Robert Samuel Elam, Part 4 (Conclusion)

Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006

Esteemed Citizen of Suffolk (Part 4)

By Fred D. Taylor

Battle-scarred and weary, Robert Samuel Elam made the trek from Charleston back to his native Charlotte County.  Soon after and not too far away, the war in Virginia ended with Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

With the war and its aftermath now behind him, the thirty-three year old Robert Elam decided to start his life anew in the midst of Reconstruction.  Within months of his return, Robert married Martha A. Robertson, who according to secondary sources had been widowed during the war.  Robert also returned to farming, in as much as his injuries allowed him to work.

In time, the Elam family began to grow.  In January of 1866, Robert and Martha’s first child was born.  They named the baby boy Hilary Edward Elam, named after Robert’s brother who had been killed during the battle of Malvern Hill in 1862.  Two years later, a second son was born, William Gordon Elam, named after Robert’s father and his younger brother.  Their first daughter was born in 1870, and named Etta Lee Elam.  These additions to the family brought much cause for celebration around the Elam household, but Robert felt his family needed a change of scenery from Charlotte County.

While the farming life had been good for him, Robert’s physical condition did not allow him to properly manage the scale of farm it would take to support his family.  So Robert sold his farm, and packed up his family to begin a new adventure.  Several years before, Robert’s brother Thomas Gordon Elam had done the same, moving to Suffolk.  Though not a local, Thomas’s charisma and friendliness earned him the respect of the town citizens.  Thomas married a Suffolk girl, Emily S. Arnold, in 1870, and worked as the railroad agent.  In 1872, Thomas was elected Mayor of Suffolk, and a year late became the second owner and editor of the Suffolk Herald (the predecessor to the News-Herald).  With the success of his brother in mind, Robert Elam and family made Suffolk their new home.  While in Suffolk, the last child of Robert and Martha’s was born in 1876, and they named her Alma M. Elam.

Robert Elam purchased the Washington Hotel, which he promoted as having “excellent rooms” and being “pleasantly situated” in the business center of town.  The Washington hotel also included a restaurant, where Robert served as the overall proprietor and manager.  According to the 1880 Census, the hotel was shown to have twenty-four occupants.  This included the six members of the Elam family, two clerks, four dining room servants, one cook, two family servants, a young child of one of the servants, and eight boarders.  Though the dates are not certain, it is believed that Robert operated the hotel for approximately ten years.

Unfortunately, Robert’s war injuries and exposure in prison wore on him as time passed, and eventually he was forced to give up operating the hotel.  Even while he was running it, his ability to get around was severely limited, managing to move about only with the use of crutches, or a crutch and walking stick.  In the mid-1870s, Robert was given an artificial leg through a state medical program, but it was of little use.  Several years later in the 1880s, Robert again applied for assistance from the state, and it was explained in his request that “he was only able to wear [the artificial leg] a day or two at a time on account of it giving him pains, and which, with slight wear soon wore out, it being poorly made.”  From this request, Robert received a small pension in order to support his family.

By the 1890s, Robert’s condition only continued to worsen.  Just shy of his sixtieth birthday, Robert took ill, and on the morning of October 1st, 1891, passed away after a three week struggle.  His funeral was conducted at the First Baptist Church of Suffolk, and the local newspapers noted that flowers in “every design” were sent by his friends.  The pallbearers were all former Confederate soldiers, and they escorted his body for burial in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Robert was survived by his wife Martha, and all four of his children.  Martha spent her remaining days living with family, and passed away in 1902.  She is buried beside Robert in Cedar Hill.  The oldest son, Hilary Edward Elam, married Lillian Lee Kilby, daughter of Dr. John T. Kilby and Mary Benn.  Hilary worked as a shipping clerk for Planter’s Peanuts until his death in 1925.  The next oldest, William Gordon Elam, married Mary Woodward, daughter of William J. Woodward and Augusta V. Minter.  William worked as an insurance agent in Suffolk, and he and Mary had one daughter, Martha Virginia Elam.  William died in 1938.  Of the Elam daughters, Etta Lee Elam was the only one to marry.  Etta married Charles Meigs Boswell of Charlotte County in 1895.  Census records indicate that they spent the remainder of their lives in Chase City, Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where Charles worked as a bank president.  Etta and Charles had two children, their oldest Robert named after his grandfather, and Charles, Jr., named after his father.  The youngest of the Elam family, Alma M. Elam, never married and passed away in 1947.  She is buried in Cedar Hill in the lot with her mother and father.

Though taken from his family at a young age due to his wartime exposures, the life of Robert Samuel Elam is not one of regret or sadness.  Rather, for those who read his story, it is one of fighting the odds and making the most out of one’s circumstances.  In looking back on his life, Robert Elam undoubtedly went through a great deal.  On the battlefields of Gettysburg where a wound permanently disabled him, Robert watched the men of his command go into Pickett’s Charge, where he likely would have been killed had he been leading them that day.  From there he suffered through a Union prison camp which nearly took his life, and survived a journey as a member of the Immortal 600.  Sadly, many of his comrades would suffer a much worse fate.  Finally, he obtained his freedom and parole after a year and a half spent in hospitals and prisons, only to see Lee surrender the Army of Northern Virginia, just four months later.  In the final count, only thirteen soldiers from the entire 22nd Battalion remained to the end.  Yet, Robert picked up the pieces of his life and fought on during both war and peace.  In his obituary it was remarked that Captain Robert Elam was a “much esteemed citizen” of Suffolk, but the truth is, he was much more.  He was a leader and a patriot who fought for his country, he was a devoted husband and father, and he was a loyal friend.  In the highest of honors that could ever be bestowed upon him, he was a Christian, Southern Gentleman.

Robert Samuel Elam, Part 3 of 4

Suffolk News-Herald, March 2006

The Immortal 600 (Part 3)

By Fred D. Taylor

In the last column, Captain Robert S. Elam had been transferred to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor as a prisoner of war.  This was only a temporary holding facility though, and Robert was moved again in June of 1864 to Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River.  Fort Delaware had been converted into a prison in 1862, and held a capacity of approximately 10,000 prisoners.  But, for the prisoners who were sent there, Fort Delaware was no vacation spot.  Fort Delaware was notorious for its inhumane conditions, which included severe prison overcrowding, and a poor sewage system that contaminated the drinking water.  For Robert, this situation was only compounded by the fact he was highly susceptible to infections due to his amputation.

Robert was imprisoned in Fort Delaware for approximately a month when a rumor began to circulate around the prison that a large group of prisoners were to be sent south to be exchanged.  This was a surprise for the prisoners, as the United States had ended its policy of exchange in hopes of depleting Southern resources from both the loss of men and the necessity to care for Union prisoners of war.  However, a rumor of exchange was one thing – heading South was something totally different.  Needless to say, it was quite a shock then, on August 20th of 1864, when six-hundred Confederate officers left Fort Delaware on board the ship the Crescent City destined for Charleston Harbor.  With the hope that they would soon be in friendly territory, these six hundred men could never have realized their actual role was as bargaining chips of the Federal government.

During the summer of 1864, several key events had set in to motion what would develop in Charleston with the arrival of these six hundred Confederate prisoners.  Just months before, six hundred Union prisoners had been transferred from the Andersonville prison to Charleston.  The Confederate authorities did this for several reasons.  First, overcrowding within the prison had deteriorated prison conditions, placing overall health of the prisoners in serious jeopardy.  Second, the start of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta threatened the viability of a Confederate prison within striking distance.  With this in mind, Confederate authorities shifted the Union prisoners out of Andersonville for fear they would be freed by Sherman.

At first, Union authorities balked at this as a violation of the ethics of war, because it was common for Union artillery to shell Charleston, and thus their men would be subjected to such fire.  (Note that nothing was said of the shelling of civilian women and children there in Charleston.)  However, once it was clear that the Union prisoners were not in harms way, a plan to justify doing the same to Confederate prisoners sparked the interest of Union Major General John C. Foster, commanding the Union forces around Charleston.  Selling this argument to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington was easy for General Foster, who justified placing Confederate prisoners under fire as “retaliation.”  The difference with these prisoners, though, was that they really would be placed under fire.

Thus, the dream of six hundred Confederate prisoners who assumed their trip south was for exchange, quickly vanished.  The Crescent City arrived in Charleston Harbor on September 1st, and was immediately anchored within range and under fire of the Confederate heavy artillery at Battery Gregg, while a stockade for them was built within Union lines on Morris Island, south of Charleston.   Upon their arrival, it was realized that at least forty of the prisoners were in such poor condition that even the Union officials could not justify keeping them in the name of retaliation.  Among this number was Captain Robert Elam, whose condition had worsened since his arrival at Fort Delaware.

Robert was removed to the US General Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he remained until December.  On December 15th, after nearly a year and half as a prisoner of war, he was paroled and released to the Confederate authorities in Charleston.  As for Robert’s comrades who had been brought down from Fort Delaware, they were placed under fire for over forty-five days on Morris Island.  Amazingly, none were killed in the exchange of fire, though many died from sheer dehydration, fatigue, and malnourishment.  In subsequent years, these original six hundred men became poetically known as The Immortal 600.

As for Robert, it is not clear whether he remained in Charleston until its surrender in February of 1865, or gradually made his way back home after his parole.  Due to his condition, what little walking he could do was limited to the use of a crutch, so realistically the only way he could travel such a long distance would have been by wagon and/or train.  Given the state of the war by 1865, it is more than likely he remained in Charleston until transportation could be more easily accessible to make the nearly four hundred mile trip back home to Charlotte County, Virginia.

In the next and final column on the life of Robert Samuel Elam, we will cover his post war history, including the start of his family, and his life in Suffolk.

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.