He Rode With Stonewall
My grandmother, Winnie Eugenia McWhorter Cox, was the daughter of Zach Davis McWhorter and Anna Lee Nelson. Anna’s parents were James Righteous Nelson and Jeanette Louise Whichard. James Righteous (“Mr. Right”) Nelson was born on Christmas Day in 1833 and died on the Ides of March in 1884. Mr. Right was twenty-seven years old and already a widower by the time the Civil War broke out. While he owned no slaves and had nothing to gain from an esoteric fight over “states’ rights,” Mr. Right still volunteered for the Confederate Army. It is one of the true complexities of human nature that its most noble aspects prompted Southern men to go to war to preserve the greatest evil ever visited upon the North American continent.
On October 31, 1861, Mr. Right joined the Nineteenth Regiment (2nd N.C. Cavalry) of North Carolina Volunteers, Barringer’s Brigade, W. H. F. Lee’s Division, Hampton’s Cavalry Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, which had been organized on August 30, 1861 and mustered into Confederate service on September 1, 1861 for the duration of the war. Mr. Right was soon promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and was further promoted to Captain of Company F on December 2, 1862. His unit’s roster shows him as present for duty each month until May 2, 1863, when he was reported as killed in action. But he wasn’t.
While the details of Mr. Right’s service record have been lost from the collective family memory, it seems it was exemplary. This inference is drawn from the fact that Mr. Right was assigned to be one of Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s personal aides. The first major battle in which General Jackson had overall command was Kernstown and it was both a defeat for the Confederacy and a personal humiliation for Jackson. While Jackson blamed others for the defeat, most notably Brigadier General Richard Garnett, any blame for attacking a force of 9,000 Union infantrymen with only 3,000 Confederates must ultimately lie with Jackson. But among the secondary reasons for the misfortune at Kernstown was that Jackson did not have a competent staff. Prior to the battle, Jackson had surrounded himself with some of the worst soldiers in his command, whom he hoped to inspire by his personal example. Although Jackson continued to blame Garnett for Kernstown, he learned from his experience and from that point on he never attacked unless he believed he could achieve a localized numerical superiority and he was careful to choose only the best soldiers for his personal staff. One of these was Mr. Right.
Mr. Right continued on General Jackson’s personal staff until the Battle of Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1863. Mr. Right was riding with Jackson on a reconnaissance between the enemy lines in the gathering dusk of May 2, 1863. In part because of rumors of a pending counterattack by Union calvary, two volleys of musket fire from Confederate pickets blasted Jackson’s party upon their return to the Confederate lines. The second volley struck down Jackson. The first volley struck down Mr. Right. Mr. Right was severely wounded in both arms. He along with Jackson and the other wounded riders were transferred to hospitals in the rear.
At the hospital, the surgeons told Mr. Right that his wounds were so severe that both his arms had to be amputated just below the shoulder. Mr. Right begged and pleaded with the surgeons not to cut off his right arm because if he lost that he would return home a helpless invalid. The surgeons countered that if they didn’t cut off his right arm he would die and in any event the humerus bone was shattered and he would never be able to use that arm again. Again Mr. Right begged and pleaded that his right arm be saved. This time the surgeons relented. The left arm was amputated, but the right arm was not. However, the humerus bone had been splintered by an inch-long, 0.58 caliber soft lead slug that had been invented by Captain Claude Minié of the French Army. The surgeons removed the fragments of bones they could find and cut the ends of the humerus smooth. Then, they bandaged Mr. Right up and hoped for the best.
Mr. Right confounded the surgeons by surviving and was sent home. And the surgeons were wrong on another count also, his right arm wasn’t useless. He could still grip a pencil in his right hand and he could still write. When the war was over, he was appointed postmaster in his hometown of Bethel, NC. He could walk up to a stand-up desk and rotate his entire body to sling his right arm up on the writing surface. Once his hand was up on the writing surface, he would let it crawl over the desk like a spider to retrieve letters, write instructions, and sort mail. It was also said that if he was mad at you, he could sling his right arm at you hard enough to knock you down.
In time, Mr. Right remarried, his second wife was Jeanette Louise Whichard, and raised a family. Because Mr. Right could never again perform manual labor, he took a keen interest in the education of all his children, girls and boys alike. One of his daughters, Anna Lee, went to school under a stern young teacher by the name of Zach Davis McWhorter.
In time, love blossomed between the teacher and student. Three months shy of her eighteenth birthday, Anna Lee married her teacher and together they raised seven children, including my grandmother Winnie McWhorter Cox.