Monday, July 29, 2013

A Soldier's Story

Andrew Jackson Grayson was a miller by trade. He built and operated his place of business along Little Walker Creek here in Bland County, Virginia back before there was a Bland County. This area was sparsely settled and life was "hardscrabble," as it were. It is probably because his mill was frequented by all the farmers in the area who came to him to have their meager harvest ground into meal and he was, therefore, a familiar figure to everyone in the area, that when the Civil War broke out, Andrew Jackson Grayson was elected by the Confederacy's new recruits to the cause to be captain of the newly formed "Bland County Sharpshooters."

The victory at Fort Sumter had occurred only a month before and the South was a'risin'. All over the country the call went out for recruits to join the army and defend against northern aggression. Young men from the area packed what little they had and made the journey over the mountain to Wytheville, the only town in the area, and to Narrows in Giles County to enlist. When the company had enough recruits, its official designation became Company F, 45th Regiment, Virginia Volunteers. What an adventure it must have been for these boys, most of whom had probably never been far from home, to be given weapons and "accoutrements" (and an expansion of their vocabulary) and to find themselves on the parade ground in Wytheville learning how to conduct themselves in battle, and about "Hardee's Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics." For the first time in their lives they were not only playing a part in something important, they were making history.

And then they went to war. Their first encounter with the enemy was on a hilltop in Nicholas County in what was about to become, as a result of the South having seceded, the state of West Virginia in a place called Carnifex Ferry. Here they learned the word retreat. For after inflicting serious casualties on the advancing northern force, the Confederate army under General John Floyd slipped away and moved south. There is no record of the company sustaining any casualties but here the company of Bland boys got their first experience with that which killed the greatest number of soldiers north and south - sickness and disease. Though the company of recruits wasn't there long, when they left Nicholas County, they left behind a freshly dug grave containing the mortal remains of their first fatality, a young man who succumbed to a nameless illness, who died, and was buried - alone and with but a stone to mark his grave.

Over the next four years the company of Bland boys saw war in far away locations in Tennessee, West Virginia, and finally in "the big show," in Virginia as a part of the Army of the Valley. They fought in many places that today don't even warrant mention in the history books. Places like Wolf Creek, White Sulfur Springs, Diamond Hill, Mossy Creek, and Talbot's Station. They also participated in many of the war's larger engagements at Winchester, Opequon Creek, Cloyd's Mountain, Monocacy, Fishers Hill, and Piedmont.

With each encounter, the Bland Sharpshooters counted more dead. Upon leaving each encampment, Company F, 45th Virginia Volunteers left behind sick, wounded, and dying youth. For four years the boys from Bland County endured unspeakable hardship and privation. They lacked proper clothing in winter, were denied proper nutrition throughout, and often went days without food of any kind at all. In most of their encounters with the enemy, they were outnumbered by an army much better equipped and armed.

But they endured. In the end, the company of Bland boys didn't go through the formal surrender ceremony that one reads about in history books or sees in famous paintings. When notified of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the regiment simply disbanded - and what remained of the Bland Sharpshooters went home.

Andrew Jackson Grayson enlisted in Company F on May 31, 1861 and became the company's captain shortly thereafter. When the company disbanded, "Captain Jack" was still the commander of the Sharpshooters. One wonders what history he made. In a war that saw so much attrition, it was not unusual for a private soldier to find himself being chosen for the rank of an officer and, as superior officers were killed off or died or went home maimed or broken, to be promoted again. And yet Andrew Grayson was Captain of Company F for all four years of the war. 

One wants to think that it was his decision to stay with "his boys" and that he chose not to take on greater rank. It could be though that his performance was recognized as being adequate enough to supervise the company but he was not considered capable of taking on greater responsibility. Or, as was the case with many officers in both armies, he may have been sick and in hospital too often to be considered for promotion. Or it is possible that Capt. Grayson and the 45th were, as was the case with many of the mountain regiments, inclined to be a bit too "independent" and could be counted on to fight like devils when called upon, but were impossible to control otherwise. 

We'll never know. As for me, I prefer to think he simply and honorably wanted to fulfill his obligation to "his Bland boys" and remained with Company F throughout. Even with all the diaries, memoirs, and regimental histories that were written about the period, nobody took the time to chronicle the life of Andrew Jackson Grayson. All we know is that when the war ended, he dismissed the troops and went back to his mill along Little Walker Creek.

There is one story, though, that is told in these parts about Captain Jack and his mill. In July 1863, while Capt. Grayson was "down the valley" fighting Yankees (and incidentally while Robert E Lee was retreating from a tiny town in Pennsylvania by the name of Gettysburg), a Union army was moving through Bland County on its way to burn the train station and railroad bridge in Wytheville. As became the norm in this horrific conflict, the Union troops wreaked destruction on the local economy and Confederate war-making capability as it moved south by burning barns and any manufactory along its route that could be used for making war material. This happened to include grain mills in that they often provided corn meal to the Southern army.

In this instance, though, luck was on Andrew Grayson's side. When the Union army came upon his mill and Yankee soldiers were about to set it afire, the Union commander ordered the soldiers to cease. As it turns out, he was a miller too and, despite the animosities and hostilities that had grown between the two sides, he decided to spare Grayson's property.

There exist remnants of Grayson's mill and dam along the creek today. Though Captain Jack Grayson's home is long gone. I can look out my window - and often do - at his homestead and think about Andrew Jackson Grayson and the boys of '61. What they went through. What part of history they wrote. What memories they had and shared in reunions in later years when they got together in town and reminisced about the war years. 

I have seen only one photograph of Captain Grayson. It was taken at a reunion of Bland veterans some time in the late in the 19th century. It was an assemblage of about fifteen elderly men, gray, bearded and bowed. There in the center of the group was Captain Jack. Try as I might to get a good look at him and to try to gain an understanding of his person, the photo was too unclear and was taken from too far away. He was just a small figure among small figures on a big hillside. I can only guess that their conversations about great battles and many triumphs were tinged with profound sadness - for most of the Bland boys who marched off to war in 1861 never returned. As was customary, many perished without even a marker to identify their remains. They vanished.

Captain Andrew Jackson Grayson was, in that sense, luckier. On a hillock that gently rises above Little Walker Creek that would have been a short walk for him from his home, on land that now includes my home, there is a solitary grave in a grass pasture overlooking his mill. There Captain Jack - miller, warrior, citizen - rests.

* Originally published on August 11, 2004