Book review

Confederate Courage on Other Fields: Four Lesser-Known Accounts Of The War Between The States

By Mark J Crawford, 177pp., McFarland & Co, Jefferson, N.C. & London

 

Mark J Crawford's book examines four lesser known aspects of "Confederate Courage", the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House on March 3I, I865, The Civil War experiences of Colonel Charles C Blacknall, a murderous episode of Missouri's Civil War, and the story of a little known Confederate hospital. "Larger events" he maintains "are built from smaller ones". I applaud. In a topic as overwritten about as the Civil War, new light on unfamiliar "other fields" is highly welcome. I cavil only at the sub-title. Though Crawford makes good use of original sources, these are not accounts written by Confederates themselves.

 

The Battle of Dinwiddie Court House is not exactly obscure, but I have never seen it analysed and explained as effectively as Crawford does it in The South's Sunset Charge. What he makes clear is that Dinwiddie Court House could have been a much bigger Confederate victory than it was. Pickett's push southwards was hesitant, and he failed to support Fitz Lee's cavalry effectively. Even so, he observes, it is still remarkable that the Confederates could attack and drive the enemy back even at this late stage, when Federal superiority in numbers and weaponry were all too evident. It was the last flicker of a spirit that had once made the Army of Northern Virginia seem invincible.


This account also sheds light on two controversies arising from Sheridan's massive counterstroke at Five Forks. Pickett's near criminal desertion of his post seems more understandable in the light of Dinwiddie Court House. He had just defeated Sheridan hadn't he? Sheridan's dismissal of Warren becomes easier to understand too.

 

Phil was not used to defeat, and Dinwiddie Court House must have shaken him. Small wonder he was primed to lash out at the "slow" Warren.

 

Lee's generals were important, but in some ways his lower ranking officers were more so. They were mostly drawn from the South's community leaders, the substantial men of affairs, without whom the Confederate cause could not have been sustained or the Confederacy's regiments raised. Charles C Blacknall, mayor of Franklinton, N.C., proprietor of the Springs Hotel, minor slave-owner, and elected captain in the 13th North Carolina Infantry, was one of them. His story is told in 'I'll Live Yet to Dance on That Foot' through his letters home, now published for the first time. At Chancellorsville he was taken captive when his regiment, now designated the 23rd North Carolina, advanced too far and was surrounded. He was exchanged in time for Gettysburg, but was wounded during Ewell's costly advance on the first day.

 

A second spell in Yankee captivity followed, but he was back in time to take part, as Colonel of the 23rd, in Jubal Early's Valley campaign. The end cane through a foot injury at Winchester. Blacknall refused to allow surgeons to amputate. "I'll live yet to dance on that foot" he affirmed. He was wrong, his attitude curiously epitomising that of the Southern political class to which he belonged - fatally defiant when the amputation of outdated attitudes was their one hope.

 

Vengeance and retribution in the Missouri theatre form the background to An Eye For an Eye. In the aftermath of Sterling Price's dubious triumph at Pilot Knob in September 1864, seven prisoners, Major James Wilson and six of his men were singled out and murdered by their captors. Their crime was to members of the 3rd Missouri Militia Cavalry a unit, which had come down hard on the "disloyal" element South Eastern Missouri. In that state's everlasting guerrilla war, quarter was sometimes asked but rarely given.

 

In retaliation the Federals select seven Confederate prisoners from Price's army, unfortunates who had, of course, nothing to do with the original shooting, and marked them for death. "I am an innocent man" one of them wrote "and it is hard to die for another's sins. You can imagine my feelings when I think of you, my wife & children". Sentence was carried on six of the seven.

 

It took time to find a Confederate prisoner of the same rank as Wilson. The unlucky officer chosen, Major Enoch J. Wolf, was selected by drawing of straws, but after what must have been a nerve-wracking interval was finally pardoned by Lincoln. The man who ordered Wilson and his men shot, Col. Timothy Reves, went back to being a Baptist preacher after war.

 

General Hospital Number One at Kittrell Springs, North Carolina, is little remembered today. Set up late in the war to handle casualties from the Petersburg campaign, it was a relatively small-scale affair with not much more than 300 beds: and had no Phoebe Pember or Kate Cummings to make it famous. The site appears to have been chosen mainly because Kittrell was on a railway junction and the Kittrell Springs Hotel available for impressment. Now at last, Crawford tells its story in Rebel Resort of the Dead.

 

Altogether about 2,I06 men were treated there between June 1864 and April 1865. Of these, 66 or 68 died, and the cause of death is known in 54 of these. Gunshot wounds accounted for only 7% compared to 28% from typhoid, 20% from pneumonia and 7% from diarrhoea. At least 31% of typhoid and 36% of pneumonia patients died. "Measles and diarrhoea" says Crawford, "cut down most fighting men. Although relatively few soldiers died from measles alone, it was one of the most feared diseases because of its 'sequelae' or after-effects". All too often this was where pneumonia found its opening.

 

With Sherman advancing from the South and Grant hammering at Lee to the North, patient numbers swelled to a maximum. Some were teenagers from the North Carolina Junior Reserves, 16 of whom died in the hospital. Men and boys were still dying after Johnston's surrender. Then, at last, the trains stopped coming.

 

Given the state of medical knowledge at the time, most hospitals could not offer much more than spiritual consolation from its hard-working chaplain, the Reverend Matthias Murray. If this grim story has a hero - and I'm not quite convinced that it has - then it may be this devoted pastor.

 

Allan Paterson Milne