Robert Samuel Elam, Part 2 of 4

Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006

From Gettysburg to Captivity (Part 2)

By Fred D. Taylor

In the last column, I left off with the battle of Chancellorsville, where Captain Robert Samuel Elam led the men of Company E of the 22nd Virginia Battalion gallantly in the Confederate victory.

Following Chancellorsville, and the return of General Longstreet’s corps from Suffolk, Robert E. Lee’s army began its second campaign into the north in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure from the war in Virginia.  Today, this campaign has forever been etched into history as the Battle of Gettysburg.  In many ways, this battle began by accident.  After having spent days marching through Maryland and Pennsylvania, Confederate troops under the command of Major General Henry Heth encountered what they assumed was a small home-guard company on the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg on July 1st.  This group turned out to be several thousand veteran Union cavalrymen.  Believing otherwise, Heth ordered a full-scale attack, and was met with heavy casualties.  The two fought back and forth for the better part of the morning, with the Union cavalry being able to hold their position until reinforcements could arrive.  Heth pressed on though, gaining reinforcements himself throughout the day.

The 22nd Virginia Battalion began its journey toward Gettysburg around 5 a.m. on the morning of July 1st, and were soon ordered to proceed at a double-quick march to the sound of the guns.  By early afternoon, the 22nd Battalion arrived on the battlefield, and was immediately sent across Willoughby Run to engage the Union forces positioned near the McPherson Farm.  The Union forces they faced were members of the “Iron” and “Bucktail” Brigades, thought to be two of the hardest fighting brigades in the Union army.  According to reports, the men of the 22nd Battalion were forced to march across several hundred yards of open meadow in front of these Union infantry, “who unleashed a withering fire into the struggling Confederates.”  The 22nd Battalion made at least two full-scale charges against the Union lines, both ending in little success for the Confederates.  After being heavily repulsed by the Union troops, the 22nd Battalion received reinforcements and regrouped.  As the afternoon wore on, the Confederates eventually flanked the Union troops at the McPherson farm, forcing them into a full retreat through the town of Gettysburg.  However, the first day’s victory was a pyrrhic one for Robert, who was struck by a minié ball just above the knee during the battle.

As soon as Robert was hit, his men helped him away from the battlefield and carried him immediately to an impromptu hospital setup nearby.  After being examined, it was determined that his wound was too severe, and that the only way to save his life was to amputate his leg just above his knee, where he was wounded.  Some twenty years later, Robert still recalled the name of Dr. William R. Weisiger, the Brigade Surgeon who performed the operation.

The amputation was successful, but that was the least of Robert’s worries at the time.  On July 3rd, he watched as the remnants of his unit marched off, without him, into what became known forever as Pickett’s Charge.  Few would come back.

Yet, the long term results of the Battle of Gettysburg were even worse for Captain Robert Elam.  The day after the failed attack, Lee decided to withdraw his army from Pennsylvania, and return to Virginia.  Unable to transport or care for the nearly 5,000 severely wounded Confederate soldiers from three days of bloody fighting, they would be left in Gettysburg under the care of Confederate surgeons who stayed behind to treat them.  Robert would be of this number, and according to military records, he was “officially” captured by the Union forces on July 5, 1863.

Union hospital records show that Robert slowly improved, but remained in a Union Cavalry Corps hospital for approximately four months.  In September, Union doctors found it necessary to remove part of the bone in what was left of his femur that had been amputated.  This seemed to correct whatever remaining problems had existed from his wound, and other than a case of “diarrhea” that was noted in his hospital records, Robert continued to improve.  By October, Robert was well enough to be moved from the make-shift hospital at Gettysburg to a regular medical facility in Baltimore, Maryland.  He remained at the Baltimore hospital until Union doctors considered him to be fully recovered in April of 1864.  Robert’s status then became “prisoner of war” and he was confined to Fort McHenry prison, also in Baltimore.

In the next column, we will pick up with Robert’s life as a prisoner of war.

Robert Samuel Elam, Part 1 of 4

From Charlotte County to a Captain in Lee’s Army

Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006

By Fred D. Taylor

Cedar Hill Cemetery

Cedar Hill Cemetery

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.

Suffolk Lawyer Aided Confederate General


MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Grave stone of James Edward Jenkins in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Suffolk Lawyer Aided Confederate General – by Fred D. Taylor

Suffolk News-Herald, June 2005

Today, Suffolk is the home to dozens of attorneys.  In 1850 though, Suffolk and its small population only had four.  The youngest of the four was James Edward Jenkins.

Jenkins was born in 1824 in Nansemond County, the son of John Cole Jenkins and Elizabeth Madden.  His Jenkins family proudly claimed descent from John Jenkins, a 17th Century Governor of present-day North Carolina; and on his maternal side, the Madden family of Ireland.

Jenkins excelled at an early age academically, and attended the College of William & Mary.  It was there in which Jenkins gained his legal background.  Jenkins graduated from William & Mary in 1846, and soon returned to Suffolk to practice law.  About 1848, Jenkins married Mary Virginia Briggs, the daughter of local merchants Merritt & Lucretia Briggs.  A year later, their first child was born, and was named George Briggs Jenkins.

The 1850 Census shows James Jenkins and wife Mary residing at a hotel owned by Richard H. Riddick, Sr.  While here, their second child was born, Mary L. in 1851, and another, Anne E. in 1853.  By 1854, James had saved enough money to purchase an office and home on a lot in town which had previously been the site of Morgan & Parker’s store.  Land records indicate that the lot was located on Main Street in “uptown,” in the general area which is now the location of the Suffolk Circuit Court.

The Jenkins family continued to grow throughout the 1850s and early 1860s.  In 1855, their second son James W. was born, followed by Robert C. in 1857, Henry in 1858, and Jonathan B. in 1860.  Around the latter part of the 1850s though, Jenkins began preparations to move his family.  In 1857, he sold his lot in town, and by June of 1860 Jenkins and his family appear on a census record in St. Louis, Missouri, with James practicing law.  His three oldest children George B., Mary L., and Ann E., remained in Nansemond County, and lived with their grandparents.

Unfortunately for Jenkins, the political climate in Missouri and across the United States soon dramatically changed.  While Missouri tended to be pro-Unionist like most of the Border States, Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the “rebellion” in 1861 was met with lukewarm reaction.  Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson refused to enlist troops to invade the Southern states and in May of 1861, Union troops began to flood into St. Louis to suppress the state’s lean toward secession.  In less than a month, Governor Jackson and members of the Missouri legislature were forced to abandon the capital at Jefferson City and go into exile following an attack by Union General Nathaniel Lyon.

For James E. Jenkins, while the evidence is not clear, it is believed that he left St. Louis soon after the Union occupation of the city.  Jenkins brought his family back home in time to see his native Suffolk fall to Union occupation in May of 1862.  With no place to go, Jenkins apparently took up residence in either Isle of Wight or Southampton County, and looked on as the area braced for what became the Siege of Suffolk.  Briefly, Jenkins’ life returned to some happiness following the birth of his seventh child, Charles W., in 1863.  However, when Confederate troops under James Longstreet withdrew from Suffolk in May of 1863, only a number of Confederate cavalry troops remained along the Blackwater River to protect the region.  It was then that James Jenkins realized he had seen enough from the sidelines, and enlisted on July 22, 1863, in Franklin in Company D of the 8th Confederate Cavalry Regiment.  Ironically, just weeks before, Jenkins’ cousin John Sheffield Jenkins had fallen leading the 14th Virginia Infantry in Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg.  This stunning personal loss to his family no doubt weighed heavily on the mind of Jenkins when he enlisted.

Jenkins’ service in the cavalry was spent uneventful along the Blackwater River until November of 1863 when his company was ordered to report to the command of Colonel James Dearing.  Dearing, one of many senior-classmen who had resigned from West Point in 1861 following Virginia’s secession, had led an artillery unit for much of the war.  In January of 1864, Dearing’s cavalry was transferred to the command of General Robert F. Hoke to help in containing Union troops who threatened eastern North Carolina.  Dearing’s raw recruits served ably along the Carolina coast, despite an unsuccessful attempt at taking New Berne in February.  However, their successful capture of Plymouth in April of 1864 brought the congratulations of the Confederate Congress, and a promotion for Dearing to Brigadier General.  Upon Dearing’s promotion, the 8th Regiment Confederate Cavalry was broken up and reorganized into Company I of the 24th Virginia Cavalry, and by May of 1864 transferred back to Virginia.

The abilities of James E. Jenkins, however, had apparently caught the eye of General Dearing.  In September of 1864, Jenkins was recorded on muster rolls as having been transferred from the 24th Virginia Cavalry and detailed as a Clerk to General Dearing.  His service with Dearing would make him an active participant in the Confederacy’s famed “Beefsteak Raid” and the Siege of Petersburg.  In fact, Dearing’s cavalry performed gallantly to the very end of the war, participating in the Battle of Five Forks, and at the Battle of High Bridge on April 6 following Lee’s retreat.  It was at this battle that Lee’s famed Army won its last victory, capturing nearly 800 prisoners.  Yet, it was a pyrrhic victory as General Dearing was mortally wounded, and Lee would surrender his army in just days at Appomattox.  Dearing was soon removed to a hospital in Lynchburg to be treated, and on April 23 was the last Confederate General to die of wounds received on the battlefield.  While it is unknown whether James Jenkins accompanied his commander to Lynchburg, it is highly likely, as Jenkins was not with Lee’s Army at the surrender, but rather officially paroled on April 25 in occupied Richmond, just two days after Dearing’s passing.

Jenkins returned to Suffolk following his parole and began to rebuild his life.  As most former Confederate veterans had lost their citizenship rights, it is doubtful that Jenkins ever appeared again before the courts.  In 1867, Jenkins’ last child Mathew was born.  Yet, James Jenkins would not live to see his son’s first birthday, as he died of tuberculosis on September 15, 1868.  Jenkins passed away at the age of 44, leaving a wife and eight living children.  The funeral was conducted at the Methodist Church in Suffolk, with Masonic funeral rites, and burial at Cedar Hill Cemetery.