Remembering Jerry Lesber

To my knowledge, all of our family members who served in the military returned home safely. But tomorrow I will recall my grandfather’s favorite cousin, Jerry Lesber.

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Jerry probably sat for this portrait upon his return home in 1945-46. (Courtesy of Author)

A week after his birthday, the newly turned 20-year old New Yorker enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He reported for duty in 1942 and the following year he made Seaman 2nd Class. He served on board the USS SC-1304, a wooden submarine chaser that, like him, had been built and commissioned for service in the Atlantic in 1943. They hunted German U-boats over the next two years and he too later returned home safely.

He is shown wearing the American Campaign Medal ribbon bar and rank of 2nd class Radioman Technician, which apparently means that he worked on the ship’s radio and communication equipment.

It was only eight years later that he died of a sudden heart attack. My grandfather said that Jerry had always suffered from a weak heart condition. He was 29-years old.

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“The coldest place I ever saw:” Winter Encampment of the North Carolina Brigade at Petersburg, Va., 1864-65

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A view taken from the Federal signal tower behind Ft. Fisher showing the Confederate lines. Men of Scales’s brigade awoke from their winter huts each morning within view of this protruding object.
(Library of Congress)

Hundreds of log and mud dwellings sprouted across the front lines before the Confederate stronghold of Petersburg, Va. Returning to his camp after recovering from a year-long illness, Capt. George Mills discovered his regiment immediately erecting cabins for winter quarters. Some domiciles were not as eye-pleasing as others, one Reb in Wilcox’s division carelessly stacked logs, then threw a pile of dirt on it and looked “shaped like a potato hill”.[1] “I don’t think there is much chance of our fighting any more this campaign,” surmised one North Carolina officer in early December. “For the winter seems to have set in in good earnest.” Most occupants were just glad to settle-in for the predictable months of dormancy.

Many weary soldiers of the Confederate forces had endured demoralizing, horrific losses just months earlier. A brigade of North Carolinians led by Maj. Gen. Alfred Scales was among them. Hundreds of his men had fallen in bloody fights, like at the Wilderness and North Anna. Gen. Scales’s staff attempted to replenish the ranks, but often found unreliable conscripts of 40-45 years of age. These recruits, said Lt. Thomas Lattimore of the 34th North Carolina Regiment, “made poor soldiers, and fell far short of filing the places of those would had been killed or disabled.”[2] Devastating casualties, ineffectual replacements, and other problems made Scales’s brigade less dependable for waging war.

Nonetheless, work details were posted every day, pickets were regularly established, and all available hands were involved in regular operations throughout the winter. Constant maintenance was needed to upkeep the protective fortifications. From their mid-size protectorate christened Fort Lee, the Tar Heels continued to assess the surrounding area as they expanded. Atop a distant hill they observed a dominating position situated near an abandoned house once owned by a Dr. Duval. The physician had left, but if the enemy occupied it with a hilltop battery or sharpshooters, that part of the line would be greatly harassed. Thus, the North Carolina brigade was tasked with the job of digging a counter-mine between Batteries No. 39 and 45. On September 15, a gallery was sunk ten feet below the ground and then extended 323 yards southward, ending with a chambers for a powder charge. Deserters from the brigade reported to Federals of the Sixth Corps that the shaft had been completed by November 20.[3]

Under the instruction of the Confederate engineers, Scales’s men also constructed a dam on Rohoic Creek that ran through their lines. The obstacle was needed to fill the gap where breastworks couldn’t hold and only a handful of men were needed to defend it. A large basin was dug that stretched half a mile wide and 30 feet deep.[4] Unbearable weather in the first two weeks of December flooded the pond as was predicted. But then a hard rain lashed-out and erased all the North Carolinians labor and nearly clogged the Appomattox River. “All our hard work went for nothing,” Mills despondently recalled.[5]

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Longing for the prospect of home, 23-year old Alfred Proffitt dreamed about reuniting with his sister and friends in Wilkes County, N.C.
(Hancock)

Some of the men recalled other daily hardships. “We don’t get a nuff to eat out here,” Virgil Cavin wrote plainly from the camp of the 38th North Carolina Regiment. “We only draw one pint of corn meal a day and a quarter pound of meat.”[6] Decades later, another company officer reminisced, “This was a winter of intense suffering among the soldiers. Almost destitute of provisions and clothing, many of them deserted and crossed the line to the enemy.”[7] But despite the complaints, brigade reports from the Adjutant and Inspector General indicate that Scales’s men were of generally “good” appearance and health. Harsh winter conditions had led to normal decline in December (particularly evident in their “poor” clothing) but they managed to meet all military expectations. Men of the 18th North Carolina Regiment (Lane’s brigade) fared better, as one man drew “a full suit of clothing” with the hope of having an overcoat from home mailed that November.[8] If anything, almost a quarter of Scales’s men required new leather accoutrements. Drs. William Holt and John McAden believed that the most immediate danger was not Yankee bullets but food itself, calling the issued [corn] meal “very unhealthy”.[9] Spoiled food was a dilemma commissary officials had forewarned about months prior, but that did not mean Confederate provisions were unavailable. In fact, Lt. Col. Joseph Webb honestly observed, “Tis true, the rations we get are sometimes not such as a man with a good appetite could wish for, [but] we make out with them, and never really suffer for food.”[10] The simple fact is that despite fluctuations in army distribution, supplies were still being transported on Petersburg-Weldon Railroad throughout the entire campaign: the primary cause for which both armies lay stalemated.

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“A Confederate Deserter Entering Federal Lines.” (Harper’s Weekly)

Still, many soldiers did not believe that cause was worth fighting for. “Desertions are chiefly from North Carolina regiments, and especially those from the western part of the State,” Gen. R.E. Lee informed the Secretary of War, an issue to be concerned about considering that almost an entire division (between Heth’s and Wilcox’s) hailed from the Old North State.[11] Making matters worse, news communicated from home reported ruthless, western Federals snaking their destructive path through the Carolinas, marauding home guard units who impressed country folk into service for cash, and even subtle suggestions to give up the fight. “I had spent the summer in North and South Carolina and thought I understood the condition of things there,” reflected a 16th North Carolina officer. “We were losing territory every day and communication from the South was being constantly cut off, and I could not see how anything could be accomplished to the satisfaction of the army.”[12]

Growling stomachs still remained the chief cause of desertion. In a letter written to his parents in Alexander County, N.C., 21-year old Virgil Cavin renounced the Confederacy for the prospect of getting home. “I can’t stay here and live on the rations we get,” he pleaded. “I don’t know what to do, I want to come home if I can get there and could stay there.”[13] The fair-skinned, black-haired private waged on despite his misgivings, likely discouraged by the consequences. Lane’s (N.C.) brigade had regularly enforced that punishment, publicly executing 21 offenders over the past two years and delving-out other humiliating reprimands. A decade later, Capt. John Young commanding Scales’s brigade of sharpshooters, remembered those incidents as being “well-calculated to strike terror to the hearts of those who contemplated the commission of this gravest of all military offenses.”[14] Despite the variety of reasons to abandon the Confederate army, most chose to remain with the explicit knowledge of consequence and a sense of continued duty.

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(Click image to learn more)

Indeed, morale lifted throughout A.P. Hill’s corps and entertainment was abundant: thespian recitals of Milton and Shakespeare, attempted revivals by preachers from Raleigh, classes to help hundreds of illiterate men eager to learn, drill competitions presided by major-generals, concerts given by regimental bands and glee clubs, additional furloughs granted to Petersburg or Richmond, lady-visitors with meager but heartfelt offerings, and even a memorable visit by the eccentric Prof. R.O. Davidson, possessor of supposed plans for an aeronautical drone.[15] Yankee papers also issued a challenge to the Southern people for an unthinkable feat. “It was soon suggested that our army have a Christmas dinner, and the people of the South were requested to furnish it,” Capt. George Mills wrote in disbelief. “A paper was sent to the company officers asking their opinions on the matter.”[16] Mills voted no, reasoning that if there was even anything to spare, it should be enjoyed by their countrymen. He was outvoted and two weeks later Company G men gazed upon a scant meal of “drumstick of a turkey, one rib of mutton, one slice of roast beef, two biscuits, and a slice of light bread.” “So our Christmas dinner was a failure, as I feared it would be,” Mills glumly predicted. Despite the outcome of the disastrous Christmas meal, activities held during the winter months show the general pleasantry soldiers found themselves in even amid the impending war.

Our conception about what the Confederate soldier endured in the last year of the Civil War is often devised from the problems individuals faced under imperfect conditions. No man ever saw consistent standards while serving in the Army of Northern Virginia, especially compared to his Federal counterpart. From the exceptional narratives written by Scales’s brigade of North Carolinians, we can understand that they were passing the winter months of 1864-65 as intended, recovering to standards even better than had existed before major campaigns. The quiet period reinvigorated a “culture of invincibility,” as historian Jason Phillips termed, that continued to fuel the Confederate resolve to end the war in victory.[17]

Order of Battle

Army of Northern Virginia – Gen. R. E. Lee
Third corps – Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill
Wilcox’s division – Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox
Scales’s brigade – Brig. Gen. Alfred Scales
13th North Carolina Infantry
16th North Carolina Infantry
22nd North Carolina Infantry
34th North Carolina Infantry
38th North Carolina Infantry

[1] A. Wilson Greene, The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion, 2nd ed. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 69.

[2] Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 587.

[3] Earl J. Hess, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 154.

[4] Ibid., 184.

[5] George H. Mills, History of the 16th North Carolina Regiment in the Civil War (New York, New York : Edmonston Pub., 1992), 59-60.

[6] Greene, 77.

[7] Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-65, 589.

[8] Mary Alice Hancock, Four Brothers in Gray (Wilkesboro: Wilkes Community College, 1975), 71.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Greene, 75.

[11] Ibid., 90.

[12] Mills, 60.

[13] Greene, 87.

[14] John D. Young, “Annals of the War,” Weekly Times (Philadelphia), January 26, 1878.

[15] Greene, 67-73.

[16] Mills, 60.

[17] Christopher J. Olsen, “Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (review),” The Journal of Military History 72.4 (2008): 1301-1302, Project MUSE, revised January 24, 2013, accessed January 6, 2015, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jmh/summary/v072/72.4.olsen.html.