Old men left farms to hold off the Union Army
by Rob Neufeld
More North Carolina Civil War soldiers come to life as the Office of Archives and History publishes the eighteenth volume of Matthew M. Brown’s and Michael W. Coffey’s “North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865.”
The new volume adds senior reserves and detailed men to the roster, which pulls together information from a wide variety of sources. The resulting picture of the Confederacy’s efforts in 1864 and 1865 to hold on until the North lost resolve is dispiriting.
Bennet J. Dula, a 46-year-old Wilkes County farmer, enlisted in the Senior Reserves on July 7, 1864. If he hadn’t, he would have been picked up.
A few months before—on Feb. 17, 1864—the Confederate Congress had passed a law forming a reserve army and requiring men, ages 45 through 50, to enlist. The seniors were supposed to stay in state and take jobs that would free up fighting soldiers to go to battle. That didn’t always happen.
Shortly after enlisting, Dula was sent to the Salisbury hospital with “remittent fever.” This is worse than it sounds. It involves persistent vomiting and diarrhea, an often deadly result of camp hygiene.
Remittent fever was also used as a term for a type of malaria in which the shaking chills were intermittent.
“These guys at that age, going camping and drinking polluted water…It’s a wonder they all didn’t die,” says author and Civil War historian, Terrell Garren.
A month later, Dula developed pulmonary phthisis—an inflammation of the lungs that develops when remittent fever worsens. Still, on Dec. 3, 1864, he was returned to duty.
The final note in Dula’s entry is: “Reported absent without leave in January-February 1865. No further records.”
“Absent without leave” can mean many things. “Desertion” is a different category. There were a lot of transfers, and the record-keeping wasn’t good.
Disease was the biggest killer in the Civil War. It hit the Seniors particularly hard.
“We must keep in mind,” Brown writes in his preface, “the life expectancy for white males in America was only about 40 years…These men were indeed called upon to serve in their twilight.”
Private Miles W. Stacy, an old farmer from Burke County, was hospitalized in Salisbury with varicose veins. That was something on which people put a stocking, and moved on. The hospital discharged Stacy. But then, the record shows, he was home a month later, “on sick furlough.”
The Salisbury Way-Side Hospital had been a busy place. A May 7, 1863 hospital fund-raising circular noted the need for a place where soldiers from battles “can obtain rest and refreshment without charge…It is not the Hospital Committee that calls on you, it is the voice of the poor maimed and bleeding soldier.”
And the war called for more.
Farmers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, millwrights, and religious pacifists—Joshua Steelman, a Quaker from Yadkin County, for instance—were mustered. North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance opposed the conscription act. He at least wanted the old men to be able to stay home until they harvested their crops.
Senior and Junior Reserves (17-year-olds) were enlisted west of Burke and Wilkes counties as well. Their companies are known, but the rosters are lost.
We know, from other sources, that Major D.T. Millard commanded the 9th Battalion of Reserves, formed in Asheville. Seniors and juniors, serving together, went to eastern North Carolina in March 1865 to defend against General Sherman’s advance. It was the second largest Civil War battle in the state.
Union Major Washington Roebling’s observations during the evacuation of Petersburg on April 2, 1865 seem pertinent. “Old men with silver locks lay dead, side by side with mere boys of thirteen or fourteen,” he reported. “It almost makes one sorry to have to fight against a people who show such devotion for their homes and their country.”