The Confederate who came to dinner

by Allen C. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era

Gettysburg College sent 207 alumni into the Civil War—a considerable number given that the entire host of alumni in 1865 totaled around 900. Only 99, however, were in actual combat service. The rest served in non-combatant roles such as surgeons or chaplains, in temporary militia service, or as civilians with agencies like the U.S. Christian Commission.

More surprising still is that 14 alumni served in the armies of the Confederacy. But the biggest surprise of all came when one of those rebel alumni not only marched into Gettysburg with the Army of Northern Virginia on July 3, 1863, but also participated in Pickett’s Charge, was wounded and captured, and then performed the ultimate act of alumni chutzpah by wandering cheerfully around the town with a pass, dropping in on his old professors, and sitting down to dinner with his former instructor, College President Henry Baugher.

He was James Francis Crocker, born in 1828 and a member of the Class of 1850. He came to Gettysburg as an 18-year-old because elite families of the Old South loved sending their sons to high-profile Northern colleges. Southern institutions of higher education were often small and poorly funded, so families who could afford it dispatched their fair-haired boys to mingle with the North’s best and brightest. One of Robert E. Lee’s sons went to Harvard; Confederate President Jefferson Davis was an honorary member of Whig Hall at Princeton; Davis’s Secretary of the Treasury was a Yalie. So it made sense to “Frank” Crocker’s family, a social fixture of Virginia’s Isle of Wight County since the 17th century, to send their youngest child to what was then Pennsylvania College.

Crocker had an aptitude for study, graduating as valedictorian. But he also had a streak of undergraduate naughtiness. In a draft of his graduation address, he “took notice of the great excitement then prevailing” between North and South over the Compromise of 1850, and added this provocative flourish: “Who knows, unless patriotism should triumph over sectional feeling but what we, classmates, might in some future day meet in hostile battle array.” President Baugher, however, had the last word and firmly “struck this part out of my address” as too inflammatory. “But alas!” Crocker remembered, “it was a prophetic conjecture.” Crocker went from Gettysburg to teach mathematics in Ohio, then practiced law at home in Virginia. He also had an aptitude for politics, getting himself elected to the Virginia legislature in 1855, then joining the law firm of Goodwin & Crocker.

With the outbreak of war, Crocker enlisted as a private in the 9th Virginia Infantry and soon rose to lieutenant and regimental adjutant. His enlistment papers describe him as six feet tall, with “light complexion, grey eyes, light hair.” Despite his Yankee education, Crocker endorsed Virginia’s secession. “My whole being responded in approval and applause of that act of my State,” he exulted. “I rejoice in recalling with what willingness I was ready to give my life in its support, and it is the summation of the pride of my life that I served humbly in her cause.”

His rejoicing gained little reward at first. The 9th Virginia spent the first year of the war on garrison duties in the Norfolk area. Safe and unexciting as the duties were, they at least afforded the regiment a ringside seat for the fateful clash of the ironclad warships, the Monitor and the Merrimac. Seven of the 9th’s enlisted men actually volunteered to help serve the Merrimac’s guns.

Crocker’s regiment finally saw action in the summer of 1862 during the ill-starred Peninsula Campaign, when Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia threw back the Union army from almost the gates of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Crocker was wounded at the last of the campaign’s battles, Malvern Hill. “I was shot through the throat, through the shoulder and through the arm,” and was certain he would die, but recovered to rejoin the 9th Virginia for the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg in December.

When the 9th Virginia marched north in June 1863, it was one of four regiments under Brigadier-General Lewis Armistead, whose brigade was one of three making up the division commanded by Major-General George E. Pickett. However, Pickett’s Division was the tail of the army in this campaign, so Crocker and the 9th Virginia missed the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg. But they were roused in the wee hours of July 3 to hurry to Gettysburg. Lee was going to throw the dice on one last big attack and would need Pickett’s Division to bring it off.

When Crocker’s regiment arrived on Seminary Ridge, they did not like what they saw: a mile of open ground to attack across, with Union troops on Cemetery Ridge and artillery ready to cover every square yard between the ridges. “From our position in line of battle, which we had taken early in the morning, we could see the frowning and cannon-crowned heights far off held by the enemy,” Crocker wrote. “In a group of officers, a number of whom did not survive that fatal day, I could not help expressing that it was to be another Malvern Hill.”

Indeed it was. The 9th Virginia stepped off with the rest of Pickett’s Division at 1 o’clock that afternoon. “No sooner than our lines came in full view, the enemy’s batteries in front, on the right and on the left, from Cemetery Hill to Round Top, opened on them with a concentrated, accurate and fearful fire of shell and solid shot.” Crocker “saw a shell explode amidst the ranks of the left company of the regiment on our right. Men fell like ten-pins in a ten-strike.” Though the 9th Virginia pounded a small dent in the Union lines, those lines did not break. Crocker was wounded again, and this time captured.

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