Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author John N. McDonald…
Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia was a troubled man in November 1864. Two months had passed since Sherman captured Atlanta and the Union armies were once again on the march with very little in their way. It soon became obvious that at least a portion of the enemy would be coming right through the state capital at Milledgeville, where the state legislature was currently in session. As the capital, in addition to the governor’s mansion and statehouse, Milledgeville was home to the state lunatic asylum, as it was called at the time, Georgia Military Institute (GMI), and the state penitentiary. More important militarily were the arsenal and stores kept there for Confederate forces.
Brown had a solution to one problem that could aid in the lack of troops at hand to oppose Sherman. On November 18, shortly before adjourning, the Georgia House and Senate concurred on a bill authorizing Governor Brown to enlist as many convicts from the penitentiary as would be willing to volunteer for the duration of the war in exchange for a full pardon. Promptly going across the public square, Brown appealed to the prisoners himself. Surprisingly, or perhaps not considering it would get them out of the prison, 124 men volunteered for service. Twenty-six refused and were returned to the penitentiary.
Even more surprising, they were allowed to elect their own officers like a regular militia or volunteer company. Their choice was naturally someone high up in the prisoner hierarchy: Dr. Ezekiel Roberts. In his honor, the unit was to be known as the “Roberts Guards.” As one of only two known named members of the unit, in addition to being their leader, it’s worth looking at the early career of Captain Roberts.
A medical doctor from Columbia County, Roberts had been born to a wealthy family in 1816. His father, Sherwood Roberts, could boast a plantation worth $5,000 in 1850. In 1  Roberts was clearly still well-to-do himself, enough that he held four people in bondage, and was already in trouble locally. Wealth nor career diverted Ezekiel from leading an impressive career as a gang leader, burglar, and highwayman.
It wasn’t until 1846 he was sentenced to prison for the first time after a July 18 burglary in Hancock County that netted about $4,000 in silver and banknotes. Vigilantes from Fort Gaines, Georgia, killed his accomplice after apprehending them, identifying Roberts by his gold buttons marked ‘E.A.R.’ Arresting deputies also took pistols, dirks, lockpicks, 40-50 skeleton keys, vials of morphine, two gold watches, and other items off Roberts.
Delivered to the state penitentiary at Milledgeville on December 22, 1846, he was sentenced to seven years for burglary. The Georgia State Penitentiary log book described him as fair complexioned, 5’9”, with dark hair. In April the next year, a 110-acre lot in Harris County owned by Roberts was sold to satisfy fines and fees by the county court. Roberts didn’t serve the whole sentence; he was pardoned in 1851 by Governor George W. B. Towns shortly before leaving office.
In October of 1852 when Dr. Roberts was connected to a violent burglary in Barnesville, Georgia. Two of his associates named Simpson and Copenhaver spent the night with Mr. and Mrs. John Jackson, noting when they paid with a $20 bill where Mrs. Jackson had fetched the change, and returned a week later with Roberts and the whole gang. The take was about $6,500 in silver and gold. Roberts was captured in Newnan, Georgia, soon after, once again with an extensive assortment of burglary tools. Indicted for robbery, burglary, plus as a rogue and vagabond, he was sentenced to nineteen years in the penitentiary.
Dr. Ezekiel Roberts was still in prison serving out his sentence despite his best efforts. Newspapers reported two escape attempts, in 1854 and 1859, that didn’t get beyond the prison walls. He was now 48 and had spent the last decade within the walls of the penitentiary at Milledgeville where his primary job was evidently assisting in the infirmary. His prominent upbringing, the respect other prisoners accorded him for his exploits, and charisma made him a natural choice to lead his fellow prisoners.
As a result of his election, the 124 prisoners became the Roberts Guards. They were accordingly issued arms and accoutrements, though not new clothing. According to Capt. John Weller of the 4th Kentucky, they remained in “prison garb” and a New York Times article reported similarly. By statute, the outer clothes of prisoners were to be a round jacket and kersey trousers of two contrasting colors each, similar to those worn by men transported to Australia. Formed together with the two companies of Georgia Military Institute cadets (A and B), they became Company C of “Capers’s Battalion” under Superintendent Francis Capers of GMI.
With a few other militia units, an artillery battery, and parts of several Kentucky mounted units from Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, the convict company entered their only fight at a bridge over the Oconee River on November 23. Command at the scene was confused, but Maj. Gen. Henry C. Wayne, adjutant and inspector general of Georgia, filed the report. According to his count, the total Confederate force numbered 460 present.
Opposite this were the leading regiments of the Fourth Division, XVII Corps, and parts of the 1st Alabama Cavalry (Union) probing in advance of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee. Dug in on the east bank of the Oconee, initially the cadets and an artillery section engaged on the west bank before falling back. An attempted crossing at Ball’s Ferry was repelled by a force that included the Roberts Guards. Fighting was heavy, mostly long-range rifle fire, though men of the 53rd Indiana managed to set the trestlework on fire despite the defender’s efforts. Reported Union casualties were 21 killed and wounded; reported Confederate casualties were 10 killed and wounded. On the 25th, the XVII Corps crossed above the Oconee River bridge to discover the Confederates withdrawing.
Captain Weller remembered during the battle that the former prisoners, were “hardened in appearance, but calm and brave” and served as stretcher bearers as well as combatants. General Wayne in his report also commended the convicts, including special mention of Capt. Roberts as “daring and brave.” He recommended that the promised pardons be granted in his February 6, 1865 report from Milledgeville where the command had returned.
By that date, the remaining convicts had been granted thirty days furlough with the expectation they would enlist in other Confederate units upon their return. Already between “half a dozen” and “the greater part” of the convict soldiers had deserted. Some reportedly ended up in enemy hands while two were arrested by Bibb County for horse theft in February.
It is difficult to tell how many of the 124 convicts enlisted under Governor Brown’s authorization actively saw service during Sherman’s March to the Sea. A list submitted by General Wayne might still exist in the National Archives but muster rolls of Confederate units in the last months of the war are quite scarce. What does exist is confirmation at least one man did, or claimed to, have enlisted for his pardon.
In the file of Governor’s Incoming Correspondence is a letter dated April 4, 1865 in Milledgeville from E. A. Roberts forwarding proof that Anderson Hudgins had per the terms of his release enlisted in Company H, 2nd Georgia Cavalry and desired his former subordinate’s pardon be duly sent to Milledgeville for Roberts to forward on. It is interesting to note that Hudgins’ new commanding officer, Capt. F. M. Allen, addressed this notice to Capt. E. A. Roberts.
What happened to the infamous Dr. Ezekiel Roberts? No one has an answer it seems, other than he did not stay in Georgia long after receiving his pardon. An 1883 article in the Milledgeville Union and Recorder remembered him as one of the most notorious prisoners ever held at the state penitentiary, stating the author had not heard of him since the city fell to its brief occupation from November 22nd to 25th, 1864.
What did Georgia get from this brief exercise in a penal unit? From what reports survive, the men that did not immediately desert served as an effective part of the rearguard force under Wayne. As Wayne admitted this was basically what had been asked of them. They helped delay Howard’s army for several days at Oconee River, though ultimately the attempt to prevent Sherman from reaching Savannah was futile and one extra company mattered little. Thus, their pardons were granted, the bargain judged fulfilled.
It is most interesting to note that the convict soldiers existed and fought at all. They serve as an excellent illustration of the Confederacy’s desperation in the last months of the Civil War as United States armies decimated the last remaining field armies. For the curious modern reader, there is little closure to their stories. A writer for the Atlanta Constitution in 1899 amply summarized the convict company’s memory: “Possibly Roberts went to the far west, and changing his name, gratified his predatory instincts very respectably in the business world. His followers, likewise, may have settled down as law-abiding citizens in other states. There is no telling, and we cannot expect these beclouded patriots to emerge from their obscurity to gratify our curiosity.”
J. Nathan McDonald is a Historic Preservation Specialist (Interpreter) for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division at Rippon Lodge and King’s Highway Historic Sites, as well as an independent researcher. Prior to that he worked for the National Park Service, at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as a circulation clerk for several libraries, and for the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association. He graduated magna cum laude from Davis & Elkins College in 2013 with a BA in History.
Nathan is interested primarily in military history from the 1700s to the Cold War and its relation to the wider world. He is a member of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Potomac Railroad Historical Society.
 “Closing Scenes in the State Legislature,” Columbus Times, December 3, 1864, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn86053047/1864-12-03/ed-1/seq-2/. “The Georgia legislature previous to its adjournment…,” Early County News, December 7, 1864, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn85034007/1864-12-07/ed-1/seq-1/.
 United States War Department. 1880. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Series I, Vol. LIII, 32
 1850 U.S. Census, Columbia County, GA, population schedule, sheet 536, dwelling 526, family 526, Sherwood Roberts; digital image, ancestry.com, (https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/8054/images/4193235-00351 accessed 1 December 2020); citing NARA Microfilm publication M432, roll 66.
 1850 U.S. Census, Columbia County, GA, agriculture schedule, p. 18-19, Sherwood Roberts; digital image, ancestry.com (https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/1276/images/32668_236680-00270 accessed 1 December 2020); citing NARA Microfilm publication T1137, roll T1137:1.
 “Harris County,” Columbus Enquirer, October 4, 1843, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82014931/1843-10-04/ed-1/seq-3/.
 “Arrest of Supposed Thieves,” Columbus Times, August 5, 1846, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82014935/1846-08-05/ed-1/seq-2/. Inmate Administration. 1846. Georgia, U.S., Central Register of Convicts, 1817-1868, A-Z. Milledgeville, GA. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/3056/images/41170_1020705384_0427-00067
 “Harris County,” Columbus Enquirer, April 20, 1847, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82014931/1847-04-20/ed-1/seq-4/
 Copenhaver committed suicide by hanging on September 3, 1854 at the State Penitentiary.
 “Trial of the Robbers of John Jackson,” The Tri-weekly Times and Sentinel, March 25, 1853, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn89053814/1853-03-25/ed-1/seq-2/
 “Attempt to Escape,” Georgia Telegraph, January 10, 1854, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn88084081/1854-01-10/ed-1/seq-1/
“Dr. Roberts Attempt to Escape,” Columbus Daily Times, May 26, 1859, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82015388/1859-05-26/ed-1/seq-2/
 John Weller, “From Infantry to Cavalry Number IV,” Southern Bivouac, March 1885, 300, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89062341144?urlappend=%3Bseq=344
 “Sherman’s March: Journal of an Eyewitness,” New York Times, December 23, 1864, https://www.nytimes.com/1864/12/23/archives/shermans-march-journal-of-an-eyewitness.html
 OR Series I, Vol. LIII, 32
 OR Series I, Vol. XLIV, 147
 OR Series I, Vol. XLIV, 155
 “From Infantry to Cavalry Number IV,” 300
 OR Series I, Vol. LIII, 36-37
 “When Convicts Served Georgia,” Atlanta Constitution, March 18, 1899, https://newspaperarchive.com/atlanta-constitution-mar-18-1899-p-3/
 “The greater portion of the convicts,” The Daily Sun, January 1, 1865, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82014939/1865-01-01/ed-1/seq-2/
 Governor’s Incoming Correspondence, Civil War— Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia. Morrow, Georgia: Georgia State Archives. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/1730/images/32307_1220705227_0019-00467.
 “The Old Georgia State Penitentiary,” Union and Recorder, February 27, 1883, https://gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu/lccn/sn82015111/1883-02-27/ed-1/seq-1/