Lucius Wing’s Big Adventure in Holly Springs
By David McDevitt
Greetings Dear Readers,
It’s been a couple of months since I made a new blog post, but the stack of fan mail begging me to write another has obliged me to do just that. Something exceptionally interesting came across my desk the other day, something that I feel is well worth sharing with you all!
Allow me to set the stage. On December 20, 1862, a large force of Confederate cavalry descended upon the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi, the key supply base for General Grant’s army in Mississippi. Taking the Northern defenders by surprise, the Confederates quickly netted several thousand prisoners and an enormous cache of supplies. Knowing they could not linger for fear of getting caught by Union reinforcements, they carried off what materiel they could and destroyed the rest, forcing General Grant and his army to withdraw from their campaign objectives.
Green Star: Holly Springs, Mississippi, the location of the Confederate raid.
Blue Star: Oxford, Mississippi, the location of General Grant’s Union Army at the time of the raid on Holly Springs.
Yellow Star: Grenada, Mississippi, the town from which Confederate General Earl Van Dorn launched his raid behind Grant’s army.
Red Star: Vicksburg, Mississippi, a vital Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, and Grant’s primary campaign objective.
As rebel forces gathered early in the morning of the assault, businessman Lucius B. Wing of Newark, Ohio lay sound asleep in his bed in Holly Springs. He was in town due to his business dealings in cotton, but was staying at the home of a friend he’d known some time before. Wing went on to survive the brief action that took place between the Confederates and the unprepared Union garrison, and the next day composed an eight page letter to his wife describing the events that had transpired, from his capture to the destruction of the Union supplies to the eventual Confederate departure. It was this letter that came across my desk, which I have transcribed for ease of reading. This unique document is a fascinating firsthand account by an Ohioan of a little known but certainly impactful action that took place during the American Civil War.
At the start of the letter, he describes waking up in shock to see the street outside his window full of rebel cavalry, and arouses his roommate, a fellow businessman, who exclaimed “Wing, we’re gobbled, by G-d”. Wing remarked that he’d never heard the man swear before or since. They quickly dressed themselves, and after a short time a small group of Confederates came to the house. Perhaps feeling a bit cheeky, Wing remarked to the recent arrivals: “Good morning gentlemen, you favor us with rather an early call this morning.” He and his associates were briefly questioned, and subsequently led just outside of town. Wing then begins to describe the destruction of the town and the supplies it held:
…the rebels put fire to the Depot, Engine House, Government Stores, and a train of H3 cars standing on the track + burned everything to the ground. Immense piles of stores and forage, such as Hay, corn, oats, -[[unknown]] of Beef + Pork, Rice, Molasses Whiskey boxes of clothing, Hospital stores ie. “went up” in one grand conflagration. Twelve Hundred Bales of Cotton waiting shipment, and an [[unknown]] wooden building as large as the Springfield Depot put up a year ago by the Confederates for an armory, were set on fire and contributed their [[unknown]] to this scene of magnificent horror. While this was going on near us at the Depot, parties of soldiers were rolling piles of cotton together in the public square + putting the torch to that.
He goes on to tell that the Confederates turned the Union army post office “inside out”, and most of the letters ”were put in a pile and burned in the street.” He also mentions that some rebels who had acquired some whiskey lit a fire inside a building that damaged or destroyed several others. Wing notes that “At three oclock the arsenal was fired and soon blew up with a most awful explosion. It broke most of the glass in town + in the court house + churches + stores on Pub Square It took all the glass + sash with it + shatterd the walls of some of the brick houses.”
While Holly Springs was being devastated, Wing and other northern civilians were questioned more thoroughly about their business in Holly Springs, their involvement with the army, and so on. Wing was fortunate in that the rebels did not confiscate his belongings, although he does note that not all were so lucky. One man “had all his money taken, some $700. His papers and letters were all torn up. Everybody suspected of being connected with the R.R. [possibly referring to the Reading Railroad] was robbed of everything + many others, where their soldiers could get them out a little.”
By five o’clock the entire rebel force had melted away into the woods from which they came, leaving a shattered town, hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, and thousands of bewildered, demoralized, and weaponless Union soldiers. The Confederates couldn’t have taken their prisoners with them as they continued raiding Union territory, so the captives were made to promise “not to serve during the war unless exchanged”. Wing wryly notes that the townspeople, “…who were so jubilant over the Entrance of the confederates were not so well pleased with the result of the days work. One more such visit from their “Country friends” would wipe out what remains of Holly Springs…”
Wing provides his own amateur military analysis, suggesting that had the Union men been ready for the attack they could have easily held the town until reinforcements arrived. According to him, the only northern troops that put up a respectable fight were some companies of Illinois cavalry that were eventually able to escape. He also offers a scathing review of the Union commander, a Colonel Murphy, describing him as “blundering” and “among the very first” to be captured.
Three days after the battle, Wing adds onto his letter. The Union army started to arrive in great force the day following the raid, which Wing finds “ridiculous”. He estimates that “Van Dorn is probably leagues away”, and the situation reminded him “…of some big fellow who has been handsomely whipped + after his opponent left… goes about, blustering and striking his fists together, + swearing that if he could only get a chance again at the rascal…”
Wing also describes, albeit superficially, the Confederate commanders, namely General Earl Van Dorn and General Frank Crawford Armstrong. Both had interesting careers; Van Dorn, a notorious womanizer, was murdered by a jealous husband just five and a half months after his successful raid on Holly Springs. General Armstrong had initially fought for the north during the First Battle of Bull Run, but soon afterwards defected to the Confederacy, for which he fought until the war’s end.
All things considered, Wing came out of this experience (which he describes as unforgettable) pretty well. Two days before the raid, he’d sold most of his cotton, which would have been otherwise destroyed by confederate torches. He still lost “several” bales and four mules, but those damages were relatively light compared to what might have been. In addition, as previously noted, he wasn’t robbed of his cash by any of the Confederate troops, and he does not mention being harmed in any bodily way.
This document is fascinating in that it describes in considerable detail a Civil War action that while obscure, had tangible effects on the course of the Vicksburg campaign. Transcribing such a special document was fascinating and gratifying work, and now both the original document and the transcription are going to be available to historians and the general public!
As always, I encourage you, my dear readers, to come on down to the Ohio History Center and see some of the fascinating and unique items we have here. Here’s a link to our online catalog so you can search the topics you’re interested in!
Update: This letter from Lucius Bliss Wing has been digitized and can be found here on Ohio Memory. The transcription that David created is also available when switching from the “Image” tab to the “Text” tab or clicking “View Image and Text.”