By Claire Peracchio
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the firing of the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. To mark the occasion, we’ve resurrected a Civil War mystery that still isn’t entirely solved after a Nesi’s Notes post generated a spirited response from a commenter a few weeks ago.
In the original post, I wrote that Rhode Island could still be at war thanks to a technicality. After Maj. Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island was beheaded post-mortem following the First Battle of Bull Run, then-Gov. William Sprague’s outcry over the act helped to spur a congressional investigation. One Cranston historian, Gregg Mierka, told me that Sprague even went so far as to write a letter declaring war on the Confederate state whose troops committed the gruesome act.
But commenter Gary N. pointed out – correctly, we now know – the offending state would have been Georgia, not Virginia as we reported. So we expanded our research and reached out to Ted Widmer and Holly Snyder at Brown University, as well as experts at Rhode Island’s state archives, the Cranston Historical Society and Rhode Island College, to find out more.
Those other experts told me that while it’s possible such a letter from Sprague is out there somewhere, none of them is aware of its existence. We also asked the National Archives in Washington if someone there has the letter; that request is still pending.
What we do know – thanks to a June 2006 article in America’s Civil War magazine – is that Sprague did speak before Congress’ Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in April 1862 and told of the atrocities he observed during an expedition to Virginia in search of the Union dead.
At the time, Congress suspected Confederates had been employing Native Americans to desecrate the graves of fallen Union soldiers. Here at Nesi’s Notes, we’ve managed to get a few steps ahead of the misinformed Civil War era legislators.
Gary N. correctly pointed out that the soldiers who exhumed Major Ballou’s body and decapitated it following his death from wounds sustained in the battle were likely from Georgia, not Virginia. The Georgian Confederates reportedly mistook Ballou’s body for that of Col. John Slocum, his commanding officer in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment. Mierka suggested they hated him either because he was an ardent abolitionist or because he showed remarkable courage at Bull Run.
But whether the offending soldiers were from Georgia’s 21st Regiment, as Gary contended, is less clear. That 2006 article cited differing accounts of the incident.
Mrs. Pierce Butler, a local Virginia woman, said there had been many cases of Confederates exhuming bodies of Union dead to carry off the bones as trophies, according to the magazine. She’d heard of a New Orleans soldier who bragged about taking a Union skull that he intended to use as a punch bowl on his wedding day. A young black girl told a group led by Sprague that soldiers from the 21st Georgia Regiment had committed the act. A 14 year-old boy also said the Georgians were at fault, as did a farmer who asserted that no native son of Virginia could not have done such a thing.
But if the 21st Georgia had a reason for digging up and beheading the body, it didn’t stem from the battle:
The 8th Georgia Infantry was the only regiment from that state that may have come into contact with the 2nd Rhode Island, and the 21st Georgia did not arrive at Manassas until after the battle, staying in winter quarters in the neighborhood of Sudley Church.
It could be that the 21st Georgia wanted to avenge their fellow Georgians for the casualties that Slocum’s regiment inflicted at Bull Run. But the account of Frederic Denison – a 1st Rhode Island Cavalry veteran who penned “Sabres and Spurs: the 1st Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861-1865” – points to the 8th.
Denison describes how he accompanied Sprague in search of the Rhode Island dead in March 1862. The group found Slocum’s body untouched, but Ballou’s corpse wasn’t so lucky:
As was proved, a Georgia regiment, that had suffered in the battle from the fire of the Rhode Island troops, had exhumed the body of Major Ballou, supposing it to be that of Colonel Slocum, beheaded it, denuded it, and burned what remained.
Denison contends that the culprits did face off against Rhode Island troops in battle. This rules out the Georgia 21st, since they did not get to Manassas (the Virginia town where the battle occurred) until afterwards – as Gary was also correct to point out.
That returns us to the remaining missing link: the Sprague letter.
Mierka, the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission member whom I spoke with for the original post, told me the day it was published that he believes an enraged Sprague had actually sought war against Georgia in a letter to the Rhode Island General Assembly. He said that he and the Cranston Historical Society president, Lydia Rapoza, agree that the letter exists, perhaps in the landmark “War of the Rebellion” series, a 70-volume compilation of official Civil War records. After multiple calls and emails to the Sprague Mansion in Cranston, the letter still hasn’t turned up.
So to summarize, it seems clear from the historical record that Ballou died in battle and was buried in Virginia. Contemporaneous accounts point to Ballou’s body then having been exhumed and beheaded. This apparently outraged Rhode Island’s Governor Sprague, who expressed his anger to Congress. But whether Sprague actually sent a letter to the General Assembly “declaring war” on Georgia, as some here contend, is unclear.
In any case, there’s nothing like a little historical inquiry to celebrate a Civil War sesquicentennial. Thanks to thoughtful commenter Gary N., Ballou – and his head, wherever it is – can rest a little bit easier knowing that we’ve gotten much closer to identifying the true origins of the Confederate troublemakers.
Claire Peracchio is a student at Brown University and a WPRI.com intern.
(lithograph: U.S. Army Military History Institute via Hal Jespersen/Wikipedia)