The Story of a Union Soldier
by Tim Kinsley
It was a beautiful warm spring day. The birds were chirping and a good portion of the apple blossoms from a near by orchard were covering the ground. Ben sat, reminiscing, against a silver maple tree along side a dirt road, which was only a short distance from the Chickahominy River. One of Ben's officers had told Ben the Chickahominy River had been named by the Chickahominy tribe of the Powhatan Indian Nation. Translated it means 'The river of coarse pounded corn.'
For the past several weeks Ben's regiment had been posturing with the Rebs to see who would control the best terrain for an impending battle near Richmond. Each passing day brought more skirmishes with the Rebels. Several of Ben's comrades had been wounded or killed during the fighting. It seemed to Pvt. Benjamin J. Nicholson of Fayette County, Pennsylvania that this civil war would never end.
As Ben sat under the maple tree the smell of the near by apple orchard filled his nostrils. It brought back pleasant memories of when he had first met Miss Margaret Keefer. It was love at first sight for Ben. She was so beautiful and had such a quiet way about her. Ben learned her nickname was Peggy. He liked the sound of it. After a brief courtship, Ben and Peggy were married in Saltlick Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
The flashing pain in Ben's feet brought him back to his current situation. He was alone because he couldn't take a step further on his swollen feet. He was tired of constantly being in fear for his life. He wanted to be as far away from this war as he could, but he knew he couldn't leave again.
The rest of Ben's detachment had moved south towards Richmond. The Confederate soldiers where making a push from the north to separate his Company. "They will try to divide and concur us. We mustn't let that happen, so let's get a move on," his Captain had said. Ben deliberately slowed his pace. His feet were in too much pain to walk as quickly as the others were. One by one other soldiers in his troop passed him by.
Ben began to realize he couldn't keep up with his outfit. It really hurt Ben to know that none of them had cared to offer him any assistance. Certainly they could see he was having trouble keeping up. He finally asked himself why he should even try. When Ben found himself at the end of the line he dropped to the ground under a maple tree. Not one member of his unit turned to see if he was keeping up. Soon his detachment was out of sight. Ben knew he wouldn't make it to White House, Virginia with his regiment. He also realized his days as a fighting soldier were over. He was both mentally and physically defeated.
Startled by the sound of someone coming, Ben looked up the road. It was his cousin Henry Richter. Henry and Ben had mustered in together almost two years ago. As Henry approached, Ben could see the fear in his eyes.
"Ben, come on get up and get a move on cause them Rebs is right behind us!" Henry yelled as he continued looking over his shoulder for the Rebs.
Ben put his head down and then slowly looked up at Henry and said, "I'm so tired, and my feet hurt so bad, I can't go no further. Let 'em come!" He then began rubbing his swollen feet.
Henry turned and looked down at Ben. What he saw surprised him. Ben eyes revealed he had given up. Henry had seen the look before in other soldiers who were dying or who wanted to die. Nothing said or done would get Ben up and moving. That he was sure of. Henry knew he must get moving if he had any chance of rejoining the rest of his Regiment. If Jacob were here the two of them could carry Ben to safety. Jacob was Henry's brother. He was also assigned to Company B. Henry knew he didn't have the strength to haul Ben to safety by himself.
With a sadden voice Henry asked, "Ben, do you have any more letters I can get to ya wife?"
"No...no, just be gone. Save yourself and leave me here," Ben said in an irritated voice.
One last look at Ben and Henry began jogging down the road.
Ben watched Henry leave and then turned his thoughts to his unfortunate situation. How had he gotten here anyway? Whoever heard of man being a part of the Cavalry without a horse? He looked up to the heavens and asked the good Lord, "What did I ever do to deserve this? Why can't I be home with my wife and children?" He didn't receive an answer, because deep inside himself he knew the answer to both questions.
As Ben sat there his thoughts returned to Peggy. He missed her so much. He hoped she had gotten his last letter. He still hadn't received a reply from her. He reached down and began to rub his swollen feet again. He couldn't ever remember his feet hurting so much.
I wonder how they're all getting along together, Ben thought. Ben's dad had died almost 12 years ago. Ben was glad his mother (Catherine) and two of his brothers (Franklin & Jonathan) were living in his home. Frank being the oldest (13) would be the man of the house until Ben returned home. At least Peggy would have someone to look after her and the kids. Ben leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes for only a few seconds.
Ben's wife Peggy had received several letters from him since he had gone off to war. After putting the kids to bed she dug out those letters. She walked over to the kitchen table and sat down across from her mother-in-law. When Catherine saw the letters in Peggy's hands she sighed. When their eyes met Peggy noticed the look of empathy on Catherine's face. Peggy reached over and turned the kerosene lamp up a little. Catherine continued to mend Jonathan socks.
Peggy, unlike Ben, couldn't read or write so she just held the letters in her hands and closed her eyes to help her remember what Franklin had read to her so many times before.
Harrisburg, Camp Curtin, Oct. 28, 1862
Dear Wife: I am glad that I can take my time to let you know that I can still be on my feet but far from being well. At the same time hoping that these few lines may find you and the children well and in good health. I would like for you to state how much buck wheat you got and then state what is the reason you don't write more often than ------lines missing------ me money I would have been at home already but now we will get our bounty next week and then maybe I will get furlough and come home. If you have not sold the heftier don't sell her. Maybe we can get along without selling the heftier. Let me know whether you got my clothes and that little ? I sent Ervin. I sent them to William Brooks. Write who is drafted ------line missing------, and John White went home today. They was discharged. Tell Lana that Abraham is very bad with his fingers. You can look for me soon. Now dear wife, don't fail and write sooner than you have for some time. No more ? presents but remain your faithful husband until death. Benjamin in care of Captain T. Hurst.
(Many Union soldiers weren't aware that their letters were being censored. Thus the reason for the missing lines.)
Peggy remembered that Ben did make it home several weeks after that letter. He went Absent Without Leave. Ben didn't want to return to war so he hid out under the Raymond Rock for just over a year. Ben's mom realized the severity of Ben's actions and made him leave the house. "Ben, this is the first place they will look for you." his mom had told him.
(We aren't certain if Ben's going AWOL had anything to do with the death of his two-year-old daughter Lucy. She died in 1862 when she slipped and hit her head on a stone.)
For some unknown reason Kate Stauffer had told the army where Ben was hiding. Why would any of Ben's so called "friends" hate him so bad? Was it for the money? Kate received $25.00 for turning him in. Peggy would never understand what motivated Katie to do such a thing. John W. Stauffer and Ben had mustered in together.
Peggy knew Ben was a difficult man to live with at times, but he was a good man. He believed in God and tried to live his life as best as he could. Surely Kate wasn't upset because John was still involved in the war while Ben had been hiding out?
When the army caught up with Ben they were mighty upset. He was returned to his old outfit. It was a cavalry-dismounted detachment. Ben was told he'd better keep up with everyone else and not to disappear again. If he did, someone would be sent to find and shoot him. During this time period the army needed every soldier they could get. Ben was very lucky to be given a second chance. Some men were shot or hung for going AWOL during wartime.
Peggy sifted through several other letters and picked up the last letter she had received from him. What was it Franklin had told her about this letter? Across the table Ben's mother got up. She had finished mending the pair of socks. Peggy knew Catherine wouldn't say anything. She would just be given that look again. Catherine walked over to Peggy and gave her a kiss on the head and went to bed. A single tear appeared on Peggy's check. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes again.
Army of the Potomac Camp at Kellys Ford Across the Rappahannock, May the 7th 1864
Dear Wife: I take my pen in hand this blessed Sabbath day in order to let you know that I am as well as it can be expected the way we have to live. But I hope and trust in God that these few lines will find you and my dear children all well, and my friends, as far as they are friends...I don't wish any of them bad luck being as they have told on me and wished me all the bad luck they could. I wish all of them well and I hope that I may get safe through this war. If I do it will not be through some of their wishes. For I know that some of them have wished me killed, but I have a better Tower to look to than them that wish me killed. But Dear Wife we are close to the Rebs now and we look every day for a fight. It will be the hardest fight that ever has been fought yet and if we get through this fight I think this war will soon be over.
Peggy put the letter down. She turned down the kerosene lamp and walked to the door leading to the porch. Standing in the doorway she gazed at the moon and wondered if her husband was still alive or dead. It had been over three months since she received his last letter. The buckwheat would have to be harvested soon. The farm needed Ben's strong hands to repair the rundown condition that was beginning to appear. How much longer would he be.
Peggy closed the door and went to Ben Jr. who was fussing and couldn't get to sleep. Ben Jr. was the only good thing that had come from Ben hiding out from the army.
Ben awoke to the sound of someone telling him to get up. "Get up now Yank," a fierce looking Reb said as he continued to point his rifle at Ben. When Ben didn't move quickly enough two Rebs reached down and hauled him roughly to his feet. They pushed him towards a couple of other captured Union soldiers. Whether he wanted to or not, Ben was up and walking on his swollen feet once again.
Upon entering Richmond, Ben was lead to a four-story building. Steel bars covering the windows on the first two floors. All of the glass in the upper story windows was removed. Ben noticed the outside of the first two floors of the building was freshly covered with white wash paint. It had the look of a well-kept up warehouse. A sign attached between the third and forth floor windows read 'Libby Prison'.
Ben and the other prisoners were lined up in a single file outside the prison. One by one the prisoners were escorted up a steep flight of steps to the second floor entrance. Once inside, each prisoner was asked his name, rank and regiment. The prison clerk registered that information in the Libby roll. After being registered, Ben was relieved of the few valuables he had and led to a 45-by-90 foot room. Once inside the room the door was immediately closed and bolted on the outside. The room contained no furniture, ventilation was poor, and the lighting was gloomy. Ben wasn't certain, but he thought that there must have been 100 men being confined in the room.
Ben limped over to an open spot on the floor next to an older man and sat down. The older man wasn't dressed in a soldier's uniform. Instead, he was wearing a tattered and stained frock coat, which partially concealed a fancy white shirt and gray-stripped pants.
After a few moments the old man looked over at Ben and said, "Your feet don't look to good son. You probably won't be considering escaping from this place?"
"Mister, this war is over for me," Ben said.
"I see, and a good thing too. Others have tried and they are now buried down the road a piece," the man said.
Ben decided not to reply.
"A political prisoner is what they call me," the old man said. "It's an excuse the Confederates use to incarcerate someone they don't trust," he continued.
The old man leaned over and whispered to Ben, "It looks like it would be easy to escape from a penal institution sporting open windows. Ahh, but most forget, or aren't aware, that Libby Prison is guarded by two Companies of soldiers totaling sixty men, and half that number are on duty at all times. Like other prisons, you don't want to be seen within three feet of those windows. The guards patrol this prison with their guns cocked and endlessly watch the windows for a chance to shoot. The Rebs refer to it as 'Sporting for Yankees'. Still," the old man continued to ramble on, "Those windows look mighty inviting don't they? I would remind a desperate man to remember that freshly coated white paint on the lower two levels of this building. The Rebels did that so they could better see the Yanks trying to escape from the upper windows at night. Pretty clever of them don't ya think?" The old man winked at Ben.
Again Ben didn't speak. He just wanted this old man to leave him alone.
"Almost forgot," the old man started up again with a twinkle in his eye, "this is the only building in all of Richmond that has running water. They draw is straight from the James River. Imagine that. The only building in Richmond that has modern plumbing is a prison. Don't that beat all?" The old man softly chucked.
Ben's stay in Libby prison lasted only a week. Ben and about 500 others prisoners were marched to a different prison. One of the prisoners was brave enough to ask just where they were headed. A Reb Sergeant heard the question. He walked over to the Yank who had asked the question and struck him in the stomach for speaking without permission. The Sergeant began to laugh as he told the trooper, "You are all going to a new rest home. They call it Camp Sumter. You will like it there. They treat gentlemen like you Yanks real nice down there." The Sergeant and several of his men began laughing again.
Ben overheard one of the prisoners whisper to another that they were heading to Andersonville.
Peggy Nicholson could hear a rider coming up the road while she was using the scrub board to do her laundry. She looked up and saw it was Bill Linderman. She used her apron to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Then she began to smooth her hair into place. No reason to scare Bill off before he got down off his horse.
Peggy noticed a look of despair on Bill's face. "Bill what ya doing up these ways?" Peggy asked. After stepping down from his horse Bill didn't say anything. He just handed Peggy a letter and looked away.
Franklin came over from the barn when he saw Mr. Linderman. Peggy told Franklin that she had something in her eye would he please read the letter Mr. Linderman had brought her.
Frank immediately recognized the letter was from the Army. He slowly opened the letter and began reading it.
Dear Mrs. Benjamin Nicholson,
It is with deepest regrets that I inform you that your husband Benjamin J. Nicholson has died (Franklin's throat began to swell up) while...while imprisoned at Andersonville, Georgia on the 14th of August, 1864. Your husband was captured at Chickahominy, near White House, Virginia on the 15th of June, 1864. He was confined at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia and a week later moved to Andersonville, Georgia. He died of Dysentery and is buried in Grave #5595 at the Andersonville Prison Cemetery.
*Lt. Col. J. Irvin Gregg Assistant Adjutant to Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg Second Brigade, Second Division 6th Cavalry Corps of the United States.
Franklin hastily handed the letter back to Peggy and ran back to the barn. Peggy crumpled the letter in her hands and began to cry. Her oldest son Ervin, who was now 8 years old, came to her side and asked, "What's the matter Mama?" She turned to speak to Ervin and noticed her three other children. Mary Ann, age 10, was holding Ben Jr., and Weldon, age 2, was standing next to Mary Ann. All of them were starring at her. With tears streaking her face Peggy looked up into the sky and said to herself, 'God, what am I suppose to do now?'
Notes from the author:
John Oester did much of the research for this story. He's one of the finest individuals I have ever come across. I believe John will be coming out with a more detailed and complete history of his Nicholson family in the future. John has read this story and told me to post it.
I guess you could say I'm very lucky to have access to such family history. I often think of Ben and his sad tale. I thought it was time to share it with others.
I believe each of you have similar stories about your ancestors to share. Please consider doing so. I'm sure that educators and others could nail me for a number of mistakes in my story. I also believe the most important part of any story is that you have fun doing it. I did enjoy putting this one together.
I put an asterisk by Col. J. Irvin Gregg's name for the following reason. There were two possibilities (maybe more) of who would have written Peggy the letter about her husbands demise. One was Col. J. Irvin Gregg, and the other was Lt. Col. John K. Robison of the 16th Cavalry Pennsylvania Line. I chose Col. Gregg because of his rank and because I like to think someone of his stature would have taken the time to write such a letter. There was also a minister at Andersonville Prison who was known to have prayed over soldiers who were dying. When the war was over this same minister was said to have written death notification letters to the families of the soldiers who died at Andersonville.
Bill Linderman is a fictitious name for the person who delivered the letter from the army. The Nicholsons and Lindermans have intermarried in the past, so this may not be too much of a stretch.
The old man who talked to Ben at Libby Prison was also fictitious. I used him as a vehicle to bring in the research I had done on that prison. Many political prisoners were housed with Union soldiers at Libby Prison. When the Union soldiers were transferred to Andersonville, many of the political prisoner where sent to other prisons near Richmond.
Fact: When Ben Nicholson was incarcerated in Andersonville Prison there were 32,898 other prisoners there. Four hundred and thirty-six prisoners died of dysentery the same month (August) as Ben did. A total of 999 prisoners died of dysentery, another 999 died of scurvy, and 3,530 died of diarrhea in Andersonville prison in 1864. A total of 7,712 men died at Andersonville. Those are pretty sad statistics.
Captain Henry Wirz, the Andersonville commandant, was hanged at the end of the war.
© 1998 Tim Kinsley