One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 9, Number 9
September 2001

A note of trivia: Last May, Shell Oil Company, while surveying the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico preparatory to laying a deep water gas pipeline about 45 miles south of the Mississippi River delta, discovered the wreckage of the German U-166, the only submarine sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. The submarine had been sunk in July of 1943 by a U.S. Navy sub-chaser with the loss of 52 crewmen. Question: What was the name of the last ship sunk by the U-166? Answer at the end of the column.

While researching some Virginia Civil War history, I have discovered that the applications of the early members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy can be valuable sources of information. To qualify for membership, a woman had to be a lineal descendant of a veteran, or someone (man or woman) who had served honorably in either the military or civil service of the Confederacy, and to document that assertion. A member could be a wife, daughter, sister, niece, etc. Also, in the formative years of the organization, an applicant had to be recommended by at least two veterans. Importantly for history’s sake, the veterans were required to identify their rank and the unit in which they had served.

Perhaps the most valuable components of the applications from an historical perspective are the biographical and historical notes sketches of the various veterans that were documented by the applicants. Most of the information on the applications in the organization’s early years was given by the old veterans themselves, directly to family members. Oral histories are sometimes notorious for their inaccuracies, embellishments, and lack of perspective. We know, for example, that many an aging soldier who had served in the ranks as a private or corporal was adorned with the rank of “captain,” or even “general,” long after the war. Nonetheless, these files may contain useful historical information. Perhaps most importantly, the emotions and feelings of the participants and their families are best reflected in these histories. One such example tells of a heartrending case of a soldier who miraculously survived the fighting and near death, yet his whereabouts and condition were unknown by his family for over five months after the war.

Agnes Josephine Dawson was the daughter of Andrew Jackson Dawson of Esmont in southern Albemarle County, a Confederate veteran. She applied for membership in the U.D.C. in 1916. In her words, she tells some of her father’s wartime saga.

A brave, truer, more faithful soldier than my father was not known, yet with it all, he was very assuming. He served four years in the Civil War. He entered the war early in 1861 and served faithfully both as a cavalryman and as an infantryman. He was a member of Co. G, 49th regiment when the war closed. He was wounded three times, first in the wrist, then in the shoulder, and last had the large bone of his left leg shattered by a piece of shell striking it on April 1, 1865 at Five Forks in Dinwiddie Co. He was taken prisoner at this time and carried to Old Blandford Church near Petersburg, where his leg was amputated, just below the knee. After the amputation, he was carried to Washington City and placed in a U.S. hospital where he remained until September.

Up to that time his wife, my mother, knew nothing of him, having been told by a comrade of his, that he saw father fall as he (the comrade) reported to mother on his return home, he being a resident of the locality in which our family was living at this time, that he thought Father was mortally wounded when he fell.

The September above mentioned, his eldest brother Dr. J. S. Dawson of Chicago, Ill. was on his way to Va. to visit his mother, and stopped in Washington where he accidentally ran upon my father in the hospital convalescing from the amputation and a severe attack of the fever following the ordeal.

Dr. Dawson supplied his brother with crutches and needed clothes for travel as soon as he was able. They started for Va. reaching home after a slow and tiresome trip by rail to Charlottesville, and by carriage to our home.

Another U.D.C. application by a lady named Virginia Castleman Bowles, the daughter of John Owen Lewis, fills in some of the details about Sheridan’s cavalry raid through Albemarle in early 1865. John Lewis, living at #&8220;Cliffside” in Scottsville, was 51 at the time, and too old and too unhealthy to serve in the army. His feelings and loyalty about the war were so intense however, that he volunteered to serve in some capacity to aid in the war effort. The result was that he was assigned to the local “enrollment committee” [draft board] for most of the war. But, when the word of the approach of Sheridan’s raiders reached Scottsville in March of 1865, Lewis evidently decided that discretion was the better part of valor. According to his daugher:

Mr. Lewis mounted his beautiful horse “Beauregard,” and leaving all that was dearest he went away fro secretion. Imagine the sorrow and anguish that filled his heart. After he left, in marched Sheridan with his men and pitching their tents around made our yard into a veritable camping ground. His men pillaged, plundered, stealing, and burning as they went. The place was all to pieces, setting fire to the carriage house and barn, and with other of our houses burned them to the ground together with my father’s valuable bonds which were hidden in the barn. My father saw flames arising from the direction of his home. The desolation that which greeted his eyes on his arrival home, I will not attempt to describe.

it is generally believed that both General Sheridan and his subordinate George A. Custer spent at least one night at Lewis’s home, and in fact probably used it as their headquarters during the Scottsville raid. Also, other sources confirm that substantial damage was done to the property while it was occupied by the Union troops. However, Mrs. Bowles’s assertion that her father “went away for secretion” prior to the arrival of the raiders conflicts with another version that states that Lewis and his family remained in the basement of the house during occupation, and listened to the nearly unbearable sounds of the uninvited Yankee boots tramping above him in his own home.

While some of Mrs. Bowles’s commentary is perhaps a bit embroidered after all the years, nevertheless the primary events of the time, and the family’s passions are probably pretty close to reality.

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Answer to the trivia question: Just prior to the German submarine U-166 being sent to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico by an American navy ship, the German vessel torpedoed and sank the SS Robert E. Lee on July 30, 1942. Twenty-five passengers and crew of the Robert E. Lee were killed. Ironically, survey images show that the U-166 lies near the wreckage of the Robert E. Lee. Both vessels are still resting in 5,000 feet of water and the German government has declared the site of the submarine a war grave and requested that it remain undisturbed. “Now you know the rest of the story!”