A Farm Laborer from the Piedmont: Ezekiel Wilmoth Before the War Johnson & Browning, Johnson's North and South Carolina (1861) - Library of Congress
Ezekiel Wilmoth was born around 1832-1833 in Surry County, North Carolina, to parents Stephen Wilmoth (1793-1861) and Elizabeth Betsy Snow (1798-1856). He was the second- youngest of ten children:
Minerva (1817-1886), Sarah “Sally” (1818-1870), Matilda (1821-1875), Lucinda “Lucy” (1821-1880), Elizabeth “Betsy” (1825-?), Mary “Polly” (1826-?), Ambrose W. (1827-1876), Rebecca (1829-1868), Ezekiel (1832-1863), and Stephen Jr. (1835-1908).
His position as second son and the second-youngest of ten limited his chances for inheritance and economic mobility. His family was poor. Ezekiel’s grandfather, also named Ezekiel (July 1, 1761 – July 27, 1842) and grandmother Mary “Polly” Riggs (1764 – 1813) had moved to Surry County, North Carolina, from Morristown, New Jersey by the time of the 1790 Federal Census, establishing the family in the area. According to the 1840 census, Stephen Wilmoth (1793-1861), Ezekiel’s father, was employed in agriculture as well, and by the 1860 census the 60-year-old Stephen was still working as a farmer, supporting three of his daughters who were still residing at home, with a mere $125 in real estate and $75 in his personal estate to his name. Stephen lived in Nixons District within Surry County. Neither Lucindia, Mary, nor Sally could read or write at ages 31, 26, and 22, respectively, as the family could afford neither schooling nor a tutor could for them.
By 1860, the Federal census lists Ezekiel’s small family as consisting of himself (27), his wife Martha (25), his son Bird (5), and his daughters Tallitha “Lythia” (3) and Elizabeth (6 months). Martha Hodges had married Ezekiel on the October 25th, 1852. They were living in the town of Dobson, the seat of Surry County. Ezekiel made his meager living as a farm laborer with $50 to his name and no property in land or enslaved persons. Accounting for inflation, his financial situation was dire, amounting to $1,650 of personal property in today’s currency. For perspective, tenants and farm laborers in non-slaveholding households in Davidson and Randolph counties held $143 and $175 on average in personal property and yeoman farmers held $755 and $747, respectively, according to data collected by historian Bolton. Ezekiel’s wife Martha held the task of raising Bird, Tallitha, and Elizabeth on Ezekiel’s meager worth of $50. She could neither read nor write and held no profession. Like many women in the lower class of Surry County, she was illiterate.
The Wilmoths’ county of Surry, North Carolina, was known for two products: Tobacco and granite. Mt. Airy, the biggest city in Surry County, held the largest open-faced granite quarry in the world. However, as Ezekiel’s home of Dobson was located further south of the quarry region, his farm labor likely consisted of tobacco cultivation. In 1850, North Carolina already produced 12 million pounds of tobacco per year and by 1860, they produced a whopping 33 million pounds per year. This production, along with that of cotton, fell largely upon the backs of the enslaved population of North Carolina, who comprised roughly one-third of the state’s population in 1860. However, this population was not distributed evenly across the state. The enslaved population of North Carolina was concentrated in the agriculturally rich lands of the Coastal region.
It is important to note that Ezekiel worked not as a farmer but as a farm laborer. Farm laborers held a lower socio-economic status than the yeoman farmer, who owned both the land he worked as well as the fruits of his labor. Ezekiel, by contrast, was an impoverished white man, subservient to other white farmers and, in turn, to the planter class. His place near the very bottom of the hierarchy of southern society was clear. However, while Ezekiel was a poor man and a landless farm laborer, he still was not a slave. He could still sell his labor as he pleased, maintain family cohesion, and function as an independent member of society with the bare minimum of social privileges accorded to him on account of his white skin. But where did Ezekiel stand on the issue of slavery?
Located between the Piedmont and Mountain regions of North Carolina and bordering Virginia; Surry County was politically and economically separated from the rest of the state, just as it was geographically. The wealthy planters of the agriculturally rich Coastal Plains region held little care for the yeoman and farm laborers this close to the mountain region. The coastal region held fertile and profitable ground for agriculture and thus utilized and exploited an enslaved population. Meanwhile the Piedmont and Mountain regions were less profitable for cash crops and in turn slavery. A tenant farmer from Surry County, North Carolina, in a similar position to Ezekiel was quoted by historian Bolton as saying that slaveholders “felt biggety and above poor folk who did not have slaves.” Did Ezekiel, as a resident of the poorer Surry County, hold the same animosity toward the planter class? Many incidents of desertion occurred within the Southern ranks as the war progressed, yet other soldiers clung to the ideology of a Southern slave-based economy. Did he long for the wealth and status that climbing the socio-economic ladder would give him? There was the belief that the purchase of slaves and land would allow these impoverished white men, like Ezekiel, to become ‘masters of small worlds.’
With the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in the Fall of 1860, southern states were not only fearful of an end to the expansion of slavery into the territories, but of abolition as a whole. North Carolina during the election had not even included Lincoln on the ballot. Within the state North Carolinians voted 48,846 for John Breckenridge of the Southern Democratic Party, 45,129 for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Part, and 2,737 for Stephen Douglas as the Northern Democratic Party Candidate. Divided largely between Breckenridge and Bell, the state was polarized by opposing desires for either division and secession, or union and compromise.
With the secession of South Carolina in December of 1860, other southern states began to consider secession as well. On February 28, 1861, North Carolinians held a referendum voting whether or not to hold a secession convention. The Piedmont region resoundingly voted against holding a convention to secede, favoring a unionist stance, with the only contention existing in the counties bordering South Carolina. Surry County in particular voted 1,085–218 against a convention. The other piedmont counties bordering Virginia also voted similarly, Caswell, 821– 269; Rockingham, 852–685; Stokes, 915–151. In the final tallies the overall result of the vote was hair-raisingly close: North Carolinian voters decided against a convention by a vote of 47,322 to 46,672. Had that convention been called the secondary vote for delegates would have seen 50 unconditional unionists, 28 conditional unionists, and 42 secessionists as delegates. We will never know how Ezekiel voted in this referendum. Was he a Unionist or a secessionist? Was he somewhere in-between? Indeed, many factors went into his decision, including what historians David Brown and Patrick J. Doyle list as his family’s “kinship ties, neighborhood dynamics, political affiliations, and the peculiar and often idiosyncratic ways in which communities functioned.” North Carolina had only as recently as 1856 allowed all white men, regardless of property ownership, to vote. Would he have hoped for increased socio-economic opportunity and political autonomy within the Union and a free-labor economy, or within a seceded South with its slave-labor economy?
Several months passed as North Carolina enacted a ‘Watch and Wait’ policy toward secession and the Lincoln administration. However, the North Carolinian position was jolted toward secession when, after the firing on Fort Sumter by South Carolina troops prompted President Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion. At this point Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded, refusing to supply troops to the federal government to quell the rebellion. May 20, 1861 proved a decisive day for both Ezekiel and his home state of North Carolina. North Carolina seceded and Ezekiel enlisted as a private in Company C of the 11th Regiment North Carolina Infantry (Volunteers). Ezekiel had enlisted at the earliest time possible. This choice might indicate his support for secession, and in turn the system of slavery; however, he could have instead viewed the federal government as merely a greater evil than even the heavy rule of the elite planter class. Or, did the impoverished Ezekiel simply seek the opportunity for a reliable wage in these newly created Confederate regiments?
Did familial pressures result in Ezekiel’s enlistment? His cousins, William Richard Wilmoth (1824-1900), Calvin Wilmoth (1828-1896), and Ruffin Wilmoth (1840-1861) would also enlist in what would become the 21st North Carolina. However, Calvin enlisted alongside Ruffin in Company H for a 12-month period of serve on June 5, 1861 after Ezekiel’s May 20th enlistment and William Richard did not enlist in Company C until October 11, 1863. Ezekiel may have instead been the catalyst for his cousins’ enlistment.
Formed at Mt. Airy, the “Blue Ridge Riflemen” of Company C were under the command of Captain Barley Y. Graves. They were joined by two other companies from Surry, Company H the “Mountain Tigers” and Company I the “Surry Marksmen.” The 11th North Carolina Volunteers enlisted to serve 12 months and a massive 12 companies organized together in Danville, Virginia. They were from Surry, Davidson, Yadkin, Forsyth, Stokes, Rockingham, and Guilford Counties. Whatever prior reservations they may have had toward secession before, thousands of Piedmont men including Ezekiel, Calvin, and Ruffin, were ready for war.
A Fifer in the Confederate Army: Ezekiel Wilmoth During the War Image of "Original Maker-Marked Civil War Era Fife" from The Horse Soldier, Gettysburg, PA.
Together the 11th North Carolina mustered into service on July 12, 1861, then, utilized the Richmond & Danville Railroad to cross Virginia and traveled onto Manassas Junction on the Virginia Central Railroad and the Orange & Alexander Railroad. The second of their two trains ended up rear-ending the first before arrival, injuring four men from Company B. After being assigned to Confederate Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac as part of the first brigade under Brig. Gen. Milledge L. Bonham, the 11th North Carolina was sent to guard critical fords along Bull Run and was not engaged in the general battle that unfolded on July 21. Though they did not take part in the battle, Ezekiel and his comrades certainly would have been anxious over if and when they would be sent into combat. They were green soldiers who had not yet “seen the elephant,” And thus were unknowing of the grim trials battle would present. Ezekiel, not yet enlisted as a fifer and musician, was likely carrying a rifle and within the rank and file of the regiment. Where they disheartened in missing what could be the only battle of the war or thankful to not have been involved? Either way, Brig. Gen. Beauregard’s army proved unable to take Washington D.C. and the battle proved that the war was not going to be as short as they had expected. The mangled, bloody corpses dotting the landscape and the cries of the wounded provided a somber taste of the aftermath of battle. Yet, the Confederates had still won the day by driving the Federals from the field and maintaining possession of Manassas Junction. Despite the losses, the excitement of this major Confederate victory so early in the war lifted the spirits and confidence of those in the ranks.
By the Fall of 1861, however illness started to set in amongst the troops in both armies as city boys and country boys from across the nation intermingled in camp and battled new diseases. Ezekiel, like many other soldiers, was listed absent and “at sick camp” for the months of September and October. His cousin, Calvin was listed “sick in camp” as early as his enlistment in June, 1861. Meanwhile, cousin Ruffin was also ill, and ultimately died from fever on September 13 at Camp Hardee. This widespread and rampant illness early on in the war was difficult for soldiers and their families at home to deal, with as hundreds of men in a regiment could fall sick suddenly during the winter months of their first enlistment. The rampant illness crippled soldiers’ morale and for the religious among them, made them question whether the diseases were some sort of divine punishment. With a lack of understanding of germ theory and rudimentary theories about ‘bad air’ or miasma seeping from the ground, soldiers were left with haphazard explanations, both religious and secular, for these illnesses which they questioned and misinterpreted vastly. The iconized honorable death on the field of battle was far from the now pervasive, silent, slow, and tragic death from illness. At the time, all that could be said to honor the victims of illness who had not even had the chance to fire their weapons was that they nobly endured this trial of earthly Christ-like suffering. The soldiers’ deeply held religious beliefs, though they often conflicted with medical notions, ultimately ended up comforting the men as they died and helped to console their families afterwards.
On October 1, 1862, Ruffin’s father, Lot Wilmoth filed for a settlement with the Office of the Confederate States Auditor for the War Department, claiming $50.30 in a treasury certificate, which he did not receive until May 18-19, 1863. $25.00 of this was compensation for Ruffin’s clothing and $25.30 in back-pay for his time served. This treasury compensation was a method to alleviate economic hardship for families in which the ‘man of the house’ or ‘breadwinner’ had died during his term of service. Economically, the amount of this treasury certificate was, however, a pittance as inflation ran rampant in the Confederacy throughout the war. Fifty dollars was a decent amount of money, particularly for residents of the farm laborer’s class in the Piedmont region. However, when Ruffin died, inflation was at roughly 10-20%; by May of 1863, inflation had reached almost 200% and would continue to climb the rest of the year up to 700% by the new year. Personally, the meager certificate offered little condolence to a grieving family whose son had died before even seeing combat. Given the seemingly useless nature of Ruffin’s death the family was most likely grief stricken and resentful of this meager pittance they received. Though every bit of financial aid helped for these impoverished families, the gesture was more likely a slap-in-the-face. For Ezekiel, Ruffin’s death meant not only a comrade lost, but a family member forever gone.
By November 14, the 11th North Carolina was re-designated the 21st North Carolina Infantry Regiment when North Carolina consolidated its state and volunteer troops. And, come January 1, 1862, Ezekiel was listed not only as healthy and present for pay, but also designated as a fifer instead of a private. Why did he turn to music as his weapon of choice? Was it his infirming condition and illness that gave him the time and opportunity to learn the fife throughout that winter? Had he had prior experience at home, musically despite no formal training? Many families in the rural Appalachian region passed musical training informally generation to generation. Or, did he perhaps consider it a less taxing non-combatant role more suited to Ezekiel’s personal nature? Did his illness leave him more infirmed and unable to carry the fatiguing burden of arms and ammunition? Or, was the possibility of exemption from picket duty and fatigue details too good to pass up? In transitioning from private to fifer, he went from comprising the backbone of the main military structure of the nineteenth century to an individual in partial charge of communication, comradery, and command and control, both on the march and on the battlefield. He was the “radioman and public announcement system of his day.”
As many men, particularly poor ones like those of the Piedmont, did not hold pocket watches, time and activity was dictated by the officers. When ordered by an officer to play a call, the musician, be it a fifer, a drummer, or a bugler, would echo the order. Calls were the structure of everyday life in the army. Everything from “Reveille” and “Tattoo” to “Sick Call” and “Breakfast Call” was dictated by music. The musicians functioned as the army’s timepiece. Furthermore, musicians played popular tunes of the day in order to maintain morale among the troops and instill a sense of esprit de corps. Particularly on hard marches, the aide of the fife and drum was a welcomed means of keeping time and pace. Additionally, these musicians entertained the men and eased the hardships of war. Meanwhile on the battlefield, musicians provided a communication structure that could be heard above the din of battle. Though fifers and drummers were being phased out in favor of buglers, Ezekiel may have still had a battlefield role in command and control playing calls like “To the Colors” and “Assembly.” Sometimes, musicians even participated in the fighting, opting to put aside their instruments in favor of a rifle when situations turned dangerous. However, on battlefields with producing significant carnage and death, a growing medical and surgical need existed. Many non-combatant roles were swept aside in favor of giving aid to the wounded. Musicians frequently helped surgeons carry casualties off the field as stretcher-bearers, distribute water and bandages to the wounded as medical stewards, and even aid in surgeries as nurses. Ezekiel very well could have been filling any or all of these positions. What he was doing that fateful day of July 1, 1863, we may never know. But certainly, his participation as a fifer throughout 1862 and half of 1863 had a significant impact on his comrades in many ways.
That Spring, the 21st North Carolina experienced their first real trial by fire under Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Gen. Jackson’s 1862 famed Spring campaign in the Shenandoah Valley was a decisive victory for the Confederates. Gen. Jackson and his men effectively pinned down three different Union forces in the Valley who when combined outnumbered his forces. This effort prevented Union forces from reinforcing the Union Army under Gen. George B. McClellen on the Peninsula bearing down upon the Confederate capital of Richmond. In protecting the Shenandoah Valley these troops also protected the “Breadbasket” of the Confederacy and secured a valuable harvest. This was no small accomplishment either. The smashing successes in the Valley were not without cost. While fighting under Trimble’s Brigade, in Ewell’s Division, at the battles of Front Royal, First Winchester, and Cross Keys, the 21st North Carolina lost many men. At Winchester, the regiment lost 80 men and at Cross Keys, 13. Colonel Kirkland, who commanded the regiment at First Winchester, was shot through both thighs and would not return to the regiment until right before Gettysburg. For Ezekiel, this critical battle was his first time as a musician in combat. In this role he would likely have performed many functions. Though his instrument was a useful tool in rallying and organizing troops, musicians were also valuable in a non-combatant medical role. Musicians throughout the war more commonly were detailed to surgeons as stretcher-bearers, medical assistants, and nurses. Ezekiel very well could have been in a position to carry the wounded Colonel Kirkland from the battlefield.
Meanwhile, following the loss of several officers during these successive battles, on June 10 Ezekiel’s company commander, Captain Barley Y. Graves, was promoted to the rank of major to fill one of the many vacant positions. Despite the massive and chaotic turnover in command structure, the regiment’s time under Gen. Jackson represented a key moment in the unit’s history. Gen. Jackson’s 17,000 men marched a whopping 646 miles in 48 days engaging three Union armies at different points in the campaign. Had they been concentrated in one force; these Union armies would have totaled 52,000 men. The Tar Heels’ hard marching and hard fighting turned the men of the 21st North Carolina from green recruits to experienced veterans of a legendary Confederate campaign, the likes of which an impoverished farm laborer from rural North Carolina likely never could have dreamed. Ezekiel likely played his fife on such long marches through the valley to bolster morale and encourage his comrades onward.
However, not everyone in Jackson’s command was as dazzled by their triumphant campaign. Ezekiel’s cousin, Calvin took the opportunity in June of 1862 to desert the army and head south toward Surry County through the base of the Shenandoah Valley. Most likely, he headed home to farm and collect crops during the harvest period, care for family, and temporarily enjoy the comforts of home, as many deserters did, returning when things had stabilized on the home front. Calvin’s leave was longer than most, however, and he would did not appear for pay again until January 1, 1864. In the Fall of 1864, he is listed as wounded in the Receiving and Wayside Hospital or General Hospital No. 9 in Richmond, Virginia. Furloughed and discharged from the hospital on September 9 for a period of 35 days, he acquired clothing for the 3rd Quarter of the year before disappearing from the rolls once more. As he is not listed in the parole records from Appomattox, Calvin was not one of the 6 officers and 117 men of the 21st North Carolina who surrendered, but has a recorded death date of 1896. Calvin most likely deserted again to head home for good, like many Confederates who saw the writing on the wall by late 1864 and deserted from the Petersburg Lines. Needless to say, the impact of losing both of his cousins—one to an early death from disease and the other to desertion—that Spring certainly weighed heavily upon Ezekiel who likely turned to his comrades for support and camaraderie. Where he previously held family in the ranks through kin, they were now all family through the bonds of battle and the toil of war.
After General Jackson’s stunning victories in the Shenandoah Valley, Ezekiel and the 21st North Carolina returned to fight with the restructured Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee. Between June 25 and July 1, the Seven Days Battles ensued. The 21st North Carolina lost 45 men total over the combined fights. This relatively small number of losses during the fierce counterattack to save Richmond from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was remarkable. Furthermore, the successful actions of the 21st and the rest of Jackson’s command during the Seven Days proved that their successes in the Shenandoah were not a fluke merely the result of battle with a second-string enemy; rather, Jackson’s men showed to the North and South that their victories could be replicated in the new Army of Northern Virginia. Furthermore, Jackson’s men could now boast, with the rest of Lee’s army, that they had definitively helped to repulse the dangerously close and threatening Union army from the very outskirts of the Confederate capital from which they would successfully be held at bay for two full years. Despite the human cost, the pride and confidence that this victory instilled in Lee’s army was palpable.
The 21st’s next major engagement brought them back to Manassas Junction, where they had previously been held in reserve. This time however, the 21st North Carolina would not be kept in the wings and fought extensively at Brawner’s Farm on the first day of the fight. Both their division commander, Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Issac R. Trimble were wounded in the course of the fighting. Additionally, the 21st North Carolina’s then- regimental commander, Lieut. Col. Sanders Fulton was killed, and Ezekiel’s old company commander, Major Barley Y. Graves, was wounded. Several junior officers also became casualties, with the regiment losing an additional 51 men. The loss of so many officers and comrades likely weighed heavily on Ezekiel due to the resulting emotional toll. Also troubling was the loss of so many officers; the resulting impact on unit cohesion was likely severe. Ezekiel personally lot his company commander-turned-Major Barley Y. Graves. Ezekiel frequently came in personal contact with many of these officers. He was the timepiece of the unit and consulted by the officers on everything from daily activities and duties to commands and marching orders. Reflecting on all that had transpired over the past year since they had first trod over this same ground at the Battle of First Manassas, Ezekiel likely felt nostalgic, but also proud. This time was much different than the first. The men of the Piedmont were now veterans of this war. They had seen so much, marched so far, and bravely battled all the while.
After being battered at Second Manassas, the regiment took part in the Maryland Campaign, famously capturing the critical arsenal and Union stronghold of Harpers Ferry and proceeding to Sharpsburg, Maryland. With Generals Ewell and Trimble wounded command of division went to Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton, with the brigade now commanded by Col. James A. Walker. In this subsequent fight, both were wounded. The 21st North Carolina suffered as well, losing 18 men, and their commanding officer, Capt. F.P. Miller of Company K was killed. Around 5:30 AM, the brigade was positioned north of the Dunkard Church, with the Mumma Cemetery on their right, and their left anchored in the East Woods along the Smoketown Road. Lead elements of the Union army under Hooker’s command arrived to challenge them. After some initial successes holding off the northern troops, the 21st North Carolina had largely expended their ammunition and withdrew to the woods south of the Dunkard Church being relieved by Gen. Hood’s Division. With Capt. Miller’s death, a shocking number of the initial officers of the old 11th North Carolina Volunteers had become casualties to the war. With their regimental command structure in tatters and their unit cohesion threatened, Lieut. Col. Robert Hoke of the 33rd North Carolina was transferred into the regiment to take command; there were simply not enough trained officers to fill the regimental command structure. The loss of so many officers and men must have been incredibly demoralizing to the 21st North Carolina, Ezekiel included. The single bloodiest day in American history had occurred, with roughly 3,650 soldiers killed and 17,300 more wounded. The Battle of Antietam was a significant event for the nation at large.
Claiming a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation, to become effective January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Those enslaved in the South were, in name, free. The aims of the war had expanded from Union to Union and liberty. Any possibility for Ezekiel to rise in Southern slave society would rely on victory in a war where thus far a final, decisive battle had proved elusive. So far, the Confederate armies were at best buffeting the continued Federal assaults to put down the rebellion. What was needed for a Confederate victory was a battlefield victory on Northern soil and the possibility of either a peace settlement and/or foreign recognition and intervention. The possibility of such a Confederate victory on Northern soil was dashed in the Cornfield, in the Sunken Road, and along the Antietam Creek. The opportunity would not come again until the following summer in the Gettysburg Campaign.
Copperhead propaganda and anti-war rhetoric had been spreading and growing with every Union battlefield defeat. However, even the semblance of victory at Sharpsburg was enough for the Lincoln administration to advance the war’s scope and deter foreign intervention in turn. For many Southerners, the proclamation confirmed that which they had suspected and feared all along: Lincoln would not rest until abolition and freedom for the enslaved brought the South’s political economy to its knees. While some Confederates wondered whether the proclamation would alienate Northern support for the war, others feared it might do the opposite, and they committed themselves with renewed aggression to ensuring a Confederate victory in the war. Nevertheless, the Battle of Sharpsburg proved to be yet another bloodletting for a Confederate army which could little afford these losses. For Ezekiel and the 21st North Carolina, their relegation to a reserve position after such a brief, but fierce fight must have left them disoriented. After only part of a morning, these victors of battle after battle had lost and been pulled from the action. Forced to retreat from the field of battle, Ezekiel and his comrades were likely demoralized, returning to winter quarters without their highly sought, crucial victory. Moreover, once latent fears over what Southern society would mean or look like without slavery once more began to bubble to the surface. It was now up to individuals like Ezekiel to decide whether they would let themselves become disheartened or emboldened by this fear of a “lost cause.”
In their next battle at Fredericksburg, in December of 1862, Col. Hoke functioned as commander of both the 21st North Carolina and their brigade as a whole. On December 13th, the regiment was positioned behind Prospect Hill on the right flank of the Confederate line. Jackson had positioned his forces in defensive formations along the RF&P Railroad from Hamilton’s Crossing and Prospect Hill to the Slaughter Pen farm. However, a gap existed in the line along a swampy area thought to be impassible. Gen. Meade’s command proceeded to break through this area and fracture the Confederate positions. Only after a Confederate counterattack was the line along the railroad re-secured. Hoke’s men and the 21st North Carolina poured over Prospect Hill and into Gen. Meade’s flank, securing a critical victory. Their counterattack, in conjunction with the defensive efforts against Federal troops attacking Marye’s Heights won the battle. The 21st North Carolina lost 24 men over the course of the fight and though Gen. Jackson expected another Union attack, but none came. After two days of anticipation, Union commander Gen. Burnside ordered a full withdrawal of his forces and the battle was over. In total, the regiment lost 24 men with Capt. Gilmer and Lieut. Amburn and Lieut. Dick wounded. For Ezekiel, was this just another gruesome battle, an ideological victory, or an opportunity for a successful upcoming Spring campaign? If he was simply looking for pay and a stable living, his pay came on January 1st and his stable living had been preserved after yet another brutal battle. Hunkered down in quarters along the Rappahannock River, any prospect of victory in this continued struggle would have to wait for Spring, but Confederate spirits were high.
Later that winter, on January 17, 1863, brigade reassignments arrived in the wake of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s desire for brigades to be composed of regiments from the same state. This reorganization was intended to streamline supply and logistics, as well as management issues, but was met with much resistance. There was newfound camaraderie between the different state regiments that had been forged over almost two years of war. The” twin 21st regiments” who had stormed over Prospect Hill the prior month were particularly hurt. The newly promoted Gen. Hoke of the 21st North Carolina and Col. Hooper of the 21st GA went directly to Gen. Lee’s headquarters to protest the orders and “to endeavor to devise some means for us to stay.” These regiments had been together for such a long time and had endured so much; the sentiment among the regiments was “Why fight success.” Furthermore, with Gen. Hoke leaving the 21st North Carolina to command the brigade, the 21st was left without a regimental commander and chaos ensued.
Major Barley Y. Graves became Lt. Col. to take command of the regiment. Though a capable commander and an original officer of the old 11th North Carolina, Graves was only partially recovered from his wounding at the Battle of Chantilly/Ox Hill on Sept. 1st 1862. He returned to the regiment in early February and began actively campaigning for colonelship and command of the regiment. Though elected as colonel by the regimental officers in a close vote on February 21, Brig. Gen. Hoke refused the results and pushed for Graves to be medically discharged. The divisional Medical Board confirmed his decision in an emergency session Graves officially resigned on March 12. Saving face and honor, Graves finally acquiesced, claiming his wound “deprives me the use of my arm to such a degree that I am unable to use my sword.” Thus, one of the last original officers left the ranks. After several failed elections with officers Fulton, Scott, and Rankin all turning down Colonelship in favor of Lt. Colonelship, it would not be until Gen. Jackson himself intervened on March 29th that Colonel Kirkland was called back to reorganize the regiment. This whirlwind set of command turnovers and command controversies was unsettling at best, and utterly bewildering and frustrating, at worst to Ezekiel and his comrades who fell under their rotating command. Not only were they not as familiar with many of their new commanders and did not yet have a chance to gain trust in their leadership abilities, but the revolving door of new commanders had no time to build up any sort of rapport with the men that would be critical for maintaining cohesion and morale in battle. Indeed, as a musician and a fifer, Ezekiel was invariably tied to the officers. On a daily basis he was given commands to sound for the troops, a schedule of daily calls to be performed, on the march a jaunty tune or two to keep time, and in battle the role as medical assistant and/or a vector of command and control.
In the meantime, many other events had taken place within the corps. Gen. Jackson had ordered an inoculation campaign to take place starting January 30, 1863. This effort was meant to prevent a disastrous repeat of the prior year, as epidemics of all sorts raged through the army. It was insisted that inoculation against smallpox would preserve the army’s fighting strength through the harsh winter. Unfortunately, the transfer of pox scabs from adults to adults has rather volatile results with some becoming severally ill or dying all together. Through the course of this inoculation campaign, surgeons would pay top dollar for scabs from children as their reactions were lower and the virus was more docile. Though doctors knew this was more effective, with little knowledge of germ theory, such practices were mostly guesswork through trial and error. At certain points, young enslaved children were kept on hand and in illness to provide pox scabs for the Confederate Army. Such massive inoculation efforts were fairly new to the time period, particularly for these rural Piedmont boys. But this effort likely eased the minds of soldiers such as Ezekiel who had himself battled illness throughout the war and lost a cousin to disease so early on.
Additionally, to lift the spirits of the men during the winter on February 25, 1863 Gen. Hoke issued his first order to his brigade, commanding his men to move against Lawton’s Georgian Brigade in one of the largest snowball fights in history, with 2,300 participants. The battle ensued as Gen. Hoke’s forces moved to take over the Georgians’ winter quarters. The fight ended in a stalemate with most participants, including Gen. Hoke, soaking wet and frigid, but in higher spirits. Ezekiel likely spent this winter entertaining his comrades in the ranks with popular tunes and songs. One popular song that Ezekiel likely played for the troops had been circulating in the ranks under the title “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.” The song signified a sign of hope for the Southern soldiers in their stalwart commander. Written by John W. Palmer on September 16, 1862 the song was published by Miller and Beacham under the guise of a poem supposedly found on a Confederate Sergeant captured May 25, 1862 at the First Battle of Winchester. The true author, Palmer, was not known until after the war. Most likely the poem was disguised in origin to protect Palmer, a Northerner, for suspicion of Southern sympathy. The poems words are noted below:
“Stonewall Jackson’s Way” performed on fife by Ryan Nedrow
During their Spring campaign however, the realities of actual combat set in once more. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the unit lost 78 men under the command of Lt. Col. Rankin. Lieut. Frost Snow of Ezekiel’s Company C was also killed, along with Capt. J.W. Miller of Company D. The rotating door of command continued to spin. The regiment fought the engagement from positions around Fredericksburg. Isolated and separated from the main Confederate force, their division, under the command of Gen. Early, was both unable to participate in Gen. Jackson’s final, decisive flank attack at Chancellorsville and suffered greatly while opposing Federal forces at what would be called Second Fredericksburg occurring May 3, 1863. The regiment was battered from the battle and devastated by the loss of their long-time Corps commander; Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Regardless, the 21st had no choice but to fight on.
Private Coe of the 21st North Carolina wrote to the unit’s former commander, Colonel Scott just after Jackson’s death saying, “I am sorry to hear of the death of the venerable Jackson, but I hope another Jackson will take his place that may continue to lead our army on to conquer and to conquest until the North shall sue for peace.” The men’s sense of grief over Gen. Jackson’s death was similar to prior losses in the ever-rotating door of command, and yet strangely different. For Ezekiel and his comrades, this was a commander who had given them their first taste of battle and victory in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and led them through so much hard fighting up until this point. He was a constant and reassuring figure in their lives as soldiers. His death meant a time of uncertainty in overall command structure as Gen. Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. The dichotomous mix of emotions after Chancellorsville was palpable, as a smashing victory in battle was met with the loss of a prized military commander in addition to large regimental losses. Regardless of this loss, Gen. Robert E. Lee determined to press the advantage and opportunity gained from the Chancellorsville victory and march North. However, during these crucial days of early May of 1863, Ezekiel was nowhere to be found within the regiment. He had been admitted to Chimborazo Hospital No. 3 in Richmond, Virginia on May 2, 1863 suffering from Pneumonia, the same illness that resulted in Gen. Jackson’s death. Ezekiel was transferred to Lynchburg, Va. on May 8 with no remarks. However, it appears that he returned to his regiment in time for the Second Battle of Winchester occurring June 13-15, 1863 in the northern Shenandoah Valley.
Col. Kirkland’s return to the regiment for the Second Battle of Winchester was a welcomed event, and a sigh of relief fell over the regiment. The rotating door of command was briefly reset and the regiment could rest a little easier. Though a harsh disciplinarian, much like the late Gen. Jackson, Col. Kirkland was a choice the regiment would accept. He returned to his regiment ready to see them through their worst fight yet. The regiment traveled north through the Shenandoah Valley, crossing the Potomac at Williamsport and continuing on through Hagerstown toward Chambersburg. Here, Gen. Ewell split his Corps, sending himself and a portion of his forces north through Carlisle toward Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Some of his contingents were also sent to burn the Caledonia Ironworks owned by radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens which employed a large population of free Blacks and self-emancipated slaves. Though this was an act of military importance to hamper the northern war effort, this was also a political move against a man despised by secessionists and slaveholders. The other portion, under Gen. Early was to cross south-central Pennsylvania to secure the only bridge along the Susquehanna River between Harrisburg and Maryland at the towns of Wrightsville and Columbia. On their march, they passed through Gettysburg, skirmishing briefly with the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia Infantry Regiment on June 26. Three miles west of Gettysburg, a division of Early’s battle-hardened veterans, Ezekiel included, stared down a sum total of 743 untrained farm boys, college students, and shopkeepers. The fight was brief, with 176 officers and men of the 26th PA Emergency Militia captured, while the rest of the militiamen marched 60 consecutive hours to safety in Harrisburg. To those captured, Gen. Early gave a stern and mocking lecture: “You boys ought to be home with your mothers and not out in the fields where it is dangerous and you might get hurt.”
Soon after, Gen. Early’s forces marched through town and east toward the Susquehanna River and their sole crossing point at the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge. Ewell’s plan was critical: If Harrisburg was to be captured and Philadelphia threatened, the bridge must be secured. It was their only means of crossing the Susquehanna within south-central Pennsylvania. The men of the 21st North Carolina and Ezekiel continued their march across the Pennsylvania countryside, enjoying the bountiful land as they went, as the lush fields and meadows presented a far different atmosphere to war-torn Virginia. Locally, food was bountiful whether taken right off the vine or officially commandeered with Confederate currency as payment. The long march in the dusty days of June was like many others the 21st North Carolina suffered through, though this one was on Northern soil–the furthest North these Piedmont boys had ever been. If there was ever a time to be homesick, now was the time, particularly for Ezekiel, after losing a cousin to disease and another to desertion over the course of the war. Nevertheless, the prospect of a potential victory on Northern soil, coupled with the bounty of the land that eased hungry stomachs and sore feet buoyed the spirits of the Tarheels enormously.
On June 28, Gen. Early’s Confederates, under the command of Gen. John B. Gordon had a chance to press the invasion further and close their trap around Harrisburg. After a rigged explosive charge failed to destroy a span of the Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge and the defensive breastworks were breached in Wrightsville, the 38th Georgia began to cross. Watching the situation become increasingly desperate Colonel Jacob Frick of the 27th Emergency Militia ordered the bridge to be fired. The bridge roared into an inferno. Desperate to put out the fire and cross the bridge, Confederate forces searched Wrightsville in vain for buckets and pails. A frustrated Gen. Gordon scorned that,
“With great energy, my men labored to save the bridge. I called on the citizens of Wrights-ville for buckets and pails, but none were to be found…. When the burning bridge fired the lumber-yards on the river’s banks, and the burning lumber fired the town, buckets and tubs and pails innumerable came from their hiding-places, until it seemed that, had the whole of Lee’s army been present, I could have armed them with these implements to fight the rapidly spreading flames.”
The bridge was the longest continuous covered bridge in the world featuring a rail bridge and adjoining highway for wagon and foot traffic. It measured just over a mile long at 5,620 feet. Being repulsed from the Wrightsville-Columbia crossing, Early was recalled back through York to rally with Ewell and the rest of the Confederate Army.
Arriving on the field July 1, 1863, the 21st North Carolina was positioned north of town, eventually entering the fray along the Harrisburg Road. With Brig. Gen. Hoke having sustained a severe wound during the Chancellorsville Campaign, the brigade as a whole was once again under a new commander, this time Col. Isaac E. Avery. His Tar Heel Brigade of the 6th, 21st, and 57th North Carolina, with artillery support from across Rock Creek, outflanked the extreme right flank of the Union line. Gen. Early’s forces of Gen. Gordan and Gen. Dole’s Georgians overran the 11th Corps line atop the now-designated “Barlow’s” Knoll with support from Col. Avery on the extreme Confederate left. Avery’s brigade met continued and desperate resistance in a brickyard on the northeast side of the town as they chased the Federals through Gettysburg.
As Gen. Hays’s brigade followed up Gordon’s attack, his Louisianans were peppered with canister fire down the Harrisburg Road dispended by four guns of Heckman’s battery as well as fire from Coster’s 27th Pennsylvania, the 154th New York, and the 134th New York. This salvo was part of a last-ditch effort by Union Gen. Oliver O. Howard to save remnants of his corps who were retreating through the town and to salvage a position on the stronghold that was Cemetery Hill. It would ultimately be the Tar Heel Brigade under Avery that flanked Coster’s Brigade, finally dislodging it from the brickyard and buildings within the northeast corner of town. This street fighting was executed in unsettlingly close quarters, with hand-to-hand combat and sharpshooters picking off men as they fled through the chaotic scene. As a tangled melee ensued in the brickyard, many North Carolinians were killed.
Any moment on July 1, 1863, could have been Ezekiel’s last. He is simply listed as killed in action on the 1st with no description of the location or events leading up to his death, or the placement of his wounds. Most likely he died outright and quickly in the face of the 134th New York’s sacrificial resistance at the brickyard. What was he doing in the moments before his death? Was he playing the regiment into battle on his fife and inspiring their attack as a warrior bard? Was he serving as a medical steward amid the chaos of the street fighting and sharpshooting? Or did he voluntarily throw down his fife and pick up a rifle, fighting alongside the men in this tumultuous and savagely quick fight? After making it through so many battles, this was possibly the moment he decided he was needed most in the thick of combat. However he chose to serve, and whichever way he served the 21st North Carolina in those final moments, he was lost in the chaos. With his regiment in close pursuit of the New Yorkers through town, moving from building to building and street to street, his comrades unfortunately had little time to look back for him. Was his body retrieved later in the night or was this poor Piedmont man left where he fell?
Despite their initial loses on the first day, Ezekiel’s comrades continued the fight on the night of July 2. Their goal was to take the stronghold of Cemetery Hill. In their charge up the face of the hill, their brigade commander, Col. Avery was severely wounded when a musket ball lodged in the base of his neck and he fell from his white horse in the chaos. His determined troops could not afford to pause their assault up the hill and their commander was lost in the growing smoke and darkness. As the assault failed and the Tar Heels fell back from the crest of the hill, Avery’s former business partner and aide, Maj. Samuel Tate, found him. Unable to speak and partially paralyzed on his right side, Avery could not communicate. He instead scrawled a basic but meaningful note with his working left hand: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.” These were words a soldier rarely got to convey. For Ezekiel, however, his final moments are not recorded and even his final resting place is unknown.
While unlikely, Ezekiel is listed in different sources as buried in the Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery. As a National Cemetery, the site is reserved for soldiers of the United States and holds roughly 3,712 Union dead; however, through misidentification due to the administrative chaos produced by the war, roughly nine Confederates have been confirmed as buried in the National Cemetery. It is unknown if Ezekiel is indeed among this number. More likely, he is among the 3,320 bodies of Confederate soldiers reinterred in 1872 in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia and in other cemeteries across the South. Wherever he ended up, his grave was an anonymous one, located hundreds of miles from his family and loved ones in Piedmont North Carolina.
The 21st North Carolina continued to fight for the duration of the war. With dwindling manpower throughout the Confederacy, the need and ability to replace a musician may have seemed less important and less possible than replacing a much-needed infantryman. The loss of Ezekiel therefore may have left a gap in the ranks never to be filled. His loss would mean the regiment now lacked the benefits such a musician provided. His comrades likely missed his morale-boosting songs, his time-keeping and commanding calls, and his medical assistance on the battlefield. The loss probably added to the ever-deteriorating cohesion of the unit. With officers and men frequently being claimed in battle and as the attrition of the war dragged on, the loss of Ezekiel likely hit the regiment in multiple ways.
The regiment continued to fight, participating in the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaign before being transferred to Hoke’s Department of North Carolina to defend their native state against coastal incursions. At the mouth of the Roanoke River near Plymouth, one of the Confederacy’s best combined-arms operations occurred as two Confederate ironclads and three infantry brigades cleared the area of Union forces. Their efforts reopened coastal operations in the area, ensuring that necessary goods could enter through the blockade; such passage prolonged the war as vital supplies continued to flow into Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The regiment then returned briefly to the Army of Northern Virginia for the latter half of the Overland Campaign before leaving Petersburg with Gen. Early. Their goal was twofold: To retake the Shenandoah Valley and secure vital foodstuffs, and to attempt a raid on Washington D.C.; such a raid could potentially cause the North to sue for peace, or at the very least, threaten Lincoln’s chance for reelection. Delayed by a day at the Battle of Monocacy, Gen. Early’s Army of the Valley arrived late to find heavy defenses protecting Washington D.C. and Union reinforcements flooding the city. Within sight of the U.S. Capitol dome by July 12, 1864, the 21st North Carolina and Gen. Early’s army was forced to retreat. Losing the Valley Campaign that fall to Union Gen. Sheridan, the 21st North Carolina fell back into the Confederate defenses around Petersburg for the winter of 1864-65. With the defenses cracked open that Spring, the regiment fled the city surrendering with the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Of the 1,942 men who served in the 21st North Carolina, only 6 officers and 117 men (of which only 40 were armed) were present to surrender.
169 – KIA or mortally wounded
345 – Died of disease in Confederate hospitals
177 – Deserted
473 – Captured (54 died of disease and 19 died from prior wounds)
Post-War in the Piedmont: Life Without Ezekiel Wilmoth North Carolina Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park, photo by Stone Sentinels
The families of many of the men of the Piedmont never saw their soldiers return from war. Many never returned in the same condition from which they left four years prior. The war had taken an immense toll on Piedmont families. Local communities were devastated by the loss of nearly an entire generation. For their losses, many families received paltry compensation during the war in Confederate treasury certificates. Ezekiel’s widow, Martha Wilmoth filed on December 21, 1863 for claims which a Confederate official comptroller processed December 7, 1864. The settlement amounted to 21,183 certificates, worth $88.23 dollars (0.4 cents per certificate). For reference, Ruffin’s death by disease in 1861 had resulted in 5,477 certificates worth $50.30 (0.9 cents per certificate). The worth of these certificates during the war probably meant little, both financially and emotionally for these families. It was only after the war, on July 20, 1885, that a 51-year-old Martha Wilmoth, received a full widow’s pension from the State of North Carolina. To qualify, she maintained residency within North Carolina’s Surry County, did not own property worth more than $500, did not receive a salary or fees from any officer in the county, state, or nation, and never remarried. Widows were classified as fourth-class pensioners and received $30 annually. Thirty dollars in 1885 would be worth approximately $875.33 today when accounting for inflation. This was still a paltry and insufficient sum to live on, particularly for a widow who never remarried, had children to support, and held no more than $500 then, or $14,605.43 in today’s economy.
As of 1870, Martha was listed as head of household living in the town of Franklin, though mistakenly listed as aged 64 instead of 35. Her occupation was listed as “Keeping House.” Meanwhile, her and Ezekiel’s son Bird, then aged 15 was, was following in his father’s footsteps as a menial farm laborer. Both he and his mother were now listed as literate, however, indicating that they likely deemed a barebones familiarity with the written word a necessity following Ezekiel’s death and no one else to support them. Ezekiel and Martha’s other children, Lelitha (13) and Elizabeth (11), who likely had only the faintest memories of their father, were in school, but not yet able to read or write. Interestingly, an eight-month-old James Wilmoth is listed within the household. Was this Martha’s child to a new partner? She was listed as unmarried in her 1885 Widow’s Pension application, and having a child out of wedlock was certainly a scandalous situation. Did she find another partner after Ezekiel’s death for companionship and/or out of post-war economic necessity? Did she wish to avoid official re-marriage so that she might still collect her widow’s pension? Or was this not even her child? James Wilmoth, this eight-month-old baby, could have been a relative of the extended family. And of these situations is possible. Even still, the presence of this mysterious child within her household indicates the far-reaching impacts of the war. The loss of nearly an entire generation of men left many families without male heads of household and confused inter-personal relationships. Surry County and North Carolina as a whole had vast portions of their population taken by the war. The state of North Carolina provided the second largest number of troops next to Virginia. Of the 14,147 North Carolinians at Gettysburg, over 6,160 became casualties. Of the 19,030 men serving from Virginia, 4,470 became casualties. This disproportionate number of losses reflects the unfortunate and far-reaching sacrifices made by the ‘Old North State’ at Gettysburg.
A moving monument to the Old North State towers alongside Confederate Avenue at Gettysburg. The monument was sculpted by none other than the famed sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, who used photographs of actual Confederate veterans as models. Orren Smith of the 2nd North Carolina served as the model for the color bearer. This choice was fitting, as he was the designer of the Confederacy’s First National flag—the original “Stars and Bars.” Erected in in 1929, the monument depicts a wounded officer directing his soldiers to the front and a color bearer forward into action. An elderly, seasoned soldier reassures a wide-eyed young boy who gazes toward the enemy. Looking as if windswept by bullets and pushing forcefully into the face of danger, these soldiers symbolize the struggle and perseverance shown by diverse range of men of the state’s coast, piedmont, and mountain regions who fought for myriad reasons under the “Stars and Bars.” For the 21st North Carolina in particular, the image of the man falling to his knees from a wound as he desperately urges his comrades forward takes on a personal meaning, as the unit witnessed so many of its officers felled by the war in similar situations. The rotating door of command and constant attrition from disease and battle wounds produced unsettling chaos in the ranks throughout the war. Yet, like this tightly-packed group of bronze soldiers, the North Carolinians kept pressing forward, often to the musical calls and drum beats of comrades such as Ezekiel. Whatever his reasons for enlisting, Ezekiel’s duty to his comrades under fire ultimately made him fall victim to the chaos of war. Due to early rules passed by the park that restricted Confederate state monumentation to West Confederate Ave, most visitors to the battlefield are seduced by the image evoked by the North Carolina state monument of thousands of Tar Heels advancing steadily across the fields of the famed Pickett-Pettigrew charge to face slaughter at the hands of the Yankees atop Cemetery Ridge. Far fewer visitors stop to contemplate the critical actions and bloodshed faced by thousands of North Carolinians such as Ezekiel Wilmoth on the northern, eastern, and western outskirts of town.
In Ezekiel’s native town of Dobson, a monument was erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) in front of the town courthouse on May 20, 2005 exactly 144 years to the day from North Carolina’s secession and Ezekiel’s immediate and fateful enlistment. His family likely never had the opportunity or fortune to travel up to Gettysburg to see the ground upon which he fell or the grandiose monument to the Tar Heels at Gettysburg, but the Dobson monument echoes his story and that of so many of his community who met their end on battlefields hundreds of miles distant. Wherever he rests now, likely hundreds of miles from Dobson, North Carolina, Ezekiel’s story offers a glimpse into the complicated life and death of an impoverished white farm laborer of the North Carolina Piedmont-turned-fifer.
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Narrative and Map by Ryan Nedrow