Descendants of the Battle of Staunton River Bridge Donate Original Document to Foundation
On Monday, August 2, 2010 delegates of the Historic Staunton River Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion, development, and preservation of the Staunton River Battlefield, met with Ms. Leslie Carter of Shepherdstown, West Virginia to accept a donation of an original document, the minutes of the Employees of the Danville Arsenal, dated 1864. These rare “minutes” from Captain W. H. Otey’s Company taken on July 1, 1864 accentuated her great-great-great-grandfather, William Henry Dillon’s participation in the defense of the Staunton River Bridge.
Of the ten known fatalities during the engagement, this document honors two by name: William Henry Dillon and Thomas H. Dickerson. Dillon and Dickerson were from Danville, Virginia and employees of the Danville Arsenal, which, at the start of the war, became part of Captain Walter Hays Otey’s Company Virginia Light Artillery. Subsequently, men of the Danville Arsenal journeyed 55 miles via rail to answer the urgent plea sent out by Captain Benjamin Farinholt, commander of the forces stationed at the Staunton River Bridge, to defend the Bridge against an approaching Union cavalry force of 5,000 men under the command of Generals Kautz and Wilson. Following the Battle on that hot 25th day of June in 1864, the Confederates suffered approximately 10 fatalities and 24 wounded, and it was reported that the Union left 30 dead. The information obtained from this hand-written document, a “called meeting of the employees of the Danville Arsenal (Cap. W. H. Otey’s Company held on the 1st day of July 1864,” states that “Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God to remove William H. Dillon and Thomas H. Wilkerson members of our company (who were killed on the 25th ultimately in the late engagement at Staunton River Bridge) from among out numbers.” The document will be a key element in telling the story of the Battle of Staunton River Bridge and its impact on the lives of families in Southside Virginia.
Ms. Leslie Carter and her father, Terrence contacted the Historic Staunton River Foundation in December 2009 and inquired about the Battle and their ancestor’s role. Research by and between the Carter family and the Foundation ensued. By June of this year during the annual Commemoration of the Battle, Leslie and Terrence where honored by the Foundation and the Staunton River Battlefield State Park as descendants and presented with medallions. Not long after, the father and daughter agreed that the Foundation and Battleground would be the “perfect fit” to ensure the document’s longevity, preservation, and educational premise. A Photostat of the original has been made and it can be viewed at the Clover Visitors Center at the Staunton River Battlefield State Park. For more information about the Foundation, the Battle, and Descendants of the Battle, please visit our website www.historicstauntonriverfoundation.org; follow the Foundation on Facebook, or phone 434.454.4312.
Janet Johnson, President of the Historic Staunton River Foundation (far left) and J. Shane Newcombe, Trustee (far right) honorably accept a donation of an original 1864 document of a “meeting of the employees of the Danville Arsenal (Capt. W. H. Otey’s Company)” from Leslie Carter (center) of Shepherdstown, West Virginia and her father, Mr. Terence Carter of Irvington, Virginia (not pictured). The Carters are lineal descendants of William Henry Dillon, an employee of the Danville Arsenal and private in Captain W. Hayes Otey’s Company, Virginia Light Artillery. The document, donated to the Foundation, mentions the engagement of Staunton River Bridge and provides the names of two of the ten known Confederate fatalities during the Battle:
William H. Dillon and Thomas H. Wilkerson.
William H Dillon Envelope
William H Dillon Letter
William Henry Dillon: 1 of 10 Fatalities
Battle of Staunton River Bridge
The hot summer day of June 15, 1864 would forever change the lives of 492 “ole men and young boys” from Southside Virginia. When an urgent plea came from Confederate Captain Benjamin Farinholt to come and assist his 296 Confederate reserves in defense of the Staunton River railroad bridge against an approaching Union cavalry force of over 5,000 men, they came from every direction in all walks of life. These men came from the neighboring counties of Charlotte, Halifax, Mecklenburg, and even as far away as Pittsylvania and the City of Danville, one of the last Confederate capitals.
It was not until an e-mail to the Historic Staunton River Foundation, the nonprofit, 501 (c) 3 private organization dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and development of the Staunton River Battlefield, that light was shed on the details and accounts of two gentlemen. Both were from Danville and participated in the Battle. Ms. Leslie J. Carter of Shepherdstown, West Virginia and her father, Mr. Terence G. Carter of Irvington, Virginia contacted the Foundation in hopes of learning more about the Battle and to find some details about the death of their ancestor, William Henry Dillion.
In her email, Leslie wrote, “I am researching my family history; my great-g-grandfather William Henry Dillion [who lived in Danville prior to the War] was killed at the Battle…I have attached a transcript of the letter sent to his widow following this battle…According to my family, my ancestor and others killed were buried in mass graves near a cornfield, then wagons driven over the site to conceal the burials from Union troops, who might desecrate the dead.” Intrigue aroused from the Foundation and those associated with the Battle, and research ensued to not only provide Leslie with answers, but also explain the connection between Danville and the Battle of Staunton River Bridge. It was not too farfetched to realized that an urgent plea, truly meant just that and any soldier – young and old as the story tells – answered that cry, even soldiers as far away as Danville. Most importantly, the Carter family had in its possession “a letter” that told a significant part of this battle!
With a small battle, such as Staunton River Bridge, there are limited resources that provide us with a glimpse into the past. We are fortunate to have records from both the Confederate and Union forces that speak of preparations for and accounts of the engagement; however, only few documents and primary sources exist that provide names of the Confederate reserves, old men, or young boys that helped to defend the Bridge. One mission of the Foundation is to provide research into these men and their lives.
Not long after, the Carter family provided the Foundation with a photocopy of the document and a transcription of it. This document the original July 1, 1864 “Minutes/Orders/Resolutions At a Meeting of the Employees of the Danville Arsenal.” Researchers for the Foundation and the Carter family learned that the Carter family tradition (regarding the hasty burial of Confederate soldiers and the subsequent concealment with wagon tracks to elude the potential desecration of the graves by the Union army) was purely a legend and nothing more. Information available following the end of the battle does not suggest that any such burial would have taken place or could have take place. Records show that the Confederates suffered approximately 10 fatalities and 24 wounded, while the Union is reported as leaving 30-42 dead on the field. This family “myth” must have been fashioned given the fact that, following Dillon’s death, no burial information can be obtained.
The “document” details the following, “Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God to remove William H. Dillon and Thomas H. Wilkerson members of our company (who were killed on the 25th ultimately in the late engagement at Staunton River Bridge) from among out numbers. Dillon along with his counterpart, Wilkerson, was from Danville and was employees of the Danville Arsenal. In the book, Danville in the Civil War by Lawrence McFall, we learn that the “artillery units of Danville and Pittsylvania County received the support of a local defense Battery (Danville Arsenal), Captain Walter Hays Otey’s Company Virginia Light Artillery…the unit saw action at the Battle of Staunton River Bridge.” Otey’s company was comprised of workers (employees) at the Danville Arsenal and formed a local defense force. Such local units often drilled sporadically and seldom saw battle action, except in the rare case as witness by Otey’s Company at Staunton River Bridge. The author provides more insight into the 128 soldiers of Otey’s Company.
Ironically enough, McFall points out that the “first Confederate soldier to be buried in the new cemetery (Green Hill Cemetery in Danville) may have been Private Thomas H. Wilkerson…On July 5, 1864, the town [Danville] donated a lot to the Wilkerson family in ‘consideration of his death in the defense of the interests of Danville at the Battle of Staunton Bridge’.” However, no mention is made of William H. Dillon. The Carter “document” mentions the death of two individuals who were employed by the Danville Arsenal and privates in Otey’s Company; but why would the town (Danville) make provisions for the burial of one and not the other. This perhaps, may be the foundations of the fabrication (by the Carter family) of the story of the hasty burial! McFall continues to make an account that Wilkerson never received a tombstone and his place of burial is unknown – even to this day; and we can assert that the same is true for Dillon. Perhaps, he too was laid to rest in the Green Hill Cemetery like his equal. It is also suggested that Dillon was a county resident and that may be the reason for Danville providing for one of its “own.”
Soldiers from Danville journeyed a total of 55 miles via rail to join Farinholt in the defense of the Staunton River Bridge. We do not know how many of the 128 soldiers of Otey’s Company saw action at the Bridge, but we know the Company (as a whole) did participate in the engagement. Out of the known 938 men that made up Farinholt’s command, 492 were the infamous “old men and young boys,” 296 were Confederate reserves; and 150 were “regulars.” Those “150 regulars,” as indicated by Farinholt, could have been from the Danville Arsenal/Otey’s Company. The Confederates repulsed four separate Union charges and thus, successfully defended the Bridge.
The 1885 Sketch Book of Danville, Virginia by Edward Pollock tells of the “accidental” destruction of the Danville Arsenal on the morning of April 11, 1865, one day after the news of Lee’s surrender had been received. “The building stood near the river bank at the lower end of Craghead Street, below the depot of the Richmond & Danville Railroad, and at this time contained large quantities of gunpowder, cartridges, bomb-shells, rockets, and other explosives, which had been carefully guarded so long as military discipline existed. The arsenal and its contents were virtually abandoned, and people in town were helping themselves to the contents of the arsenal. The floor was soon inches deep with loose gunpowder. A huge explosion occurred. Nobody could tell how it occurred, because there were no survivors of those who had been near enough to the scene to have any exact information. Nor was it ever known how many persons perished. Fourteen bodies – or, rather, fragments representing that number – were recovered, and laid in one grave. Among those were the bodies of two woman, who had rushed into the river to extinguish the fire that had caught their clothing and were drowned. Others died afterwards of their injuries.” Sadly, the death and destruction of the effects war even infiltrated the innocent citizens of Danville.
Janet Johnson, President of the Historic Staunton River Foundation (far right), presents Ms. Leslie Carter (far left) of Shepherdstown, West Virginia and Mr. Terence Carter of Irvington, Virginia (center) with Descendants of the Battle of Staunton River Bridge Medallions. The father and daughter are lineal descendants of William Henry Dillon, a private in Captain W. Hayes Oteys’ Company, Virginia Light Artillery, the Danvile Arsenal.
The Battle of Staunton River Bridge will continue to leave its mark upon the citizens of Southside Virginia and the descendants of the brave soldiers, who sacrificed their all to defend it, more than 146 years later.