Walking Where My Ancestor Fought and Died 151 Years Ago
Many of us in OLLI are history buffs, and take virtually every history course offered. A favorite series and instructor for so many of us have been the courses and study trips led by Dave Milidonis in commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. The final event in this five-year-long series was the October 7th trip to the Petersburg National Battlefield, which has been preserved to memorialize the nine-month siege of the city by the Union Army, in its quest to take Petersburg as the gateway to seizing Richmond, which would surely result in an end to the long and bloody Civil War. For the Confederates, holding Petersburg was vital in their desperate efforts to maintain control of their capital, Richmond, and avoid certain and immediate defeat.
In his typically riveting, detailed and no-holes-barred teaching style, Dave led us from one battery and fort to the next in Petersburg’s 30-mile battlefield site, culminating in a visit to the Crater. Though not as massive and deep today, there is still a large pit where the Union forces had exploded a powerful mine under the Confederate entrenchments in an attempt to breach their line of defense and break through into Petersburg.
Some weeks prior to leaving for the study trip, I had told Dave that my great-great-grandfather had served in a South Carolina unit that was engaged in the Confederate defense of Petersburg, and that he had been killed there. I asked Dave if he would be willing to research where in the expanse of entrenchments my ancestor’s unit might have been on November 5th, 1864, when he was fatally wounded. Dave graciously, even enthusiastically, agreed to look into the military records and told me the information he would need about my great-great-grandfather’s unit. I sent him all the information I could put together about Captain Jacob Warner of South Carolina’s Holcombe Legion, Elliot’s Brigade. Within a few hours, Dave emailed me detailed information about Jacob Warner’s unit—that he had served in Johnson’s Division, 4th Corps. He had discovered that Cpt. Warner’s unit was at the site of the Crater on July 30th, 1864, when the mine was blown, and that 700 men in his unit had died in the explosion. Those who survived engaged in a counter-attack against the invading Union troops, resulting in massive casualties on both sides. The Confederates, led by troops from S.C., held the Crater and patched the break in their lines. Cpt. Warner had beaten the odds and survived the carnage in July, but his luck ran out on November 5th. On that fateful day, he was ordered to lead his men on a night attack against a Union picket line that had been dispatched close to the Confederate lines. It was in that fire-fight that he was fatally wounded, and he died the next day.
When we were there on the battlefield, in the vicinity of that night attack, Dave wove the story of my great-great-grandfather’s mission into his discussion of the battles. He pointed to a line of trees about 200 yards away and just outside a fort where the attack unfolded, and told us that was the approximate location where Cpt. Warner would have been fatally wounded. I was not the only one of our group who was fascinated by Dave’s riveting portrayal of the events; I could see that we all were. Several members told me later that hearing my ancestor’s story had made it all so much more vivid and real. Dave is a master at making history come to life; at transporting us to the time and place we are studying.
For me, this discovery about my great-great-grandfather’s mission and location when he was killed was captivating and emotional. You see, since I was a teen-ager, I have felt a special fascination with him. When I was about 16, I learned that my grandparents had copies of letters that Jacob Warner had written home to his wife throughout the war. They had never mentioned the letters because no one in the family had ever expressed an interest in him before me. I eagerly read each one of them. They told of his love, his sacrifice, his extreme hardships over the course of the war and the unraveling of the Confederacy (no pay, holes in his boots, frayed uniform, ammunition shortages, a serious scarcity of food), and they told of his dreams of returning home to resume their lives after the war. Instead, he died at Petersburg on November 6th, 1864, at the age of 39. The war finally came to an end five months later.
My grandparents also had a portrait of him in his uniform, a copy of which is at the top of this blog. Knowing what he looked like had always made him more interesting, more real, to me. So, history buff that I have always been, after reading his letters, I pondered and ruminated about him and his participation in that tragic war. I often felt disappointment and disillusionment in him, for getting caught up in the paranoia over “northern aggression” and the Confederacy’s extreme bravado and delusions of grandeur. In his case, like most Confederate soldiers, his participation in the war had nothing to do with a personal attachment to slavery. He had no slaves. What he had was a wife and seven children! His youngest daughter, my great-grandmother, was only a year old when he went off to the war, and grew up not remembering her father or having him in her life. His wife, my great-great-grandmother, had to run their farm and take care of all those children without his help, not to mention endure loneliness and hardship over the subsequent three decades that she lived without him.
Yet, I know that people are products of their times and the events that shape their lives. In Jacob Warner’s case, I learned that he served the cause that he believed in with valor, and gave his life for it. It was a profound experience for me to learn how and where he died, and what his experiences had been at the Crater and in the months prior to his death. It brought some closure to my ponderings. I am deeply appreciative to Dave Milidonis for leading me on this journey of discovery to Petersburg.
Carol Rahmani (OLLI Member)
October 30, 2015