It was my father who instilled in me a love for history. He was a history teacher during part of his working life; in fact, he taught me history in the 7th Grade. Even as a youth I was fascinated by the American Civil War and tried to learn all I could about my ancestors who served during that epic conflict.
My search for the records of my great, great-grandfather Robert Williams began when I was a small boy visiting my great-aunt Lela Mae Luther in the Fairview Community of Buncombe County, North Carolina. On an early visit to Aunt Lela Mae’s, I noticed in her hallway a large tintype picture of an imposing soldier with lots of black hair and a bushy black beard. He was wearing the uniform of a Confederate soldier and holding a musket diagonally across his chest.
I was later to learn that this handsome military man was my great, great grandfather Robert Williams. Grandpa Williams was not originally from the mountains of Buncombe county, but moved there circa the mid-1850s when his mother Patience Williams Hair(e) and step-father Thomas Hair(e), along with Robert’s sister Tomsil, moved west from the Roseboro-Salemburg area of Sampson County.
When the Civil War broke out Robert, a farmer, cast his lot with his new neighbors and on May 3, 1861, joined the “Rough and Ready Guards,” a company recruited by Captain Zebulon B. Vance, later Colonel of the 26th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, and Governor of the State of North Carolina from 1862-1865. The unit was mustered into service as Company F, 4th Regiment, North Carolina Volunteers. On November 14, 1861, Special Order #222, issued by the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, changed the regimental designation to 14th Regiment, North Carolina Troops.
Private Robert Williams was apparently a good soldier. He was listed on company muster rolls as “present or accounted for” until wounded severely in the knee at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, on May 3, 1863. The Roll of Honor on which his name is found carries the annotation “Severely wounded at Chancellorsville May 3, 1863.” Ironically, this was exactly two years to the day after his enlistment.
He rejoined his unit sometime in November or December of 1863 and was listed as “present of accounted for” through January 18, 1865. Oddly enough, he was not listed with the handful of survivors of his company who surrendered at Appomattox with “Marse” Robert on April 9, 1865. Since company records do not exist beyond January of 1865, it is hard to tell exactly how long he stayed with the his regiment and the Army of Northern Virginia before heading home. Unsure whether those laying down their arms would be immediately paroled to go home or be sent to a federal prison, Williams may have chosen to slip away before being captured or surrendered.
Robert married his wife Rachel Matilda West Ballew, the daughter of Jeremiah West and widow of Frank Ballew, just six days after the surrender.
In the 1880’s, Robert Williams and his wife left their former home near Busbee Mountain and resettled in what would become the rural community of Fairview, just south of Asheville. He remained active with Confederate reunions, as evidenced by the photo of him holding a flag as several of his compatriots stand with him. The photo was probably taken in the Fairview area, possibly in a schoolhouse between 1900 and 1914, when he died.
Other evidence of his reunion activities include what has been identified variously as a pocket watch fob or reunion identification badge with chain.
Robert and Rachel Williams lived the rest of their lives in the Fairview area. Robert passed away in 1914, having never applied for the Confederate pension he had so richly earned. In 1918, Rachel applied to the State of North Carolina and was approved for a small “Widow’s Pension” based on his service during the Civil War. Sadly, she only drew on it for five years because she died in 1923.
Robert and Rachel Williams rest beside each other in the cemetery of Sharon Methodist Church, just up the mountain from Fairview.
The search for the military service records of Private Robert Williams led me along a circuitous route through census records, North Carolina Confederate pension applications, family photos, the Compiled Confederate Service Records from the National Archives in Washington, DC, marriage records, the military records of the State Archives, and to a distant cousin I did not even know I had. I like to think that my own military service was inspired by my great, great-grandfather Private Robert Williams, as well as my other ancestors who served in the military.