Friday, March 19, 2010

John Thomas Holliman, A Survivor and Casualty of the Civil War

In the previous posting, John Thomas enlisted in the Confederate Army and engaged in a number of battles. As the fall of 1863 approaches, he has been in the Army for a year and a half and has had no leave or furlough. The Union Armies of Grant and Sherman have pushed deep into the South, and Lee has been repulsed at Gettysburg. The Southern cause has become desperate.

Photo courtesy of Glenda Norris, a great, great grand daughter. Grave is located at Caine's Ridge Baptist Cemetery, Fayette County, Alabama.

by Dr. Rhodes B. Holliman of Dublin, Virginia.
This article first appeared in Southern Times, Magazine of Tuscaloosa and West Alabama, issue No. 124.

John Thomas was now without shoes or winter clothing and the severe winter of 1863 - 1864 was closing in. The 41st Infantry Regiment marched from Tyner’s Station to Knoxville, a distance of over 100 miles.

The attack on the Union fortifications at Knoxville was a catastrophe forcing the 41st to retreat toward Bean’s Station over icy ground in freezing rain and snow. At this point John Thomas had no blanket, coat or shoes. He was leaving bloody tracks with every step. A battle at Bean’s Station on December 14th left the 41st with about 350 men and officers: about 1/3rd the original enlistment. Winter encampment was made at Morristown, TN, and the Regiment marched into Bristol, VA, in April of 1864. They soon marched north to Abingdon where they boarded a train on April 16th for Richmond.

Their next campaign began at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River south of Richmond: an effort to prevent Union gunboats from sailing up to the Confederate capitol. The victory at Drewry’s Bluff would become “the finest hour” for the 41st AL. On June 17th, the 41st moved into the trenches at Petersburg for the exhausting 9 month siege to follow. John Thomas would endure the unrelenting rifle and artillery fire until Feb. 1865.

No words can describe the carnage of events in the trenches at Petersburg. During this time he would see two of his cousins from Co.B seriously wounded and one killed. He participated in the effort to bury his cousin from the trenches of Gracie’s Brigade but was thwarted by Union sniper fire. He and 2 other cousins dragged the body at night to the Confederate burial ground in Old Blanford Cemetery near the spot of the Crater Explosion and finally accomplished their mission while dodging Union rifle fire.

On February. 15th, 1865, John Thomas was near death from starvation and exposure in a frozen wasteland. He still did not have shoes, a coat or blanket. He and two of his Company buddies, Sgt. Miles Bobo and Pvt. John Anders South, pooled their money ($17 Confederate) and bought a pone of cornbread being peddled by a free black woman in the trenches. They ate it, put up a white flag on a ramrod and walked over into the Union lines. The Federal Archives state that John Thomas was sent to Washington, D.C., given the oath of allegiance , and then sent to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to await discharge. This statement is correct for Bobo and South but John Thomas’ fate was totally different. This writer is in possession of a note written by a post-war confidant of John Thomas that reads:

“In Co. H - 41 Ala at Petersburg Va. On Feb 15 1865 about dark - went over to Union. John South, Miles Bobo. Carried Gard (sic) House that night - Asked by officers to disclose conditions and were carried from post to post disclosing conditions in Conf. (Gracies Army) Was in U S Army about 1 week. Was then sent to Washington and took Oath - was sent to Baltimore Md - then throug (sic)Pa to Indianapolis Ind & stayed in Inda (sic) about 6 mo - war closed.”

John Thomas was furloughed, really indentured, to a farmer in Indiana and he promised to stay and “make a crop”. Good to his word, he stayed until the fall of 1865. He had earned enough to purchase new shoes and, to limit the wear, he tied the shoelaces together, slung them over his shoulder and, to quote his exact words, “came on home.” He walked cross country, alone and barefoot, about 600 miles to his home in Fayette County in west Alabama!

John Thomas did not receive a single furlough during his 3 ½ years of service. He hated the War and frequently declared it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” He was held in contempt by some of his neighbors for the remainder of his life for his surrender.

His brother, Lt. James Franklin, after release from Johnson’s Island Prison in June, 1865, opened a one room school in the northwest part of the county and enrolled 8 grades of children and adults. John Thomas, at age 21, tried schooling for about a week but quickly withdrew. After his experiences of the previous 3 ½ years, school was not for him.

His first marriage in 1867 produced 3 children, only one of whom, a son, lived to maturity. His wife died in 1872 from “childbed fever” (septicemia) giving birth to their third child, a stillborn infant. He married again in 1875 and produced 5 sons. He was a profound victim of post war traumatic stress and his countenance and personality reflected this condition until his death on July 12th, 1930, from prostate cancer, at age 86.

He had been subjected to unspeakable visions of death and hardship. He was denied a veteran’s pension in his old age and died in poverty. He is buried next to his second wife in Caine’s Ridge Primitive Baptist Cemetery on State Route 159 just south of Fayette, AL. From his 6 sons, there are 6 branches of the Holliman family who have enjoyed life because their ancestor was prudent enough to recognize when death was imminent and the mission was doomed to failure.

The 41st AL went on to fight at Hatcher’s Run and the retreat to Appomattox where 98 of the original 1,284 stood ready to answer the final roll call.

In reading the campaign history of the 41st Alabama, one recognizes the futility of the endless marching and the confusion of battle plans created primarily by lack of communication between combat units. It will never cease to be amazing that logistics and tactics could coordinate and the endurance and sacrifice of the individual soldier was beyond comprehension.

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