Every Memorial Day I give a program reflecting on the soldiers killed during the Breakthrough. There are dozens of compelling stories from which to choose for the Federals, but I have only been able to identify photographs or backstories for a handful of Confederates. It happens when one side is charging with fixed bayonets under fire across half a mile of open ground and the far-outnumbered defenders surrender in mass just minutes after their works are breached. Thus I’m constantly working with the same couple of southern casualties every year. One such soldier has a quote attached to him that I always struggle to unpack.
William Thorne Nicholson was born July 31, 1840, in Halifax County, North Carolina. The son of a prominent planter, William graduated with distinction from the University of North Carolina in 1860. He enlisted into the 37th North Carolina Infantry on November 20, 1861, and was appointed adjutant. The next December he was promoted captain and the following year served as judge advocate in Cadmus Wilcox’s division court. “He is a most gallant officer, and is said to be the best Judge Advocate in the army,” declared a colleague.
Nicholson then commanded the sharpshooter battalion of James Lane’s Brigade during the 1864 Overland Campaign. According to a member of that organization, Robert E. Lee called upon Wilcox to provide a man for a hazardous scouting mission to determine the flank of the Union line on May 12th, while combat raged at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle. Wilcox selected Nicholson.
“Captain, I am sending you on a dangerous mission, and I leave it to your discretion whether to go or not,” stated Lee, “but the fate of my army depends upon it, and for God’s sake don’t lose any time.” Nicholson accepted the mission and reported back with his findings. The division used that intelligence to direct their counterattack, buying time for Lee to establish his secondary line at the base of the “Mule Shoe” salient.
During later combat at Spotsylvania, Nicholson suffered a severe gunshot wound in his right shoulder but returned to his regiment that summer at Petersburg.
On March 25, 1865, William’s brother Edward was killed in the desperate charge against Fort Stedman. Eight days later, William was killed during the Breakthrough. Family tradition states that he had an approved leave in his pocket, but he would not leave his men on the eve of battle.
A comrade wrote of the officer: “We had fought upon twenty odd battlefields together, and it was my privilege and duty in the heat of battle, while receiving instructions from him, to watch him closely, and in all of these conflicts, no matter how trying the circumstances, never saw him lose his balance. He was a man ‘born to command men.'”
Here’s where things get dicey. Lieutenant Octavius Wiggins, who provided the above eulogy, went on to provide another statement that brings pause for consideration: “Had he lived he would have proved a great factor in adjusting political affairs during reconstruction days.”
Wiggins meant that as a compliment when he wrote his brief regimental history, published in 1901, but what are we to make of it now–knowing what we do about the enduring scars of southern resistance to Reconstruction?
‘Warren.’ “North Carolinians in the Recent Battles.” Raleigh Weekly Confederate, June 8, 1864.
Wiggins, Octavius A. “Thirty-seventh Regiment.” Walter Clark, ed. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 2. Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers, 1901, 673.