Captain Hugh A. White: “To Draw Back Is Impossible”

Detail of a Confederate uniform and sword (LOC, cropped)

“…his presence was soon missed, and a member of his company, fearing he had been injured, proceeded to look for him, and soon found his body. He was lying on his face, resting it in his hands, and his pistol and unsheathed sword lay by his side.”[i]

When leaders fall as casualties of battle, the shock and grief begins with their comrades. Dynamic leaders are missed almost immediately when their unit is under fire. When the battle moments pass, friends from other commands and superior officers learn of the casualty and respond. Finally, the news must be sent to the worried or unsuspecting family – usually far from the scene of pain or tragedy. On August 30, 1862, the final day of the Second Battle of Bull Run, the 4th Virginia Regiment, General Thomas J. Jackson, and the town of Lexington experienced this type of communication and loss when Captain Hugh A. White was found lying face down on the battlefield.

This nearly twenty-two year old officer had hoped for a different fate than the one he received on that battle day. Who was this young man who had disappeared into the battle smoke, trying to lead a charge? What were his ambitions and goals? What leadership and influence had he exerted that made his fall on that day noteworthy to his regiment and commanders? After-all, White was only a captain, not a professional soldier, and a strict religious man. What made his men look desperately for him as the battle haze started to clear?

Hugh A. White – born on September 6, 1840, in Charlottesville, Virginia – was the fifth son of William S. White and Jane I. White. His parents remembered him as the quiet child in the family, a listener who often had an insightful comment or ready joke. Rarely mischievous, young Hugh had a brilliant mind and attended his first year at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, when he was just fourteen. Graduating four years later and receiving a gold medal for his distinguished scholarship, the young man pondered his life goals. His father – Reverend White – pastored the Presbyterian Church in Lexington, and Hugh often assisted with distributing religious tracts and books or teaching various Sunday Schools.

There, in Lexington, Hugh met Major Thomas J. Jackson, an awkward military officer finding his way in society, religion, and teaching in the small Virginia town. The two worked together to organize a Sunday School for slaves in the community. Though lacking further details about their acquaintanceship during the antebellum years, Jackson did write that Hugh was a “personal friend.”[ii]

The White’s Home in Lexington (image by author)

Influenced by Dr. W. J. Hoge, Hugh decided to attend Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, hoping to become a minister. He taught school in Monroe County for nearly a year to save for his seminary tuition and spent long hours of soul-searching and Scripture reading which translated into detailed letters to his family, filled with theological observations and beliefs of personal faith. In 1859, Hugh arrived at the seminary and spent two years preparing for ministry.

Many of his letters from this period of his life reflected an urgency to live a Christian life and preach the gospel. “If I am to enter the ministry from right motives, I must evince it by laboring for those now around me. When I remember that ‘as is the boy, so is the man,’ I fear lest my life should be a blank – that I shall fail to accomplish the end of my being.”[iii] Death and the meaning of life became another common theme in Hugh’s personal writings and family letters. For this young man, his faith and the desire to share religious truths occupied his thoughts, hopes, and even fears. “…How sweet it would be then to breathe out my soul in the arms of my Saviour, and pass immediately from the sins and sorrows of this life to the holiness and glory of the next. I then seem to court death. These are precious moments. Yet patience must have its perfect work. When God calls, I hope to go rejoicing. Until he calls, I await patiently his coming.”[iv]

Though Hugh had a consuming religious focus, he was far from a “fanatic” about his faith. Family and friends described his affability, genuine care of others, and good company. He loved his family, and an excerpt from a letter to his older married sister showed a different side of his character. “Shall I not see you and yours at Lexington this summer? I sincerely hope so. Surely you will send, if cannot bring, some of the little ones. Tell them I will run in the fields, catch fish, or gather flowers with them, as they like best.”[v]

Events in Hugh’s world shaped the course of his life. The young man who wanted to enter the Christian ministry or run in the sunny fields with his nieces and nephews faced a difficult choice by the spring of 1861. In a letter to his father written on April 22 from the seminary following the firing on Fort Sumter and the call for troops, Hugh explained:

“…But events in this country as hastening on so rapidly to some dreadful catastrophe, that we can scarcely indulge the hope of doing anything except to fight and suffer. We feel the commotion here very much. Our studies and recitations are much interrupted. We all hold ourselves ready to take part in the war. Some of our number are already drilling. As so myself, I have been troubled to know what I should do. It would, of course, be much more to my taste to remain at home with you and mother. But you do not need my presence. It will blast my highest hopes to take any step which would retard or prevent my entrance into the ministry. And we certainly ought not to take up arms so hastily as men in other professions. Yet we are not exempt from military service, and hence I hold myself ready to go, whenever there is any lack of men.” 

Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia

Reverend White tried to persuade his son to stay at seminary, graduate, and serve the military as a chaplain. By June 1861, Hugh had other plans. He enlisted with the Liberty Hall Volunteers which would eventually form part of the 4th Virginia Infantry. The company’s first captain – Hugh’s older brother James – mustered the unit, accepted a special flag, and led them north to Staunton and Harper’s Ferry. After rigorous drill, the Volunteers – now a company of the regiment – headed to the fields near Manassas Junction with the rest of their brigade where on July 21st during their baptism of fire they received the famous name “The Stonewall Brigade.” For Hugh, life as a soldier and this first battle emphasized mortally even more. Still, he clung to his hopes of surviving, writing to his sister: “Of course, I hope to escape death, and live to preach the gospel.”[vi]

Hugh White escaped death and injury many times in the following months as he marched and fought through 1862 under “Stonewall” Jackson’s command. The Romney Campaign, five of the six battles during the Shenandoah Campaign, and Cedar Mountain put the seminary student in battle, testing his leadership and eventually earning him a promotion to captain of the company by election. The war did not lessen Hugh’s faith, and he occasionally conducted religious services. Never officially a chaplain, Hugh created an informal type of ministry, reaching out to struggling soldiers, offering friendship, a listening ear, encouraging words, or sincere prayers. By summer 1862, the men in Hugh’s company knew and trusted his leadership in battle, were well aware of his religious convictions, and welcomed his efforts to encourage.

In a letter home on August 24, 1862, Hugh described the hardships of the march and the pressure Union artillery throughout the days. Like other soldiers, he thought another large battle was probably ahead in the coming week but tried to reassure his worried parents with another testimony of his faith. “No storm can disturb my peace, no danger can come nigh, no harm can befall which will not do me good.”[vii]

His presentiment of battle proved correct. On August 28, 1862, the clash at Groveton occurred, and the following day Jackson’s troops were heavily engaged. Hugh had spent most of his young adult life desiring to make a difference in others’ lives and constantly worrying that he was not doing enough to help or encourage others. At Second Manassas records point to two remarkable scenes at the end of the hard fought day. First, when Willie Preston – another Lexington boy – was mortally wounded, Captain Hugh White went to the field hospital and stayed with him for some time, receiving verbal messages to send back to the Preston family; with command duties also on his mind and preparing for another day’s fight, Hugh neglected to write Willie’s words, undoubtedly intending to do that and write the sad news later on.

Leaving the field hospital, Hugh focused on his living men. His commander – Colonel William S. Baylor – approached him, saying, “I know the men are very much wearied out by the battle today, and that they need all of the rest they can get to fit them for the impending struggle of tomorrow. But I cannot consent that we shall sleep tonight until we have had a brief season of prayer to thank God for the victory and preservation of the day and to beseech His protection and blessing, during the continuance of this terrible conflict.”[viii] Hugh agreed wholeheartedly to the plan, helping to lead a brief religious service on the First Virginia Brigade’s defensive battleline for any who wished to attend.

The following day – August 30, 1862 –  Union attacks created a gap between Jackson and A.G. Taliaferro’s lines along the unfinished railroad cut. Baylor – commander of the Stonewall Brigade – received orders to advance across the field and fill the gap. Galled by heavy Union fire, the brigade wavered in the shelter of the wood line, fearing to cross into the open field. The colonel rallied the troops, using the battle flag of the 33rd Virginia, but fell. [ix]

In this storm of bullets and moment of indecision, Captain Hugh A. White – the former seminary student – momentarily hesitated, taking in the situation and trying to control and rally his own company. Once, Hugh had written, “To draw back is impossible – to go forward I am afraid. But if the work in its vastness appears, if the fields white for the harvest are seen, if I realize that souls are falling into hell because no voice is uttered to warn them of their danger, then I cry, ‘Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.’”[x]

There was no pulpit. Hugh’s voice probably could not even be heard in that battle moment. Yet leadership – whether religious or militarily – had been his watchword for years. If retreat was impossible to his mind and character, he had one choice. Seized the fallen flag from Baylor’s body, Captain White caught the attention of the brigade before advancing into the heavy battle smoke and disappearing from view. Inspired, the Stonewall Brigade’s officers and men pulled together, advanced across the field, and filled the break in the lines.[xi]

A comrade later admitted that the company missed Captain White’s voice and his presence in the company’s battle line, and several soldiers went looking for the young officer, thinking he might have been wounded and in need of assistance. They found him dead – shot through the chest. His hands covered his face as he lay face downward in the grass, weapons nearby. The captain’s men buried him on the battlefield and wrote to his family, informally eulogizing their leader and creating a clearer picture of who Hugh White had been in camp and battlefield.

“As a soldier and officer he was a model; to his company he was exceedingly kind, but his kindness never assumed the form of partiality. He was just. In the camp he devoted himself exclusively to the promotion of its interests, temporal and eternal. In action he was perfectly fearless, yet his courage was controlled by a sound discretion. On such occasions he was possessed with a peculiar enthusiasm – an unconquerable zeal and determination to meet the foe, and consequently he was always seen among the gallant spirits who go farthest in the direction of the foe. His command was never ‘go on,’ but always ‘come on.’”[xii]

Captain White’s gravestone in Lexington Cemetery.

From seminary student to military leader, Hugh lived by principle and conviction. As a company commander, he earned the respect of his men and tried to use his influence for good. He did not live to preach formally as a minister, but according to his comrades, he preached daily lessons through his actions and sincere care for others. Though history books and studies, often focus on the command of generals, the officers directly on the battle line, organizing a fight, had the personal influence on their men, and for Hugh that meant leadership by example. “Come on.”

Before enlisting, Hugh had written to his worried mother, “We may suffer far more, our situation may become darker and darker, but the morning will dawn, light will again come. With hope therefore on our banner, let me go to the battle.” On that hot, fearsome day in August 1862, Captain Hugh A. White had seized a battle banner and rushed into battle. Later, though none could remember seeing him fall, his men gathered to buried their officer and remember his life. Whether it was on the battlefield, in a field hospital, or during a lonely, solemn hour in camp, their captain had lived his faith, his compassion, and his courage.

Sources:

Robertson, J.I. (1982). 4th Virginia Infantry. Lynchburg, VA: H.E. Howard, Inc.

[i] White, W.S. (1864). Sketches of the Life of Captain Hugh A White of the Stonewall Brigade by His Father. Columbia, SC: South Carolinian Steam Press. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.) Pages 120-121.

[ii] Ibid, Excerpt from Jackson’s letter to Dabney. Page 119.

[iii] Ibid, Pages 24-25.

[iv] Ibid, Page 32.

[v] Ibid, Page 38.

[vi] Ibid, Page 49.

[vii] Ibid, excerpt from H.A.White’s last letter, Pages 114-116.

[viii] Jones, J.W. (1887). Christ in the Camp. (Reprinted, 1986). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications. Pages 138-139.

[ix] Hennessy, J.J. (1993). Return To Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. University of Oklahoma Press. Page 348.

[x] White, W.S. (1864). Sketches of the Life of Captain Hugh A White of the Stonewall Brigade by His Father. Columbia, SC: South Carolinian Steam Press. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.) Page 35.

[xi] Hennessy, J.J. (1993). Return To Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. University of Oklahoma Press. Page 349.

[xii] White, W.S. (1864). Sketches of the Life of Captain Hugh A White of the Stonewall Brigade by His Father. Columbia, SC: South Carolinian Steam Press. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.) Page 121.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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5 Responses to Captain Hugh A. White: “To Draw Back Is Impossible”

  1. Larry De Maar says:

    Thanks, Sarah, for a wonderful article. James Robertson in his book on Stonewall Jackson states that “The flag covered him like a shroud.”

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Glad you liked the article, Larry. Yes, I’d seen that piece about the flag, but I’m slightly suspicious of that with the rest of the timing. If they didn’t find his body until after the brigade moved to the advanced position and couple soldiers came back to look for him (thinking he was wounded), why would the 33rd VA flag still be on his body. Wouldn’t someone have picked it up in the rush forward?

      I’m definitely not saying it’s an impossible scene. It could certainly have happened, but does seem a little curious to me and in need of more research or consideration – which was why I left it out of the original article.

      • Larry De Maar says:

        I believe you are right, Sarah. In your article, you state that there was “heavy battle smoke”, so I thought that the flag covering the body was possible. However, you make such excellent points, it does sound far fetched. I am really looking forward to your upcoming Emerging Civil War book.

  2. Robert Rainey says:

    Thank you for this article, it’s not often that Confederates are put in a good light.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      There were certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” on both sides.

      Captain White was an interesting individual to research. His writings reminded me a little of Charles Spurgeon (famous 19th Century British minister) – filled with religious devotion and theology.

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