm Beach, is a 100,000-square-foot, 75-room palace that the New York Herald described in 1902 as “grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” It’s also a far cry from the frugal and fictional Scrooge McDuck’s plain and utilitarian Money Bin.

Still, Flagler realized that there is such a thing as noblesse oblige. And Scrooge realized that there are times when the only right thing to do was help someone in need, regardless of how painful it was to him.

I’ve got nothing against money, and I do wish I had more of it. I don’t begrudge the wealthy their prosperity. But I do wish more of the most-fortunate had more in common with Henry Flagler, the real-life plutocrat, and Scrooge McDuck, the comic book character.

12/25/2013

The Grim Christmas of 1863

This cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly on December 26, 1863, was perhaps the earliest depiction of now-classic Christmas images.

The warm, cozy images we associate with Christmas likely began in December 1863, when Harper’s Weekly published three elaborate drawings by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The two-page spread, a sort of Christmas triptych, included now-familiar, sentimental images – a bearded Santa Claus with a huge sack of gifts, a soldier on leave being welcomed home with a small Christmas tree in the background, and children playing with toys on Christmas morning.

But Christmas 1863 was quite different for many Americans than Nast’s feel-good images portrayed. Family members were missing from firesides and Christmas celebrations across the divided nation as the start of a third year of bloody civil war approached.

My great-great-grandfather Allison Dry and his family faced such a cheerless Christmas on their farm in Cabarrus County, North Carolina 150 years ago. Two of Allison’s sons – Thomas and my great-grandfather, William – would endure the brutally cold winter of 1863-64 in a Union prisoner-of-war camp in Maryland, living in tents with only a blanket and an occasional few sticks of firewood to keep them warm.

Allison did not own slaves. But his family had nevertheless become deeply invested in this war that had erupted because of slavery. Besides Thomas and William, Allison had another son as well as brothers, cousins, and nephews serving in the Confederate Army. And as Christmas 1863 approached, the awful reality of the American Civil War had come home to his doorstep.
Thomas, a member of the 5th North Carolina Infantry, had been taken prisoner on July 1, 1863 during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. A month later, Allison learned that his brother, Henry Dry, who was serving in the Confederate Army in Charleston, South Carolina, had died of typhoid. Then came the news that William, serving in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, had been captured on October 14 at the Battle of Bristoe Station in Virginia.

Allison’s son Daniel was serving with the 8th North Carolina Infantry. In December 1863, Daniel’s unit was sent north from the relative safety of Raleigh to the frontline battlefields near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
From Gettysburg, Thomas was sent to Fort Delaware, a massive pile of bricks on an island in the Delaware River about 45 miles downriver from Philadelphia. The fort, completed in 1859, was intended to protect Philadelphia from enemy warships. But in 1863 it was being used as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers.

The conditions Thomas encountered at Fort Delaware were far from comfortable, but they could be endured. “Things here are not quite as bad as I expected to find them,” Henry Berkeley, a captured Confederate soldier from Virginia, wrote in a letter home in the late summer of 1863. “They are, however, bad, hopeless and gloomy enough without any exaggeration.”
For the first couple years of the war, the Union and Confederate governments operated POW camps as temporary holding pens. Prisoners were detained until they could be “exchanged” for prisoners from the other side.

But that relatively civilized system fell apart because Union leaders became reluctant to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, and because Confederate military officials refused to exchange captured black Union soldiers. So POW camps in the North and South became steadily more crowded. And the crowded conditions steadily increased the death toll among prisoners in both Union and Confederate camps.
On July 20, 1863, Union military officials decided to establish a POW camp at the tip of a peninsula in Maryland where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was called Point Lookout. The federal government had already built a large military hospital to treat Union soldiers near the tip of the peninsula, and the POW camp was built just to the north of the hospital.

The exposed location of the camp made it very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. General Gilman Marston, a political appointee who had represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives before the war, was put in charge of the camp.
Like all POW camps on both sides in the Civil War, it would become a hellhole.

On August 15, Marston notified his superiors in Washington, D.C. that he was ready to receive 1,000 prisoners. Union officers responded by sending 1,300 Confederates to Point Lookout.

When the first prisoners arrived, it turned out that the Point Lookout commander had exaggerated the readiness of the camp. The 15-foot-high wooden fence to contain the prisoners had not been completed. So Union soldiers with bayonets fixed to their rifles guarded the Confederates. A few tried to escape. They were shot and killed.

By late September, nearly 4,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned at Point Lookout. On October 7, with fall’s chill in the air, Marston sent a recommendation to Washington suggesting that a wooden barracks be built to house the prisoners.

But the request was denied. Instead, with winter approaching, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered 10,000 tents sent to Point Lookout.
A week later, William Dry was captured at Bristoe Station and sent to Washington, D.C., where he was held in a building that had served as a temporary capitol after British troops burned the city in 1814.

While William was being held in Washington, his brother Thomas was transferred from Fort Delaware to Point Lookout on October 18. By now, the population of the 40-acre camp had more than doubled to almost 9,000. And the new prisoners brought a problem that would be exacerbated by overcrowding.
During the fall of 1863, smallpox killed 860 Confederate soldiers at Fort Delaware. Marston complained that every group of prisoners sent to Point Lookout from Fort Delaware included men suffering from the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. It is an illness that thrives in crowded conditions. By late October 1863, Point Lookout was becoming more crowded by the day.

On October 27, 1863, William and other prisoners in the old capitol building in Washington were herded aboard a train. Their destination was Point Lookout, where they would become part of the shivering, ragged horde being held behind the high walls near the tip of the chilly peninsula.
There’s no record of whether William knew that his younger brother was already at Point Lookout. But it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t eventually find each other.

In November, Dr. W.F. Swalm, a medical officer with the 14th Brooklyn Regiment, was sent to inspect the prisoners at Point Lookout. Swalm was an odd choice to make the inspection.
During the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Swalm and another Union medical officer had been captured by the Confederates and sent to Richmond as prisoners of war. But rather than being confined, they were allowed to move freely about the city. They became minor celebrities in the Confederate capital, where they were entertained in the homes of the city’s gentry. They responded to their captors’ hospitality by loudly denouncing President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause and vowed that when they were exchanged, they would settle their affairs up North and move back to “Dixie’s Land” as permanent residents.

Perhaps their comments were sincere. Or maybe they realized that their harsh criticism of Lincoln and the Union war effort earned them extraordinary privileges in the capital city of their enemy. Whatever their motivations, their comments became public record when they were published in the Richmond Dispatch, and later in the New York Times.

Eventually Swalm and the other doctor were exchanged, and in May 1862, while testifying before the House Committee on the Conduct of the War, the doctors accused Confederate soldiers of “inhuman acts” and “terrible monstrosities.”

When Swalm inspected the prisoners at Point Lookout in November 1863, he reported that the hospital for sick prisoners consisted of 18 unheated tents, and noted that the weather was turning very cold. The winter of 1863-64 would be one of the coldest on record.

Swalm also noted that the sick men were in a “filthy” condition, and that the entire POW camp was similarly dirty. The prisoners were ragged and did not have warm clothing. Three men had to share one blanket in the tents.

The cold was brutal on the thinly clad prisoners. “In winter when a high tide would flood the whole surface of the ground, freezing as it flooded, the suffering of the half-clad wretches, accustomed to a southern climate, may be imagined,” Anthony M. Keiley a former prisoner at Point Lookout, wrote in a memoir after the war. “. . . So severe was the cold that even the well-clad sentinels had to be relieved every thirty minutes, instead of every two hours, as is the army rule.”

The conditions at the camp appalled Frederick Knapp of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. He suggested that the Commission send food and clothing to the Confederate prisoners. “I know that they are our enemies, and bitter ones, and what we give them they will use against us, but now they are within our power and are suffering,” he said in a report to the Commission.

But General Marston, the commander of the Point Lookout POW camp, had little sympathy for his Confederate prisoners. And Swalm’s earlier, well-publicized comments in Richmond gave Marston a convenient excuse to dispute the accuracy of Swalm’s report on conditions in his camp. After all, how could anyone trust the word of a man who had denounced his country and commander-in-chief in the heart of enemy territory?

In a December 4 letter, Marston denied that the conditions described by Swalm existed and said the prisoners’ woes were largely their own fault. “That they are a dirty, lousy set is true enough, but having afforded them every facility for cleanliness the duty of the Government in this regard  ... is accomplished,” he wrote.

Union officers prevented Swalm’s report from being released. Still, either a copy of the report or a description of its contents found its way to Dr. Montrose Pallen, a Mississippi physician who was involved in Confederate intrigues in Montreal, Quebec.
Pallen sent a letter to Union Major General E.A. Hitchcock describing the conditions. “Many of the prisoners are without the necessary clothing even to hide their nakedness, and during the late cold weather several absolutely froze to death at Point Lookout, where they are living in tents, and more than half of the 9,000 and more confined there have not even a single blanket for covering or bedding and sleep on the bare ground,” he wrote.

But Union officers seemed determined to keep the prisoners at Point Lookout in enforced misery.
The prisoners weren’t allowed to receive a new article of clothing without giving up a similar article of clothing, Kieley wrote in his memoir. “(S)o literally was this rule enforced that prisoners who came in barefooted were compelled to beg or buy a wornout pair of shoes for exchange before they were allowed to receive a pair sent to them by a friend.”

And when the Union Army added black soldiers to its ranks, the African-American troops replaced white guards at Point Lookout. The black guards, many of them former slaves, often took great delight in tormenting their former masters.

And the food, what there was of it, was terrible. “For my part, I never saw any one get enough of anything to eat at Point Lookout except of the soup, one spoonful of which was too much for ordinary digestion,” Kieley wrote.

By Christmas 1863, the smallpox problem had become so severe at Point Lookout that officials had set up a separate hospital about a quarter-mile from the main compound for prisoners suffering from the disease. The prisoners admitted to the hospital were cared for by Catholic nuns belonging to the Sisters of Charity from Emittsburg, Maryland.
The nuns, in their unusually wide and tall white cornettes and black habits, added an air of dignified solemnity to the wretched conditions in the camp.

The late-December weather became so bitterly cold that five prisoners froze to death on New Year’s Eve 1863. “We all suffered a great deal with the cold and hunger,” Sergeant Bartlett Malone, a member of the 6th North Carolina Infantry, wrote in his diary. “Two of our men caught a rat and cooked it and ate it.”

That same night, Thomas Dry was admitted to the smallpox hospital. He died on January 29, 1864. Somehow, his older brother William would survive another year at Point Lookout until POW exchanges finally resumed. He was exchanged in February 1865. Still, there would be more bad news -- much more -- for Allison Dry and his family before 1864 ended.
Sources consulted for this story included Point Lookout Prison Camp For Confederates, by Edwin W. Beitzell; Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer; exhibits at Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Maryland, and documents from the National Archives.

12/07/2013

Two Tales of Tragic Irony at Pearl Harbor

Ernest Davenport, left, and Austin Jackson. Both photos were published in the weekly Roanoke Beacon of Plymouth, North Carolina soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On December 7, 1941, two young servicemen from eastern North Carolina were in the middle of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attacks on American forces that plunged the United States into World War II.

Neither U.S. Army Private Ernest Davenport nor Navy Seaman Austin Jackson would survive the war. And although thousands died on that long-ago Sunday, Davenport’s and Jackson’s deaths were touched by irony.

Davenport, a U.S. Army medic from the Washington County town of Creswell, was aboard a merchant ship that probably was the first ship sunk by the Japanese attacks in the Pacific. Jackson from Jamesville in adjoining Martin County was aboard a U.S. battleship docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Davenport was only two years old when his father was killed in an accident in 1920. His mother remarried, and Davenport grew up on a farm. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and he left school to go to work after finishing the eighth grade in 1934.

In 1939, Davenport joined the U.S. Army, in part to earn money to send his half-sister, Olean Clifton, to college.

On December 7, 1941, Davenport was one of two Army soldiers aboard the SS Cynthia Olson. The privately owned transport ship had been chartered by the Army to haul a load of lumber from Tacoma, Washington to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Olson was approaching Hawaii on the morning of December 7. But the crew did not know that a Japanese submarine, the I-26, had been following it since the previous day, waiting for orders to begin the attack on U.S. forces.

On the morning of December 7 the commander of the I-26 received coded orders from Tokyo for all Japanese ships to commence the attack. He immediately surfaced and his crew fired a warning shot across the bow of the Cynthia Olson indicating that the I-26 was about to attack the American ship.

The crew of the Olson lowered lifeboats into the water and abandoned the ship. The I-26 crew then opened fire with the submarine’s deck gun. Eventually, the Olson sank and the I-26 left.

Although Japanese planes were on their way to Hawaii, the I-26’s attack on the Cynthia Olson happened shortly before bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. So the Olson probably was the first American ship sunk by the Japanese on December 7. And although Davenport and the other members of the Olson’s crew reportedly all made it into lifeboats, no trace of them was ever found.

Austin Jackson’s death was even more emotionally wrenching than Davenport’s. His ship, the USS California, was among the seven battleships sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 American soldiers and sailors were killed that day. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, it was difficult to determine who had died.

On December 12, Jackson’s mother, Ora Jackson Burnette, was visiting relatives in Plymouth when a stunning telegram arrived from the Navy telling her that her son had been killed at Pearl Harbor. The following day, photos of the baby-faced Austin Jackson were published in local newspapers with the news that he’d died on the “day of infamy.”

But on New Year’s Day 1942, Ora Burnette received a card from her son dated December 12 – five days after the attack. The following day, she received another message from the Navy saying that her son was indeed alive.

Her joy was only temporary, however.

In March 1942 Burnette received yet another telegram from the Navy. This time there was no mistake. Austin Jackson was dead. Then a letter dated March 21 arrived from Jackson’s commanding officer, Navy Lieutenant F.W. Purdy.

In the edgy days following the attack on December 7, military commanders in Hawaii were certain that the Japanese were going to bomb Honolulu again. So they set up anti-aircraft guns around the islands. Since Jackson’s ship, the California, was undergoing repairs, he had been assigned to the crew of one of the guns.

Around 3 a.m. on February 12, 1942, Jackson was reporting for his duty shift at one of the guns. In the darkness, he tripped. He fell onto a rifle with a bayonet attached. He died soon afterwards.

Jackson’s body eventually was returned to the U.S., and he’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

11/21/2013

That Creepy Little Man

 
The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was tucked away in a modest, one-story house on a quiet street in St. Augustine, Florida, a bizarre sideshow to the nearby graceful antiquity of the nation’s oldest city. As you approached the entrance, you saw an eerie-but-fascinating tableau. Peering at you from a living-room picture window was a life-size wax figure of Lee Harvey Oswald hiding behind stacks of cardboard boxes, about to change history with the scoped Italian-made Carcano rifle he’d bought for a few bucks from a magazine ad.
It was a dreadfully tacky depiction of one of the most tragic events of the 20th century, and not something you’d see at the Smithsonian Museum. But that dark image of Oswald haunts our national psyche – that creepy little man with his cheap mail-order rifle who is going to blow the brains out of arguably the most charismatic president in U.S. history. And it’s seemed to me since the day I saw it that, as morbid, gruesome and tasteless as that display was, it was somehow as appropriate a comment on John F. Kennedy’s death as the most insightful essays and deftly understated museum exhibits.

Browsing through the dusty, amateurishly displayed exhibits at The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was like rubbernecking as you drive slowly past a horrible car wreck. There was a steam whistle purportedly from the locomotive operated by Joseph “Steve” Brody on the night in 1903 when he left this world in a spectacular and legendary train wreck that came to be known as “the wreck of the old 97,” and the car that supposedly was the one in which actress Jayne Mansfield died.

But the museum’s centerpiece exhibits were artifacts from the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The displays included the dresser from Oswald’s $7-a-week rented room and the bed he’d slept in the night before his terrible deed. There was a 1953 Chevrolet in which he’d gotten a lift to work at the Texas Schoolbook Depository on that fateful day. And there was the 1962 Ford ambulance that had rushed him to Parkland Hospital two days later after he’d been fatally shot by Jack Ruby.
In the days following Kennedy’s assassination, St. Augustine businessman Buddy Hough made frequent trips to Dallas to acquire objects associated with the president’s death. In the process, he decided to open a museum focusing on tragedies that had darkened U.S. history.

 But St. Augustine’s purveyors of more traditional tourist attractions never liked Hough’s macabre collection, and Hough deeply resented the cold shoulder he received from the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum struggled to make money in a town that attracts more than a million tourists every year. Hough died in 1996, and his wife auctioned off her late husband’s unusual collection – including, I assume, that wretched wax likeness of Oswald.

So today, we’re remembering where we were 50 years ago when a troubled, fatherless drifter who’d learned to fire a rifle with deadly accuracy in the U.S. Marine Corps stunned the world.
I was in an eighth-grade math class in Richfield, North Carolina when a teacher abruptly opened the door, stepped into the classroom, and announced that Kennedy had been shot.

For days afterwards, the three television networks dropped all other programming and focused on what happened in Texas. And the events were incomprehensible. Lyndon Johnson grimly taking the oath of office accompanied by a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy still wearing the chic Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood; Oswald’s murder on live television; the endless line of mourners filing past the dead president’s coffin in the Capitol; and the funeral, during which I acquired an abiding respect for the somber, dignified ceremony of a military sendoff. And all of this depicted in black-and-white television images. I wonder if anyone turned off their TV in the week following Kennedy’s death.
Still, as morbidly compelling as this drama was, I think everyone craved normalcy. And eventually, the shock faded and the routine events of life resumed.

In 1964 we were handed a massive document that was the official product of the Warren Commission. It told us that Oswald, the chinless loser unable to find a satisfying place in this world, had plotted and carried out, alone, the murder of the most powerful man on Earth.
The Warren Commission’s conclusion has been debated for 49 years.  Many now-familiar phrases have been added to our popular lexicon – lone gunman, magic bullet, rogue CIA, second shooter, Castro-Mafia connection.

I keep going back and forth on whether I believe the commission’s version of events. At the moment I’m swinging back to the lone gunman theory for two reasons. I’ve read that the “magic bullet” theory is disproved by the fact that Texas Governor John Connolly’s seat in the limousine was three inches lower than Kennedy’s and thus the path of the bullet didn’t have to defy the laws of physics to hit them both. And I hear that the second shooter theory is disproved because the movement of the president’s head is explained because that’s what happens when a bullet hits the brain in just the right (or wrong) way, causing brain cells to explode in a certain way.
But really, it doesn’t matter what I believe because nothing will make Oswald’s haunting image go away. And that’s why I think that ghastly display years ago in The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was a legitimate commentary on John F. Kennedy’s shocking death. Oswald is always going to be rising from the dark, dusty, cobweb-infested depths of our collective minds’ eyes, disrupting our efforts to return to normalcy and distorting our perceptions of the world around us. Oswald is the face of this tragedy, and the face of that psychopathic piss-ant will trouble us until the day we die.

9/23/2013

Too Many Deadlines, Please Stand By . . .


Up to my ears in deadlines at the moment and can't even think about blogging. Hope to have a post ready for early October, when things have calmed down a bit. Please check back in a couple weeks.

8/11/2013

Take Me Out To The Ultra-Ball Game


So Major League Baseball has thrown out a dragnet again and hauled in 14 players accused of using so-called performance enhancing drugs. And the biggest catch in this batch of alleged cheaters is the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, who has long been considered a certainty to join other immortals in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

When MLB announced that Rodriguez had failed a drug test and faced a lengthy suspension, he needed just 13 home runs to tie Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s home run total of 660, which places Mays fourth on the list of all-time home run kings behind Barry Bonds (also accused of using drugs), Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. ESPN reported that Rodriguez’s contract calls for him to receive a substantial bonus when he matches Mays’s mark. That doesn’t seem quite fair to reward a juiced Rodriguez for reaching a milestone that was accomplished by players who weren't using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs to achieve their prodigious totals.
And to me, that’s the reason it matters that Rodriguez and Bonds achieved their impressive career statistics while using drugs. Baseball, more than any other major league professional sport, is tied to its history and its superstars that have been spread across more than a century of play. The statistics compiled by stars of bygone eras are part of the appeal of the game and a topic that can be endlessly discussed and debated by old fans and young fans.

“Baseball fans love to argue statistics,” Benjamin Hoffman wrote in today’s New York Times. “Mentions of Willie Mays or Ted Williams are often accompanied by the caveat that they lost time to war. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, would have had even better statistics had he been allowed to play before he was 28.”
Cynical fans ridicule the anti-drug sentiment and argue that drug use doesn’t matter and that players should be allowed to do whatever they can to improve their performances. It’s nobody’s business what they do to their own bodies, the argument goes.

But here’s the thing about that ultra-libertarian perspective about MLB and drugs: If you’re going to do that, you might as well close and seal the baseball record books from 1904 – when the Major Leagues as we know them began – until 1997 – the season before a steroids-enhanced Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 to become the first juiced player to set a season record for home runs.
A few years after Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other “enhanced” players elevated seasonal home run totals beyond anything seen since the beginning of the sport, MLB actually started enforcing its no-drugs rules. Seasonal home run totals by MLB players, which had escalated dramatically in the late 1990s, came back down to Earth. And that dramatic decline in home runs made the effect of drug use on baseball’s sacred statistics obvious to anyone who cared to compare the numbers.

So if you want to allow juiced players to play MLB, then close the record books from 1904 to 1997, declare the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown to be filled to capacity with stars of “old” baseball, and start over with record-keeping and a new league and a new game. Call it “ultra-baseball” or “extreme baseball” or “robo-baseball” or “ultimate baseball,” something to indicate that this is not a game for mere wimpy mortals but a game that’s being played by super-evolved, chemically enhanced cyber-humans.
Then, instead of arguing whether Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider was the best centerfielder of his era, you can argue about whether Barry Bonds’s home run total would have been higher if he’d avoided steroids and used a different type of performance-enhancing drug. That doesn’t seem to have the same appeal as talking about Willie, Mickey and The Duke, but I suppose it could make for a lively debate among chemists.

NOTE: The photo at the top was published by the New York Daily News on October 8, 2011 and shows Alex Rodriguez after he struck out to end the game that the New York Yankees lost to the Detroit Tigers, 3-2 in the American League Divisional Championship Series.


7/04/2013

Why I Spell My Name D-R-Y-E


As they say back home, you can’t hardly throw a rock in the southern Piedmont North Carolina counties of Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan without hitting someone named Dry. Or Drye.
There are two camps as to how that last name is spelled. I have first cousins who spell it with the “e.” And I have other first cousins who don’t use that “e” and wouldn’t do it at gunpoint.

For the record, both spellings of the last name are a corruption of the German surname, Dörr. The Dörrs came over from Germany to Philadelphia in the mid-18th century. According to research done by one of my late aunts, the Dörrs moved from Philly to North Carolina in 1799.
Somewhere along the way, they changed the family surname to Dry. Or maybe it was Drye. Maybe they changed the family name because that umlaut over the “ö” made their name look too foreign, too Teutonic.

Or maybe somewhere along the way, some anonymous official filling out a legal document misunderstood the name and spelled it the way he heard it pronounced. More about that possibility in a moment.
As far as I know, no one knows why some of the rechristened Dörrs chose to add the “e” as sort of a decorative flourish at the end of their new name. But I guess my family in Misenheimer – which is in Stanly County – considered the “e” superfluous and maybe even a bit too showy, because we spelled the name Dry.

Sometime in the 1930s, my Uncle Joe Dry left the family farm in Misenheimer and moved west to California, presumably seeking all the opportunities for a better life that the Golden State famously offered. He married a California girl, worked hard and prospered and raised a family out there with Aunt Jean.
And he started spelling his name with the “e,” as in Joe Drye. There’s no record that I’m aware of that explains why he made that switch to the other side. Perhaps it was because the “e” gave the name a little more heft and made it look like an actual surname instead of a synonym for dehydrated.

When I was born in late 1949, Aunt Jean and Uncle Joe Drye came back east for the event. They were in the hospital room in Albemarle with my parents when a nurse came in to fill out a birth certificate.
The nurse asked – apparently of no one in particular – how to spell my last name. According to what I’ve been told, Aunt Jean said to the nurse, D-R-Y-E. My parents either didn’t hear what Aunt Jean said to the nurse, or they didn’t think the nurse would take her seriously. But, apparently, they made no attempt to correct the spelling, and that’s what the nurse wrote on the birth certificate.

I have no idea what actually happened. Although I was, of course, present at the event, I wasn’t taking notes and I have no recollection of who said what to whom, and I’m relying on what I’ve been told by older cousins.
Still, it didn’t matter too much what the nurse wrote on my birth certificate because for the first 23 years of my life, I spelled my last name D-R-Y.

In November 1972, I went into the Army. I had to provide a copy of my birth certificate when I started basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Again, I didn’t give much thought to how my name was spelled on that document.
A day or two after arriving at Fort Jackson, I was in line with the other trainees being issued clothing by the quartermaster. As I moved through the line, I was handed my fatigue shirts, fatigue pants, fatigue caps, field jackets, combat boots – and name tags to be sewn onto my fatigue shirts and field jackets.

The name tags had my last name in all capital letters. It was based on the spelling on my birth certificate – DRYE.

I thought the supply sergeant surely would want to know of this mistake. “I don’t spell my name with an “e,” I said.
“You do now,” the sergeant snapped. “Move on.”

To use another back-home phrase, I soon discovered that the Army had me by the short-hairs as far as the spelling was concerned. In order to get paid every month, I had to sign the payroll register. My name on that document was spelled Drye. If I signed my name Dry, I wouldn’t get paid.

It took me a while to get used to it, but by the time I got out of the Army, I was accustomed to seeing my name with the previously extravagant “e” at the end. Legally changing it would’ve been too much of a pain. So I’ve just learned to live with it, although sometimes I’ve wondered if my relatives think I’m putting on airs because of that “e.”
Honest, cousins, I had no choice in the matter.

Note: The photo at the top of this post shows the last surviving name tag that I was issued at the start of Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

7/03/2013

Pickett's Charge: Smoking Shoes And Body Parts

The North Carolina monument at Cemetery Ridge in the Gettysburg
National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It’s been reported that the duel between Confederate and Union artillery at the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago today was so loud it could be heard in Pittsburgh, 140 miles to the west.

The firing ceased around 2:45 p.m. on July 3, 1863, and after such an awful noise, the silence was decidedly eerie. A few minutes later, Confederate soldiers emerged from trees on Seminary Ridge and, with remarkable military precision, formed in long straight lines. Then, at a rapid, steady walk, they moved down Seminary Ridge and started a mile-long trek across a shallow valley to Cemetery Ridge.

About 12,000 Confederate soldiers were involved in this military maneuver that will forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The name comes from General George Pickett, who was ordered to push about 4,000 Union troops off Cemetery Ridge. Historians have pointed out that the attempt to take Cemetery Ridge should be referred to as the Pickett-Trimble-Pettigrew Charge because the men who took part in the famous assault were from North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, and most were led by generals other than Pickett.

But Pickett, a native of Virginia, benefitted from the presence of many newspaper reporters from his own state who wrote their stories with a decided slant in favor of their native son.

If the assault had succeeded, it could have broken the Union Army of the Potomac and given the Confederacy such an advantage that it might have been able to dictate peace terms to President Abraham Lincoln and end the American Civil War with a victory for an economic system that relied on human bondage.
Even some of the men who were going to try to kill the Confederates were impressed by the way their enemy arrayed himself. “Beautiful, gloriously beautiful, did that vast array appear in the lovely little valley,” a New York soldier wrote in a letter after the battle.

Author Shelby Foote described what happened after Union soldiers got over the dazzling display of martial precision moving toward them at the rate of 90 steps per minute. The thousands of Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge “settled down to the task of transforming those well-dressed gray lines into something far from beautiful,” Foote wrote.

Among the 12,000 soldiers making that deadly march was my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, a private in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry.

It took the Confederates about 15 minutes to go the first half-mile of the journey. Union cannons were firing at them the entire time, tearing gaps in the precise lines. But the Confederates still impressed their opponents. “The enemy advanced magnificently, unshaken by the shot and shell which tore through his ranks,” said General Henry Hunt, commander of the Union artillery.
My great-grandfather’s unit, the 52nd North Carolina, was commanded by Colonel James K. Marshall. After leading his men about halfway to their objective, Marshall turned to another officer and said, “We do not know which of us will be next to fall.”

After more than 20 minutes, the Confederates were nearing the crest of Cemetery Ridge. By now, thick smoke from the black powder being used in the weapons fired by both sides had created a fog
Thousands of Confederates already were dead or dying, but the survivors pushed on to the low rock wall that protected their opponents. As the 52nd approached the wall, Marshall was urging his men on. Then suddenly, two bullets struck him in the forehead.

At about the same time, a Union artillery commander screamed at his men to fire their cannons point-blank at the North Carolina troops.
Later, the commander wrote in his diary that after the smoke had cleared from the blast, the only thing remaining of the North Carolina troops was “smoking shoes.”

For a few moments, it looked like Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s gamble had succeeded. A few Confederates managed to cross the stone wall that protected the Union troops. But so many Confederates had been killed that they did not have the numbers to push Union troops off the hill. The attack was broken, and dispirited Confederate troops retreated back across the valley to Seminary Ridge.
Fewer than half the Confederates survived the charge. My great-grandfather was among the survivors.

The following day, July 4, Lee’s broken army left Gettysburg in a driving rain, moving south toward Maryland. The Union artillery commander who had fired point-blank at North Carolina troops described the ground in front of his guns as being “black, greasy, and full of body parts.”

Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; research by Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross; and Wikipedia.

7/01/2013

A Day Of Deadly Surprises

Confederate General Alfred Iverson sent his
troops into a deadly Union ambush during
the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on
July 1, 1863.
Historians are still debating whether the Battle of Gettysburg was fought over shoes. The legend goes that Confederate generals in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia believed that there was a shoe factory in Gettysburg where they might find shoes for their many barefoot soldiers.

No such factory existed, and neither Lee nor his adversary, Union General George Meade, were looking for a knockdown drag-out fight in southern Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863. But with tens of thousands of Confederate and Union troops drawing closer and closer to each other in the area around Gettysburg, just such a fight was inevitable.

“The first of July is a day of surprises,” said Gary Kross, a guide who took me on a personal tour of the Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago. “You’re never quite sure where your opponent will be coming from. Men are constantly coming in throughout the day from different directions.”

The fighting was already underway when the 5th North Carolina Infantry and the 52nd North Carolina Infantry reached Gettysburg on July 1. My great-grandfather, William C. Dry, was in the 52nd, while his younger brother Thomas was in the 5th.
The 5th North Carolina Infantry was among the units commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, a Georgian. Iverson’s leadership on July 1 would prove disastrous for his men, Kross said.

Iverson’s men arrived northwest of Gettysburg and were ordered to drive Union forces from Oak Ridge, which overlooked the town.
But Iverson was the wrong man for that job. “At two o’clock in the afternoon, this Confederate general is drunk as a skunk and can’t sit on his horse,” Kross said. “As his men go off to battle he yells out at them, ‘Give ‘em hell, boys!’ But he doesn’t go with them.”

Still, the approximately 1,400 Confederate troops advancing on Oak Ridge thought they had a Union force of about 500 outnumbered by almost three to one. But the Confederate commanders hadn’t bothered to do any reconnaissance of the area to confirm how many Union troops were in the area.
So the Confederates were walking straight into a stunning and deadly trap.

Just behind the crest of Oak Ridge, where the ground starts sloping down toward the town, was a low stone wall about 3½ feet tall. And behind that wall, just out of sight of the advancing Confederates, crouched about 3,000 Union troops.
The Confederate troops weren’t even ready to fire their rifles as they moved toward Oak Ridge in long lines roughly parallel with the wall. They were marching with their rifles across their shoulders, as though they were on a parade ground instead of a battlefield.

The unsuspecting Confederates advanced to about 200 feet from the crest of the ridge. “That’s when the Union soldiers stand up, some four rows deep, level their rifles and fire a volley right into the faces of the North Carolinians,” Kross said. “They never saw it coming.”
The deadly fusillade struck the first line of soldiers. “Hundreds of North Carolinians went down on the first volley,” Kross said. “One Confederate indicated that there were at least 500 men going down on the first volley. If that’s true, that’s incredible. These men were shot to pieces, blown apart.”

One unlucky North Carolina soldier named Eugene Phillips was hit in the head by six bullets, Kross said.

Another North Carolina soldier survived that devastating blast because he was in the second row – or rank – of soldiers. He wrote about his experience later that day.
“He writes in his journal that night that he was sprayed by the brains of the men in the first rank” Kross said.

Somehow Thomas Dry survived the withering fire that decimated the 5th North Carolina Infantry. What he did in the face of that hail of bullets isn’t known. It’s likely that he flung himself on the ground, and perhaps he tried to fire back at the Union troops. But the odds were hopeless, and shortly after that deadly blast of gunfire, Thomas and other surviving Confederates surrendered and were taken prisoner by the Union troops.  

Between 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., the 52nd North Carolina Infantry arrived at the west side of Gettysburg, along with the 11th, 26th, and 47th North Carolina infantries. William was perhaps a mile or so south of where his brother’s unit had nearly been wiped out. The 52nd and other Confederate units splashed across a small creek called Willoughby Run west of the town, cursing at the briars and underbrush that tore at them as they began moving up a hill known as McPherson’s Ridge.

In his epic three-volume work The Civil War: A Narrative, author Shelby Foote described what the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries encountered after they’d crossed Willoughby Run.

“As they started up McPherson’s Ridge ,,, the woods along the crest were suddenly filled with flame-stabbed smoke and the crash of heavy volleys,” Foote wrote

Soon, the Confederates discovered who was shooting at them. They were being met by the Union Army’s famed Iron Brigade, composed of soldiers from Wisconsin and Michigan. Foote described the unit as “made up of hard-bitten Westerners with a formidable reputation for hard fighting.”

But the proud Union unit had been involved in fighting earlier in the day, and was not quite up to full strength. Still, the Iron Brigade had been told to hold their ground at all costs. What followed was what Kross described as “one of the most remarkable fights of the entire Civil War.”

For an hour and 40 minutes, the 11th and 26th North Carolina infantries slugged it out with the Iron Brigade from a distance of only about 60 feet apart.

Finally, the Iron Brigade broke and retreated to a Lutheran seminary at the western edge of Gettysburg.

The 47th and 52nd were more fortunate. They were met by the 121st Pennsylvania Infantry, an inexperienced unit made up of “pretty raw recruits,” Kross said. “They do not put up a very good fight,” he said. The Pennsylvanians soon fell back to the seminary also.

The North Carolinians then were met by a tougher Union unit, the 80th New York Infantry. But the Union soldiers were caught between the 47th and 52nd North Carolina infantries. Still, they might have been able to hold their line if a drunken Union general had not foolishly ordered a charge against the Confederate positions. About one-third of the men were lost. The Union forces were forced to fall back.

Despite the slaughter at Oak Ridge, Union troops got the worst of the fighting that day and were forced to fall back through the streets of Gettysburg. But they still held high ground south of the town, and reinforcements were arriving. The second day of the battle wouldn’t go as well for the Confederates.
Sources for this post included The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; and research by licensed Gettysburg battlefield guide Gary Kross.