Whenever a North Carolina regiment marches into battle, it is as if the entire community from which it was assembled has formed up in ranks, shoulder to shoulder, and is charging the guns of the enemy.
The man to the right or left might be a brother, a cousin, or an in-law. Lieutenants and captains are likely uncles, fathers, neighbors.
The colonel is probably a local man of some reputation who served as magistrate, militia commander, or political leader before the fighting.
When a regiment takes heavy losses in a great battle, win or lose, back home it leaves empty pews at the Sunday service, widows and fatherless children, absent faces at the general store. The loss never seems individual, a lone soldier killed in the company of strangers. It feels collective, a small town or country crossroads suddenly emptied of able-bodied men.
And as the war carries on with its own irresistible momentum, the younger brothers and sons emulate their elders. They sign up with men they trust, then trek to a mustering station near a railroad.
On May 21, 1861, the day after secession is tolled from the bell towers of North Carolina churches, Judge Thomas Ruffin holds a recruiting barbecue in Alamance County.
Originally from Virginia, Ruffin graduates from the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton) and then achieves great success and wealth in North Carolina, becoming speaker of the House in the General Assembly and rising to chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court, a position he holds from 1833 to 1852. He retires from the court for good in 1859. On his prosperous Haw River plantation, he employs about 100 slaves.
Judge Ruffin is notorious for his cruel treatment of slaves. A neighbor, Archibald Murphy, charges that Ruffin’s overseer has been “literally barbecuing, peppering, and salting” some of them. Ruffin himself, ever fearful of runaways, is known to beat his slaves.
Ruffin actively trades slaves for a profit. He sells Winny, a 9-year-old, to an Alabama slaver for a profit of $70. He sells “Little Charles, 10 and 2 cisters younger,” for a profit of $325. Another adult slave, Noah, is married to an enslaved woman on Ruffin’s plantation. Despite the man’s pleas to remain with his wife, Ruffin sells him to a neighbor for $150.
Judge Ruffin, who has written opinions on 1,400 cases, is famous — or infamous — for one decision in particular: State v. Mann.
The case reached the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1829 and defines Ruffin’s loyalties to the slaveholding Confederacy more than 30 years later. John Mann was convicted of shooting a slave named Lydia as she tried to flee from a whipping. Mann did not own the slave but was renting her.
The court overturned Mann’s conviction. Judge Ruffin wrote: “The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect. . . . It will be the imperative duty of the Judges to recognize the full dominion of the owner over the slave.”
He opposes secession — does not believe that the U.S. Constitution permits it — yet when the break comes, the imperious 72-year-old judge embraces the fracture as a revolutionary act against the United States. He declares, “I say fight, fight, fight!”
Now he is determined to fill the ranks of the 5th Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers (later changed to the 15th). Among the many young men who show up to hear the judge’s rallying speech at his barbecue is John Williamson Stockard, a 23-year-old farmer: slender, 5 feet 7½ inches tall, with dark eyes, a pale complexion, and light-colored hair. Later his daughter, Sallie, will recall how the judge exhorted the boys to sign up to whip the Yankees. “Come on, boys! Enroll! Volunteer! We want as long a list as possible here today. Johnny Stockard, how about you?”
John Williamson Stockard answers the call. So does his uncle, 33-year-old John Richard Stockard, who leaves behind a pregnant wife and two small children. The young ladies who are present loop a wreath of red roses over the head of each volunteer, and John Williamson is still garlanded with roses as he plods homeward at sundown and passes the home of his grandfather, who happens to be sitting on the porch. His grandfather knows he has been to Judge Ruffin’s.
“I see you are wearing a wreath of roses,” his grandfather observes. “Did you get those at the barbecue?”
John Williamson tells him yes and relates what the judge said in his speech. “He could wipe up all the blood shed in the Civil War with his white handkerchief and not stain it.”
His grandfather is skeptical. “This will be a bloody war,” he predicts. “You should not have signed up. This is a rich man’s war. As certain as there is a war, the South will lose.”
But John Williamson has already signed on and musters in at Garysburg, near the railroad terminus of Weldon. He takes his place with 117 other enlisted men in Company H, commanded by his uncle Capt. John Richard Stockard.
By summer, the 5th Regiment, 800 strong, is ordered to Yorktown, Virginia. Nearby camps the 3rd (later 13th) Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers, the Alamance Regulators. Judge Ruffin’s son, Capt. Thomas Ruffin Jr., commands Company E of the Regulators, which includes more relatives: John Williamson’s younger brother, Robert J. Stockard, and his first cousin, Samuel Stockard.
Also serving in Company E is Samuel Stockard’s best friend and first cousin, Joseph Long.
Samuel’s brother, William J. Stockard, has meanwhile enlisted in the 57th Regiment, and soon Samuel’s cousin, the youngest Stockard, 21-year-old Joseph S., will enlist in the 1st North Carolina Infantry.
Thus the war takes seven men from a single extended family:
Three Stockard brothers: John Williamson, Robert J., and Joseph S.
Their uncle, John Richard Stockard.
Their cousins, brothers Samuel and William J. Stockard.
And Samuel and William’s first cousin, Joseph Long.
The realities of war
They are ordinary men. Tens of thousands like them also take up arms. Many come from small settlements made up of extended family. Camp life is a series of family reunions as cousins and uncles are brought together in the mass of men assembled for war. They are not political zealots or slaveholders. Their loyalties are mostly simple and local. And they have no idea what they are in for.
At Yorktown, disease courses through the army. Hundreds of soldiers of the 5th Regiment, hill-country men suddenly crowded together in the summer low-country heat, fall victim to fevers and malaria. By September, only 10 percent of the men are well enough to report for duty. By late autumn, the regiment recovers, and by February it moves on Suffolk, Virginia then redeploys to Goldsboro. The only casualties so far die from fever.
In March 1862, John Williamson Stockard is sickened by “Icterus” — jaundice — and spends nearly two full months recovering at the General Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia. By September, he will spend three weeks at Winder Hospital in Richmond, complaining of diarrhea, rampant in the army and symptomatic of a variety of ailments. Twice more he is hospitalized, at Chimborazo in Richmond, stricken by “Debliitas” — weakness and exhaustion.
He returns to his regiment just in time to join the evacuation from Yorktown of Gen. Joseph P. Johnston’s army of Northern Virginia, 56,000 men clogging two muddy roads. By now all volunteer regiments have been renumbered by adding 10, to avoid confusion with regular regiments. The 5th — now the 15th — acts as rearguard, skirmishing all the way to Williamsburg, living on parched corn. At last John Williamson and his regiment cross the Chickahominy River and camp.
In July 1862, the regiment — now down to 700 — joins the first line at Malvern Hill and endures heavy fire all day. One hundred sixty-four men fall dead or wounded.
The regiment receives 250 new recruits and moves north, part of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland. The 15th fights alongside the 13th (the old 3rd) at South Mountain, losing 62 killed and wounded and another 124 men captured. After the battle at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, just 133 officers and men are fit for duty.
But for John Williamson Stockard, the war goes on. At Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, the 15th stays in action for five hours, expending 35,000 cartridges. At Bristoe, John Williamson survives a charge against Union troops forted up in a railroad cut. The regimental historian records: “Confederate lines were mowed down like grain before a reaper.”
Altogether he fights in 21 engagements.
John Williamson Stockard soldiers on through the horrific slaughter of the Wilderness and the relentless six-month-long bombardment of Petersburg. As Confederate forces retreat south in April 1865, the 15th again acts as rearguard, and eventually John Williamson Stockard is captured by Union forces.
He is one of the lucky Stockards. After 10 weeks in captivity, he is “turned out half-starved with a sore leg and plenty of body lice,” as his daughter Sallie records.
But he makes it home.
John Williamson’s uncle John Richard Stockard is granted a furlough back to Alamance County in July and August 1861 because of illness. The leave allows him to be present for the birth of his namesake son. When he rejoins his regiment, he is again stricken with debilitating fever and spends the winter “absent sick.” On February 28, 1862, he is dismissed from service and returns home to his wife and three children.
He, too, is one of the lucky Stockards.
Stockards meet their fates
Samuel Stockard, 23, was the first of the clan to enlist — on May 13, 1861, even before secession was declared. He has been recruited by Capt. Thomas Ruffin Jr., son of Judge Ruffin. Captain Ruffin raises Company E, the Alamance Regulators, of the 3rd (later 13th) North Carolina Volunteers. After a bout of illness, he writes from Suffolk, Virginia, on June 1: “The God of the Universe will be with us on every battlefield. He has been in our camp since we left our homes.”
Still at Suffolk when other troops move on Harper’s Ferry, he is champing at the bit for action. In his typical jaunty style, he writes to “Father & Family” later the same month: “Though I don’t believe we are going to have any of the fighting to do, for any small no. of Southerners can slash the yankies every pop, why they cant fight a bit hardly.”
He notes that he received a letter from his uncle and his cousin John Williamson. “I read one from Cousin John also, he says he don’t like eating doings a bit, he said some droll remarks about the soldier’s life. I don’t think he likes it much.”
But before he can fight the “yankies,” he is felled by illness again: “I have been in the hospital for a few days, afflicted with Diareah. You see this water down here don’t agree with a feller and we have the Belly-Ache once in a while.” Still, he brags: “We are going to whip them and be home in a few days.”
He adds: “Cousin Bob is a Regulator, he has no gun yet but he will get one.”
Samuel’s first cousin Robert J. Stockard joins the regiment in September 1861. Cousin Bob stands 5 feet 9 inches tall, with blue eyes, blond hair, and a fair complexion. He is 22 years old.
Bob’s letters home are dry and factual, grammatical and precise, as if he is holding himself at arm’s length from the emotion of sudden violent death. “A sharp fight took place the other day between the 5th Reg’t N.C.V. and a large Yankee force who attacked them in their entrenchments. The Yankees were driven back with great slaughter after two hours hard fighting. The Alamance boys fought well and lost three killed to wit Monroe Clendennin Seymour Wood and Ensley steel.”
By November, Sam Stockard writes home: “I am a little tired of war, it’s hard work.”
The regiment goes into winter quarters at Camp Ruffin in Smithfield, Virginia, but with spring comes a new campaigning season. With spring also comes the Conscription Act, extending enlistments approved, Sam writes, by “King Davis.” He is still recovering from the mumps and laments: “Im in for the term of 2 more long years, and as you know with a constitution not strong enough to bear the hardships that are heaped upon a Soldier in camp life . . . and as to getting home on furlough, that is almost as impossible as for a man to drive a nail through the moon.”
Samuel fights with the 13th at Seven Pines, but Cousin Bob has been stricken with typhoid. He is sent home in July and never recovers. Robert J. Stockard dies at home on August 6th, his exact age etched in his tombstone: “23 years, 2 months, 26 days.”
Samuel Stockard survives the carnage at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Then in the spring, the 13th is ordered to Chancellorsville. On a beautiful Sunday morning, May 3, the regiment advances on defensive lines of Union soldiers barricaded behind railroad ties — and into a blinding blaze of massed musket fire.
Samuel Stockard falls mortally wounded and lingers for nine days before he dies. He is buried in the Providence churchyard in Graham. Beside him lies his cousin, Joseph Long, killed in the same attack.
William J. Stockard follows his brother into the army on July 4, 1862. He too joins a cadre of Alamance County men in Company I of the 57th North Carolina Regiment, enlisting “for three years or the duration of the War Between the States.” In October, William is stricken with typhoid fever and bedridden.
He rejoins his regiment at the end of January. In May he fights at Chancellorsville, in June at Winchester, and in July he charges Cemetery Hill on the second day of the battle of Gettysburg. The slaughter is appalling.
After Gettysburg, William writes home in despair: “I can say that we got out of heart as soon as we got in Penn. To see the men they have there that never been in war. They have more men that never been in than we ever had in the war so I can’t see no use in fighting they would better settle it some way for I believe in my heart that we are whipped. Get all our poor men killed that is about all good we ever done yet.”
His letter is all too prescient. At Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, he is shot in the back, gravely wounded, and captured. He dies anonymously and is buried along with 828 other Confederate unknowns.
William’s and Sam’s cousin Joseph Stockard is captured in the same battle. He has survived 16 battles, his regiment often fighting alongside those of his brother and cousins. Now he manages to survive almost seven months of captivity before parole.
Of the six Stockard men, all but one have been killed or captured, or died of disease.
Life back at home
John Williamson Stockard comes home and settles on his grandmother’s homestead, where he raises six children. His uncle John Richard Stockard returns to the family farm and fathers 13 children by two wives. Joseph S. Stockard, John Williamson’s brother, also returns to Alamance County to farm and raise three sons and a daughter.
They have returned to their homeplace, a place missing so many cousins, brothers, and neighbors now. The ghosts of the missing are joined by the spirits of their unborn children, and whatever mark they would have made as they matured into men is erased.
Judge Ruffin survives the war by five years. His son, Lt. Col. Thomas Ruffin Jr., becomes an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
After the struggle, the survivors now enjoy the blessing that their jaunty cousin and nephew Sam Stockard penned back when the war was still young, before he was struck down at Chancellorsville and his little brother William was shoveled into an unmarked grave at Winchester: “I hope that the time may come soon when this war shall close, and peace reign o’er a free and happy people.”
The author is indebted to Robert Moore Stockard Jr. for providing a copy of the family Civil War history he compiled, “Six Stockard Boys Remembered,” and to Samantha Crisp of the Research and Instructional Service Department, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC Chapel Hill. Additional information was gleaned from the Long Family Papers, 1857-1877, and the Thomas Ruffin papers, 1753-1898, the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; “Thomas Ruffin’s Decision in State v. Mann, the Civil War Era North Carolina Project, North Carolina State University; William R. Trotter’s Silk Flags and Cold Steel (John F. Blair, 1988); and the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources.
Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was recently published by Hub City Press.