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Monday, August 13, 2012

First Virginian for the Confederacy

Benjamin Cason Rawlings

     At the age of fifteen, just two weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday, Benjamin Rawlings set out on an adventurous course that made him admired throughout the burgeoning Confederacy and his ardor for the cause was seen as the ideal of southern patriotism. Caught up in the secessionist fever that fired the imaginations of young men in the increasingly rebellious states, Ben became widely known as the first Virginian to enlist in the newly born Confederate army. He was also the youngest soldier to have served for the entire duration of the Civil War. Moreover, he enlisted three months before the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter and he did not surrender to Federal authorities until three weeks after the rest of his regiment had laid down their arms at Appomattox.
     He was a most remarkable boy.

     Virtually all that I have learned of Benjamin Rawlings is due to the generosity of his biographer, Byrd Tribble. Over the years Byrd has shared with me a great deal of Rawlings family lore and anecdotes which have added to my knowledge of and respect for Ben. Byrd's book, shown above, is still widely available on the web and I highly recommend it to the history buffs among my readers. In 1904, already suffering from the heart problems that would end his life four years later, Ben dictated his story to his son James Emery Rawlings. In earlier posts, which can be read here and here, I give an overview of Ben's life and his importance in my family's history. In this post and the one to follow I will be focusing on Ben's experience as a soldier. Quotes from and references to Byrd's book, as well as images of the original documents that are part of his story, are presented here with the kind permission of my friend, Byrd Tribble.

     Benjamin Cason Rawlings was born at Green Hill, his family's farm in western Spotsylvania, on January 9, 1845. He was one of five children born to James Boswell Rawlings and Anne Cason Rawlings. Previously I have written about his brothers, Zachary Herndon Rawlings and James Richard Rawlings. The Rawlings men tended to be large, powerful fellows with long arms. Ben stood at six feet. His father, at six feet three and a half inches tall, is said to have been able to walk up the steps of the mill while carrying a barrel of flour under each arm. 
     By late 1860 Ben and many other young southerners were caught up in the turmoil gripping the nation after the election of Abraham Lincoln. All eyes turned to South Carolina, which had already exited the Union and was headed for confrontation over the Federal forts in Charleston harbor. Ben's seemingly impetuous next step had probably been turning over in his mind for some time. He had made the decision that he needed to get to Charleston so he could be there when the inevitable sparks began to fly.
     A few days after Christmas 1860 Ben was visiting his uncle Benjamin Cason at his farm, Mill Garden, located off Gordon Road near between Plank Road  in Spotsylvania. It was here that fifteen year old Ben set his plan into motion. Without giving any kind of hint of his intentions to anyone, Ben furtively borrowed one of his uncle's horses and--with about seven dollars in his pocket-- rode into Fredericksburg. He left the horse at the livery stable and took the next train to Richmond. There he bought with his remaining money a ticket to Weldon, North Carolina. Now penniless, Ben began walking to Florence, South Carolina, following the railroad tracks. When he reached Goldsboro, North Carolina he wrote home and asked his father to send money. Ben was too impatient to wait on the arrival of this money and continued on to Florence without a farthing in his pockets. Ben had convinced himself that he could rely on the kindness of strangers who were sure to help him once they learned of his noble endeavor. In this he was sadly mistaken and he spent much of his trek cold and hungry. Upon reaching Florence he at last met a local citizen who admired Ben's grit and bought him a train ticket to Charleston.
     After getting off the train Ben registered at the Charleston Hotel. In short order he met prominent Virginian John Preston. Preston was married to Wade Hampton's sister and would serve on the staff of General P.G.T. Beauregard. Ben now had to wait for his money to catch up with him from Goldsboro. In the meantime, Preston offered to pay for Ben to stay at the Pavilion Hotel. More importantly, he wrote letters of recommendation for Ben that would pave the way for him to realize his dream of joining the Confederate army. During this time Ben was also introduced to rabid Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin.

Maxcy Gregg

     Ben took one of his letters of recommendation to Colonel Maxcy Gregg, commander of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. Gregg was a professional lawyer, an amateur scientist and used ear trumpets to accommodate his deafness. Colonel Gregg was pleased to have this eager, strapping sixteen year old join his regiment but wisely waited until he had received written permission from Ben's father. James B. Rawlings gave his blessing to Ben's enlistment with the condition that Ben be allowed to resign in order to join a Virginia regiment when his home state joined the Confederacy. Ben was equipped with an Enfield rifle and joined the Volunteers on Morris Island. As it so often happened to the young boys in camp for the first time Ben soon fell ill and was furloughed by Colonel Gregg until his health improved.

Leave of absence granted to Ben, February 1862

     The standoff between the Federal garrison inside Fort Sumter and the southern rebels manning the guns across Charleston harbor reached a climax in early spring. On April 11 Ben was sent to Cummings Point on Morris Island, where one of the main Confederate batteries was located. Early the next morning Ben had his first whiff of the gunpowder that touched off the war that he and his countrymen had been so avid for.
     While the cannons roared Ben and his fellow infantrymen shot at Sumter with their Enfields so that they could proudly tell the folks back home that they had been in the fight. Once the sun came up the guns of Fort Sumter returned fire. Ben saw Edmund Ruffin knocked off his feet by the concussion of a near miss. This would be the only non-lethal battle of Ben Rawlings' war.
     Several days later Virginia voted for secession and soon thereafter volunteers from Ben's regiment and others were sent to Richmond, as it was now rightly supposed that the war's focus would be in the Old Dominion. By now Ben's exploits had become well known and accounts appeared in the Fredericksburg newspapers. Two examples are shown here.

Fredericksburg News 5 February 1861

Fredericksburg News 30 April 1861

     By early May 1861 the Thirtieth Virginia Infantry had been organized. Honoring the arrangement they had agreed to in Charleston, Maxcy Gregg wrote an honorable discharge for Ben on May 10, 1861. Gregg heaped praise on this impressive young soldier: "I think he well deserves a commission. Notwithstanding his youth, if I had a Lieutenancy at my disposal, I would most cheerfully offer it him." That same day Ben enlisted as a sergeant in Company D of the Thirtieth, the "Mount Pleasant Rifles," commanded by Spotsylvania native Valentine Johnson.

Ben's discharge by Maxcy Gregg, p. 1

Ben's discharge by Maxcy Gregg, p. 2

     One of Ben's duties as orderly sergeant for Captain Johnson was to keep an accurate muster roll for his company. Ben at first struggled with this new responsibility and would get things mixed up. He was teased mercilessly by the older troops he had to account for. "Often at night I would go back to my tent, lie down, and cry at night. But I stuck to it."
     Company D's first taste of war came at Aquia Creek where they had been sent to support batteries set up to defend against encroaching Federal gunboats. It was here that these newly minted Confederates drilled and learned the fundamentals of soldiering. One day the Union gunboat Pawnee, together with three or four others, shelled the gun emplacements near Ben's company. In order to prove his own mettle as well as to impart a little courage into the hearts of his men, Ben casually strolled about and picked strawberries during the bombardment. The men of Company D were awestruck by this display and were probably not inclined to tease Sergeant Rawlings thereafter.
     In July an epidemic of measles swept through the camp. Ben was stricken and was sent to a hospital set up in Fredericksburg. When his mother heard of his illness she came with the carriage and took Ben to Mill Garden, uncle Ben Cason's farm. Much to his chagrin, the rest of Ben's regiment marched off to Manassas and fought in the first major engagement of the war on July 21. "I could hear the guns of First Manassas and I was very anxious to be there." Ben rejoined the Thirtieth about three weeks later.
     The Thirtieth Virginia wintered in Fredericksburg. In the early spring of 1862 Ben received a thirty day furlough for voluntarily re-enlisting for three years or the war. His furlough was cut short, however, as troops on leave were summoned back to their camps after the passage of the Conscription Act of April 16. Soldiers were given the option of re-enlisting or face conscription. Ben, of course, had already made his choice.
     In May 1862 seventeen year old Ben Rawlings was elected lieutenant of Company D. Shortly thereafter Companies D and F were among those detailed to City Point to prevent Union troops from disembarking from gunboats. The Thirtieth was then ordered to assemble in Richmond and march to what would become known as the battle of Seven Pines (also called the battle of Fair Oaks). But things did not go quite as intended. In Ben's words: "While waiting in Richmond a large number of the men had gotten filled with whiskey before breakfast. When we got out of the city men commenced falling out, and when we went into camp, nearly half were between Richmond and camp, gloriously drunk. Most of them came up that evening, but the fighting was all over and we did not get under fire."
     It would be a very different affair a month later during the battle of Malvern Hill, the climax of the Peninsula Campaign. Ben's account of that day sums up the irony and unexpected reactions to stress that occur in any war:
      "The captain of Company D was away, so I was in command. At the right of the company was a large, reckless-looking character who was thoroughly exhausted by the heat and fatigue. He said he preferred being in hell to marching up and down that country. I was impressed by the fervor of his words.
     "We were then ordered down to a strip of woods about a mile and a half from the river and not one quarter of a mile from thirty guns that were placed on a hill. We marched by the right flank down this strip of woods to the river to keep the enemy from finding our location. We had gone but a short distance when the gunboats opened fire; they seemed to get our exact location. The shots came through the woods, and the first one exploded to the right of my company. I was at the head of the company but in front and to the left. One shot hit Wilson the man who preferred hell to marching up and down the country. The hit took his heel, part of his foot and tore flesh from his buttocks. He died that night. He got his wish very soon.
    " Now we halted and were ordered to get under cover. The gunboats kept shelling, and then the battery in front of us opened with the thirty guns. This was the worst artillery fire I ever experienced. I happened to be near a very big white oak tree and I and several others got behind it, but we seemed to be between the devil and the deep blue sea. We would get behind the tree to get away from one shell in front, when from the right flank a gunboat shell of large size would come along, so we jumped from side to side as the shells came from side to side. While I was dodging shells, I saw my second lieutenant doing the same thing, his face pale and his eyes rolling and he looked so ludicrous that I got to laughing and could not control myself, and I just laughed and roared and the more I laughed, the scareder I got. I looked up the hollow and saw Colonel Harrison of our regiment behind a tree taking a big drink out of a flask, and he looked so scared that I laughed all the more. The boys all looked at me as if they thought I had gone crazy. This fire lasted until dark, when we marched back to where we had started that afternoon."
      Once it became obvious to General Lee that McClellan had no further appetite for battle in the peninsula, he began detaching troops to Orange County to "suppress Pope," whose depredations in neighboring Culpeper invited retribution. In two battles fought in August 1862--Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas--Lee was able to accomplish just that very objective. While that was going on in northern Virginia, the Thirtieth Infantry had been left in the peninsula as part of the force to keep McClellan's army in check. Ben's regiment was then sent north to reinforce Stonewall Jackson during Lee's invasion of Maryland. Jackson was given the task of seizing Harper's Ferry, capturing the Federal arsenal there and neutralizing the Union garrison commanded by General Miles.
     During the brief siege of Harper's Ferry Ben's company was ordered to defend a Confederate battery shelling the town. As was his custom, Ben was full of curiosity and bravado and made his way down the hill to the town. By now it was apparent that the Yankees had run out of fight, thanks in part the the ineffective leadership of General Miles. Together with a dismounted rebel cavalryman from Orange County named Powell, Ben brazenly entered Harper's Ferry. He was the first Confederate to do so. Ben managed to obtain a saber, two self cocking pistols and two horses.
     The following morning Ben and the rest of Jackson's command left Harper's Ferry before sunup and hurried to the fighting at Antietam. Once there Ben's regiment took up a position at the extreme right of the Confederate line. Ben suddenly realized that he was conspicuous in his red hunting shirt and Lieutenant William Saunders of Company H, who was wearing a similar shirt, commented to Ben about how they stood out. The Thirtieth made their way through a cornfield ("The bullets made a terrible noise as they hit the corn") and passed the Dunker church. From there they charged a Union skirmish line. Ben felt uneasy about his red shirt.
     What they thought was a skirmish line turned out to be three lines of Union infantry which poured fire into the Thirtieth Virginia. A Federal battery enfiladed their flank with grape and canister. It was too much. The order was given to retreat. In the line of their retreat was a wood fence. Ben noted that the panel of fence closest to him was the most pocked by bullets so he chose a different part to climb over. Three hundred men of the Thirtieth made the attack; only seventy emerged unhurt. Lieutenant Saunders, the other red shirt wearer that day, was found dead clutching a daguerreotype of his sweetheart. Although his records do not survive in the archives, it is believed that Bens' brother Zachary of Company A was among the wounded that day. Soon after the battle of Antietam Zachary returned to civilian life in Spotsylvania.
     During the retreat from Antietam Ben helped carry his wounded men to the Potomac, where flat boats awaited to take them across. While retreating through Shepherdstown,  women came out with buckets of coffee and biscuits and dressed the injuries of the walking wounded. While foraging through the countryside Ben and his men were well cared for at a large farm house where "two lively red haired girls" soon became friendly enough to indulge in some wartime hugging with the boys in gray. The girls let Ben and the others snip off locks from their red tresses before the retreat resumed. "We all got a lock, and about the last we saw of those girls their heads looked like a crow's nest."
     Three months later the Thirtieth was positioned at Barnards' farm during the battle of Fredericksburg. Ben had a good view of the fighting that day but his sector remained relatively quiet. Ben's friend and mentor, General Maxcy Gregg, was mortally wounded at Fredericksburg and died two days later. Soon after the Yankees retreated Ben's regiment went into winter quarters. During this lull Ben was an active participant in what is now remembered as the largest snowball fight ever to occur in North America. Thousands of Confederates took part in a very serious exchange of snowballs which gradually escalated to fisticuffs. "Only not being able to get guns saved worse trouble."
     In March 1863 the Thirtieth Virginia was part of the contingent detached by Lee to forage in southern Virginia and North Carolina to acquire much needed food and supplies. Ben was present during the Confederate siege of Suffolk. While in line of battle and under fire Ben was given his examination by Major Willis of the Fifteenth Virginia Infantry and was duly promoted to Captain of Company D on March 18. He was eighteen years old. They were still there when Hooker crossed the Rapidan. Lee ordered Longstreet to collect his scattered forces and return to Spotsylvania to reinforce Lee and Jackson, but the battle of Chancellorsville was over before they could arrive.
     While the rest of Ben's division went off to the disastrous fight at Gettsyburg, Ben's regiment was left behind to protect Lee's rear by guarding the bridges over the North Anna River near Hanover Court House. Later the Thirtieth was sent to east Tennessee and western Virginia to support Longstreet during the fights at Chickamauga and Chattanooga.
     In November 1863 Ben received a furlough to visit his parents in Spotsylvania. The timing could not have been worse for Captain Rawlings, as General Meade had chosen just this time to take his army south of the Rapidan and try to surprise Lee's troops encamped in Orange County. Union cavalry was seen marauding between the Orange County line and Spotsylvania Court House.
     The ever alert and resourceful Ben Rawlings, despite the fact that he was home on leave, took the initiative to scout out where the enemy was and what his intentions might be. Taking his pistol and his father's double barreled shotgun, Ben came upon a column of Union cavalry and artillery passing west through White Hall toward Orange. Ben lay in hiding and did his best to estimate the enemy's strength. After the column had passed Ben captured two troopers lagging at the rear. After disarming them Ben took one horse for himself and put his two captives on the other mount. He took them back to his parents' house,  where he turned them over to Lieutenant Robert C. Shiver of the Second South Carolina Cavalry of Hampton's Legion. He kept the receipt for those prisoners for the rest of his life.

Prisoner receipt given to Captain Rawlings

     Ben made the unfortunate decision to spend that night at his parents' house. In the dark a regiment of Yankee cavalry surrounded the Rawlings' house. Ben's life was about to take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

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