Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lost and found at Bull Run: Prized ring of Confederate officer

A post-war image of Confederate veteran Octavius Cazenove Henderson.
(Virginia Military Institute archives)
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1859 panotype of Octavius Henderson.
(Virginia Military Institute archives)
On Aug. 30, 1862, Captain Octavius Cazenove Henderson led five companies of 1st Virginia Infantry during vicious fighting at the Unfinished Railroad Cut at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Sometime during the battle, a piece of artillery shell struck the 23-year-old officer in the left hand, between the third and fourth fingers, knocking away his precious Virginia Military Institute ring. Henderson had been a student at the prestigious school in Lexington, Va., and, when war broke out, he was an assistant professor of French there.

With the air full of artillery fire and bullets, the seriously wounded Henderson wisely thought it wasn’t worth spending time looking for the ring, given to each of the 29 members of the VMI Class of 1859. (Henderson was one of 14 students in Professor Thomas Jackson's artillery class in 1859. Two years later, he earned his nickname, "Stonewall.")

Nearly 32 years later, in late-August 1894, a young man walking through the woods on the old battleground stooped to pick up a rock to toss at a squirrel. On  the ground, he spotted a piece of jewelry. He noticed the ring’s setting was a bloodstone, and the letters “V.M.I” appeared above the Latin phrase “Sic hor ad astra” (Reach for the Stars) on the face. Inscribed inside the ring were the words “One of twenty-nine, O.C. Henderson, July 4th, 1859.”

Scott Shipp's 1859 VMI class ring, which is similar to Henderson's.
(Courtesy VMI Museum)
Stories of the find were published in local newspapers, and the discovery "excited a great deal of interest in the vicinity," according to C.D. Nourse, who visited with the young man who found the ring. Months after the great discovery, Nourse made an impressive Civil War find himself while turkey hunting near the banks of Bull Run: a Union canteen in a “wonderful state of preservation.”

VMI superintendent
 Scott Shipp told
C.D. Nourse where to find
Octavius Henderson. 
Hopeful of finding the ring’s original owner, Nourse wrote several letters, and eventually was contacted by Scott Shipp, the superintendent of VMI. A former Confederate officer in the 21st Virginia and 4th Virginia Cavalry, he also was a member of Henderson’s VMI Class of 1859. Better yet, he told Nourse that Henderson was alive and “making a survey in the wilds of Georgia.” After the war, Henderson, who graduated 26th in his class in 1859, was an assistant professor of infantry tactics at VMI and a civil engineer.

Nourse, who had acquired the ring from the young man, corresponded with Henderson, and eventually returned the jewelry to the grateful veteran. The story gained wide circulation in contemporary newspapers, and was even mentioned in obituaries for Henderson when he died at age 59 in 1897.

The whereabouts of the prized Bull Run relic today, however, are unknown.


Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 3, 1895.

        Henderson lost his VMI ring at the Railroad Cut at the Second Bull Run battlefield.
                         A portion of the Cut is seen here in the interactive panorama.

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