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Friday, September 7, 2012

Matthew Willson

Matthew Doak Willson

     James Willson, born in Ireland in 1715, was five years old when he boarded a ship with his parents and his brother Moses, bound for America. The ship foundered off the coast of France and James's parents were lost at sea. James and Moses were spotted by a nearby ship, also making for America, and were rescued. The boys landed in Philadelphia and were taken in by relatives who raised them. Moses would remain in Philadelphia; James moved south to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
     In 1754 James built a house named "Mount Pleasant" in Rockbridge County. Here generations of Willsons and Houstons, my ancestors, lived for 200 years. Matthew Doak Willson, one of my great grandmother's uncles, was born on August 3, 1844, the youngest child of Thomas Willson and Elizabeth Hopkins Poague.
     Like his great grandfather's experience on the Atlantic Ocean, Matthew's career as a Confederate soldier would take some unexpected turns and was fraught with danger.
     Eighteen year old Matthew Willson enlisted in Company H of the Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry on September 1, 1862. As far as I know his first seven weeks as a cavalry trooper went routinely. All that changed on November 26, 1862 when he was captured during a fight in Greenbrier, (West) Virginia. The records show that he was taken captive by Colonel John Paxton of the Second (West) Virginia Cavalry. Paxton had a brief stint as a Union officer which was characterized by certain personality flaws which doomed his career. This is worth a brief digression.

Letter of Colonel Don Pardee, 8 November 1862

     On November 8, 1862--three weeks before he captured Matthew--Colonel Paxton was observed indulging in some ungentlemanly behavior. In the letter shown above, provost marshal Colonel Don Pardee wrote to the adjutant general: "Sir: I regret to be obliged to report Colonel Paxton 2nd Va Vol Cavalry for intoxication, and unofficerlike conduct at a public table." In May 1863 Paxton was dishonorably discharged for "neglect of duty and drunkenness whilst under orders to attack the enemy." Some political strings were evidently pulled behind the scenes and Paxton was later given an honorable discharge in exchange for his resignation.
     Served him right, for capturing my great grandmother's uncle.
     Private Matthew Willson was first taken to the Atheneum prison in Wheeling, (West) Virginia on December 4, 1862. Two days later he was taken to Camp Chase in Ohio.

Camp Chase

     A month later Matthew was again transferred, this time to the grim federal facility at Alton Illinois. Here he would languish for three months until he was exchanged on April 1, 1863. He soon rejoined his regiment. During his first seven months as a Confederate cavalryman Private Willson had spent just seven weeks in the saddle.

Prison at Alton, Illinois

     For the next nineteen months Matthew is marked present on company muster rolls. The Fourteenth Cavalry battled at Antietam, Gettysburg and dozens of other fights big and small. Whatever good luck Matthew had enjoyed during this period ran out at Cedarville on November 12, 1864.
     What had started out as a Confederate rout of the Yankees quickly went the other way and the Fourteenth Cavalry was badly mauled. William Howard Houston, another uncle of my great grandmother, was killed that day. Matthew was captured a second time, again by the Second (West) Virginia Cavalry, this time without the services of the bibulous John Paxton.
     Just before he was captured, Matthew's head was gashed by a saber cut and he was shot in the left arm. The doctor's notes described a "GSW left forearm radial art[ery] was ligated." The Union doctors helpfully noted that the missile was a pistol ball. "GS wound of forearm entering in front below elbow and passing out near ulna." Had he not been captured, Matthew would have been treated by my cousin Dr. Elhanon Winchester Row, the regimental surgeon of the Fourteenth Cavalry.
     Matthew was first treated at the Union field hospital in Winchester and then was packed off to the prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. Over the course of three months he was treated at three different hospitals before being deemed well enough to join the general prison population on March 31, 1865. And there he remained until June 19, when he took the oath of allegiance and was released.
     Matthew Willson returned to Rockbridge and married Ruth Patterson in 1869, with whom he had six children. He survived the Civil War by 52 years, dying on December 8, 1917.

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