Confederate ancestor analysis #1 – Garnett Nicholson

Posted on June 25, 2009 by


Garnett Nicholson is one of my third great grandfathers. He was a private in Company B (Capt. Jason C. Crigler’s Company), Eighty-second Virginia Militia. The Eighty-second was primarily from Madison County and was under the command of Col. James W. Twyman. As with most of Virginia’s militia regiments, the Eighty-second was called into active service with the state (until regular regiments could be raised for service with the Confederate army) in the summer of 1861… the Eighty-second received its call on July 13, 1861. Four companies, A to D, reported to General P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas, and were in service from July 17 to August 13, 1861, when the regiment was disbanded. Thus, with the disbandment on August 13, the record of Garnett Nicholson with this regiment ends. He was about 35 years of age at the time.

Now, my question is, how many people look at similar service records of members of the militia and pronounce that said people were quick to respond to the call of the Confederacy, or because they were ready to defend their state, and so on and so on? If so, don’t be so hasty…

Garnett Nicholson was a member of the larger Nicholson family (a family that had been in Virginia from… at the very least… the early 1700s) that inhabited (primarily) Nicholson Hollow in Madison County… and area tucked deep in the bosom of the east face of the Blue Ridge. If you’ve heard about the Nicholson family encountered by Pollock in his efforts to make this particular part of the Blue Ridge a National Park, then you know the same family from whence my third great grandfather came. They were rather isolationist in nature, yet were not nearly as backwards as Pollock portrayed them. I have the good fortune to have some wonderful poetry, ciphering tables, and so on… Yet, I digress from their part in the Civil War.

As I said, the Nicholson family was rather isolationist. I sort of get this picture of Jimmy Stewart’s family in the movie Shenandoah when I think about them. Granted, Garnett was a member of the militia when the war began, but keep in mind, Virginia’s militia units were created prior to the war, and prior to Virginia’s steps to even form a secession convention. They were not “volunteers” for the Confederacy. I’ll mention more about this in a little bit.

First, however, I want to take a look at the larger family… the family that Garnett was closest to. He had brothers, but none of them show up on any muster rolls, gray or blue. His wife, Martha “Patsey”, was actually a cousin of his… and it’s not surprising considering the isolation of the greater Nicholson family. Two of Patsey’s brothers do show up on Confederate muster rolls. Joseph served in Co. F, Thirty-eighth Virginia Infantry and Vancouver served in Co. G, Twelfth Virginia Cavalry.

I don’t have Joseph’s records handy, but I do recall that he was a late war (1864) conscript and was captured at the Battle of Five Forks. Vancouver (sometimes written as “Vancouvir”) was also a conscript, was sent to Camp Lee in June 1864 and was assigned to the Twelfth Va. Cav., but that’s as far as his service record goes. So, Garnett Nicholson’s brothers-in-law were conscripts… not volunteers. Does this say something about why Garnett, being age-eligible for service under the second and third conscription acts, doesn’t reappear on any Confederate rosters? Maybe. But, there is an added bonus… there was a third brother-in-law… Chrisley or Christian Nicholson who vowed that if the Confederate conscript hunters kept trying to drag him into the army, he’d join the Union army (and, in fact he eventually did so, probably more out of a need to survive than anything). Perhaps not a Southern Unionist from the start, but more than likely a Southern Unionist later because the annoyance of the Confederate conscript hunters… perhaps he might be better defined as a “Southern survivalist.”

What’s even more interesting about this is that both Joseph and Vancouver applied for Virginia Confederate veteran pensions… and received them! Good “ol’ Confederates?” Again, there is often more to things than meet the eye. I’ve not done a careful analysis on their pensions, but have another direct ancestor who may have done exactly what they did (and what others may have done)… I’ll write about him in another post. We already know the Nicholson brothers were conscripts, and from the look of things (especially considering Chrisley’s story), they may not have gone so willingly with the conscript hunters. Yet, their service records were clean. One was captured and the other’s record just ends upon his assignment with the Twelfth Va. Cav. So, they clearly served under “honorable” conditions, but that shouldn’t automatically suggest that they were passionate for the Confederacy, that they were in the ranks because they were determined to fight against “Lincoln’s usurpation of the Constitution,” or that they were fighting to protect hearth and home (and perhaps I should add… we also don’t know with any certainty whatsoever that they would actually agree with a Confederate flag over their graves or approve of a Confederate headstone at their graves, giving any suggestion that they felt strongly for “the Cause.”) . Frankly, I think many Southerners felt that they could protect home just fine (thank you very much) by staying at home!

So, what about this thing that I’ve brought up with the militia units? Well, I’ve taken some time to look at one militia regiment and, while I realize that the story might vary from regiment to regiment, I think there is something worth taking from what I have discovered and I think some of it might even apply to the service of Garnett Nicholson with the Eighty-second Virginia Militia. As I’ve already mentioned, if he was so passionate about the “Cause” at the war’s opening, the absence of records after that time might suggest something quite to the contrary (by the way, he didn’t die until 1904. So he survived the war and then some).

The focus of my militia studies (which was part of my thesis from 2007) was on the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, from the central Shenandoah Valley. Most of the companies were from Page County – my home county – thus my interest in examining this unit in particular.

In all, 550 men filled the ranks of five companies of the local Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, making up sixty-three percent of those from Page County enrolled in the Confederate service by July 1861. A number of recollections reveal that many of those who were enrolled after July 13, 1861 were drafted into the service nine months before the Confederate Congress passed the first Conscription Act in April 1862. William S. Yates was one of those who recalled, years after the war, having been “drafted in September 1861.” Despite being a conscript, Yates was still listed on duty as of December 31, 1861; the exceptional nature of his record being that only a third of the men in the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia could boast of such a record of uninterrupted service, and many of them were either commissioned or noncommissioned officers.

Another Page County militiaman, Henry “Hiram” Meadows, was, according to his military pension as a Union soldier, drafted into the Ninety-seventh Militia shortly before the First Battle of Manassas. His older brother, William T. Meadows, had been drafted into the same regiment just weeks before. Their reluctance to serve in Confederate military in any capacity is evident in their records, for, within three months, both brothers were listed as absent without leave and were still absent when the last complete muster roll was filled out for the regiment on December 31, 1861. It is unclear if other family members went with him, but Henry left Page County sometime in late 1861 or early 1862 and headed for Pennsylvania to avoid further service.

Evidence of involuntary service with the militia can also be found in a number of Southern Loyalist Claims. In fact, a few men who were involuntarily enrolled in the militia came under scrutiny when they submitted their applications. Morgan Price had been enrolled with the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia on July 5, 1861, but by November 9, he was listed as absent without leave. When Federal troops occupied Luray in July 1862, he was taken to Front Royal where he “insisted on taking the oath of allegiance.” After Union General Franz Sigel’s command left Luray, some of his soldiers were left behind sick or were stragglers. Price took many of these into his home, fed them and “piloted them through the mountains” through Confederate lines and to safety. Nevertheless, partly because of his service in the Ninety-seventh, Price’s application was disallowed.

Claimant Martin Ellis’s son John was drafted into the militia on July 5, 1861, and bore the rank of second corporal. Nevertheless, Martin Ellis was able to get his son home for a while before Confederate conscript details came and took him away again. When Martin Ellis was able to get him away from the militia a second time, he “kept him hid until the war broke.” Ellis commented that his other son was in a “detail shop to keep out of the army.” Ellis not only worked to keep his sons at home, but was ready to provide safe haven for whoever else deserted from the army. James H. Miller gave testimony in support of Ellis’ claim and was one of those who volunteered for the Confederate army when the Page Grays of Company H, Thirty-third Virginia Infantry (Stonewall Brigade) were being organized on June 1, 1861. Having changed his mind about serving the Confederacy, Miller deserted on March 14, 1862 while near Winchester. Recognizing Ellis as a Union man, Miller “went to him for protection and assistance and he kept me at his home concealed at different times; during a term of twelve months I stayed with him all about three weeks total.” After tiring of evading the conscript hunters, Miller left the county in 1863 and went west and eventually, as veterans of the Page Grays recalled, “went across lines.”

One of the most striking accounts of a militiaman turned “reluctant volunteer” was that of James Robert Modesitt. A lieutenant with the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, Modesitt left a record of his reluctance in the form of a number of letters to his wife. Modesitt, though a militia officer, served only briefly in that capacity before being assigned to duty as a lead teamster. He remained in that role until the spring of 1863 and enlisted in Company D of the Seventh Virginia Cavalry on May 24, 1863. In the letters to his wife, Modesitt mentions nothing of glory or anything that would allude to any feelings of patriotism for the Confederate cause. Rather, he takes a more conservative, if not cautious, outlook on his participation in the war, leaving the impression that he remained on duty as a teamster more as matter-of-fact circumstance than as a duty. While he mentions an interest in enlisting in the Seventh Virginia, he expresses an even stronger desire in remaining out of the war altogether. On two occasions he made statements that he would gladly pay his way out of service if he had the opportunity. Following the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Modesitt began to show concern about the Confederacy drafting all “able-bodied men” from the teamsters and putting them into regiments. He wrote to his wife that he would “give all that the Confederacy is due me of which is nearly $800, if that would clear me from the war.” Four months later, he commented that he would be glad to pay $1,000 “to get out for good, but the way things are working there is danger of losing my money and then I have to come back myself.” In both instances, Modesitt warned his wife not to share with anyone what he had said.

Modesitt’s interest in enlisting in the Seventh Virginia Cavalry was likely more out of self-preservation, considering the low casualty rate of the regiment in comparison with infantry units formed from the same region. Likewise, Modesitt probably hoped that, as the regiment had spent much of 1862 operating in the county, would remain in the area, giving him an opportunity to be closer to his wife and family. He knew that he was age-eligible under the conscription laws and, if he did not volunteer for the branch and unit of his preference, he would likely be conscripted into another branch or unit in which he knew nobody and had no interest in serving. Despite his hopes, after enlisting in the regiment, it spent more time on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. Within five months of having enlisted, Modesitt was killed in action at Brandy Station, Virginia on October 11, 1863, one of only a few who were killed in the company. If Modesitt’s military record were taken at face value, without the benefit of seeing the letters to his wife, many new-era Confederate remembrance folks might too quick to label Modesitt as a “patriotic Confederate” who made the ultimate sacrifice defending his “Southern rights.” In truth, however, Modesitt was a reluctant rebel, seeking nothing more but the best way to survive the war and see to the welfare of his family.

As further indication of the absence of loyalty and lack of interest in the Confederate cause among the county’s militiamen, following disbandment of the militia a large number men did anything they could remain out of active service with the regular Confederate army. Likewise, despite the order issued by Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, calling upon all disbanded militiamen to enlist in regular army units, less than seventeen percent of the nearly 550 Page County militiamen actually answered Jackson’s call.

In April 1862, just three months after the Ninety-seventh Virginia was disbanded, the first Confederate Conscript Act was passed, and with it came an entirely new threat to those reluctant to go to war. In addition to intimidation and violence at the hands of local secessionists, those who had not bought into the Confederate cause now had to be concerned with Confederate conscript patrols. Not only did conscription hunters look for deserters from the Confederate army, but they also actively sought out those eligible for the Confederate service. The conscript hunters soon became a recognized enemy to many in Page County.

It leaves me to wonder if something similar was experienced by Garnett Nicholson, in neighboring Madison County, just across the Blue Ridge.

This is the story of one of my Confederate ancestors… although, I get the impression (from what I know so far) that he might not appreciate “honors” for his service as a “Confederate.” A Virginian and a Southerner? No doubt.

*This is part of a series in which I will be analyzing the service of my Confederate ancestors. For the analysis following this one, see Confederate ancestor analysis #2 – Henry K. Emerson/Emmerson.

Of all of my direct ancestors (lineal alone), I had four (4) great-great grandfathers who served in the Confederate army (Henry K. Emerson, Siram W. Offenbacker, James Harvey Mayes, and Charles Robert Hilliard). I also have three (3) … possibly four (4) third great grandfathers who served in gray… Garnett Nicholson, Absalom Franklin Nauman, Joseph Richards, and maybe… William Davison. All were from Virginia except Davison, who was from Kentucky. All of their stories worked together are important for the fact that they help illustrate the diversity of sentiment (and not Confederate alone) in the South.