Several weeks ago I received a long awaited package in the mail from the State Archives of North Carolina: two 35mm diazo microfilm reels containing every issue of the Raleigh (NC) Daily Confederate from 1864 and 1865. My goal is to view and print off articles pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg, and from time to time the Appomattox and Bermuda Hundred Campaigns. These transcribed articles will appear at The Siege of Petersburg Online. An article covering an incident during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign is the subject of this post.
The first article I transcribed and posted over at The Siege of Petersburg Online concerned one Thomas Riley, private in Company H, 31st North Carolina. Riley was lauded in an article which appeared in the June 10, 1864 issue of the Raleigh Confederate, and which originally appeared in an earlier issue of the Petersburg (VA) Express. The following excerpt covers Riley’s actions on May 19, 1864 in a skirmish near Clay’s Farm along the lines at Bermuda Hundred:
Private Thomas Riley, of Company “H,” 31st N. C. regiment, Clingman’s brigade, was engaged with his company on skirmish duty,, near Clay’s farm, on the 19th ult. [Siege of Petersburg Online Ed. Note: May 19, 1864]. The order to charge was given, and a rush made upon the enemy’s rifle pits. On nearing the pits, and under a heavy fire, it was ascertained that the enemy was in strong force, which made it prudent for the skirmishers to retreat. But instead of retreating, Riley pulled off and waved his hat, exclaiming: “Come ahead, boys,” and onward he went regardless of his peril or of being alone. He passed over their pits and through the line of a whole regiment, passed by their rear and moving by their right flank, re-entered our lines again unscathed.
In the charge he wounded a private through both legs and killed a sergeant, taking from his person everything that was desirable, such as gun, canteen, knapsack, &c. Riley has killed seven of the “bluebellies” exclusive of those he has wounded.
Sounds like a Confederate “Captain America”, doesn’t he? Not so fast, at least maybe…
As has happened many times since I first subscribed to Fold3.com, I decided to take a look at Private Riley’s compiled service record to see if I could find any interesting information about him, and especially what became of him during the war. According to his CRS, Riley was either 48 or 50 years old in 1864, so the above feat seems even more impressive considering his age.
However, I soon came upon the following card:
Uh Oh. This card type is one I hadn’t seen before: “Appears on a Register of arrivals and dispositions of Federal and Rebel soldiers and citizens, under the heading “Record of Deserters from Rebel Army.” (Bolded by me.) It appears that only a few short months after his heroic feat which landed him in the local Petersburg paper as well as the Raleigh Confederate back home, Thomas Riley deserted the Confederate army in late July or early August 1864. I double checked the entire 31st North Carolina and there appears to be only one Thomas Riley in the regiment, so the Thomas Riley of the newspaper article is also the Thomas Riley appearing on the card above. A muster roll from the 31st North Carolina for November/December 1864 lists him as a prisoner of war.
So was Thomas Riley a hero? A deserter? Tired of the war? Captured against his will? All of the above? Perhaps we will never know. I do not know the specifics of exactly how he came to be listed on the record displayed above, so if anyone cares to investigate further I’d love to hear what you find out.
Note: This post is in part inspired by Robert Moore’s recent look at a slave who testified FOR his former master to support his claim of being a Union man. This struck me as another possible case of the truth being more complicated than most people are willing to accept or imagine.
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