Buddy Gettys column: Ancestor’s story brings Civil War history to life
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
It was early November 1862, somewhere along a muddy country road in Washington County in eastern Tennessee. Fall leaves were coming down everywhere, twisting in a cold wind and covering the ground and the cedar shingles on top of an old empty farm house. Across the road, in a gully hidden by a dense growth of pine saplings, were three Confederate soldiers from Rutherford County who were members of Company F of the 62nd North Carolina Infantry. One of the men was my great-grandfather, 32-year-old Private Robert Ramsey Gettys. His feet numb from frostbite and his rough, bearded face pressing into the dirt bank, his whole body felt the trembling of the earth as horses of the U.S. Cavalry pounded along the dirt road only 30 feet away.
The three young men were descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers who had fought for the independence of America from England in 1776. After the war, Robert’s grandfather, William, had led a wagon train down the Old Wagon Road from Marsh County, Pa., to North Carolina. William’s brother, James, had founded the town of Gettysburg and remained there. James had served as a general in the Revolutionary War and had two grandsons now fighting for the Yankees against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Robert Ramsey Gettys had never met his cousins but considered them brave and patriotic. They were just on the wrong side of a sad war, a war he believed they were not going to win. Like the soldiers in 1776, Robert and his buddies were fighting for their rights to be independent Americans. They proudly wore their Confederate patches on the sleeve of their gray woolen uniforms.
The Federal cavalry, one of three regiments under the command of Gen. Samuel P. Carter, was sent to eastern Tennessee to burn bridges and cut off supplies to the battlefields of the Confederate Army. They consisted of 2,500 trained soldiers.
The 62nd North Carolina Confederate Regiment, considered by some historians a ragtag, pick-up army, was there to stop them. Despite those historians’ views, Lt. Col. B.G. McDowell, commander of the 62nd, wrote after the war, “No braver or more courageous body of men belongs to the Confederate Army.”
Even the Feds agreed with McDowell’s assessment.
The three young southerners had gotten detached from their group in a fog while “skirmishing and picket firing” along the road. They were captured late in the evening by foot soldiers mixed with the cavalry and forced to walk miles through the mountains to the town of Zollicoffe (now Bluff City), Tenn.
There, they were locked in a makeshift prison, an old textile warehouse on the frozen banks of the Holston River. The prisoners were not expected to make it. Robert’s toes were rotting from frostbite, Jeb “Georgia Boy” File had been shot in his right knee and Patrick Wilson’s long hair was caked with blood, the result of a lick from the butt of a rifle. The men spent the first night there sleeping under a piece of dirty canvas. Their captives fed them the next day and offered medical attention … for what it was. My great-grandfather’s toes were amputated with an axe.
Two months prior to their capture, Robert and his wife, Elizabeth, had enlisted at a country store near what is now Hollis. Elizabeth chose to be part of the Confederate Regiment of 540 soldiers, cooking, washing and repairing uniforms and caring for the wounded. They boarded a train in Asheville and moved west to where they were needed along the Tennessee line. Separated now by the fighting, she had no knowledge of her husband being alive, dead or captured. She toiled on through the days, loyal to the cause, seeking bits of information from soldiers returning from battle.
Early on the morning of Dec. 31, the Yankees surprisingly released the three prisoners. Robert, his foot wrapped in burlap, struggled with a crutch cut from a birch tree. File was sick with a high fever. His leg was infected and needed to be removed. He hung onto Wilson’s shoulder as they fled the prison. They made their way up Yellow Creek, losing themselves in a heavy fog. The morning was cold and the trail treacherous. Dry leaves crunched under their feet. The rebels had to be alert and unseen. They had several enemies ó trigger-happy Yankee soldiers scattered in the area, the Home Guard who might take them for deserters and the many citizens of eastern Tennessee loyal to the North.
They decided to make their way to Cumberland Gap, a stronghold of Confederate forces under the command of Gen. John Frazer. Along the way, they took rifles, ammunition, food, clothing and bedrolls from dead soldiers.
On the third morning when they awoke, Robert and Patrick Wilson found that Jeb had died. They raked aside walnuts to clear a spot and buried him “beneath the spreading arms of a noble old tree.” The two soldiers said a prayer and then made their way across the mountain as the remains of the campfire collapsed and a drizzle began to fall.
But they carried the memory of “Georgia Boy” with them.
Robert and Patrick needed almost a week to reach the fort at Cumberland Gap. Patrick Wilson eventually returned to active duty. Robert was put in a hospital in Asheville and eventually returned home. He later joined the Home Guard in Rutherford County and received a gunshot wound in his shoulder three months later during a fight with a deserter in Burke County, on the opposite side of Brushy Mountain.
Almost a year later, in September 1863, Federal troops, attacking from several directions, took Cumberland Gap. Elizabeth Gettys was there at that time and escaped during a night raid. After returning home, she and Robert celebrated at the popular country store where they had initially enlisted. Robert played bluegrass on his guitar and blew a harmonica at the same time.
The couple later moved to Nebo, built a log farmhouse that straddled the Burke and McDowell county line and raised 11 children.
Robert Ramsey Gettys died in 1915 when he was 86, outliving Elizabeth by two years. Until his death, he still walked with a limp and used a cane.
The Tar Heel state recruited more soldiers than any other Southern state, providing at least 125,000 men and women. More than 620,000 Confederate soldiers died in the war, and 40,000 were North Carolinians. Many Civil War stories have hung around for generations and are still being repeated. For more than 140 years, this story about my great-grandparents has been passed around holiday and Sunday dinner tables more often than the gravy bowl. Also, writings from Robert’s journal ó including “the leaves were falling everywhere” on the day he was captured and “Georgia Boy was buried beneath the spreading arms of a noble old tree” ó adds significantly to the story. This information, in addition to Robert’s service record from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and a troop listing of the 62nd Infantry from the N.C. Office of History and Archives served as resources for this article.
Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of the town of Spencer and writes occasionally for the Salisbury Post.