A Sword Recovered: A Story From the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia

Sometimes you find the best things when you are not even looking for them – a case in point is this article entitled “A Sword Recovered,” in the March 29, 1883, edition of the Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts). This article documents an episode that took place in one of the lesser known conflicts in which Mississippians participated – the Battle of Balls Bluff, Virginia, on October 21, 1861.

A Sword Recovered

Near the close of the battle of Ball’s Bluff October 21, 1861, First Lieutenant J. Evarts Greene, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, found himself surrounded by the enemy so that to fight longer was useless, and to run away impossible. At this moment a grey coated gentleman stepped forward, and, raising his cap courteously, said: ‘I am Captain Singleton of the Thirteenth Mississippi. [Editor’s Note: Singleton was in the 18th Mississippi] I must ask you to surrender.’ Mr. Greene returned the salute, mentioned his name and rank, and handed Captain Singleton his sword. Two young men of Captain Singleton’s company were then directed to take Lieutenant Greene to the rear. They escorted him to Leesburg, about four miles distant, chatting pleasantly by the way, for they were very obliging and friendly young fellows, and some hours later all the prisoners taken that day started from Leesburg for Centreville under a guard commanded by Captain Singleton, who showed to them all possible civility and kindness while they were under his care.

This Illustration depicts the fighting that took place during the Battle of Ball's Bluff - Library of Congress

On arriving at Centreville he turned over his prisoners to the officer designated by General Beauregard to receive them, and they saw him no more. Captain Singleton had been a member of congress for three terms before the war. soon after this time he retired from the army and entered the Confederate Congress. When Mississippi was thought to be sufficiently reconstructed to be entitled again to representation in the national government, Captain Singleton, or the Hon. Otho R. Singleton as he should now be called, was elected to the house of representatives, and has been re-elected to successive congresses since. Mr. Greene has had some correspondence with him, and when visiting Washington in January last had a most agreeable interview with his former captor, who seemed inclined to make up by the warmth of his present friendship for the conditions of formal enmity under which they had first met. Of course the circumstances of their meeting were recalled, and Mr. Singleton expressed his intention to return the sword which Mr. Greene had surrendered more than twenty-one years ago.

This engraving from the ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS depicts the panicked flight of the Union forces from the Ball's Bluff battlefield. Captain Green was captured during this retreat. - Library of Congress

On Tuesday the sword arrived by express addressed to Senator Hoar, who had already received the following letter; ‘Hon. Geo. F. Hoar – My Dear Sir: I have taken the liberty of sending to your address by express today a United States sword belonging to Maj. Greene, who visited you at Washington the past winter. I failed to obtain his address when here, and beg to trouble you to see that he gets it. This sword was surrendered to me by Maj. Greene immediately after the battle of Ball’s Bluff, in Virginia. My earnest desire has ever been to return it to its owner, and assure him of my great respect for him as a citizen and soldier. Most truly yours, O. R. Singleton.’

Mr. Singleton had been kind enough to promote Captain Greene one grade, but otherwise his letter calls for no further remark. The sword has suffered no damage, and is entirely fit for further service, but its owner hopes that it will never be drawn on another battle field. It will not, however, be beaten into a plowshare, nor worked up into steel pens.

Captain Otho R. Singleton commanded Company C of the 18th Mississippi Infantry, and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff was only the second fight in which the regiment had been engaged. They had fought at Bull Run in July 1861, but Ball’s Bluff would turn out to be the 18th Mississippi’s true baptism by fire. In the fighting the regiment gave a good account of itself, but the cost in lives was very high: the 18th Mississippi had 32 killed and 63 wounded. Among the dead was Colonel Erasmus R. Burt, the commander of the regiment.

Colonel Erasmus R. Burt commanded the 18th Mississippi Infantry at Ball's Bluff and was killed in the fighting. - Photo from the Wikipedia article on Colonel Burt

Wanting to know more about the incident in which Captain Greene surrendered his sword to Captain Singleton, I did a little looking and found that Greene had written an account of his capture for The Old Guard, published in Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 20, 1886. In this article he related how he was captured:

Near the end of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff I found myself in close contact with a large number of the enemy. The sun had already set, and in the woods where we were it was dark enough so that I did not at once recognize them as enemies. I was surrounded, and escape was impossible. When they discovered that I was a ‘Yank,” some of them cried, ‘Kill him,’ ‘Bayonet the d–d Yankee,’ and other greetings of that character, and one grasped my arm. I shook him off, and called for an officer. A grave looking man, tall and soldierly, stepped forward and courteously mentioned his name, Captain Singleton of the — Mississippi. I responded, giving my name and rank, and at the same time offered him my sword, which I held in my hand. He received it, and, calling two men from the ranks, directed them to take me to the rear.

In closing out his article, Green described how he was led away to captivity by Captain Singleton, and how grateful his was for the kindness shown to him by the Mississippian:

Then began our tedious, dreary march, through rain and mud and swollen streams. It ended late the next night at the stone house on the famous Bull Run battlefield. Of the incidents of that march I cannot write here. I will only say that our guard was commanded by Captain Singleton, the same officer to whom I had surrendered, now a member of Congress from Mississippi, who was throughout courteous and kindly, and as considerate of our comfort as his strict orders permitted him to be.

Captain Jeremiah Evarts Greene was sent to Richmond, Virginia, where he was held in captivity for four months before being exchanged. He was promoted to captain in January 1862, and commanded a company in the 15th Massachusetts until he was honorably discharged in October 1862. He eventually became postmaster of his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, a job in which he served until his death on November 8, 1902.

This picture of Jeremiah Evarts Greene was published with his obituary in the WORCESTER DAILY SPY, November 9, 1902

Otho R. Singleton resigned from the 18th Mississippi shortly after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff to become a member of the Confederate Congress, an institution in which he served until the end of the war. In 1875 he was elected to the United States Congress, and served until 1887. He died in Washington, D.C., on January 11, 1889.

This image of Otho Singleton was taken in the 1850s when he was serving in the United States Congress - Library of Congress

I don’t know what happened to the sword of Captain Greene, but I hope that one of his descendants has it hanging in some prominent spot in his home. It’s a powerful reminder of a moment in time when two enemies put aside their differences and became friends.

5 thoughts on “A Sword Recovered: A Story From the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia

  1. A fascinating account. I wonder if Capt. Greene would have fared so well later in the war, when the chivalric ideals so many soldiers and officers set off with in ’61 had been largely worn away?

    1. While I think such treatment as Captain Greene received became more uncommon as the war dragged on, I don’t think it ever completely died out – I have read accounts of Union and Confederate soldiers going out of their way to help an enemy even in the later stages of the war. Soldiers North and South shared a common culture and a common language, and I think it was easy for them to sympathize with a fellow combatant whether he wore the gray or the blue.

  2. Jeff–that is my picture of E.R. Burt-my gg grandfather -if you need a picture of him for your book let me know ok–Trisha

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s