James F. Crocker: A True Pennsylvania College Graduate

Please refer to the previously posted blog about James F Crocker in the Battle of Gettysburg. Today Gettysburg College can look back on the Class of 1850 and be proud of James Francis Crocker, adjutant of the 9th Virginia Infantry. In the 21st Cen…

By Natalie Sherif ’14

Please refer to the previously posted blog about James F Crocker in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Today Gettysburg College can look back on the Class of 1850 and be proud of James Francis Crocker, adjutant of the 9th Virginia Infantry. In the 21st Century, Gettysburg College teaches its students to be strong willed, independent, and contributing members of society. James Francis Crocker was a Confederate soldier and an earnest advocate for The Cause but it is not his beliefs that made him the admirable man he was; rather it was his character, how he interacted with his peers, and his ability to stand up for what he believed in despite the defeat at Gettysburg.  After leaving the Twelfth Corps Field Hospital, Crocker was taken by train to David’s Island in the Long Island Sound.

Crocker_prison_2

Crocker wrote that it was a “first-class hospital in every respect.”

Including those who arrived with Crocker and his comrades, there were 3,000 soldiers in the hospital. The New York Daily Tribune (Wednesday, July 29, 1863) observed that: “Shakespeare’s army of beggars must have been better clad than were the Confederate Prisoners.” Despite the fact that Crocker was a prisoner of war, wounded for the second time, and far from home, he kept up his spirits not only about the war but the Confederacy and The Cause as the same issue of the Tribune  stated:

[Crocker] said it was impossible for the North to subdue the South. The enemy might waste their fields, burn their dwellings, level their cities with the dust, but nothing short of utter extermination would give the controlling power to the North. The intelligent people of the South looked upon their efforts to regain their rights as sacred, and they were willing to exhaust their property and sacrifice their lives, and the lives of their wives and children, in defending what they conceived to be their constitutional rights.

Just as Crocker projected the Confederacy’s downfall was marked by the near extermination and annihilation of the South. Still, Crocker remained positive and held a steadfast belief in the South and her fighting spirit. Upon his parole from Johnson’s Island (to which he was transferred from David’s on September 18, 1863) in February 1865, Crocker finally realized the deplorable state of the Confederacy when he saw a young boy selling apples for “one dollar apiece.” Crocker remembered that “all the prisoners at Johnson’s Island stoutly maintained their confidence in the ultimate success of [their] cause. They never lost hope or faith” but seeing the boy selling the apples forced the ex-prisoners to face reality. Their beloved South was in deplorable shape and the war was quickly coming to a close. Crocker remained true to his roots and his beliefs and loved the South in spite of all its shortcomings.

Crocker_prison_3

Confederates and Unionists alike were drawn to James Francis Crocker  James Simmons, the doctor in charge of the hospital at David’s Island, mentioned Crocker positively in a letter to Colonel William Hoffman, Federal commissary general of prisons, when he wrote: “The orderly behavior of the Prisoners while at David’s Island was in a great measure due to the influence of this gentleman [Crocker].” He was a natural leader who took it upon himself to solve problems that arose in the prison camp. One particularly desperate case involved the prohibition of outer clothing at David’s Island. Crocker asked Henrietta Bennett, wife of James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, to work for the revocation of the order. Since newspaper editors were heavily involved in the politics of the time and therefore acquired powerful political acquaintances, she used her connection with Mary Todd Lincoln to fulfill the request. The New York Herald ran a piece for a few days appealing to the public for support — out of sheer humanity — to help remove the order. Crocker took a deep interest in the well being of not only himself but his comrades and used any connection he had to help obtain what he wanted. It was this steadfast determination that helped him stand out from his peers.

Crocker perceived those with whom he interacted in a pro-Confederate light.  On the train from Gettysburg to David’s Island, for example, there were many stops at which Northern women would tend to the soldiers.  Crocker believed these women treated him and his men better than their own Union wounded. This, essentially, is the way in which Crocker relayed virtually every encounter he had with Northerners — they all mysteriously ended up feeling deep sympathy for the South. Though his interpretation of these interactions might appear somewhat far fetched, he genuinely connected with people and counted them among friends. In one of his most heartfelt passages, he wrote:

I believe that the surest way to become a friend to another, is to do that other person a kindness.

It appears as though he conducted his entire life by this philosophy.  He certainly did not worship the North as he did the South but he composed himself in a cordial manner while interacting with the people of that region. He was a Southern gentleman and, “once a gentleman — always a gentleman — under all circumstances a gentleman.”

Pennsylvania College overwhelmingly sympathized with the Union. In this respect, Crocker was an outlier. However, almost 150 years later, it is plain to see that James Francis Crocker was an admirable man. Though the college did not sympathize with his beliefs, Crocker certainly embodies the most cherished principles that Pennsylvania College offered and Gettysburg College now strives to instill in its students.


Sources:

Crocker, James F. Prison Remembrances. Portsmouth, VA: W.A. Fiske, 1906.

Leave a Reply