Virginia: Confederate Letters Reveal Personal Side of War

“War is a dreadful thing to think of,” wrote Lt. Thomas Smith Taylor, who fought for the Confederate States of America at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and in other famous Civil War battles.
Taylor sent more than 100 letters home to his family during his three years in the war, but the depth of his experiences might never have been known had it not been for his great-grand-nephew, Harlan “Gene” Cross Jr. of Oakton.

Oakton author Harlan Eugene Cross Jr. has published "Letters from Home," a book featuring Civil War letters from a relative who fought on the side of the Confederacy. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Oakton author Harlan Eugene Cross Jr. has published “Letters from Home,” a book featuring Civil War letters from a relative who fought on the side of the Confederacy. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Cross received a steamer trunk of family heirlooms and correspondence after his mother died in 1983. Emotionally wrought, Cross could not bear to open the container until his daughter Cindy coaxed him to do so 12 years later.
In the box were 12 letters written by Lt. Taylor. Intrigued by their contents, Cross in 1997 began contacting historical societies and relatives in Alabama and eventually obtained 115 of Taylor’s missives.
Cross began transcribing the letters to flesh out his family’s history, but friends encouraged him to publish them in book form.
“It became an intriguing story,” he said. Taylor “is articulate and describes these personal experiences in battles we’ve heard about. His story had to be told.”
Cross recently published “Letters Home: Three Years Under General Lee in the 6th Alabama.” The book is available for $18 from
The letters, written with pen-and-ink or pencil, are fascinating to behold. Taylor wrote the early ones on large sheets of yellowing paper, but used smaller pieces of blue paper as the war dragged on far past the young lieutenant’s initial expectations.
Taylor’s cursive is ornate and neat, but Cross still struggled to decipher some passages. He also corrected the letters’ factual errors for the book and made educated guesses for words obliterated by holes where the letter had been folded multiple times.
Lt. Taylor was 27 when he enlisted with the Confederate army in the summer of 1861, shortly before his second child was born. His wife, Sarah, would give birth to a third baby following one of her husband’s few furloughs, but the soldier would not live to see this child.
Taylor’s letters to her and other relatives feature recurring themes that would be familiar to soldiers anywhere. The lieutenant often was miserable in the rain, mud and snow, and he grudgingly tolerated the monotonous, rumor-ridden, hurry-up-and-wait nature of military camp life.
The young man was quite devout, peppering his letters with quotes from scripture and admonishing his wife to raise their children according to Christian precepts. Lt. Taylor’s religious commentaries often peaked after visits from chaplains and he vowed to become a better man if he survived the war.
Taylor frequently asked his relatives to send clothing, which Confederate soldiers had to buy for themselves, and food to supplement his usual diet of beef and biscuits.
Cross marvels at the irony of some of Taylor’s comments. The soldier had a young slave, Clark, with him throughout many of the campaigns and while he occasionally was vexed at the teenager’s work habits, he clearly had affection for him.
On the other hand, Taylor at one point wrote about fearing that Lincoln and his hirelings would “enslave” those in the Confederacy. To his mind, the fight was about preserving the South’s autonomy and way of life.
“You can’t admire the cause, but you can admire the guy,” Cross said.
Having seen so many comrades die in action or from disease, Taylor kept up a brave appearance but occasionally was fatalistic. His descriptions of war are bracing.
“It is really shocking to all the senses to be upon a battlefield after the battle has ceased to see the poor suffering human beings gasping in the agonies of death for breath,” he wrote on June 23, 1862. “To see thousands lying upon one field some dead, others wounded & to hear the cries of the wounded for help. Then to glance at their wounds as you pass along, some with an arm, leg & even their nose or under jaw shot off.”
Even though readers learn in advance that Taylor died in the Battle of Cold Harbor near Mechanicsville, Va., his sudden demise on June 3, 1864, is a reminder of war’s cruelty and caprice. One minute the 30-year-old is writing to his wife and telling her to “Be not uneasy about our success.” The next he’s being eulogized by his captain.
The author was frustrated in some aspects of his research. He could not obtain a photo of Taylor or any of the letters the lieutenant received.
Cross visited every battlefield mentioned in the book to try to visualize what the combatants were facing. He and his wife also traveled to Alabama and found his family’s cemetery, which was overgrown with brush.
In the course of his research, Cross also proved the family’s connection with the former Claudia Alta Taylor, later known as “Lady Bird” Johnson.
A retired engineer who formerly worked for the Harris and MITRE corporations, Cross still does consulting work two days per week. He and his wife, Carol, have lived in Oakton since 1996 and have three daughters.
Long a history buff, Cross since 2005 has donned 19th-century garb to serve as a volunteer interpreter at Arlington House, the former mansion of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He also is president of Save Historic Arlington House, a friends group that helps the National Park Service preserve the site.
Robert Poole, author of “On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery,” said Cross’ book provides remarkable insight into the Civil War via a reliable witness.
“There are so many biographies of the leaders, and they’re wonderful, about Lee, Grant and Jackson,” Poole said. “But the recent wave of scholarship, research and writing is drilling down deeper and deeper into the level of the ordinary soldier and sailor. Thank God those books give us another perspective.”
–BRIAN TROMPETER, (McLean, Va., Sun Gazette)

Virginia: Women, Children in Civil War Explosion Remembered

RICHMOND, Va. — They were little-known casualties of the Civil War: women and girls toiling over cartridges and primers for Confederate cannons when an explosion rocked their factory 150 years ago, leaving more than 40 dead and others horrifically burned.

The victims of the March 13, 1863, explosion of the Confederate Ordnance Laboratory were remembered Wednesday at a ceremony along the James River near what once was a bustling munitions plant for the South. Today it is a popular destination for Civil War buffs, concert-goers and downtown workers on their lunch break.

The ceremony dedicating a state historic marker in memory of the victims, many of them Irish immigrants, was attended by National Park Service historians, state officials and a representative from the Irish American Society of Richmond. They gathered across from Brown’s Island, where the ordnance complex was located to keep it a safe distance from the residents of the capital of the Confederacy.

The victims were young, some pre-teen, others in their 20s.

“They were like 11, 12, 13, 15. They wanted them to work at Brown’s Island because they had small fingers and they could do the work and they were immigrants and having a job in America as opposed to subsistence living in Ireland seemed to be a good deal,” said Dan Begley of the Irish American Society.

They were among 2,200 Irish-born residents of the city of 37,000 in 1860.

“This was deemed the sort of labor that young women could do,” said Robert E.L. Crick, a historian with the National Park Service. “It certainly wasn’t safe but it wasn’t strenuous.”

The lab was among the foundries along this downtown stretch of the James River that produced munitions for the war. Tredegar Iron Works, now home to the American Civil War Center and Park Service exhibits on the war, produced about half the cannon barrels for the South, and the Confederate States Armory up the hill from Tredegar built small arms.

The lab explosion occurred in the middle of the river, on Brown’s Island, which is often crowded most summer weekends with family picnics, hikers and bikers.

At approximately the same hour as Wednesday’s ceremony — 150 years ago — a worker named Mary Ryan accidently ignited a friction primer that sparked the deadly explosion.

An account in the Richmond Examiner reported that “a dull, prolonged roar” echoed from Brown’s Island, attracting “frantic mothers and kindred of the employees of in the laboratory” to the banks of the James. The building was “blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out…” the newspaper reported.

Those responding to the explosion were met with the horror of what had just happened: the dead being carried from the smoldering remains and the near-dead “suffering the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds…”

Two men and a boy were among the dead.

The tragedy was followed by an outpouring of giving from the city, whose economy was in a shambles, and from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops, who were staged outside Fredericksburg.

The dedication of the Department of Historic Resources marker was accompanied by the playing of bagpipes and with satisfaction from Begley, who said it shines a light on another side of the Civil War, its battles and generals.

“There’s always been immigrants and there’s always been immigrant stories here, even here in Richmond,” he said. “I’m very happy that there’s some kind of story pertaining to personal lives ….”

–Steve Szkotak, Associated Press


Tennessee: Volunteers Sought for Battlefield Restoration

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Civil War Trust is looking for volunteers to clean and restore 10 battlefields in Tennessee.

Volunteers can contact the trust to participate in the 17th annual Park Day, scheduled for April 6. They will be asked to rake leaves, haultrash, paint signs and plant trees.

The nationwide event includes 100 historic sites in 24 states.

The Tennessee sites are Britton Lane Battlefield in Medon, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Chattanooga, Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Fort Granger in Franklin, Fort Pillow State Historic Park in Henning, The Mabry-Hazen House in Knoxville, Parker’s Crossroads Battlefield Park, Shy’s Hill-Battle of Nashville, Shiloh National Military Park and Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro.


Tennessee: Sparks Inspired by Fiery Civil War Story

Almost exactly 150 years ago, a Confederate hero was just beginning a path that would lead to his torturous death, and now a local politician has decided to honor his legacy.

The waning winter weeks of early 1863 had seen Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee enjoying the longest period of inaction afforded any considerable body of confederates during the entire course of the Civil War.

Bragg had first retreated to Tullahoma after fighting at Murfreesboro’s Battle of Stones River, and the army continued to bloodlessly cede ground throughout the late winter and early spring until securely fortified along the ridges of Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, DeWitt Smith Jobe, a native of Mechanicsville in northern Rutherford County, joined an elite group of Confederate spies known as the Coleman Scouts and commenced, along with Sam Davis of Smyrna, to collect and transmit information to the rebels from behind Union lines.

Both were captured, but Jobe’s story is less well-known and considerably more gruesome, though an historical marker stands near his boyhood home and burial site.

The community of Mechanicsville has since been swallowed by the growth along Smyrna’s Sam Ridley Parkway, but the site remains largely intact along a ridge just a short walk from Rocky Fork Road.

As a sesquicentennial reminder of Jobe’s life, state Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) has organized an historical presentation honoring Jobe from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 9, at the Giles Creek Baptist Church. Refreshments will be served.

Guest speakers include former Smyrna High School History teacher William McPeak, Rutherford County historian Gregory Tucker, Jobe family descendant John Moore, and James Patterson, adjutant of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The speakers will discuss Jobe’s life, like how, in August 1864, Jobe and fellow scout Tom Joplin were far behind Union lines and reconnoitering in southwestern Rutherford and northeastern Williamson counties.

On Aug. 29, 1864, Jobe was hiding in a cornfield after eating breakfast at the home of a family between Triune and Nolensville. He had an important message hidden on his person. With Yankee patrols in the area, the Confederate was hiding during the day and traveling at night.

Unfortunately, he was spotted by a patrol of 15 men from the 115th Ohio Regiment of the Union Army of the Cumberland.

Seeing that he was about to be captured, Jobe tore up the note and began to chew and swallow it.

Angered by the near miss, the Union patrol first threatened Jobe and then began to torture him in an effort to get the scout to divulge the content of the dispatch.

The Ohio troops first hanged Jobe from a bridle rein and then pistol-whipped him, knocking out some of his teeth.

“Bound and disarmed, helpless and bleeding, Jobe revealed nothing. They were dealing with a man in gray who held the welfare of the Confederacy above his life,” Ed Huddleston wrote in “The Civil War in Middle Tennessee.”

“The torture went on. The Yanks were whooping now, yelling so loudly that they could be heard at a distant farmhouse. They put out Jobe’s eyes. Perhaps then it was that Jobe heaped epithets upon them. How much courage did it take to do what they did then? They cut out Jobe’s tongue,” Huddleston wrote.

The Union patrol finished off Jobe by dragging him to death behind his own galloping horse.

The event is not mentioned in official records of the Union and Confederate armies, but was preserved in Jobe family oral history, as well as in letters and books like Bromfield Ridley’s “Battles and Sketches of the Army of Tennessee.”

The news of his torture reached his cousin Dee Smith while serving with the 45th Tennessee.

Smith immediately left his regiment to begin personally exacting revenge on any Union officer he found, which he did with a butcher’s knife.

Nearly 50 Yankee soldiers fell victim to Smith’s blade, 14 as they slept in their tents near Tullahoma.

“Of all the heroic stories of the Civil War, Dewitt Smith Jobe’s story is probably one of the most amazing. In his short life, he had such an impact on his family and friends right here in Rutherford County,” Sparks said.

Sparks also noted that although he was raised and attended public schools in Smyrna, he did not learn of Jobe until he was searching for information on the Coleman Scouts and found a Murfreesboro Post article on the subject.

He wants more school children to learn about such local history, and hopes that Jobe’s story will not disappear with time.

“Whether it is politically correct or not to tell the stories of these local confederate soldiers, we must tell them because they are an integral part of our community’s history,” Sparks said. “We must preserve our history for future generations.”

— JONATHON FAGAN, Murfreesboro Post