“Because You Was Always True To Me”: A Union Soldier & His Sweetheart

Dear Friend… I should like to sean [have seen] you before I enlisted, but I thought that you had something against me. But if I have said anything against you, I hope you will forgive me, for I thought that we used to be as good friends as could be found. I hope that you will not have any hardness [of] feelings against me, and I hope we may both live to see one another once more…[i]

That’s how Peleg Bradford, Jr. wrote his first preserved letter to his sweetheart in October 1862, several months after he left home and enlisted. He had joined the 18th Maine Infantry Regiment which mustered into service on August 21, 1862, and was assigned to build and defend Washington’s fortifications. In January 1863, the regiment transformed into the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and continued on fort duty around Washington until the Overland Campaign in 1864.

Bradford’s letters give a glimpse of a realistic “Civil War romance,” challenged by distance and threatened by physical wounds. Due to a full blog schedule yesterday [Valentine’s Day], these primary sources and observations will continue the discussion of romantic relationships during the 1860’s conflict for another day.

Age twenty when he enlisted, Peleg Bradford, Jr. had spent his youthful years working for his father on the farm, trying to make enough money to care for his mother and eight siblings. Bradford’s father struggled with alcoholism, making life difficult for the family. Throughout his Civil War letters, he tried to make sure his mother had enough money and advised her on some financial decisions. Troubles in childhood had educated young Bradford and taught him what he valued and wanted for his own future. The separation from family and friends during his enlistment, also helped him focus on his future plans.

One of his plans was to get married, but – unsure of his sweetheart’s feelings – he took his time before declaring his intention. Throughout 1862 and 1863, Bradford wrote to occasionally to his “dear friend” who was Cynthia McPherson, usually just informing her of his good health, the weather, and news about mutual friends from their hometown – Carmel, Maine.

Drawing, Army Encampment, 1862, by Winslow Homer. Camp scenes like these would have been familiar to Bradford as he wrote his letters to Miss McPherson.

In May 1863, Bradford commented on a friend’s wedding and made the observation to Miss McPherson that “I think that if the war lasts three years, theair [there] will not be any chance for me to get a woman.” In the same letter, he sends “respects” to her parents and tells her to let Mr. McPherson know how much he likes soldiering. In the saga of preserved letters, this is the first open hint at marriage and courting topics, starting by trying to impress the girl’s parents. Later, Bradford sends newspapers from Washington for Mr. McPherson. He never asked his other correspondents – Mother, Father, brothers, and sisters – about Miss McPherson, and some phrases imply they might have approved the match at first.

The letters went back and forth, and then the heartsick moment of all long-distance relationships happened in December 1863:

An 1864 painting by Winslow Homer.

Dear Friend,

As I have not written you for along [a long] time, I will improve a few moments in writing to you. I am well and hope theas [these] few lines will find you the same. I should written to you before, but I got a letter from Carmel, and they told me that you was agoing to get married, and so I thought that if it was so, I would stop writing to you, but I thought that I would write you this letter to know about it.

I always thought well of you, and had maid [made] up my mind that when I got home that we would get married, if we could make things agreeable all around. I must now close, so good by.[ii]

Bradford wrote his slightly desperate, slightly hopeful letter on December 13, and by the 27th. he had received a reply from Miss Cynthia and wrote back to her. She had clearly refuted the rumor and wanted to know who had started it; her soldier responded:

…I will tell you who wrote that you was going to get married if you will promise me that you will not tell, for it is all past now. I will not tell you in this letter, but I will tell you the next time that I wrote. I suppose why they wrote that you was going to get married was to make trouble betwixt us, but since I read your letter, I know that it is all a dam [damn] lie, and I should not believe it now if my mother should write it, because you told me that you was not and whatever you tell me, I can believe, because you was always true to me Cynth.

I alwaysed loved you, and if you will be true to me, I will be true to you, and when I get home, we will get married, and then let them say what they will. The time will soon pass away when I shall be at home. We will write often, and the time will soon pass away. It is about a year and half longer that I have got to stop out here. I wish that I was home with you this winter instead of being out here…[iii]

With their engagement informally settled, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson corresponded more regularly and clearly enjoyed their communications; his letters often included repeated promises to “be true” and that he had always loved her. He started taking her advice about not re-enlisting (though that was his preference, too) and asking her opinions. In April 1864, it seems that Bradford got leave to return to Maine after his father died, and during that visit to Carmel, they were formally engaged, if their implied new relationship stage in the letters is correct.

With just months left in his enlistment, Bradford had yet to see battle. That changed during the 1864 Overland Campaign when the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any unit in the Army of the Potomac. Bradford made it through his first skirmish with only a bullet’s “scratch,” but on June 7th, he was seriously wounded in the right knee, forcing a hospital amputation of that leg. And the future he had anticipated changed.

Drawing, Soldier Giving Water to a Wounded Companion, 1864, by Winslow Homer

The first preserved letter he wrote to Cynthia after the injury implies that she had already heard about the wounded and amputation (probably from Bradford’s mother) and had written to him at the hospital:

Dear Friend,

I now improve a few moments time in writing to you. I am sitting up, but I don’t know how long I can sit up. You wanted to know how my leg got along. It is getting along first rate…

…Oh Cynthia – God knows how much I have suffered since I lost my leg, but it is getting along first rate now. I would like to write you a good long letter, but I can’t. I can only write short letters, so goodbye for this time.

From your ever true friend[iv]

Bradford wrote at least one other short note to Cynthia before penning a longer letter on August 20, 1864, addressing a serious subject:

Love’s Melancholy by Constant Mayer, 1866

…Perhaps you think that I have forgotten you by not writing to you oftener, but I have not. I think of you every day, but I hope you will not think hard of me as where I am at the present time [the hospital], but I hope the time will soon pass away and I can be at home with you, for I shall always hold the promise that I made when I was at home last spring, but as I am not, it would be better for you to brake [break] that promise, for when I made that promise I was a hol [whole] man, but I am far from it now.

I am not speaking of this any thing more than I think it is my duty, as I will do as I say, and that you know I will not say any thing more about it this time until I get home, and then we will talk the matter over and make it all right.

Someway I am asking to leave it all to with you, whatever you say I will do. That is a fair deal, is it not[?] Don’t get angry at what I say, will you[?]…[v]

Knowing that the loss of a leg changed his future abilities to provide for and care for a wife, Bradford honestly let Cynthia know that she could break their engagement and he would not hold it against her. His suspicion that she might be angry about the subject suggests he knew she would still want to marry, but he felt honor-bound to give her a way out, if she had changed her mind.

Happily, Miss Cynthia McPherson refused to break the engagement and welcomed her soldier home when he was released to go home to fully recuperate. Recovered, he returned to Washington to finish out his service commitment, taking Cynthia’s advice to not leave the military early since it might alter future benefits.

On October 7, 1866, Peleg Bradford and Cynthia McPherson married. It seems to be the beginning of a happy life together; they had eight children. Bradford built a sawmill and was active in local government.

The account of Peleg and Cynthia’s wartime romance is simple, almost understated. But they were sincere, and through rumors, long distance, and physical injury, their relationship survived and grew stronger. Their concerns about constancy and injury reflected situations facing many couples during the Civil War, but happily their love triumphed. In a progressing, written intimacy traced through details and the names “dear friend” to “Cynth,” the preserved letters chronicle the straightforward wooing and proposal of this Union soldier. Prior to the war, in the months in camp, journey to the battlefield, and transfer into the hospital wards, Peleg Bradford was lucky (and he knew it) because his love “was always true to me.”


[i] Bradford, Peleg. Melissa MacCrae and Maureen Bradford, editors. No Place for Little Boys: Civil War Letters of a Union Soldier, Goddess Publications, Brewer, ME: 1997. Pages 9-10 – October 8, 1862

[ii] Ibid., Page 64 – December 13, 1862

[iii] Ibid., Page 66 – December 27, 1863

[iv] Ibid., Page 91 – July 13, 1864

[v]Ibid., Page 98 – August 20, 1864

An Unusual Valentine: Elmer E. Ellsworth, Esquire

Elmer Ellsworth about 1860

Every biography or biographical article about not-yet-colonel Elmer Ellsworth says the same thing: It is not known if Ellsworth passed, or even took, the Illinois State Bar Examination. I know this is not a bombshell issue for most people, but some of us care. I care. And, I am working like a madwoman to finish up my biography of Colonel Ellsworth before the next full eclipse of the sun. So imagine my surprise when . . .

March 30, 2017–the news breaks. “Joint Secretary of State & Supreme Court Restoration Project of Illinois Attorney Oaths Complete” is the headline of the For Immediate Release memo from the desk of Jesse White, Secretary of State for the great state of Illinois. This, apparently, had been a long-term project that sought to discover, restore, and preserve the attorney oaths for the Illinois Supreme Court. “Approximately 142,000 oaths, some preceding the Civil War, have been restored,” according to White. As explained in the memo, signing the Attorney Oath is the final step a newly minted lawyer takes before practicing law in Illinois. One must pass the bar exam before signing this oath.

The project was begun in 2009 and took until last year to complete. The Illinois Supreme Court was preparing to completely restore their building and needed a place to keep the court records while this was happening. Carolyn Taft Grosboll, current clerk of the Court stated, “Among the records were these historic oaths, so we contacted the State Archives. The State Archives graciously agreed not only to store the oaths for the Court but also to restore them.”[1] Most were in good condition, but some had been affected by mold or deteriorated by water damage. The amazing archivists in Illinois were able to restore almost all the badly damaged oaths using modern techniques, including the digitalization of some of the badly eroded signatures.

Clarence Darrow

Among the oaths in the Supreme Court’s collection are those for famed attorney Clarence Darrow, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Robinson Obama, former U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Arthur Goldberg, 12 U.S. Senators, 12 Illinois governors, 59 Illinois Supreme Court justices and five Chicago mayors. Oaths from attorneys licensed before the Civil War, such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, were incorporated into the law license itself; therefore, no separate oaths for Lincoln and Douglas are included in this collection.[2]

And whom else did they find? Yes. Elmer Ellsworth. In 1860, Ellsworth began studying law with Abraham Lincoln, although he had studied with a couple of other men in Chicago before leaving with the Chicago Zouave Cadet Tour in the summer of 1860. Lincoln asked Ellsworth personally to study in Springfield at his law office. During the time he worked there, he became friends with Lincoln secretaries George Nicolay and John Hay, Mary Lincoln, the Lincoln children, and many of the movers and shakers in the Illinois political scene. Ellsworth worked the Republican Convention in Chicago for the Lincoln supporters, he walked with Mr. Lincoln to cast his vote in the presidential election, and he celebrated with the Lincolns on the night of Lincoln’s election.

History left an Ellsworthian blank between November 6, 1860, and February 11, 1861,

Lincoln in Illinois

when Elmer Ellsworth accompanied Lincoln on the Inaugural Express train from Springfield to Washington. We know that before Ellsworth left, he presented a bill for the organization of the Illinois State Militia to the state legislature. It passed several reviews and committees, but was never brought to a vote because within weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, Fort Sumter had been fired on, and all available militia members were being asked to go to Washington.

Now, the blank has been filled in–between November 6 and February 11 Elmer Ellsworth was passing the bar exam in Illinois, and we have proof! A letter was found from Judge Pickney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney that said to create a law license for Ellsworth. On the back of the letter is a note by Turney saying that the license was sent. Elmer Ellsworth’s documentation allowing him to practice law in Illinois became official on February 14, 1861. Now we know.


John Lupton

I will be interviewing John Lupton of the Illinois Supreme Court Historical Preservation Commission in the next couple of months for emergingcivilwar.com. Mr. Lupton worked with me to get all the right documents signed that permit me to tell this story, and it is only because people like Mr. Lupton exist that the tiny-but-strong unifying threads of the past are able to be teased out of the huge historical knot we love so well. Stay tuned!


Happy Valentine’s Day.

[1] https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/news/2017/march/170330d1.pdf

[2] Ibid.

“The Valhalla of the South”

I found this text from an undated tourism brochure in my archives, which I thought was appropriate to share for Virginia’s Lee-Jackson Day, commemorated each year on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:

Historic Lexington
“The Valhalla of the South”
is only 13 miles North of the beautiful Natural Bridge 

Here are the tomb of General Lee, the grave of General Jackson, and the grave of the New Market Cadets.

Here, too, are the Virginia Military Institute, with its Museum and colorful military parades, Washington & Lee University, the Lee Museum and Chapel, and General Lee’s Office.

The Shrines of Lexington are devoted to education and history and no admission is charged.

Another Courier’s Perspective: William Henry Jenkins and the Death of A.P. Hill

Earlier this week I shared some new information discovered about William Bennett Kirkpatrick, a previously unidentified courier who relayed A.P. Hill’s last message to his Third Corps headquarters on April 2, 1865. Within the hour, Corporal John Watson Mauk shot Hill as he was attempting to reach Henry Heth’s division headquarters. Sergeant George Washington Tucker, Hill’s chief of couriers, was the only Confederate who accompanied the general at the time he was killed. Two decades later, Tucker and Mauk wrote their recollections of the event. Widely available through the Southern Historical Society Papers, these have formed the basis for the narrative of Hill’s death.

Digging deeper, I’m finding a wide variety of other sources. Most are in postwar correspondence and newspapers. Some confirm the seemingly accurate accounts provided by Mauk and Tucker, others dispute minor details, and an amusing few are wildly incorrect. I recently found an account by the other courier who followed Hill that morning to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters at the Turnbull house. Unlike Kirkpatrick, this courier continued to ride with Hill for a few more minutes of the general’s life. Forty-three years later he wrote about his experience. Comparing his account with the rest, I believe he misremembered many of the details. Nevertheless, it is important to attempt to reconcile his story with the popular interpretation.

William Henry Jenkins was born in Page County, Virginia, on June 30, 1843. He enlisted into an artillery company in early January 1863 but was transferred on the 21st into Company C, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. On September 12, 1864, he received an assignment as a courier on A.P. Hill’s headquarters staff. At that time the Third Corps had responsibility for protecting the Confederate supply lines west of Petersburg. They battled Union offensives to a standstill at the end of September and late October 1864, as well as in early February 1865, but each time the Confederates yielded additional ground to George Meade’s army. By late March 1865, Union forces used these positions seized from the Third Corps to launch an offensive against the supply lines past the Confederate right flank. For the first four days of the campaign, March 29-April 1, combat occurred southwest of the Third Corps’ lines, but Lee had to send reinforcements from Hill’s corps to bolster his right.

Hill took a medical leave of absence before the Union offensive began. He returned on April 1st to find only five-and-a-half brigades under his immediate command to oppose the entire VI Corps and three divisions from the Army of the James. Hill inspected his lines during the day and spent a sleepless night listening to the Union bombardment preliminary to their attacks the next morning, April 2, at multiple points, including the Third Corps position. Concerned, Hill crossed the street from his personal quarters, shared with his pregnant wife and two young daughters, and entered corps headquarters at Isabella Knight’s residence.

There, Hill learned that the Confederate Second Corps had been attacked southeast of Petersburg by the Union IX Corps and had lost portions of their entrenchments near the Jerusalem Plank Road. He immediately mounted to meet with Lee at the Turnbull house to the west and called for Tucker, but the chief of couriers had unsaddled his horse for grooming. Tucker afterward recalled:

“He directed me to follow him with two couriers immediately to General Lee’s headquarters. He then rode off rapidly. It was our custom, in critical times, to have, during the night, two of the couriers’ horses always saddled. I called to Kirkpatrick and Jenkins, the couriers next in turn, to follow the General as quickly as possible. I saddled up at once and followed them. Kirkpatrick and Jenkins arrived at General Lee’s headquarters together, only a few minutes after General Hill.”[1]

Somehow Hill had become aware of the break in his own lines during the line and directed Private William Kirkpatrick to return to the Knight house with instructions for his chief of staff. Colonel William Henry Palmer was to assist in rallying the men whose lines the VI Corps had shattered. Hill then briefly conversed with Lee and Lieutenant General James Longstreet inside the Turnbull house before Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott Venable, a member of Lee’s staff, burst into the house to report that armed Union infantrymen lurked within sight of the headquarters.

A.P. Hill’s Ride to Lee’s Headquarters (click on map for full size, created by Edward Alexander)

Hill immediately rushed out, followed by Venable. Jenkins had waited outside and joined the pair to investigate just how badly the lines had been broken. Tucker arrived at that time and also accompanied the trio. “We went directly across the road into the opposite field, and riding due south a short distance the General drew rein, a for a few moments used his field-glass,” Tucker recalled. “We then rode on in the same direction down a declivity toward a small branch running eastward to Old Town Creek, and a quarter mile from General Lee’s.” This stream was Cattail Run, which originated west of Heth’s headquarters and flowed northwest into Rohoic Creek (also known as Old Town Creek and Indian Town Creek).

“We had gone little more than half this distance, when we suddenly came upon two of the enemy’s armed infantrymen. Jenkins and myself, who, up to this time, rode immediately behind the General, were instantly upon them, when, at the demand, ‘surrender,’ they laid down their guns. Turning to the General, I asked what should be done with the prisoners? He said: ‘Jenkins, take them to General Lee.’ Jenkins started back with his men, and we rode on.”[2]

Despite the scare, Hill, Tucker, and Venable continued toward Heth’s. An artillery courier named George Percy Hawes meanwhile began the morning at the Whitworth house, south of Lee’s headquarters and on the other side of Cattail Run. He was forced to evacuate by the approach of Union skirmishers and attached himself to Hill’s party. He warned them of the danger directly to the south and the riders took a circuitous route up Cattail Run to reach their destination at the Pickrell house. Hill soon dispatched Venable and Hawes to position artillery around the Turnbull house to protect army headquarters. Only Tucker escorted the general for the last mile of his ride and he returned within a short time with news of the general’s death by Mauk’s bullet.

The Death of A.P. Hill (click on map for full size, created by Edward Alexander)

Tucker published his account in 1883 and Hawes sent a copy to Venable, who responded with his own recollections. “I remember Tucker’s presence but not that of Jenkins at the [Cattail Run] branch,” he claimed. “When we left the gate of the Turnbull House General Hill had but one courier; but another could have easily ridden up behind us without attracting my attention, while we were examining the front so intently in the dim light of the coming day.”[3]

Despite Venable’s doubts, historians have accepted Tucker’s insertion of Jenkins into the story.

The courier seemingly lived a normal life after the war. He married Mary Virginia Zimmerman on April 7, 1868, and moved to Ladoga, Indiana by the end of the decade. The 1870 census listed him as a silversmith with a personal estate of $200. Mary meanwhile kept house, which now included a one-year-old son, William K. Jenkins. Ten years later, the elder William worked as a jeweler and by 1900 he had become a hardware dealer. Three daughters, Bertha, Nellie, and Annetta, still lived at home at the turn of the century. His son worked as a carpenter and lived next door with wife Francis, son Noah, and daughter Doris. William H. Jenkins died on November 9, 1908, and was buried in Ladoga Cemetery.

Five months before William’s death, the National Tribune published an article on June 11, 1908 by Gilbert Thompson, a former Union engineer. Thompson compiled the various accounts of the death of A.P. Hill into a narrative and included the courier’s presence. Historians can thank one of William’s friends who showed him this article, giving us another perspective of the story. William wrote to the newspaper the next month with his recollection of Hill’s death.

As could be expected, his memory had unfortunately clouded during the almost half a century since the event. Like many who wrote after the war, he also probably inflated his own impact and standing, particularly when he mentioned his meeting with Robert E. Lee just before the campaign. His claim to have been with Hill for over two years also does not match his service records. With these disclaimers, however, here is Jenkins’s full account with minimal comment. It is useful in showing the presence of Union soldiers so close to Lee’s headquarters just after the breakthrough, as well as explaining what happened to Jenkins and his prisoners after they left Hill’s cavalcade.

Editor National Tribune: Thru the kindness of Comrade Fred Souther, a Union veteran, I was presented a paper containing the account of Gen. Ambrose Powel[l] Hill’s death at Petersburg. As I was one of his couriers and had been with him for over two years I will give a few items that may be of interest to some. I, therefore, will make a short statement of the incidents connected with the General’s death.

All are familiar with the situation of the two armies facing each other around the city of Petersburg, Va., and at this time every one who was conversant with the surroundings, believed that a crisis was near. For instance, a day or two before the crisis came, a courier was called and my turn came to carry some papers from Hill’s headquarters to Gen. Lee’s headquarters and also to Gen. Heth, both being west of the city. When I delivered the message to Gen. Lee I saw the General was troubled, and being a very pleasant gentleman and a dear friend to your correspondence, after my official duty was ended with him I told him I was going over to Gen. Heth’s headquarters, and as I started the General accompanied me down almost to the road in front of the Venable House, which was a good distance from the road; all the while talking of the situation, which the General knew I was very familiar with. [ed. – Throughout the article Jenkins misidentifies Lee’s headquarters, which were actually at the home of William Turnbull. To prevent confusion, I will correct all future references.] When we parted Gen. Lee said: “Jenkins, tell Gen. Heth, for me, to keep a close watch on the enemy’s movements, and report every move to me at once,” which I did. This showed the great stress to which the situation had grown.

On the morning of April 2 the crisis came. When our lines were broken about Fort Gregg, about 8 o’clock, Gen. Hill called for two couriers. Serg’t Geo. W. Tucker and myself went with Gen. Hill to the right of our line. [ed. – Jenkins does not include Kirkpatrick, who only briefly accompanied Hill but whose presence was confirmed my multiple sources. He also misidentified the time and location of the breakthrough.] We went by Gen. Lee’s headquarters at the [Turnbull] House, and I think Gen. Hill stopped a short time, talking with Gen. Lee. We then proceeded on our way to the westward. We had gone probably about a mile when we came upon two bluecoats (stragglers), whom we disarmed and Gen. Hill said to me: “Jenkins, you take these prisoners to Gen. Lee’s headquarters.”

I immediately started back with the prisoners, but had not gone more than half a mile when I encountered a squad of 12 to 15 armed infantrymen near a peach orchard, west of the [Turnbull] House. I at once dismissed my prisoners, and falling flat on my horse’s back, ran the gauntlet.

These men had crossed the road, gone north, and were returning. When they saw me they commenced firing and as they were not more than 200 yards away I made the run thru the peach orchard under this fire and at the east end of the orchard I got out of their range, as I went down an incline which hid me from the firing squad. Then I proceeded on my way to Lee’s headquarters, and when I got there Serg’t Tucker had just arrived with the General’s horse and his own.

After I left Gen. Hill and Serg’t Tucker to take the prisoners back, they proceeded westward and came to a skirt of timber, where they came upon a bluecoat standing by a tree and ordered him to surrender. He set his gun down by the tree, then suddenly grabbed his gun and fired at Gen. Hill, the ball passing thru his left hand and his body, killing him instantly. With his left hand he was holding his bridle rein. [ed. – Corporal Mauk, who killed Hill, was not alone. Private Daniel Wolford was also present and did start to lower his musket when ordered to surrender. Mauk, however, maintained his aim on Hill the entire time. Many southern accounts of Hill’s death nonetheless claimed that Mauk had deceived Hill and Tucker by pretending to surrender. It is partially due to this rumor’s prevalence that the modest Mauk agreed to write his own recollections for publication.]

The General’s body was recovered about two hours later, and nothing of his personal effects had been disturbed. As I was a bunkmate and messmate of Serg’t Tucker, he told me all about it when we were together again, and I have always understood it this way—that there was but one man when Gen. Hill was shot, and no one else with the General but Serg’t Tucker.

Col. Venable was not with Gen. Hill when we started from Gen. Lee’s headquarters. Gen. Hill’s death caused a wave of great sorrow all thru the army.

So far as I remember, Serg’t Tuck and myself were the only two persons who accompanied Gen. Hill from his headquarters that morning from the Widow Knight’s home.—W.H. Jenkins, Ladoga, Ind.[4]

So it’s not a perfect source, as none of them seem to be, but by trimming it up I will find a way to fit into the story of Hill’s death.


[1] George W. Tucker, “Death of General A.P. Hill,” Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1883), Volume 11, 566.

[2] Ibid., 567.

[3] Charles S. Venable to George Percy Hawes, December 25, 1883, “Further Details of the Death of General A.P. Hill,” Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1884), 187.

[4] W.H. Jenkins, “Death of Gen. A.P. Hill: One of the Couriers on Duty With Him Gives His Remembrance of the Circumstances,” National Tribune, July 30, 1908.

Identifying “Courier Kirkpatrick” on A.P. Hill’s Last Ride

Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill was killed in the aftermath of the successful Union attack near Petersburg on the morning of April 2, 1865. Sergeant George Washington Tucker, Jr., the general’s chief of couriers, was the only Confederate present at the time. Both Tucker and John Watson Mauk, the corporal in the 138th Pennsylvania Infantry who killed Hill, wrote lengthy descriptions of the event. Several other Confederates accompanied Hill for smaller phases of his last ride and they provided additional details of the journey. In all the accounts, both primary and secondary, a courier named Kirkpatrick is referenced. Until now he has only been referred to by his last name. Thanks to the recent digitization of historical records and newspapers, we can finally put a full name and additional information together on one of Hill’s companions during the final hour of the general’s life.

That morning, Hill left his corps headquarters at the Widow Knight house, “Indiana,” on Petersburg’s western outskirts. At the time he only suspected that Union forces had attacked somewhere along the Confederate lines and remained uncertain as to the exact location or results. Somehow the Third Corps commander discovered that his own lines had been broken during his mile-and-a-half route west to army headquarters at the Turnbull house, “Edge Hill.” How Hill found out is still a mystery.

The general had initially raced toward Robert E. Lee’s headquarters alone that morning, directing Colonel William Henry Palmer, his chief of staff, to remain at “Indiana” awaiting further orders. Hill instructed Tucker, his chief courier, to follow him to relay messages but the sergeant was in the process of grooming his horse and would be delayed while fixing the saddle. Headquarters protocol, however, required that two couriers always keep their horses prepared. Tucker beckoned to the current pair on call, Jenkins and Kirkpatrick, to follow the general and chased off after the trio several minutes later. Privates William Henry Jenkins and Kirkpatrick reached Edge Hill shortly after their general. Hill had seemingly become aware of the break in his lines during this ride and immediately directed Kirkpatrick to return to Widow Knight’s with a message for Palmer. The chief of staff was to head toward Wilcox’s lines and assist in rallying the scattered men.

The courier galloped off to bring the first news of the breakthrough to corps headquarters. Tucker afterward wrote that he passed him on the road “going at full speed.” Hill meanwhile climbed off his horse and entered the Turnbull house to converse with Lee and Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He soon rode onward, shedding his escort until only Tucker remained. After Kirkpatrick delivered Hill’s message to Palmer, the colonel immediately mounted and rode to Major General Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox’s headquarters at “Cottage Farm.” Wilcox commanded the division whose lines had been broken and Palmer warned him about the successful Union attack before continuing across Rohoic Creek toward the Whitworth house. Palmer wrote that Kirkpatrick followed behind him but did not provide any more information about the courier.[1]

Major General William Mahone’s Third Corps division had camped on the Whitworth farm during the winter before garrisoning the Confederate line at Bermuda Hundred, in between Petersburg and Richmond. Their vacated winter quarters afterward housed a few invalid soldiers, but Palmer now noticed Union soldiers lurking in that vicinity. He carefully picked his way toward the Long Ordinary Road—a small road that connected Boydton Plank Road with Cox Road. There he met Sergeant Tucker, alone, who told him that A.P. Hill had been shot.

The Death of A.P. Hill (click on map for full size, created by Edward Alexander)

The details of Hill’s death are well documented and will not be dissected here. The best place to find them is in the accounts of Tucker and Mauk, found in Volume 27 of the Southern Historical Society Papers. Readers can also consult Bud Robertson’s Hill biography—James I. Robertson, Jr., General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior (New York: Random House, 1987) and Will Greene’s narrative history of the last week at Petersburg—A. Wilson Greene, The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008).

In the meantime, Wilcox had jolted into action. He immediately launched a counterattack that blunted any further expansion of the breach toward Petersburg before settling into a defensive position near Rohoic Creek. Brigadier General Nathaniel Harrison Harris’s Mississippians meanwhile rushed toward Forts Gregg and Whitworth. They belonged to Mahone’s division and were familiar with the ground but provided the lone reinforcements that Mahone could spare from Bermuda Hundred. Nevertheless, Wilcox’s attack and Harris’s defense bought time for Longstreet’s First Corps to arrive from Richmond in the early afternoon to garrison Petersburg’s inner defenses. Though the Confederates abandoned both cities overnight, the lack of a complete breakdown on Petersburg’s western front that morning perhaps extended the life of Lee’s army by another week.


Since then, no historian has produced more details or even a full name for the courier who first accompanied Hill and relayed the last message the general directed to corps headquarters. Who can blame them? Kirkpatrick was not present with Hill when Mauk shot the general, did not write an easily identified firsthand account, and though his message to Palmer had important consequences it could have been delivered by any mounted soldier. Furthermore, before modern research methods allowed keyword searches through historic records and newspapers, an effort to track down more information on Kirkpatrick would be a wild goose chase not worthy of the time commitment.

My search for the courier’s identity began with published primary accounts and secondary narratives. Those which identified him did so only with his last name. The next best reference place would be among the paroles of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. As a member of the corps staff, Kirkpatrick should be expected to have remained with the army through the last week of the war. Volume 15 of the Southern Historical Society Papers contains a list of parolees and a search for Kirkpatrick identified a “Private W.P. Kirkpatrick, Courier at Corps H’d Q’rs, one private horse.”[2]

One problem, however. That Kirkpatrick is listed as belonging to the 8th Tennessee Infantry, a regiment that would have been with Joe Johnston in North Carolina at the time. Furthermore, I used Fold3.com to browse through the service records for the 8th Tennessee and could not even find a W. Kirkpatrick. Perhaps at least the state and initials were correct. Fortunately for my search’s sake the Army of Northern Virginia only contained one brigade of Tennessee infantry, commanded at the end of the war by Brigadier General William McComb. They served in Major General Henry Heth’s division of the Third Corps and would have been located just a mile south of the point of the initial VI Corps attack on April 2, 1865.

In addition to the 2nd Maryland Infantry Battalion, McComb’s brigade included the 1st (Provisional), 7th, 14th, 17th, 23rd, 25th, 44th, and 63rd Tennessee regiments. In searching their records, I soon found a probable match in a soldier who shared the initials listed in the Southern Historical Society Papers parole list. Private William Pat Kirkpatrick, 7th Tennessee Infantry, was at Petersburg on April 2nd. His records show that he was captured on that day, held at Fort Delaware, and then released on June 28, 1865. Nothing, however, indicated that he was ever a courier or detached on any special detail.

I noticed several other members of the 7th Tennessee with similar names and started browsing their records. While clicking through Fold3’s muster roll cards for a William B. Kirkpatrick, Company E, I see “On extra or daily duty as Courier for Gen. Archer since 5 Oct 1862.” A few more clicks and I find “Detailed as Courier for Gen. Hill since 20 July 1863.” I continue through the end of William B.’s record and find him identified on the roll of prisoners paroled at Appomattox. “Remarks: Courier at Corps Hd Quarters and owns one horse.” Looks like a typo misidentifying his regiment in the Southern Historical Society Papers helped contribute to the courier being lost to history. I have his name now—William B. Kirkpatrick—what can we find out about him?


The service records simply show that he enlisted in Nashville on May 21, 1861 and served in Company E, 7th Tennessee Infantry. He was elected 2nd corporal on April 26, 1862, while the company was at Yorktown, Virginia, and then assigned as a courier for Brigadier General James Jay Archer, commanding the brigade, on October 5, 1862. Archer was captured at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, and held prisoner for over a year. Shortly after his return to the Army of Northern Virginia, Archer died on October 24, 1864. The general’s capture at Gettysburg deprived Kirkpatrick of his assignment, but he was detailed as a courier for A.P. Hill, commanding the Third Corps, on July 20th. Though his records do not identify a date or reason, Kirkpatrick was reduced to private before January 23, 1864. He nevertheless continued running messages for Hill until April 2, 1865.

There’s a brief synopsis of Kirkpatrick the soldier, but what more can we discover? I still did not have an age or a hometown, believing that Nashville could very well be just the place where he joined his company. Having exhausted Fold3, it was onward to digital newspaper databases. My favorites are the Library of Congress’s Chronicling American and Newspapers.com. A few keyword searches there produced obituaries for several Tennessee residents named William B. Kirkpatrick but those proved to not be the courier. But I’ve found with keyword searches that you need to take the time to include all possible name combinations. That means searching William Kirkpatrick, William B. Kirkpatrick, Wm. Kirkpatrick, Wm. B. Kirkpatrick, W. Kirkpatrick, W.B. Kirkpatrick, Will Kirkpatrick, Bill Kirkpatrick, and so on.

Searching for Wm. B. Kirkpatrick finally produced a hit. “In Memory of Wm. B. Kirkpatrick”—a letter written by a Jesse Cage to the editor of the Nashville Tennessean. It appeared in print in the May 4, 1908 issue. “Dear Sir—It is always sad to chronicle the death of a friend and more especially so when the friendship has been cemented and bound by all the ties incident to soldiers’ lives, who were closely associated together through the late war, who were on the Confederate side, where hardships and sacrifice were intense and were an excellent test of manhood.”[3]

Cage identified Kirkpatrick as a member of the 7th Tennessee Infantry and a courier for Hill’s staff. He also wrote that Kirkpatrick died in Weatherford, Texas. We’ll look more at the rest of Cage’s letter later in this article, but for now we have an approximate date and location of Kirkpatrick’s death. I could now consult another online resource, FindAGrave.com. Once again, a precise search for “William B. Kirkpatrick, died 1908, buried Weatherford, Texas” did not turn up anything. But a broad search for “W Kirkpatrick, died 1908, buried Texas” produced a headstone in the Greenwood Community Cemetery, Parker County, Texas, for a W.B. Kirkpatrick, born April 30, 1842, died April 29, 1908. Buried beside him is a Nettie Kirkpatrick, listed as his wife, born January 1, 1849, died June 12, 1935. Google Maps confirmed that the cemetery is located in Weatherford.


Now that I have a birth date, death date, burial location, military record, and spouse for Kirkpatrick, I could head over to Ancestry.com and plug those details into a search. There were a few matches in user-generated family trees but I prefer to avoid those until the end. Sometimes you can find worthwhile material in photographs, newspaper clippings, and family stories that other members of Ancestry upload, but it is wise to save this until you’ve developed a fuller picture on the individual you are researching. This enables you to properly screen out misleading or inaccurate information.

Included among Confederate pension records I found an application from a Nettie Kirkpatrick of Weatherford, Texas, filed November 19, 1913, and approved December 1, 1913. This digitized record confirmed all the previously identified information on William. It also provided a middle name, Bennett; a marriage date and location, November 12, 1874, Sumner County, Tennessee; Nettie’s full name, Eunetta R. Hunter Kirkpatrick; and an approximate year of their move to Texas, 1889. Nettie also testified that in addition to his early service in the 7th Tennessee, William “Was a Courier part of the time, was with Gen’l. A.P. Hill when he was killed and was at Gettisburg [sic] and all of the great battles… Mounted as a Courier for Gen’l Hill and Gen’l Longstreet.”[4]

Several of William’s former comrades provided statements on Nettie’s behalf. S.O. Cantrell wrote that he was a schoolmate of William’s in Gallatin, Tennessee, served with him in the 7th Tennessee Infantry, and that William served on Hill’s staff and then transferred to Longstreet’s. “There was no better soldier in Gen. Lee’s command than W.B. Kirkpatrick during the whole war,” Cantrell testified.[5]


The previously mentioned letter to the Nashville Tennessean had similarly praised Kirkpatrick. Jesse Cage served as sergeant in Company E, 7th Tennessee Infantry, and was wounded and captured during the Breakthrough on April 2, 1865. He wrote that William went by the nicknames “Fancy” and “Billy Kirk” and reflected on William’s character in his eulogy.

“His courage was unimpeachable, not of the kind which was foolish or for display, but was prompted by the noblest impulses of the heart, the thoughtful kind which carried him into the thickest and most dangerous places with no fear of consequences as to his own person. No message was ever placed in his hands, verbal or otherwise, but which was born to its destination, regardless of the dangers or hazards to his own life, and that, too, because of his high ideas of duty to the cause in which he was engaged. He had a kind, benevolent heart, full of compassion; his disposition was of the sunny kind, and his bearing always that of a gentleman.”[6]

Cage’s heartfelt letter included an incorrect rumor about Hill’s death as well as certainly false details about Kirkpatrick. “Gen. A.P. Hill was wickedly slain after he had surrendered, so I have been informed, and ‘Fancy’ killed the federal who did it.”[7]

The accounts of both Mauk and Tucker disprove the rumor that Hill was killed after surrendering. As to Cage’s assertion that Kirkpatrick killed Mauk, neither Mauk nor Daniel Wolford (the other Union soldier present at the time) were killed on April 2nd. They lived until 1898 and 1908 respectively. Colonel Palmer also wrote that Kirkpatrick was near him at the time of the general’s death. I’ll trust that more than Cage’s secondary claim. Because no one else placed Kirkpatrick with Hill at the time of his death, I also think we can safely interpret Nettie’s claim fifty years later that he “was with Gen’l. A.P. Hill when he was killed” to mean that William was present on his staff that morning.


However, I’m no longer surprised to see such far-fetched renditions of the event as Cage’s. After the war many veterans claimed to have been present. I’ve identified at least half a dozen unsubstantiated claims from Confederates who claimed to have been along Hill’s route, most of whom claim to have had the last conversation with the general. Even more Union soldiers claim to have fired the shot that killed the general. One must utilize a critical eye when consulting Civil War resources, but I am satisfied with confidence that we can close the book on Private William Bennett Kirkpatrick, courier for Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill.


[1] George W. Tucker, “Death of General A.P. Hill,” Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1883), Volume 11, 566. William H. Palmer to Murray F. Taylor, November 8, 1902, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

[2] Southern Historical Society Papers (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1887), Volume 15, 288.

[3] Jesse Cage to “Editor The Tennessean,” May 2, 1908, “In Memory of Wm. B. Kirkpatrick,” Nashville Tennessean, May 4, 1908

[4] Nettie Kirkpatrick, Pension Record, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, accessed through Alabama, Texas, and Virginia, Confederate Pensions, 1884-1958, Ancestry.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “In Memory of Wm. B. Kirkpatrick,” Nashville Tennessean, May 4, 1908.

[7] Ibid.

Christmas in the Cavalry

Holly still abounds on the outskirts of Camp Bayard, named for Brig. Gen. George Bayard, a Union cavalryman who was mortally wounded at Fredericksburg.

As 1862 faded into memory, Christmas approached for the horse soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac. Camped in the Rappahannock River Valley following the Battle of Fredericksburg, their experiences that holiday varied from one man to the next. Away from their loved ones at home and caught in the midst of bloody conflict, many, in the words of Charles Dickens, simply hoped to turn their eyes “to the blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode.”

On Christmas Eve, Robert E. Lee dictated a letter of congratulations to his cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Lee “took great pleasure in expressing…gratification” at the recent successful expeditions launched by one of Stuart’s brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton. “Please express to General Hampton my high sense of his service, mys just appreciation of the conduct of the officers and men of his command, and my congratulations on his complete success without the loss of a man” he directed.

Stuart was also busy that day. At his headquarters several miles south of Fredericksburg along the Telegraph Road, he hosted a Christmas dinner for his officers. Among the fare was turkey, chicken, ham and apple brandy. For Christmas, Stuart joined Lee and Second Corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the manor house near Jackson’s headquarters, Moss Neck. Emboldened by Hampton’s recent success, Stuart launched a raid behind Union lines beginning on December 26.

Moss Neck

Union cavalry also remained active in the days leading up to and on Christmas. Brigadier General William W. Averell, who had been embarrassed at the end of November when Wade Hampton swooped down and captured a contingent from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry at Hartwood Church, kept scouts and patrols out in the direction of Warrenton, west of the Union lines.

On the eastern end of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s army, the 8th Illinois Cavalry went out on picket to relieve the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry in King George County. “On reaching the place” wrote the Illinoisans’ historian, “the officers of the latter regiment were found keeping a Christmas holiday, and were intoxicated. Lieutenant-Colonel [David] Clendennin, in command, reported them to headquarters, which created quite a sensation among those interested. If more such reports had been made it would have been better for the army.”

For troopers in the 6th New York Cavalry, Christmas Eve was “devoted to hunting turkeys for Christmas dinner.” The next morning, the men enjoyed pancakes for breakfast.

On Christmas Eve, in their camp on Potomac Creek, a member of the 1st Rhode Island quoted Clement Clark Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, in a letter to the Narragansett Weekly. “We hardly expect “Santa” Claus will find us away out here, this dark night, in the pines of old Virginia, where desolation has marked the course of the contending armies” he lamented. Another comrade, J.A. Babcock also quoted Moore on Christmas Day. “What a flood of recollections rush upon my mind, as I think of former- anniversaries of the much-looked-for day, from the time when nothing but “visions of sugar-plums danced through my head,” down to later years, when social gatherings and reunions were sure to celebrate it  in perhaps a greater, but none the less happy manner. How different the surroundings here!…the merry jingle of Christmas bells is exchanged for the sounds of the bugle and drum.” That night, a concert was given by members of the regiment for the headquarters and staff. “We only missed the comforts, gifts, and “Merry Christmas” salutations of our New England homes” one soldier lamented.

On Christmas Eve, Pvt. Sidney Davis’ squadron from the 6th U.S. Cavalry left their camp and marched up the river from Fredericksburg and went on picket duty. Davis had been detached on other service and rode out on Christmas morning to join his comrades. Cresting the heights beyond Falmouth, a lone Confederate infantryman caught Davis’ eye. The Southerner shouted “Merry Christmas” and raised his canteen to Davis. The Regular saluted and continued his journey. A little farther on, Davis encountered a German from Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s XI Corps, who offered him a drink. Davis politely declined and wished him a “happy Christmas” before riding on.

And so Christmas came and went along the Rappahannock. Soon, the horse soldiers in blue and gray would meet in the new year on fields in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.