Monday, April 30, 2012

Amazing story of captured Bible's return to soldier from Maine -- 60 years later

The following is among my favorite stories in the nearly three-year existence of the Civil War Picket.

On April 21, 2012, Robert Clayton of Islesboro, Maine, returned a Confederate battle flag to Fort McAllister, Ga., 147 years after its capture by his great-grandfather, Capt. W.Z. Clayton. There's a side story that may be even more incredible.

Robert Clayton has in his possession the Bible that belonged to W.Z. Clayton. The Union soldier lost the Bible at a battle and it went into the hands of a Confederate. A Union officer "recaptured" it two years later in fighting near Atlanta. After a lot of twists and turns, the Bible got back to W.Z. Clayton in late 1923 or early 1924 -- 62 years after he had last seen it. Robert Clayton provided most of the following information, and I've done as much additional research as I practically can at this moment. I'd love to be able to fill in the gaps:

William Zoron Clayton, a native of Freeman, Maine, was 25 when the Civil War began. He joined the 1st Minnesota Light Artillery. His wife, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Rice Clayton, gave him this small Bible. She inscribed (above, click to enlarge) the first verse of a popular 1830s song, "Sweet Memories of Thee." The words are: "When soft stars are peeping, Through the pure azure sky, And southern gales sweeping, Their warm breathings by -- Like sweet music pealing Far o'er the blue sea, there comes o'er me stealing Sweet memories of thee."

Another inscription in the Bible (click to read) tells the bearer to keep it close. The penmanship does not appear to be Elizabeth's. At the time, the verse was commonly written in Bibles.

W.Z. Clayton, while a sergeant, wrote the following message to whomever might come in possession of his Bible. (click below to enlarge) The remainder of the message will be presented later in this post.

The 1st Minnesota Light Artillery saw its first significant action of the Civil War at Shiloh on April 6, 1862. Clayton was wounded in the great clash at the Hornet's Nest. It's not clear how he lost custody of the Bible. Perhaps the sergeant dropped it or the Rebel found it in the battery's camp, forward of the Peach Orchard. Clayton's unit barely escaped capture that day.

The Bible was then signed by L. Herndon, Co. I, 1st Regiment Mississippi Cavalry. Sgt. Lucien (possibly) Lucius Herndon was a member of the Pontotoc Dragoons. (Click photo below to enlarge)

On April 6, at Shiloh, the 1st Mississippi Calvary advanced on the left flank of Cheatham's Division. One of their officers captured a different Union battery that was poised to retreat to the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing. The Mississippi unit later fought in Louisiana, Alabama, middle Tennessee and Georgia.

Sadly, Clayton's wife, Lizzie, died on May 10, 1864, according to W.Z. Clayton at that time was in North Georgia taking part in the Atlanta Campaign, serving with 1st Minnesota Light Artillery.

I do not know what became of Herndon and whether he or the 1st Mississippi Cavalry were at the Battle of Jonesboro, a Union victory south of Atlanta Aug. 31-Sept 1, 1864. But I think it's likely they did.

At Jonesboro, the Bible came into possession of 1st. Lt. Obed Sherwin of the 47th Ohio Volunteery Infantry (click photo to enlarge, who added his name. Sherwin, of Jefferson Township, Ohio, was wounded some time during the war by a round that killed another soldier.

The 47th OVI saw early service in Virginia. The regiment transferred west and joined the 15th Corps in time for the 1863 Vicksburg operation. Later in the fall, the Buckeyes joined the Chattanooga-Ringgold campaign and took part in Georgia operations. Sherwin mustered out in January 1865.

Above Sherwin's notation is the balance of W.Z. Clayton's note to whomever might find his New Testament. It asks it be returned to his father, Bartholomew, in Freeman, Maine. It also notes W.Z.'s membership in a masonic lodge.

From here, the story of the recaptured Bible becomes murky, with few details.

Robert Clayton said the Bible eventually to a Capt. Thomas, who moved to Texas and held the Bible for about 40 years. Mrs. Thomas gave it to a J.A. Creath in Gurdon, Ark., in December 1923 (click photo to enlarge). Someone saw the inscription that indicated W.Z. Clayton was a Mason, and through that fraternal order, was able to locate the former Union officer and send the Bible to him.

After the war, Clayton married Laurette E. Knowles and they had six children. He passed away in October 1929 in Bangor, Maine, at 94.

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