Captain James Bennington Irvine, A Vintage Vignette

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Captain James Bennington Irvine
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 17, 2011

Captain James Bennington Irvine was a Captain in General Roddey's 4th Alabama Cavalry. He was captured during the Civil War engagement at Indian Creek, just east of the town of Madison on December 23, 1864. After capture he was initially held for a short time in Huntsville, then sent to Fort Delaware (on an island in the Delaware River about 40 miles below Philadelphia) for the rest of the war. While imprisoned he kept a diary and wrote of his war experiences, including details of the event of his capture. An abbreviated excerpt of his first-person account follows.

At the beginning of the dawn charge across the creek by 300 Union cavalrymen, Irvine noted “some confusion in the ranks” of the 150 bivouacked Confederate cavalrymen. “I galloped toward them to see what was the matter, when to my utter astonishment they wavered, broke, and away they went, helter skelter up the road (today's Old Madison Pike). I saw the Blue Coats across the creek, sabre in hand, slashing and cutting at a great rate.” Irvine wrote that as the Confederate troops fled, he “could do nothing with them, at least nothing but check their speed. This was a great disadvantage to those in the rear, for being at this time on a very rough (and narrow, heavily forested) road, they could not scatter. By those in front riding in a slow gallop, the rear was forced to do the same. Their guns being all unloaded (after having fired an initial volley), they could not load again while running. However, the Yankees could stop and load and easily overtake the column and fire into the mass at their leisure to pick off such men as could not keep up or whose horses fell, as a great many did.”

“I was at this time in the rear (of the fleeing Confederate horsemen). I glanced around and saw that every man they (the Union troops) overtook was knocked immediately off his horse, while the enemy were pressing close on us firing pistols. There was not now more than three of our men behind me, and I knew that my time would soon come unless I did something. Putting spurs to my mare, I rode up to Tom Williams, who was the next man in front of me, and told him that it was folly to remain there any longer. The men could not be checked, and I thought it time for us to take care of ourselves. I told him that I intended leaving the road and taking to the woods. He said that he would follow.”

“I looked around to see what were the chances when the Philistines were upon me. Two pistols were presented at my head, and a big fellow with a sabre (was) just coming in reach. The thing was out. I could have shot one, but it would have been certain death to me. Taking prudence to be the better part of valor, I drew up my mare and quietly told them that I surrendered, at the same time holding out my pistol to one of them. The coward with the sabre struck me, as I thought, right across the eyes, stunning me for a minute. I, however, held onto my horse, and upon recovering my senses found that I was worth two dead men yet. He had (cut) my head open a length of three inches right down the part of my hair, but without injuring the skull. My mouth and eyes were full of blood, and the cape of my overcoat a deep red. Poor Tom, I afterward heard, was killed directly after. I have no doubt (that Tom) was murdered after surrender. I was sent to the rear under guard, one of whom took my mare and another my hat. They also took my saddlebags and blankets, leaving me in a bad fix.” (It was an exceedingly cold day, with the creek frozen.) “ The men, although heretofore good soldiers, were panic-stricken. In their hurry (they) rode over each other mercilessly and paid no attention whatever to the commands of their officers.”

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