Death of a Rebel Private

The last remark on the muster roll of William Champion Easter notes:

“Died near Richmond, June 10, 1862.”

He was not alone in the matter. In fact, many others would end with the same blank statement.

Two years earlier, the 23-year old farmer was living with his wife and three girls. Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, Easter was making a modest income by harvesting a piece of property in Cherokee County.

201306_easter1

Members of Co. I in winter camp near Dumfries, Va.
(Museum of the Confederacy)

Then, in the spring of 1862, officers recently returned from the battlefields of Virginia sought new replacements for their military units and were offering bounties. Perhaps he was enticed by their orations or felt compelled to do his part after the initial jubilation of ’61 was gone. Whatever the case, he volunteered on Mar. 22, 1862 in Alto, Texas for one year of active service in Hood’s Texas Brigade. The unit, then under the command of Brig. Gen. Louis T. Wigfall, was devastated by disease during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. And a month prior, some of the officers were detailed back to Texas with a hopeful quota of recruiting around 1500 additional troops.

201306_easter2

Ribbon with battle honors from the flag of the 4th Tex. Infantry
(Texas Civil War Museum)

Easter found himself a private in Co. I, 1st Texas Infantry and was sent to Virginia. He was present for four months, participating in some of their first engagements, such as Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing (West Point), and Seven Pines.

A medical record shows that he was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond on May 13th but was released three days later and returned to the regiment near Pine Island (3 mi. north of Richmond on the Mechanicsville Turnpike). For what reason, the cause is unknown.

There’s no clear indication of how he died a month later. But references written by other members of his unit provide some background information on their activities around that time.

On the morning of June 7th, Rev. Nicholas Davis mentions their skirmishers being sent-out to probe the Federal lines near Seven Pines. A detail led by Lt. Jamison of the 1st Texas Infantry attacked an enemy position reinforced by the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. In the small attack, several Texans were killed. Of the incident, he wrote:

The enemy afterwards confessed a loss of between forty-five and fifty in this skirmish, whole ours was but six, in killed and wounded—none missing… A few days after this affair, some of our scouts penetrated the Yankee lines, by this affair, some of our scouts penetrated the Yankee lines, by “relieving” one of our pickets, to see what they could “pick up.” (70)

201306_easter3

Robert H. Gaston Co. H, 1st Texas Infantry. Killed at Sharpsburg, Md.

Another cause might have been disease. In Tyler to Sharpsburg, Capt. Robert Gaston of Co. H, writes to his parents on June 12th:

Our company is in tolerable health. Two or three men have died. They are from Jacksonville. The Smith County boys were fairing well when I last heard from them. They are all at the hospital & in tents except Nichols.[1] Some are seriously sick, merely too weak to march & have been left behind. (17)

Capt. George Todd of Co. A recalled that after the battle of Seven Pines on June 1st, “we did not lose a man.” But thereafter, the troops were put on picket duty for three weeks in the “rain and mud of [the] Chickahominy swamp.” The conditions were deplorable, and he continues, “It was too wet and muddy to lie down, even on branches and limbs cut from the forest.” Todd didn’t mention any other activities until after the date of Easter’s death.

The two theories that are the most suggestive are that he died while on picket duty by the enemy or a second bout of disease while he was in the field. In either case, he wasn’t taken to a hospital in Richmond the final time, likely because of Gen. R. E. Lee’s order on June 11th for Jackson’s corps to make a feint northwest. There would’ve been little time for the sick or wounded to be properly attended to other than what was provided in the field.

We can also examine other members of the regiment who perished around the same time. From the Register of Confederate Dead (1869) at Hollywood Cemetery:

Calder, H. C.; Co. I, 1st Texas; May 28, 1862; Sec. L, No. 20

201306_easter4

May — June 1862 roll for Henry Calder also states, “Died near Richmond”. His service record indicates it was by disease, though not written here.
(Fold3)

Mch & Apr 1862: “Absent. Sick at Hospital in Richmond”
May & June 1862: “Died near Richmond June 7 1862”

Cox, A. (S).; (Co. H), 1st Texas; June 2, 1862; Sec. L, No. 58
May & June 1862: “Absent. Sick in hospital”
June 1, 1862. Winder Hospital. Died of disease.

Several individuals from the regiment were also interred at Oakwood Cemetery. Their names and cause of death have been recently researched by this author. From an unofficial register compiled by Richmond National Battlefield Park and substantiated with the Compiled Service Records:

Nathan Buley, Co. F, June 2, 1862 – sick

Richard Durham, Co. F, June 23, 1862 – typhoid fever

S. S. Honea, Co. H, May 26, 1862 – typhoid fever

Samuel R. Hooper, Co. K, May 18, 1862 – typhoid fever

Daniel P. Leath, Co. G, June 17, 1862 — disease

James C. Looney, Co. I, June 25, 1862 – Acute diarrhea

T. A. Patrick, Co. H, June 24, 1862 – measles

J. W. Pittman, Co. K, June 4, 1862 – disease

Geo. M. Scarborough, Co. G, May 22, 1862 – Dd. Hos. in Richmond

John Smith, Co. L, May 23, 1862 – typhoid fever

LC-B8171-931

“Richmond, Va. Graves of Confederate soldiers in Oakwood Cemetery, with board markers.”
(Library of Congress)

It’s interesting to note that both records indicate that the dead were able to be buried within a matter of days for those who were already in hospitals around Richmond. For Easter, this may not have been the case since he was on duty near Seven Pines. Based on the wording of his service record, individuals of his regiment, and the fact that Easter had been sick a month prior, it seems very likely that he died of disease outside Richmond. He was probably buried on the battlefield near Seven Pines before the Confederate army moved to Staunton, Va. the following day.

Coincidentally, an article (published the same day Easter died) in The Whig despondently tells of the difficulty in gathering information about Richmond’s growing number of patients. “If we look at Richmond alone, we find that hospitals scattered over a circuit of many miles and some of them of such immense size that  a day would be consumed in looking over the wards,” the writer observed.  Had an individual established a list of deaths for publication, “How the mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sister and daughters of the Confederacy would thank this man!” “Suspense is so terrible,” the article closed.

Wherever Pvt. William C. Easter fell, he was an individual who experienced a short career in one of the Army of Northern Virginia’s most notorious units and a father wrestled with a decision that led him hundreds of miles away, making his story a common one of the war.

Notes:

[1] Likely, John B. Nichols of Co. H, 1st Texas Infantry. He was reported as “sick in hospital” on a muster roll dated May – June 1862. He was killed at Gettysburg in the fighting on July 2d, 1863.

Sources:

  • Nicholas A. Davis, Chaplain Davis and Hood’s Texas Brigade, ed. Donald E. Everett (San Antonio: Principia Press of Trinity University, 1999), 70.
  • Robert H. Gaston and William H. Gaston, Tyler to Sharpsburg: Robert H. and William H. Gaston, Their War Letters, 1861-1862 (Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011), 17.
  • Register of the Confederate Dead, Interred in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va. (Richmond: Gary, Clemmitt & Jones, Printers, 1869).
  • George T. Todd, A Sketch of History: The First Texas Regiment, Hood’s Brigade, A.N.Va. (Waco: Texian Press, 1964).
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2 thoughts on “Death of a Rebel Private

  1. Hello,
    My name is Joe Owen and I am currently doing research for about Hood’s Texas Brigade in the early battles of 1862. With your permission, can I include your story that you provided above? I will make sure that you receive the credit for the story.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Sincerely,
    Joe Owen
    Blanco,Texas

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