The captain of the Yadkin Stars is a fearless and loyal leader. But throughout his tenure and journey north as a prisoner of war, William Henry Asbury Speer remains haunted by a weary ambivalence toward the cause and this unwinnable war. (Volume 1, Part 5)
In the brilliant summer of 1861, when he marches off to war from his beloved home in the Yadkin River Valley, Capt. William Henry Asbury Speer does not expect to be captured.
He will fight, and, with the Lord’s help, his side will prevail. Or he will die valiantly on the field of honor. Either way, he believes he is bound for glory. In this sentiment, he is exactly like every other soldier on either side.
He is a reluctant soldier, an opponent of secession who loves his home place deeply enough to defend it. He descended from Ulster Scots who intermarried with pacifist Quakers, and the Yadkin is a Unionist stronghold, forced into war by the slave-holding plantation class, who control the state government, and the belligerent response of the Lincoln administration, urged on by fanatical elements in the North.
So he believes.
Of the secessionists, he writes to his father: “They are the ‘cause’ of the war. I do not believe God had any more hand in bringing the war than the ‘child unborn’ did.”
His family has farmed in the Yadkin for more than a century, and, like all Speers, he is deeply tied to the land. The land and family are inseparable.
A photograph of Speer in his Confederate uniform shows a ruggedly handsome man with thick hair and beard, high forehead, eyes intently staring at the camera with a fixed expression at once proud and conflicted. He is tall, well regarded by the ladies, deeply religious.
He works as the superintendent of a tannery in Jonesville, where he lives. In 1856, he is elected for a two-year term in the North Carolina House of Commons. For 10 years before the outbreak of war, he serves as colonel of the Yadkin Valley Militia. Astride his powerful horse and outfitted in a tailored tunic with rows of gold brocade and brass buttons, elaborate gold epaulets and shoulder boards, and a cocked hat, sword hanging at his side, he is the very incarnation of leadership.
So when the volunteers muster to oppose the Federals, Speer is the natural choice to be elected captain of Company I, 28th Regiment of North Carolina Troops.
They call themselves the Yadkin Stars, 90-odd soldiers, according to the Salem People’s Press, which describes them as “a fine company of able-bodied men.”
From High Point, they entrain for Wilmington, then, in the spring of 1862, rush to the defense of New Bern. But they arrive too late to stop a Yankee victory and are forced to retreat to Kinston. At last, on May 27, 1862, the Yadkin Stars are tested in battle at Hanover Court House, south of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Entrenched in muddy positions, backed up against the Chickahominy River, they weather a night of chilling rain. Dawn brings an attack by an overwhelming force of Yankees. After a hot running fight that lasts more than three exhausting hours, Speer and 15 of his company are trapped against the river. They are desperate, outnumbered four to one, outgunned. He records the moment of truth in his diary: “I could have swam the river but my men could not & they begged me to stay with them. With tears in their eyes, told me they had stuck by me all day & would have died around me to have saved my life. How could I leave such men?”
The unthinkable happens: They are captured together.
Under guard, they march 16 miles to Whitehouse Landing through the carnage of battle — smashed wagons, broken artillery, dead horses, bodies of soldiers. They pass a field hospital shrill with the cries of the wounded. Speer gets a glimpse of the awful might of the Yankee war machine. He writes, “As we marched along the road we were continually meeting troops, Redgts., Brigades, etc. Artileory after artileory was hurrying on with numerous cavelry & every now and then we would pass long lines of Bagage wagons, emence tranes of them drawn by the best horses and mules I ever Seen.”
They also pass the grave details. In one place, 50 of their own dead are laid out for burial, and a band of Union Zouaves in red leggings is busy rifling through pockets for money and other valuables.
All along the route, they are flanked by crowds of Union soldiers who are seeing “dirty rebels” for the first time. “We were gazed and Stared at as if we had been live Devels,” Speer confides to his diary. “They seemed to be amazed to see that we were human beings as same as themselves.” Some of the Yankees taunt them, while others merely stare, transfixed.
They embark on the transport steamer Star of the South, bound for New York.
This early in the war, as an officer, Speer is treated with a modicum of dignity. Although he and his men spent 36 hours marching and sleeping in the rain without a meal, now he is given plenty to eat and a cabin in which to sleep. Seasickness plagues the prisoners, many of whom have never been aboard a ship. Three days later, the Star arrives off Governor’s Island. “Now our steamer casts anchor and here comes the N.Y. Yankees to see the bloody Seceshes,” he writes. “‘Look, Pa,’ says a very pretty little girl, ‘they have got no horns and tails as I can see.’”
The officers are separated from the men and taken to Fort Columbus — half an acre of parade ground surrounded by barracks and thick parapets mounting 1,600 cannons. Given his parole, like the other Confederate officers, Speer is allowed the run of the fort and quartered in one of the comfortable barracks. “We are very well treated by all officers, privates, men, women, children, even a dog called Sport,” he records as he spends his days watching out over the busy harbor, an alert spectator to steamers and clipper ships, ferry traffic and yacht races. From the top of the fort, he can see Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Long Island — even Hoboken and Jersey City in New Jersey. He writes copious letters home, passes the time reading and making jewelry from scraps of fabric, metal, and gutta-percha.
But then comes the disconcerting news that he is to be moved farther north. He writes home of his disappointment at hearing the “grape” or rumor: “I did hope to be paroled & come home as I am tired of war and its destruction.”
He is moved to Johnson’s Island on Lake Erie, 16½ acres enclosed by a 15-foot-high, nail-spiked palisade, and there he endures much harsher treatment. On August 8, 1862, he records in his diary the cold-blooded murder of a fellow prisoner: “The poor man told the Sintinel that he was going to his quarters but yet the murderous centinel firred and Killed him. He was a young man, very peaceable quiet fellow… It was one of the most horable things I ever Seen in life.”
In late September, Speer is mustered for exchange and returns south to Vicksburg to rejoin the fight.
At the outset of the war, which everybody on both sides expects to last only a few weeks, no long-term provisions have been made for holding prisoners of war. It’s a complicated business: Prisoners have to be accounted for, transported, housed, fed, kept warm, supplied with fresh water and clothing, their wounds and sickness attended to.
Above all, they have to be guarded.
Virtually no one volunteers for guard duty — tedious, confining, lonely, lacking the chance for glory. Especially in the South, being a prison guard is considered unmanly.
Initially, after a battle has been decided, commanders merely parole their prisoners. That is, the captured soldiers give their word of honor neither to attempt to escape, nor to rejoin the hostilities, and they are trusted to remain available until an exchange can be worked out. Once they are exchanged, usually for a like number of men on the other side, they are free to rejoin their units.
These arrangements are informal, and the Union Army refuses to formalize them because that would mean, in effect, recognizing the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. But as time goes on, a growing number of prisoners on both sides becomes stranded in a limbo of confinement. Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, press for a more formal arrangement on both humanitarian and practical grounds: the Confederacy, in particular, just does not have the resources to feed and house prisoners, and increasingly it cannot afford the manpower to guard them.
Thus is born the Dix-Hill Cartel, named for the two officers who negotiate it — Maj. Gen. John A. Dix, USA, and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill, CSA. The Cartel creates a uniform process whereby captured soldiers will be repatriated, spelling out equivalencies — that is, a brigadier general is worth 20 enlisted men, a captain six, a sergeant three, and so on.
This system of parole and exchange dates back two millennia to the Carthaginian Wars, and was continued through the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. It has a whiff of nobility about it, the trust of armies reposed in words of honor.
In practice, however, it sometimes means that weary troops allow themselves to be captured by the enemy for a period of rest and recuperation before being returned to the rigors of battle.
Captain Speer once again takes his place in the 28th Regiment, but his ambivalence about the war haunts him. He fights fiercely and with great courage in battle, yet tirelessly schemes for a way to get out of the army. For him, service in a morally ambiguous cause has become its own kind of confinement.
He determines to resign his commission, but a new order from Richmond decrees that any officer who resigns his commission may not go home but must be conscripted into the ranks as a private soldier. Even furlough is denied him — as the toll of dead and wounded mounts, there just isn’t another officer available to take his place.
Speer campaigns with equal vigor to keep his younger brother, James, out of the war, and in this he succeeds.
Rise and fall
Captain Speer rises to the rank of major. He fights at Fredericksburg, is wounded at Chancellorsville and again at Gettysburg, where he charges Cemetery Hill with James Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade under Gen. George Pickett. He writes, “We charged the batteries 1½ miles over a plain. O such slaughter never was seen. We lost 2/3 of our Regt. O my God, where will this slaughter end?”
Nonetheless, in February 1864, his entire regiment signs a pledge to “never lay down our arms or abandon the struggle.” Speer survives 10 more major battles, including the killing grounds of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. A year after Gettysburg, he is promoted to colonel in command of the regiment.
But the shortages of clothing, food, and arms remain a constant reminder that the Cause is now unwinnable. In May 1864, Speer writes a poem in eight stanzas for his family, ending: “I am dying, comrade, dying./ Tell my heart’s last fitful swell,/ Tell the cold dew gathering o’er me,/ Father, Mother, friends — Farewell.”
Scarcely three months later, at the battle of Reams’ Station near Petersburg, Virginia, the blast of shrapnel from an artillery shell catches him in the head. He lingers four days and dies at the age of 38.
Friends cart his body home in a wagon across the Yadkin River and bury him among his ancestors.
Col. William Henry Asbury Speer wrote to his mother and father on March 13, 1863: “I will do all that I can to get out of the service as soon as I can.”
Allen Speer, a storyteller and the colonel’s great-great-nephew, discovered this letter among family papers dating to his ancestor Aaron Speer Sr., born in 1734. Moved by his family history, Allen wrote the Voices from Cemetery Hill trilogy, dedicating the entire second volume to W. H. Asbury Speer’s correspondence.
A compilation of vivid pictures and letters, Voices from Cemetery Hill: The Civil War Diary, Reports, and Letters of Colonel William Henry Asbury Speer (1861-1864) reveals the personal struggles of the Yadkin County colonel throughout the war. “[Asbury] was opposed to secession and in favor of freeing slaves, but proud to be a Southerner,” Allen says.
A stanza from a poem Asbury wrote shortly before he died of battle wounds in 1864 voices a struggle that many North Carolinians experienced: “Though I cannot, mid the battle,/Feel my heart’s exulting thrill,/Yet, I perish like a soldier,/Die a Southern patriot still.”
The poem is published in full in the book’s prologue, opposite pictures of the colonel’s grave in Cemetry Hill near Boonville.
— Hannah Mitchell
Exactly 145 years to the day since the men who became Company I of the 28th Regiment North Carolina Infantry organized themselves as the Yadkin Stars, Greg Cheek and several others met in a neighbor’s backyard to reactivate the affectionately nicknamed company.
Inspired by the captain who became a colonel, Cheek and fellow reenactor John Baucom lead today’s Yadkin Stars in honor of W. H. Asbury Speer. Since August 13, 2006, the company’s membership has grown from six to more than 50. Not all enlisters are from Yadkin County, but most are North Carolina natives. Several have ancestors who served under Colonel Speer. One member can trace at least 20.
“We feel almost a responsibility to keep the genealogy and the heritage alive so that the generations coming after can appreciate it and maybe even study it for themselves,” says Cheek, who has served as lieutenant-adjutant since the group’s inception.
The Yadkin Stars stage historic battles across the South and demonstrate skirmishes for local audiences. In between, they keep busy with Civil War Trail marker dedications, living-history events, and programs for schools.
This year marks not only the company’s fifth anniversary, but also the 150th anniversary of Bull Run (Manassas, Virginia), the first major battle of the war (July 21-24, 1861), generating even more interest in the reenactors and their events.
For more information about enlistment, upcoming events, and the history of the 28th Regiment, go to yadkinstars.org.
— Hannah Mitchell
The author is indebted to the following sources: The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume I: 1843-1862, edited by Frontis W. Johnston, and The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume II: 1863, edited by Joe A. Mobley, both from The Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1963 and 1995; Legal Aspects of Conscription and Exemption in North Carolina 1861-1865 by Memory F. Mitchell, UNC Press, 1965; Zeb Vance, by Gordon B. McKinney, UNC Press, 2004; Silk Flags and Cold Steel by William R. Trotter, John F. Blair, 1988; and Zebulon B. Vance and “The Scattered Nation,” edited by Maurice A. Weinstein, The Wildacres Press, 1995.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his book Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is standard in college classrooms across the country.