One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 14, Number 4
April 2006

Other than the Civil War, another one of the interests in my life is genealogy. No doubt this helps explain, I think, some of my perspectives on the conflict between the North and South. As far as my “Confederates in the Attic” are concerned, I can document at least a dozen members of my family who served in various units of the Confederacy, especially on the paternal side of my family because they were all natives of Virginia. For example, I could always point to four members of my father’s family from the same household on the James River—my grandfather and his brother, and my great grandfather and his brother as all having enlisted in the Army of Northern Virginia.

But, for years I had neglected my mother’s ancestors and their relationship to the Civil War. I soon learned that identifying Confederate soldiers in the maternal line was a much more challenging assignment that I had expected. Although several of her family had records of Confederate service, there was an obvious disparity in the numbers when compared to my father’s line. The reason for the imbalance soon became apparent when I discovered that a substantial portion of my mother’s family had roots north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and . . . gasp, my maternal grandmother’s sister (my great aunt) had married a Yankee!

All of which is a little background for the subject of this month’s column. It turns out that the brother of my great-aunt’s husband (forget the details!) was a Union soldier who had been captured and died in a Confederate prison late in the war. Therein lies the poignant and heartbreaking story of the human tragedy that took place on both sides during the Civil War.

Valentine James Down was from Utica, New York. He was born in London, England on March 27, 1849, the son of John Edwin and Marrianne LaFeuillade Down. He enlisted as a Private in Company A of the Second New York Heavy Artillery. I have yet to determine the date or circumstances of his enlistment at such a tender age. My first impulse was to assume that he was perhaps a drummer boy or orderly of some sort, but a letter of his, written June 20, 1864, to his father suggest that he probably served as an infantryman attached to a heavy artillery unit. In his letter he refers to being near Petersburg and “. . . being under fire almost every hour. Last Wednesday [June 15] we charged on the enemy under a heavy shower of shell and bullets. I belonged in the rear rank, but when we got on the top of a hill, I found myself in front of the company. We got to a fence and then laid down and fired, and drove them.” The Second New York Heavy Artillery was assigned to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps at the time, and the engagement that he referred to involved the initial assault on the Confederate defenses east of Petersburg after Grant’s army had crossed the James River.

Private Down’s role as a combatant ended two months later on Tuesday August 16 when he was captured on the Charles City Road east of Richmond. The action occurred during the Second Deep Bottom expedition, when Hancock’s II Corps re-crossed the James on a pontoon bridge and attempted to flank the Confederate defenses north of the river. The details of the action and his capture are not known, but his father later learned from a company officer that Down had probably been sent to Belle Isle prison in Richmond. The prison was located on an island in the James River at the bottom of Seventh Street, and was used to house enlisted prisoners. During the later years of the war it was once of the larger prison facilities in the Confederacy housing some 6,000 to 10,000 men at a time.

Unfortunately for his father and family in far-off upstate New York, there was apparently no further communication from the son after the June 20th letter, or any other news about his capture, location, or health. Desperate for information, on September 27, 1864, his father wrote a plaintive, yet hopeful letter to Valentine in hopes that it might somehow reach him even though he was most likely a prisoner of war. He asked: “I am desirous now of ascertaining where you are & how you are, whether sick or wounded, and whether there is anything I can do for you consistent with Confederate regulations.” Ever optimistic, he enclosed a sheet of paper and a stamped envelope with a return address. He also sent additional stationary and postage stamps to the Federal commandant at Fort Monroe in hopes that he might help in some way in establish communication with the Confederates. Sadly, none of the letters written to his son after his capture were ever received, and were returned to his family.

The first reliable information that John E. Down received about his son’s fate came from a correspondent of the New York Tribune who informed him, probably sometime in 1865 and after the end of the war, that the young soldier had been transferred from Belle Isle prison in Richmond to the Confederate prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, about October 1 where he died on December 6, 1864.

The Salisbury prisoner-of-war camp, located about halfway between Greensboro and Charlotte, was initially opened in an abandoned cotton factory in November 1861. Like most prison camps in the Civil War, conditions were not too bad during the early stages of operation. But as the war ground on, and over-crowding became common, conditions at this and other prisons rapidly deteriorated. By October of 1864 around 10,000 men were held at Salisbury—far over its capacity—and the death rate soared. From October of ’64 to February ’65 alone, 3,419 prisoners were reported to have died.

The National Cemetery at Salisbury is the burial ground for the more than 11,700 Union soldiers who died at the nearby prisoner-of-war camp, and is said to hold more unknown dead than any other national cemetery in America. The body of Private Valentine James down from Utica, New York, is believed to be buried there somewhere among the unknown.

Still ignorant of his son’s death in the spring of 1865, John E. Down never gave up hope. In March he sent a request to Clara Barton (who later founded the American Red Cross), the General Correspondent of an organization called “Correspondence with Friends of Paroled Prisoners” in Annapolis, Maryland, asking if his son was among the recent arrivals of paroled prisoners. A form reply dated April 20, 1865, stated that up to that time his son had not arrived, but added the hopeful note that “Boats are landing almost daily, and any information which I may gain will be most cheerfully forwarded to you at the earliest moment.”

Sometime after this correspondence, John Down must have learned the details of his son’s capture and death from the newspaper correspondent, because on August 31, 1865, he wrote to a Mrs. Johnson in Salisbury asking for her help: “I beg to apologize for writing to you, who are unknown to me. . . . I am referred to you, as a loyal Union lady, who has kindly interested herself in the condition & fate of our poor boys who suffered in the rebel prison in your town; and my object is, to discover 1st any particulars connected with my son, who died there, and 2nd the possibilities of recovering his remains.”

He then goes on to give the lady what little information he has about his son’s arrival at Salisbury about October 1, and his death on December 6, and notes that up until that time the number of deaths at Salisbury had been relative few. Consequently, “. . . I am in hopes that the bodies of prisoners met with some approach to a decent burial and that the spot where he was interred may be identified. At a later date, I understand, the bodies of prisoners were then thrown into a common grave without note or mark of any kind. The boys’ age at his decease was not quite 16.”

Down then makes a final plea for any information that Mrs. Johnson, the “loyal Union lady” in Salisbury, might have in hopes that his son’s grave can be located and his remains recovered. To the best of my knowledge, Valentine James Down’s body was never found.

The pathos of this little chapter in my family’s history nearly overwhelms me. Here’s a little boy, four month’s shy of being 16, from upstate New York going off to fight and die in far-off Virginia and North Carolina. What motivated him, and how could his father, an obviously educated man of some substance, have agreed to his enlistment? I wish I knew more so that I could compare the story of Valentine Down to that of my great uncle on my father’s side of the family. The latter, John Walter Nicholas of Buckingham County was barely 16 in 1864 when he enlisted in the 3rd Virginia Reserves, and went off to guard the High Bridge over the Appomattox River at Farmville. That, I can understand. Three others from his household had already enlisted, the Confederacy was desperate for soldiers, he was close to home, and he was fighting for something very tangible—like the defense of his family. Two passionate young men of the same age from different parts of the country, and vastly different backgrounds go to war, and apparently for profoundly dissimilar reasons.