From Charlotte County to a Captain in Lee’s Army
Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006
By Fred D. Taylor
There were quite a number of former Confederate soldiers who made Suffolk their home after 1865. Some had marched through Suffolk during the war and fondly remembered the kind townspeople. Others ventured into the area to pursue a variety of business interests that centered around the prosperous rail system. Of that number were two brothers from Charlotte County, Virginia. One earned his prominence as a famed citizen, Mayor, and newspaper Editor. The other made his mark as a distinguished soldier. In this column, and the three that follow, this soldier’s life will be traced from his early days in Charlotte County to the battlefield to his post-war life in Suffolk.
Robert Samuel Elam was born on November 19, 1831, in Charlotte County, the oldest of nine children born to William D. Elam and Susan F. Elam.
Though little is known of his childhood, by the age of nineteen, Robert moved out to start a life of his own. He worked as a salesman in the mercantile store of E.B. Butler in Lynchburg for a short time, but this city life did not seem to suit him. So, Robert decided to pursue farming on land next to his parents, this time back to his childhood home in Charlotte County, about thirty miles southwest of Farmville. On the 1860 Census, the now twenty-eight year old Robert Elam was shown as having $6,000 in real estate, and having employed a “ploughboy” to help him work on his farm. Of special note along this same line, Robert did not own any slaves.
While Robert seemed to be doing quite well by this point in his life, hostilities between the North and South soon interrupted these successes. In April of 1861, a special session of the Virginia General Assembly voted to secede from the Union, and a month later the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to do the same. Like a number of counties, Charlotte County voted unanimously (883-0), to leave the Union.
Less than a year later, the war fever following Confederate victories at Big Bethel and Manassas spread to Charlotte County. On January 21, 1862, Robert enlisted in a local company organized by Captain Samuel F. McGehee, a prosperous farm overseer, in the Drake’s Branch area of the county. This company was combined with nine other southside Virginia units into the state service as Company E of the 2nd Virginia Artillery. Upon his enlistment, Robert was appointed as a 2nd Lieutenant, and soon after was promoted to the rank of Junior First Lieutenant.
Due to the need for troops to defend the new Confederate capital, the 2nd was marched to Camp Anderson in Caroline County, north of Richmond, to begin training. They trained for approximately two months, drilling in the latest military tactics, and performing various duties around the camp. Though organized as an artillery unit, and very likely trained as such, their period of service soon came to an abrupt end. In May, the state reorganized its military units following an influx of volunteers and conscripts. Six of the companies from the 2nd artillery were dissolved and then reorganized to create an infantry battalion. For the remainder of the war this unit was known as the 22nd Battalion Virginia Infantry. At the time of the reorganization, new elections for officers took place, and on May 23rd, Robert S. Elam was elected Captain of Company E of the 22nd Battalion.
Within a month, the 22nd Battalion received its baptism under fire. As a part of Field’s Brigade of A.P. Hill’s “Light Division,” the 22nd saw extensive action during the Seven Days Battles around Richmond. A report from their first battle near Mechanicsville described the unit suffering under a bombardment from the enemy’s artillery batteries, but acting “coolly” considering they had never before been under fire. Though the first, this certainly was not the last time the unit would face the enemy. In just a few days, the 22nd saw heavy action at Gaines’ Mill and Frazier’s Farm, with casualties totaling ten killed and forty-nine wounded.
A month later, the 22nd Battalion took part in the stunning Confederate victory at Second Manassas, and made the march into Maryland as a part of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Once in Maryland, the 22nd took part in the capture of Harper’s Ferry, gathering needed supplies, arms, and ammunitions for the Confederate war effort. Just days later these weary men of Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry” arrived at Sharpsburg (Antietam) just in time to save Lee’s right flank during the afternoon battles around Burnside’s Bridge.
Following Lee’s less than successful efforts in Maryland, the 22nd Battalion and remainder of the Army of Northern Virginia were stationed along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg to set up winter quarters. In December, Captain Robert Elam was reported as being sick, and sent to a Richmond hospital to be treated. The records do not indicate what type of illness Robert had fallen victim to, but he was reported as being absent until February of 1863. By March though, Robert returned to take command of Company E of the 22nd Battalion. Coming into their spring campaign, the 22nd Battalion saw extensive action during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Most notably, the 22nd took part in Jackson’s famed flank march, inflicting serious casualties against the Union army, which secured a much needed victory for Lee’s army to mark the beginning of the third year of the war. This victory came at great loss though, with the 22nd Battalion suffering close to forty-percent casualties, and most detrimental of all, the mortal wounding of General Jackson on the night of May 2nd.