Friday, January 23, 2015

My Confederate Ancestor

So, I've long known that my great-great grandfather, James Shelton Rateliff, fought in the Civil War -- after all, I've visited his grave near Hope, Arkansas, which is marked not with a headstone but with a Confederate cross. I knew the family was living in Mississippi at the time and moved to Arkansas (via NW Louisiana) immediately following the war (I assume to escape the famine that swept the South following the collapse of the Confederacy*). According to family legend, he spent time in a prisoner of war, but lacking information about where in Mississippi he came from I've been unable to trace the family further back.

Until this week, when I was poking about online and finally found a reference to J.S.R. and his Confederate career. I still don't know what unit he belonged to, but apparently he enlisted on May 9th 1862 in Monroe, Louisiana (I would have assumed some Mississippi regiment) and was indeed a prisoner of war, albeit briefly. According to the posted information, which I have yet to confirm, he served in the siege of Vicksburg (a truly horrific episode, often overlooked in accounts of the war, which tend to focus on events back east). After the town surrendered, he was taken prisoner (on July 4th, 1863) but surprisingly was released just two days later "after signing an Oath of Loyalty" (July 6th, 1863). Initially I thought it a bit odd that, having captured the town, the victorious Yankees simply let all the defenders go home, unless it was plain that the starved defenders were simply clearly in no shape to pose a threat to anybody. But a little further reading shows that this was standard practice during the first half of the war -- in fact, apparently most of the men who surrendered at Vicksburg made their way to Mobile, where they were re-armed.

I know some about the Mississippi River campaign from living in Arkansas and having visited both Shiloh (a crucial Southern defeat) and Vicksburg back in my Boy Scout days; now I'll have to find out more. If the posted information is right, he signed up just after the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), but I'm not sure what the Army of Mississippi was doing in the year between Shiloh and the surrender of Vicksburg. I also don't know whether my great-great grandfather was one of those who showed up at Mobile a month after leaving Vicksburg -- if so, he may have taken part in the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and the rest of the (ultimately futile) effort to stop Sherman.

But, at any rate, I now have a starting point; a place to begin and explore outwards from. It'll be interesting to see what I can uncover about the rest of this ancestor's military career once he got caught up in the bloodiest war we've ever fought.

--John R.

*in the words of the song,
"In the winter of '65
We were hungry
just barely alive"
--Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"


David Bratman said...

The Wikipedia article on "Army of Mississippi" looks like a good starting place.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Yes, I checked there, and it does set out some helpful basics.
I've also checked with a mailing list I belong to that includes some serious history buffs, and they've recommended some promising titles. Think I'll start with the Shelby Foote -- old, but a classic and apparently still considered authoritative.
Thanks for the suggestion.
--John R

David Bratman said...

I mentioned Wikipedia because it sounded like you needed that lever of a starting point. Now that you have that, yes, a big detailed history like Foote's would be good to root around in for more details and for context, and you need not read the whole thing. There are shorter books (James McPherson, Fletcher Pratt - yes, Fletcher Pratt) if you want an overview of the whole war, but they'll have less detail on a particular army.