On July 1, 1861, Benjamin Littleton Wynn joined the “Volunteer Southrons,” of Vicksburg and went off to war. The 22 year-old student had been matriculating at Kentucky Military Institute in Frankfort, Kentucky, and he ended his college career early to return home to Mississippi and fight for his native state. In 1861 joining the military was a grand adventure, and Benjamin was accompanied into the service by his younger brother William, who also joined the Volunteer Southrons. The company was sent to Virginia, where they were made part of the 21st Mississippi Infantry. The Wynn brothers service with the 21st was to last only a matter of months, for on the November – December 1861 Muster Roll for the regiment it was noted that both men were “Detailed to Signal Corps.”
By the time of the Civil War, the fastest way to send a message was by telegraph – but often the armies were operating far from
telegraph lines, and it was vital that a system for passing intelligence and orders be established. To fill this vital role, the Confederate Signal Corps was created by Confederate officer Edward Porter Alexander. The Corps used signal flags during the day and torches at night to pass messages along a chain of signal stations. In his article on the Confederate Signal Corps for the Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, John R. Elting described the workings of the organization thus:
“The Signal Corps established chains of signal stations, each manned by one or two officers and several enlisted men, from their army’s outposts back to its headquarters. These were placed on commanding heights so that each station had a clear line of sight to the stations on either side of it…Since these stations frequently provided excellent views of the opposing army, the Signal Corps detachments manning them thus had the dual mission of transmitting messages and observing and reporting enemy activities.”
Benjamin and his brother William were both assigned as privates to work for General Thomas J. “Stonewall Jackson. During one of his early missions for the general, Benjamin was captured by the enemy. He wrote of this episode in The Tallahatchie Herald, January 26, 1910:
Captain B.L. Wynn, writes interestingly of a thrilling experience in war times. Writes it for the Boys and Girls.
I am induced to give you this story of the capture of a Confederate soldier, for two reasons; first, because I find you as a class, exercised and your minds more receptive, concerning instances appertaining to the War Between the States, than many of more mature years. Second; because it will have a tendency to keep warm your patriotism and also, to inculcate a further desire on your part to learn more of the history of the Civil War, both of which will argue well on your part.
About the middle of October, 1862, General McClellan, crossed the Potomac, moving southward east of the Blue Ridge. General Lee moving
parallel with him on the west of the ridge. About the 20th, General T.J. Jackson’s corp, camped for the night east of and near Winchester, Jackson’s headquarters for the night being at Berryville, on the road leading from Winchester through Ashby Gap over the mountains. After a long ride coming into headquarters, and about nine 0′clock at night, Colonel Pendleton, Jackson’s Adjutant General, sent for me. On reaching his tent, he said to me, “The General wants you to go to the top of the Blue Ridge tonight and make observation of the enemies’ movement and report next morning.” I replied that I was ready to go, but that I had been in the saddle since daylight and had had a long, hard and somewhat dangerous ride. I also said that I could make no observation until the sun had dispelled the mist over the valley. He said that he would see the General and explain to him, returning in a few minutes. He told me that it would be all right with the General if I would be certain to reach the top of the ridge by or a little before daylight next morning. I gave orders to my servant to have something for me to eat and my horse saddled two hours before daylight the next morning.
I got off on time, and after a ride of four or five miles, before daylight, I came to the Shenandoah River, where I was halted by our pickets. I had to send for the officer in command before they would let me cross. When the officer came, he knew me and passed me, although he failed to tell me, as was his duty, that there was nothing between me and the enemy. After crossing, having plenty of time, I rode leisurely along, and not at all on the alert, thinking I would find our cavalry pickets somewhere in advance on the western slope of the mountain, but a mile from the summit and a little before daylight I rode square into a body of cavalry that proved to be General McClellan’s advance body guard. They had their guns upon me before I took in the situation. There was nothing for me to do but surrender or be killed. I made up my mind in an instant and yielded to the inevitable as gracefully as I knew how, but it was not my capture that I was most concerned about. Just now a dispatch I had in my pocket from General Lee to General Longstreet, ordering the latter to move his corp, with all possible dispatch, to the railroad bridge across the Rappahannock River, take possession of it and hold it.
The dispatch, I had sent by signal to General Longstreet the day before, and should, as was my duty, have destroyed it upon acknowledgement of receipt. I thought of half a dozen different ways as to how I could keep the enemy from getting it, and as it was hardly light good, and being disarmed, I concluded that I would not be watched closely, so I tore the paper in small pieces while in my pocket, and every few feet I moved, I pulled out three or four pieces and dropped them under my horse, as we moved along. I had succeeded in disposing of [it] in this way nearly all of it before I was detected. A dozen pistols were thrust, cocked, into my face and I was told if I put my hands in my pockets again I would be shot on the spot. I remembered what they said, and obeyed.
Going on about a mile, we reached the top of the mountain, where General McClellan and staff had headquarters. The first question he asked me was to what arm of service I belonged. I said, “I am a member of the signal corps of the Second Army Corps.” “Where did you leave General Jackson?” he asked. I replied, “I cannot answer the question.” He pressed me no further on this line. Among other questions he asked that if it was not the general belief among our soldiers that if they were taken prisoners they would be inhumanely treated. I said it was not, so far as I knew. “I’m glad to hear it,” said he.
Turning to a colonel on his staff, he said something to him, which I failed to catch, but I was immediately marched down the eastern slope of the mountain by six cavalrymen, headed by the colonel. We had gone but a short distance before we met the infantry. The road was narrow, and it was with difficulty that we could pass them, and here I met with another trouble, for every once in a while an infantryman would say to me, “You old rebel, you let your horse step on me, and I will run my bayonet through you.” Was I careful? Well, if you could have seen me just then, there would be no need to ask the question.
After going several hundred yards passing the infantry all the while, we came to a small opening on the side of the road, into which we turned. Now I began to think, and think seriously, too what was up? Why should I be carried into this place? I concluded being captured before day and inside of their lines and with papers on my person and a citizen’s coat, which was almost new, which I had gotten while in Maryland, that they had taken me for a spy and were going to shoot me on the spot. I had made up my mind that if I was going to be shot, they would have to shoot me in the saddle. After halting in the open place, the colonel said, “I am going to search you for papers, dismount.”
Ah, you do not know how sweet that word “search” was to me. What a strain it took off my mind. What a relief it brought. After dismounting I was stripped of every vestige of apparel, every nook and corner and seam of my clothes was ripped open. I had on a collar and cravat they cut them open. My bed which consisted of a blanket lined with brown linen, batted well between, which had been sent to me from home, was taken from under my saddle and ripped open. In my purse I had about five hundred dollars in Confederate money one of the guards said Johnie you seem to have a good roll. Oh, yes plenty of money I said, no papers were found, I was reclothed more in strings and rags however than clothes.
On my way to the guard house one of the guards said to me, Johnie, I see your ride a very fine animal and I want to change horses with you before I turn you over to the brave guards. The exchange were made, he keeping my animal and turning it in as captured property. He gave me my blanket and oil cloth and said good bye. I thanked him. I found at the guard house forty or fifty prisoners many of whom were citizens and too old for military service but they were carrying them along, having doubtless trumped up some sort of charge against them. The next day we were marched in the direction of Warrenton and near which place we camped for the night in an old field. That night it snowed and the next morning the ground was covered four or five inches. We huddled together that night like a covey of birds, and managed to go through the night and was much worse for the wear next morning. We had had no dinner, supper or breakfast.
A wagon going by loaded with ear corn, we charged it, each man getting two or three ears. Be it said to the credit of our guards, they ran around the wagon, bringing it within the lines. About twelve o’clock the prisoners were formed into line and marched to the rear. When we had covered, I suppose about three miles, we knew something was in the air, but could not diving what. Couriers were constantly passing us in a swinging gallop their horses flecked with foam and much stir was going on among the troops that were camped along the route we were moving along. It was but a little while before we were made to do the double quick for at least three miles then we were halted and allowed rest. We then learned that the stir and commotion was caused by a report, that Jackson was in their rear. I knew that this was not true, but thought very probably it might be Moseby coming (cavalry), but it proved to be a false alarm and we had no more ‘double quicking’ to do.
If there was one thing more than another, that was calculated to throw the enemy almost into spasms, it was a report that General Jackson’s foot cavalry were in their rear, and well might they be alarmed, for several times, had he not only thrown them into fits, but had knocked them into ‘smithereens.’ Something unusual had taken place, we observed small groups of soldiers all around the prison talking and acting in an excited manner. We enquired the cause and was told that General McClellan had been relieved and Burnside put in command and that the war would soon be over, that General Lee was in full retreat and that Burnside would capture the greater part of his army, before he reached Richmond. Some two weeks after this, while a prisoner in the old capitol at Washington, I learned from Northern papers of Burnsides defeat at Fredericksburg.
Some two months after this, I was paroled and a month later was exchanged. I went back to the army and found Jackson’s headquarters changed to Fredericksburg, where we remained the balance of that winter. In conclusion, will state that what I have written is strictly true, with no coloring what ever in it.
P.S. Like a lady see, I have a letter from an old college mate, General H.V. Bagaton, who commanded an Ohio brigade, who wrote me that nothing was made out of the paper I tore up when captured, that he had examined the war records and found no mention made of it and that he supposed that not enough of the pieces had been found to make out its purport.
After returning to his command after being exchanged, Benjamin Wynn continued his work in the Signal Corps. Apparently both he and his brother William were good soldiers, as their commanding officer, Captain Richard E. Wilbourn, a fellow Mississippian, recommended to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that they be commissioned officers in the Signal Corps. He wrote of the Wynn’s:
“They have had a great deal of experience as signal operators, Gen. Jackson’s Corps having probably had more practice than any other. I
respectfully request that they be assigned to duty in the 2nd Army Corps, as we need some efficient officers in this corps. Though I have recommended them for a lieutenancy I may state that [they] will discharge the duties of any office you may see proper to give them with honor and credit.” – R.E. Wilbourn to James A. Seddon, April 2, 1863, located in the Benjamin L. Wynn Signal Corps Service Record.
Unfortunately for the Winn brothers, when the signal corps was established, its contingent of officers was fixed by law as one major, ten captains, ten first lieutenants, ten second lieutenants, and twenty sergeants. On the recommendation letter was written “The Signal Corps is complete to the extent allowed by law.” There were no open officer spots in the signal corps, and the brothers remained privates throughout their wartime service.
Both Wynn brothers survived the war, and on returning to Mississippi Benjamin returned to his home in Yalobusha County. He was a prominent
citizen, and represented Yalobusha County in the Mississippi legislature. Some years later he moved to Tallahatchie County, where he lived out the remainder of his life. Benjamin L. Wynn died on July 25, 1917, at the age of seventy-eight. In his obituary it was said of him, “He was a faithful and gallant soldier on the side of the Confederacy in the great Civil War, seeing four years service in the Signal Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, part of which was under Gen. Stonewall Jackson.”
For anyone wishing to learn more about Benjamin Wynn’s service during the Civil War, a typescript copy of his diary is located at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History – catalog # Z/0686.000. Wynn was also a member of the United Confederate Veterans, and wrote several articles about his wartime service with the Signal Corps in Confederate Veteran Magazine.