Introduction | The
Powhatan Troop | Billy Sledd |
Philip St. George Cocke,
Billy Sledd: A soldier's Life
The following account is based on facts, although portions have been assumed based on historical data affecting the population in general.
The old wagon creaked as it passed across the old farm lane. The two horses in front strained to pull their burden. They passed the shallow edge of the old mill pond, then up and over the bridge crossing the mill race. Now only a short distance remained to the brow of the hill.
Accompanying the procession was a group of people -- a father, a mother, a wife and child, brothers, sisters, friends, and a man of the Great Book. Atop the hill was an old family cemetery with a freshly-prepared grave. As the wagon approached, the gravediggers removed their hats and stepped aside, paying respects to Mr. Sledd, who was inside the casket on the wagon bed.
With tearful eyes the family said their final farewells to one so loved, so dear, so young. Barely 35, his life was abruptly over. The kindly old parson spoke of loving memories and the hope of an all-knowing heavenly father. Comforting words they were, but words that fell all too short of the comfort intended.
The service over, the family and friends returned to face life from a new dimension, a life less a loved one.
In time a tombstone was placed on the grave, which read:
In memory of William J. Sledd
This scene was played and replayed time and again over the four years that comprised the great American Civil War. Although the war for the most part, was a distant event happening at or on someone elseís landscape, the bodies returning home brought the stark yet truthful reality of just how tragically each American was to be affected.
More than 125 years passed by before an amateur historian happened to encounter this tombstone in a long forgotten cemetery. His curiosity was ignited about this soldier who, until 1996, was still somewhat a mystery. The historian did not rest until his research uncovered the long lost history of Billy Sledd.
Billy Sledd was born in 1827 to a family which derived their existence from the earth. Being raised on a farm afforded Billy the opportunity to be raised in a family that had to live and work together in order to survive. The family worked the farm in its entirety. The work force consisted of the Sledd family including cousins, aunts, and uncles. The family alone worked the farm.
In spite of the stereotype of a Southern farm being worked by slaves, and although many of the farms and especially the plantations embraced slavery for a work force, slave ownership was a rare luxury amongst the population both North and South. The image of an all-slave owning South is an inaccurate portrayal of a lifestyle that was maintained only by the elite and select few.
Young Sledd grew up as most boys did during that period -- hunting, fishing, and, of course, fighting with his cousins. Having only one sister, his cousins became his closest friends. His social life was isolated to trips to Scottville (now Powhatan Courthouse) on Saturday and the always-attended Methodist Church on Sunday five miles away. The Methodist Church on Rocky Oak Road still stands and with just a bit of imagination one can still see the children playing about the church as well as suitors escorting their ladies about the field adjacent to the sanctuary.
Church activities in those days occupied most of the day generally with a large meal being prepared by the ladies while the men discussed crops, politics, and of course, cock fights.
As the war clouds started approaching between the disagreeing factions across the country, the main topic of social conversations was positions embraced by friends and family. The arguments became intense and as confrontation seemed inevitable many families split and often never returned to the solidarity of a more peaceful time.
When Governor John Letcher of Virginia called for volunteers to defend their stateís borders from invasion, young and old accepted the call, Billy Sledd included. For most, the opportunity of adventure, travel, and freedom from the drudgery of farm life was almost too much to pass by. In addition, the adulation of the citizens embracing their war heroes was, for the new celebrities, overwhelming. Parades, new uniforms, drills at the courthouse, and receptions were enough to capture any manís imagination.
Very few people expected a war would actually happen, and if there were in fact hostilities, they would be short-lived. Most people had no concept that this country would ever become embedded in a true civil war for four long years, years that seemed for some an eternity -- and for some ended with eternity.
Billy Sledd, like many Powhatan residents, joined the 28th Battalion Virginia Infantry, Company D. This was under the command of a Captain Robert G. Mosby, part of the Wise Legion, under former Virginia governor Henry Wise. When the Confederate army was organized, the 28th Battalion became part of the 59th Virginia Infantry.
When the war reached Virginia, the 59th Virginia was thrown into action and faced the Federals in the Kanawha Valley of what is now West Virginia. The unit eventually was called back to Richmond. In December 1861 it was assigned to Roanoke Island.
Whether Billy Sledd came down with typhoid fever while guarding the Outer Banks of North Carolina or while temporarily assigned to Norfolk has been lost in the pages of time. More than likely he became infected at one of the two locations, miraculously returned home, but then succumbed to his illness.
Unfortunately, very little remains of records except a brief biographical sketch from the Confederate record, which reads:
Sledd, William J: Co. B, Enl. on 5/20/62 at Summit Station, Caroline Co., Va. in Co. D, 28th Bttn. Va. Inf. Absent sick on 10/62 roll. Pres. on all rolls except 8/31/63 when AWOL. Absent sick 10/31/64, 12/31/64 and 2/28/64 rolls. Res. of Powhatan Co., Va. B. 3/25/1827; D. 6/18/62. Buried in the Sledd-Maxey Family Cem., Powhatan Co., Va.
Old records, as can be easily discerned, are frequently quite inaccurate. Many of the official records of the confederacy, because of the lack of sufficient administrative functions, are erroneous. Because news often was slow in arrival, many assumptions were created.
There are thousands of Billy Sledds across this land, many right here in Powhatan. They gave much, most notably their lives. They lie on both sides of the Potomac, north and south. Most, as they lie asleep, are rarely remembered.
An overgrown farm lane leads to a remote Powhatan cemetery where a stone marks the grave. No longer remain the old parson, the crushed and devastated parents, the sobbing wife and child.
May we never forget you, Billy. Nor your brothers, both North and South. Sleep on Billy Sledd, sleep on. Rest in peace, Billy, rest in peace.
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