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The last Civil War pensioner

A woman in North Carolina is the last living Civil War pensioner, the daughter of peculiar veteran of that stupendous war. This family has lived life enough to have a tale to tell. The Wall Street Journal has the story, on a beautifully designed page with images and documents. This peculiar Civil War veteran began soldiering for the Confederacy.

Along the way [to Gettysburg], Pvt. Triplett fell ill with fever and went to a Confederate hospital in an old tobacco warehouse in Danville, Va. Eight days later, he disappeared. Pvt. Triplett was "present or accounted for until he deserted on June 26, 1863," state records say.

He missed a terrible battle for his regiment, and the South, whose loss at Gettysburg portended its final defeat. Of the regiment's 800 men who fought at Gettysburg, 734 were killed, wounded or captured.

There was a strong strain of Union sympathy in western North Carolina. Friendly locals often helped hide Confederate deserters. Pvt. Triplett crossed the mountains to Knoxville, Tenn., where on Aug. 1, 1864, he joined a Union regiment, the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry. Military records listed him as a farmer, 5 feet 8 inches, blue eyes and sandy hair. He signed his enlistment contract with an X.

An Army surgeon certified him "free from all bodily defects and mental infirmity, which would in any way disqualify him from performing the duties of a soldier." The recruiting officer swore that Pvt. Triplett was "entirely sober when enlisted." Pvt. Triplett's older brother, Darby, joined the same day.

Triplett’s Appalachia Unionist regiment commenced to make life hell for the rebs and their postwar revanchists. Let it be noted that the Confederates, likewise, had no compunction against making life hell for Southern Unionists, mostly concentrated in Appalachia; and managed to make life hell for blacks in the South for a further century.

Pvt. Triplett's Union regiment was nicknamed "Kirk's Raiders," after its daring, Tennessee-born commander, Col. George Washington Kirk. Col. Kirk, a carpenter, rocketed from private to commander of a regiment he assembled from Union supporters in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

Pvt. Triplett's new regiment slipped in and out of North Carolina to destroy Confederate supply depots, railroads, and bridges in the region where Pvt. Triplett grew up, according to a history by Matthew Bumgarner. [. . .]

At times, Col. Kirk’s men took food from Confederate sympathizers to give to Union sympathizers. Union commanders praised Col. Kirk for his derring-do. Confederates saw him and his men as little more than hooligans and turncoats.

The war came to a close after Gen. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865. Pvt. Triplett was discharged four months later. Military records show he owed the government $129.99 for uniforms and other gear, offset by a $100 enlistment bonus the Army owed him.

Back home, tensions simmered between those who had sided with the Confederacy and those who joined Union forces, especially a regiment as hated as Kirk's Raiders. “Most, if not all, of these soldiers would be outcasts, to a degree for the remainder of their lives,” Ron V. Killian wrote in his history of the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry.

In 1885, Pvt. Triplett applied for a pension and, apparently impatient with the delay, had his congressman submit legislation the following year to approve his request, a common practice. The bill died, but records suggest Pvt. Triplett eventually secured a Union pension of unknown size.

[. . .]

Pvt. Triplett had farmland and a big house near Elk Creek, in Wilkes County, N.C. Long after his death, local men would drink moonshine, play banjo and fiddle, and swap legends about what a “hard man” Mose Triplett had been, said his grandson, Charlie Triplett, who heard the stories from his father. He wore a Wyatt Earp mustache and would pull the fangs from rattlesnakes, then keep them as pets in a chicken coop.

“A lot of people were afraid of him,” Charlie Triplett said. “Most of the time he sat on the front porch with his old military pistol and shot walnuts off the trees just to let people know he had a gun.”

He married a young woman very late in life, and, the Journal conjectures, in that Great Depression pattern of young women marrying older men for the financial security. Their daughter still lives, in a retirement home in Wilkesboro, NC, and the VA still send her a Civil War pension.

Irene was born in 1930 when her father was age 83 and her mother 34. Irene, too, suffered from mental disabilities, said past and current nursing home staff. Pvt. Triplett was just shy of his 87th birthday when Elida gave birth to a son, Everette, later the father of Charlie Triplett.

Irene and Everette Triplett were born in tough country during tough times. The forested hills ran with white lightning from illegal stills. Ms. Triplett said she didn't drink moonshine, but she got hooked on tobacco in first grade.

“I dipped snuff in school, and I chewed tobacco in school,” said Ms. Triplett. [. . .] “I raised homemade tobacco. I chewed that, too. I chewed it all.”

Irene said her teachers beat her with an oak paddle. Her parents continued the beatings at home, she said: “When you got a whooping in school you'd be getting tore up when you got back in those mountains.”

At school, children would taunt Irene about her father the “traitor,” said Charlie Triplett. She dropped out after sixth grade, unable to read or write proficiently. Of her parents, she said, “I didn’t care for neither one of them, to tell you the truth about it. I wanted to get away from both of them. I wanted to get me a house and crawl in it all by myself.”

What a story. Well worth reading in full.

Comments (2)

"Irene was born in 1930 when her father was age 83 and her mother 34."

83 years old. There's hope for me, yet :). Seriously, having kids at that age increases the change for genetic abnormalities leading to developmental problems.

The Chicken

It is amazing, a person today was fathered by someone in the Civil War. Her father, meeting 80 yr olds when he was a boy would have been meeting people who were alive at the founding of the US. On the one hand it tells us history is closer to us than it seems, on the other hand it reminds us the US remains a very young country.

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