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Eight Rifles at Appomattox

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

The Mississippi College Rifles spent the winter of 1864-65 under siege at Petersburg, Virginia. Union General Ulysses Grant continued the encirclement of Petersburg with 125,000 troops, while other Union forces controlled large areas of Virginia. General Sherman had completed his march to Savannah and was in pursuit of the Confederate forces army in South Carolina. There was scattered fighting west of the Mississippi River, but the Civil War was coming to a close.
Lee continued to hold out at Petersburg in 1865. His army of 63,000 men of 1864 was reduced to 35,000 by January 1865, and to 12,000 by April, 1865. Confederate soldiers were deserting in large numbers because of the lack of food. The daily ration for Lee’s soldiers during the siege was a pint of cornmeal and a piece of bacon.
The Mississippi College Rifles had forty men on the company roll during the last month of the siege (March 1865): thirty-two were listed as captured, and eight were still in rank. The decision was made to disband Company E, and the story of the Mississippi College Rifles came to an end. Sergeant Robert Parish turned in all company records and the company flag to the regimental commander. Parish and the other surviving Rifles were assigned to other companies.
When Parish made his last report on the Mississippi College Rifles, his records showed forty-eight men killed in action or dead from wounds, thirty-two in Union prisons, fifteen deserters, and forty-two discharged, most disabled by wounds. A total of one hundred and forty-five served in the Mississippi College Rifles during the course of the war.
The Union army broke through the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 1, 1865, and the remnant of Lee’s army moved to the field, but everywhere he turned he found Union troops. In fighting at Sayler’s Creek on April 6, Lee lost a third of his army. Robert Parish was wounded and captured at that battle. That night, General Grant asked General Lee to surrender. Lee asked for terms, which were accepted, and the surrender of Lee’s army took place at Appomattox Court House on April 9.
Grant was magnanimous in his terms: Confederate officers could keep their side arms and personal possessions; officers and men who claimed to own their horses could keep them; and “each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities.” Grant also provided 25,000 rations to the Confederate survivors.
Eight former Mississippi College Rifles witnessed the surrender: Joseph Buckles, Henry Coleman, Gus Comfort, Lewis Terrell, William Gregg, Robert Farrar, Noel McKey and Franklin Thigpen. They never forgot the somber mood of the day nor the compassion General Lee shared with them at the end:
“Boys, I have done the best I could for you. Go home now, and if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well, and I shall always be proud of you. Goodbye, and God bless you all.”

Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the twenty-fourth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell, the City Historian, that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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