History of the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment

42nd Alabama Regimental Colors
42nd Alabama Regimental Colors
Painting by Conrad Wise Chapman of a Confederate Camp near Corinth Mississippi on May 10, 1862.
Painting by Conrad Wise Chapman of a Confederate Camp near Corinth Mississippi on May 10, 1862.
George W. Askew      Photo from Family Collection
George W. Askew Photo from Family Collection

The First Formation of the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment

On a late Spring Mississippi morning, a 23 year old Confederate private anxiously awaits the final tally of the election ballots that will determine his future role within the fledgling Confederate States Army. The young man is George Washington Askew of Blythe's Mississippi Rifles and an 1860 graduate of North Carolina's Chapel Hill College. On February 28, 1861, during the initial days of Mississippi's secession, George had volunteered to join the Tombigbee Rangers as they formed at Columbus, Mississippi not far from his family estate at Sessums, Mississippi. He answered his state's call to duty as did so many of his friends and relatives but, had no idea that this self proclaimed War for State's rights would become so immeasurably costly. Only a month earlier, he personally witnessed the terrible violence near Shiloh Church which cost his unit dearly, to include the death of his regimental commander Colonel A.K. Blythe; he now realized that this war was no short-term affair. Now safely located at a north Mississippi encampment, he senses an opportunity to make a difference. He is informed of a newly forming regiment, the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment, and decides to contend for a key leadership position. His efforts result in a Lieutenant's commission within F Company. 2LT Askew will join the soldiers of this regiment and together they will become first hand witnesses to the bloodiest war to stain American soil.[1]

The regiment's ceremonial birth occurs in the sticky evening air of May 16, 1862 at Camp Hardee, Mississippi as the virgin colors of the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment are unfurled for the first time at the head of a blended formation of 904 veterans, volunteers, conscripts, and substitutes. This moment marks the beginning of a three year journey which will include nine hard fought battles and four long campaigns which will eventually result in the transformational rebirth and unification of the United States of America.[2]

For many their individual paths that brought them to this moment began over a year prior when Alabama, on January 11, 1861, Alabama became the fourth state to secede from the Union and Governor Moore issued a call for volunteers to fill the ranks of the Army of Alabama. The 2nd Alabama Infantry Regiment was organized and manned the batteries at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay, later transferring to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, where it eventually disbanded in March 1862 upon the expiration of its soldiers one-year enlistments.[3] In April, following the set back at Shiloh, the newly formed central government of the Confederate States of America undertook several actions to prepare for the much longer than anticipated war. The various state units were federalized and reorganized into a standard structure; new units were created and a national army established. In addition, the Confederate Congress passed the Conscription Act in order to meet the ever increasing demand for soldier flesh.

Many of the veteran soldiers of the 2nd Alabama formed the core leadership of the embryonic 42nd Alabama.[4] Corporal Robert A. Lambert was typical of these 2nd Alabama veteran soldiers; a twenty nine-year-old general store clerk from Claiborne, Alabama.[5] Upon the expiration of his one-year enlistment, Lambert accepted a $50 bonus and a thirty-day furlough for reenlisting with the newly forming 42nd Alabama. Lambert captured the initial genesis of the regiment, "We were then sent to Columbus, Miss., to be formed into a regiment, and thence into a brigade. The letter of our company was A, as it happened to be the first to arrive, and our regiment was the 42nd Alabama, with John W. Portis of Suggsville, Clark County, Ala., in command. At the very beginning of our encampment at Columbus, Miss., I took pneumonia and was placed in a hospital, where I remained for six weeks, near death's door a considerable portion of the time. We were there through the summer of 1862, drilling and being trained for active service."[6]

The Lambert family were major contributors to the regiment, providing at least seven other siblings; all of which joined A Company along with Robert, several being veterans of the 2nd Alabama as well.[7] The Lamberts are a great example of the family and community closeness which contributed to the cohesiveness of these Civil War units, particularly at the company level. A review of the regiments muster rolls and individual soldier records reveal at least 40 common family names which provided at least five or more soldiers each.[8]

The regiment consisted of ten companies each varying in size from sixty-three to ninety-nine soldiers. Generally, each company consisted of four officers, four sergeants, four corporals, and the remainder privates. The soldiers elected their company grade officers. Upon formation of the regiment, Colonel John W. Portis was appointed by Governor Moore as the 42nd Alabama's first regimental commander. He was born 9 September 1818 in Nash County, North Carolina. Portis attended law school at the University of Virginia and established his own law partnership with his brother prior to the war. In addition, he served two terms as a representative for Clarke County in the Alabama legislature and a trustee for the University of Alabama. When the Civil War began, Portis a wealthy lawyer and land owner disbanded his practice in Clarke County, Alabama, and mustered with the 'Suggsville Grays' as a private. Eventually, Portis became a second lieutenant of Company D, 2nd Alabama Infantry Regiment. Upon his promotion to colonel and at the age of forty-two, Portis organized and assumed command of the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment. Portis was desribed as 'a good and true man'; the patriarch of a large family, in addition to his wife Rebecca, his family included four girls and three boys. His oldest son, 18 year old Earnest, joined him in the 42nd Alabama as a 2LT and peer of George Askew in F Company.[10] Another relative, 35 year old Thomas J. Portis, a lawyer and family man from Cahaba Town, Dallas County, Alabama was selected as the regimental adjutant.[11]

The original muster records characterize the regiment as a mixture of "generally good" and "raw recruits--undisciplined but with a capacity for learning" and veteran soldiers. Each soldier enlisted to serve for either two or three years. Without exception, every company "had no arms, no accoutrements" and "very little, inferior" clothing.[12] Most of the soldiers were farmers; some were wage earners. The majority of the officers were college graduates and professional lawyers or planters. They ranged in age from sixteen to fifty, the average being twenty-seven years of age.[13] Most were from the west Alabama counties of Marion, Fayette, Pickens, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecom, and Mobile. Some were from the east Alabama county of Talledaga and a scattering of Mississippians, such as George Askew, who joined as the regiment formed.[14] At least 202 were veterans from other units; most of the remaining soldiers were raw recruits either recent volunteers or conscripts and at least nine paid substitutes.[15] Most substitutes were motivated by money through a contractual arrangement in which one man substituted for another that had been conscripted. The price paid for a substitute varied from $300 to $6000.[16] One of these substitutes was Private R. G. Bond of H Company, he substituted for Private B. W. Burroughs on August 21, 1862 while still at Camp Hardee, Bond later deserted following the Battle at Corinth in October 1862.[17] Due to the numerous abuses, the practice of substitution was abolished by December 1863.[18] The exact number of conscripts and substitutes within the 42nd Alabama cannot be determined from the records but, of the approximately 66,400 soldiers that Alabama provided for Confederate service, 14,875 or 22 percent were conscripts.[19] We can assume that approximately 22 percent or at least 200 soldiers of the regiment's soldiers were conscripts of which a small percentage was substitutes. The regiment drilled and trained in accordance to the school of the soldier as outlined in the manual of Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics authored by Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William J Hardee and approved by the then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis on March 29, 1855. The soldiers of the 42nd Alabama were now familiar with Jefferson Davis as their president and many were familiar with the manual's author from their 2nd Alabama days when the newly appointed Confederate Colonel Hardee commanded Fort Morgan and now served as the namesake of their current encampment.[20] While in camp, the regiment slowly acquired more recruits and equipment. This equipment included cartridge boxes, cap boxes, waist belts, shoulder straps, bayonets, and knapsacks. The regiment eventually armed themselves with a mixture of Enfield and Mississippi Rifles.[21] The 42nd Alabama remained at Camp Hardee through August 1862 assigned to the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana under the overall command of General Earl Van Dorn.

As with most units early in the war, sanitation and disease prevention was not common practice, over seventy-eight soldiers were hospitalized and at least forty-one soldiers died of disease.[22] Ration supply was also problematic and contributed to nutrition related illnesses. Thirty seven-year-old Private James A. Fergusan of F Company wrote to his wife on June 7, 1862, "We are living very bad at this time . . . times is hard we don't git very plenty to eat."[23] Private John J. Burt of C Company also stated in a letter home on June 12 in referring to the wide spread sickness, "...O Mag I like to forgot I found a cosin of ours in town [Columbus, MS] the other day Dr. Wm [ William Jefferson] Burt he seemed to be very glad that he met with us he says he will send out for us in a few days to go out & stay a day or two with him . . . So you see if I get sick that is the place I will go . . . one of our sick men went out to his house and has got well & come back that is how I come to find him out."[24]

Many of the new recruits soon discovered military life was not pleasant duty and attempted to find ways to exempt themselves from their obligation of duty. Private George F. Capps, a thirty one year old farmer from Pike County, Alabama, who joined Company H, writes his wife Sarah on August 25 on his attempts to receive an exemption, "I am compelled to stay in military service because of the necessary documents to show my exemption from military duty. I got a recommendation to the Provost Marshall at Montgomery and there got a passport to Columbus Miss, and service."[25]

During this three-month period of mundane training and arduous camp life, at least thirty-eight soldiers, four percent of the regiment, received a discharge from service for a variety of reasons to include exceptions from service for medical reasons, possession of critical skills vital to the soldier's hometown community, or exceptional family situations.[26]

Some chose other methods to end their term of service sooner, the 42nd Alabama recorded at least forty-two counts of AWOL and twenty-one counts of desertion, a total regimental attrition of seven percent.[27] Colonel Portis spent much of his time building discipline and enforcing standards. His previous experience as an attorney proved useful as he presided over several camp Court Martial Boards during this period. One case on June 30 was Sergeant J.F. Humes from the 2nd Missouri Infantry who accused Privates Ed and William Dudley of stealing a rifle from an Arms stack within the encampment; Colonel Portis found the soldiers guilty but, assigned only a light punishment.[28] On the following day, Portis preceded over a case involving PVT Alonza Wood of the 37th Alabama, a sister regiment within the same brigade, Wood was found asleep while on guard duty at Camp Hardee, Portis dismissed the charges, possibly after hearing all the testimony and feeling empathy for the young, untrained, and weaponless recruit; however, the sentence was harshly overturned by General Braxton Bragg, well known as a strict disciplinarian within the old army.[29] Portis appeared to have understood the hardships of war on the common soldier; possibly due to his experiences as a lawyer and his own war-time call to duty as a volunteer private, as compared to Bragg, a career military officer. Some cases preceded over by Portis involved his own soldiers; such as Private J. B. Banister, Company F, who enlisted on 10 May 1862 and departed his unit without proper authorization on 7 August. Captain James B. Perkins, F Company Commander, charged Banister with desertion. Banister appeared before Colonel Portis, who found Banister not guilty of desertion, a charge punishable by death; however, found him guilty of being absent without leave and sentenced him to thirty days of hard labor, confinement, and ordered him to stand on a barrelhead in front of the entire regiment to serve as a disciplinary example. Portis discovered that Banister had departed after learning the company had received marching orders; his simple desire was to visit his parents, stating that he felt it would be his last chance and ultimately he returned of his own free will.[30] This initial three-month period at Camp Hardee was a time of forging a unit from a conglomeration of individuals into a regiment trained for battle.

While the regiment was encamped at Hardee, General Earl Van Dorn began contemplating his efforts to support General Bragg's upcoming offensive into Kentucky. With Corinth, Mississippi under Union occupation, Van Dorn saw an opportunity to retake the vital railroad junction as Bragg conducted his operation into Kentucky. Van Dorn began posturing his units in anticipation of his upcoming supporting efforts. Van Dorn writes, "No army ever marched to battle with prouder steps, more hopeful countenances, or with more courage than marched the Army of West Tennessee ... on its way to Corinth."[31]

Private James A. Ferguson, a thirty-five year old farmer and member of F Company wrote to his wife, "Captain Perkins sayes he is going to carry all of his men with him when he starts. There is 3 or 4 that is not able to go but they will have to go."[32] On 7 August, 2LT George W. Askew and soldiers of the 42nd Alabama formed for the last time at Camp Hardee, upon the very same field that only three months prior they had mustered for the first time and began their march to Tupelo, Mississippi. While at Tupelo on September 11, Colonel Portis received follow on orders directing him to move his regiment "on the morning of the 13th instant," and "report your command to General Maury, who will assign it in Moore's brigade."[33] Two days later the regiment sent their baggage wagons forward and 700 42nd Alabama soldiers boarded trains for Saltillo, Mississippi.[34] The 42nd Alabama was still very much a 'green' unit with untested leadership and resolve; however, it was now quietly moving closer to the brutality of its first baptism of fire near the rail road junction of Corinth, Mississippi.

[1] Military Service Record of George W. Askew from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization. These records depict his service in both the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment and the 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment; U.S. Census Office, 1860 Census of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi depicting data of George W. Askew; Chapel Hill College 1910 Reunion program for the Class of 1860, program depicts George W. Askew as a graduate of 1860.

[2] Muster Rolls of the 42nd Alabama Regiment Commanded by Colonel John W. Portis, 42nd Alabama Infantry Records, Records Collection, Alabama State Achieves, Montgomery, AL., 16 May 1862, Photocopied.; Stewart Sifakis, Compendium of the Confederate Armies: Alabama, (New York: Facts on File, 1992), 112-113. Joseph Wheeler, Confederate Military History: Extended Edition: Volume VIII, Alabama. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1987), 187.

[3] Joseph Wheeler, Confederate Military History: Extended Edition: Volume VIII, Alabama. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1987), 56.

[4] Ibid, 187.

[5]5 U.S. Census Office, 1860 Census of Mobile County, Alabama depicting data of Robert A. Lambert and family.

[6] R. A. Lambert, "In The Mississippi Campaigns," Confederate Veteran, (1929): 37, 292.

[7] Muster Rolls of the 42nd Alabama Regiment Commanded by Colonel John W. Portis, 42nd Alabama Infantry Records, Records Collection, Alabama State Achieves, Montgomery, AL., 16 May 1862, Photocopied.; Military Service Record of the Lambert Family from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.; U.S. Census Office, 1860 Census of Mobile County, Alabama depicting data of Robert A. Lambert and family.

[8] Muster Rolls of the 42nd Alabama Regiment Commanded by Colonel John W. Portis, 42nd Alabama Infantry Records, Records Collection, Alabama State Achieves, Montgomery, AL., 16 May 1862, Photocopied.; Military Service Records of the 42nd Alabama from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[9]42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment Website, http://www.rootsweb.com/~al42inf/; Obituary of John W. Portis, The Montgomery Advertiser, April 2, 1902. Military Service Record of John W. Portis from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[10] U.S. Census Office, 1860 Census of Cahaba County, Alabama depicting data of John W. Portis and family. Military Service Record of Earnest A. Portis from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[11] U.S. Census Office, 1860 Census of Cahaba County, Alabama depicting data of Thomas J. Portis and family. Military Service Record of Thomas J. Portis from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[12] Muster Rolls of the 42nd Alabama Regiment Commanded by Colonel John W. Portis, 42nd Alabama Infantry Records, Records Collection, Alabama State Achieves, Montgomery, AL., 16 May 1862, Photocopied.

[13] Military Service Record of the 42nd Alabama from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[14] 42nd Alabama Infantry Regiment Website, http://www.rootsweb.com/~al42inf/

[15] Military Service Records of the 42nd Alabama from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[16] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 432.

[17] Military Service Record of R.G. Bond and B.W. Burroughs of the 42nd Alabama from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[18] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 432.

[19] Bessie Martin, Desertion of Alabama Troops from the Confederate Army, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 58.

[20] Arthur W. Bergernon Jr., Confederate Mobile, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 8-9.

[21] Military Records of the 42nd Alabama, NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[22] Military Service Record of the 42nd Alabama from NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[23] James A. Ferguson, letter to his wife, 7 June and 4 August 1862, provided by the Harris Family of Mississippi. Website: http://www.rootsweb.com/~allamar/CWletters.html

[24] Private John J. Burt, excerpt of a June 12, 1862 letter home posted on http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~opus/p283.htm

[25] George F. Capps to wife, Martha, 25 August 1862, Special Collections, University Libraries, Mississippi State University, Starkville.

[26] Military Records of the 42nd Alabama, NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Family History Blog, J.E. Humes on Trail, 1862. Website: http://www.wallandbinkley.com/fhblog/?p=3.

[29] Proceedings of a General Court Martial convened at Columbus, Mississippi. Website: http://www.knology.net/~toniab/WOODcm.htm.

[30] Court Martial Records of Private J. B. Banister, NARA Microfilm Collection M861, Record Group 109, Complied Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organization, rolls 398-401.

[31]OR, 17.1, (Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), 378.

[32] James A. Ferguson, to his wife, 6 August 1862, provided by the Harris Family of Mississippi. Website: http://www.rootsweb.com/~allamar/CWletters.html.

[33] OR, 17.1, (Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), 700-701.

[34] Ibid.

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Comments 5 comments

Pennington 5 years ago

A very useful history. Three of my relatives were in Company F. One, Elijah, became a Union Navy man while in prison at Rock Island Illinois. He served aboart the USS Vermont and the USS Montauk before release on 2 June 1865 whereon he joined his family in Campbell, Dunklin County, Missouri, and died in 1880.


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Sam Askew 5 years ago from McLean, VA Author

Glad you enjoyed it ... always great to hear from a decendent of the 42nd Alabama. If you have any more info on your ancestors that were members that would be great. I am always adding to the history of the 42nd Alabama. You can always reach me at my e-mail samuel_askew@yahoo.com. Again Thx ... Sam


shannon murphy 4 years ago

very much enjoyed your site. my great great grandfather was Sgt Robert N. Murphy of the Alabama 2nd Infantry Co C, then re enlisted with Alabama 42nd Co A. Researching his service has been an awesome experience.


Sam Askew 4 years ago

Shannon ... glad you enjoyed the article ... I would be glad to assist with your research. You can reach me at samuel_askew@yahoo.com

Sam


Anthony Taylor 4 years ago

hey there Sam my 3rd great grandfather and his brother was in the 42nd Co G enlisted after their year enlistment to the 7th Alabama Co B. 1st Sgt Elisha Burress Dickinson enlisted in 1862 with the 42nd along with his brother 2nd Cpl Peter Eli Dickinson you can email me at eddystone1917@yahoo.com if you have any questions or would like pictures of them

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