So far, I had learned my great-great-great-grandfather, George Wadkins, was born about 1827 in Tennessee, coming to North Carolina by 1847 as his first son, Elisha, was born in 1848, but it could have been much earlier. I found him on 1850 and 1860 censuses in McDowell County, North Carolina with his wife, Jemima Poteat, and children, Elisha, Bulow, Ruphus, George, John (my great-great-grandfather), and William. But he was not on the 1870 census or any other with them. I began to search for a death certificate or grave but could find none.
I remembered his name being on the list of “Bounty Paid to McDowell County Civil War Veterans” in the book “History of McDowell County” by Mildred B Fossett, so I began the search for Civil War records. This can sometimes be a more difficult task for Confederate soldiers than Union. The first place I searched was the National Parks Service Soldiers and Sailors Database. I found George was in the 49th Regiment NC, Company A. Company A was recruited from McDowell and Rutherford counties so this makes perfect sense. Records indicate George enlisted February 1, 1862 but due to lack of weapons the troops did not muster in Garysburg, North Carolina until March. His neighbor John Wadkins, who was more than likely his brother, enlisted into the same company on March 1, 1862.
After training, the 49th Regiment went to Richmond, Virginia for the Seven Days Battle. I do not know what the feeling was like in 1862 or for these particular North Carolina men. But I have been reading “Co Aytch” by Samuel R Watkins of Tennessee and when he went off to war in November 1861 it was a grand affair. Young men were sure they would win quickly and return home soon. Supplies were in abundance in the beginning but all that changed as they marched on. I highly recommend this firsthand account which is available free for kindle if you would like to get an unusual glimpse into a Civil War private’s life.
Of course, by March 1862-almost a year into the war-the outlook might be quite different. So with the rest of the 49th, George headed to Richmond, Virginia where Union troops were poised in an effort to take the Southern capitol after recent victories at Fort Henry and Donelson. On 25 June 1862, the 49th, now attached to the Army of Northern Virginia, participated in the Battle of Oak Grove (Seven Pines) and on 26 June 1862, the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville). By the end of that day, there were 1400 Confederate casualties (wounded or dead) to the Union’s 350. Beaver Dam was an initial Union victory but Lee achieved his goal of keeping Union troops from invading the city.
The next day was the Battle of Gaines’ Mill with 6000 Union casualties and 9000 Confederate, but the Confederates broke through the Union line here, a clear victory for the Confederacy, and the battle would rage on two days later. On 29 June 1862, after the Battle of Savage’s Station, the Union continued to withdraw with 439 more casualties, leaving behind 2500 wounded men in a field hospital and abandoning supplies.
On 30 June 1862, the Battle of Glendale (Frayser’s Farm) took place and it is estimated that 3500 soldiers on each side were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The final Seven Days battle took place 1 July 1862 at Malvern Hill, resulting in 3000 Union casualties and 5000 Confederate. At least one man from George’s company died during this battle.
Without a clear victor at the Seven Days Battle, the war would rage on for three more years. George headed North with the NC 49th Regiment and the Army of Northern Virginia. Their next battle, Second Battle Bull Run (Second Manassas) would last three days, from August 28-30, 1862. This was a victory for the Confederacy and they continued their journey to invade the North, battling at Harpers Ferry from September 12-15, 1862, gaining a Union surrender.
The troops then marched to Sharpsburg, Maryland, for the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), where their recent victory at Harpers Ferry was soon followed by the bloodiest day in American history. Fighting began at dawn on 17 September 1862. George’s 49th Regiment attacked from the West Woods about 9:30 AM as seen in the northwest corner of this map. You may read more about the 49th’s involvement in the battle and see more details of the 49th’s location at the links to tablets and maps at Antietam on the Web.
By 5:30 PM, twenty three thousand combined Confederate and Union troops were wounded, died, or missing after the twelve hour battle. John Wadkins, neighbor, and likely brother of George, was among the wounded. At least four soldiers from North Carolina 49th Regiment, Company A died on the battlefield that day. George Wadkins was among those who died.
Researching my great-great-great-grandfather has been more difficult than I imagined. This wasn’t because it was difficult to find records-and it sometimes was-but because once I found out he died at Sharpsburg, I chose to follow his regiment from battle to battle, from Camp Mangum training camp in March to his death in September. I mapped their journey North. I read about each battle at the links provided here and I encourage you to do so as well. The links tell you more about 35-year-old, father of six, George’s experiences than I ever could. It is well worth the time.
The difficulty in this? George came alive to me. Despite my Northern sentiments, I found myself rooting for George because he was family and because I knew the end that I didn’t want to come. I was thankful when he made it through another battle yet realized elation was probably shortlived as fatigue set in and another long march to an unknown future lay ahead. By the end of his journey North, George was never more alive to me than when he died at Sharpsburg. I imagined John, the one I believed to be his brother, wounded in the same battle. Perhaps they fought next to each other and he saw his brother die. Or perhaps he awoke in a makeshift hospital bed days later to learn of the news.
My heart broke for his wife and six sons, including my four-year-old great-great-grandfather, John Merido Wadkins, at home awaiting his return or news of his fate. I wondered when they found out he had passed away in battle, how his wife Jemima felt, and how difficult it may have been for them to get by for awhile. I wanted to whisper in George’s ear, to warn him beforehand of the danger that lay ahead. But I could not, and he marched steadily on to a fate I could not stop.
I lamented Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner’s photos of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam (WARNING: GRAPHIC) and the fact that there is no way to know where George is buried. Originally, as Confederate soldiers fled, Union soldiers buried the Confederate and Union soldiers in haste where they fell or close by because there were so many. A few years after the war ended, Confederate remains were relocated to Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland; Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland; and Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Most were unable to be identified.
George’s regiment went on to fight in the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. Their flag, shown above, was captured at the Battle of the Crater-part of the larger Siege of Petersburg-on 30 July 1864 by Captain Albert D Wright, 43rd U.S. Colored Troops, and is housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.
For more information on the Battle of Antietam, see this animated map, and if you are near an event and would be interested in seeing a reenactment of the 49th Regiment, check out the schedule for the Southern Piedmont Historical Reenactment Society. I plan to visit Antietam National Battlefield someday to honor to an ancestor who gave his all.