Grandpa Charlie: Part I


Charlie E. McCray
My husband, Dave, has Confederate roots.  Since we've been married I've heard his grandfather, Brooks, tell (and repeat) many stories about the McCray family and  what Brooks describes as "a lineage that's pretty hard to beat!"

Of all the ancestors in all the stories he's told (and retold), Dave's great-great-great-grandfather, Charlie McCray, is (so far) my favorite character.

Charles Edward McCray was born in Lewis County, Virginia (now West Virginia) on August 21, 1842 to Robert and Margaret McCray, a Scottish family in rural West Virginia.  He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, survived starvation in a Union prison camp, walked more than 400 miles to reenlist after his release, and he lived to be 99-and-a-half years old.

His longevity is why his story is so vivid - Brooks knew his great-grandfather Charlie personally until he was 11 years old, when Charlie finally passed away.  "I don’t have to find out from a tourist what happened at Gettysburg, I sat in the room with my great-grandfather who was there!" Brooks said.  "He was in 17 battles in the Civil War! He was in Antietam! He was in Gettysburg!"  
Charlie was 18, almost 19, when the Civil War began in 1861.  The McCrays were a Confederate family - so much so that the face and signature of Charlie's great-uncle, Jonathan Bennett, was on the $5 Virginia Treasury Note.  Charlie was one of seven sons and, to their mother's pride, all seven of the McCray boys served as soldiers for the Confederacy; remarkably, of those seven, only one died as a result of the war.
Jonathan Bennett, a distant uncle to my husband
Charlie's oldest brother, James, was a 42-year-old Methodist preacher at the start of the war.  By January of 1862, James was a Captain in the Confederate army (Co.5, Virginia State Rangers) and was forming a local militia unit.  During that time, the Mace family, neighbors in the Hacker Valley, had their home and larder raided by Union soldiers.  Hearing of this,  McCray and two comrades, Ebenezer Mace and Elias Snyder, decided to retaliate.  On January 13th, they hid themselves in a cluster of boulders on top of a wooded hill with an aim to ambush the raiders.

However, the northerners were somehow forewarned, and surprised the three men from behind.  Mace was wounded, but managed to escape with Snyder; James had been shot in the knee and was unable to flee.  The Yankees then killed Cpt. James McCray there at the boulders with his own rifle.  Two of his sisters, Eliza and Rebecca, later retrieved James' body and buried him on their brother Evan's nearby farm.  James burial was the first interment at the McCray Cemetery, and the boulders where he was killed were called the James McCray Rocks; both can still be found today down a pitted dirt road in the middle of the West Virginia woods, with the memorial markers that Dave's grandfather, Brooks, helped to dedicate.
Cpt. James McCray's Headstone
Charlie fought in the Civil War as a foot soldier for the Confederate army and participated in historic battles.  In September of 1862, just a few months after his brother's death, Charlie was one of the tens of thousands of men at the Battle of Antietam.  In July of 1863, Charlie also fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.
In 1864, Charlie was captured by northerners and spent some time in Elmira Prison, a prisoner-of-war camp in Elmira, New York.  One in four of those incarcerated  in "Hellmira" ended up dying, and young Charlie was starved so badly his hip bones stuck out.  
Charlie was fortunate enough to survive the experience - a few months after his incarceration, there was a prisoner exchange and Charlie was one of the lucky  ones, emaciated but freed.  When they released him "they looked at him and said, 'If you leave here, you will die,'" Brooks recounted.  "But he was an old Scot, and he said, 'If I stay here, I’ll die!'"
Home was more than 400 miles away, and his clothes were baggy on his thin malnourished body.  But, having no other way to get home, Charlie cinched his belt and walked the whole way, all +400 miles from Elmira, New York to central West Virginia.  More than once he spent his nights in the woods, and on one occasion woke up to a mountain lion sniffing his face (he played dead and the lion left him alone).  

After surviving battles that tens of thousands of men had died in, after months of starvation in a prisoner-of-war camp, and after walking 400 miles over both enemy and rugged terrain, Charlie miraculously made it back home in one piece.

He rested for six months.  But at the end of those six months, the war still had not ended.  So he put on his grey uniform again and he reenlisted, not knowing he'd be a witness to the final battle of the Civil War.


Grandpa Charlie: Part II
A Heritage of Honesty, Work, Faith and Love - The ...

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