Stolen Pie, but a Bigger Prize for Sergeant Young at Petersburg

Today is the favorite holiday for math teachers. March Fourteenth (3-14) represents the first three numbers in the mathematical constant pi. I’ve been using pi (3.14159…) a lot more than I had anticipated as a historian. Each time I rescale the maps I draw, I need to use pi to find the circumference of the circle in my compass. Then I divide it by twelve so that the compass can define direction like a clock in addition to north, south, east, west.

Bakers have also jumped in to make today a pie-themed holiday and I also hope that my favorite Richmond pie shop–Proper Pie–does not have too long of a line after work. In the spirit of the holiday I dug through my Petersburg source material looking for a reference to pie. I found an article relating to one of the first 6th Corps soldiers to reach the Confederate lines in the campaign’s decisive assault on April 2, 1865.

Sergeant David Wilson Young carried the colors of the 139th Pennsylvania Infantry in Colonel James Warner’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 6th Corps. Despite his regiment starting in the second line in Warner’s column, Young was reported to have planted his flag on the Confederate earthworks that morning before any others in the brigade. Before the battle a donor had provided Ulysses S. Grant with a purse of $460 to award to the first Union soldier to raise the national flag over Richmond. Since the city fell as a result of the fighting at Petersburg, Grant divided the sum into three parts and requested the commanders of the 5th, 6th, and 24th Corps select a suitable soldier for the prize.

Sergeant David Wilson Young, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry (Richard A. Sauers Collection)

Wright selected Young and the Pennsylvania sergeant received a handwritten letter from Grant containing $153.33 just before mustering out of the army. Two decades later he reflected on the experience and wrote to the National Tribune in 1884 inquiring for the names of the other two recipients.

Private Sylvester Ford Hildebrand had served with Young in the 139th Pennsylvania and had written extensively about his experience. He read Young’s inquiry in the National Tribune. Though he could not identify the other two recipients (Corporal Jacob R. Tucker, 4th Maryland, and Sergeant Thomas W. McGraw, 23rd Illinois), he saw the opportunity to publicly admit to a prank he had played on the color bearer while camped at Petersburg in early 1865. His letter to the editor appeared in the June 24, 1884 issue under the headline “They Love Pie, Not Wisely, But Too Well.”

Private Sylvester Ford Hildebrand, 139th Pennsylvania Infantry (Simpsons Leader Times, April 14, 1930)

Some time ago there appeared an article in the columns of The Tribune from Sergeant D.W. Young, company E, 139th Pennsylvania volunteers, asking for the names of the other two brave boys who first planted the glorious old flag on the ramparts of Richmond. I have forgotten his address, but would like to ask, through The Tribune, if the sergeant ever found out the names of the two parties who, while in camp at Patrick Station, Va., 1865, took from his tent a large pie, which had been procured for a grand supper (such as soldiers usually got up in the front) for himself and his messmates. It is now nineteen years ago, and we know he will not be angry if we relate that little joke.

After his table had been spread with a bountiful supply of pure fat meat and army beans for five, with clear, cold sparkling water to quench thirst, he turned to an improvised mantlepiece for the pie, but there was no pie to be seen. It was a mystery to him, as it had been there a moment before, and, although a diligent search was made through the company, “nary” pie was to be found. Of course not, for by this time E.E. Smith and S.F. Hildebrand had made away with it–eaten heartily to Davy and his messmates’ wellfare.

Allow me to return many thanks to him for the pie. If we ever meet again we will divide a well-baked pie with him. We were all boys together, more than two-thirds of company E, 139th Pennsylvania volunteers having entered the service between the ages of sixteen and eighteen years.

The prankster boys did well during the Breakthrough on April 2nd. Colonel Warner afterward reported, “A few resolute men of each brigade of the division effected a lodgment and drove the enemy from their works. In this connection especial mention is due the One hundred and thirty-ninth Pennsylvania volunteers.”