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Monday, April 7, 2014

Corporal William White and the Wrong Man

Western Spotsylvania County, 1863

     Today's tale comes from the superb Civil War diary of artillerist William S. White, which is included in Contributions to a History of the Third Richmond Howitzer Battalion, published by Carlton McCarthy & Co. in 1883. I heartily recommend to the history enthusiasts out there that they read his diary in its entirety. White fought in twenty one battles, from Bethel Church to Appomattox. His detailed descriptions of those engagements, his depiction of camp life and the articulate manner in which he shares his views make this journal a compelling read. It can be found online here; White's diary begins on page 84. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
     We will be looking at a three month period of White's experience, which occurred December 1862 to February 1863. Corporal White was assigned by the provost marshal to take charge of the case of fellow soldier John Edwards of Spotsylvania, who had been convicted of desertion in the face of the enemy and was sentenced to be "shot to death by musketry."

Verdict and sentencing of John Edwards

     Corporal White's efforts on Edwards' behalf obliged him to travel on horseback in deep snow through western Spotsylvania, among other places. In the course of his travels he had occasion to spend two nights at Greenfield, the plantation of my great great grandmother, Nancy Estes Row, the only person he knew in Spotsylvania. In the group portrait below, Nancy Row is seated at left next to her daughter Martha Row Williams. Standing behind them are Nancy's daughters Bettie Row Rawlings and Nannie Row.

Nancy Estes Row and her daughters, c. 1870

     William S. White was born in Richmond in 1840, a son of Phillip Barrett White, a merchant in that city. The senior White was raised in Hanover County and was buried at his family's ancestral home there after his death in August 1851. Eleven year old William was then sent to Lexington, Virginia to live with his uncle, Reverend William Spottswood White, pastor of Lexington Presbyterian Church. (After the Civil War Reverend White retired from the ministry and became principal of the Ann Smith Academy, a school for girls attended by my great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Houston).  Young William White's Sunday school teacher was future Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill, in whose division White served during the Civil War. Hill was an instructor at Washington College 1849-1854.
     In January 1854 White was one of the witnesses to the fatal stabbing of VMI cadet Thomas Blackburn by Washington College law student Charles Burks Christian. The slaying took place across the street from Reverend White's church. This sensational event and the trial that followed are the subjects of the excellent book by my friend Dan Morrow, Murder in Lexington, available from History Press. In October 1862, as fate would have it, Corporal White and his company camped in Clarke County, Virginia on the farm of Dr. Richard Scott Blackburn, the father of the slain cadet.
     Although stricken with illness several times during the war, White was fortunate to avoid being wounded or captured. In 1862, during the battle of Ellerson's mill, White found himself at his family's estate in Hanover County and fought for three hours within a few yards of his father's grave.
     John Edwards, for whose survival Corporal White worked so hard, was a laborer in Spotsylvania as shown on the 1860 census. He was by no means young - he was in his mid fifties - and was described by the provost marshal (to aid in his capture, no doubt) as five feet five inches with a dark complexion, blue eyes and sandy hair. In the map detail presented above, Edwards (whose name does not appear on the map) would have lived north of Todd's Tavern between Catharpin Road and the unfinished railroad.
     Some of the other individuals who appear in White's narrative are:

     -"Mrs. Rowe," my great great grandmother Nancy Estes Row. White knew her thanks to his friendship with Nancy's daughter Martha and her husband James Tompkins Williams, who lived in Richmond 1851-1867. James T. Williams was a partner in the firm of Tardy & Williams, auctioneers and wholesale grocers. Nancy's home, Greenfield, is seen in the lower center of the map as "Mrs. Rowe."

     -William A. Stephens and Joseph Trigg, neighbors of Nancy Estes Row. Their farms are shown on the map north of the Row place, adjacent to the unfinished railroad.

     -Leroy Wonderful Dobyns (yes, that was his real name) was the owner of Oakley, the farm immediately south of Greenfield. His home was the scene of chaos and violence during the battle of the Wilderness, as described in a well known letter by his daughter Maria.
     -Robert C. Dabney, Spotsylvania clerk of court. During the war he buried the county's records, thereby saving them from being destroyed by rampaging Federal troops.

     -William Stone Barton was an attorney and ardent secessionist in Fredericksburg before the war. He served as a major in the 30th Virginia Infantry before becoming judge advocate of the Confederate army. After the war Barton was judge of the 10th Circuit (where he heard a number of cases relating to my family) and Assistant Court of Appeals.

     I cannot improve upon the quality of William S. White's prose, so I will allow him to tell his tale in his own words:

                                             Jan 31


     The John Edwards that Major Barton knew was John B. Edwards, a musician in Company A, 30th Virginia Infantry. This John Edwards did indeed serve in the Mexican War.

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