This vulnerable young private’s face has long been an icon of the Civil War. For years he was misidentified and the manner of his death remained unknown. The recent discovery of an eccentric veteran’s horrific tale of his demise seemed to bring closure. But was it a lie?
The haunting photograph of Private Edwin F. Jemison, Company C, 2nd Louisiana Volunteers, killed at Malvern Hill,has appeared in countless books and articles.His obvious youthful innocence has conjured up strong emotions in many who had seen the photo.To many, his face is a tragic icon of the Civil War,and a symbol of the lost generations and lives cut short by all wars.But despite the image’s popular use,a mystery surrounds the Confederate soldier.
Details of his life can be found in numerous records—he was born in 1844, one of five children born to Robert and Sarah Jemison; the family lived near Monroe,La.;and he enlisted in the 2nd Louisiana when he was 16 years old. It is how he died that eludes us.And we want to know—we want to learn his fate.That he died during the Peninsula campaign as his regiment attacked Union positions in the July 1, 1862,Battle of Malvern Hill is an established fact. A misconception perpetrated in 1906, however, has led many scholars astray as to the exact cause of his death.
Two almost identical accounts claim Private Jemison’s life was snuffed out by a cannonball. One report was relayed by his niece,Mamie Jemison Chestney,in a family history she compiled for her own nieces and nephews.In it,Chestney states: “While his [Private Jemison’s] parents knew where he died, it was many years before they knew the details. One day my father introduced himself to a man as they sat before a hotel.The man repeated the name and said it was the first time he had heard that name since 1862; that a young soldier of that name had been fighting beside him at the Battle of Malvern Hill and been decapitated by a cannon ball. Questions proved it was Uncle Edwin.”
The other account appeared first in the Atlanta Constitution on March 26, 1906, headlined as “Soldier’s Blood Spouted on Him, Captain Moseley Meets Brother of Wartime Comrade,” and then again on April 19,1906, in the National Tribune.The account was retitled “His Head Blown Off, a Former Wearer of the Gray Tells of the Tragic Death of a Comrade During a Desperate Charge on the Union Lines at Malvern Hill.” The article described an old soldier, identified as Captain Warren Moseley,telling the tale of a grisly death at Malvern Hill to a large group of fascinated listeners.While Moseley is speaking, a man emerges from the crowd and says that the soldier whose death is being so graphically detailed was his brother, Edwin F. Jemison.To get at the truth, both the Chestney and the newspaper accounts need to be closely examined.
Mamie Jemison Chestney was a schoolteacher and published author and an avid genealogist who traced and recorded her family history.As both an author and a teacher, she would have understood the importance of fact-finding and the accuracy of sources,and the many letters she wrote to her cousin regarding her family history show attention to detail. Keeping this in mind,we can assume that the source for her story about her Uncle Edwin was reliable.The source,her father R.W.Jemison Jr.,was the younger brother of Private Jemison.In looking at the story relayed to Chestney by her father, and comparing it to the story in the newspaper, it can easily be deduced that the man R.W. Jemison spoke to was Captain Warren Moseley.
Captain Moseley was a longtime resident and police officer of Macon,Ga.,the same town in which the Jemisons lived. Despite his claim that he had not heard “that name since 1862,” it is virtually impossible that a police officer like Moseley had not heard the name Jemison in Macon.To begin with,Private Jemison’s father and his brother Samuel were both prominent attorneys,as well as the city attorneys for Macon.As such,their names appeared countless times in newspapers in both Macon and Atlanta.In 1879 city attorney R.W. Jemison Sr. committed suicide in downtown Macon. The incident was much talked about in the newspapers,and as a police officer,Captain Moseley almost certainly would have known about it.
After R.W.Jemison Sr.’s death,Samuel Jemison took over his father’s position. When Samuel died in 1886,his death and funeral were also well-documented in the local newspaper. Captain Moseley must have heard the name “Jemison” since 1862, on some occasion or another.
R.W.Jemison Jr.stood to gain nothing from the story he related to his daughter about his brother’s death,so we can assume he was telling the truth.The question is whether Captain Moseley was telling the truth when he said he witnessed the death of Private Jemison at Malvern Hill.
Taking a look at the version of the story that appeared in the 1906 newspapers is the first step in uncovering who Captain Moseley was and what his motivation might have been. In part, the story says that during the attack at Malvern Hill, Moseley claimed he was “wondering who it was who stood foremost in a charge of a Louisiana brigade with fixed bayonet,advancing up the hill and across a clover patch,when a shell from a gunboat in the bay took off his head and spattered his brains and blood all about the uniform of Captain Moseley, himself advancing through the thick rain of shot with his Georgia brigade.”
Within the article, Moseley is quoted as saying:“I turned suddenly at the terrible concussion caused by the proximity of the shell’s trail of death and saw that man standing headless, with bayonet drawn as in the charge, his blood spurting high in the air from the jugular vein,and it seemed to me an hour before he reeled and fell, still holding on to his gun.To me that was one of the most horrible sights of the period. I went back and looked at him after the fight to assure myself that it was not a dream of frenzy in those exciting moments. He was there as I had seen him fall, and more than 40 years have passed with that picture forever impressed on my memory.”
Captain Moseley then states that he had “long tried to learn who the private was.”A listener in the crowd of gentlemen on the street corner asked where the Louisiana brigade had entered the fight, and when Captain Moseley went over this part of the story again, a little chapter adding another event to the stories of the ’60s was closed.“That was my brother,” claimed the man.
The listener in the crowd is identified as R.W.Jemison.The article states that “it was his brother’s blood that had been mingled with Captain Moseley’s on the uniform of the latter at Malvern Hill when the one was killed and the other was badly wounded in the rain of shells.”The article concludes with the awkward sentence,“Both Captain Moseley and Mr. Jemison have been citizens of Macon many years, but they had not known all of this one of the many unwritten tragedies of the civil war.”
Captain Moseley drew such a vivid picture of a soldier’s battlefield death that not only was he able to convince a crowd of listeners of what he saw but he also managed to persuade R.W. Jemison that the soldier in question was his own brother.He was a gifted storyteller,but was his story of Malvern Hill the truth,or just a means of getting attention?
On August 5,1861,Moseley enlisted in Company H,4th Georgia Infantry.Company H was initially known as the “Baldwin Blues,” a tribute to the infantrymen’s home of Baldwin County.Moseley stated under oath in his pension application, dated September 12,1910,that he was captured near Winchester,Va., in 1862 and held for three months at the prison at Point Lookout,Md.,at which time he was exchanged.
By 1863, Moseley was back in the Army as a member of Company A of the 4th Georgia Reserve Cavalry, a militia unit. He was promoted to captain of Company A,giving him the rank he used with such good effect during the postwar years.He surrendered at Milledgeville,Ga., in April 1865.
The information Moseley gave in his pension application is supported by the information in The Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia,which states that Moseley was “wounded and captured at Strasburg,VA June 1,1862.Exchanged at Point Lookout, MD, about September 1862. Wounded at Chancellorsville,VA. May 3, 1863.Elected Captain Co.A,4th Regt.Ga. Reserve Cavalry April 1863. Surrendered at Milledgeville, Ga.” Of greatest interest to this story are the dates the Roster gives for Moseley’s capture and release. The Battle of Malvern Hill was on July 1,1862. Moseley had been captured exactly one month before that fight and was not exchanged until two months after. Moseley could not have been at Malvern Hill, for he was enduring the mosquitoes at Point Lookout at that time.
Even if Moseley had been at Malvern Hill, he would not have been positioned close to the unfortunate Private Jemison. Moseley’s 4th Georgia was at least a quarter of a mile from Private Jemison’s 2nd Louisiana.He simply could not have been next to Jemison, getting covered with Jemison’s blood.Moseley,it seems,embellished his wartime record.
But why would he do so? What kind of man was Captain Moseley? It is clear from newspaper accounts of his life as a Confederate veteran that he was a man who reveled in this role,attending numerous reunions and using his veteran status to earn some money. Moseley, in essence, spent a good deal of his postwar life as a “professional veteran.”
For example, in June 1892 it was reported in the Atlanta Constitution that Moseley would be attending the 4th Georgia annual barbecue and picnic in Jeffersonville.He would be one of the event’s attractions, and the paper said he would “wear the coat which shows by its numerous bullet holes the number of wounds he received during the war in the service of the south.”
In November 1905 there was another Confederate reunion in Macon, this time much larger than the one in Jeffersonville in 1892. The event had been carefully planned for many months. Moseley was given authority to organize the cavalry element of the reunion.Hoping to have 500 cavalrymen attend, he encouraged veterans and sons of Confederate veterans to participate.The newspapers promised that the parade would feature a cavalry charge, and the Atlanta Constitution noted “the fact that Captain Moseley will be in charge is assurance of a most interesting affair.This veteran was engaged in nineteen battles, and was wounded eight times. He will wear a uniform which he possessed during the war.”
When the parade was over, according to the newspaper: “Moseley and his cavalrymen formed at the foot of Cherry Street and charged up to Cotton Avenue. All the old men in this troop rode as in their younger days, and they seemed to warm up to that rugged heat of excitement always evident among the men on the eve of battle.The war whoop sounded and the men were off.At breakneck speed, they dashed down the paved street, flashing old-time sabers. The crowds fell in behind them and yelled themselves hoarse.”
At the reunions Moseley would tell tales of his life during the war. One such story was recorded in various newspapers in December 1900.The incident described by the newspapers occurred at the Augusta veterans’ reunion and revolved around a strange tale told by Moseley concerning a “Hoodoo hat.”At the “battle of Winchester,” said Moseley, a Yankee was shot through the head, the bullet passing through his hat. A soldier of Moseley’s 4th Georgia saw the fine hat,picked it up and wore it. Two hours later that man was killed, shot through the head, the bullet passing through the same hole as the bullet that had killed the Yankee. Despite two men having been killed by shots through the hat,another 4th Georgia infantryman picked it up,and he too was struck in the head by an enemy bullet.Yet another 4th Georgia soldier picked up the hat and was shot in the head the next day.The tale concluded that this hat,despite having four previous wearers shot through the head while wearing it,was still “a fine one,”but no one would pick it up again and it was left on the field.This story sounds far-fetched,but as a great piece of entertainment, it likely captivated all those Moseley told it to.
Moseley also used his status as a Confederate veteran to make some extra money. In newspapers across the country in 1904 and 1905, an advertisement appeared featuring two “famous Confederate Veterans,”along with their photographs, who “use and recommend” Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. Moseley was one of those famous veterans, and he was quoted as saying:“I never felt better in my life,and I owe it all to Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. I was wounded eight times during the war and after General Lee’s surrender returned home completely broken down. My wounds gave me a good deal of trouble, and I had attacks of extreme weakness, with great loss of blood. Doctors said nothing would enrich my blood and build me up so quickly and thoroughly as Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey. I took nothing else.Although past 65,I am in perfect physical and mental condition and devote twelve hours a day to my business.”
Moseley’s role as celebrity veteran hit a high note when he was appointed to the staff of General A.J.West, commander of the North Georgia Brigade of the United Confederate Veterans.As recorded in the Atlanta Constitution on December 16, 1906:“Captain Warren Moseley of Macon who was last week made an aide-de-camp on the staff of General A.J.West,is among the few very striking typical Confederate soldiers left to enjoy the annual reunions of the Georgia Division. He entered the war as a private in the fourth regiment Georgia volunteers, from Milledgeville, was engaged in nineteen battles and skirmishes, wounded eight times during the war,was a prisoner many times,and as often exchanged.He was given a captain’s commission by Governor Joseph E.Brown and toward the end of the war operated in north Georgia and Tennessee under Colonel J.J. Findlay,where bushwhackers were fought. Captain Moseley has since the war been a citizen of Macon and has served on the Macon police force for a long period.His devotion to the veterans’reunion and the commemoration of the courage and bravery of southern soldiers make him at once a loyal Confederate. His appointment to the position mentioned is generally appreciated in Macon. He will serve on General West’s staff with the rank of Major.”
In May 1907, there was a national reunion in Richmond,Va.,of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had participated in the 1862 fighting for the Confederate capital.The gathering was held just a year after Moseley’s meeting with R.W.Jemison Jr. Considering the fact that Moseley could not have been at the battles for Richmond, his account reads like a rather grand tall tale.
The June 1,1907,Atlanta Constitution report on the Richmond reunion quotes Moseley as saying:“At that time the ladies of this city gave several church bells in order that they might be broken up and used to make cannon for the Confederate army.There was enough metal in the bells to make three cannon.About twentyfive pounds were left, and the remainder was used in making buckles for the soldiers’ belts.These latter contained the letters ‘C.S.’The price of the belts was $100. We were then operating in the valley of Virginia.I came down here with ten prisoners.A number of beautiful young ladies met me,and told me I might have one of the belts. I wear today the same pair of trousers I had on when I was wounded in the thigh and leg.I was also wounded several other times. I have not been here in forty-four years. I went down to the battlefield of Seven Pines [May 31–June 1, 1862] yesterday, where our brigade first went into the fight.I went to King’s school house,near Frayser’s farm [June 30,1862], where I found a house from which we fought full of bullet holes. I then went down to the swamp and found twelve pounds of shot and shell. I also found a broken saber,which was evidently broken over the head of one of the enemy.”
A few months later,Moseley again appeared in the Atlanta Constitution discussing Frayser’s Farm,another battle fought near Richmond in 1862.In an August 15 article he discusses a photograph that was given to him.The photo is of the “Frazur house, made by the Yankees shortly after the famous battle of the Seven Pines, in June 1862.” It was presented to Moseley by “Ira Watson,one of the Federal soldiers who fought in the trenches before the old house at the time it was held against a large force of Yankees by Warren Moseley,Ace Butts,T.F. Mappin and York Preston, until General Doles reached the point with a sufficient force of men to drive back the enemy.These four men killed more than eighty federal soldiers and officers in the trenches from the attic of this house and lost only one companion,York Preston, who was mortally wounded by parts of the chimney falling upon him when it was knocked away by a shell.”
The reunion at Richmond would be one of Moseley’s last.He died on December 17,1912,and was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon. Ironically, despite Moseley’s devotion to the Confederacy and avid participation in veteran affairs,he lies in a grave beneath a tombstone that does not indicate his military service.
There is little doubt that Captain Moseley and R.W. Jemison Jr. met on an afternoon in Macon and talked about the Battle of Malvern Hill.And there is little doubt that Captain Moseley gave a graphic account of a young soldier’s death. But it can be easily seen that he made up his story about Malvern Hill.He had become a professional veteran,living in the glory of the past,basking in the attention and adoration he received from younger generations.
It is unlikely that the circumstances of Private Jemison’s death will ever be fully known,and this passage from his obituary will have to suffice to describe his last moments:He “sustain[ed] himself in the front rank of the soldier and gentlemen until the moment of his death. Bounding forward at the order ‘Charge!’ he was stricken down in the front rank, and without a struggle yielded up his young life.” Regardless of details, what we do know for certain is that he was a brave young man who died a soldier’s death on the battlefield,and his photographic legacy of war’s awful cost will resonate forevermore.
For further reading, see: Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles, by Brian K. Burton; and Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles, by Matt Spruill III and Matt Spruill IV
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.