One Of Those Nice Surprises

One of the benefits of living and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia is the contact with people who have a family connection to the Civil War.  Here at my school we have direct descendants of both Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.  Although Rodes is notorious owing to the burning of his letters by his wife, I was able to spend a few weeks looking through a large scrapbook that was compiled by his sister during and after the war. 

A couple of days ago one of my students in the Civil War class commented that her family had an ancestor who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, and would I like to see what they have.  I think it’s safe to say that every serious Civil War historian lives to hear those few words.  It conjures up images of untapped primary source material and the possibility that something truly important may be revealed.  Well, yesterday she brought the material in and while it is not going to shake-up the Civil War community it is a nice find nonetheless.  The packet included the muster and parole papers for Private John Y. Reily of Company K, 16th Mississippi Regiment, Harris’s Brigade.  He was wounded three times during the war at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Drewry’s Bluff before being taken prisoner on April 2, 1865. 

In the 1880’s Reily wrote a wonderful account of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg outside of Petersburg.  The language is vintage Lost Cause:

Of the 250 men of all arms in the fort, less than fifty lined up as prisoners, and only five of those men unwounded.  Talk of Sebastopol, Thermopylae, and Gettysburg, while all were glorious and sublime, yet their luster is paled when compared with the inconceivable courage displayed in the last bloody defense of Fort Gregg.  The proudest heritage that I can hope to leave to my posterity is that I am a Confederate Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immortal Robert E. Lee, and that I was one of the few defenders of Fort Gregg.

In addition to his memoir and papers, Reily left a very short autobiographical account written one year before his death in 1925 and there is a lengthy obituary from a Louisiana newspaper.  I also have a 20-page account of Fort Gregg that Reily’s grandson researched.  All in all a nice find and a worthwhile addition to my own growing collection of primary sources.

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4 comments… add one

  • elektratig Oct 12, 2006

    Lost Cause or not, how many people today have even heard of Thermopylae or Sevastopol? What’s most interesting is the knowledge of the writer and the knowledge he assumes of the reader.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2006

    Good point, but it can get a little annoying in reading these postwar accounts where every minor skirmish is remembered as a Thermopylae or Sevastopol.

  • Caroline Oct 16, 2006

    Nice post, glad you enjoyed it. Just as an FYI he was injured 6 times during the war. See ya back in class!!!

  • Robert Rodes Dec 5, 2014

    I would love to know what was in that scrapbook of my great-great-grand aunt.

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