Two Civil War Stories – Considering the Careers of two Ordnance Sergeants

One aspect of the American Civil War which many find compelling is the “brother against brother” story lines that emerge from the narrative.   There are certainly plenty of examples where blood relations aligned with opposite sides.  But there are even more where men who otherwise held much in common, chose opposite paths in the storm that began in 1861.  We are all familiar with the Hancock – Armistead story, thanks to books and movies, which epitomizes such relations. But similar stories abound throughout the narrative of the war.

One such story emerged last Tuesday as I listened a presentation by T.J. Smith at our roundtable meeting.  Her talk, titled “Actuated by Patriotism: The Taking of Forts Caswell and Johnston” covered the pre-secession actions that lead to the seizure of North Carolina coastal forts in 1861.   During the talk, T.J. often mentioned Ordnance Sergeant James Reilly who was the caretaker of Fort Johnston along the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington, N.C.   Faced with overwhelming force, Reilly signed the fort over to local secessionists.  Popular outcries forced the secessionists to return the forts, but Reilly later turned the forts over to state authorities.

I’ve oversimplified an interesting story there to focus on one bit of T.J.’s conclusion.  After North Carolina seceded, Sergeant James Reilly resigned from the US Army and joined the North Carolina state volunteers.  As T.J. mentioned, Reilly went on to command the Rowan Artillery, which is marked as Reilly’s Battery on the field at Gettysburg.

At first glance, Reilly’s background has nothing of the fire-eating secessionist.  The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography offers the core details of his life.  He was born in Ireland and served in the British Army for some time.  But he deserted from that army and fled to America.  Just before the Mexican War, he joined the US Army and served in the 2nd U.S. Artillery.  He was wounded in the battle of Molino del Ray.  Remaining in the Army after his recovery, Reilly served at several coastal and frontier stations in the decade before the Civil War.  He received the warrant of Ordnance Sergeant in 1857 and took over as Fort Johnston’s caretaker in 1859.   And as mentioned above, this position put Reilly in the middle of the secession crisis in 1861.

Having resigned and joined the Confederacy, Reilly commanded his battery during most of the major battles in the Eastern Theater – from First Mansassas up to the spring of 1864.  At that time, upset with politics he observed in the Army of Northern Virginia, he declined a promotion to Major in the Confederate service, but accepted one from the North Carolina governor.  This decision lead to reassignment back in the Cape Fear area.  Captured at Fort Fisher, Reilly spent the remainder of the war a prisoner. Post-war Reilly returned to Wilmington, N.C. and operated a ferry among other business interests.

After hearing about James Reilly’s Civil War, what struck me was the similarities and differences with Edwin Burt’s Civil War.  I mentioned Burt back in January, in reference to the seizure of Oglethorpe Barracks in Savannah, Ga.  My friend Robert Moore offered additional details about Burt and his background.

  • Both men served in the regular artillery in the Mexican War, perhaps even within the same artillery park.
  • Burt became ordnance sergeant about a year or so before Reilly, but both men served at Fort Monroe around the same time period.
  • Both men reported to W.H.C. Whiting in the years just before the Civil War.
  • Both men served in similar capacities in the early months of 1861.
  • Both men served at their posts with their families close by.
  • At nearly the same time, both men received demands by local secessionist forces to give up their charge.

And of course, both men made decisions regarding their future at about the same time – one returned to the north and served for the Union; one stayed in the south and fought for the Confederacy.

I can think of a number of times that Reilly’s guns may have bore on Burt during the war.  Perhaps at First Manassas, one of the battles in the Peninsula Campaign, or on Chin Ridge during the Second Manassas.  But those instances would be speculation more than fact.  Burt’s 3rd Maine was within cannon shot of Reilly’s guns at Gettysburg, but Burt was not with the regiment there.  When Burt’s mortal wound at the Wilderness occurred, Reilly already was gone to North Carolina. And I don’t recall the Rowan Artillery employed in the same sector as Burt’s command.

There is no indication Burt and Reilly knew each other, but circumstantial evidence gives some strong possibilities.  Both were thrown into very similar circumstances in January 1861.  And after those events, both chose opposite sides.  Perhaps each man would describe “loyalty” and “patriotism” in similar terms, but make different applications.  But is that not striking at the essence of the American Civil War?


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