Thomas Riley: Confederate Hero, Deserter, Or Both?

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, 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:

Thomas Riley Co H 31st North Carolina Page 9
Thomas Riley CSR Card – Courtesy

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.


4 responses to “Thomas Riley: Confederate Hero, Deserter, Or Both?”

  1. Robert Moore Avatar

    Brett, If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to take a look at a book titled “More Damning than Slaughter”. It was part of the “formulary” of works that I started using back in 2006, when looking into disaffection and disillusionment for the Confederacy.

    The less baggage one brings along when examining any particular common soldier, the better. Even better when examining multiple soldiers, but individually. Good piece.

    1. Brett Schulte Avatar


      I have More Damning Than Slaughter. I’ll make sure to move that to the front of my list. Would you care to share any others? I’m going through the Raleigh Confederate day by day from June 1864 to (sometime, I don’t think it made it to April) 1865, and I’ve gotten into the habit here and elsewhere of checking to see what happened to some of the men mentioned in various articles and first person accounts. I know I’ll find a ton of interesting stories to share at my Siege of Petersburg site and at TOCWOC.

      Thanks for the compliment. I’ve found many of the anecdotes provided by you, Andy at Dead Confederates, and Craig Swain at To The Sound of the Guns to be fascinating, so I’ll be contributing similar items in the future.


      1. Robert Moore Avatar

        “More Damning” is probably a pretty good work considering your focus on Petersburg. I’ll have to check for others, but most within that same “formulary” that I assembled have to do with Southern Unionism, and less with the disaffection/disillusion side of it. There are fine lines in assessing these folks, as well as others, and they tend to get blurred in some instances. So, it’s good to keep an awareness of all the variables.

        Especially like your one comment… “This struck me as another possible case of the truth being more complicated than most people are willing to accept or imagine.” Enough cannot be said of this… and I kinda picked-up on that in my post today.

  2. […] or may opt to no longer wear that uniform, at some point during the war… as what we see in Brett’s post today (which I believe sounds more like one who became disillusioned or disaffected, rather than that of […]

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