By Colin Woodward
As we wrote in a previous post about Col. James L. Davis, the archives at the duPont library at Stratford Hall contain many items of interest that are not always related to the Lee family. One such item is an 1861 letter from Pickens Brooks Bird to his aunt. Bird, who was originally from Edgefield, South Carolina, was serving as a lieutenant in a Florida regiment when he wrote the letter.
Most Confederates were in their 20s when the war began. Lt. Bird was no exception. But unlike most Rebel troops, Bird was an established businessman and head of household. As was true of most Confederate officers, Bird was a slaveowner. After moving from South Carolina to Florida, his parents purchased “Nacoosa” plantation. Bird followed his father’s path. When the war broke out, Pickens Bird was living at “Trelawn,” in north central Florida, not far from the Georgia border. The place had majestic oaks that dripped with Spanish moss. Bird, who according to the 1860 census owned 32 slaves, raised cotton. He was also married and had six children.
“Nacoosa,” plantation, where P. B. Bird lived before the war with his parents. He later bought his own plantation nearby. Image courtesy of https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33886
The 1861 letter, which Bird wrote while he was in Alexandria, Virginia, provides a detailed look at camp life earlier in the war. People in the nineteenth century wrote often about the state of their health–Bird did,too, as well as the health of his men. Disease would kill twice as man men as did battle wounds during the Civil War, so Bird was aware of the dangers around him. Bird wrote that “we are very sickly, and in fact the whole Brigade.” He noted that “the principle complaint is the Measles the men get cured of that, and then they are careless and they take cold and it gets very hard with them we have the thyfoid fever also.” Bird himself said he was healthy. But he would not survive the war.
With death coming to people so often during the Civil War, religion would take on a new importance. Revivals would sweep Rebel camps later in the war, but from the first, men took religion seriously. Bird wrote about the “excellent Chaplain,” who had been comforting during the recent battle of Bull Run. While the cannons were booming, the chaplain “took every company by themselves and made a few remarks, and made a fine prayer and I don’t think we had a man in our company that did not feel it as soon as he finished.” Bird made it through the fighting at Manassas, but many more fights were to come.
Perhaps what is most unique about Bird’s letter is his mention of seeing Edmund Ruffin, the elderly Virginia Fire-eater who had ordered the first shot fired at Fort Sumter. “The old man fought hard with us,” Bird said of Ruffin, and “one could not help fighting when he would turn his eyes and see those gray locks with his specticles on fighting as he did it is a wonder that it did not killed him for he was with us when we retreated from Fairfax.” Ruffin was then in his late 60s. Despite appearing at the front early in the war, he would eventually return to his home in Virginia when the stress of soldiering became too much. After Lee’s surrender, Ruffin could bear the Yankees no longer and took his own life.
Bird’s wartime experiences varied from battles in Virginia to combat in Florida. He rose to the rank of major, and in February 1864, he fought at the battle of Olustee in Florida, the largest battle fought in his adopted home state. The battle was a victory for Bird and the Confederates. So, too, was the battle of Cold Harbor, fought a few months later, where Bird helped throw back Ulysses S. Grant’s massive assault against the Confederate lines. On June 3, the day of heaviest fighting at Cold Harbor, Bird was seriously wounded.
He died three days later in a hospital in Richmond. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, the largest resting places for Confederate soldiers.