Vivid Memories of Civil War
by Lawrence Wilson
Winston-Salem Journal, Sept. 27, 1931
Leaksville, Sept. 26-- A few miles southwest of town, on the banks of the Dan River, just below the spot where Cornwallis crossed, and near the “Old Baggage Road” that Green’s men cut in their hurried retreat to Guilford Court House, stands the home of Albert D. Wray, 87 year old Confederate veteran who claims the honor of being the first to suggest the name for the “Battle of the Wilderness". On this historic spot familiarly known as “Dead ?? “(can’t read) one may drive by and see this keen-eyed, gray-haired veteran of many battles as he reads the morning newspaper under the shade of the giant oaks that rise like sentinels over his homeplace. His memory is as keen as that of a youngster in his teens, dates and incidents flow from his lips with speed and precision, and comparing notes, one knows that the incidents of sixty-five and seventy years ago are named by Mr. Wray to the very day without an error. Beneath his shaggy eyebrows lurks the twinkle of keen eyes, whose sparkle has increased, rather than diminished during his four and one half decades. He radiates optimism with his genial smile, his courtly manners, and his ability to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. Would you care to listen as Mr. Wray unfolds a few of the vivid pages from his life’s history?
Not Sure of Birth -- “I’m not sure whether I was born in 1844 or 1845, since my father died in 1850. On the family records one date is January 25th, 1845, but I entered service as being born in 1844, and I guess that will have to suffice. At the age of sixteen, my folks decided that I must have some schooling, so James Fletcher and Frank Reid, Walter Montgomery and I went to Winston to study. But after only a few weeks of school, I was detailed to make clothes for the government, the other boys being too young. These clothes were made at the Patterson Mills under the superintendence of John Bullard of Boston. In a year or so after I left, these mills were the object of burning by General Stoneham [Stoneman], but when he arrived and discovered that John Bullard was an old schoolmate of his, he refrained from destroying the property.”
“From Winston, I was transferred into regular service and sent to Richmond to guard the Union prisoners stationed on Belle island. On November 15, 1863, we were ordered to move 4,400 prisoners from this island to Danville, on account of there being no houses for them to stay in during the winter. In Danville the prisoners were housed in old brick warehouses, and as they lay huddled together like rats, an epidemic of small-pox broke out, and during the winter, twenty-three hundred and sixty odd of them died. I personally saw most of them die, as I was stationed in the Union hospital and carried numbers of them to the dead house, where they were stripped of clothes and buried naked, that their clothes might be laundried and used again. These solders were later dug up and reburied by the Union army.”
Campaign of 1864 - “On the 27th of April, 1864, we left Danville and went by way of Orange Court House and the Rapidan to the Wilderness. On the 4th of May in the same year, the long roll was beat, we drew rations and the first ball was fired for the campaign of 1864. It was here because of the dense undergrowth and thickets, that I said we might call this a battle of the wilderness, and whether anyone else said it or not, I don’t know, but I’ve always claimed the honor of naming this battle.”
“The undergrowth was so thick here that during the battle I saw dead men stand upright and were unable to fall. After moving through the thicket, we came in sight of the enemy for the first time, and they seemed to be moving backwards. Our line advanced, or at least we thought they were advancing and when George Shreves, Sam Carver and I got to the middle rise, we discovered that we were alone. The Yankees yelled, “Throw down your guns, Johnny, and come on over.” Instead, we dropped down, thinking that our line would come up, and the Yanks fired, killing George, and putting a bullet through Sam’s leg. I retreated back to the lines without injury. The enemy ran up a battery and we were ordered to take it. We tried three times and as far as I know, we ain’t took it yet.”
Captured by Yankees-- “The fighting here lasted for three days, and as nothing was decided we moved to Spottsylvania Court House and opened the line on May 9th. Out of the one hundred and sixteen men of Company ‘G’, under the command of Captains John H. Dillard and William W. Wharton, by the 12th of May, every man was either killed or captured except myself. I too was captured when the Yankees ran a line behind us, but I decided that I had as soon die now as anytime, and so I made a run for it, and escaped. Thinking that I was the only one left in my company, I decided to join Johnson’s command from Tennessee, and on my way there, ran into several men from my company who had also escaped.”
“It was here that I saw General Robert E. Lee for the first time. Rounding the curve of the road leading to Johnson’s camp, we came in sight of Lee’s staff, resplendent in their uniforms of gray and gold braid, and as we came nearer, Lee dismounted and said to his men: ‘If we lose the road, we lose it all.’ There was some argument on the part of Lee’s staff to persuade him to remain back of the lines, but swiftly came the reply: ‘It is no worse for me to die than my men.’
“After we joined the men from Tennessee, the next objective was to capture a Yankee wagon train. We had to make a half-circle from Spotsylvania around what was known as a ‘horse-shoe’ but this mission failed and valuable officers were lost. Major-General Julius S. Daniel feared that the sleepless days and nights would cause us to relax our watch, so he stood up and said: ‘Men, get up, before we all go to sleep.’ These were his last words, for as he spoke to us, a rifle volley hit him, spun his body sideways and fell four or five feet. Colonel Sam Boyd was also killed here, his last words, ‘Men, don’t scatter’, rang like a clarion down the battle lines.”
The Valley Campaigns-- Mr. Wray went from these battles to Gaines Mill where he participated in several skirmishes and moved on to the valley campaigns. He was taken sick here, and sent to the hospital at Petersburg. He was detailed at Petersburg on the 25th day of January 1865 and sent to Richmond, where he remained until near the close of the war. He was among the soldiers who assisted in the burning of the capital city of Virginia and was made an officer to escort President Jefferson Davis to his train. He refused to accept this commission and today at the age of 87, firmly asserts that he was the “highest private in the rear rank.”
After strenuous fighting around Appomattox, during which time Mr. Wray went without food for seven days and nights, his company was ordered by General Ewell to take a wagon train to Danville. This train was captured at Jetersville, but the men were not held prisoners, as Lee had already surrendered the day before. Mr. Wray walked from Jetersville to Danville, and as he came up Craighead street, he met General Southerland and Jefferson Davis in the former’s buggy on the way to meet the train that was to carry Davis to Charlotte. This was the 12th day of April, 1865.
Mr. Wray was married to Miss Sallie Moore on the 19th day of August 1875, but is now a widower with three children and twelve grandchildren. It is a real treat to listen while this old southern gentleman recounts the experiences of bygone days.
When asked for his views of the so-called 1931 depression he scornfully says, “There’s no cause for any one to suffer now. There’s plenty to eat, plenty to wear, and plenty to drink. It’s not the times, it’s the people.”
End of Article
Note: Since the above interview was posted on Leaksville.com, a number of individuals have questioned the accuracy of some of Mr. Wray's statements. In the interest of historical accuracy, here is a response from Don Simmons:
Saw some info from you on Rockingham Co. Board that was posted about a year ago. Whoever copied your article on Albert Wray on your Leaksville site got it wrong, it was General Stoneman not Stoneham (I don't know if this error is in the original article or not). His troops staged raids in many portions of N.C. The way I remember it there is a historical marker somewhere between the old Spray YMCA and Highway 14 that tells about Stoneman's men coming through that area. As for Bullard, the mill manager being friends through "school" this probably could be easily documented. My Grandmother Kate Thomas lived across Whetstone Creek Road from Mr. Wray and listened to many stories that were told by Mr. Wray and Uncle Jimmy Thomas (last Confederate Vet. in Rockingham Co.). She lived to be 100 years old and knew quite a bit about Rockingham Co. history from experience. I have the original article somewhere but was not able to find it in my files this afternoon. The title of the file is "Mr. Albert Wray Forrest Gump of Rockingham County." After listening to my grandmother talk about him, it seemed that wherever Wray was there too was Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis. Although some of Mr. Wray's stories may have been embellished, this one has a ring of authenticity. I would suggest you check with Robert Wray Carter, Historian for Rockingham Co. Bob is a nephew of Mr. Wray. He probably could help clarify questions.
Don Simmons (Jack and Irene's boy, Happy Jack and Della's grandson and George Conner's cousin)
Another from Elizabeth Bullard-Watson:
Thanks for the story. I'd actually seen it before. And, it is a neat one. But, Mr. Wray's account of what happened is mostly likely not entirely accurate. You see, Mr. Wray, in the full story, remembers that John Hall Bullard was the current mill supervisor. That isn't possible, since John had left the mill years before the Civil War, in order to open his general merchandise store (Bullard and Company). By the time that Mr. Wray was working at the mill, John Hall Bullard was long gone (from the mill, anyway). Though, John was still living in Leaksville. So, it IS possible that John had something to do with causing General Stoneham to change his mind about burning the mill, since both John and General Stoneham were, purportedly, from MA and could possibly have been school mates. It was either that, or it was the actual mill supervisor (not John Hall Bullard) who talked General Stoneham into leaving the mill. I don't suppose that we'll ever really know.