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“My Life in the Civil War”

as Told by the Late Billy Jennings

Published in the Galax Gazette January 29, 1963
Submitted by Jack Dickens

“My Life in the Civil War” is the title of an article concerning experiences of the late William (Billy) Jennings, Confederate veteran of the Baywood section of Grayson County, and father of the late John M. Jennings, who died less than two weeks ago, on December 21, 1963 [sic], as dictated to his grandson Claude S. Jennings (son of John M. Jennings), in November 11, 1918. Two of Billy Jennings’ daughters and one of his sons are now living. These are Mrs Sophia Jennings Galyean and Clark Jennings, both of Rt. 1, Galax, and Mrs. Dora Galyean, Cupertino, CA. Deceased, in addition to one who died while serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, are two other brothers, Alex Jennings of Baywood and Haywood Jennings of Manatee, FL., and another sister, Mrs. W. E. Poe of Rt. 1, Galax.

Because of its human interest qualities, coupled with its appropriateness during the current (1961-65) Civil War Centennial period, this historical article would, doubtless, be of interest to many Gazette readers. Therefore, it is published below as follows:

“I joined the army at Wytheville, Va., July 5, 1861. I was put in Company C, 45th Va. Regiment. We left Wytheville on August 15. Our regiment was sent to Gauley River where we crossed on the ferry. This was about the first of September. At this place we ran into the Yankees and had a battle. We whipped them and captured 101 Negroes. We camped there and put up breastworks and fought them from early morning until dark. We marched all night in the rain and mud. The next morning Lt. Smith, Jack Brown, Jess Thompson and myself west to watch the Yankees to see if they were going to follow. We stayed there five days and the Yankees moved away.”

Marched to Pearisburg

“We marched from there to Petertown and had a battle and whipped the Yanks again. We marched about twenty miles to Pearisburg and routed the enemy from there. We then went to Little Sewell Mountain and whipped them once more. They fell back to Big Sewell and on and across the Kanawha River. The next morning I was put on picket with Major Worth and others. I was there 48 hours without anything to eat. We went to Goldersons Ferry and up the river to a big flat rock. The Yankees were in camp across the river and we were ordered to fire into them. They returned the fire with artillery. It hit a big pine tree which fell and brushed the captain’s back. We went back into the woods and took up camp. We had not had anything to eat for 36 hours. The Major sent two men down the river for rations. They came back with a big cake of cornbread and a shoulder of meat. We stayed there five days. On the fifth day the Yankees commenced to cross the river and we went back across the mountain to where our army was camped. We had been there only about half an hour when the Yankees attacked us. We had a skirmish with the cavalry. That night we fell back to McCoy’s Mill and had a battle there. They whipped us, being up on a high ridge and having the advantage of us. As well as I can remember we went back to Salt Sulphur Springs and there took up winter headquarters. We lived rough that winter. Stayed in small rooms about 8 ft. square. We had but little wood, only black pine poles we carried half a mile. We nearly starved and lost a lot of men with fever.”

Yankees Make Stand

“In the Spring of 1862, we marched to Fayette Court House and met the Yankees there and had a battle. Late in the afternoon during the battle, John Mills and myself were standing side by side, when a ball hit John in the mouth, knocking out his teeth and scattering them and blood in my face. We were ordered to charge the Yanks’ breastworks. When going into the open as we charged, a ball it the buckle of my belt, and knocked me down. When I got up the ball was lying on the ground. I picket it up and carried it home. We charged right over the breastworks and whipped them. This was Cox’s army of ten thousand men. They retreated and made a stand at the food of Big Sewell Mountain. Company C and Company F were rifle companies, so we were put in the front. We went to the top of the mountain and at a bend in the road the Captain urged us on. We ran down in a little gulley and hid behind a big chestnut tree. There was a Yankee behind a tree nearby. My brother and a cousin of mine shot him. They company was ordered to fall back and we did not know it. The Yanks quit firing and went from tree to tree. The companies were ordered back and the fight commenced. We were between the lines. The firing was so heavy we could not get back to our company. The tree that we were standing behind was torn to pieces about two feet above our heads. After awhile the Yankees began to retreat. It was 13 days since we left Fayette Court House. We fought them a little every day on the trip to Charleston.”

“The Yanks made a stand at Charleston and we had a heavy battle. We captured the garrison. The Yanks set the town on fire and retreated across Elk River and cut the Iron bridge. The water works put out the fire. We pulled our artillery up the heights on the opposite side of the river from the town. We shelled them from the hill tearing their wagon train to pieces. We were then ordered into winter quarters at Bluestone River at the mouth. Lt. Beamer, Cousin Jess Jennings, myself, and three others were sent across the river to guard the road. Cousin and myself were on guard together. We were relieved by two others. The two men on the other end deserted their post and came in about the time we did. The Lt. Said that it would not do to leave the end of the road unguarded. My cousin, claiming to be sick did not go, so I had to go alone. It was raining and I got under a rock that hung out over the road for shelter. About daybreak the Yanks got after our Cavalry and in about an hour the Yankees Cavalry came. I fired into them and ran back to where we stayed. They came and we went into the brush. We fired and killed two horses.

“Our new position was Tennessee. We marched into Kingsport and after three days went farther west to a river of which I do not remember the name where we took camp. The Yanks were camped on the opposite side of the river. Jess Thompson and myself were put on guard at the west end of the bridge. We saw a Yankee General and three other officers coming with a flag of truce. They went into our army and as they came back he said we had threatened him so much he wanted our names.

At Cloyd’s Mountain

We burned the bridge the next morning to keep the Yanks from crossing. We marched two days and took up camp. Cousin Jess and I were put on guard about a mile and one half from where we were camped. The Colonel told us to stay at a walnut tree. The Yanks were camped farther back. We heard them coming. My cousin left me and I was alone. They came up and I fired at them and ran across a bottom. About half way, I dropped down in the grass and fired, killing a horse. They returned the fire and bullets whistled around me as I ran. I reached a hillside that was wooded and got behind a tree and fired again but missed. I made my way up the hill behind other trees and fired and killed another horse. The hill was so steep the horses could not get up to where I was so the Yankees turned and went back. It was three days before I overtook our Company. The army was ordered to Cloyd’s Farm at Old Dublin, a little west of where East Radford now stands. We met the Yankees there and had a big battle. John Bennett, John Hale, and myself were put out on picket. After a while we heard firing to our right. We were in a bottom facing a mountain. We saw them coming over the mountain toward us. When they were close enough we fired at them. They returned the fire and Bennett’s left arm was torn to pieces. Hale was also wounded in the arm. My gun got choked and I threw it down and picked up an infield [sic] rifle, where we had killed a Yank. I saw they were in front of me and I ran through them and got to Colonel Davis. We ran together and hid behind some trees. Three Yankees drew their guns but did not fire. We fired at them and ran up a hill through their ranks. The Yankees were charging and our army was falling back. When I got back to the army I began to fire at the enemy. Once just as I fired a bomb shell burst about ten feet in front of me. A piece of it hit me on the ankle. I fell forward on my face thinking my leg was torn to pieces. I got up as soon as I could while another fellow, Tom Cox, was hit on the ankle with a ball and could not walk. We asked me not to leave him so I put him on my back and ran on. Our army had retreated. I overtook them the next day. We were then ordered to the Valley of Virginia.

In The Shenandoah Valley

Somewhere in the Valley, we had marched about twenty miles and all had stopped at a willow pump and washed our feet. The Yankees were coming up the valley so we marched on to meet them. They heard that we were coming and went across into the Shenandoah Valley. We turned back at Piedmont and met them there. We were turned back at Piedmont and met them there. We were in the woods and the Yankees came out in the open. The battle commenced about nine o’clock in the morning. Colonel Brown called on the chaplain of our regiment to make a prayer. We sang the song, “How Firm a Foundation.” The Yankees advanced, but we held them back until about four o’clock in the evening. Then we found that they had come around to our rear. The first thing I knew a Yankee came up to me and said, “Surrender!” I had just fired my gun so I changed ends with it and intended to break his neck. Two others grabbed it from behind. I struggled with them but they overpowered me and took it from me. I had a case knife in my pocket which I drew, intending to fight my way out, but they jabbed their sabers against me, so I had to give up.

Prisoner of the Yanks

About five hundred of us were captured on the fifth of June 1864. They made us carry rails and build a pen for ourselves. We were put in there and guarded that night. The next day we were taken to Staunton, Virginia, where we were put in a livery barn loft. We slept in the stables and feed troughs. We were marched one hundred and fifty miles to a railroad where we were taken to a prison in Indianapolis, Indiana. We stayed in prison a month. A Yankee by the name of Fifer was a guard at the prison. He carried a hatchet and pistol. He was a mean villian who treated the prisoners badly. When we got meat, we would boil it to get what we could to eat. We would parch bread crumbs and make coffee out of them. One day I was doing this when old Fifer came around. He picked up the frying pan intending to throw the boiling water in my face. I threw up my arm and the water went over my head. That made him angry and he came at me with his hatchet intending to strike me on the head. I threw up my arm to prevent the blow and the weapon struck in the ground behind me. He was very angry by this time and he drew his pistol and I spoke, “Fifer, that is more than you dare do is to shoot me and you know it.” He turned off cursing me and left. We left prison about the first of March 1865. We were put on a train and taken to Baltimore, Maryland, where we boarded a boat for Richmond. We came up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the James River and to Richmond. We stayed there two days and nights and my brother took typhoid fever. We then came to Lynchburg and put him in a hospital. We were there four days and my brother died. In his dying hour he said to me, “Billy can you see the angels there?” I told him I could not. We were alone when he died. The next morning I hired the nurse to carry me to the train and paid him twenty dollars. I told him to see that my brother was buried and put away nicely. [Note: This would have been John Jennings.]

Back at Wytheville

I came to Wytheville on the train. I got off at the station and walked to where the wagon road crosses the railroad. I could not walk any farther. A darkey came along with a wagon and I hired him to take me to Dave Goes’s. I stayed there three days and my father came after me and took me home. It was about four weeks before I could walk.

Everywhere there was an atmosphere of festivity as though the East bound soldiers were preparing for some mammoth picnic rather than for a life and death grapple with their country’s foes. It was the spirit which already had made them terrible in the eyes of their war weary enemies. The man who goes into battle with a smile on his lips and a gay resolve to carry everything before him is a far more deadly foe than is he who enters the fight with set face and with a sour hatred in his heart.

I was born in Alleghany County, North Carolina, on July 25th, 1840. I joined the Primitive Baptist Church when I was sixteen years old. I was baptized by Tommy Carr when I joined the Little River church. I was ordained a deacon in Crab Creek Church when I was about twenty- five years of age. I was elected delegate of the Mountain Association and held this position for about twenty years. I have never had any trouble of any kind.

There were six of us brothers: Allen, Solomon, John, Martin, Tom, and myself. All but one of us went through the war got back safe.

In the present war with Germany 1917, I have one son Clark, and six grandsons to register.

There were twelve of us six sisters of which only three are now living. I am now living in Grayson County, Virginia, eight miles west of Galax. I have been living at the same place for forty-seven years. I was married to Emily Blevins on August 23, 1865.

As dictated to my grandson, Claude S. Jennings in 1918.