I found the following letter recently, and this is the perfect time to post it, as today’s date, the final day of 2014, is the 152nd anniversary of the death of the man who wrote it. The letter is as follows:
Vicksburg, Miss., May 6, 1862
We need the following articles immediately – 400 sabos & the straps for 10 inch shells – 60 hand spikes – 15 thirty-two pounder sponges – 15 thirty-two pounder rammers. 500 plugs & fuses for shells – 1,000 32 pound cartridge bags – 30 priming wires – Telegraph for them to be sent tonight – the enemies boats passed Fort Adams this morning at 9 0’clock – May be here by noon to-morrow.
James L. Autry
Be sure to send a dispatch to send them out to-night by an extra train – no train was here to-night, therefor no danger of a collision.
– John J. Pettus Correspondence, Mississippi Department of Archives & History
The letter above was written by Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry, and if his message had a sense of urgency about it,
there was a very good reason. Autry was military governor of the post of Vicksburg, and at the time he wrote Governor Pettus, Union naval forces were closing on the city from above and below.
On May 18, 1862, the lead elements of the Union flotilla reached Vicksburg, and Commander S. Phillips Lee of the United States navy sent a message demanding the immediate surrender of the city. Lee received three replies to his ultimatum: one from Laz Lindsay, Vicksburg’s mayor; one from General Martin L. Smith, commanding the Confederate forces defending the city; and the last from Autry, acting in his capacity as post commander. While all three documents rejected the call for surrender, I think that Autry’s was the most eloquent:
I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier General Butler can teach them, then let them come and try.
Autry’s defiant tone struck just the right cord among the Confederate populace, and his words were reprinted in newspapers throughout the South. The lieutenant colonel well understood the importance of taking a stand against a powerful foe; his own father, Micajah Autry, was one of the defenders of the Alamo, and died when the mission fell to Mexican forces.
James Lockhart Autry was born on January 8, 1830, in the town of Hayesborough, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville.
As he came into the world, cannon were booming as a spirited celebration of the anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 was taking place. After the death of his father at the Alamo, his mother, Martha Wyche Autry, moved her family to Holly Springs, Mississippi. As the young man became an adult, Autry decided on a career in the law, and after passing the bar he opened a practice along with two fellow Mississippians that made names for themselves during the Civil War: L.Q.C. Lamar and Christopher H. Mott. From practicing law, it was an easy transition for Autry to go into politics; he served as a representative for Marshall County in the Mississippi legislature from 1854 – 1859, and during the last two years of his term he was Speaker of the House of Representatives.
When the Civil War came, James Autry wasted no time in volunteering; he was mustered in as 3rd lieutenant of Company B, 9th Mississippi Infantry, on February 16, 1861, at Holly Springs. The young man advanced quickly in rank, being elected lieutenant colonel of the 9th on April 12, 1861. After serving for a year with the regiment, the 9th Mississippi was reorganized, and Autry was detached from the unit for temporary duty as post commander at Vicksburg. After his defiant stand and the Union failure to take the hill city in the summer of 1862, Autry received orders to report to the 27th Mississippi Infantry to serve as the unit’s lieutenant colonel.
In his first battle with the 27th Mississippi, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 152 years ago today, James L. Autry was shot down while leading his men from the front. In his after action report on the battle, General Patton Anderson wrote:
The ordeal to which they were subjected was a severe one, but the task was undertaken with that spirit and courage which always deserves success and seldom fails achieving it. As often as their ranks were shattered and broken by grape and canister did they rally, reform and renew the attack under the leadership of their gallant officers. They were ordered to take the batteries at all hazards and they obeyed the order, not, however, without heavy losses of officers and men. Not far from where the batteries were playing, and while cheering and encouraging his men forward, Lieut. Col. James L. Autry, commanding the 27th Mississippi, fell, pierced through the head by a Minnie ball.
– Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, Volume I, page 460.
When Martha Autry was notified of the death of her son, she exclaimed,
My poor boy! The first sound that ever came to him was the booming of cannon, and it was the last sound he ever heard. Peace let him rest! God knoweth best! – Ibid, page 457.
In addition to a widowed mother, Autry left behind a wife, Jeanie, and a namesake: James L. Autry, Jr. Born in 1859, Autry’s son was only a toddler when his father died, and had few, if any memories of him. But he did have one keepsake from his father: The day before James Autry was elected lieutenant colonel of the 9th Mississippi, he wrote his son a letter in the event he should fall in battle. The handwriting was hard to read, and this is the best transcription I could make of it:
Camp Davis, April 11, 1861
To Jas. L. Autry Jr.
My Dear Son
Your father may fall to-night in battle – Your mother will keep this & when you are old enough to comprehend she will read it to you – My dear boy, never do a mean or cowardly act – let all your actions be upright, just, honorable and in accordance with the teachings of the Bible which you should ever make your guide through life – Be kind to your mother – always listen to her advice & never do ought towards her save in kindness – She is every thing that a pure, virtuous woman can be, as near perfection as any human being can be. “Beware of entrance into a quarrel,” but _____ in _____ like a man in the true _____ of the term – Never tell a falsehood – die before doing so under any circumstances – Put your trust in God & _____ and revere his name – And now my son God bless and protect you through life – Farewell
Your devoted father
Jas. L. Autry
– “Letter from Col. James L. Autry to James L. Autry, II,” Woodson Research Center – Fondren Library Rice University, accessed December 27, 2014, http://exhibits.library.rice.edu/items/show/2287.
Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry’s body was brought back to Holly Springs, and he was buried at Hill Crest Cemetery.
During the graveside services, Colonel H.W. Walter said of him:
He has come back to us. What an awful return. A few moments since he was under his own roof, and a wail of agony went up from the hearthstone. The plaintive call of wife and mother fell on cold and listless ears. He is before us here. The eye that sparkled with affection is closed – the hand that grasped hand with friendship is paralyzed – the manly form that moved with vigor once, is still and cold now, and the body is sinking slowly, sadly to its final rest. No, thank God; not to its final rest; for we believe it will rise again, as we believe that his spirit has passed to that heaven where law is love – where legislation is Jehovah, where battles are never fought, and where happiness is unmixed and eternal.
– Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, Volume I, page 461.
James Lockhart Autry continues his eternal slumber in Hill Crest Cemetery, his grave marked with a beautiful marker. His epitaph is simple, but true: He died for his country.