Despite twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Union Army continued to sustain heavy losses–in the form of casualties and desertions–in 1863, leading President Lincoln to authorize the somewhat unorthodox proposal of recruiting soldiers from among Confederate prisoners of war. Organization of the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry (USVI) commenced at Point Lookout Prison on January 21, 1864.
Among the first prisoners to take the oath of allegiance and enlist was Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lewis, formerly of the 40th Virginia Infantry. The Andrew J. Lewis Correspondence (Ms1988-097) in Special Collections and University Archives contains three letters from Andrew and one from Harriet Lewis, his wife.
A native of Orange County, Virginia, Lewis grew up in Spotsylvania County, where he married Harriet C. Tapp in 1859. By 1860, he was working as a laborer while he and Harriet lived with Harriet’s mother and family. Through the first year of the Civil War, Lewis apparently remained uninvolved in the conflict. When the 40th Virginia Infantry—composed of men recruited from Lancaster, Northumberland, and Richmond counties—encamped in the vicinity of the Spotsylvania-Caroline county line in April, 1862, however, Lewis may have found the lure of army life impossible to resist. On May 7, he enlisted in Company B. Whether he participated just a few weeks later in the Battle of Seven Pines, in which the 40th sustained heavy losses, is unknown. He most likely participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following May, and evidence places him in the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. While on retreat from Gettysburg, the 40th engaged Union forces in the Battle of Falling Waters on July 14. Lewis was among 500 Confederates (including 73 from his regiment) taken prisoner at the battle. After being imprisoned in Baltimore for a month, Lewis was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland. It’s likely that their first news that Lewis’s family had of his whereabouts came from a letter within our collection, written at Point Lookout 13 weeks after his capture. In this brief letter, written to his mother, Lewis advises her that he is well but despairs of any hope of an impending release.
Organization of the 1st USVI provided Lewis with the opportunity for an early reprieve. While the choice of joining the ranks of a former enemy would have been a highly personal matter, subject to many individual considerations, prison conditions undoubtedly won the argument for many inmates. Andrew J. Lewis, whose Confederate service may have owed more to a yen for adventure than to ideology, became one of the earliest recruits, taking the oath of allegiance and enlisting for three years’ service in Company A, 1st United States Volunteers on January 23.
Nearly 6,000 other prisoners made the same decision. They came to be known derisively among both their former and future comrades as “Galvanized Yankees,” soldiers, who, despite the outward appearance of their uniform, were considered of suspect loyalty. As such, the regiments of former Confederates were generally assigned to duty far removed from the front lines of the war. Many of them ultimately were assigned to duty in the American west.
Following its organization, the 1st was assigned to provost duty in eastern Virginia and North Carolina for several months before being transferred in August to the Department of the Northwest in Wisconsin. While enroute, several companies were detached from the regiment in Chicago, Company A being among four companies continuing to Milwaukee for assignment to the District of Minnesota. In an interesting letter written to his wife on September 10, 1865, Lewis discusses a number of topics, among them his favorable impression of the local prospects for a farmer and the possibility of moving there permanently:
I think if you could Bee in this State a while and Enjoy the nice Breeses and good helth you would Bee Sadisfied to live in this Country, thir is plenty of good land and costes But little[.] men can get 160 acres in this State for fifteen dollars … I think that a man that has Bin Broken up By the ware can do Better, and make a Better living that any other State I have Bin Since I have Bin traveling [.] a man working By the month can get from 35 to 40 dollars per month and at some work he can get fifty.
Lewis further writes of his great desire to return home once more before deciding whether to permanently relocate to Minnesota following his discharge. He writes of being desperate to see Harriet again and that when he received her last letter, he and a friend “went out to the Bank of the Miss [Mississippi River] an he read it for me [postwar census records indicate that Lewis was illiterate] and I tel you we had a time of it we Boohooed an while and then we [illegible] our eyes allmost out.” Lewis notes that Company A is soon to depart for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and he hopes to be mustered out upon arrival “as I have Bin told that is a place for mustering out all ex rebel troops.”
Lewis’s optimism for an early discharge was misplaced. On November 27, Harriet writes from home, expressing a desperate need to hear from him, having recently written three letters with no response. She then shares news of family members, including Andrew’s mother, who is soon to be remarried, and asks Andrew to send her an ambrotype of himself.
By this time, Company A was in western Kansas, manning the outpost at Monument Station, an “eating station” along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. Responding to Harriet’s letter, Andrew describes the territory as “a lonesome Country – we cant get Stamps or nothing Else except Buffalow meat.” His lonesomeness spurs him to offer to pay Harriet’s way to Kansas and to ask about the possibility of finding a substitute to complete his military service obligation: “I think you had Better make up your mind to come out hear – if you will come I will Send you money to come on – please send me word who that is that wants to take my place in the army, and then I will let you know what I can do – I will send you Some money the first opportunity[.]”
Andrew and the rest of the 1st USVI mustered out at Fort Leavenworth on May 22, 1866. Whether Harriet ever had the opportunity to visit him while he was in Kansas, we don’t know. We do know that after returning home, Andrew relinquished the idea of moving to Minnesota. Postwar census records show that the Lewises continued to live in Spotsylvania County with their three children. Andrew Jackson Lewis died in Spotsylvania County on April 25, 1883; Harriet, on September 9, 1914.