A History of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery

I have always had a soft spot for Civil War artillery, and it seems to me they are an overlooked branch of service. Although they played a vital role on the battlefield, their contributions are often overshadowed by the infantry and cavalry. Also, now that I think about it, I can count on one hand the number of published reminiscences or books about Mississippi artillery units – one reason for this is simply numbers: a full strength artillery battery had somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 men, whereas an infantry or cavalry unit would be closer to 1,000 (at least they did at the beginning of the war, before battles & disease whittled them down). That means there were simply less artillerymen to write letters, diaries, and reminiscences than their infantry and cavalry counterparts.

While doing some research recently I found this history of Stanford’s Mississippi Battery in the J.L. Power Scrapbook at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Power was named Superintendent of Army Records for the State of Mississippi in the latter stages of the war, and his responsibilities included keeping an historical record of the Mississippi units that served in the war. Power started his scrapbook during the war, and filled it with newspaper accounts of Mississippi units. This history of Stanford’s Battery was clipped from an unnamed newspaper, apparently in 1866, judging from the dateline at the top of the article. Unfortunately, it was a two-part article, and the second part is not present – If I can figure out which newspaper it came from, I will see if I can track down the second part of the history and publish it in a future article.

This history of Stanford’s was written by Corporal Benjamin W.L. Butt, who enlisted in the battery on March 17, 1862, at Corinth, Mississippi. A native of Duck Hill, Mississippi, he served with the unit until the end of the war in 1865.

Card From the Service Record of Benjamin W.L. Butt

Carrollton, Mississippi, August 15, 1866

Dr. J.L. McCall, Dear Sir: Yours of the 8th, instant, is at hand, and I send you herewith a historical sketch of Stanford’s Battery carefully compiled from my ‘war journal.’ It could not be made shorter without omitting many items of importance. As it is a narration of soul-stirring events which might easily by expanded into a volume, must necessarily lose much of their interest in being reduced to a few pages of bare facts.

I have left a few blanks in the beginning which you may be able to fill, as to dates &c. If you discover any erroneous statements, correct them. I have indulged in no eulogies, as the facts can testify for themselves. Neither have I complimented individuals where all, or nearly all did so well.

Imperfect as this sketch may be, yet I believe that our boys who see it will testify as to its correctness, and I would therefore like to see it published, that the public may know the part that was acted by Stanford’s Battery in the drama of the ‘Lost Cause.’ Honor to the noble dead, and respect to the gallant survivors demand it. Very respectfully Yours, B.W.L. Butt

This command was organized in the summer of 1861, at Grenada, Mississippi. On the _____ of September it was mustered into the State service – transferred to the Confederate States’ service on the 6th of November, and on the 7th was ordered to Columbus, Kentucky, to report to Major General Polk. The company left Grenada with 64 men rank and file, and four commissioned officers, to-wit: T.J. Stanford, Captain; H.R. McSwine, Senior 1st Lieutenant; A.A. Hardin, Jr., 1st and T.R. Trotter Second Lieutenant.

The command remained at Columbus till that place was evacuated, and then fell back with the army to Corinth, Mississippi, in March, 1862. In March, First Sergeant J.S. McCall was elected 2nd Lieutenant. The company was now fully equipped, and had secured a fine lot of horses, and six brass field pieces – two 12-pound howitzers, three 6-pounders and one 3-inch rifle.

For about three weeks the company was exercised in drilling. On the 3rd of April it moved with the “Army of Mississippi” under command of General A.S. Johnston, towards Pittsburg landing, on the Tennessee River, where the Federal army under Grant was posted.

The company had been considerably strengthened by recruits, and 25 men of the Vaiden, Mississippi, Artillery, (their command having no guns) volunteered to fight with Stanford’s Battery. The command was, at that time, connected with A.P. Stewart’s Brigade, Clark’s Division.

On Sunday morning April 6th, the memorable battle of Shiloh commenced. Stanford’s Battery advanced with the third line of battle, and at 10 A.M., formed under the fire of a Federal Battery, 400 yards distant, which had been twice charged unsuccessfully by our troops. One man and two horses were killed before the command could be wheeled into position. Five or six rounds were fired rapidly when our infantry again charged, and captured the Federal battery. Stanford’s Battery was not again engaged during the day, but was under fire, and when the Federal army had been driven to the Tennessee River in the evening, the company was ordered to advance, and was exposed to a heavy shelling from the gunboats. Bivouacked on the field. Buell’s command arrived during the night, and on the morning of April 7th the battle was renewed.

Position Marker for Stanford's Battery at Shiloh

About 10 A.M., Stanford’s Battery again became engaged with a battery of the enemy some 500 yards distant. The firing for half an hour was terrible. Our infantry support then charged, but were quickly repulsed and badly scattered. General Breckinridge ordered Captain Stanford to hold his position until the infantry could be reformed. The Battery was now without support. Soon a column of Federal troops appeared about 300 yards distant. A destructive fire of canister was poured into their ranks. They immediately charged the battery. So many horses in each team were killed or wounded that the company, in order to avoid capture, was compelled to retreat with the loss of four guns.

Position Held by Stanford's Battery at Shiloh

The entire loss of the command in the two days’ action was 4 guns. 6 men killed or mortally wounded (Of these one killed and two wounded belonged to the Vaiden Artillery.) 15 slightly or severely wounded, 2 captured and 64 horses killed or captured. The guns were afterwards recaptured, but for want of horses could not be brought off the field, and the company with the remainder of the army fell back to Corinth, a toilsome march through mud nearly six inches deep.

No blame was attached to Captain Stanford for the loss of his guns since he was acting under orders. Two were brought off, and after reaching Corinth the command was again equipped with horses, and a battery of four brass rifled pieces.

General Polk, in his official report of the battle of Shiloh, complimented Stanford’s Battery as ‘volunteers who never having heard the sound of their own guns, formed under a galling fire and gallantly held their ground.’

The company remained at Corinth until that place was evacuated by the army in May, 1862. There had been much sickness in the command, and some 20 or 25 had died, but it had been kept up by recruits so that the guns were always manned. From Corinth the army fell back to Tupelo where its health greatly improved.

On the 23rd of July, Stanford’s Battery, with most of the artillery of the army took up its line of march by way of Columbus, Mississippi, Tuscaloosa, and Montevallo, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia, to Chattanooga, the infantry having gone by railroad. Arrived at Chattanooga on the 14th August, having marched 420 miles in 22 days. The company at this time numbered 107 men present.

Rested a few days near Chattanooga, and then marched with the army under Bragg across Tennessee into Kentucky, via Sparta, Gainesboro and Glasgow. Arrived at Mumfordsville, Kentucky, September 17th, just as the garrison there of 4800 men had surrendered to General Bragg. Marched through central Kentucky, via New Haven, Bardstown, Springfield, and Perryville.

On the 8th of October the battle of Perryville was fought, commencing at noon, and ending soon after dark. Our forces engaged portions of three divisions, numbered about 15,000 men. The Federal force according to General Buell’s official report, ‘58,000 effective men.’

Stanford’s Battery was engaged early in the action and fought an artillery duel with a Federal rifle battery for an hour and a half, at a distance of a mile. Three of our men were killed by a single shot. At length our infantry charged and the Federal forces were driven back. The battery advanced and by a few well directed shots drove the Federal infantry from a strong position which was immediately occupied by our troops and the enemy pursued.

The Battle of Perryville - HARPER'S WEEKLY, November 1, 1862

Bivouacked on the field. The Federal left wing had been driven back four or five miles. Heavy reinforcements were not coming to General Buell. On the morning after the battle our army fell back towards ‘Camp Dick Robinson.’ On the 13th of October it commenced its retreat from Kentucky via Cumberland Gap. The march was arduous. Rations reduced first to one half and then to one fourth pound of flour per diem with beef without salt. Soldiers offered a dollar for a ear of corn.

Arrived at Knoxville, Tennessee, on the 24th of October. On the 25th snow fell five inches deep. Suffering great, as the troops were almost destitute of clothing, tents and blankets. Army left Knoxville on the 31st. Infantry went by rail, and Stanford’s Battery with the most of the artillery across the mountains to Tullahoma. Arrived at the latter place on the 10th of November.

The distance marched by the artillery from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Tullahoma, Tennessee, in this campaign of three and a half months was 1260 miles. During that time Stanford’s Battery was attached to Stewart’s Brigade, Cheatham’s Division, Polk’s Corps.

END OF PART ONE

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Never Was A More Gallant Charge Made: The 38th Mississippi Mounted Infantry at the Battle of Harrisburg, Mississippi

The 38th Mississippi Infantry is a regiment that has long been near and dear to my heart. I had two g-g-g uncles who served in the regiment, and the first book I ever wrote was a history of the unit entitled Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags. The book has been out of print for many years now, but I still get calls from people all the time wanting to buy it. I actually have written a revised and expanded edition of the book, but I have not found the time to try and get it published yet. I know I need to get the ball rolling and find a publisher, and toward that end I thought i would publish an excerpt from the book dealing with the Battle of Harrisburg, Mississippi. I’m hoping that if I hear from enough readers after publishing this article that it will spur me on to go ahead and get the book reprinted.

Harrisburg is one of the lesser known battles in which the 38th took part, which is a shame, as it was a very bloody fight that cost Mississippi dearly. Mabry’s Mississippi Brigade, of which the regiment was a part, suffered extremely high casualties in this battle. This Mississippi battleground was consecrated with Mississippi blood, and the men from the Magnolia state who fought there have earned the right to be remembered.

Prior to the Battle of Harrisburg, the 38th Mississippi had been designated a mounted infantry unit and attached to the cavalry brigade commanded by Colonel Hinchie P. Mabry, a fiery Texan who had commanded the 3rd Texas Cavalry earlier in the war. Mabry’s brigade was engaged in operations against the Yankees around Yazoo City up until early June, 1864, when they were transferred to north Mississippi to help deal with the coming Union invasion of that region.

NEVER WAS A MORE GALLANT CHARGE MADE

On receipt of the orders transferring his brigade, Colonel Hinchie P. Mabry quickly had his men in the saddle headed for north Mississippi.  The 38th Mississippi arrived with the brigade in Okolona on June 13, 1864, and were assigned to the army commanded by the Confederate “Wizard of the Saddle,” Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.2  The 38th arrived just after Forrest completed one of his greatest victories, the battle of Brice’s Cross Roads on June 10, 1864.  Confidence in their new general was high among the member of the regiment, and Erastus Hoskins wrote his wife, “Our men are all anxious to get in one fight under Forrest.”3  Having missed the battle, Mabry’s Brigade remained at Okolona until the end of June, when they were ordered to Saltillo, Mississippi.4

General Nathan Bedford Forrest - Library of Congress

Forrest’s victory at Brice’s Cross Roads had a very strong impact on Union strategy and led to the 38th’s first fight in their new command.  At the time of the Union defeat at Brice’s Cross Roads, General Sherman was engaged in his Georgia Campaign, and his army was supplied via the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.  If Forrest could cut this vital lifeline, the Union army in Georgia might grind to a halt.5  After Brice’s Cross Roads, the threat from Forrest seemed very real, and Sherman resolved to deal with the problem once and for all.  On June 16, 1864, the fiery general issued the following order to Major General James B. McPherson, commander of the Department of the Tennessee:

…I wish you to organize as large a force as possible at Memphis, with Generals A. J. Smith or Mower in command, to pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he has passed or may pass, and make him and the people of Tennessee and Mississippi realize that although a bold, daring, and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pause or tarry.  If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our past conquests will be lost.6

Command of the expedition to destroy Forrest was given to Major General Andrew J. Smith, and on July 5, 1864, he led a force of 14,000 men and 24 cannon out of La Grange, Tennessee, headed south into Mississippi.  To combat this expedition Forrest had an army of 7,500 cavalry, 2,100 dismounted cavalry serving as infantry, and 20 cannon.7

In response to the federal advance Mabry’s Brigade was moved forward from Saltillo to Ellistown, 15 miles northwest of Tupelo, on July 9.  On arrival the brigade was temporarily attached to Brigadier General Abraham Buford’s Division for the coming battle.8

Before the 38th left Ellistown, Major Robert C. McCay, commander of the 38th Mississippi,  penned a hasty letter to his wife Elizabeth, speculating on where the regiment was headed.  He told her:

I drop you a line to say we are sending everything to the rear except what we can carry on horseback, and suppose by tomorrow we will be on our way to Sherman’s rear, or else to Tennessee.  We are certainly going this time to do something, what, the distant future will have to reveal.  God grant that we will meet with success, and all return safe.  I go to do my duty and if we fight will try to make a name for my command.9

At this point in the campaign, it appeared that the Union column was headed for Okolona, and in anticipation of this move the 38th, along with the rest of Buford’s Division, was ordered to Pontotoc as a blocking force.  The weary Rebels arrived in town the morning of July 10 after an exhausting all night ride.10  That same day, Stephen D. Lee, the department commander, and General Forrest, the army commander, set up a joint headquarters at Okolona.  Lee, being the senior officer present, assumed overall command of the expedition against the federals.

When he arrived in Pontotoc, General Buford was ordered to position his men so that they were in front of and on the flank of the approaching Yankee column.  He placed his men, including the 38th, five miles south of Pontotoc on the Pontotoc-Okolona Road.  His orders stated he was to offer a stern resistance to the Union advance and only retreat back to Okolona if compelled by a superior enemy force.11

On July 11, the Yankees marched into Pontotoc, driving out the advance pickets of Buford’s Brigade.  The next day, the Union soldiers marched out of town heading straight for the Confederate defensive line south of Pontotoc.   Heavy skirmishing took place as the Rebels contested the Yankee advance, but the 38th was held in reserve and took no part in the fighting.12  On July 13, General Smith changed his line of march and moved off to the east towards Tupelo.  This move came as quite a surprise to Lee and Forrest, who planned to fight the decisive battle against Smith on ground of their choosing near Okolona.13

As the federals moved rapidly towards Tupelo, Mabry’s Brigade, with Forrest at its head, pressed the rear guard of the retreating army.  As the Yankees passed through Pontotoc, Forrest ordered Mabry to force his way into the town.  The Colonel led his men in a furious charge into the hamlet, pushing aside the 7th Kansas Cavalry and Company A of the 61st United States Colored Troops.  Private F. H. Holloway of the Brent Rifles later wrote an account of this charge for Confederate Veteran Magazine saying,

I should like to hear from any old soldier who was with Mabry’s Brigade, Forrest’s Command, in July, 1864, at Pontotoc, Miss., when the Yanks began to fall back.  Do you remember how the ladies shouted and waved their handkerchiefs at seeing the boys in gray after them?  How we scoured the thickets for the Yanks, and how they would fire a volley and run?14

The 38th continued the pursuit of the retreating federals, fighting numerous skirmishes throughout the day as the Union column pushed on towards Tupelo.  The chase continued until 2 a.m. on July 14, when the Rebel horse soldiers pulled up their sweat streaked mounts one mile outside of Harrisburg, a small hamlet two miles west of Tupelo.15  There the Rebels found the federal army drawn up in line of battle, waiting to receive an attack.  Although the Confederates were outnumbered and facing a determined enemy, General Lee felt he had to attack.  He later explained his decision to fight saying,

…all the armies of the Confederacy were facing superior numbers and resources, and everywhere Confederate armies at this stage of the war had to fight against great odds or not fight at all.  On this occasion not to fight would have been to have given up the great corn region of Mississippi, the main support of other armies facing the enemy on more important fields.16

The Union army was in a very strong defensive position, their line of battle running for a mile and a half along the crest of a ridge that gave an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.  From the crest of the ridge the land sloped gently downward to a wood line several hundred yards away.17

Map of the Harrisburg Battlefield - Mabry's Brigade was located on the extreme left of the Confederate line, north of the Pontotoc Road - Library of Congress


 

To reach the federals Mabry’s men would have to advance uphill and cross several hundred yards of open ground while exposed to artillery and musket fire.  To make matters worse, the Rebels had to make their assault under a blistering Mississippi sun, and heat exhaustion would take a heavy toll.18

Preparing to attack, General Lee took personal command of the left wing of the army, which would attack the right and center of the federal line.  General Forrest took command of the right wing of the army, and was ordered to swing his men around the Union left and attack the vulnerable flank.19

The 38th Mississippi dismounted from their horses and deployed with Mabry’s Brigade on the extreme Confederate left and prepared to advance.  Just after 8:00 a.m. General Lee gave the order to attack, and with Major McCay at their head the regiment pressed forward towards the Union line.20

According to General Lee’s plan, the left wing under his command was to attack first and strike the federal right a hard blow to keep their attention on that section of the battlefield.  Once the Rebel left was heavily engaged, Forrest was to smash the federal left flank.  The plan went badly from the start, with the brigades of Lee’s left wing failing to coordinate their movements and attacking piecemeal, allowing the federals to concentrate their fire and shred each unit as it attacked.21

As the 38th Mississippi cleared the woods and moved into the open, they were immediately targeted by the Union cannoneers, and iron shot and shell began to tear holes in the gray line.  The Mississippians dressed their ranks and continued across the killing field separating them from the Yankees.  When they were within 300 yards of the Union line a terrific fire from the Union infantry opened on them, but the 38th pressed on through the hailstorm of lead.22  Major McCay was at the forefront of the regiment urging his men to go forward when he was struck in the head by a Yankee bullet.  He fell into the arms of Colonel Mabry, dead before he touched the ground.23  In his after action report, Mabry gave a vivid account of the charge that killed so many of his men:

I immediately ordered a charge, but the heat was so intense and the distance so great that some men and officers fell exhausted and fainting along my line, while the fire from the enemy’s line of works by both artillery and small-arms was so heavy and well directed that many were killed and wounded.  These two causes of depletion left my line almost like a line of skirmishers.24

Despite heavy casualties, the 38th Mississippi pressed on, leaving a trail of gray clad bodies to mark the path of their advance.  At about sixty yards from the Union line the fire was so intense that the survivors in the regiment were forced to take shelter in a small depression that afforded them some protection from the hurricane of fire being thrown at them.  The men quickly brought their muskets to bear on the nearby Union line, loading and firing as fast as they could.25  Those who made it to the relative safety of the depression found themselves under the leadership of Captain John J. Green of the Johnston Avengers, the only company commander still with the regiment.  Mabry eventually gave Green the order to take his men and advance on the Yankee line, but the young Captain bluntly stated, “Colonel, we have exhausted every round of ammunition, but if you say so we will try again with empty guns.”  On hearing these words Mabry replied, “We can’t stay here and live.  Order your men back.” 26

Captain John Jasper Green was the only company commander of the 38th Mississippi to survive the battle unharmed - CONFEDERATE VETERAN MAGAZINE

The heavy fire from the Union Infantry and artillery kept the 38th pinned in place, and the regiment was not able to immediately withdraw.  The men were only able to pull back after the Tennessee brigade of Colonel Tyree H. Bell advanced on their right and the Yankees switched their fire to the new threat.27  When the musket fire slackened, the 38th retreated out of the range of the Union guns, and the dazed survivors took stock of the calamity that had befallen them.  The regiment was smashed and took no further part in the battle.28

The other units in Lee’s left wing suffered the same fate as the 38th – their piecemeal attacks were all easily repulsed with very heavy losses to the Rebels.  When General Forrest saw the fearful destruction of the left wing, he called off the attack on the right by the men under his command.  The Confederates then prepared themselves for a Union counter attack, but General Smith thought his exhausted men had seen enough action for one day and did not elect to continue the contest.  On July 15, with his men low on ammunition and food, he decided to return to Memphis.  General Lee initially followed the retreating federals, but owing to the thoroughly worn out condition of his men, and the heavy casualties his army had sustained, he called off the pursuit on July 16.29

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.  For their bravery, the regiment paid a very dear price: twenty men were killed, fifty-one wounded, and three were missing. for a total casualty list of seventy-four.  An examination of the dead and wounded shows the officers of the 38th paid a particularly high price at Harrisburg:  three were killed, including the commanding officer Robert McCay, and nine were wounded.  Captain John J. Green was the only company commander in the regiment to come out of the fight unhurt.  The command structure of the 38th had been decimated in a few short hours.30

Shortly after the battle Erastus Hoskins wrote his wife and gave her a detailed account of the battle:

…the enemy threw up works of rails & logs and early in the morning of the 14th our forces advanced and the battle raged in earnest – our boys say it was the hottest place they had ever been in – our regiment lost very heavily – it went into the fight with 158 men – and lost 13 killed and 57 wounded – and 10 missing – in all 74 – which was more than any other regiment – it went farther than any other in the charge and remained longer Col. Mabry says there never was a more gallant charge made – than the one made by the 38th Maj. McCay acted gallantly and was shot in the head and fell dead in the field – Adjt. W. L. Ware was mortally wounded in the breast – but of 9 officers commanding companies – 1 was killed and 7 wounded – a severe blow to the 38th.  I don’t think we gained any thing by the fight it might be termed a draw battle I think the loss on both sides about the same – and while the enemy could not advance south – We could not advance on them – the enemy finally retreated leaving us in possession of the field – Which makes us the victors though dearly paid for.31

Six days after the battle, Colonel Mabry penned a letter to Elizabeth McCay, wife of Major Robert McCay, to inform her of her husband’s death.  His compassionate words are a fitting tribute to Major McCay:

With feelings of deepest sorrow, I announce to you the death of your husband – Maj. Robert C. McCay 38th Miss. (Mounted Infantry).  He was killed in battle at Harrisburg, Miss. on the 14th Inst. while gallantly leading his regiment.  While nothing can atone to you and your children for his loss, it will be a consolation to know that he died nobly at his post.  He was shot through the head and fell in my arms and expired without a struggle.  None excelled him in devotion to his family, fidelity to his country, and gallantry as a champion in the glorious struggle for freedom.  As his commander, as his associate, as his friend I mourn with you his loss.  May that faith in him who does all things aright, soften the sorrows of your sad bereavement.32

The battle of Harrisburg left the 38th Mississippi a broken ruin of it’s former self, but for the rank and file of the regiment, there were still battles left to fight.  They were few in number, but these soldiers were survivors of the very worst the Yankees could throw at them, and they fought on to the bitter end.


2 Jordan and Pryor, 484-485.

3 Erastus Hoskins Letters, 8 July 1864.

4 Jordan and Pryor, 484-498.

5 Edwin C. Bearss, Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads (Dayton, OH: Morningside Bookshop, 1994), 146.

6 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 2, 123.

7 Bearss, Forrest, 153-154, 164.

8 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 329.

9 Robert McCay to Elizabeth McCay, 8 July 1864.  A copy of this letter is in the collection of Charles Sullivan of Perkinston, MS.

10 Jordan and Pryor, 499.

11 Ibid., 499-500.

12 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 330, 349.

13 Bearss, Forrest, 175.

14 F. H. Holloway, “Incidental To The Battle Of Harrisburg,”  Confederate Veteran, November 1910, 526.

15 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.

16 Stephen D. Lee, “The Battle of Tupelo, or Harrisburg, July 14, 1864,”  Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 6 (1902), 45.

17 Bearss, Forrest, 197.

18 Ibid., 202.

19 Lee, 45.

20 Bearss, Forrest, 202-203.

21 Ibid., 203-205.

22 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.

23 Hinchie P. Mabry to Elizabeth McCay 20 July 1864.  The original letter is located in the McCay Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

24 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.

25 Ibid.

26 James H. Jones, “Extracts From A Letter,”  Lexington (Mississippi) Advertiser, 6 December 1901.

27 Bearss, Forrest, 207-208.

28 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 350.

29 Bearss, Forrest, 211, 221, 229.

30 Rowland, Military History, 333-334.

31 Erastus Hoskins Letters, 19 July 1864.

32 Hinchie P. Mabry to Elizabeth McCay, 20 July 1864.  Original letter in the McCay Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Lines On the Back Of a Confederate Note

Shortly after the Civil War ended, Major Sidney A. Jonas, late of General Stephen D. Lee’s staff, made his way to Richmond, hoping from there he could find transportation to his home in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Although he and his companions were broke, the sympathetic owner of the Powhatan hotel gave the former Confederates lodging for the night.

This picture postcard from the early 1900s shows the Powhatan Hotel, which had by then been renamed the Ford Hotel. It was in this building that Major Jonas wrote his poem.

While a guest at the Powhatan Jonas wrote a poem that came to be loved throughout the South, a mournful dirge to the lost Confederacy known by the simple title “Lines on the back of a Confederate Note.” Years later Jonas wrote an account of how the poem came to be written, which was published in Volume 14 of Watson’s Magazine:

Among the guests of the hotel was a vaudeville troupe hailing from Philadelphia, and they were very kind to the ‘Johnnie Rebs,’ as they called us. It happened that among the federal captures was a carload of unfinished Confederate notes, chiefly of large denomination, with backs blank, and these became scattered among the Yanks. Miss Annie Rush, one of the leading actresses, came into possession of quite a ‘bunch’ of this embryo money, and she brought the bills to our lounging room, distributing them with the request that each would ‘write her a sentiment as a souvenir.’ I had some little standing among the boys as a ready scribbler, and I think I wrote all the ‘sentiments’ for the gang on scratch paper, each one transcribing his offering upon the note blank alloted him.

This Confederate $500 note was like the one on which Jonas wrote his poem

Upon my bill I wrote the lines that unwittingly struck a patriotic chord and ‘will not down.’ If I had chosen from the lot I would possibly have taken one of the other poems for mine, as time had not yet given sacred tinge to things Confederate. Among those present when the lines were written were Capt. A.B. Schell, now of Louisville, the gallant commander of Cheatham’s Sharpshooters; Capt. D.L. Sublett, late of Chattanooga, ordinance officer; Major Claire, I think of Johnson’s staff; Mr. Sublett of Virginia and others whose names I do not now recall.

Of course I did not appreciate my work, writers seldom do, and would have forgotten it but for the fact that the recipient gave it, or a copy of it, to the New York Metropolitan Record, then a Southern sympathizing weekly that had a tremendous circulation South, where it appeared a few months after the war over my signature, and headed ‘Something Too Good To Be Lost.’ Since then it has appeared one or more times in almost every paper or magazine in the South; in many Northern papers, even in the Congressional Library Almanac, and in foreign prints and books of war poems, and in nine cases out of ten as anonymous, or attributed to, or claimed by others.

Here is the poem that struck such a cord with the people of a dispirited and defeated South:

Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note

Representing nothing on God’s earth now, and naught in the waters below it, as the pledge of a nation that’s dead and gone, keep it, dear friend, and show it.

Show it to those who will lend an ear to the tale that this trifle can tell, of Liberty born of the patriot’s dream, of a storm-cradled nation that fell.

Too poor to possess the precious ores, and too much of a stranger to borrow, we issued to-day our promise to pay, and hoped to redeem on the morrow.

The days rolled by and weeks became years, but our coffers were empty still; coin was so rare that the treasury’d quake if a dollar should drop in the till.

But the faith that was in us was strong, indeed, and our poverty well we discerned, and this little check represented the pay that our suffering veterans earned.

We knew it had hardly a value in gold, yet as gold each soldier received it; it gazed in our eyes with a promise to pay, and each Southern patriot believed it.

But our boys thought little of price or of pay, or of bills that were overdue; we knew if it brought us our bread to-day, ‘Twas the best our poor country could do.

Keep it, it tells all our history o’er, from the birth of our dream to its last; modest, and born of the Angel Hope, like our hope of success, it passed.

Illustrated poster depicting Confederate money along with the poem by Major Jonas

After returning home to Aberdeen, Jonas decided he had a talent for writing, and founded his own newspaper, the Aberdeen Examiner, which he edited himself for over fifty years. When he passed away in Aberdeen on September 13, 1915, his obituary in Confederate Veteran Magazine said of him, “Wielding a powerful pen, possessed of encyclopedic information, he was the match for any of the molders of opinion throughout this great land and undoubtedly could have discharged with eminent distinction and satisfaction the duties of any editorial tripod in any of its great cities. Dedicating the magnificent powers of his royal manhood to the service of his adopted state, he wrought his brain and heart and soul into the fibers of her civic life.”

This postwar picture of Sidney Jonas was used when his obituary was published in Volume 24 of CONFEDERATE VETERAN MAGAZINE

Today Sidney Jonas is at rest in the Old Aberdeen Cemetery in Aberdeen, Mississippi, but his ode to a lost Confederacy lives on.