One hundred forty nine years ago on December 14, 1864, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia Robert E. Lee informed the War Department that his army had no meat and that the lack of food was causing his soldiers to desert in increasing numbers.
Food boxes from home that had supplemented the Confederates paltry rations now regularly disappeared in a collapsing transportation system.
Food was so scarce in Lee's army that a captain in the Texas Brigade wrote home that he would eat his Christmas dinner from his tin cup and drink "clear cold water from a well just in the rear of the breastworks" in place of the usual eggnog.
During this same time, ten soldiers of the 11th Mississippi, captured during the Battle of Gettysburg were incarcerated on Johnson's Island, a strip of land three miles long and about three-quarters of a mile wide, which laid about three miles north of Sandusky, Ohio, in Lake Erie.
Three of these men were First Lieutenant William H. Peel, Company C, the Prairie Rifles from Okolona, Mississippi; Second Lieutenant Robert A. McDowell, Company H, the Chickasaw Rifles from Houston, Mississippi and Junior Second Lieutenant H. Tyler Hester, Company D, the Neshoba Rifles from Philadelphia, Mississippi.
These Confederate officers passed the holiday in a much subdued fashion as Peel wrote on that day: "The day has passed with few of the usual associates of Christmas. No big bowls of egg nog before breakfast - no invitations to nice dinners - no flitting of ladies to & fro, with joyous laugh & rustling silks - no comings together of family friends & connections, for the commendation of this long established day of rejoicing... had, however, a very tolerable dinner - A piece of baked beef & baker's-bread (about two days rations of the former) & An apple-pie a corn meal pudding...I have heard "Christmas-gift" pronounced scare half a dozen times today. Certainly it has not passed my lips & has been directed at me but once."
A few lucky soldiers of the famed 11th Mississippi regiment obtained short furloughs during the last month of 1864, and visited their homes.
For the remaining Mississippians, this was a "long, dreary winter, hardly a day passing without some burdensome duty to perform."
Three of the fortunate were Privates Francis Ross, John Mayo and William McKee of Company D from Neshoba County.
In early December, the trio began making their way back toward their regiment in Virginia, traveling through Alabama and Georgia.
On December 10, 1864, their good fortune quickly ended, as they arrived near Savannah, Georgia, at the same time that William Sherman's army appeared in front of the old coastal city.
All three were immediately captured and imprisoned at Port Lookout, Maryland.
Private McKee died in Port Lookout with chronic diarrhea on February 15, 1865.
Ross and Mayo remained in captivity until well after the war ended, before being released on June 6 and 9, 1865, respectively.
On January 1, 1865, a report circulated among the troops that the women of Richmond were preparing a New Year's Day feast for their defenders.
The rumor excited the tattered and shivering troops in the trenches in front of Richmond and Petersburg.
The Southerners expected sides of beef, mutton, venison, pork, and loaves of freshly baked bread, and did not eat their normal rations of three or four ounces of poor quality meat.
The day passed, evening came, and midnight slipped by, however, with no food of any kind delivered.
By 3:00 a.m. the next morning, one Georgia regiment finally received its share of the "feast" produced by the ladies of the capital - "one small sandwich made up of two thin slices of bread and a thin piece of ham."
Other units received similar portions, but most concealed their disappointment as all were well aware of the food shortages in Richmond.
One middle age corporal said quietly: "God bless our noble women. It was all they could do; it was all they had."
Civil War Veterans
Mayo, John E. - Private; enlisted April 1,1864 at a camp on the Rapidan River in Virginia, in Company D, 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment; age seventeen; farmer; Muster Roll, May-June, 1864 : "Sick at Howard's Grove Hospital at Richmond, Virginia."
Furloughed to Mississippi; captured near Savannah, Georgia, December 10, 1864; imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland; released from Point Lookout, June 9, 1865; transportation furnished to Corinth, Mississippi; described as five feet eleven and one-half tall, light complexion, brown hair and light blue eyes.
World War II Veterans
Martin, Roy A. - Private to Private First Class; enlisted on February 28, 1940, at Montgomery, Alabama, in the United States Army; age eighteen; farmer; served and trained in the American Theatre of Operations with Company K, 16th Regimental Combat Team, First Infantry "Big Red One" Division; discharged at Fort Jay, New York, dependency, November 29, 1940.
Re-enlisted on July 14, 1943 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi; Martin noted, "If there wasn't just something bad wrong with you like a broken leg or back or if you could just walk about, they would draft you;" served again in the American Theatre of Operations with the 89th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion at Washington, District of Columbia, and at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.
Served also in the European Theatre of Operations as a control station operator and automatic rifleman with Company C, 417th Regimental Combat Team, 76th Infantry "Onaway" Division; sailed to the European Theatre aboard the U.S.S. Marine Ravine, November 1944; participated in the campaigns in the Rhineland; awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (with one bronze service star) and the Bronze Star (received a "full fifty years after the war."
Discharged at the Camp Butler Convalescent Hospital, North Carolina, July 6, 1945, medical disability; described as six feet one and one-half inches tall, weighing 131 pounds, with red hair and blue eyes.
Philadelphia-Neshoba County Historical Museum
Steven H. Stubbs, Curator
303 Water Avenue South Philadelphia, Mississippi 39350 (601) 656-1284