Capt. Ramsey and the Birth of the ‘True Blues’
By RONALD CODDINGTON
Feb. 9, 1861
Southern patriotism and revolutionary fervor burned bright in early February 1861, perhaps nowhere more so than in Alabama. There, representatives from six states convened in Montgomery to draft and adopt a provisional Confederate constitution. Meanwhile troops were mobilizing across the state, and three federal military posts, including two forts at the mouth of Mobile Bay, had been seized by the Alabama state militia. And local leaders were now rallying their communities to defend the emerging republic.
Ramsey and his comrades marched out of the county three days later, calling themselves the Wilcox True Blues. They joined companies from other counties with similarly colorful titles like the Talladega Rifles, the Guards of the Sunny South, the Rough and Ready Pioneers and the Red Eagles. Together they formed a regiment, the First Alabama Infantry. The rank and file elected staff officers, a common practice among volunteers. They voted the captain of the True Blues as the regiment’s lieutenant colonel; when he left to assume his new duties, Ramsey advanced to captain and company commander.
The men mustered in for a one-year enlistment. The unique company names were replaced with letters. The True Blues would be officially referred to in future orders and reports as Company K, and after subsequent reorganizations as Company B. They did, however, get to keep their company flag, a blue silk standard trimmed with gold fringe. Tradition has it local women cut the material from a donated dress. A county man, a painter born in England, decorated it with cotton blooms and a landscape. On one side he added gold letters that spelled out the company name followed by “Woman’s Offering to Patriotism.” A Latin phrase on the other side of the flag warned off invaders: “Noli me tangere,” or “Don’t touch me.”
The raw recruits prepared to defend the homeland, and what they expected to be an easy fight. “When we volunteered, we thought we could whip the Yankees in three months,” stated a private who wrote a history of the regiment. “Most of these young men were from homes of wealth and culture, of the best Southern families, and, inflamed with resentment against the North for long-continued aggressions upon the rights of the South, as well as by the recent John Brown raid in Virginia.” He further noted that less privileged soldiers, “who, with no property interests involved, equaled the zeal and loyalty of their wealthy comrades in devotion, courage, sacrifice and duty.”
A number were students, who toted along their textbooks. “We had several scholarly teachers in the regiment,” observed the historian, and “we expected to fight Yankees and pursue our studies at the same time.” But there would be little room for book learning. Tough times lay ahead.
Stationed in Florida along Pensacola Bay to man coastal defenses, the regiment’s first enemy was disease. Measles, malaria and typhoid fever swept through the men in epidemic proportions. As the death toll mounted, they grew indifferent to the sight of their comrades’ corpses being carried to a makeshift cemetery for burial or being shipped to grieving families back home. The regiment’s historian recalled that one nervous soldier observed, “A man can die and be buried here with the least ceremony and concern I ever saw.”
Despite raging sickness the troops became so proficient at working the big guns in area forts and batteries that they converted to artillerists. But they reverted to foot soldiers on the night of October 8-9, 1861, when they participated in a 1,200-man amphibious raid on nearby Santa Rosa Island, home of Fort Pickens, a federal post that had eluded Confederate capture. The Confederates overran and burned the camp of the Sixth New York Infantry before Union reinforcements drove them back. The True Blues suffered just one casualty, a drummer boy accidentally shot in the leg during the withdrawal.
The regiment’s enlistment expired in early 1862, but Ramsey and many of the True Blues reenlisted. Fresh recruits, including Ramsey’s little brother, 18-year-old Rob, replaced those who had died of disease or decided that they had enough of war.
The Alabamians soon left the warm climate of Florida for the cold and inhospitable conditions of a nondescript sandbar in the Mississippi River labeled on maps as Island No. 10 (so named because at one point it was the 10th island in the Mississippi south of its junction with the Ohio River). It sat at the base of a horseshoe-shaped bend near New Madrid, Mo., just north of the Tennessee border. Confederate-held defenses on the island and its vicinity lay in the path of riverborne Union forces intent on splitting the Confederacy in two along the great waterway.
Once they arrived another round of disease decimated the regiment. The sick were housed in hospitals established in a church and on a steamboat anchored near the island. On the ship “the men were lying on the floor across the cabin, head to wall and feet to feet, with a space of 12 or 18 inches between each. They all had pneumonia, and the space between each was literally covered with phlegm expectorated by the patients. The same was the case in the aisle, which was about three feet wide. The coughing, wheezing and groans were distressing,” according to the regimental historian.
The situation grew more desperate when federal forces moved in. After Union soldiers captured New Madrid, just downriver, over a dozen gunboats and mortar rafts began shelling the 7,000 Confederate troops on Island No. 10. After several days of bombardment, the Confederates tried to escape south into Tennessee, only to be met by federal forces that had landed downriver and then advanced northward. The Confederates surrendered on April 8, 1862; Ramsey, his True Blues and the rest of the First Alabama were among the prisoners.
The Alabamians spent that day in conversation with their captors. The federals “repelled as an insult the least insinuation that the war, professedly for the Union, involved the emancipation of slaves, declaring they would lay down their arms at once if they had the remotest apprehension that such was the case. Though doubtless sincere at the time, they did not make good this declaration upon the issuance of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation nine months later,” reported the regimental historian.
The captured officers and enlisted men were separated. Ramsey headed to a prison camp on Johnson’s Island in Ohio. His brother, Rob, went to Camp Butler in Illinois, where he died of disease. The banner of the True Blues fared somewhat better. Wisconsin troops stripped it from the company color bearer and sent it home as a war trophy. The flag later became part of a display in a museum in Madison.
Five months after his imprisonment, Ramsey gained his release in a prisoner exchange and returned to duty along the Mississippi, only to suffer surrender and capture a second time. In command of an artillery battery at Port Hudson, La., he and the True Blues successfully defended the city and the river from several major Union assaults. But after Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, upriver, Ramsey’s position became untenable, and approximately 5,500 men in gray were taken prisoner on July 9, 1863. The enlisted men were released on parole and eventually returned to duty. But for Ramsey and other officers captured, the fighting was over.
Following a prison stint in New Orleans, where Ramsey stood Napoleon-style for his photograph, he returned to Johnson’s Island for a second time and remained in captivity for the war’s duration. There he spent almost two years in prison before military authorities released him in June 1865. He returned to Wilcox County, married in 1866, and converted to his wife’s Baptist faith. They started a family that grew to include five daughters and three sons.
Ramsey eventually completed his medical studies and opened a practice. Ordained as a minister in 1883, he turned his attention to the spiritual needs of his patients. An 1893 typhoid epidemic claimed the life of his wife and a daughter. He remarried the following year, and lived until 1916.
One year after his death, survivors of the True Blues learned that their blue-silk banner, which they had assumed long lost, was still in existence in Wisconsin. They negotiated for its return in 1921, almost 60 years after its capture.