For some time I have been wanting to write an article about the 38th Mississippi Infantry, as the regiment is very near and dear to my heart. It is the first Mississippi regiment that I seriously researched, and it set me on the path that I follow to this day.
In the late 1990s I was working on my master’s degree in history at Mississippi College, and I was trying to come up with a topic for my thesis. I wanted to do a regimental history, and I was leaning toward the 38th Mississippi as I had two g-g-uncles who served in Company H, the “Price Relief.”
I had reservations about taking on the 38th Mississippi project – I had done a little looking, and there did not seem to be much material published on the regiment. If I was going to write the unit’s history, I was going to have to go out and find the letters, diaries, and other assorted manuscripts that would make the 38th Mississippi Infantry come to life, and give a voice to the men who served in the regiment during the war.
I was still trying to make up my mind about doing the project when my good friend Grady
Howell gave me some advice I’ll never forget – “If you don’t write a history of the 38th Mississippi, who will?” Grady’s words carried a lot of weight with me, as he had written one of the best regimental histories available for a Mississippi unit: Going to Meet the Yankees, about the 6th Mississippi Infantry.
With some trepidation, I began the monumental task of tracking down the history of the 38th Mississippi. I was soon pleasantly surprised to find there was a wealth of information available, more than enough to write a history of the regiment’s activities during the Civil War.
Some of the first manuscripts I found related to the 38th Mississippi were written by James H. Jones of Woodville, who had served as a captain and later a lieutenant colonel in the regiment. He was a prolific writer in the postwar period, and worked diligently to see that the sacrifices made by the men under his command were not forgotten. Colonel Jones had good reason to want to see this done: his three younger brothers had all been killed at his side while serving in the 38th Mississippi.
James Henry Jones was born on October 9, 1836, in Autauga County, Alabama, and was the oldest of seven children born to John and Mary Jones. While still a small child Jones moved with his family to Mobile, but after the death of his father they settled in Macon County, Alabama.
In 1856 Jones entered the University of Mississippi, and soon proved himself to be a prodigy. He graduated two years later ranked 1st out of 56 in the class of 1858. Jones then moved to Woodville, Mississippi, where he began the study of law with the firm of Gordon & Barber, one of the leading firms in the county. While living in Woodville Jones married Helen M. Davis, and after he passed the bar the young couple moved to Bastrop, Texas.
At the outbreak of war in 1861, Jones returned to Woodville and joined the Mississippi militia as a private for 60 days service under Brigadier General James L. Alcorn. After this duty was completed, Jones went back to Wilkinson County and began recruiting a company to serve in the Confederate army. Organized on April 1, 1862, at Woodville, the “Wilkinson Guards” became part of the 38th Mississippi Infantry in early May.
The new regiment was given little time to train, as they were rushed to Corinth, Mississippi in late May as reinforcements to the army commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard. After being defeated at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, the Rebel general had retreated to Corinth and quickly set his men to work improving the defenses protecting the city. The Confederates had plenty of incentive to work hard, as a Union army commanded by Major General Henry W. Halleck was slowly advancing on Corinth with 110,000 men. To oppose this force Beauregard had only 66,000 men, including many untrained reinforcements such as the 38th Mississippi.
The 38th Mississippi arrived in Corinth about May 27, and the regiment spent only a couple of days in the entrenchments before Beauregard ordered a retreat south to Tupelo, some 52 miles distant. The march to Tupelo was difficult for the green troops of the 38th, and was made worse by the outbreak of disease that swept through the regiment. Most of the men came from rural backgrounds, and had never been exposed to the diseases that were common to city-born troops. Consequently, when exposed to large groups of men for the first time in their lives, they fell sick in alarming numbers.
The Wilkinson Guards had the dubious distinction of losing more men to disease than any other company in the regiment. In a letter published in the Weekly Pelican (New Orleans) on November 19, 1887, Jones recounted the awful toll that disease had on his men: “That night Corinth was evacuated. The measles, a disease very fatal to soldiers, had already appeared in camp and the exposure of this retreat resulted in the death of fifty-nine men in my company of 130. The regiment had been hurried to the front before submitting to the hardening process of a camp of instruction, through the ambitious vanity of its colonel, who was in haste to win a brigadier’s wreath.”
It was during the march to Tupelo that Captain Jones first began to experience the hardships of soldier life, as most of his possessions were lost in the retreat. In the article for the Weekly Pelican he explained how they were destroyed: “I had provided myself with an ample supply of bedding, including a mattress, and took along a trunk containing some elegant citizen’s clothing for dress or social occasions. One day our quartermaster requested us to send all baggage to the depot for ‘convenience of transportation in case of retreat.’ This was thoughtful of him and I felt grateful, but not for long. In a few hours it transpired that our luggage was not to be checked through, but was to be burned…when I rushed off to the depot and found several acres of similar impediments piled up for a burnt offering I felt somewhat relieved. It was clear that my ears were no longer than my neighbors.”
The 38th Mississippi saw their first combat at the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi, on September 19, 1862, but it was anything but an auspicious beginning for the regiment. When the 38th came under artillery fire for the first time, Colonel Fleming W. Adams, commander of the regiment, panicked and ran for the rear, taking a good portion of the unit with him. Captain Jones later wrote of this incident, “Participated in the battle of Iuka, and was one of two companies that stood after the flight of their colonel from the fire of a masked battery.” In the article for the Weekly Pelican Jones was even more emphatic about the scorn he felt for the 38th’s cowardly colonel: “It occasioned no surprise that the lean Jack Falstaff ran away from our first serious fight at Iuka and we saw him no more.”
Under the leadership of a new colonel, Preston Brent of Pike County, the 38th Mississippi
redeemed itself at the Battle of Corinth, October 3-4, 1862. The regiment fought well, and suffered casualties of 9 men killed, 25 wounded, 2 missing, and 35 taken prisoner. The Wilkinson Guards must have fought the battle under a lucky star, for they have no documented casualties from the fight at Corinth.
After the Battle of Corinth the 38th Mississippi was transferred to a brigade commanded by Brigadier General Louis Hebert. It was with this unit that the 38th Mississippi would fight in one of the most important campaigns of the Civil War: Vicksburg.
Hebert’s brigade was not involved in the early battles of the Vicksburg Campaign that saw the victorious Federals sweep the Confederates before them and march to the gates of the city. During the siege Hebert’s men were charged with defending the line of entrenchments between the Graveyard Road and the Jackson Road. The 38th’s initial position was located several hundred yards south of the Stockade Redan.
On May 19th, the Federals made their first attempt to take the Vicksburg entrenchments by storm. The Stockade Redan was a focal point of the Union attack and was the scene of a series of ill-coordinated assaults. Captain Jones simply wrote of this attack, “During the evening of the 19th, after a sharp cannonade, an assault was made upon our front, which was easily repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy, but with little to us. The result of this attack must have been disappointing to General Grant.”
On May 22 General Ulysses S. Grant ordered an even bigger and better coordinated assault on the Vicksburg defenses, and once again the area around the Stockade Redan was a focal point of the attack. The heavily entrenched Confederates inflicted a heavy toll on the Yankee soldiers, and the attack was repulsed with heavy casualties for the attacker. The bravery displayed by the Northern troops in the face of such overwhelming odds made quite an impression on Captain Jones, and years later he was moved to write about the gallantry he witnessed in his foes that day: “When the cannonade ceased the Federals formed three [four] lines of battle, near the woods, and began a steady advance upon our works. Their lines were about one hundred yards apart. They came on as rapidly as the fallen timber would permit, and in perfect order. We waited in silence until the first line had advanced within easy rifle range, when a murderous fire was opened from the breastworks. We had a few pieces of artillery which ploughed their ranks with destructive effect. Still they never faltered, but came bravely on. It was indeed a gallant sight though an awful one…Surely no more desperate courage than this could be displayed by mortal men.”
After the May 22 assault, General Grant acknowledged that Vicksburg could not be taken by direct assault, and he decided to starve the Rebel garrison into submission. For the 38th, the war was now a waiting game in the trenches with the threat of death a constant companion. Captain Jones said of these long days in the trenches: “It was by no means a dull routine. The thunder of the cannon greeted us by day and by night; the sharp crack of the rifle, the hiss of the minie ball; somebody wounded; somebody dying – all the time.”
Life got more interesting for the 38th Mississippi on June 2, when the regiment was
ordered to move to a different section of the entrenchments. Their new position was just to the right of the 3rd Louisiana Redan on the Jackson Road. The fortifications that the 38th were now called upon to defend were very exposed to Yankee fire, and casualties from enemy fire happened with terrible regularity. The Federals has even erected a tower in their lines to look down into the Confederate trenches and shoot at the Rebels. On June 20, Captain Jones’ brother Robert was slightly wounded by a Union minie ball. Ten days later his brother John, a sergeant in the Wilkinson Guards, was killed by a Yankee sharpshooter. Jones sadly wrote of the event, “My oldest brother was wounded and died a few days before the surrender and myself and younger brother were with him at his death. He sleeps in Vicksburg now.”
On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg surrendered, and the men of the 38th Mississippi marched out of the trenches that they had defended so well for 47 days. The regiment had suffered a heavy loss at Vicksburg: 43 killed, 37 wounded, and 2 missing, out of approximately 300 men.
The 38th Mississippi marched out of Vicksburg when the men’s paroles were completed, and for a few precious months they were allowed to go home and be free of the war. But all too soon the call of duty brought them back to battle in defense of the South.
The 38th began reorganizing in the fall of 1863, and by the end of the year the regiment had been officially declared exchanged and they were free to fight again. As 1864 dawned the new year brought some surprising news to the regiment: in January Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk ordered that the 38th become a mounted infantry unit. Serving in this role the regiment would still fight on foot with standard infantry weapons as they always had. Being mounted would simply allow them to be a mobile strike force that could quickly move to meet any enemy threat.
In April 1864 the Wilkinson Guards received a new recruit: 17-year-old Elisha M. Jones, the youngest brother of Captain James Henry Jones. He joined the unit in time to take part in the last major battle in which the 38th would fight: Harrisburg, Mississippi, on July 14, 1864.
Attached to a cavalry brigade commanded by Texas Colonel Hinchie P. Mabry, the 38th was called on to make a near suicidal charge on an entrenched Federal force at Harrisburg. This attack would cost Captain Jones both of his brothers, and nearly his own life, and he would write about it with a great deal of bitterness: “To properly appreciate the intense feeling of indignation for the Harrisburg blunder that animates the survivors, it is only necessary to state a few facts. The 38th Regiment made the charge that day with about three hundred men, rank and file; forty four escaped unwounded. Every field or line officer was killed or wounded, except Capt. Jasper Green, now a Baptist minister in Rankin County. The little remnant of survivors rallied around him in a little thicket not over fifty yards from the entrenched line, and a four gun battery of the enemy…We all lost relatives and friends. Before I was shot down I saw two little brothers, boy soldiers, fall with their faces to the front, and they never rose again.”
The charge at Harrisburg was clearly the high water mark of the 38th Mississippi’s service. Outnumbered and outgunned, the rank and file of the regiment pressed home their attack with great valor in spite of the odds against them. This bravery was paid for in blood: the 38th had 20 men killed, 51 wounded, and 3 missing. The officers of the regiment paid a particularly high price: three were killed, including commanding officer Major Robert McCay; nine others were wounded, including Captain Jones, who was hit in both legs. The 38th Mississippi infantry suffered the highest casualties of any Confederate unit that fought at Harrisburg.
As the senior surviving officer of the 38th, Jones was promoted to lieutenant colonel, but he was still at home recovering from his wounds when he was given command of the 38th. By the spring of 1865 he had recovered sufficiently to rejoin the unit, and he would lead the regiment through the final months of the war. The 38th Mississippi was officially surrendered by Lieutenant General Richard Taylor on May 4, 1865.
Lieutenant Colonel Jones returned home to Woodville at the end of the war, and he had a
very successful career in politics. Elected to the state senate in 1890, he was eventually elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, serving from 1896-1900. Jones passed away on December 10, 1911, and in his obituary the Woodville Republican praised him as “A Living example of the gentleman of the old school, a type that is fast passing from us. In him were combined those gentlemanly and courteous manners, high ideals and generous hospitality which were always found in the true Southern gentleman of antebellum days.”