Our Trip to Ft. Donelson and Wasp Duncan’s Trip to Hell

Henry Walston Duncan, known as “Walst”, or “Wasp” was captured at Ft. Donelson, TN, on Feb 16, 1862, and taken to Camp Douglas, Ill, the notorious prison camp on which was based the documentary “80 Acres of Hell”. He was my great-great grandfather.

Henry Walston “Walst/Wasp” Duncan and unidentified daughter

Many years ago when my grandfather, Frank Duncan, offered to take me to the gravesite of his grandfather, it never entered my mind how far back in time my grandfather’s grandfather went. As we traipsed through woods and overgrown brush in the “old cemetery” — across the highway from the church and the new cemetery– I was brought up short by an old tombstone bearing this inscription:

Henry Duncan, Co H 42 TN Inf, CSA

“Papa!” I screeched. “That’s the Civil War!” As I looked at Papa Duncan with new eyes I realized he had known this Confederate soldier, had played at his feet and heard his voice until the old man’s death in 1912 when my grandfather was 12 years old. But Papa remembered him, not as the old soldier from Marshall County, Alabama, who had fought in a bloody war, but as a kind man who was good to children.

After that, nothing could keep me from digging into the life of Henry Duncan. I learned he had been captured at Ft. Donelson, TN, on Feb. 16, 1862. That discovery was made in 1976. But it wasn’t until the autumn of 2008 that my husband Mike and I finally made the trip to Ft. Donelson. My ancestor would not recognize the picturesque beauty of the area as it is now. All that’s left of the earthwork fortifications are grassy mounds shrunk by nature, strategically placed cannon, and historical signs and tributes to those who fought there. Only the river remains the same.

The Cumberland River

Here is the story of Private Henry Walston Duncan – CSA

Henry Duncan enlisted in the Confederate Army on November 9, 1861 with Co H 42nd Tennessee Infantry, which was officially organized on November 28, 1861, at Camp Cheatham in Tennessee. Shortly after the organization the regiment moved to Camp Duncan, Clarksville, Tennessee, and then to Fort Sevier at New Providence near Clarksville.

From Clarksville the regiment went by steamer to Fort Donelson on February 12, arriving on February 13 in a winter storm. The men marched directly from the boat to the support of the 30th Tennessee Infantry. They never even had time to collect their baggage, which was left at the wharf and never seen again. The 42nd Tennessee reported 498 engaged, with 15 casualties. It was surrendered as part of Brigadier General Bushrod R. Johnson’s Division, Col. A. Heiman’s Brigade.

The Dover Hotel where Gen. Buckner surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

The Dover Hotel as it stands today (or when I took the picture in 2008)

Henry Duncan, along with thousands of other Southerners, was captured February 16, 1862, and shipped out to Camp Douglas, llinois, a Northern prison camp as notorious to Southerners as Andersonville was to the North. The camp was on low ground, with bad drainage, unsanitary conditions, and camp commanders bent on “making them pay”.

Henry Duncan and his fellow prisoners from Ft. Donelson spent seven months there before their release in Vicksburg, Mississippi, September 20, 1862. [Note: one of the later prisoners at Camp Douglas was my dad’s great-uncle, Elijah Owen, wounded and captured at Shiloh. The 21-year-old never made it home to Blount County, Alabama].

I have an old newspaper clipping dated Friday, January 6, 193? which relates a hand to hand combat between Henry Duncan and a Union cavalry officer and reads:

Reb on Foot Dueled Mounted Yankee

“The story of how Wasp Duncan of Georgia Mountain [in Marshall Co, AL] fought a bayonet-sword duel with a Union Officer during the Civil War is told in a faded clipping now in the possession of his son J.W. Duncan. The clipping says:

“Wasp” Duncan was a typical mountaineer, tall, angular, and rather stooped. He did not own a slave, nor even a mountain forty. At Baker’s Creek, he with a small squad was placed to support a battery. A cavalry charge by the enemy placed every man hors du combat (out of action), except Wasp. A federal officer dashed at him with drawn sword, and then followed as game a duel such as the war furnished between a trained officer on horseback and a green mountaineer with fixed bayonet. “Surrender —- you!” shouted the Yank. “Surrender yerself gol dern ye, you begun it!” replied Wasp. Thrust and parry with sword and bayonet, both wounded but game, when the officer’s support closed around and disarmed Wasp, who then wanted to fight it out with fist and skull. When handing his musket to his captors and wiping the blood from his face, Wasp remarked with his usual drawl, “He hain’t done nothin’ but give me a upper bit on the right ear.” Many people in this country remember Wasp. The Yank was an officer in Austerhaus Cavalry.”

**********

The Battle of Baker’s Creek was fought on May 16, 1863. This battle was also called The Battle of Champion Hill and was a precursor to the Siege of Vicksburg on May 18 or 19 (depending on who’s telling it). Henry Duncan was apparently called by a shortened version of his middle name — Walston, shortened to “Walst”. Later generations — who did not know his middle name — thought Henry was nicknamed “Wasp”, like the stinging variety. Most Southerners pronounce a stinging wasp as “Wawst”, which to Southern ears (and most other ears) would sound very much like “Walst.”

Also, whatever bit of imagination might have gone into the above newspaper article, several things lead me to believe Henry Duncan was, indeed, at the battle of Baker’s Creek (Champion Hill). He was released near Vicksburg, it named an actual Union cavalry officer (Austerhaus), and he used the term “upper bit on the right ear”, which is a term used to clip the ear of a hog — or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not sure that term traveled north. But, who knows.

The fact is, though, that Brig. Gen. Pillow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and handed all those thousands of men over to Gen. Grant — but not in person. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner had the honor of being the one to surrender his sword to what he called “ungenerous and unchilvalrous” terms of surrender. Those terms being “immediate and unconditional”. Thus U. S. Grant’s nickname was born at Ft. Donelson. As a play on Grant’s actual initials, he now would forever be known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

For some good reading on the full story of Ft. Donelson, check out these links:

http://thisweekinthecivilwar.com/?p=1102

http://streamsandforests.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/the-battles-of-water-ice-and-steam/

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2 thoughts on “Our Trip to Ft. Donelson and Wasp Duncan’s Trip to Hell

  1. Henry Walston Duncan was my Great Grandfather and J. W. Duncan my Grandfather. I have a copy of the news article that my grandfather carried around for years. I really enjoyed the story and learned a few things about Wasp. Thanks.

    • Terry, Thank you for contacting me and commenting. Would love to get more information from you. Mike and I are currently visiting with his family in Georgia so I’m having to answer my emails and contacts as I can. I would love to talk with you more when I have a space of time. My email address is LLMacSmith@gmail.com.

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