Pittsylvania's Missing Confederate Cannons

By Herman E. Melton

While the ragged, starving soldiers of the Confederate Army were sorrowfully stacking their arms at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, a wily Confederate Cavalry General was slipping through the Union lines with members of his command. His destination: the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, where he hoped to link up with Confederate General Joe Johnston. General Johnston had skilfully evaded encirclement by the Yankees, and, in fact, it was General Lee's intent to combine his forces with Johnston's when his way was blocked by Union troops at Appomattox.

The cavalryman mentioned above who was not willing to submit to the Yankees at Appomattox was General Thomas Lafayette Rosser. Long after other scattered remnants of the Confederate Army had followed Lee's command to lay down their arms, “Fighting Tom” Rosser eluded his captors for a whole month before being captured near Staunton. For this impetuous and dangerous indiscretion, he earned the enmity of Union General U. S. Grant who ordered him tried for “deserting his command after surrender.” For some perplexing reason, Grant changed his mind and Rosser was paroled. It is a good guess that Rosser escaped punishment through the intervention of his counterpart, a former chum and classmate at West Point, Union General George Armstrong Custer.

The intrepid Rosser had a brilliant and enviable military career. He first distinguished himself as an artilleryman where he received several commendations. One of these was from none other than “Jeb” Stuart. It seems appropriate to point out another distinction belonging to Rosser. He can be classed as the first anti-aircraft gunner because he shot down a Union Army observation balloon early in the War.

After transferring to the cavalry, he competently led forces at Bull Run, Yorktown, Antietam, the Seven Days Battle, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and other engagements, not to mention many battlefield successes in the Shenandoah Valley.

He was interrogated after his capture by Lt. Col. Franklin Stratton of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Colonel Stratton wrote the following after grilling the doughty Rosser:

“General Rosser admitted that about nine pieces of artillery were concealed about Staunton and four pieces at Lexington — eight pieces artillery at Pittsylvania Courthouse — considerable Rebel property concealed about Charlottesville.”

The fate of Rosser's artillery pieces in Pittsylvania County remains something of a mystery. It is obvious that the guns became a burden to him immediately after he made his audacious escape through the Union lines. His newly-acquired guerilla status left him few options and none of them included carting artillery armament to Rebel units of Joe Johnston's army in Tennessee and North Carolina. The guns had to be left at points along his route. Not much is known about his activities while he was being pursued by the Union Cavalry. During his interrogation mentioned above, he indicated that he covered a region as far north as Charlottesville and as far south as Pittsylvania County.

An account of an incident that occurred on this southern leg of his flight is extant and sheds some light on the episode. It was recounted after the war by a trooper from General John Imboden's 18th Virginia Cavalry command who wrote about encountering elements of Rosser's fugitive brigade shortly after Lee's surrender. In fact, it was from these fugitives that members of his unit first heard of the surrender. The meeting was somewhere south of Lynchburg and after spending the night in camp with Rosser's men, the latter accompanied the chronicler's unit to Pittsylvania Courthouse in company with a Colonel Smith of the 62nd Cavalry. Smith asked the troopers to follow him south to affect a junction with Gen. Joe Johnston or else escape to Mexico. The men agreed and preparations got underway to make the journey.

Meanwhile, Major General Lunsford Lomax fled Lynchburg with his cavalry division with the intention of joining Lee at Danville. En route south he made contact with elements of Rosser's command and heard for the first time that Lee had surrendered. The two officers hastened to Danville where they conferred with Confederate Secretary of War, John C. Breckenridge. The Secretary was apparently in no position to offer any solutions and headed for Greensboro to overtake President Davis.

Lomax sized up the situation and ordered his artillery units to stack their guns at Pittsylvania Courthouse. The site in Chatham where they stacked the weapons is another mystery. Obviously, Rosser followed suit at Chatham and stacked his eight peices alongside those deposited by Lomax's artillery officer, Colonel William Nelson.

General Beauregard was by now in Greensboro and, aware of the threat posed by the approach of Union General Stoneman from the west, he ordered Lomax to stay and defend Danville. By April 15th, it was obvious that a Stoneman raid on Danville was unlikely.

Meanwhile, Rosser was apparently on his own and on April 12th passed through Chatham and headed north to his ultimate capture near Staunton a month later.

D. M. Grabill, the chronicler, next divulged details of a very interesting incident. He reported that a detail consisting of himself, Milson Hotel, and another trooper of Company F was formed to burn Pannill's Bridge across the Staunton River near the village of Long Island. He relates the following:

“We set out to obey these orders, which we did not understand, as General Lee had surrendered and we thought it unnecessary to further destroy property. But it is not a soldier's part to question his superiors; so we started, rather reluctantly, to carry out the last orders received from a Confederate officer. About one o'clock the next day we reached the bridge we were supposed to burn and set about preparing to do so. We met a lot of soldiers on the way, and squad after squad inquired what we were going to do, and upon learning our orders, they would ask that we delay a little longer, as there was another squad just a little way back. This occurred time after time, and we delayed till it was about sunset, when a Captain from Rosser's Brigade rode up and asked why we had not burned the bridge. We explained to him, but he said ‘Burn it at once,’ and just as the sun was sinking in the west we applied the torch. It made a great fire, and many were the soldiers who came that way and found their progress blocked by the river.

“When we got back to Pittsylvania about sundown next day, we learned that our brigade had left and that neither direction nor destination was known. We then decided to go to our homes, and next morning found us on our way to the Shenandoah Valley, already so famous as the great battlefield of Stonewall Jackson —.

“While in Lynchburg in 1905, I learned from a son of George Miley, a native of the Staunton River section, that the bridge was not the public road bridge, but the private property of one Sam Pannill. That the other bridge was still standing and doing service. — So far as I know, that was the last bridge burned in Virginia during the war.”

Grabill was unaware of the importance of Green Hill, the antebellum Pannill plantation on the Staunton River, near the present site of the community of Long Island. Samuel Pannill had a wealthy son-in-law, John Wimbush, whose tobacco plantation, The Promised Land, lay in Halifax County on the south side of the Staunton adjoining Pannill's land. The bridge that Grabill helped burn served as a connecting link between the two plantations.

By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Pannill had built an impressive estate at Green Hill that included a tobacco plantation, a grist and sawmill, a company store, a chapel, a commercial blacksmith shop, a fleet of bateaux, a ferry and later a toll bridge. He was elected President of the Roanoke Navigation Company and exerted tremendous influence on that institution during his tenure.

The destruction of the bridge has been a source of perplexity among Civil War buffs. Some tend to confuse Pannill's Bridge with Ward's Bridge on the Pittsylvania-Lynchburg Turnpike some twenty miles upstream near present-day Altavista.

Whereas Grabill's 1905 account contributes nothing toward determining the location of the deposit of the eight artillery pieces at Pittsylvania Courthouse, it verifies that Rosser and his command were indeed in Pittsylvania Courthouse shortly before his departure for Staunton. In all likelihood, Rosser and Lomax left their pieces with the Home Guard in what is now Chatham. Rosser's testimony that eight guns were there would have been enough to send the Yankees scurrying to Pittsylvania County to prevent their falling into the hands of other rebellious units. There is no mention of the presence of, or the disposition of, any military equipment in Pittsylvania County records during this period. Unless the National Archives in Washington or other sources yield further information on the incident, the final disposition of the pieces of artillery is lost in antiquity.



Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.