cguy.gif Bill Young uguy.gif
RCWRT Member's Speech

Bill Young

One of my favorite Confederates is George W. Finley.  Finley
was a 24 year old First Lieutenant who commanded Company K ,
56th  Virginia   Infantry   Regiment,   Garnett's   Brigade,
Pickett's  Division,  Longstreet's  Corps,  Army of Northern
Virginia in Pickett's charge on the third day at Gettysburg.
On that fateful afternoon of July 3, 1863, he led his little
company into the valley of the shadow of death and  straight
into the mouths of the Union cannon on Cemetery Ridge.      

Finley  was  one of the handful of men who actually got over
the stone wall and lived to  tell  about  it.   The  Yankees
captured  him  within  the angle beyond the wall.  They held
him as a prisoner of war for the next two years.  He  stayed
in  six  different Federal prisons as an unwanted "guest" of
the United States.                                          

In June, 1864, the Yankees crammed 600 Confederate  officers
aboard  an  ancient,  paddle-wheeler  steamboat  called "The
Crescent City" and hauled them to the prison camp at  Morris
Island,  South  Carolina.   Finley was to become one of "The
Immortal 600." He spent the entire voyage below  deck.   His
bunk  was  in the hold directly beneath the ship's propeller
shaft.  He had to squeeze under the revolving  metal  column
to get in and out of bed.                                   

The  bunk  was  also  right  beside the boiler room, and the
metal wall got so hot that Finley  burned  his  hand  if  he
touched it.  For three days, he lay naked in the pitch black
darkness of the ship's hold drenched in his own sweat.   His
daily  food  ration was three salt crackers, a tiny piece of
beef or pork, and a cup of water distilled from the ocean as
the ship sailed along.                                      

It  was  a  relief when the Yankees prodded Finley ashore at
the point of  a  bayonet  and  forced  him  and  his  fellow
prisoners  into  a tent city surrounded by a wooden stockade
on the sandy beach.  Most of the prisoners carried  blankets
they had captured on the battlefield.                       

The blankets were gray with "U.S." printed on them in large,
block letters.  As each prisoner passed through the gate,  a
bluecoat  guard  wrenched  his blanket from him and threw it
into a pile.  The guard said with a sneer, "This blanket  is
marked  U.S.   You ain't a part of the U.S.  You're fighting
against it, so you ain't got no right to this blanket."  The
Yankees set the whole pile of blankets on fire.             

The  Yankees  built the stockade in front of and between two
Union heavy  gun  batteries  -  Battery  Gregg  and  Battery
Wagner.   All day and all night the Union guns fired on Fort
Sumter, Sullivan's Island, and other points along Charleston
Harbor.   The  Confederate  guns  across  the  water  always
returned the fire.  Luckily for the prisoners, the  Southern
artillerymen  had  the exact range.  Their shells arced over
the stockade and dropped on the Yankees behind it.          

There was only one minister among the prisoners.  He  was  a
Presbyterian  named  N.B.  Handy.  Handy tried to preach all
of the church services, conduct all  of  the  funerals,  and
give  spiritual  comfort  to  the  men  one-on-one,  but the
demands upon him were too great.  He needed  help.   He  and
several  other  prisoners  formed  a  committee,  approached
Finley, and said, "Every day in prison is like every  other.
We  cannot  let  that  continue.   We  want  you to read the
scripture, preach the  sermon,  teach  Sunday  school,  hold
Wednesday  night  prayer meetings, and say the words over us
when we die."                                               

"But I'm not a minister" Finley protested.  "I've never  set
foot in divinity school."                                   

"That  doesn't matter.  You're the next best thing.  We need

Finley became acting chaplain to his fellow  prisoners,  but
he  swore  a secret vow that if he survived the War he would
go to a seminary and become a real Presbyterian parson.     

One Sunday morning, Finley was leading a worship service. He
and  his  congregation  were sitting on the beach inside the
stockade.  They had just said together the last two lines of
the 23rd Psalm:                                             

"Surely  goodness  and mercy shall follow me all the days of
my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

BOOM!  A sound like a terrible clap of  thunder  burst  from
the Charleston side of the harbor.  There was a bright flash
of orange flame and a rolling, cloud of black powder  smoke.
A  Confederate mortar had just fired a 90 pound shell in the
direction of the stockade.  Finley and his flock watched the
mortar  shell  dart  straight into the heavens.  At first it
was just a tiny,  black  speck,  but  when  it  reached  its
zenith,  it  turned,  rolled, and headed down towards Finley
and his men.                                                

As the huge shell descended, Finley realized to  his  horror
that  it was going to fall short and land smack in the midst
of the churchgoers.  Everyone froze.  There was no place  to
go,  no  place  to  run, and no place to hide.  As the shell
came  down,  it  grew  larger  and  larger.   It   shrieked,
screeched, and hissed like a frightened bird.               

Finley  thought it was the end.  His life flashed before his
eyes.  He saw the old oak tree with the rope  swing  in  the
yard,  the  one-room  school house with his slate of sums on
the desk top, the frown on the face of the manager  when  he
reported  for  work his first day at the bank, and the sweet
smile of his wife Margaret as she  started  down  the  aisle
towards  him  on their wedding day.  He heard the cry of his
newborn daughter as he held her in his arms  for  the  first

He  closed his eyes and kept them tightly shut.  He clutched
his fingers together and said aloud, "Our, father,  who  art
in heaven..."                                               

WHUMP!   The mortar shell struck the ground.  It half buried
Finley in the  sand.   He  waited  for  the  explosion.   He
waited_and  he  waited_and he waited.  The explosion did not
come.  He opened one eye, and then he opened the other  eye.
There  was  the ugly, iron monster only a few feet away.  It
was nose down with its back end sticking up out of the sand.
Thank  heaven  for  Confederate  ordinance!  The shell was a

Finley said later, "We  all  continued  our  little  worship
service  that  morning  with  renewed  enthusiasm." (Amen to

Finley was destined to remain a prisoner of war for  another
year,  but  he was true to his vow.  As soon as he was free,
he  enrolled  in   the   Union   Theological   Seminary   at
Hampden-Sydney,    Virginia.     He   became   an   ordained
Presbyterian minister two years later.  He served  the  Lord
in  the pulpit of the Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in
Fishersville, Virginia until the end of his days.           

Finley never forgot his years in prison.  As  grim  as  they
were,  he  looked  upon  them  as part of God's plan for his
life.  In the twilight of his days he wrote these lines:    

Amid the gathering gloom of the closing days of our  beloved
Confederacy,  with much suffering of mind and body, those of
us in prison had to wait until the end came.  And  God  sent
us  back  to  our wasted land and stricken people to take up
the work for which He had been preparing us.  Truly does  He
bring the blind by a way that they knew not.


Return to Speaker's Articles Index
Return to main page

©R.C.W.R.T. 2002 (Speech used with permission)