SUBMITTED BY: Joel Ringgold Stegall
My fourth great-grandfather, John Sampson “Samp” Page, the son of John and Mary Autry Page of Sampson County, was single, 24 years old and living with his parents when the war broke out. He enlisted and was assigned on 04 Nov 1861 to North Carolina Co. A, 2nd Light Artillery Battery, which operated primarily at Fort Fisher and Fort Caswell on the Atlantic coast.
Fort Caswell and Fort Fisher, strategically located on either side of the mouth of the Cape Fear River leading to the Port of Wilmington, were charged with protecting ships running the Union blockade of Confederate ports Lincoln had imposed in April 1861. Without the manufacturing capacity to sustain the war, the South had to depend on shipments of goods and war matériel from Europe, primarily England. For those products to get to their destinations, the ships carrying them had to get past Union gunboats anchored off every Southern port. This description of Fort Fisher gives a good explanation of the importance of protecting those ships:
At the dawn of the American Civil War, the Confederacy took control of a neck of land in southern North Carolina near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. There the government constructed what was to become the largest and one of the most important earthwork fortifications in the South. Fort Fisher guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear and the port of Wilmington, which proved vital to the Confederacy. The seacoast guns at Fisher kept Federal blockading ships at a distance and allowed blockade runners safe passage to Wilmington, where they supplied the Confederate Army and brought much needed goods into the South. The story of Fort Fisher is an integral part of the North Carolina Civil War Experience.
Battles of Fort Fisher
Late in 1864, Union strategy was to take Fort Fisher, choke off the South’s last access to foreign goods and bring the war to an end.
When United States navy, marine and land forces attempted a beach landing at Fort Fisher 24-27 Dec 1864, Samp Page’s unit, under the command of Col. William Lamb, was charged with defense of the fort. The battle, a fiasco for the Union, was the only time in history the US Marines have failed in a beach landing. The North re-grouped and attacked again three weeks later. Lasting for three days, 13-15 Jan 1865, the Second Battle of Fort Fisher was the world’s largest land-sea battle until WWII. This time, Confederates could not withstand the onslaught of overwhelming forces. With the collapse of Fort Fisher, the fall of the Confederacy was inevitable.
Five hundred of Col. Lamb’s men were killed or wounded. Samp Page was among another 1500 who were captured and sent to a Union prison camp at Point Lookout, MD. Samp had lived through two-and-a-half years of armed combat; now he and his fellow POWs had to fight to survive in one of the ghastly enclaves of brutality military prisons on both sides had become.
Although Gen. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 09 Apr 1865, only three months after Fort Fisher fell, another two months went by before Samp was released 17 Jun 1865. He was allowed to return home when he signed an oath of allegiance to the United States of America.
A year after he returned to the Page farm in Pitt County, John Sampson Page married Margaret Ann Fisher. He fathered 13 children, the oldest of whom was my grandmother, Jemima Page, later Ringgold. Living her last years in our home when I was a child, Grandmother Jemima taught me the alphabet, how to tell time, and how to count. She also wrote the story of her father’s service in the Confederate army.
Benjamin Franklin Ringgold
Ben believed in the Confederate cause. In spite of his being the father of a young child, he was one of the first to volunteer, leaving behind his wife Catherine and 22-month-old Willie. Ben was so confident of a quick Southern victory he thought he’d be back in a few weeks. Years later, his daughter-in-law, Jemima Page Ringgold wrote:
Gallantly taking leave of his young wife and his precious baby boy…he went to help his comrades win the victory which he was sure would come; assuring his neighbors that his boy would one day be President (of the Confederate States of America)!
Confederate Army records show that Ben enlisted in Fayetteville 20 Jul 1861 but was not actually mustered into service until 28 Sep 1861 in Weldon. He was assigned to Company E (Manchester Guards) of the North Carolina 8th Infantry Regiment with the rank of private.
Jemima noted that “Ben fought in several battles, was wounded, captured, and sent back to action through a prisoner exchange.”
Ben fought at Roanoke Island, NC, where he was captured 08 Feb 1862 by Union forces under the command of Gen. A. E. Burnside. He was released on parole 21 Feb 1862 at Elizabeth City. It is not clear what he did from that time until August when he resumed duty with his unit. He was given leave to go home over Christmas, Dec 1862, which leads to one of most poignant narratives of our family in the Civil War.
My mother, Irma Ringgold Stegall, granddaughter of Ben Ringgold, told me the following story many times and left it in her written notes, which I have edited slightly, adding some details from my own research of Civil War records:
As Benjamin was getting ready to return to his unit, three-year-old Willie did not want to see his daddy go. Benjamin took Willie to the corn field, made a play gun out of a corn stalk and set Willie to playing. With Willie’s attention on the play gun, his daddy walked away through the corn.
(By this time of year, ears of fresh corn would have been pulled, leaving stalks dry, making it easy to strip the leaves to make a play gun.)
(Ben returned to his unit and was “slightly wounded” 30 Jul 1863 in combat at Morris Island, SC.)
On 29 Sep 1863, nine months after Ben’s home visit, Catherine gave birth to their second child, another boy, Thomas Luther. Ben never saw his second son.
Ben’s 8th Infantry Regiment was constantly on the move. By Dec 1863, the group had set up for the winter near Petersburg, VA. At the end of Jan 1864, the regiment took a train to the Goldsboro/Kinston area, where the commanding officer, Col. Henry Shaw, was killed. Lt. Col. J. M. Whitson was promoted to the rank of colonel and named the new commander. The unit moved on to Suffolk, VA and then took a train back to Petersburg in March.
With not much going on militarily, a late snow was an invitation for a bit of intramural competition. North Carolina’s 51st Regiment attacked the Eighth with snowballs. It is not clear who won, but one participant said, “It was an exciting and enjoyable affair.”
Ben’s Letter Home
Along about this time, Catherine wrote Ben that she was having trouble providing for herself and the boys. Men who stayed at home (those who were older or had some physical limitation) were expected to provide for the wives and children of those away from home in fighting units. Ben wrote to Billy Sessoms (perhaps his wife’s guardian or brother) expressing his concern that “the committee” was not looking after his family, taking a jab at the men he suspected had faked disabilities to avoid service. I still have the original and have provided a copy to the North Carolina Civil War History Center. I have edited the text below in minor ways to make it more readable.
April 3rd, 1864 – Camp near Petersburg, VA
To Mr. Billy Sessoms
I set myself to inform you that I am well at this time and I hope this will reach you and find you the same. I have no news to write only that I received a letter from my wife the other day and she said that the committee did not give her enough money to pay for one bushel of corn and I think the committee might give her more. She said she could get along on that and I know she can’t. I guess some of them think it hard to pay heavy taxes but I think it hard for soldiers to stay in the army and leave our families at home to suffer. I could have stayed home and feigned illness as well as some of the rest. I think if the community would try they could do better although I don’t need from you a loan.
B. F. Ringgold
Ben Fatally Wounded
Soon after Ben sent this letter, Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was ordered to move his army of the James to the town of Bermuda Hundred, VA, between Richmond and Petersburg, and disrupt Confederate supplies moving to Richmond. Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard assembled a coalition of troops to meet Butler and keep the supply lines open. Beauregard’s forces included North Carolina’s 8th Regiment, now commanded by Col. J. M. Whitson. Ben was in Company E under the command of Capt. L. R. Brewer. Beauregard attacked Butler near Ware Bottom Church on 20 May 1864. A detailed description of the NC 8th Infantry’s action is described in Clark’s 8th North Carolina Infantry Regimental History.
Beauregard’s Confederate coalition prevailed, but the cost was high. Ben Ringgold was among the 1400 casualties. His daughter-in-law Jemima Page Ringgold wrote:
One day the awful news came that Benjamin F. Ringgold was fatally wounded…and could live only a few days!
Ben died 18 June 1864 in a hospital in Petersburg, VA and was buried there with other Confederate soldiers. At age 26, having fought nearly three years in a war he was sure the Confederates would win in a matter of weeks, he left behind a distraught wife and two little boys, including one he had never seen. One became my great-grandfather.
The marker for Benjamin Ringgold in the Fisher Cemetery at Stedman incorrectly states that he “Died in Battle of Lexington, VA.” However, the Confederate Army Service Report says of him:
Wounded in the thorax at Ware Bottom Church VA. May 20th 1864. Died in hospital at Petersburg VA. on June 18th 1864.
There was no “Battle of Lexington” in the Civil War. There was a limited military action, called Hunter’s Raid, near Lexington, VA but it occurred three weeks after Ben was wounded. Further, Lexington is about 160 miles west of a “camp near Petersburg,” the location indicated on Ben’s letter 03 April letter.
The same gravestone appears to be in error regarding the date of Catherine’s birth. It says she was born in 1831; however, Census records, which should be more reliable because Catherine herself would have reported her birth date, indicate that she was born in 1839. This is also more believable in that Ben was born in 1838.