Fascinating photo leads to discovery of interesting family history

Robert Houk • Feb 27, 2012 at 8:22 AM

As a boy, my maternal grandmother showed me a clipping of a photograph that had been printed in a local newspaper some years before. The image was a family portrait taken sometime in the late 1800s of my great-great-grandfather, Sidney Theodore Wilfong, his wife and their four children.

The photo captivated my young brain like no such image had done before or has since. I studied it over and over again, fascinated by how much my great-great-grandfather’s bald forehead and eyes looked so much like my grandfather’s. I marveled at how petite my great-great-grandmother appeared in her high-collared dress.

But my eyes gazed the longest at the empty and folded right sleeve of great-great-granddaddy’s jacket. The only information my grandmother would volunteer about Sidney’s missing arm was that it was amputated during the Civil War. I wanted to know more, and a few years later — while in college — I set out on my quest to learn about my great-great-grandfather. I was fortunate that a member of my mother’s family had already done most of the leg work for me.

It also helped that Sidney and his wife had established a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in his hometown of Newton, N.C. This organization kept records that showed Sidney was a sergeant in the 12th North Carolina Regiment, and that he was a veteran of many battles.

He was twice wounded — both times in Virginia — with the first coming at the battle of Gaine’s Mill in 1862. He recovered from that injury — thanks to the help of his stubborn mother, who took him back to North Carolina where she nursed him back to health.

He was able to return to active duty a few months later, only to receive another serious injury on May 3, 1863, at Chancellorsville.

His brother, Capt. Milton Wilfong, tried to treat his shattered arm on the battlefield, but decided that even a Yankee surgeon could do more than he could to save Sidney’s life. Sidney was captured and sent to a hospital in Washington, D.C., where, after 10 days of infection and pain, his right arm was finally amputated.

Less than six months later, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. His missing arm was considered a disability, so he was formally discharged from the Confederate Army on Feb. 12, 1864.

Sidney’s wartime account is certainly compelling, but so is the story of the tiny, but fierce woman he married. Isbell “Belle” Gill was a teenager living in her beloved hometown, Columbia, S.C., when the war began. Many years later, she jotted down what she called her “Reminiscences of the Sixties” for the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“As my mind’s eye turns backward through the long flight of years, I see Columbia as the dearest and most attractive spot on earth to me and even now I fancy I can still see the wide streets with rows of grand looking trees running through the center and plants and flowers everywhere,” Belle recalled.

Belle, then 18, worked as a signer for the Confederate treasury when that office was relocated to Columbia in 1865 following the fall of the rebel capitol in Richmond, Va. My great-great-grandmother reported signing 3,200 Confederate bills every day (except Sundays) on behalf of the treasurer.

As for actual warfare, Belle saw little of it in Columbia until Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman came a calling on Feb. 17, 1865. My great-great-grandmother said three-fifths of the city was “utterly destroyed” by the next day.

“Sherman, whose very name in South Carolina is a synonym for all that is false and cruel, purposely shut his eyes to everything that was horrible,” Belle wrote.

Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton pulled his troops out of Columbia in an attempt to spare it from Sherman’s cannons. The mayor of Columbia even met with Sherman’s staff to formally surrender the city. Despite assurances by the Union general to the contrary, the city came under intense attack.

“The citizens were stripped of their clothing,” Belle remembered. “Homes and stores were pillaged and plundered. Sick and helpless women were not even excepted. They were driven from the churches, where they had sought safety, into the streets. Women and children were huddled together like animals. Among the number was my mother with five small children, the youngest an infant in her arms.”

With Sherman’s siege of Columbia, the Confederate treasury was once again evacuated. Belle decided, on the advice of her mother, to also flee the city and stay with relatives in Newton.

Leaving Columbia was difficult. Belle noted that she could hear the Yankee cannons firing on the Conagree River, where the Confederate Army had destroyed bridges in hopes of slowing Sherman’s advance.

“The memory of that awful day has always been to me like a hideous dream, the thought of which even now makes me shudder,” Belle wrote.

My great-great-grandmother lived with an aunt and uncle in Newton for almost two years before she married Sidney. The couple would go on to raise two sons and two daughters, and eventually pose for a family portrait that would one day fascinate their great-great-grandson.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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