Site Overlay

Joe Quattlebaum’s War

By Terry Burnett 

Joe Quattlebaum huddled amid the cold, muddy maze of Confederate trenches of Petersburg during December 1864. His uniform and what little shelter he could manage offered scant protection from seemingly endless bouts of sleet and rain.

The once picturesque Virginia countryside surrounding him had been stripped of wood, making the warmth of a proper campfire more a dream than reality. An occasional scrap of crude green pine was available—if one could afford to buy it. Added to this, the noise and danger of Yankee mortars, rifled cannon and sharpshooters made life pure misery for Quattlebaum and his comrades in the 13th South Carolina Infantry.

Joseph Elijah Quattlebaum, pictured soon after he enlisted in the DeKalb Guards, which became Company G of the 13th South Carolina Infantry. Ninth-plate tintype attributed to the Columbia, S.C. gallery of Richard Wearn and William P. Hix. Terry Burnett Collection.
Joseph Elijah Quattlebaum, pictured soon after he enlisted in the DeKalb Guards, which became Company G of the 13th South Carolina Infantry. Ninth-plate tintype attributed to the Columbia, S.C. gallery of Richard Wearn and William P. Hix. Terry Burnett Collection.

This was not the first time Quattlebaum found himself in trying circumstances during his military service—and it would not be his last. Yet, through it all, he maintained a palpable optimism. “He always believed that the enemy had never made a bullet that would hurt him,” noted a newspaper reporter in a 1911 interview. “He often heard their music about his ears, and sometimes they passed through his hair and clothing, but he always came out of conflict unscathed.”

Quattlebaum’s innate positivity traced back to his German ancestors. These hard-working and independent colonial folk settled in a sprawling region of Newberry County, S.C., that came to be known as Dutch Fork. Here, in the community of Frog Level, Joseph Elijah “Joe” Quattlebaum was born and raised. He, along with his younger brother, Jefferson, sister Lizzie and widowed mother Margaret harvested crops and raised hogs—backbreaking work for even the stoutest of men.

The story of Quattlebaum and his family is representative of the multitude of resilient subsistence farmers who eked out a living on their own merits, without slaves, on modest patches of land across the South. Photos and excerpts of family letters published here for the first time reveal the sacrifices made by the Quattlebaums from 1861 to 1865.

When the war came, the Quattlebaum brothers were swept up in it. Joe, then 21 years old, was the first to go. In the summer of 1861, he enlisted in the DeKalb Guards, which became Company G of the 13th.

Quattlebaum and his comrades learned the art of war at Camp Johnson, located near Columbia at Lightwood Knot Springs. About this time he sat for the portrait shown here, likely taken in the Columbia studio of Richard Wearn and William P. Hix. Quattlebaum’s ill-fitting light gray frock coat is adorned with palmetto buttons and dark piping along the front, collar and cuffs. Wispy strands of hair sprout from his chin and he sports a bandage on one finger. He appears to stare into the camera as if not quite sure whether he is actually a soldier or is simply a boy playing “dress up.”

Like many green soldiers on both sides of the conflict, Quattlebaum initially chafed against military discipline. He had a run-in with his colonel, Oliver E. Edwards, and described the event to his mother in a letter on Oct. 2, 1861. His spelling suggests he spent more time behind a plow than a school desk.

“Mamy,” he confessed, “I hate to tell you that I was in the guard house today but you will be shure to find it out aney how and I just as well tell you as for some body els to do it.  I will tell you how me come to be put in. I was standing guard and it comenced raining very hard and the sentineals was all taken off thare posts except me. I was standing at the spring and tha did not relieve me and I stood one our over my time and I just would not stand any longer, so I left my post without leafe and went to the Colonel and told him the circumstance and we had a few words between each other and he made me mad without a cause and I curst him and said what I pleased to him and he had me put in the guard house. But I did not stay but about 2 hours, and the old colonel studied over the matter and found out that I dun exactly rite and he sent the Capt and taken me out. I told the old feller that I had always discharged my duty as well as any other man in Camp, and I told him that I did not think it was write for me to stand all day on my post and not to be relieved, nor I would not do it either. He knew I was mad and did not care at that time what I dun.”

Quattlebaum eventually learned the basics of soldiering, and, by the war’s first winter, his regiment was assigned to guard rail lines along the South Carolina coast. The 13th was brigaded with the 12th and 14th infantries. Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg of Charleston, S.C., a Mexican War veteran, attorney and ardent advocate of Southern independence, commanded the regiments.

In late April 1862, Gregg’s troops boarded trains for Virginia. Quattlebaum numbered among those who made the trip, and he was joined by his younger brother, who had enlisted just weeks earlier.

The Quattlebaum boys arrived in Richmond full of wide-eyed wonder as evidenced by Jefferson’s May 1, 1862, letter home: “Mother, we have lan did at Richmond yearstidy evening. We have bin a travling about a weak and a half. I tel you we had a long jurny to travel but I have seen a rite smart of the world. Mother I went down to the soldiers grave yard this morning. I saw about 100 graves thare and tha buried fore men while I was thare and thare was a man told some that he helpt bury one hundred men yearstidy. I think that is aputing them away very fast.” Later that day they “went to see the yankee prison. Thare is a grate maney in this place. Tha are stout and very impudent looking Chaps.”

Jefferson Quattlebaum served with his brother Joe in the 13th. 20th century copy print of an original portrait, location unknown. David Quattlebaum Collection.
Jefferson Quattlebaum served with his brother Joe in the 13th. 20th century copy print of an original portrait, location unknown. David Quattlebaum Collection.

The next day, Quattlebaum noted in his own letter home, “Jefferson had his type taken … and he requested me to write to you and send the type to you which I will do with plesure.”

Jefferson provided additional details. “Mother I got mi amber tipe taken when I was at Richmond and I went up to the baggage car and giv it to brother Joseph to doo up and put in the ofice as I left camp that morning … I told Joey to rite sum for me. If you get the picture rite to me and let me no if it looks like me. I was going to get one taken for sis and one for sum body els if I would a hald time … Mother, the picture did not cost me but $3 be Side the postage on it from thar home.”

The “type,” or “amber tipe” of Jefferson is probably the same image shown in the early 20th century copy print shown here.

The relative ease of military life ended after Gregg’s Brigade was dispatched with other forces to stop Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac, as it moved down the Virginia Peninsula in a bid to capture the capital. Joe and Jefferson participated in grueling marches in an effort to stay between Richmond and the enemy.

“Gregg sis he is redy for a fite at any time,” declared Jefferson, who explained that the general expected them to be ready for battle with a half hour’s notice. He added, “Mother if I get in a batel I will stand up and fight to the very last before tha shal run over us whather I di or whather I live I come to fight and I expect to doo it soon.”

Fighting came soon enough, culminating in a series of engagements during the Peninsula Campaign known as the Seven Days Battles. The men of 13th experienced their share of action at Gaines’ Mill, Frayser’s Farm and Malvern Hill.

In the 1911 interview, Quattlebaum recalled the horror of battle in graphic detail. “The first dead soldier I saw,” he stated, “was sitting up with his gun across his lap, his head was hanging forward and brains hanging down over his face. Close by him was another man standing on one knee by a large oak tree, dead.”

The rigors of marching and fighting took a toll on the Quattlebaum boys, who were hospitalized at the conclusion of the campaign. While they recuperated from various ills, their brothers in gray participated in the battles of Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (or Antietam).

Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg (above) suffered a mortal wound at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The American Civil War Museum Collection.
Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg suffered a mortal wound at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The American Civil War Museum Collection.

The brothers returned to the ranks in November 1862 and went on to fight in every engagement in which the 13th participated. The regiment’s grit and determination helped build the legend of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Both men were present at Fredericksburg, where Brig. Gen. Gregg suffered a mortal wound by a bullet to the spine. They fought under Gregg’s successor, Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan, at Chancellorsville. McGowan suffered a severe wound that took him out of action for months. During his absence, the boys fought at Gettysburg under the command of Col. Abner Perrin. On July 1, 1863, the first day of the battle, the brigade distinguished itself in a charge led by Perrin that rolled up the Union left and pushed it toward Cemetery Hill. 

After the tide turned against Southern arms at Gettysburg, the brothers limped back to Virginia along with the survivors of Lee’s Army. Meanwhile, the surrender of Confederate forces to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, and a growing list of military and economic setbacks, sounded the death knell of the Confederacy.

The Quattlebaums remained steadfast in their devotion to the army. But a growing number of men became demoralized by what seemed a war without end, and went absent without leave. The alarming rate of desertions prompted extreme measures to counteract the trend. On Sept. 20, 1863, Jefferson wrote to his 15-year old sister Lizzie after witnessing the execution of two men found guilty of leaving their regiment: “Sister, I saw something yearstidy that was a afful site sertin. I sean too men run out in a open old field in presence of thar own brigade and marched a rond the brigade under guard foloing a band of musick. The pitifulest tune I ever hurd in mi life was plaid and when tha was dun a marching them a round that taken the too men and made them both neal down side and side with thare backs again too stakes and tha tide them fast to the stakes and the guard was formed 15 steps in front of them and the captain gave the command redy aim fire. Tha was 12 muskets fired at each ones brest. One of the pore fellers made too tries to get up but he was tied and could not get the chance to rize. I tel you I don’t think I will go to see any more men shot. Tha were shot for diserting and going home to see thar peple. One of the men had a wife and 6 litle children. One of them was bair footed and in his shirt.”

The two men executed, Pvt. Allen Absher and Pvt. Esom Fugit of the 33rd North Carolina Infantry, had a history of desertion.

As the war dragged on into 1864, the brothers weathered the Wilderness in early May, and the daily struggle for survival later in the trenches before Petersburg. Finally, as the Confederate lines disintegrated, they were captured at the Southside Railroad on April 2, 1865, just yards from where Union soldiers shot down Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. The boys were sent to the prisoner of war camp at Hart’s Island, N.Y.

The brothers signed the oath of allegiance to the federal government weeks later. By this time, the Confederate government and its armies had disappeared. Quattlebaum shared his feelings in the 1911 interview, and echoed those of other Confederates who fought for the cause. “I took it freely; but I didn’t—it was a bitter pill for me to take it, after fighting four long years for what I believed to be right, but it is all right now. I love my state and the union, and will cheerfully abide by the laws.”

On June 16, 1865, the pair boarded a steamer that carried them to Hilton Head, S.C. Upon their arrival in the Palmetto State, Quattlebaum recalled in 1911, “The boat hardly touched the wharf till I leaped out and said, ‘Thank God I am on my native soil again!’ I felt like Columbus—getting down and kissing the very ground.” From there they traveled on another ship to Charleston, and then by train to Orangeburg. They walked the final 50 or so miles to Frog Level, and reached home on July 6.

Mother Margaret must have been overjoyed at the homecoming. Her eldest, David Belton Quattlebaum, had joined the Holcombe Legion and spent his entire term of enlistment on the South Carolina coast. He succumbed to measles in her arms on March 5, 1862, just weeks before Jefferson joined the 13th. Her second-born son, John Phillip Quattlebaum, had relocated to Mississippi in the 1850s. He enlisted as a private in his adopted state’s 20th infantry, and spent the early months of the war in western Virginia, where the unit became the first Mississippi regiment to serve in the field under the command of Robert E. Lee. Quattlebaum may have been the first South Carolinian to fight in Lee’s field command during the war. He went on to suffer battle wounds at Fort Donelson, Tenn., in 1862, and during the Atlanta Campaign in 1864. Captured while on leave to recover from his Atlanta injury, he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner held on Ship Island, Miss.

She also would have thought about Simon Peter Quattlebaum. The son of her husband and his first wife, he had served alongside Joe and Jefferson in Company G. He was killed in action during the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862, while his half-brothers were in the hospital.

Margaret would carry their memories until she died at about age 81 in 1892.

Jefferson lived out his life as a farmer in Newberry and died at age 67 in 1912. His wife, Martha, who he had married in 1867, and three children survived him.

Joe also became a farmer in Newberry, and his three marriages resulted in three children that lived to maturity. In his 1911 wartime reminiscences, published in the Newberry Observer during the 50th anniversary of his enlistment, he noted that, with the exception of the battles of Second Manassas and Sharpsburg, “I was at the front all the time, and was in every battle my regiment was in, and I was home only eleven days out of the four years. I was in many close places and had some mighty close calls, but was never wounded, or at least I never had the skin broken. I was struck by two partly spent balls—one on the wrist and one on my side—and a ball glanced or tipped my right temple and cut the band off my hat.”

Joe Quattlebaum passed away on Dec. 21, 1914, exactly a half-century after he endured the hardships on the front lines of Petersburg. The old Confederate was 75. His remains rest in the Colony Lutheran Church Cemetery in Newberry.

References: Newberry Weekly Herald, Feb. 13, 1906; Joseph E. and Giles M.J. Quattlebaum military service records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Quattlebaum Family Papers, Collection of Terry Burnett; Aldo S. Perry, Civil War Courts-Martial of North Carolina Troops; Newberry Observer, 1911; Dunbar Rowland, The Official and Statistical Register of the State of Mississippi.

Terry Burnett is the Continuing Legal Education Director at the South Carolina Bar. He and his wife Sally live in Little Mountain, S.C., the “Heart of the Dutch Fork.” If you have information to share about the Quattlebaum family, please email

SPREAD THE WORD: We encourage you to share this story on social media and elsewhere to educate and raise awareness. If you wish to use any image on this page for another purpose, please request permission.

LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.

VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.

Scroll Up