A Lauderdale County Web
A Tragic End
The letters of Constantine Rea illuminate for us a period of time in his life that has previously been dark and vague. The specifics of how he got from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the "exterior lines at Vicksburg" has, until recently, been cloaked in the mists of time. Understanding the personality of Con Rea, one realized that he would not have abandon his post at Fort Smith and leapt into the fray in west Mississippi. How, then, did he get to Vicksburg and why did he go?
Before looking into the correspondence, one should consider certain information about Con Rea's assignment as Ordnance Officer and how it might have had some impact on his actions. Confederate General Orders Number 24, contain, among other things, an attempt to reorganize and update the Ordnance Bureau. COL Josiah Gorgas was the Chief of the Confederate Bureau of Ordinance which had recently been established on 8 April 1861 and was, through various means, attempting to reorganize his Bureau so that he could effect direct control over his officers in the field and the important munitions that had been placed in their charge. [Vandiver, 106-108]
Under the new orders, all officers assigned to ordnance duty in the field were to report directly to COL Gorgas. Further, officers already in the field at the division and brigade level were to be regarded as attached to the Ordnance Bureau. Regiments, the primary combat arms units, were not authorized Ordinance Officers but were permitted to designate Ordinance Sergeants who would be responsible for the ordinance and arms in the hands of the regiment.
Rea, as a result of circumstances well beyond his control and at the highest levels of the Confederate military, now found his attempt at glory thwarted by a bureaucracy trying to make order from the initial chaos of the rapid military organization and deployment of the Confederacy. The warrior spirit that led him to join the fray originally, would not survive for long if his present assignment continued. He had been reduced, involuntarily as it was, to what might be called today a "bean counter", supervising the activities of his staff as they counted bullets, weighed powder, collected and cataloged the arms of those few soldiers who fell under their purview.
Ordinance Officers were not moved about, once they had been assigned and could only serve in positions far from the front lines and the danger and glory for which Rea longed. Even though he was commissioned an infantry captain, he was now an ordnance officer and could not serve in a combat arms unit again. Something would need to change.
Although it is not documented in the service records, it appears clear from Rea's correspondence that he had, possibly around mid May, 1862, been detailed for a purchasing trip to buy ordnance supplies and lead. His destination might have been Mobile or Meridian, both trans-shipping areas for Confederate munitions. In any event, in Meridian in May 1862 a curious chain of events occurred that would move the career of the young officer in a positive, but, ultimately tragic direction.
At Meridian, probably around 15 May, Rea discovered that an unknown person had claimed his personal baggage at the rail depot in Meridian. He complained to Confederate Auditor W. H. T. Taylor that the railroad gave no "way checks", what we might call today, baggage claim checks, and that the fraud was easily committed. (Read Rea's Letter to Hon. W. H. T. Taylor.)
The problem was that all of his documentation from the purchases he had just made, along with his military commission and a number of his private papers were packed in the luggage and were now lost. He was, however, able to offer the testimony of two individuals who witnessed the purchases in support of his claims that he had expended the Confederate funds. This was apparently satisfactory and the purchases received at their intended destinations, since no charges were ever filed.
He also wrote to COL Gorgas, explaining the situation and asking his advise. While awaiting the Colonel's reply and hearing the news from Vicksburg about this time, Rea probably remembered the Lauderdale Rifles, the company he formed for the Pensacola Expedition. Knowing that the Vicksburg defenders were hard pressed for troops, he, either took it upon himself or with the encouragement of Governor Pettus, assembled the company and prepare for departure, not back to Fort Smith, but on to Vicksburg as the Captain of Infantry he so desired to be. He informed COL Gorgas, advising his that his company had been organized with the assistance of the Governor of Mississippi and that he had informed and received the consent of the "proper authorities" (Read Rea's Letter to COL Gorgas.)
Company F, the Lauderdale Rifles, arrived in Vicksburg and became an element of the 6th Mississippi Battalion on 31 May 1862.
CPT Rea served faithfully with Company F through the conflict and final siege of Vicksburg. In December of 1862, the battalion became the 46th Mississippi Regiment. There was, however, some turmoil in the newly constituted regiment, which included the companies of the 6th Mississippi Battalion and several others merged with it to complete the regiment. When the Regiment Commander, COL J. W. Balfour, who had been away from the unit since August failed to appear by November when the Battalion was making preparations for its commission as a new Regiment, there was concern about the unit having no commander.
Without a Commanding Officer, LTC William K. Easterling was serving as acting commander. This, however, did not lead the officers of the regiment to assume that he would be promoted to Colonel and given command of the regiment, as might have been appropriate. Instead the officers of the command began lobbying for the position themselves. Rea wrote a letter to President Davis on 6 December 1862 requesting that he be assigned as regiment commander and, subsequently, promoted to full Colonel. On Rea's behalf other letters were forthcoming. Rea's friends rallied round him and John Jones McRea wrote President Davis on 13 December recommending Rea for the promotion after having received a note from Rea on 5 December 1862. O. R. Singleton, in a letter dated only "December 1862" and Reuben Davis, on 12 December also pleaded his cause to the President.
Unfortunately, it became clear on 30 January 1863, when Colonel Claudius W. Sears arrived to complete the new regiment’s complement of officers, that the decision regarding who should lead, had long since been made and that the storm of paper that had descended upon Richmond, not just from Rea, but from all the officers who felt qualified, had been in vain. Perhaps, had the decision not already been made, Rea, with the assistance of his political compatriots, would have been appointed to lead the regiment. If so, this would be a different story, indeed.
After the capitulation of Vicksburg on 4 July 1863, CPT Rea signed his parole along with other members of his regiment on 10 July 1863 and departed for a brief respite from the war. (See Rea's Vicksburg parole.)
During August and September of 1863 the brigade containing the 46th Mississippi began to reassemble at Enterprise, Mississippi. On 24 October the brigade received word that they had been officially exchanged and on 20 November departed Enterprise on their first post-Vicksburg deployment to Atlanta, rejoining the war effort. The unit camped near Resaca, Georga in the Sugar Valley area early in December.
After LTC William K. Easterling resigned his commission on 20 December 1863, Major William H. Clarke was promoted to LTC and CPT Constantine Rea promoted to Major. The unit returned to Mobile where, MAJ Con Rea was detached from the Regiment and assigned to command a battalion of sharpshooters.
About this time, early in February of 1864, Con Rea's wife Margaret was called upon to participate in the war effort herself. Sherman's Meridian Expedition had reached Meridian and began to destroy the city and railroads for miles in all directions. At Marion, where the Rea family lived, the Union forces used the first floor of the courthouse to stable their horses. Marion was the county seat of Lauderdale County and contained all of the counties records. When ordered to rejoin the main body in Meridian, the Federal troops set fire to the courthouse. Margaret Rea and her two daughters, Eliza (14) and Elmira (6) with, perhaps, the help of a few others, managed to control and, ultimately, extinguish the blaze, saving the courthouse and records.
During the early morning hours of 17 February 1864, MAJ Rea's new battalion of Sharpshooters departed the 46th Mississippi, having been ordered to report to COL Henry Maury’s regiment, the 15th Confederate Cavalry at Hall’s Mills, Alabama, about 8 miles from Mobile.
MAJ Rea would serve in command of the sharpshooter battalion through the fall of Atlanta. On 8 July, Companies G and E of the 46th Mississippi were detached and sent to strengthen Major Rea’s battalion on the left of the battle lines as GEN Joseph E. Johnston made a last ditch attempt to protect the city. The following day, July 9, 1864, while directing the fire of his sharpshooter battalion in the general vicinity of the Chattahoochee River, and in support of GEN Johnston's final efforts to guard the city, Major Con Rea fell to small arms fire, receiving a severe wound in his right leg.
The older flintlock weapons of earlier times had been replaced in the field by the newer high-velocity weapons that fired larger, heavier rounds at greater speeds. Injuries caused by bullet impact from these weapons were much more dangerous that those in past times. The wounds inflicted by these guns caused devastating damage to bone and tissue. When a round fired from these weapons impacted directly or nearly so on bone, it didn't simply break the bone. The impact of one of these projectiles resulted in a shattering effect that could render several inches of bone in either direction of the wound into fragments. There was no way during this period for medical science to repair bones destroyed in this manner. The medical techniques of the period could set simple fractures but could do nothing for injures where bone was shattered. Since the damage was not repairable by the physicians, MAJ Rea’s right leg was amputated.
He was sent to his home in Marion, Mississippi to heal and recuperate but the wound would not heal properly and became infected. On 14 September 1864, MAJ Rea died just two months after his wounding. He was buried in Marion Cemetery.
A few days later, COL William H. Clark, commanding the 46th Mississippi Infantry Regiment Volunteers, wrote to General Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant and Inspector General of the Confederate States of America:
So, at last, the glory and honor Constantine
Rea craved and so richly deserved was his. He died as he lived, a man of
honor, ever faithful to himself and his beliefs. He lived a warriors
life, even as editor of the Lauderdale Republican, ready to stand his
ground and defend to the end those thing so dear to him, and he died a
warrior's death, bravely in combat defending his country. He was a man
who earned our respect and, as long as there is a patriot among us, as
long as man yearns to be free on the face of this planet, he has earned
a place in our hearts and our minds. He deserves to be remembered.
In addition to those works cited below, this article was developed with the research assistance of Mr. Ward Calhoun and The Constantine Rea Historical Society. Much on Mr. Calhoun's own research and his publications as well as information provided by the Society have gone into this article. To purchase Mr. Calhoun's publications, please contact the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History for a list of his works. Their website can be found at the following link:
Baumgartner, Richard A., "William Pitt Chambers Blood and Sacrifice" The Civil War Journal of a Confederate Soldier." Huntington: Blue Acorn Press, 1994.
Edmiston, Fred W., "Lauderdale, Mississippi's Empire County: Volume 1: The Early Years, 1830-1865." Meridian: Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc., 2005.
United States Census Bureau: 1860 U.S. Federal Census.
Vandiver, Frank E., "Plowshares into Swords: Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance" Austin: Texas A&M University Press,, 1994.
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