I’m trying to learn what kind of experience my great-grandfather, Samuel Young, went through in the Civil War, and so I read a book which might, or might not, reflect that experience.
My great-grandfather, according to the story handed down in the family, enlisted in a Mississippi unit about 1863. I’ve found a record for an S.F. Young (right initials) in E Company, 2nd Mississippi Cavalry. The problem is that the company was formed in a county in northeastern Mississippi, near Tupelo. My grandfather was from Pike County in southwestern Mississippi, near the border with Louisiana. The 2nd Mississippi Cavalry became part of a corps under Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, which surrendered in Alabama on May 4, 1865 (nearly a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox).
The family story put my great-grandfather farther east, with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia or Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, which surrendered two weeks after Lee at Greensboro, North Carolina. The story says that Samuel, employed as a messenger boy because of his age (18 at the end of the war), had to make his way home to Mississippi mostly on foot. When he finally arrived home, some months after the end of the war, he found his family gone. They’d moved to eastern Texas to escape Federal control (in case you might wonder, they were small farmers who owned no slaves, at least according to census records). Samuel trekked across Louisiana to Texas, where he found them in the late fall of 1865.
We know what happened afterward. Samuel married a local Mississippi girl, they had seven surviving children (the youngest of whom was my grandfather), and he died in 1920. He’s buried in a small town near Alexandria, La. He was also the youngest in his own family, and the only one of three brothers who survived the Civil War.
I was familiar with Lee’s surrender; most Americans likely think it was the event that ended the war. But Johnston’s army was still in the field in North Carolina, with Gen. William Sherman’s army after him. I didn’t know much on Johnston’s surrender two weeks after Lee’s, until I happened across a book.
The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro by Robert Dunkerly, published in 2013, is an in-depth account of the last days of the Army of Tennessee. Dunkerly draws upon some 200 individual accounts, from soldiers, officers, and civilians, to tell an immediate and compelling story of the last days of the 40,000-man army.
Johnston’s movement up from South Carolina to Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital, and then to Greensboro happened to coincide with the Confederate government’s flight from Richmond to Danville, Virginia, and then to Greensboro. Jefferson Davis and his cabinet would continue south until their eventual capture at Irwinville, Georgia. Part of Dunkerly’s story of Johnston’s surrender is also the story of the last days of the Confederate government.
The final days were anything but calm. Rumors abounded among the soldiers about surrender, about Lee’s army, and about plans to continue the war. Stragglers, deserters, and eventually soldiers paroled from Lee’s army were making their way south and began to make contact with units of Johnston’s army. Confederate government stories of provisions were looted by soldiers and civilians alike. The economy was non-existent, social order had broken down, and people were doing what they could to defend themselves, their families, and their homes. Desertion was a growing problem; many soldiers were simply leaving to go home. Johnston might have lost up to a fourth of his army to desertion.
Imagine a society in which currency is worthless, banks have failed, necessities are scarce, and bands of soldiers, deserters, and former slaves are ravaging the countryside, looking for food (and sometimes plunder). Dunkerly tells this enthralling story, with the army at its heart.
Dunkerly is a historian, speaker, and author actively involved in historic preservation and research. He received his bachelor’s degree in history from St. Vincent College and his master’s degree in historic preservation from Middle Tennessee State University. He’s worked at nine historical sites and published some 11 books, including Redcoats on Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina. He’s currently a park ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park.
Whether my great-grandfather was part of Lee’s army or Johnston’s, he would have been making his way home through a society in which nothing was the same, nor would be again, civil order was in shanbles, and food was what you could shoot or forage. And thousands of former soldiers were in exactly the same situation. Somehow, Samuel Young made it.
Top photograph by Scott Umstattd via Unsplash. Used with permission.