Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Dumb, Ugly Confederate

In the three previous posts, I examined the fighting at Rappahannock Station, a bloody engagement that occurred on November 7, 1863. That fight cost the bluecoats 419 casualties. It is important to remember that this was not the Army of the Potomac’s only engagement on that fateful day. Farther southeast, another Union column made its way south, advancing on Kelly’s Ford. After a short fight, the Union troops took possession of the river crossing, and both columns united at Brandy Station.

Not many accounts describe the battle action at Kelly’s Ford, but one incident is worth mentioning. It involves a Confederate prisoner taken into custody by the 3rd Corps. According to the men who captured him, he was really dumb and really ugly.

Okay, you may be wondering why we should care about a dumb, ugly Confederate. Believe me, there is a point here. But first thing’s first. Here’s what happened.

At noon, November 7, the vanguard of the 3rd Corps—Col. Regis de Trobriand’s brigade with three additional regiments attached to it—arrived at the north bank of the Rappahannock River. Two North Carolina regiments belonging to Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigade—the 2nd and 30th—sat sprawled on the low ground on the south bank. Eager to get his men across the river, Col. de Trobriand ordered his men to secure the crossing point. He deployed one regiment, the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, as skirmishers atop the river bank’s high bluff. Arriving quietly, the Union riflemen ducked behind trees and cautiously observed their enemy. Looking down, they beheld an unobstructed view of the North Carolinians’ position. Sergeant James M. Matthews jotted what he saw in his diary, “Johnnys were scattered around permiscuously on the opposite side and horses and cattle [were] grazing as if no Yanks were near. . . . The enemy were seen playing cards and employing their leisure time in diverse ways along the line.”

Although the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters deployed in a timely manner, the other regiments from de Trobriand’s brigade did not. Eventually, after an hour’s delay, the Confederate pickets became alerted to the Sharpshooters’ presence. They scurried to their rifle pits and opened fire. For the next hour, the North Carolinians and the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters blazed away. Finally, at 3 P.M., de Trobriand sent in his assault troops. The 1st U.S. Sharpshooters led the way, plunging into the river, followed by the 40th New York, the 20th Indiana, the 3rd and 5th Michigan, and the 110th Pennsylvania. Taken in the flank, the two North Carolinian regiments gave way and fled.  However, a larger number of North Carolinians simply threw down their weapons and surrendered. Altogether, de Trobriand’s men captured about 290 Confederates.

Although he had seen most of his brigade ensnared, one dumb-struck North Carolinian refused to surrender. He was a skirmisher who had spent the first phase of the battle firing at the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. Instead of fleeing for his life or throwing up his hands to surrender, this unnamed fellow ducked behind a small stump. Unfortunately, the stump did not provide him much cover. He crouched behind it, somewhat like a frightened ostrich, buttocks in the air, hoping the Union soldiers would not notice him.

From their lofty position, the Sharpshooters could see the cowering Confederate and believed that they could kill him in an instant. However, none of them wanted to spill more blood, so the U.S. Sharpshooters called to the North Carolinian, inviting him to surrender. They shouted to him many, many times, but each time, he refused to answer. One of the U.S. Sharpshooters, Private Wyman White, wrote, “We peppered the stump, trying to make the fellow understand that we could wing him, but he gave no sign that he saw the danger he was in. He would just move a little at times when our bullets hit the stump.” Eventually, the U.S. Sharpshooters reasoned that the man “had no brains,” which explained his unwillingness to comprehend his dire predicament.

Finally, one intrepid officer ended the charade. Adjutant Charles H. Foote stripped off all of his clothing and accoutrements—with the exception of his hat and pistol—and swam the river. Naked, Foote approached the cringing North Carolinian and convinced him to surrender. Exactly what Foote said is unknown, but whatever it was, he persuaded the frightened North Carolina soldier to throw in the towel. They swam back across the Rappahannock and the U.S. Sharpshooters gathered around, intent on interrogating their captive. Private White was not terribly impressed with what he saw, and he found some of the prisoner’s words disturbing. He wrote:

The boys collected around the prisoner and fired questions at him. He said he was from North Carolina and that he was drafted for the second time, having served in one campaign before. Then he was sent home for awhile to raise corn. But a few weeks previous they came for him again. The man was deformed in his lower limbs and one of his hands was badly out of shape. All that was not enough to keep him from serving Jeff Davis. The poor fellow’s legs below his knees were about four inches over the proper length. He was very tall and almost a skeleton, being one of the lankiest of southern lanks. With a grip on the skin on his neck, one might run around him once or twice without letting go. The fellow was about the color of a bacon rind and his hair was down to his shoulders. He was considerably frightened  but came out of his fright when he was served with coffee and hardtack by the boys. He was taken to the rear and probably sent north as an object lesson to the loyal people of that section, an inkling of the strength of the Southern Confederacy at the time.

White’s description of the dumb, ugly Confederate captured at Kelly’s Ford is interesting, and not merely because of its humorous (and somewhat mean-spirited) portrayal of the southern captive. I find it illuminating that the U.S. Sharpshooters crowded around the prisoner to learn his life story. The Union soldiers did not dismiss the North Carolinian as a waste of conversation. Indeed, Private White even found the man’s tale so interesting that he filled the pages of his diary with the lurid material quoted above. Further, White did not attribute the prisoner’s unpleasant appearance to substandard grooming or to poor eating habits. Instead, he blamed the Confederacy for taking the man him from his peaceful pursuits and then overusing and underfeeding him. To White, the prisoner’s ill-looks and apparent ignorance did not impose a censure upon the people of North Carolina, but it revealed “an object lesson” in the tyranny and desperation of the Confederate cause. In the end, White found it satisfying to blame the Confederate government for the prisoner’s stupidity and ugliness.

This is no surprise. It is often easier to blame the enemy government than to blame the individuals who fight for it. For soldiers, such an outlook makes war palatable.

"The lankiest of southern lanks."

This map by Robert Knox Sneden depicts the Union movements against Rappahannock Station and Kelly's Ford. Note the Confederate position on the southern bank of the Rappahannock--near the bottom of the map--where the ugly North Carolinian was found.

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