1901 Confederate Pension Applications

Detail of a pension application for W. N. Gibson (Buncombe County)

Detail of a pension application for W. N. Gibson (Buncombe County), part of the 1901 Confederate Pension Applications digitization project.

If you follow the State Archives blog History For All the People you already know about this ongoing digitization project. But if you missed the announcement last month, here is a bit of Aaron’s original blog post:

The Digital Access Branch has begun uploading the 1901 Confederate Pension Applications to our online Digital Collections. There are over 35,000 applications in this series, and so far 4,500 are already available online. This is an ongoing project, and we will be adding more items throughout the summer and fall.

For this project, the microfilm copies of the pension applications were scanned by staff in the Collections Management Branch. There were approximately 80 reels of microfilm that became 80 digital folders with thousands of images in each one. We then exported the description from MARS and automated the creation of 35,000+ digital folders, one for each application. The folder titles contain the record group and series indicator, the MARS ID number, and the name and county of the soldier. We are currently in the process of matching the digital images from the microfilm to the correct digital folders. Once we have the images placed into individual folders, we can then easily link the images to the description from MARS and upload it all to our Digital Collections. Although the process is time-consuming, we have already exceeded our initial goal of having 10% of the applications online by the end of July…

Currently 11,900 pension applications are available online in the North Carolina Digital Collections.

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July 1864 home front concerns and election

The Confederate victory at Plymouth, N.C. in April 1864 opened the entire Washington, Tyrrell and Hyde County peninsula area of eastern North Carolina to Confederate control.  Under nominal United States control – especially where US troops were garrisoned – since the successful Federal Burnsides Expedition in early 1862, the people in the area exhibited Union sentiments by holding pro-Union meetings, organizing pro-Union trade and contributing men to the North Carolina Union volunteers, termed locally as “Buffaloes.”

Colonel George Wortham of the 50th North Carolina State Troops was the commander in charge of the occupying forces in the region stationed at Plymouth.  Col. Wortham immediately set about garrisoning the peninsula and consolidating Confederate control after the Battle of Plymouth in April 1864.  He rounded up and jailed Union sympathizers and began supporting pro-Confederate trade in the region.

A letter dated 9 July 1864 came to Wortham from Col. Joel Griffin of the 62nd Georgia Cavalry.  Although Griffin was then fighting in Virginia his regiment had operated in North Carolina in 1862 and 1863, recruiting at least three companies from North Carolina men – some from the eastern North Carolina region.  In need of horses and familiar with “Buffaloes” in the peninsula area, Griffin wrote Wortham requesting that his Color Sergeant Jasper Spruill, probably from the peninsula area, be allowed to gather horses from “Buffaloes” for use by Griffin’s cavalry – confiscation.

Later that month Union forces struck at Columbia, the county seat of Tyrrell County, situated on the Scuppernong River.  Confederate efforts to foster trade in the region caught the attention of Union commanders.  Rather than let the goods from such an agriculturally rich region pass easily into Confederate hands the Federals raided the town.  The raid destroyed many goods and infrastructure including the main bridge crossing the Scuppernong River severing the main connection between Columbia and the North Carolina interior.  Thus, the Confederate capture of Plymouth brought the hard hand of war to all occupants of the region.  Moses B. Pitt wrote Wortham on July 13, 1864 to inform him of “enemy” actions.

The state was also preparing for the 1864 gubernatorial election.  Governor Zebulon Vance faced a challenge from newspaper editor William Woods Holden.  Holden was the leader of a nascent Peace Movement seeking to end North Carolina’s participation in the war.  Vance and Holden had been allies in the 1862 election cycle but found themselves on opposite sides of the ending-the-war-by-a-separate-peace issue. The post script of this July 28, 1864 letter shows how important the soldier’s vote was to Vance – like the men at the Post in Tarboro most of the soldiers voted for Vance contributing to his re-election.

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First Wednesdays – “He is a non-combatant & has never borne arms vs. Government.”

In Nineteenth Century America, the civilian population was not to be involved directly with the “dirty business” of the military. There has always been a distrust of a “standing army,” and the civilian population would take steps to make sure that they were separated from the activities of the U.S. Army and Navy. Despite this belief, the U.S. military had always employed civilians to perform tasks such as cooks, laundrywomen, warehousemen, and other activities that freed up soldiers and sailors to perform more important duties. The roles of these civilians (or contractors in the modern-day U.S. Armed Forces) did place them in harm’s way during the American Civil War, and one example can be found at the Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina during April 17-20, 1864.

When it became apparent that the Union garrison at Plymouth, N.C. was going to be besieged by Confederate Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s forces, efforts were quickly mounted to remove the civilian population from the threat of the battle. In addition to solders’ wives and children, a number of North Carolina civilians (both African-American and white) were present in the town as employees of the headquarters of the U.S. District of North Carolina, Sub District of the Albemarle. The federal transport Massasoit made two trips to ferry civilians to Roanoke Island to escape the fighting. Soon, the appearance of the Ram C.S.S. Albemarle stopped all Union attempts to evacuate the town through the river.

Union Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commander of the sub district, was forced to surrender his command to Confederate General Hoke on April 20, 1864. As a result, a number of civilians found themselves as Confederate prisoners of war. Unlike earlier engagements where civilians were paroled, a number of civilians found themselves on train cars going to Confederate prisons located in Andersonville, Georgia, Salisbury, N.C., and Richmond, Virginia. The Confederate forces refused any attempt to release these civilians, despite Union General Wessells’ attempts to spare them during the surrender negotiations.

On July 8, 1864, Cyrus Waters wrote to Patrick Henry Winston in an attempt to free one of these “civilian” prisoners. At the time of the letter, Winston was serving as the financial agent for North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance to Confederate government in Richmond, Va. Waters was hoping that Winston might be in position to inform the Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon of the plight of T. S. Everett. Everett, described as “aged federal prisoner,” was captured as a quartermaster clerk in the Union sub district headquarters in Plymouth, N.C., and was currently confined at Camp Sumter, the Confederate Prisoner of War camp in Andersonville, Ga. Despite his several letters to the Confederate War Department and Governor Vance, Waters was never able to get Everett released from prison. On August 30, 1864, Everett died at Camp Sumter, and was buried in grave No. 7320 with a number of other Union prisoners.


M1303_4: Selected Records of the War Department Commissary General of Prisoners Relating to Federal Prisoners of War Confined at Andersonville, Ga, 1864-1865

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First Wednesdays: A North Carolinian’s Experience During the Overland Campaign, Part 4

I apologize for getting behind on this as I had a busy Memorial Day weekend so I decided to delay the next part of Pearsall’s letters until today to coincide with First Wednesday.

George W. Pearsall’s regiment had not seen much action since the 12th of May and his letters of the 18th, 23rd, and the 29th reflected that.  When a Civil War regiment was not fighting, it was often a life of monotony and waiting.  In his letter of the 18th, Pearsall (still at Spotsylvania) narrated a bombardment from the Yankee lines, which were approximately two miles away by Pearsall’s estimation.  Although his regiment was not actively engaged, they still had to suffer in the open the intense cannonading from the Union’s precise and accurate artillery battalions, “which threw the dirt all over” Pearsall.  After just a few minutes of firing, “you cold[sic] not see a man 40 yards for all the smoke” he recalled.  Miraculously, Pearsall claimed that his regiment suffered only one man killed and 200 wounded (presumably minor wounds suffered from shrapnel and flying debris making up the majority of that statistic).

On the 21st of May, Lee’s army finally evacuated the trenches around Spotsylvania Court House to thwart another one of Grant’s flanking movements to the southeast.  The armies next meet at the North Anna River, which Grant intended to ford in several spots in attempt to draw Lee into battle on open ground to protect the approaches to Richmond.  Compared to the fighting of the previous weeks, it was comparatively minor, with isolated spots of serious action.  Pearsall’s regiment was mostly unengaged during the battle, with Pearsall himself in the rear on cooking detail at Hanover Junction, a major railroad hub and supply depot for Lee’s army.  Pearsall guessed (correctly, as it turns out) that the army was withdrawing towards Richmond.  Although it had been more than a week since he had seen action, his regiment had still served on the front lines the entire time, with Pearsall telling his wife that “those lines leavs me broke down”.  He abruptly ends the letter because “old coten is bothering me so I cant write”, contributing a humorous air to contrast his earlier feelings of weariness.

His letter of the 31st revealed that Lee’s army was now “75 miles nerrer Richmond” than they were when the campaign started, as Lee’s army had again withdrew from the North Anna lines to counter another of Grant’s turning movements.  Fortunately for Pearsall and his regiment, it had been three weeks since their last taste of combat, although the interim had not been without danger for him; while serving on picket duty, Pearsall recalled several close calls with opposing Yankee pickets, with shots passing between his legs and under his arm.  He also contends that the army is “all out of money” and he will not draw again until the next day.  He closes by proclaiming his happiness that the crops are doing well for his wife and that he will give some of his pay to his sons, Charly and Billy – “they ar mity smart.”  Earlier in the letter, Pearsall feared that this “fite has hardly begun” and he was fairly accurate; Lee and Grant were on a collision course for the vital crossroads at Cold Harbor.

Read Pearsall’s letter of the 18th here:  http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll8/id/13523

Read his letter of the 23rd here:  http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll8/id/13526

Read his letter of the 29th here:  http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll8/id/13530

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Treasures of the Archives: Fort Fisher Log Book

[This blog post was written by Debbi Blake, Collection Services Section Manager for the State Archives of North Carolina.]

Found in a stack of Civil War-era newspapers in an antique shop in 1989, the Fort Fisher log book was purchased for the State Archives by the Friends of the Archives, the Museum of History Associates, and the Fort Fisher Restoration Committee.  The slim volume contains about 68 entries dating from May 20-November 10, 1864.  The entries include such information as general and special orders, circulars, and specific orders from General Whiting to Colonel Lamb.  They mention 32 officers, 15 enlisted men and 1 free Negro.  Written on the first page of the book are the penciled words, “This Book was found in a bomb-proof in Fort Fisher by Patrick F. Rayan.”  Attached to the page are three pieces of flags that belonged to the Twenty-fifth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry (2) and the Twenty-Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1).

Fort_Fisher_log Book

Vault Collection 16: Fort Fisher Log Book (cover)

The entries themselves run the gamut between the curtailing of all visits into Wilmington, North Carolina due to the yellow fever outbreak to orders to build plank bridges so that troops can more easily pass between guns.  Reading them is fascinating from a historical perspective and is a bit reminiscent of the barrage of announcements made by Radar O’Reilly on “M.A.S.H.”  Many historians have used the log book for studies of Fort Fisher, but scientists have also used it for its entries on the weather during the period.  The Fort Fisher Logbook is part of the “Treasures of the Archives” and is available online.

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A North Carolinian’s Experience During the Overland Campaign, Part 3

George W. Pearsall’s third letter relating his experiences during the 1864 Overland Campaign was written on the 16th of May, addressed to his wife, Sarah.  Pearsall’s regiment, the 55th North Carolina of Joseph Davis’s (the Confederate president’s nephew) brigade, had not been engaged since the 10th.  This provided Pearsall and his comrades with ample time (if five days can be considered ample) to rest and recuperate from the hard campaigning they had so far experienced in the campaign.

With both armies still duking it out around Spotsylvania Court House, Pearsall’s division had been moved back to Lee’s right flank after repulsing the Union attempt on the left.  After coming tantalizingly close to breaking Lee’s lines on the 12th (despite destroying a salient in Lee’s center and capturing many prisoners), Grant had also reshuffled his lines in preparation for another turning move toward Richmond.  While the armies had previously faced each other on a roughly east-west axis, they now faced off on more of a north-south orientation.

Pearsall witnessed a charge by a neighboring brigade which managed to capture 150 Union prisoners.  He also testified to the furious cannonading done by both sides, observing that the fire of one nearby piece “makes them [Union soldiers] git when she opens on them”.  Pearsall noted that the Union lines were approximately one mile from Lee’s and that the weather had been rainy and wet, ill-suited for active campaigning but favorable to the armies as it afforded them a chance to rest and write.

Pearsall noted to his wife that “it is grate pleasur to me that I have gon threw the hevy batls safe so far” and concludes by praying to God for safe conduct through the remainder of the conflict.  A line at the end even mentions for her to “take care” of the letter for they were written on captured Yankee paper!

You may read Pearsall’s letter of the 16th at the following link:


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I once mor have the opportunity of writing you a few lines…

Roughly ninety miles southeast of Private George W. Pearsall and the Fifty-fifth North Carolina Troops, another North Carolina soldier arrived in Southeast Virginia with his regiment as a part of Confederate forces to blunt new Union advance up the James River toward Richmond, Virginia. That soldier was Private Eli Peal of the Seventeenth North Carolina Troops of Brigadier General James Green Martin’s brigade.

Peal’s journey began in late April 1864, when his regiment (and brigade) was ordered to occupy the recently captured town of Plymouth, North Carolina. Confederate Brigadier General Robert Frederick Hoke led a military operation to capture the Union garrison in the town, and to gain control of the Roanoke River where it enters the Albemarle Sound. General Hoke’s assault proved to be successful due to the assistance provided by the Confederate ironclad, C.S.S. Albemarle. As a result of the battle, the Confederate forces were able to capture a large number of Union prisoners including their commander, Brigadier General Henry Walton Wessells. In his letter dated May 1, Peal talks about conditions in the recently captured town, including the smell of dead bodies still lingering in the air. He tells his wife, Luvester, of fortifying the town against a possible Union attack and the movement of a portion of his regiment over to Edenton, NC. In addition, he also mentioned the movement of the C.S.S. Albemarle into the Albemarle Sound against the U.S. Navy vessels operating there. Peal composed his letter to his wife on stationary “liberated” from the headquarters of the captured union garrison, specifically from Assistant Adjutant General, Captain Andrew Stewart.

Eight days later, Peal and the rest of Martin’s brigade were ordered to leave Plymouth and return to Tarboro, NC. A greater threat now loomed over Southeastern Virginia with the arrival of the new Union Army of the James, which was now tasked to advance up the James River and take Richmond, Va. as the Union Army of the Potomac moved into the Wilderness to engage the Confederate Army of North Virginia. By May 12, Peal’s regiment and others arrived in Petersburg, Va. to form a Confederate force to move down river to stop the federal offensive. Martin’s brigade and others were ordered to assault the Union forces in and around Ware Bottom Road near Bermuda Hundred to stop the Union advance. The Seventeenth North Carolina Troops lost six men killed and forty-one wounded in their May 20th attack on the Union forces, which proved to be successful in its goal of “bottling up” the Union Army of the James. However, Private Eli Peal was one of the men killed in the attack.


Widow’s Pension for Eli (Luvester) Peal, State Archives of North Carolina

On June 7, 1885, Luvester Peal applied for a widow’s pension due to the death of her husband in May 1864. She noted that her husband had died on May 1, 1864, which was the date of his last letter to her before being sent to Petersburg, Va. with his regiment. Martin County Board of Inquiry was convened on July 24, 1885 to judge whether her claim was valid. Fortunately for Ms. Peal, William G. Lamb, a former lieutenant in Company H, testified that “…he was acquainted with Eli Peal the husband of Luvester Peal of Co. E, 17 Regt NC Troops and that he was killed in battle at Bermuda Hundred on the 20th day of May 1864…” His statement was submitted to be true, and Ms. Peal did receive her widow’s pension.

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A North Carolinian’s Experience During the Overland Campaign, Part 2

The second letter in the George W. Pearsall collection which chronicles his experiences in the Overland Campaign takes us to May 11 and the initial battles around Spotsylvania Court House. Pearsall and his regiment, the 55th North Carolina, had marched out of the carnage of the Wilderness with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on a southwesterly course to block the flanking maneuver of Grant and Meade’s Army of the Potomac.

After initially being positioned on Lee’s right flank, Pearsall and his division were moved to Lee’s far left flank to thwart an attempt by Barlow’s division of Hancock’s Union Second Corps to cross the Po River.  Although Barlow managed to cross unmolested, Pearsall and his division savagely attacked his division and drove it back across the river.  Once again, Pearsall testifies to the heaviness of the fighting, describing the scene of battle as the “oflest site I ever saw” and that he “never saw as meney ded yanks in my life”.  Pearsall observed that dead Yankee soldiers stretched two miles through the woods.  Additionally, Pearsall again becomes separated from his regiment but finishes up the engagement with the 11th Mississippi of his own brigade.  Even though Pearsall was no longer in the confines of the Wilderness, confusion and disarray still reigned supreme on the chaotic battlefield of Spotsylvania.

To add a bit of humor to the proceedings, Pearsall says that even more Yankees would have been killed but “they [the Yankees] can out run eney folks I evor saw”.  Pearsall also believes that Grant and the Union army are fought out and ready to retire.  Ironically enough, two days later, Grant would launch his massive attack on the horseshoe salient in Lee’s center, leading to 24 hours of desperate and continuous combat.

Pearsall’s letter of the 11th can be found in the link below:


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First Wednesdays – A North Carolinian’s Experience During the Overland Campaign

Grant and Lee’s Overland Campaign (the name typically given by scholars to describe the series of battles from the Wilderness until Grant’s crossing of the James River, May-June, 1864) was arguably the hardest-fought campaign of the entire war.  The fighting on both sides reached almost desperate levels at times, as both North and South believed that this would be the year that decided the conflict once and for all.  From the moment Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River to the moment they crossed the James River to advance on Petersburg, they were locked in almost continuous combat with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  For this reason, it is difficult to choose one document from our collection which encompasses the entire campaign.  Instead, I have chosen a collection of letters by George W. Pearsall (an infantryman in the 55th North Carolina) which cover the entirety of the campaign, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, and I will be posting them on the 150th anniversary of the dates they were written, so check back with us periodically to see new posts throughout the month!

The first letter, dated May 7th, details the 55th’s actions in the initial battle of the campaign, fought in the dense woods known to locals as the Wilderness.  Pearsall’s regiment was part of Col. John M. Stone’s mixed brigade of Mississippians and North Carolinians.  All throughout the day on the 5th of May, the North Carolinians resisted waves of attacks, with Pearsall attesting to the intense nature of the fighting by exclaiming that he fired his rifle 61 times from the same spot.  Pearsall and his regiment counterattacked late in the day and fought their Union counterparts to a standstill, with Pearsall becoming separated from his company (which had lost 22 men out 30 killed, wounded, or captured; the regiment as a whole lost 230 out of 350) in the dark woods.

Pearsall claimed that he rejoined his company on the following day, the 6th, which is probably why there is no mention of his regiment almost being annihilated by the Union counterattacks launched that morning on the exhausted Confederates.  He also makes no mention of the famous flank attack conducted by James Longstreet in which his brigade participated.  This leads me to believe that he did not rejoin his company until the battle was nearly over.  Nevertheless, Pearsall described himself as “broke down” on the night of the 7th, but little did he know that an entire month of ferocious fighting still lay before him.

You can read Pearsall’s letter at the link below [Note:  Although Pearsall's handwriting is of an admirable quality, his spelling leaves much to be desired, so the letter can be quite difficult to decipher.]


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First Wednesdays: “…I want you elected Governor again…”

By spring of 1864, the gubernatorial campaign had opened in earnest in North Carolina. As detailed in our previous “First Wednesdays” post, William W. Holden had announced his intention to campaign for the office of governor of North Carolina. The current chief executive of North Carolina, Zebulon Baird Vance, faced a daunting task of mounting a political reelection campaign during the course of war, which was becoming more unpopular as the days multiplied toward the season for active military operations in both Georgia and Virginia. The quest for independence was going badly for the Confederate States of America, and North Carolina citizens simply grown tired of the sacrifice in both lives and property to support a losing cause.

Governor Vance was extremely aware of the discontent of his citizens. He saw their pain and anguish over crimes being committed against unarmed civilians such as in Shelton Laurel in Madison County and bread riots over the inability of soldiers’ families to obtain basic foodstuffs during the previous year. Throughout the state, calls for a peace convention began to rise in places such as Johnston County in the east and the western regions in towns like Wilkesboro and Yadkinville. Governor Vance had to fight Confederate President Jefferson Davis to protect North Carolina’s interests during this unpopular Civil War, and now he faced another fight with the citizens of his own state. To make matters worse, President Davis supported, and the Confederate Congress passed, a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus directed at the growing discontent within the Confederacy.

Despite the political climate within the state, Vance decided to run for reelection for governor. As with Holden, Vance corresponded with key supporters such as former governor David Swain to formulate a political platform and campaign to deal with Holden and his supporters. Vance remained determined to support the idea of a separate Southern Confederacy coupled with a strong defense of North Carolina interests within that new country. Vance realized, as did others, that a return to the days prior to secession was unrealistic. Vance began his political campaign in Wilkesboro with a speech on February 22, 1864, in which he defended his support for the new Confederate nation and attacked the notion of a separate peace convention for North Carolina. Unfortunately for Holden and his political aspirations, Vance was an excellent stump speaker, and had the personal charisma to hold the attention of large audiences. His initial speech was a success, and he made additional remarks to large audiences in Salisbury, Taylorsville, and Statesville. Afterwards, Vance travelled to Virginia to speak to the North Carolina regiments in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia before returning to Raleigh on April 6, 1864.

We are highlighting the beginning of Vance’s reelection campaign in the spring of 1864 with two letters written by supporters of Governor Vance after his initial round of campaigning in the piedmont and western regions of North Carolina. In a letter dated April 2, 1864, Nathaniel Boyden gave his support to Governor Vance, but reminded him of the continued problems with the home guard and militia described as “…countless horde of worthless devils.” Boyden also expressed his concern of Governor Vance as being seen as pawn of “Richmond power” and noted that vocal support of Confederate Colonel Thomas Clingman was not helping. He wished that Clingman would “…turn his steam in some other direction.” Our second letter, addressed April 4, 1864, was written by a former soldier Walter W. Lenoir, who had lost a leg as a result of wounds suffered in combat in Virginia in 1862. He too wrote of his support for Governor Vance, and wished that his “Wilkesborough” speech be distributed to “every soldier and voter at home.”

To learn more about the peace movement in North Carolina in 1864, please be sure to attend our next “Second Mondays” lecture here in the auditorium of the Archives and History building at 12 noon on May 12, 2014. Our fellow committee member, Tiffanie Mazanek will be presenting “Peace Movement and William W. Holden.”

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