Sunday, May 22, 2016

Slain Southern private: Send my Bible home to Alabama

Lewis Branscomb of the 3rd Alabama was killed by a Union sharpshooter in the front yard of
 this house on Washington Street in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (Lewis' photo courtesy Frank Chappell)
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Shortly after Civil War began, four sons of  Bennett and Eliza Branscomb enlisted in the 3rd Alabama Infantry, undoubtedly causing great angst in their household in tiny Union Springs, 45 miles southeast of Montgomery.

A little more than a year into the war, tragedy hit home when word arrived of the death from measles of one of the Branscomb brothers in a military hospital in Richmond. "Don't grieve Ma," Private James Branscomb wrote to his mother on June 25, 1862, 10 days after 31-year-old William died. "He is better off though tis hard to lose him. You may have more to grieve for than him before this war ends."

Those words proved prophetic.

On May 19, 1864, James was killed at the Battle of Harris Farm, near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va. He was only 25.

Private James Branscomb of the 3rd Alabama
was killed at the Battle of Harris Farm
on May 19, 1864.
(Photo courtesy Frank Chappell)
During a break in brutal fighting near Richmond in early June 1864, probably at Cold Harbor, Va., Private Lewis Branscomb wrote a short note to his sister, Lucinda. Apparently unaware that his brother had been killed, the 3rd Alabama sharpshooter was quite familiar with death. Several of his friends and messmates had already been killed during the war.

"My mess is all gone but me ... " the 21-year-old soldier wrote on June 5, 1864. "... I know I have a few good christians far away praying for me. The fighting still continues. No more. Give my love to all and write soon. I have not received but one letter since the first of May. If you all knew how much comfort it would give me to get a letter from home you would write.

"Excuse this note," Lewis concluded, "as I have almost lost my mind."

Less than a month later, on July 4, 1864, Lewis was killed by a Union sharpshooter in the front yard of a house on Washington Street in Harpers Ferry, Va., (now West Virginia). The owner of the house recovered Lewis' Bible, and nearly three months after the war had ended, she wrote a letter to his mother in Alabama:

Harpers Ferry, Va.,
July the 2nd, 1865

Mrs. Branscomb 
Dear Madam

On the 4 of July will be one year since the Confederate soldiers was here and there was a young man killed in my yard by a sharpshooter. At the place he died I picked up a Bible and written on the fly leaf was his name 'L.S. Branscomb, Co. D, 3d regiment of Alabama.' On the next leaf was written if found on my person please send to my mother Mrs. B.H. Branscomb at Union Springs, Alabama. Do so and oblige (friend) who ever you be. I should have done so sooner but not knowen that the way was open between here and there and as I have just heard that I could send a letter through embrace the first opportunity. If you wish for the book you can [write me]. I will send it by mail immediately and if you wish to know any thing more I will then write you all that I know concerning your son. If you wish to write address Mrs. 

Margarett Cross, 
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 
In care of Cathrin Shillings

Lewis' Bible has been lost to history, but nearly 100 of the Branscomb brothers' war-time letters have remarkably survived, discovered in 1991 in an old BVD underwear box marked "War Letters" in the family's possession. In 2012, Branscomb descendant Frank Chappell edited an excellent book, Dear Sister, of  the letters, which include terrific detail about camp life and battles. The 3rd Alabama was one of the hard-fighting regiments in the Southern army, seeing action at Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and elsewhere.

During my recent visit to Harpers Ferry, Chappell guided me over the phone from Alabama to Mrs. Cross' old house on Washington Street. The beautiful, two-story red-brick house sits just down the street from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters.

Postscript: A fourth Branscomb brother, John, survived a wound at Antietam and the war. William Branscomb is buried in the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond. Despite efforts by Chappell and other Branscomb descendants to locate the brothers' final resting places, the gravesites of  James and Lewis are unknown.

SOURCE:

Chappell, Frank Anderson, Dear Sister: Civil War Letters to a Sister in Alabama, Branch Springs Publishing, Hunstville, Ala., 2012. (To obtain a copy of the book, Chappell may be contacted at fchap10220@comcast.net).

Margarett Cross' war-time house on Washington Street in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

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