Introductory Comments: War Dead of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

By Henry H. Mitchell, comments delivered at the annual Memorial Day service held in Chatham, Virginia, May 25, 2003.

Thank you for giving me the honor of speaking today. I am a Pittsylvanian who served in uniform, but was not sent to a combat zone. I consider myself blessed for that fact, but stand in awe of, and with gratitude to, those who did see combat, and especially those who suffered loss as a result.

Many Pittsylvanians who have gone off to war have come home with disabilities, shortened lives, and enduring pain. From here at the Chatham Memorial Cemetery the first house to the north is at 236 South Main Street. It was the home of Thomas Moore Overbey, a World War I veteran who had been blinded and crippled by mustard gas in the Argonne, and confined to a wheelchair until his death on September 18, 1928. I, of course, did not know Tom Overbey, but he had two sons. One of them, William F. Overbey, known to the home-town folks as “Bro,” shared his father's tragic story with me a couple of years ago.

Lt. Col. Rawley W. Martin, who lived at 42 Franklin Place, atop the knoll just to our south, turned his own lifelong suffering from his Gettysburg wounds into the impetus for a remarkable career as a physician.

But of course many did not come home at all. In preparation for today, I looked through the various local history books that I have on hand — the writing of Maud Carter Clement, Frances Hallam Hurt, Michael Williams, and others. From their various narratives and lists, I noted the names of those Pittsylvania County citizens that I could find who died in uniform, in wartime. I am certain that this is not a complete list, and it is by no means an official one, but here is a summary of what I found:

The names of those 755 — I suspect that a complete list would total more than a thousand — are posted on our internet website, and my family welcomes corrections and additions to that list.

Simply to look through the list has a profound effect. One sees the same family names appear again and again. Within the Civil War period the military unit is often listed, and to see the repeated entries of the dead from the Chatham Grays, the Spring Garden Blues, the Chalk Level Grays, the Whitmell Guards, and on and on, one realizes the devastating losses to our various communities.

Pittsylvania is not unique in her sacrifices, but there are unusual factors which are worth a moment's reflection.

Especially, Pittsylvania has had a remarkable continuity since the first settlements began to appear in 1740. It is a continuity of families, of land, even of buildings and landmarks, of faith, and of values. Whereas many American localities have been overrun repeatedly by development and changes of all kinds, Pittsylvania life has been steady and stable.

Therefore, when we look around us we can often see the clear evidences of ten generations of local civilization.

When we look among us we often see the offspring of the original settlers of the 1740's and '50's.

When we look within us, we hopefully will often still see the faith and determination of our founding fathers and mothers.

Not long ago, my wife and I had the privilege of talking to Calvin Gammon, brother of the late SSgt. “John” Gammon, Pittsylvania County's recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. In an incredible display of fearlessness, daring, and skill, in deep snow on January 11, 1945 in Belgium, Sgt. Gammon singlehandedly saved his platoon by charging and destroying two machine gun emplacements and attacking and driving off a German tank. As it departed, the tank fired point-blank at Sgt. Gammon and ended his life. We asked SSgt. Gammon's brother Calvin if John had grown up the “hero type.” He replied, “Any of us would have done the same. Back in those days, you did what you had to do.”

I believe that simple statement characterizes the Pittsylvania will, and the sacrifices of all of our heroes who gave their lives. They did what they had to do.

Local writer Maud Carter Clement and others have noted three critical military events which included large numbers of Pittsylvanians as participants:

As Frances Hurt has carefully documented in her Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Pittsylvania militiamen were in the second of three lines of American troops at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. The British general Lord Cornwallis was dealt such a horrific blow that day that he abandoned the Carolinas to recover at Yorktown, where he was trapped, and forced to surrender. In that one-two punch, American freedom was finally won. The Pittsylvania militia delivered much of the force of the first blow.

On July 3, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Gen. George Pickett's division, containing large numbers of Pittsylvania soldiers, was called upon to take the distant heights of Cemetery Ridge in one of the most dramatic events of American history. The Chatham Grays carried the colors for Gen. Lewis Armistead's Brigade. In the midst of the hellish conditions of the charge, Gen. Armistead called to Col. Rawley Martin of Chatham and said “We can't stay here,” to which Martin replied, “Then we'll go forward.” Armistead, Martin, and the remaining Chatham Grays reached their objective, in a moment often called “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.” But no units behind them survived intact, so those local men who did reach their objective were all killed, wounded, or captured. Two-thirds of Gen. Pickett's division were casualties, and one would assume that included about two-thirds of the Pittsylvania County boys in his division.

And then, in WWII on June 6, 1944, the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division was assigned to take Normandy's Omaha Beach. The 116th was composed of south central Virginians, and many Pittsylvanians were among them. Dr. Yale Kramer, in his article “Day at the Beach” (The American Spectator, August 1994) notes that the Omaha Beach battle plan devised by Allied generals utterly failed, but through astounding acts of individual ingenuity and heroism, the German defenses at Omaha were destroyed anyway.

The 116th's men had not seen combat before, were dumped by landing craft at the wrong location, lost their supporting artillery and armor in the rough seas, and suffered high losses from heavy gunfire from the cliffs — and by drowning under the weight of their packs — when they jumped off their landing craft into the deep water.

General Norman Cota, in a move reminiscent of Armistead and Martin (can't stay here — must go forward), rallied his seasick wounded remaining soldiers to attack the seemingly impregnable strongholds above them.

As author Dr. Yale Kramer says, “Individual men — a succession of individual men, on their own, or leading small groups of ten or twenty, not under orders or according to some master plan, but out of a sense of desperation, or responsibility to their comrades, or honor, or pride, or all of them mixed together — began driving vital wedges into the German defenses all along the Omaha front. By mid-afternoon the Americans had overrun even the strongest of the German positions on Omaha.”

They did what they had to do.

Also during World War II, on the Pacific front, it is said that the turning point for U. S. forces occurred on April 18, 1943, when Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, mastermind of the Japanese war effort, was ambushed as he flew over Bougainville. The operations officer for that pivotal mission was Lt. Col. — later Lt. General — Henry Viccellio of Chatham.

Pittsylvania's heroes are not forgotten.

Just a few days ago, our daughter Sarah Mitchell, who does genealogical research, received an e-mail from a staff member of a museum in Europe, looking for information about World War II flying ace Capt. Fitz Neal, Jr. of Spring Garden. Capt. Neal's exploits were legendary, but he died in a dogfight over Germany on April 29, 1944. I knew about the story, because his proud but heartbroken mother Helen Conway Neal was my fifth grade teacher.

Yes, they did what they had to do. And they did it well.

Some nations fight for their kings. Some fight to get control of more land. But Americans do battle to protect the God-given life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of their spouses, their children, their parents, their friends, and for the hope of returning home themselves to enjoy those blessed freedoms.

Hundreds of our fellow Pittsylvanians did not return. We thank them, and salute them.


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This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House B&B, Chatham, Virginia.