I publish this long post on Thanksgiving Day 2016 in memory of my great-grandfather W. C. Cherry, the only one of my forebears to leave an account of his life. And what a life. — William Pannill
William Carter Cherry – my great-grandfather – fought throughout the Civil War in a Georgia regiment, although he was born across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama. His birthday was June 12, 1840.
Young William had three brothers and a sister, but his mother had died when he was eight, and he spent much time with relatives. His father seems to have been a physician who turned to farming in west Georgia.
The Cherry family
The family had emigrated from the Carolinas. One of William’s forebears signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in North Carolina. That rebellion preceded the 1776 American Declaration by a year.
Most of what we know about him comes from a brief memoir he wrote for his children in
1884. He had only vague memories of his mother. He wanted his two daughters to know about their own mother, who had died in childbirth. The baby sister had also died, and a few months later, their young brother. His wife and family, he wrote, was the most important part of his life.
The family nicknamed William “Crab.” He had a year of schooling at 17, then went to work in a dry goods store at West Point. James Alvin Cherry, a younger brother born in 1842 (and named after their father), went to war with him. James the family called “Uncle Judge.” They both survived the war and are buried next to each other in Stephenville, Texas.
Crab joined a volunteer militia company, the West Point Guards. At the outbreak of the war, he wrote, “we offered our services to the governor of Georgia.” The company was mustered into service for Georgia on April 26, 1861. Crab was 20, Uncle Judge 18.
The Confederate Government took up the Georgia units. The Guards became Company D of the 4th Georgia Infantry. In the first year of the war, 1861, the Confederate War Department ordered the regiment to Portsmouth, Virginia, the naval base at the mouth of the James River.
There Crab walked through the Confederate ship Merrimac as the Confederate Navy was converting her into an ironclad. He watched the naval battle between the Merrimac and three United States ships. “I saw the Congress sink and the drowning men climb up on the ship’s rigging.”
The Seven Days Battles
After a year of garrison duty, the 4th Georgia – part of a brigade commanded by General Benjamin Huger (pronounced “ooh-ZHAY”)– marched to the defense of Richmond. The brigade stood by as reserves during the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862. During that battle, the Army’s commanding general, Joseph E. Johnston, sustained a serious wound.
General Robert E. Lee took over the Army that month and renamed it the Army of
Northern Virginia. Under Lee, Crab and Judge saw their first action on June 25, 1862, at a battle they called King’s School House. It has come down to us as Oak Grove. General Huger’s division stopped the Union advance. General George McClellan, commanding a mile or more away, then aborted the Union attack.
Crab lost several friends in his first battle. He himself escaped death when his unit surprised Union infantry.
“One of them, a tall man, turned around near me, leveled his gun deliberately at me, and fired – which of course missed me, as I was so near if it had hit me it certainly would have killed me.”
[[Excellent video reconstructions and maps of most of Lee’s battles are available on the internet at the website of the Civil War Trust.]
Three weeks later, at 3 p.m., on July 1, 1862, Crab’s regiment assaulted the Union position in the Battle of Malvern Hill. That was the final battle of Lee’s Seven Days campaign, which drove the Union Army away from Richmond.
Union artillery was about three-quarters of a mile away, he wrote, when his company attacked. The Union artillery fired from a slight hill. It was deadly.
“[W]e were satisfied that artillery would be used on us. But we had not conceived how very
terrific and very destructive it could be. The grape and canister ploughed through and made great gaps in the ranks of our brave fellows. Upon each side of me I could see them fall as we went forward, some upon their faces and some upon their backs, great streams of blood gushing from the places where they were shot.”
After taking shelter in the heat in a ravine for several hours, the 4th Georgia retreated. “I retreated by walking backwards in order if I were shot that it would not be in the back.”
I suspect Crab did not wish to be thought to be running away.
During the battle, Crab was separated from Uncle Judge and feared he had been killed. That night, he wrote, “I walked over the field with a lamp for several hours during the rain trying to find him among the dead and wounded then lying on the battlefield. I will not attempt to describe it, as I must have examined a thousand faces of dead and dying trying to find him, or of my relief when I found him OK the next morning.”
The next of the great battles of the summer of 1862 took place at Second Manassas. But the 4th Georgia was at the tail end of Lee’s army and marched through the field two days after the battle. “It was a ghastly sight,” he wrote.
Then the Cherry brothers crossed the Potomac with the Army of Northern Virginia in the invasion of Maryland. They took part in the battles of South Mountain but as reserves who “did not fire a gun.” When McClellan intercepted Lee’s orders for the campaign, they retreated with the Army to Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam)
The night before the battle of Sharpsburg, the 4th Georgia bivouacked near the famous Cornfield held by the Texas Brigade. The 4th Georgia regiment now formed part of Ripley’s brigade.
The Texas Brigade was relieved from the line about 6 a.m. and went to the rear just before the attack to cook breakfast.At 7:00 a.m., the Union assault began in the Cornfield and pushed right through the Confederate defenders. As the line collapsed, General Stonewall Jackson ordered the Texas Brigade back into battle. The Texans returned without breakfast. Aided by Ripley’s Brigade on the right flank, the Texans stopped the Union advance in some of the bloodiest fighting in any American war. The 4th Texas Regiment lost 550 killed and wounded out of its 884 men.
Crab’s company lost heavily as well:
“I well remember that Gen’l Ripley, who commanded our brigade, was shot in the neck but not disabled,” Crab wrote. “How bloody he looked as he rode in front of us during the day.”
By the end of the day, all the officers above Crab had been killed or wounded, and he commanded the company for a time. He was second sergeant.
Battle of Fredericksburg
The Army retreated back to Virginia. General Lee reorganized the Army again and moved the 4th Georgia into a brigade of Georgia regiments commanded by General George Doles. Lee placed Doles’s brigade in the Second Army Corps, commanded by Stonewall Jackson.
In December 1862, Crab and Judge served in the battle of Fredericksburg. But they saw no action. Doles’s Brigade stood in reserve during the battle.
Fredericksburg proved to be one of the Union’s greatest defeats. After the battle, Crab wrote,
“I was put on detail to help bury the enemy’s dead. I well remember placing 387 of their dead in a row and digging a trench for them.”
Battle of Chancellorsville
In the spring of 1863, after the Union debacle at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln placed General Fighting Joe Hooker in command of the Union Army of the Potomac. In early May, the Union Army flanked Lee by crossing the Rappahannock River in Orange County, upstream of Fredericksburg.
The First Corps of Lee’s Army under James Longstreet had been detached to Southern Virginia. That left Lee with only half his troops. Outnumbered more than two-to-one, Lee had only Jackson’s Second Corps to defend against Hooker.
In one of the most audacious battles in history, Lee split his small force in two on May 2, 1863. He sent Jackson’s Corps on a 17-mile march around the right flank of the Union Army for a surprise attack.
The 4th Georgia formed part of the first assault wave at Chancellorsville. When the long. flanking march ended – about 5 p.m. — Crab wrote:
“Gen’l Stonewall Jackson was sitting on his horse with his leg thrown over the horn of his
saddle giving directions to his officers, who were placing the troops in position preparatory for hot work. We had not more than got into position just on the right side of the road when orders came to ‘charge.’ We had not gone forward more than 100 yards before we received a terrible volley of musketry from the enemy, which either killed or wounded half of our company.
“We went on, though, and pretty soon emerged from the thicket into an open field where we could see the enemy’s breastworks. But we went on, firing as we went, and ran up to their works, when they began to run pell-mell. We crossed their works and had a regular foot race for two miles, taking prisoners by squads without firing a gun at them.”
The Confederates routed the Union XI Corps and rolled up the Union right flank. But the battle turned into a Pyrrhic victory for the South. Stonewall Jackson’s own troops mortally wounded him in the evening as he rode back from a night reconnaissance beyond the lines.
“I remember that we were so near there that we could hear them being stopped by our own officers,” Crab wrote, “telling them that they were our people.”
Assigned to guard duty the next day, Crab stumbled into General Jackson’s tent where he lay after amputation of his arm:
“By mistake, I went into the tent of Gen’l Stonewall Jackson, who was lying on a cot. The doctor told me it was him who was shot the night before by mistake by our men.”
Jackson died ten days later.
Battle of Gettysburg
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, the company elected Sergeant Cherry a second lieutenant. The Confederate government had embraced election of officers by the men – something we would not allow today.
In late June, Lee started the Army north to Pennsylvania. Richard S. Ewell had replaced Jackson as commanding general of the Second Corps. Ewell’s corps spent two nights in Carlisle, Pa. Ewell set his corps in motion for Gettysburg when Lee decided to concentrate his army. Doles’s Brigade was marching south to Gettysburg when the battle erupted at 7:30 the morning of July 1, 1863.
After a march of more than 10 miles, Doles’s Brigade reached the field
early in the afternoon of July 1. Mid-afternoon, Doles combined with Gordon’s Georgia brigade to rout the Union XI Corps – the same unit Doles’s Brigaded had routed at Chancellorsville two months before.
Crab wrote of his regiment’s attack across the fields of Gettysburg:
“At one time I was by the side of one of my company going forward, and our artillery was firing over our heads at the enemy. But one of the pieces was firing too low, and a solid shot passed through him, entering at the back. My eyes were on the spot of his back at the time, and I remember I saw clear through him before it was closed up by the blood. He was an officer, and I took his sword, as I had been elected a 2d Lieutenant, but had not had the time to provide myself with a sword. I have never seen such a terrible death in my life as from this cannon ball.”
Crab’s brigade recrossed the Potomac and retreated to Virginia with the rest of the Army.
“At times, it was looking as if we were going to have a renewal of the battle, especially
at Williamsport, Maryland, where we recrossed the Potomac River — having to wade it to our armpits.”
The winter of 1863-64 he described as “much marching, sometime without shoes or very poor ones and often without provisions, except green corn or apples for several days at a time.”
Battle of the Wilderness
Doles’s Brigade wintered near Orange Court House, Virginia.
“I was an officer and was placed in charge of a pioneer corps and worked much on the roads,” he wrote. “I would often get orders direct from Gen’l Lee, who would ride out often with his wife to see how I was progressing with the work.”
In May 1864, General U. S. Grant assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, which he ordered across the Rappahannock River again. Ewell’s Corps was the first to meet the invaders in Saunders Field, a large clearing in the Wilderness. In hand-to-hand fighting, the Union seemed to be winning the day. Crab wrote:
“At one time, I really thought our army was lost, as the enemy ran fresh troops in so fast and so nearly all around us that it looked like folly to attempt to rout them or drive them back.
“But our reserves under Gen’l Gordon came whooping by and through us, and it turned the tide so completely and so quickly that it astonished me. I fell in with the fresh troops and followed the enemy to where it would have been foolhardy to have gone further.”
Crab suffered two wounds in The Wilderness, but he was hardy:
“In this battle, a bullet passed just above my left knee, going through all my clothes and grazing the skin, drawing blood. In less than a day it had swollen so much and turned green and hard, I was afraid it would disable me or cause me much trouble, but it soon got well. I also had a bullet pass through my jacket and shirt near where one had 12 months before on the left side, also grazing the skin. But otherwise, I was unhurt.”
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
At the end of two days of stalemate, General Grant lunged for Spotsylvania Courthouse to steal a march towards Richmond.
The Army of Northern Virginia won the race and blocked Grant’s advance. Horrendous fighting now took place, with Grant inventing new tactics to breach Lee’s lines.
Doles’s Brigade occupied part of the so-called Muleshoe Salient at Spotsylvania, where the Confederate lines bulged out in a large semi-circle. Grant decided to break the line with an attack by 10,000 picked troops – a new tactic in the war. The attack aimed squarely at Doles’s brigade.
Crab was on picket duty that day in the heavy forest in front of the Confederate lines. He must have written his memoir from memory, because several dates were wrong, which I correct.
“I commanded a reserve brigade picket line. I was on duty all night on [May 9-10, 1864], in easy talking distance of them. We could hear them crawling up towards us through the thicket, aiming no doubt to make a rush on us and capture us. But [when] they made the rush, we succeeded in getting away to our lines. But the general [Doles] told me I must take my men and recharge them even if it could cost the lives of all of us. Right there I felt at no time was death so certain as then. I told him we would do so, or try it anyhow.
“We did it, and retook the lines at a terrible cost to us, as we had to charge through a clear field and they under cover of timber. But we retook the line with some prisoners, only to have them retaken from us again as they then were in great force preparing for the big charge on our main lines.”
The big charge took place in two hours. Grant’s attack broke through Doles’s lines and surrounded about 600 men before other Confederate brigades counterattacked. But the Union charge took 350 prisoners – among whom was Crab.
“I had on my sword but no hat, as I had lost it in some way running through the trees. They noticed me, and it looked like over a dozen were holding their guns to my breast at one time. Some of them wanted to shoot, and others did not want to because they could get to take me back to the rear, thereby themselves getting out of the battle. In this way I attribute my escape from death, as it looked as if they were determined to shoot me anyhow.”
After a brief stop at the deadly prison camp at Point Lookout, the Union boat Swanee delivered the prisoners to Fort Delaware. There were 2,200 in officers’ quarters there, Crab wrote.
Following a two-week scare of smallpox, Crab returned to the prison population and made a plan to escape.
“While in prison I formed a plan to escape with a fellow officer, Bob Childs. But it was never put into execution, as it involved swimming over a mile by the aid of caissons. I was placed, upon getting well, back into the barracks with the other officers and had a hard time of it as the food was bad, water bad, weather hot, and confinement hard to bear.”
By “caissons,” Crab probably meant clothing inflated with air to keep him afloat while swimming.
The Immortal 600
But in August 1864, the Union picked him for The Immortal 600. This little-known array is the subject of a book by Mauriel P. Joslyn, “Immortal Captives: The Story of 600 Confederate Officers and the United States Prisoner of War Policy.”
“In the fall of the same year, I was drawn as one of 175 to be retaliated upon [actually 600]. We were placed on a prison ship and started with a convoy for South Carolina. We ran aground on Cape Romaine off the South Carolina coast, and we talked about rebelling and came near ordering it. We got off, though, without serious accident and went into Charleston Harbor in due time.”
The transfer took place in a hot August of 1864. The accounts collected by Mauriel P. Joslyn tell the whole gruesome story of the shipment. The Union Army confined nearly 600 men in the hold of the ship next to a steam boiler in broiling heat.
The crew allowed the prisoners to climb to the deck and use the head (bathroom) only once a day. Moreover, only one prisoner at a time could use the ladder to climb to the deck. Some prisoners had lost limbs and could not walk. They could make it to the head. See Family Matters for January 25, 2015, April 1, 2015, and June 1, 2015, for a more complete description of the suffering.
On landing, the Union Army marched all the prisoners to a stockade on the sand of Morris Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. The prisoner’s pen lay in front of the Union’s Fort Wagner, which constantly traded artillery fire with Confederate guns in Fort Sumter and around the harbor.
“Of course, the shells directed at Fort Wagner passed just over our heads,” Crab wrote.
Placing prisoners in front of a fort today would be a war crime. The Union action may well have violated the Geneva Convention in 1864. But worse was the Union policy of starvation imposed on the prisoners.
“We were also placed on one-quarter rations and were in the hot sun here for six weeks, fed upon corn meal and soup. The meal was musty and wormy, and one pint had by actual count 117 small worms in it. All was of this description.”
Eventually, the prisoners were moved to Fort Pulaski, outside Savannah. For the balance of
the year 1864, the Union commander, General John G. Foster, refused them full rations and even blankets. The winter was especially cold. He permitted no vegetables or fruits or letters and packages – unless the prisoner took the oath of allegiance to the United States.
Several prisoners died. Finally, after protests from the medical officer that all the prisoners would die without adequate nutrition, Foster allowed rations to resume in January 1865.
Return to Fort Delaware
In February, General Grant allowed the prisoners to return to Fort Delaware.
“When we landed back at Fort Delaware,” Crab wrote, “I and over half of the prisoners who were under retaliation were nearly disabled from walking by reason of scurvy. The other prisoners treated us very kindly and furnished us onions, potatoes, and other vegetables until we recovered, which we did rapidly.”
Beginning with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Southern field armies surrendered. “Offers were made that if we would take the oath of allegiance to the U. S. Government, we would be released. We refused to until we knew all had surrendered.”
Crab wrote that he left Fort Delaware on June 20, 1865, for West Point, Georgia, “without a cent of money and poorly clad.” He walked part way and “rode upon trains some.” He got home in July, “having chills and fever nearly all the time.”
Lieutenant Cherry lived on until 1907, when his young granddaughter Martha Pannill found him one morning in his rocking chair in his home in Stephenville, Texas. The old soldier had died during the night.