Confederate cannonball ‘killed’ Thomaston cavalryman in Virginia

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN
Posted May 27, 2012, at 9:43 p.m.

So what else could Jonathan Cilley do after catching a cannonball?

Die? Yup — or so thought everyone back home in Thomaston.

Born on Dec. 29, 1835, to Jonathan Longfellow Cilley and his wife, Deborah, the boy who became a Maine cavalry officer graduated from Bowdoin College (’58) and gained admittance to the Knox County bar in 1860. With the middle name of Prince, he should have settled into a princely existence as a successful midcoast attorney.

Then a war beckoned, and Cilley recruited troopers for Co. B, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment in autumn 1861. He rode with Lt. Col. Calvin Douty and five 1st Maine Cavalry companies as they retreated into Middletown, Va., on May 24, 1862.

Confederate Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby, two artillery batteries and about 300 Louisiana infantrymen suddenly appeared on high ground north of town. Confederate gunners opened fire.

Then Cilley “was struck by a shell which nearly severed his right arm, leaving only a partial connection of skin” and bone, investigator Archibald Spalding later informed Maine Gov. Israel Washburn.

The explosion hurled Cilley from his horse “in much the deliberate manner in which a squirrel falls to the ground when shot,” recalled trooper Edward Tobie, who later wrote “History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-165.” Lieutenant Frank Cutler and other troopers carried Cilley into a nearby house owned by John Wright, a Middletown businessman.

Assisted by Cilley’s orderly, Isaac Harris, Assistant Surgeon George Haley cared for Cilley, who awoke “two or three days later” to discover that he lay immobile “on a lounge … and that he could now and then hear the steps of a woman crossing the room,” Tobie wrote. The woman, Mrs. Wright, helped care for Cilley, too, even after Confederate soldiers arrived at her home and informed Cilley, Haley, and Harris that they were prisoners of war.

Believing Cilley would die, Haley implored Mrs. Wright to deliver the bad news. She demurred, so Harris told Cilley, “Captain, do you know that you are mortally wounded and cannot recover?”

“Thunder!” Cilley exclaimed, displaying a stubborn streak that would serve him well throughout the war. “I am not going to die. What do you mean?”

“The doctor told me so,” Harris responded.

“Well, the doctor doesn’t know as much about it as I do. I intend to see the war finished,” Cilley growled.

Meanwhile, Maine troopers confirmed to Spalding that Cilley had been “mortally wounded,” according to Tobie, and Spalding reported to Washburn that Cilley had “died immediately after being taken prisoner.” His body now occupied a Virginia grave.

The obligatory obituary appeared in Maine newspapers. Reading one particular obit months later, Cilley could agree with Mark Twain that “reports of my death were premature.”

In fact, Jonathan Cilley was just getting started.

He spent almost three months convalescing in Middletown, where he received “motherly care and nursing” from Mrs. Wright, Tobie wrote. Repatriated to Union lines at Winchester, Cilley traveled to Washington, D.C., and obtained a medical leave so he could go home to recover. Itching to fight, he returned to Washington in December “with his wound still unhealed” and seeping, according to Tobie.

Soon admitted to Armory Square Hospital in D.C., Cilley underwent serious — and recurring — surgery and remained hospitalized until April 1863. Among his nurses was Caroline Abigail Lazell, with whom Cilley “formed the acquaintance and won the friendship,” according to Tobie. Lazell became “the lady who, after the war,” married Jonathan Cilley.

Enduring several surgeries that collectively removed “more than forty pieces of bone … from his arm,” Cilley clamored for action after he was discharged from the hospital. He rejoined the 1st Maine Cavalry on Aug. 1.

By now a major and a staff officer, Cilley became a “dead man riding” in late 1863 and early 1864, participating in multiple battles and skirmishes where Confederates tried to kill him as they had in the Shenandoah Valley.

They almost got lucky.

On May 28, 1864, the 1st Maine Cavalry deployed to support a Union artillery battery “drawing a smart fire” from enemy cannons during the Battle of Haws Shop in Virginia, according to Tobie. Troopers and horses stood in long lines “watching the shell and shot strike the ground in their front.

“Shells never scream so fiercely or sound so wickedly as under those conditions,” Tobie recalled.

Then “a shell came bounding along the line from right to left, taking off the legs of three horses in its course, and rolling along directly under the horse rode by Maj. Cilley, just in rear of Co. I,” Tobie wrote. “There was a general shudder … by all who saw it, in anticipation of the explosion, for the fuse was smoking.”

Cilley likely shouted at his horse to “move” or “run” or “charge” or “do something,” but the animal “was so thoroughly frightened” by the sputtering cannonball that the horse “could not be induced by the most vigorous application of the spur to leave the dangerous locality,” Tobie wrote.

But the fuse burned out, and “the explosion resulted harmlessly” to Cilley and his horse, Tobie noted.

On June 2, several officers “were sitting on the ground, in shade of a small tree” behind breastworks erected earlier that day by Maine troopers involved in yet another fight, Tobie wrote. Claiming that Confederate artillery had the range, one officer stood up and walked away; “sure enough, a moment later a shell passed between the bodies of Col. Smith and Maj. Cilley” and convinced everyone to vacate the premises.

Then, during the savage fight at St. Mary’s Church on June 24, Cilley commanded the regiment’s left flank. Seeking a vantage point, he rode up an open knoll and “was surprised to find that I offered a fair target to the rebel line.” Cilley “became vexed, and began to cuss myself for such a foolish … manoeuvre (sic),” as bullets hummed “by my ears.”

He escaped harm, rejoined the regiment, and monitored its fighting withdrawal “until the enemy interfered with the motion of one of my legs … I took a rest by going to the rear, and about sunset enjoyed the hospitalities of [surgeon] Stevens,” Cilley recalled. An ambulance later evacuated him from the field hospital.

The Confederate bullet put Cilley out of action until Sept. 26, when he rejoined the 1st Maine Cavalry as a lieutenant colonel and as its commander. Cilley held that position until the war ended — and Confederate sharpshooters were not done with him yet.

During the knock-down brawl fought at Five Forks on March 31, 1865, “suddenly I heard and felt a bullet — whew! And it hurt,” Cilley recalled. “Oh! Ough! Confound it!

“Sergt. Major Tobie, seeing my contortions, hurried to me and asked: ‘Are you wounded, Colonel? Will you go to the rear?’

“My indignation burst out with: ‘D—n the rear, I am wounded in the — rear,” Cilley replied.

Breveted to brigadier general, Cilley brought the 1st Maine Cavalry home and married Caroline on Oct. 10, 1866. He resumed his law practice and later served in the Maine Legislature; he and Caroline had two children, Jonathan and Grace, before Caroline died in April 1871.

Twenty-six years later, Cilley married Mary Butler — and outlived her, too. His health failing, the elderly widower moved to Alameda, Calif. to live with Grace and her husband.

There, on April 6, 1920, death claimed Jonathan Prince Cilley 55 years after Confederates gave up trying to do so. He lies buried in the Cilley Cemetery in Thomaston.

Brian Swartz may be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/05/27/living/confederate-cannonball-killed-thomaston-cavalryman-in-virginia/ printed on July 24, 2014