A Soldiers Dying Request

Over the last few weeks I have been working tirelessly on our manuscript for Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church, May 3, 1863.Salem Church 062

At this point of the process we are making sure that we have everything in order for our manuscript editor, by making changes suggested by readers, beefing up sections, and making sure we have everything factually correct.

As I was working on the chapters on Salem Church I found letter that I initially pulled from an archives in 2007. Admittedly I forgot about the letter, which is easy enough to do if you have seen the stacks of paperwork I have dug through over the years.

The letter is from Lieutenant Rufus Jones of the 9th Alabama. Jones’ unit served in Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox’s all Alabama brigade during the Battle of Salem Church. Wilcox’s brigade fought a brilliant delaying action in the hours following the Battle of Second Fredericksburg. Wilcox’s men made their stand at the small brick Salem Church, about four miles to the west of Fredericksburg. During the battle the Alabamians engaged with an all New Jersey brigade under Colonel Henry Brown. With in the New Jersey Brigade was a nine month unit, the 23rd New Jersey, known as the “Yahoos”. For a brief time the 23rd New Jersey, with a number of other Federal units held the church and ground immediately around it. Salem Church 052

Confederate reinforcements arrived and turned the tide of battle. Confederates leaped from earthworks, crossed fences, and fought their way through wood lots driving back the Yankee hordes.

In the minutes following the battle, Lt. Jones walked back across the battlefield and arrived near the church, where he found what he thought was a dead Union soldier. The soldier was alive, and his name was Private Josiah Crispin of Company H, 23rd New Jersey Infantry. Crispin was in the waning moments of his life. Jones did what he could to aid the dying soldier. Crispin’s last request was for Lt. Jones to send Crispin’s diary home to his sister, which Jones obliged. What follows is the second letter that Jones sent to Mary Crispin, Josiah’s sister. To me, the letter retells one of the most poignant stories of soldiers compassion that I have come across in my studies. The letter dated October 13, 1863 was written from the Federal Prison on Johnson’s Island, while Jones was incarcerated there as a prisoner of war. What follows is the letter in its entirety. I hope that you will find the interaction between two enemies as touching as I did. (The layout of the letter, spelling, and punctuation in the original.)

I received your letter of the first and hasten to give you all the information in my power concerning your brother, J. B. Crispin. On Sunday the 3rd of last May the battle of Salem Church was fought. After the battle was over I was passing over the ground which was held a few minutes before by the Union forces, when my attention was attracted by a groan from a man I thought was dead. I went to him and turned him over (he was lying on his face) and found that he was still alive. I drew my flask from my pocket and I poured some of the contents down his throat. When he soon revived and asked me in a weak voice if I was going to kill him. I spoke to him kindly and asked him if I could do anything more for him by opening his coat. I saw that he was mortally wounded and would soon die as a Minie ball had pierced his left breast, just below the nipple, in the region of his heart. As soon as he came to himself and saw that I was not going to hurt him, he asked me to move him in the shade (as the sun was shining and very warm where he fell) which I did. I spread down a blanket and fixed his knapsack under his head so as to give him temporary ease of pain. I filled his canteen with water from my own and started to leave him for the purpose of send our ambulance corpse to have him sent to our hospital. When he called me back and looking up in my face remarked that war was a cruel, cruel, thing. I saw that he was sinking fast and I raised his head upon my knee and gave him a strong drink of brandy and water. He thanked me very kindly and with tears coursing down his cheek exclaimed, “My dear sister, Mary, I will never see you again and you will wait in vain for my return. Oh my god! Why did I leave my happy home? I know that death has laid his heavy hand upon me, but I am thankful that I am not afraid to go.” He then put his hand into his breast pocket and took out his diary handing it to me saying, “Take this, my kind friend, and read it if you choose. It is the idle thought of a poor soldier while fare away from those he loved and then send it to my sister Mary. You will find her address on the inside of this poor diary of mine. Give me your hand. And may God bless you for the kindness you have shown to an enemy. I raised his head, but his soul had taken its flight from this battlefield to where all is peace and the clash of arms are never heard. I have passed through much and witness many sad scenes but none have left such an impression upon my memory as the death of this brave soldier. I had him buried with several others in the immediate vicinity of the stately old church, Salem Church (whose name will grace the pages of our country’s history for future generations to come). A small and rude pen of rails marks his last resting place. If in recalling his last words to my memory I have caused you pain, I hope you will excuse me for I assure you it was not my intention. When I am exchanged (which God grant may not be far off as I am in rather a forlorn condition, not having relatives or friends North to whom I might apply assistance in time of need) I will return to my regiment near Fredericksburg and anything I can do for you, to his grave, or body, will cheerfully be done. Please let me know when you receive this. Hoping you may find comfort and consolation for the loss of your brother.

            From who never turn his back on those who seek Him, I remain

                         Very Respectfully your obedient servant,

Rufus C. Jones, 1st Lieutenant
Company H, 9th Alabama Regiment
Wilcox Brigade, Longstreet’s Corps
Army, Northern Virginia

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Books & Authors, Common Soldier and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A Soldiers Dying Request

  1. joe truglio says:

    Wow! Powerful letter. Thanks for sharing.
    P.S. What ever happened to Lt. Jones

  2. edabney says:

    Jones, promoted to Captain by war’s end according to his files at the National Archives, escaped from Johnson’s Island in January 1865.

    Records show he was hospitalized in Richmond at Stuart Hospital by March 11, 1865 but deserted from the hospital on March 15.

  3. ncatty says:

    This letter incorporates all of the elements of the “Good Death” as explained in “This Republic of Suffering”, a very fine book by Drew Gilpin Faust.

    • Meg Thompson says:

      Death in the 19th century was fascinating. Gilpin’s book is a lovely offering, and there are others–The Vacant Chair comes to mind–which deal with this topic. Elmer Ellsworth’s death & the national response to it is a story in and of itself. He was, for a while, everyone’s son/brother/husband. Then, alas, the war provided many more deaths. Each time I read these letters, these books, the newspaper accounts, I wonder if maybe it wasn’t a better way to view the end of life than the terrible oblivian we have accepted in this century?

  4. Roberta Baum says:

    What a strange world it must’ve been in the 19th century. So far removed from ours. The death of a soldier in battle is nothing new; there are many accounts throughout The Civil War. But for one soldier to take time to try to relieve another’s suffering, then bury him, and then write to the sister is pretty unusual. And on top of that, to send assurances of his salvation where he would forever be at peace, must surely be unusual. God is good.

  5. Charles says:

    Great letter and story.
    Will this book be part of the Emerging Civil War series from Savas Beatie or a more indepth work regarding this phase of the Chancellorsville battle? Any idea when it will be available?
    Thanks!

    • Our book on 2nd Fredericksburg/Salem Church won’t be part of the ECW series because it’s a much more in-depth microtactical study of the battle than what we’re offering with the ECW series. “Forgotten Front” should be out in time for the anniversary (assuming I pull myself away from the blog and get back to work on the manuscript edits I have to send to the copyeditor tonight!).

      That said, we have a couple more titles coming out soon in the ECW series, including a significantly expanded edition of our “Last Days of Stonewall Jackson” and a new book on the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, “Season of Slaughter.”

      Look for all three this spring!

  6. This letter is so expressive, and so full of honest emotion. It is heartbreaking. What kindness between two soldiers who minutes earlier would have been honor-bound to kill each other.

  7. Rebelrose says:

    Each time I read another poignant letter re: the death of a soldier, I am reminded of how unneccessary the war was, since Southern Americans were exercising their God-given right to self-determination, by seceding from the malfunctioning Union…not rebelling, or revolting, but exercising their God-given right…earned for them by their Revolutionary ancestors via the Revolutionary War. Why did Lincoln refuse to acknowledge Southern Americans’ God-given right to self-determination, and choose, instead, to label secession as an act of “revolt” or “rebellion”? It has never made any sense to me, as to why Lincoln failed to respect the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the federal Constitution, and the establishment of the United States…man’s God-given right to self-determination. Was it purely politics or financial gain that demanded a war on people who asked to be left alone? And how could the sacrifices of over 750,000 lives, and millions of dollars worth of property, be acceptable for “political or financial gain” to the North? The entire scenario is mindboggling…at least for me. At the very least, I no longer have any respect for the man our society deems “the greatest president”…A. Lincoln. The very concept of Lincoln’s being “great” is beyond absurd, for it was at his hands our original “union by choice” was destroyed, and was replaced by a “union by force”, under which we iive today…the deathnell of “the great experiment” in man governing himself.

    • ncatty says:

      I agree that the war was unnecessary, but for a different reason. I will skip the “who fired the first shot” argument but simply ask you why the seceding States did not resort to the Supreme Court for validation of the right to secede? After all, the same court had ruled in their favor in the Dred Scott case so, if anything, it was stacked in their favor.

    • Unfortunately, that argument only works if you consider “self-determination” to mean “doing whatever we want whenever we want.” The notion of civilized society is based on compromise and consensus and, ultimately, majority rules (while protecting the rights of the minority). Otherwise, “self-determination” is nothing more than anarchy. The South behaved like a bunch of spoiled kids who didn’t get their way and so wanted to take their ball and go home–hardly Lincoln’s fault, especially since secession started before he even took office.

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