150 years ago, a heated altercation between prison guards leads to violence in Shockoe Bottom.
On October 1st, 1863, North Carolina soldier James P. Newson stood guard duty at the entrance of Castle Thunder prison in Shockoe Bottom. He was a member of the City Battalion, a group of soldiers that both defended the capital city and helped to guard its large prisoner population. That day, Newson apparently exchanged some harsh words with another City Battalion soldier, Private Charles Johnson of the 25th Virginia battalion, who was there on business. Apparently Johnson was loitering too close to the wall of the prison and got into a small altercation with Newson, who yelled at him “that he had orders to keep all persons away from the walls and would do it irrespective of persons.” They continued to argue back and forth until Johnson left the scene.
As with most altercations, the passing of time can either diminish tempers or serve to only make them hotter. In the case of Johnson, it was the latter. He considered the situation very much unsettled and set out to confront Newson the next day about it. That next evening, around 6:30 PM, Newson was relieved of his day’s duty at Libby Prison and began walking to the City Battalion barracks at 25th and Main Street. It was there that Johnson accosted him, and more heated words were exchanged between the two of them.
Feeling threatened, Newson pulled the cover off of his musket and cocked it. Johnson turned to walk away, but the situation had then gone too far. Newson continued to walk towards the now-turned Johnson when one of his friends, Private Martin Gripp, in the 25th Virginia interceded. Gripp started in toward Newson, pulling off his coat and the cover of his own musket and telling Newson to throw down his weapon and fight him.
Newson refused, and Gripp, walking up to him, slapped him in the face; whereupon, Newson ran back a few steps and, pulling up his gun, fired. The ball, a Minie, struck Gripp in the right shoulder, tearing out the flesh and making a severe wound, and, passing on, took effect in the left arm of private Frey, company A, Twenty-fifth Virginia battalion, shattering the bone. Private R. Morris, company D, Twenty-fifth Virginia battalion, was the next victim of the terribly effective bullet. Standing within range, nearer the prison, it struck him in the stomach, penetrating the intestines, and he too fell helpless and bleeding. Richmond Examiner, 10/5/1863
Newson quickly realized the gravity of what he had done and began to turn and run, but was quickly overtaken by other members of the City Battalion. He was sent to Castle Thunder to await trial.
The three wounded men were taken to Libby Hospital. The surgeons could not find the bullet inside Morris’ stomach and he died the next day. Frey’s left arm was amputated.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out the fate of Newson after he was imprisoned at Castle Thunder, but he “expressed great regret at the damage he had done, but urged as a reason that he had been driven to it by the assault made by Gripp.”
Regardless of what happened to Newson, it’s interesting to think about the destructive force of this one bullet in this one incident. Multiply the effect of that one bullet into the thousands on the battlefield and it’s easier to understand the scale of bloodshed that was seen during the war.