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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Civil War Ancestors: The Pelt Family

Perhaps the saddest account I have yet come across in my family history from the Civil War era is that of the Pelt family.

In the 1860 census, a 45 year-old Jonathan Pelt (II) is shown in a household along with his wife Mary Barbara (née Taylor, aged 42), his children William (24), Obadiah (21), Robert (18), Jonathan III (13), Zachariah (10), Elizabeth (7), and Lucinda (5).  Also in the same household was Isaac Sims (15).  Elizabeth ended up marrying John Daniel Richards, the son of Daniel Thomas Richards, and became my great-great grandmother.

I'm not sure why Isaac Sims was a part of this household, as he does not appear to be a relative.  He is probably the Isaac Sims who was born around 1845 in Mississippi and came to live in Jackson County, Florida.  His son William Isaac (1876-1956) is listed in the 1910 census as white.  There is an application by Rhoda Sims to the War Department for a veteran's headstone for Isaac Sims, private in Company F (Daniel Richards was in Company G) of the 6th Florida Infantry, CSA (see Florida Soldiers:  CSA 6th, 7th Florida Infantry, 1st Florida Cavalry, page 164), indicating he died on 13 Feb. 1930 and was buried in the Sims Cemetery near Mariana.

I can find no record of Jonathan Pelt having served in the military at any time, which is actually rather surprising if he "was a noted blacksmith", something any cavalry would need.  William Pelt and two of his brothers were in the same infantry company as Isaac Sims.  William survived until 15 Nov. 1871.  The rest of the news is not so good.

In November of 1863, disaster struck.  The Company Muster Roll for Nov. / Dec. 1863 shows Obedeah/Obadiah Pelt to be absent by reason of "capture by the enemy Nov. 25, 1863"; the Jan. / Feb. 1864 Company Muster Roll shows his absence due to being "Missing in action at Missionary Ridge Nov. 25 / 63"; confirmation that he was in fact dead must have come shortly after that.  The death of Robert must have been confirmed even sooner.  A register shows him to have been killed on Nov. 25, 1863, with "Where and of what cause" marked simply "Bad Missionary Ridge".  News of their deaths must have come as a shock to the whole family -- a dozen years later, my great-grandfather, John Obed Richards, would be named after him -- and it may have contributed to Peter's fateful decision to desert in February of 1864.

Unlike his brothers, Peter had enlisted in the 2nd Florida Confederate Cavalry (Company G; John Richards was in Company A).  Desertion is, by the common consent of all armies, about the worst thing you can do, but becoming a turncoat and taking up arms for the other side is among the few things that are even worse.  This is what Peter did, joining the 2nd Florida US Cavalry. This really became a problem for him when he was part of a Union force that attempted to occupy Tallahassee, precipitating the Battle of Natural Bridge.  

Warning:  Inconsistent Sound Volume!

Peter was among those assigned to remain in Newport to cover the Union retreat.  After a hard day's fighting, he and three other Union soldiers collapsed exhausted into a nearby building which they somehow assumed to be secure.  Later that night, a larger group of Confederate troops made the same decision.  The morning light revealed the situation, and the outnumbered Union soldiers were quickly captured.  Peter, along with Cpl. Asa Fowler, were recognized as deserters and turncoats, and after a brief trial, were executed by firing squad, stripped naked, and dumped into an unmarked grave.

The words of Confederate surgeon Dr. Charles Hentz do a good job of capturing the tragedy:
...They were halted close to me, as a hollow square for the execution was formed; some bandages, pinned around their eyes, were taken from my haversack; how dreadfully did I commiserate their awful condition. Pelt, whom I had known as a little boy...,was trembling in every fiber; his face was the hue of ashes - his lips quivering compulsively in prayer, his eyes closed and bandaged.
All this seems to indicate that Peter, who was only 19, was essentially just a scared kid, and it implies that his desertion was motivated by fear rather than principle.  Presumably he fell in with Union forces not so much because he supported them, but because as a deserter he had nowhere else to turn.  It is hard not to pity him.

I know that if I had been among the Confederate troops who captured him that day, I would have willingly joined the firing squad.  Peter had not exactly been blowing kisses at his former friends, neighbors, and comrades in arms the previous day.  I would have shot him, but I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.  The war was over just two months later.  As a deserter and a turncoat, Peter would never really have been able to go home again, but he could have moved out west and started over.  At least that would have spared his family some additional grief.

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