Eyewitness 1863: Pittsburgh principal Meeds rescued by the cavalry

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This is the second of two parts. See "Pittsburgh School Principal Taken Prisoner by 'Gray Ghost'" from Aug. 18.


Pittsburgh principal James B.D. Meeds had quite a story to tell his students at South Ward School when he returned from summer vacation in 1863. Meeds had found himself a prisoner of Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby while on a mercy mission for the U.S. Christian Commission.

Captured along with 29 other Northern wagon teams on the night of July 30, he described his experiences in a letter published in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette. Meeds was a member of a Christian Commission crew bringing religious texts, stationery and personal-care products to federal soldiers stationed near Warrenton, Va. His letter appeared in the newspaper on Aug. 11.

Mosby, known as the "Gray Ghost," and his soldiers caught the Union men literally napping outside Fairfax, Va. He ordered them in the dead of the night to harness their horses and accompany him into rebel territory near Aldie, Va.

In a letter dated Aug. 5 and originally sent to Joseph Albree, the treasurer of the U.S. Christian Commission, Meeds described what happened as he and his fellow captives approached the rebel base.

"Mosby's men were discovered by [Union] Lieut. Manning, who with 20 men, had been out skirmishing," Meeds wrote. "The band that surprised and captured us numbered about 40 men."

Despite being outnumbered 2-to-1, the Union troopers attacked "spiritedly," but they soon were forced to withdraw. Pursued to the top of a nearby hill, they were besieged by rebel cavalrymen, giving "their demonic yells."

The tide turned when Union reinforcements arrived. "Col. Lowell, with a body of cavalry, who had been out all night in search of Mosby and his men, hearing the firing, hastened to the spot," Meeds wrote. When the rebels realized that they were now the underdogs, "they beat a hasty retreat and we were safe."

After getting a few hours rest, Meeds and his companions traveled with armed escorts back into territory under federal control. The next day the Christian Commission's wagon joined a convoy with 37 other wagons. The supply train was escorted by 600 soldiers to the Army of the Potomac's general headquarters.

"I am in the Station office, attending to things generally -- supplying the soldiers with reading matter, writing paper, house-wives, &c," Meeds wrote. "Nothing seems to please the soldiers more than the little house-wife." No scandal here. A "house-wife," he explained, "is a little bag filled with needles, thread, buttons, &c."

"As many as twenty [soldiers] have been around the tent at once, begging for a little thread to mend their clothes," Meeds reported. "We have had to deny many, as we have but a short supply. If we had a thousand, they would soon go."

The Confederates left something else behind when they fled from the U.S. Cavalry. "One of the guerillas came to our wagon and handed us a sack, saying, Christian Commission, take care of that for me."

"We opened the bag and found it to contain 20 cans of peaches, 6 of oysters and 2 of catsup," he wrote. "These we considered contraband and appropriated them to our own use."

Meeds went on to have a post-war career in finance as a founder and officer of Dollar Savings Bank. He and his family lived for many years in Oakmont in a house that still stands at 520 Seventh St. He died in 1896 and is buried in Homewood Cemetery.

civilwar - pittsburgh250eyewitness

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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