Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Died of Sickness During the Civil War

John William Jennings, Jr., my great great grand uncle, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Vernon, lived in Amherst County, Virginia, and had eleven known children. Eight of those children were sons and four were old enough to serve in the Confederate States Army (CSA) during the Civil War. Their oldest son, James, served with the Virginia Powhatan Light Artillery Battery. Leroy, served in the 19th Virginia Infantry [1]. Abner enlisted in the 58th Virginia Infantry, and Matthew served with Mosby's Rangers.

Amherst County Historic Marker; photograph courtesy of Way Marking

Abner's war was to be a tragically short war. He was born on 1 May 1844. When the census was enumerated in 1850 Abner lived with his parents and siblings on his parents' farm. The farm was valued at $1,200. It certainly was not the largest farm in the county, but I believe his family was comfortable. The family continued to prosper during the 1850s and in 1860 John Jennings' farm was valued at nearly $10,000. But the country was divided over the "peculiar institution" of slavery and attitudes were hardening on both sides.

On 15 August 1861, 17-year-old Abner Jennings traveled to western part of Amherst county and enlisted in Company I of the 58th Virginia Infantry regiment. When he enlisted at Millner's store, he was made a 4th sergeant. The company entered service on 24 September 1861 and was called Amherst Johnson Guards or Long Mountain Boys. Captain William A. Higginbotham, a prominent farmer in the county, commanded the company. Colonel Edmund Goode, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), command the entire regiment. He had served in the First Battle of Manassas earlier in 1861.[2]

As the ten companies of the regiment gathered in Staunton, many of the men were exposed to childhood diseases such as measles and mumps for the first time. Several fell ill. First Sergeant Edward J. Garrett of Company A wrote about falling ill to his wife: "...I was quite unwell and was going to a private house. I have been closely confined ever since and will have to sit up longer in writing to you than I have since Saturday. I suppose I have Measles simptoms but I have not broke out yet. I do suffer greatly with cough, Headach and pain about my eyes. Sometimes I am perspiring freely and in one minute it is all I can do to keep off a chill and my back & Legs pain me greatly..."

Map of the area where the 58th Virginia Infantry operated during
1861-62; image courtesy of Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation

On 20 October 1861 General Henry R. Jackson, commanding the Confederate forces on the Monterey Line in the Blue Ridge mountains and Shenandoah valley requested reinforcements. The 58th Virginia Infantry, though decimated by sickness and with barely 400 effective soldiers, were sent west to Highland County to support General Jackson. By the end of the month, the regiment had crossed the steep mountains and were camped in tents on along Strait Creek. Lt. Septimus Williams described the camp in a letter to his wife: "...we are quartered here between four large mountains, all in sight and not a mile off. It is considered an important point, as the road from Beverly intersects the Petersburg road leading to Monterey at this place, and all other roads leading into the valley are guarded by our troops except this..."

The weather was cold and sickness continue to ravage the regiment. Eventually they built a winter camp with cabins in a sugar orchard about seven miles west of Monterey on the south branch of the Potomac. The land was mountainous and rocky. They men appreciated the lack of mud. The health of the regiment began to improve after Christmas though it had lost 48 soldiers in 1861 to disease.

A Confederate winter camp in Virginia during the Civil War; courtesy
of Virginia Places

On 28 February 1862 seven companies of the 58th Virginia Infantry were ordered to Huntersville while the remaining three companies were sent to General Johnson on Alleghany Mountain, which is on current day border of Virginia and West Virginia. The weather was bitterly cold. Eventually, the regiment was reunited on Allegheny Mountain in the spring of 1862.

It is likely Abner Jennings was one of many soldiers felled by disease while on the mountain. He last appeared in the regiment's muster rolls in February and died of pneumonia at General Hospital No. 2 in Lynchburg, Virginia. Abner was a month short of his 18th birthday.

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[1]I have written extensively about the 19th Virginia Infantry. To read those posts, click on War Stories.

[2]This battle is also known as the First Battle of Bull Run. The U.S. military named battles after a prominent body of water near where the battle occurred. The Confederates tended to name battles after nearby towns.

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