January 19, 2016
by Jenny Gray
On the morning of April 9, 1865, men from the Roanoke Valley fought in the Battle of Appomattox Court House, the final engagement of the Army of North Virginia before surrendering — and thus ending — the Civil War.
The Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., was lost to the South. Retreat was cut off by Union forces. Losing that morning battle brought General Robert E. Lee to the courthouse that afternoon where he signed the documents of surrender and gave up his sword.
Standing there was the company that included members from Halifax, Warren and Northampton counties. Now an area historian wants to know what made them tick.
Attorney, historian and author, Fred Taylor grew up visiting his grandmother on the banks of the Roanoke River. His forefathers operated Eaton’s Ferry, and somewhere along the line he learned of the Roanoke Minute Men, a Littleton-area militia that formed before the Civil War, and fought in that war from the start to the finish.
“For me personally, I’ve always been a history buff,” Taylor said during a recent visit in which he gathered more research on this militia. “A lot of people think history’s boring. It’s abstract. It happened 100 years ago.”
But that’s not how Taylor said he feels. Following in the footsteps of a family member, he started building on the family genealogy about two decades ago and was hooked.
“All this history comes back to my own family,” he said. “My dad grew up on the Roanoke River, and later, Lake Gaston. My grandfather pulled Eaton’s Ferry.”
Then along came the story of the Roanoke Minute Men and Taylor’s hobby turned into something more serious.
“My first big find was the diary of a soldier during the Civil War, and I was related to him,” Taylor said. “I started reading that and seeing how these guys fit into a bigger story.”
His hunt began in earnest last spring as he read more and more accounts of this band of local soldiers. Taylor has assembled a detailed roster of the Company including individual service records and period letters and accounts from the early day of the company, formed in 1864. He has corresponded with and met Roanoke Minute Men descendants and visited state and local archives, gathering more information.
He learned that the Company was among the first to serve in the Civil War.
“They formed as a militia just before the Civil War and eventually went from Littleton to Weldon, and then over to Garysburg to train,” Taylor said. “One-hundred and forty men ended up serving in the unit.”
Taylor said while his book will include military information, that’s not the goal. Troop movements during the Civil War are well documented, but to get to the heart of his subject, Taylor said he wants to make it personal.
“My preference is not talking about battles or generals; I’d like to know more about these soldiers,” he said.
The initial diary, Taylor added, wasn’t about war, per se. It was about how the soldier felt.
“He talked about love and poetry and there were some religious overtones,” Taylor said of the diary. “I don’t think any soldier can be in battle without getting a little closer to their maker.”
Most of these soldiers had never gone more than a few miles from home, Taylor said, and must have been frightened at times.
“My focus has been trying to emphasize their story — that life of the enlisted soldier who left family and loved ones and marched off hundreds of miles away to face enormous odds,” he added. “I think this sort of veterans’ story strikes a chord with anyone, regardless of age or race or what war we are discussing, or even whether or not they like history.”
To gather information, Taylor travels as often as he can while still managing his law practice in Suffolk, Va. He also has used the Internet, creating a website at: fredonhistory.com/roanoke-minute-men
Taylor, whose roots go back to the Jamestown Colony, also has a Facebook presence at www.facebook.com/roanokeminutemen.
Anyone from the Littleton area will recognize many of the surnames on the list of soldiers: Allen, Bobbitt, Holt, Kearney and Newsom, among others.
“Their average age was about 25 years old; literally every 18 to 40 year old, able-bodied man went,” Taylor said. “I’m gong to tell the big picture but I want these people to speak for themselves. And I want to be able to tell what was going on at home.”
He spoke of one of the company’s members, a black soldier named Hilliard Goings. Taylor said he was close to his fellow soldiers, including Newsom Jenkins.
“He served as a pallbearer at his funeral, and went to all the veterans’ reunions,” Taylor said of Goings. “I want to cover it all, and find the motivation to what prompts a young man to leave home and stability to go fight for four years. And what was the effect of that on their families. … I want to get down into the heart of that.”
So Taylor is asking people to help him find these photographs, diaries and letters. For more information about the Roanoke Minute Men project, or to make submissions to this effort, contact Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone at 757-705-0950, or by mail to: 160 West Washington St., Suffolk, VA. 23434. All submissions will be properly credited to the owner, he said.