|From the memoirs of Benjamin Rawlings|
[In my last post I began to tell the story of Benjamin Cason Rawlings, the first Virginian to join the Confederate army. Once again, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to Ben's biographer, Byrd Tribble, for allowing me to quote from her work. The original images of the Rawlings family papers which appear here are courtesy of Byrd Tribble.]
In our last episode we left Captain Ben Rawlings at his parents' home in western Spotsylvania on the night of November 27-28, 1863. Ben had attracted unwanted attention earlier on the 27th by capturing two federal cavalrymen near his home. Now, that night, he found himself surrounded by a regiment of Union cavalry. He had but one reasonable alternative, and that was to surrender peaceably.
Together with about one hundred other unlucky southern soldiers, Ben was marched off to captivity. While being taken to the federal rear Ben met up with W.D. Foster, a neighbor who had also been seized. While they marched along Foster managed to write a note, shown below. It reads: "You will please inform my family that I am a prisoner of war, and Capt. Benj. Rawlings also, we are on our way to Washington City this the 28th November 1863." Foster wrapped this note around a rock and threw it into the yard of Mrs. Woolfrey, who lived near the intersection of Orange Plank and Culpeper Plank Roads.
"After some days we were loaded in box cars and under a heavy guard were sent to Washington and consigned to Old Carroll Prison, also known as the Old Capitol Prison," where they arrived on December 5. There the Confederate officers were segregated from the enlisted men and placed in the upper stories of the prison. During his brief stay at this facility Ben was treated well. "Our fare at this prison was very good and plenty of it." Naturally, this relatively pleasant interlude would not last long and on January 12, 1864 they were taken to the federal prison set up at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor.
|Old Capitol Prison (Library of Congress)|
At Fort McHenry Ben got his first taste of the harsh conditions that would characterize the remaining months of his imprisonment. "Although we got enough to eat, it was dished out to us like so many pigs. A big Irishman would go through the barracks with two large camp kettles with the beef cut up in small pieces, which he would pick up with his naked hands and toss it to each of the prisoners."
His time at Fort McHenry would also be brief. On January 23, 1864 "we were suddenly ordered to pack up without knowing our destination. We feared the change would be for the worse, and in this we were not mistaken. We were put on a side-wheel steamer and taken down the bay to Point Lookout."
|Point Lookout, Maryland|
Upon his arrival at Point Lookout Ben was admitted to Hammond Hospital there with a diagnosis of "debilitas." Ben quickly learned that he would need cash and something to barter with if he wished to supplement his meager rations. With that purpose in mind (and with an apparent desire to shield his father from the fact of his current infirmity) Ben wrote to his father, James Boswell Rawlings on February 26. "Have not heard from you or any of the family since my capture...Am doing as well as can be expected. [Write to me at] Pt. Lookout Hammond Hospital. Not sick. Quarters for officers...send me by flag of truce 20 lbs of chewing tobacco...Also send some greenbacks."
|Letter to James B. Rawlings, February 1864|
A week later Ben followed up with a letter to his mother, including a second plea for chewing tobacco and greenbacks. He added a serious piece of advice regarding the family's future safety: "You should be careful not to allow yourselves to become in contact with the yankee army in its next advance. Save what you can. Fall back with the negroes."
|Letter to Ann Cason Rawlings, March 1864|
Ben's parents took this warning seriously. Shortly before the battle of the Wilderness the senior Rawlings, together with their oldest son Zachary and his wife Bettie and their daughter Estelle, packed up what belongings they could and fled from Spotsylvania. Joining them in their flight were my great great grandmother Nancy Estes Row and her daughter Nan. They headed for the crossroads village of Hadensville in Goochland County. The seven of them, together with the slaves who accompanied them, stayed in Hadensville for the remainder of the war.
Once Ben was discharged from Hammond Hospital he joined his fellow prisoners in the officers' section of the camp. The officers were quartered in large Sibley tents, in the middle of which they were allowed small fires. While they were never given sufficient wood to keep warm, their lot was much better than that of their enlisted brethren. "Our rations were ever so much better than those given to the privates in the next pen, who died like flies from indifferent rations, clothing and bedding."
It was at Point Lookout that Captain Rawlings had his first contact with the black troops of the Union army, who comprised a third of the garrison. "There were several instances where former masters recognized their quondam slaves in the sentinels posted on the parapets of the pen enclosing our quarters. These negroes were very insolent and some days would shoot down prisoners who got too near the dead line [the no man's land between the prisoners' pen and the walls enclosing the perimeter]. 'Bottom rail on top now' was their favorite expression when speaking of the changed relations to their former masters." For Ben, who had enjoyed the services of one of his father's slaves while an officer in the Thirtieth Virginia Infantry, this must have come as a rude shock, indeed.
A number of Confederates made attempts to escape from Point Lookout; some lost their lives in doing so. Ben made his own bid for freedom while there, as described in an article appearing in the Lexington Gazette on January 25, 1911: "The late Capt. B.C. Rawlings of Rockbridge was detailed to go out of prison with other men and get wood. He had his men cover him up with brush and at night he made his escape, getting fifteen miles from prison when he was captured and taken back. His punishment was wearing a ball and chain." Ben's two days of freedom also earned him two weeks in solitary confinement.
Ben was moved to the fourth prison of his eleven months of confinement on June 25, 1864. "We were suddenly shipped up the coast to Fort Delaware, crowded almost to suffocation in the hold of a naval vessel. This place we found to be the worst of our experience. We were both starved and maltreated generally. The long summer days seemed interminable."
For the rest of his life Ben remained bitter about his experience at Fort Delaware. "There is no question that the government allotted full rations but allowed the prison authorities to steal it from defenseless prisoners...Remember that a great government with unlimited resources starved prisoners that they refused to exchange...O, Liberty, what atrocities are perpetrated in thy name."
After his removal to Fort Delaware Ben's family in Hadensville lost contact with him. Ben's brother sent a letter to the Richmond Enquirer which was published on September 2, 1864: "Capt. B.C. Rawlings, Company D, 30th Virginia Regiment, was taken prisoner near Chancellorsville the last of November 1863. Last heard from him at Pt. Lookout. Any information concerning him will be thankfully received by his father and brother, at Hadensville, Goochland Co., Va. Z.H. Rawlings."
Ben's constitution deteriorated to a dangerous point while he was confined at Fort Delaware. By October 1864 "I was in a most emaciated condition and had reached a state of mind perfectly indifferent to the future so much that I did not care to offer myself as a possibility of exchange. Some of the older men insisted that I be sent before the board, which to my surprise passed me at once. We were then taken to Fort Monroe by the steamer New York and from there up the James River by a boat of our own." Ben was exchanged on October 11, 1864.
Captain Ben Rawlings was admitted to General Hospital No. 4 in Richmond on October 17, where he remained until furloughed on November 11. "So ended my experience in yankee prisons. That I escaped with my life can only be ascribed to a kind providence that has always taken care of me through all the dangers of an eventful and adventurous life and will, I trust, be ever merciful to the end."
|Defenses at Howlett house|
Ben rejoined his regiment in the Petersburg defenses near Howlett house at the end of November. There he stayed until the Thirtieth Infantry was ordered to positions north of the James near Fort Harrison in February 1865. On April 2 the Confederate lines were breached and Lee was forced to abandon Richmond. Then began a nightmarish week long retreat by a disintegrating rebel army beset by attacks of the encircling union forces. As Ben remembered forty years later: "We took up a position at Five Forks, where after repulsing several attacks of Sheridan's cavalry, Warren broke through and rolled up our line on the left. I lost my sword at Five Forks. The next day, in protecting the wagons, we fought the Battle of Sayler's Creek, where we left the field in disorder, losing many men captured. We crossed the bridge over the Appomattox and continued the retreat. I slept while I walked over this railroad bridge.
" We were without rations the night before the surrender, so some of the boys killed a hog and cooked it. Having no salt, we were obliged to eat it without salt. That night and the next morning were filled with rumors of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The artillery was being packed, and the infantry was stacking arms. General Lee in his new uniform was riding across the fields in front, and the whole army was in distress and mortification as the truth was forced upon us that the Army of Northern Virginia was to be surrendered. With recent memories of Yankee prisons, I and one of my men from Kentucky who knew the country concluded to escape through the lines and join General Johnston. The man, originally from Spotsylvania, was named Buchanan. So, leaving my company in the command of Lt. John Rawlings [Ben's cousin] I left with Buchanan to get through the lines, crossing the north side of the James with the intention of going through the mountains to Johnston. After crossing the river I found that Buchanan did not know the route at all so was forced to go home, which I reached about the third day. My family had refugeed in Hadensville in Goochland County. When I got to the house where my family was staying, I was disheveled, unshaven and glassy-eyed with fatigue and fever. My own little brother, James, did not recognize me and hid in fear behind my mother's skirts."
On May 2, 1865 Benjamin and Zachary Rawlings and my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row, rode out from Hadensville on Three Chopt Road and made their way to Richmond. Once they arrived at the capitol building they joined the throngs of other forlorn Confederates seeking paroles. Each of the three received a parole signed by the provost marshal of Richmond, Colonel David M. Evans of the Twentieth New York Cavalry. A month before, when he led his regiment into the fallen Confederate capital, Colonel Evans hoisted with his own hands the United States flag over the capitol building. Once appointed provost marshal he set up his office in the senate chamber. Below is the parole given to George W.E. Row; Ben's would have been very similar to this.
|Parole of George W.E. Row|
And so, four years and four months after Ben Rawlings at age sixteen joined the Confederate army in South Carolina, his career as a soldier came to an end. But his taste for adventure remained undiminished.
The following year Ben Rawlings set out for California to mine for gold.