A Tale of Two Soldiers
By Dr. Harold Graham
It was a cold morning in February 1864, cold and moist. David Essex had gotten up well before dawn to cook meals in a temporary mess hall for the thousands of Union soldiers camped across the hill side near Tuscalameta Creek. There were advantages to being a cook, not the least of which was that you usually stayed behind the line of combat, but this morning it meant even more. Stoking the fire under a row of pots and pans was a way of keeping warm. He had seen plenty of Indiana winters that would bring an immediate frost to a man’s beard, but no moist cold like this Mississippi winter that brought a chill to his bones.
Yesterday had been a hellish experience. After they left Hillsborough they hit some of the worse roads he had ever seen. It had rained in recent days and the narrow dirt road was a quagmire, so bad that he had to leave his perch on a supply wagon and help push the wagon through the deep ruts. It did not help that more than 30,000 men, beasts, and wagons and artillery pieces had already passed this way. Then when things could get no worse, some fool soldier from the Sixteenth Corps decided to make a bon-fire out of fence railings. A puff of wind came up and the fire jumped, then raced through a pine thicket. Before the morning was over the whole world seemed on fire with flaming dead trees crashing across the road and endangering the safety of man and beast.
David started slicing ham and dropping it into a skillet to fry. That ham had been “borrowed” from the smokehouse of a Baptist preacher named Murrell the day before. The preacher was not at home, but his womenfolk sure had a sermon for the Union soldiers who did the borrowing before they could ride away. Better enjoy this meal, thought David, because there is talk of Sherman cutting our food rations in half.
David Essex had mustered into service as a Private, Company H, 89th Indiana Volunteer Regiment at Decatur, Indiana on 28 August 1862 for three years of service. The 89th was first sent to Memphis, then transferred to Sherman’s army after the Vicksburg Campaign. Sherman, he thought, sure had a weird sense of war. Rather than simply go after military targets, he burned the farmhouses and public buildings in his path; and, rather than bring enough food for his troops, he stole from the farmers along the way. “Break their will to fight”, is about all he would say.
It was a cold morning in February 1864, cold and moist. Ira Bryant had gotten up a bit late that morning, still nursing the pangs of the near starvation he had suffered at Vicksburg a few months earlier. Forty years old at the time, he had responded to the call by Montgomery Carleton at Decatur for state troops, known as the 5th Mississippi Infantry, to bolster up the defense of Vicksburg, but when Carleton could not go, the command was placed under H. C. Robinson of Kemper County. Little good it did, Ira thought. We got there just in time to be hemmed in like the rest of the Confederates. This General Sherman sure has a weird sense of war. Surround the enemy and don’t let them eat anything better than rats or shoe leather for weeks. Sherman had let them go and as they were walking back home one of the Hollingsworth fellows from down around Riser spotted a field of corn somewhere around Pelahatchie. It was late July and the ears of corn looked like manna from heaven. We all gorged until we almost dropped, then our guts were tied up with diarrhea for days1.
There was no water in his cabin, so Ira grabbed a wooden bucket and headed for the spring at the bottom of the hill near his cabin. Hidden in a grove of poplar trees there was always fresh running water at the spring. He had heard talk that there might be Bluebellies in the area and had actually seen the smoke from a strange fire over toward Scott County the afternoon before, but he dismissed the whole idea as a rumor and left his rifle propped next to the door inside his cabin as he headed down the hill. Some fool hunter, he thought, has set the woods afire. Sure must have been desperate to set a brush heap afire to flush out a rabbit.
He finished filling his bucket, then made his way back up the hill to his cabin. As he topped the ridge, he saw it—smoke from fresh fires back toward Conehatta. These were not woods burning but the ominous dome-shaped smoke clouds of houses on fire. He almost spilled the water as he rushed back to the cabin to give his wife Jane the bad news.
Before breaking camp for the Meridian Expedition Sherman had ordered a 30-day ration of supplies. Now the rumor was right. After crossing Conehatta Creek and camping there overnight, Sherman sat down and issued new orders that all rations would be cut in half. Things would be tough sledding for a while.
For the Union soldiers, Decatur was little challenge, except Sherman almost got caught by Rebel soldiers at the house at which he was staying at overnight. Lucky that some of his guard rode up about that time and chased the Rebels off before they recognized who they had in their sights. Meridian was burned, then Sherman split his troops. Sherman headed up through Marion into Kemper County with part of the troops, then veered to the west and Union where he stayed overnight at Boler’s Inn. David Essex was assigned to the contingent of soldiers who headed back toward Jackson along the same path through Decatur that had brought them here in the first place.
On the afternoon of the 22nd day of February, 1864, David Essex was among a party of ten Union soldiers assigned to search for food. What food? Had they not confiscated all they could find on their original journey? Their travels had carried them through Decatur and past the Russell House and onward toward Conehatta. Now crossing Conehatta Creek they started up the ridge leading to a fork in the road. One fork led to Pinckney and Union, the other to Conehatta.
In a grove of trees at the forks, three ridges below Ira Bryant’s burnt-out cabin, David Essex and his party spotted troops dressed in blue. Friendly troops, yes, so they advanced without precaution. Friendly troops, no! Rebels dressed in blue, and as David Essex and his contingent advanced further, they were fired upon. AMBUSHCADED, as Washington Kern, Private, Company H, 89th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, would later declare in a military investigation. Kern, a member of the foraging part, would provide the following eye-witness account:
“While the regiment was with Gen. Sherman on his raid through Mississippi, from Vicksburg to Meridian, and while on our return near Decatur, Miss., (I was) detailed to go with a foraging party, consisting of myself, David Essex, a Private of Co. H., 89th Ind. Vol. Infantry and eight other privates and non-commissioned officers, and while on that duty were surprised and ambushcaded by a superior force of Rebel cavalry, mostly disguised in the United States uniform and who charged upon us and at the same time killed David Essex with two carbine balls, both of which passed through his left breast, killing him instantly, and at the same time killed another of my comrades, and captured myself and three others, I being severely wounded by a carbine ball in my left shoulder, and afterwards taken prisoner to Cahaba, Alabama, thence to Anderson, Geo., thence to Charleston, S. C., thence to Savannah, Georgia where I was paroled on the 30th day of November 1864 and sent north.”2
A. J. Hill, one of the non-commissioned officers in charge of the foraging party, indicated further that of the ten Union soldiers who rode up that ridge on this fateful day, two were known killed, three (including himself) escaped, and the others were killed or captured3.
Seven graves lie at this fork in the road, and it is suspected that some the burials occurred earlier, which would help explain the Union uniforms worn by the Rebels. Wooden markers were placed there to mark the dead and a fence built around the property. A one-room school house was built next to the cemetery. Officially it was known as Union Ridge School, but was known to many locally as “Possum Scratch”, apparently from the opossums that liked to forage around a persimmon tree that stood in the school yard. In the year 1918 my father, Charles L. Graham, began his education there under the tutorage of Miss Lucy Horton, as did countless others.
Map courtesy of Ricky Harrison
The year was 1910 and Ira Bryant would not have long to live. Now he spent much of his Februarys seated by the fire with a quilt across his lap, a quilt that had been brought into their marriage by his wife Jane Ponder Bryant in 1842 and which had survived the torching of his cabin by the Bluebellies in February 1864. His wife Jane had left this world some 25 years earlier and he had married a second time, to Mattie Carter, who herself had died in June 1900. Ira and Jane had had 9 children, some of whom died years ago as well, but there were plenty of grandchildren and great-grandchildren within shouting distance.
Ira had attended one of those Confederate Veterans Reunions at Pinckney a few years back. What he saw were old men with frosted beards, most with broken bodies in grey uniforms that no longer fit. The veterans were full of war stories. Ira had his share of stories too, but for days thereafter Ira felt a deep melancholy that was only shattered by the raucous clamor of great-grand grandchildren as they played chase through the dog trot of his house. His face broke into a smile. Sherman thought he got the best of me when he burned my cabin down. I built a bigger and better house and have lived to share it with my great-grandchildren. Sherman is in the cold, cold ground.
Union Ridge School was closed in the 1921 with the children (along with Miss Lucy Horton) being transferred to Conehatta High School. The land on which school and cemetery stood was later purchased by the Department of the Interior and converted for use as part of the Choctaw Indian Reservation. During World War II, according to local resident Robert Horton, the cemetery was vandalized for any metal that might be found. By the early 1950’s only remnants of three of the wooden markers could be seen. By the year 2000, the cemetery had disappeared in a forest of pine trees.
All knowledge of what had occurred at Union Ridge in February 1864 might have been lost forever had it not have been for an e-mail from Sara (Joey) Pedigo in July 2004. Joey had thoroughly researched her ancestor David Essex and knew that he had been killed near Pleasant Hill in Newton County on February 22, 1864. The author knew that Pleasant Hill was sometimes used as a synonym for Conehatta since there was a nearby Baptist church of the name and I also knew about the cemetery.
Miss Lucy Horton with students (all classes) at Union Ridge School
What followed was a complete investigation of the events of that day, including an exploration of the site led by Emory Morgan. Mr. Morgan, an expert dowser, was able not only to locate the seven graves, but was able to additionally locate the site of Union Ridge school house. With Joey and a number of her friends, we held a memorial service at the burial site for the departed, more than 140 years after the event.
1. Story of the cornfield, as told by Isaac A. Hollingsworth, Private, 39th Mississippi Infantry.
2. Military Pension Application, Sarah Essex, Widow of David Essex.
3. Military Pension Application, Sarah Essex, Widow of David Essex, Supplemental Report.
Bankston, Woodrow W., Jr., Early Arrivals: An American Story, 2001
Bearess, Margie Riddle, Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition, Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland, 1987.
Davis, George B., Maj., U. S. Army, and Leslie J. Perry & Joseph W. Kirkley, The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., 1891-1895.
Foster, Buck T., Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2006.
Hollingsworth, Bess, transcriber, Minutes of Newton County School Board Minutes, 1917-1921.
Pedigo, Joey. Personal Knowledge and e-mails.
War of The Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.