The Confederate Yankee: Zebulon York

zebulon york1

State of Maine Native, General Zebulon York, CSA

To say that General John Gordon’s Confederate division of some twenty-six hundred souls showed up at the Third Battle of Winchester just in time is, by every standard, an understatement. Gordon’s men appeared in the Second Woods just as the 19th Corps, under the command of Major General William Emory, finished their deployment and began their advance out of the First Woods. Gordon had three brigades in his division. He deployed General Edmond Atkinson’s Brigade on the left of the line, General William Terry’s in the center, and General Zebulon York’s Louisiana Brigade on the right.

Nineteenth Corps commander, Major General William Emory, placed General Cuvier Grover’s Division on the front line. Grover, who was a native of the State of Maine and a graduate of West Point, positioned Colonel Jacob Sharpe’s Brigade on the left, and Henry Birge’s on the right. As soon as they were in place, he ordered them to advance.

Cuvier grover

Brigadier General Cuvier Grover of Maine

As Gordon’s brigades readied themselves for battle at the edge of the Second Woods, army commander General Jubal Early took time to consult with Generals Gordon and Rodes. Early remembered it as “a moment of imminent and thrilling danger.” Believing a good offense at this moment was better than a good defense, Early ordered his division commanders to counter-attack the advancing Union line.

Jubal Early then rode to Zebulon York, as he was finishing deployment his men, and ordered him to meet Sharpe’s Brigade “half way.”  York’s Louisiana Brigade of approximately six hundred and fifty men soon found themselves counter-charging the rapidly advancing blue line. Captain William Seymour of the 6th Louisiana Infantry remembered a “beautiful and rare sight was presented of two opposing lines charging at the same time.”

By 11:40 these two opposing lines came crashing into each other, fighting furiously. The clash was called murderous. The first to blink, though, was Colonel Sharpe’s Brigade. In combination with heavy Rebel artillery fire on their right flank from Major James Breathed’s cannons, and that from their front from Major Carter Braxton’s guns, the area became a killing field. Add to this the effects of heavy musketry fire from Gordon’s men in their front, both Birge and Sharpe were both forced to retire.

3rd Winchester 1

Map Showing Troop Deployment and Position of 1st Maine Battery at 11:40 am.

Gordon’s troops continued their pursuit of both Birge’s and Sharpe’s Brigades. Captain William Seymour of York’s command remembered that “though the Yankees fought unusually well, they could not withstand the impetuosity of our fellows and they were forced back upon their original line which was strongly guarded by artillery.” According to most accounts, it was the opportune appearance of the 1st Maine Battery, at the boundary of the First Woods, that forced the Confederates to reconsider their quest. It is poignant to think that it was a Maine battery which stopped the advance of General York’s Brigade. What is ironic, though, is the fact that General York received a serious wound to his left arm during the charge of his brigade. According to York’s obituary “his left arm was shattered by a charge of grape.” In all likelihood, then, it was this Maine battery which, when brought to bear on the charging Confederates, inflicted the wound on their fellow Mainer, Zebulon York.

York’s injury to his left arm was the most serious he would receive during the war. York was taken to a field hospital where his “frazzled arm” was amputated. “A friend whose elegant home was in Winchester affectionately endeavored to persuade York to remain in the hospital and suffer himself to be captured so as to be cared for at this gentleman’s house.” Zebulon eyed the man and replied: “No, thank you, sir. All that the enemy will ever capture of me is that remnant of an arm before us.”

As soon as his limb was dressed, York mounted his horse and rode out of town. Still bleeding, Zebulon rode horseback from Winchester to Fisher’s Hill, a distance of more than twenty miles. Here he transferred to an ambulance for the journey to Staunton. At Staunton he boarded a train for Richmond where his arm was attended to by a close friend, Dr. Beverly Welford. Recovery, though, would be slow.

What kind of soldier was it that could have his arm sawed off one minute and then mount his horse and ride out of town the next? Well, this Rebel fighter was actually a State of Maine native, born in the town of Avon to Zebulon and Zylphia York on October 10, 1819. The town of Avon is located in the northwestern corner of the state, which is a lot closer to the border between Canada and the United States than the Mason-Dixon Line. Named after the River Avon in England, the town was founded in 1781 and incorporated in 1802. Fruits, grains, and vegetables grew abundantly in the fertile soils along the banks of the Sandy River. At the time of the Civil War the population numbered eight hundred and two people. The current inhabitant count is little more than half of that number.

Zebulon York’s family touted a strong military heritage. His maternal grandfather, Sylvester, was an aid-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Sylvester was present with General Washington when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Zebulon’s own father had been an army officer during the War of 1812.

York received his elementary education in a one room school house in his home town of Avon. Later he attended Maine Wesleyan Seminary, now known as Kents Hill School, for his secondary education. “Here he proved to be a great reader and such a lover of history and biography that he long cherished the desire of taking part in a battle…”

Wesleyan

Maine Wesleyan Seminary, now Kent’s Hill School in Maine.

At the age of sixteen Zebulon’s father sent him to study at Transylvania University in Kentucky. He graduated with honors from the school. Having acquired “a taste for Southern life”, though, he moved to Louisiana after graduation and began the study of law at the offices of Stacey and Sparrow in Vidalia. In due time he moved to New Orleans to study law at Louisiana University, or what is now Tulane. Once again, he graduated with honors and then moved back to Vidalia to establish his own law practice.

In the 1850’s “any man who was anybody invested his money in plantations and, necessarily, negros.” In partnership with a close friend, Mr. Elias J. Hoover, York purchased “six magnificent plantations.” “Together they paid more in realty taxes than any other party in Louisiana.” Collectively they owned more than fifteen hundred slaves and produced more than forty-five hundred bails of cotton each year.

In York’s obituary it is stated: “A better master to a slave never existed than the gentle and tender-hearted York. Never was an overseer known to strike them without severe admonition, and in most cases a blow to a slave was quickly followed by the discharge of the guilty overseer. Today old slaves meet the general at almost every turn and there is yet to be found one who says anything but that” he “was sure good to us…” He “never ‘loud no one to beat us.”

Following the presidential election of 1860 Louisiana held a convention to decide Louisiana’s stance on secession. Elected representatives were sent to Baton Rouge. Zebulon was chosen unanimously to represent the Concordia region of the state.  York did his duty, traveled to the convention, and voted in favor of secession. On January 26, 1861, the convention passed an Ordinance of Secession by a vote 113 to 17. From this date until February 4, Louisiana was an independent country. It was on that date that the state joined the Confederate States of America.

Following the Secession Convention, York went directly home to Concordia and began to organize an artillery company. The plan was foiled when it was discovered that there were not enough artillery pieces in the South to go around. The unit was forced to transition to a rifle company, which was financed completely by York and his business partner Mr. Hoover. The company was “mustered in for the war” as the 1st Regiment, Polish Brigade. Later it was later merged into the 14th Louisiana Infantry as Company F. The regiment would be commanded by Colonel Valery Zulakowski.

The regiment’s first assignment was in the trenches of Yorktown. The 14th Louisiana was heavily engaged in the Battle of Williamsburg. While helping lead his men Major York was injured in the left arm and left breast by a single bullet which created three separate wounds.

York recovered quickly and returned to his regiment as a newly promoted lieutenant-colonel. He appeared in time to participate in the Seven Days Battles. Once again, his regiment was heavily engaged in most of the fighting. At the Battle of Gaines’s Mill Zebulon led the 14th Louisiana in a bold charge on a Union artillery battery. The battery was taken at a cost to his regiment of one hundred and twenty-seven casualties. Once again York received a minor wound, this time to his right arm, caused by a bursting artillery round.

Shortly thereafter, the 14th Louisiana was transferred to Stonewall Jackson’s Corps. At Second Bull Run York led his command in a charge to seize a railroad embankment held by General James Nagel’s Brigade. The attack was successful but Zebulon received a much more serious injury, “the ball passing through the neck and under the spine, thus threatening paralysis.”

This time York was forced to return home to Louisiana to recover from his injury. During his recuperation he attempted to recapture some of his investments by renting four plantations and planting large crops of sugar and cotton. Unfortunately, Union troops confiscated his crops before they could be marketed, costing him more than three million dollars.

Having been promoted in his absence to Colonel, York returned to the war effort in time to fight with his regiment during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Following the Battle of the Wilderness, with the wounding of General Harry Hays, and the death of General Leroy Stafford, the two brigades were combined into one. The newly promoted Brigadier General, Zebulon York, took charge of the unit. His promotion would date from June 2, 1864.

Yadkin River Bridge

Painting of the Yadkin River Bridge

As mentioned at the beginning of this story, General York would fight with his brigade at the Third Battle of Winchester where he was seriously wounded and would have his left limb amputated. Even though his arm had not completely healed, General York was ordered in early 1865 to take his brigade to North Carolina. Here he was tasked with holding the Yadkin River Bridge. It is said that York’s force consisted of about twelve hundred men, including some two hundred “galvanized Irish” that were “recruited from the Federal prisoners.” The remaining men were “invalid soldiers gathered from the hospitals, junior reserves, local citizens, and even a few non-military Confederate government employees.”

The Battle for the Yadkin Bridge would take place on April 12th, 1865, three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. York would successfully defend the bridge while opposed by an equal number of troops under the command of General George Stoneman. The contest was a Rebel victory and one of the last in the eastern theater. The high ground he defended would be forever known as Fort York. (Note: Fort York was listed for years as one of the twenty-five most endangered Civil War sites. The land, which included much of Fort York, was finally purchased for preservation in 2015.)

Following this final clash, General York began to make his way back home. He was captured by troops under General Sherman and paroled on May 6. 1865. With his servant by his side the two made their way home to Vidalia, arriving on May 27th. To his dismay his residence was occupied by Union troops and would remain so for an additional year. When his domicile, the Buck Ridge Plantation, was finally vacated, the occupiers would take with them every piece of furniture and object of value in the household.

Zebulon did attempt to restore his life style once again after the war. With all of his plantations destroyed, he commenced running a boarding house in Natchez which was known as the York House. York would eventually acquire five small steamboats that plied the Black River, in nearby Louisiana, “delivering goods, people and livestock to and from rural areas.” “During the floods of 1882 York led relief efforts for back water people in Louisiana. Sam Clemens even rode one of his little steamboats during one of his many trips into the Black River region and mentions it in his book Life on the Mississippi.”

York became ill in January of 1900. He lingered on for several months, passing away on August 5th of the same year. His funeral took place at St. Mary’s Basilica and he was buried in the Natchez City Cemetery. The Times Picayune ran a two-part story on his life on August 6, 1900. Following the war “he returned to his Mississippi home to rebuild his fortunes and died honored and beloved.” His burial plot contains his old business partner, Mr. Hoover, and York’s wife whom he married in 1895. The newspaper proclaimed simply: “Another Hero Passes Away.”

Zeb York stone

York’s Memorial Stone at Natchez City Cemetery in Mississippi.

 

Early, Jubal. Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early C. S. A: Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of The War Between the States. University of Michigan Library. 1912.

Jones, Terry L. The Civil War Memoirs of William J. Seymour. Reminiscences of a Louisiana Tiger. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1991.

Patchan, Scott. The Last Battle of Winchester. Phil Sheridan, Jubal Early, and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. El Dorado Hills, Ca. Savas Beatie. 2013.

Sheeran, Rev. James B. Confederate Chaplain, A War Journal. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company. 1960.

https://www.fold3.com/page/636655872-zebulon-york/stories

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avon,_Maine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana_secession

 

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