Unsung Tar Heel's name to be honored

Staff WriterJanuary 23, 2011 

  • For an events calendar of the commemoration of the Civil War in North Carolina, go to nccivilwar150.com .

— The first North Carolina soldier to die in the Civil War never heard the whizzing of bullets or the thunder of cannons, and his final steps didn't fall on a bloody battlefield.

Pvt. James M. Hudson died sweating and delirious from pneumonia inside a Raleigh horse stable converted into the state's first military hospital - gone and forgotten before he could so much as stain the knees of his uniform.

But this year, on the 150th anniversary of the war's start, Hudson's service will be honored both in Raleigh's Oakwood Cemetery and his hometown of Charlotte alongside men who died from Union bullets at Gettysburg and in other more dramatic ways.

It will be the first time many of the region's most dedicated Civil War buffs will hear about the 27-year-old farmhand from Charlotte, who perished on May 11, 1861 - nine days before a reluctant North Carolina seceded.

But to the few who discovered Hudson in century-old medical records, it's a chance to recognize the men who aren't glorified in statues on courthouse lawns: the hundreds of thousands of troops who died of dysentery, meningitis or typhoid fever.

"He hasn't been able to get his due," said Charles Purser of Garner, the retired airman who has helped identify hundreds of soldiers in Oakwood Cemetery, including a few misidentified Yankees. "It's a shame. Which is sadder? The first one to die in a war, or the last one?"

Disease killed the most

More than 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, slightly more than half of them Northerners in Union blue; about 250,000 of them Southern Confederates.

Many records are still missing from the war, and thousands of soldiers marched off only to disappear, never leaving a word. But by the best count of dead and wounded, North Carolina counts the highest among the rebel states with roughly 40,000.

When you imagine these men, or see them reproduced in bronze, you think of them falling with flags in their hands, horses rearing on their hind legs, swords raised. But of all Civil War casualties, disease claimed more than half. Most of the men who fell between 1861 and 1865 succumbed just as Pvt. Hudson did.

Once in a hospital, soldiers faced harrowing odds. Disease spread quickly there. Beds were bug-infested. Food and medical supplies were short. Open latrines triggered a variety of sicknesses. Diarrhea was widespread.

North Carolina soldiers other than Hudson started dying before the fighting even began. Purser keeps a long list. One man fell off a train in Virginia. Another accidentally shot himself with a pistol.

On paper, Hudson scarcely exists. You find him listed in the 1860 census as a laborer on a family farm - not his own. Then you find him as the first man listed in the death records at what would become Pettigrew Hospital in Raleigh, now the site of the state Division of Motor Vehicles on New Bern Avenue.

Purser, a Charlotte native who served in Air Force intelligence, is slowly tracing the history of every fallen Confederate soldier from North Carolina. The graves that dot the hillside in Oakwood are marked with crosses, chiseled with each man's name, largely due to the old muster rolls he scours as a retirement hobby.

When he saw Hudson's name at the top of the hospital casualties, he tried to find it again among the other men who served in Company B of the 1st North Carolina Regiment - nicknamed the "Hornet's Nest Rifles." His company was ordered to Raleigh on April 23 as war loomed.

But Hudson's name does not appear. He died on a Saturday, May 11, but the 1st Regiment wasn't mustered into service until two days later.

"He never made the troop book," said Purser, pointing to the thick volumes on the shelves of his study.

Hudson's obituary

Hudson did merit an obituary, however, in the Raleigh Register, which called him "a highly esteemed member of the Hornet's Nest Rifles of Charlotte."

The Register's obit continued, "The remains of the deceased were escorted to the Central depot on Saturday afternoon, when after depositing them on board of the train bound to Charlotte, the company fired a salute in honor of his memory."

Long after Hudson's burial, and long after the war, a fellow patient from the 1st Regiment recalled his passing in more emotional tone, referring to their hospital digs as "horse stall No. 55." Sick himself, the soldier, Robert H. Bradley, recalled Hudson struggling "with no mother or sister to bathe his feverish brow."

"His name does not appear among the roster of North Carolina troops," Bradley recalled in his 1901 memoirs. "Nevertheless he died in defense of his state, so much as the soldier who died on the field of battle."

Purser thought so, and when the Sons of Confederate Veterans mark the war's sesquicentennial on May 7, they will read Hudson's name out loud over the graves of men who died at Gettysburg.

And in Charlotte, during the May 15 event at Elmwood Cemetery, Hudson will be a central figure.

"He left his home and should be honored," said Jonny Alexander, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Charlotte camp. "There's so many ways to get killed without somebody shooting you. Falling off a horse. A horse falling on you. He died of a disease, and I don't diminish that."

Buried at Sharon Presbyterian Church, Hudson rests under a stone with words still clearly legible. Had he lived, he would have followed his regiment into Virginia, seen action at Big Bethel and dug in southeast of Yorktown. Had he fought longer, Gen. Robert E. Lee might have called him a Tar Heel.

He never heard the words Appomattox or emancipation. In all likelihood, he never heard the names William Tecumseh Sherman or Ulysses S. Grant. But this spring, for the first time, Raleigh and Charlotte will hear his.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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