Samuel Henry Ringstaff enlisted on 15 Jan 1862 in CSA Co. B, 43rd Regiment. At 24-28 years of age, he had been, by occupation, a merchant living in the town of Monroe, Union County NC. Quickly promoted to rank of 1st Lieutenant by late summer of 1862, Henry Ringstaff was ordered by General Gustavus Woodson Smith to seek and arrest area deserters who had not returned from leave. The mission became violent, ultimately leading to the issuance of an indictment of murder against one of the deserters. And, following the actual crime, Lieutenant Ringstaff, himself, returned to duty only to be captured and imprisoned by the enemy for a period of nine months. The said Ringstaff’s papers, including his order to arrest area deserters, were either lost or stolen while in confinement.
In this post I’ll introduce a new twist to what is already a well told story pertaining to a shooting at the hands of John Medlin. Before moving forward I’d like to thank Julie Hampton whose knowledge and online collection of all things Union County has been of great help. Thank you, Julie.
A resident of Union County, Lieutenant Ringstaff knew he needed additional support to achieve his mission. He summoned Hosea Little, who the said Ringstaff later claimed in court “was not a soldier.” Also brought to help were five others including John Short, Thomas D. Winchester, and Culpepper Austin. Thomas D. Winchester was a merchant and post-master for the town of Monroe. And, Culpepper Austin was a long-term Sheriff of Union County. Together, the men gathered on Friday evening, 5 Dec 1862 at about 10 or 11 o’clock before making way to the home of John Medlin. Eben A. Helms, Calvin Williams, and Hilburn (maybe Wilber) Hasty would also be found hiding out with the said Medlin. Benjamin H. Houston later deposed that “in the summer and fall of 1862 he was a Lieutenant in a company in the service of the Confederate States, and that he was then in the actual command of said company that Eben Helms and Calvin Williams were privates. He deposed that sometime in August or September of said year, the said Helms and Williams deserted and had not returned to their command up to January 1863.”
Lieutenant Ringstaff would eventually testify that “he and another man” went upon the said Medlin’s porch, where was heard someone knocking at the door on the opposite side of the house. Ringstaff said he then ‘put his eye to a crack in the side of the house, and before he had time to see anything, someone in the house said, “God damn you!” and fired a gun, the ball from which cut his whiskers and knocked splinters in his face.’
Ringstaff’s testimony was followed up with a similar statement by Culpepper Austin:
“…when they first went to the house of the prisoner, one of their companions named Short went up on the porch upon the opposite side to Lieutenant Ringstaff and knocked at the door. A female voice within inquired “Who’s there” to which Short replied “it doesn’t matter, I have come here with the proper authority and I intend to come in,” to which the female replied there is nothing here that belongs to you and I will not open the door, that Short continued to knock and said “ if you don’t open the door, I will have it open. That at this time Culpepper Austin looked into the house through a crack and by a light in the fireplace, saw the prisoner advancing stealthily toward the fireplace, with a gun and an axe in his hands. That he raised up his foot and placed the handle of the axe upon it and eased it down on the floor, [John Medlin] then raised his gun to his face, then Austin called out “look out he is going to shoot” and immediately the gun fired which cut Ringstaff’s whiskers, that Ringstaff called on the deceased to open the door and give him a chance, that the door was opened, he does not know by whom or how. The said Austin also deposed to the running on the other side of the house and said that a gun was fired at the man who first ran from the house.”
Lieutenant Ringstaff then asked Thomas D. Winchester to borrow his double barreled gun. Ringstaff then said to Hosea Little, who was standing by, “open the door and give me a chance.” Ringstaff testified that he may have said “I will shoot the damned rascal who shot at me.” The rifle had a hair trigger which accidentally went off at that time. The door was opened afterwards, and Ringstaff thinks it was opened from the outside. The door was not kicked in or broken down.
Ringstaff then testified of hearing someone running on the other side of the house. He heard someone say “here they go” and then ran around and saw his men running off after someone. He heard voices in the house in a low tone and called to his men to come back. When Hosea Little and another started to return, when they had got within about ten paces of the house, a door opened on the side that they were advancing on. Three men stepped from the house and two guns were fired in quick succession by them possibly from a double-barreled gun. It was at that time that Hosea Little fell. The man advancing with the said Ringstaff was also hit. From a letter later written to Gov. Z. B. Vance, it can be deduced that the man advancing with Ringstaff was Thomas D. Winchester. All went quiet after Lieutenant Ringstaff shot at the three men as they into the darkness of night.
Thomas D. Winchester later testified that Hosea Little was shot in the leg. “There were twenty seven or twenty eight holes made by the balls, three or four of the balls had passed through the leg making two holes each, that one ball found in the boot of the deceased weighed nearly an ounce, that the shooting took place on Friday night and the deceased died the next Monday.” Dr. McLaughlin testified that he attended on the deceased from the time he was shot. He described the wounds substantially as had Winchester.
The three had made their escape and were on the move. Dated 4 Dec 1862, Col. J. C. Mullis of Jenkins Store, NC received the following command from the Attorney General:
“Arrest & send to Camp Holmes the following men from your county; should they have left the county, “ascertain where they have gone”: John Medlin about 6’, 175 or 180 lbs, about age 24, fair skin, light hair; Eben A. Helms, about 5’ 8”, fair skin, light hair, 3 fingers off left hand, age 22, about 160 lbs; Calvin Williams 5’10”, “boy faced, rather down look,” round shoulders, swarthy complexion, dark hair, 150 lbs; Hilburn Hasley, about 5’6” to 10”, freckled face, light hair, round shoulders, 150 lbs, age 22. “These men are deserters and have used force against those attempting to arrest them. You will use every effort to arrest them.”
A short time after the homicide, John Short went to the county of Burke where John Medlin, Eben Helms, and Calvin Williams were delivered to him and Major McMurray. While being conveyed on the stage to the railroad, John Short said to the prioners “boys this is a bad scrape, Hosea is dead.” To that, Eben Helms said ‘I am clean of it; I did not shoot and when you knocked at the door I said “Boys, that is John Short, let’s give up,” but John Medlin took his gun and went to shooting.’ Williams also said “I’m clean, I did not shoot.” All this was said in the presence of John Medlin who said nothing but hung his head. John Short also said to the prisoner, “was that you that I ran from the house?” John Medlin replied “…no that was Wilbur Hasty. We three stayed in the house and ran out together.” The said John Short further stated that after they had arrived at the railroad, he had a conversation with Hasty and Williams in which they both said they were innocent of the homicide and that they did not shoot. This was all said in the presence of the prisoner who said nothing. Eben Helms was also asked who did the shooting. The said Helms replied John Medlin did all the shooting, and to that the prisoner made no answer.
Upon reaching the Company Shops on the N. C. Railroad near Salisbury, and following any questioning, somehow John Medlin was able to escape capture by jumping from the train:
Once again things went quiet. John Medlin was either on the run or was remaning low by attempting to shadow service with the military he had once evaded. And as for Lieutenant Samuel Henry Ringstaff, he rejoined the 43rd regiment where he appears on muster rolls through the spring of 1863.
At about 11 A. M. on July 3rd, Ringstaff was “wounded in the head and captured while crossing the mountain” during the battle of Gettysburg.
On 24 Oct 1863, Henry Ringstaff was transferred from DeCamp General Hospital on David’s Island to nearby Fort Wood, Bedloe’s Island in the New York harbor. After the war, the walls of Fort Wood were backfilled to make the star shaped base upon which now stands the Statue of Liberty. On 29 Oct 1863, Henry Ringstaff was transferred to Johnson’s Island Prison for Confederate Officers which was located on the Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie.
On 4 Oct 1864, the Lieutenant appears on a list of sick and wounded soldiers paroled from Johnson’s Island Prison to be forwarded to Pt. Lookout Prison MD. There, he joined a political party and his signature appears on a lengthy letter from al the officers in support of Governor Zebulon Baird Vance. Records show Lieutenant Ringstaff was transferred from Johnson’s Island to Pt. Lookout Prison MD on 6 Oct 1864. Lieutenant Ringstaff arrived at Point Lookout on 11 Oct 1864 and from there may have been transferred to where he was exchanged at Aikens Landing on the James River.
Looking back to the fateful days leading up to Gettysburg, we’ll see that John Medlin reappears from hiding about the same time Lieutenant Ringstaff marched towards the most fabled episode of the American civil war. We will learn of the said Medlin’s reappearance from a letter written by Samuel Hooey Walkup. Lieutenant Colonel Walkup, also from Union County, was considered by others to be one of the bravest officers in the Northern Army of Virginia. Back in 1858, he and the aforementioned Thomas D. Winchester had provided their views at a Congressional session seeking to locate the birthplace of Andrew Jackson.
In a letter penned to Gov. Z. B. Vance dated 9 Jun 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Hooey Walkup told of what he had learned upon arriving in Richmond VA two days earlier. Having traveled from Kinston NC, his unit found John Medlin Junior and his father John Medlin Senior in camp where the young Medlin was trying to get into the regiment. Walkup states that the said Medlin had deserted from the 20th regiment and that he is the person who had killed Mr. Hosea Little and crippled Mr. T. D. Winchester. He eludes to the capture and of General Winder of Richmond who had earlier released John Medlin Junior and his father. Walkup called Gen. Winder & inquired on how Medlin Junr. came to be let out. The general replied that he had no authority over the prisoner …that a Confederate court could not try for an offense committed against state authorities. The general wanted Walkup to have him arrested & sent to him so that he could send him to his Regt. What? Not wishing to do the business of General Winder, Walkup told him (Winder) that he ought to send Medlin to the governor to be tried by civil law if the military could not punish for such offense.
The governor responded to Walkup’s letter as follows: Gen Winder that if there is a certain ….of Medlin being shot by the military, I will not send for him, If not, I will. ZBV
Richmond VA. June 9, 1863
Gov Z. B. Vance of N. C
Raleigh N. C.
Upon our arrival in Richmond Sunday 7th June from Kinston N. C., we found John Medlin Junr., who was a deserter from the 20th N. C. & who killed Mr. Hosea Little & crippled Mr. T. D. Winchester both of Monroe in Union County N. C. last winter, whilst they were attempting to arrest him & three others, all of which was reported to you by the militia authorities – Gen. Winder of Richmond had released John Medlin Junr. & he and his father who had come to Richmond VA, were in our camp, & young Medlin was about trying to get into our regt. I called on Gen. Winder & inquired how Medlin Junr. came to be let out stating his offense – He replied that he had no authority over him. That a Confederate court could not try for an offense committed against state authorities. But wanted me to have him arrested & sent to him & he would send him to his Regt. I did not care to trouble myself about his for that business but told him (Winder) that he ought to send Medlin to you to be tried by the civil law if the military could not punish for such offense.
Gen Winder that if there is a certain ….of Medlin being shot by the military, I will not send for him, If not, I will. ZBV
S. H. Walkup
We know from the above correspondence, and from later court records, that John Medlin and the others involved were returned to Union County by order of Governor Zebulon B. Vance. On the 8th Monday after the 4th Monday of August 1863, it being the 19th day of October A D 1863, a Superior Court of Law opened and was held for the County of Union at the courthouse in Monroe. The Honorable John L. Baily Judge presided.
Judge John L. Baily presented jury foreman Eli Stewart the Bill of Indictment. Eli and his fellow jurors are listed below:
And then, another judge, the Honorable James W. Osborne, ordered on the 8th Monday after the 4th Monday in February A D 1864, it being the 18th day of April 1864, that the trial be moved to Mecklenburg County:
The said John Medlin Junior, being brought to the bar here in custody of the Sheriff of Union County and it being demanded of him how he will acquit himself of the felony and murder in the said bill of indictment charged against him, he says he is not guilty and for good and evil he puts himself upon the court and Mr. Solicitor Armfield who prosecutes for the state in his behalf doth the like upon affidavit of the prisoner this indictment is removed to the county of Mecklenburg by order of the court for trial, and it is required of the sheriff of Union County that he deliver the prisoner on Thursday of the term to the sheriff of Mecklenburg County.
On the 9th Monday after the last Monday in August 1864, it being the 31st day of October 1864, at the Superior Court of Mecklenburg, Judge R. R. Heath presided over the new trial.
And of keen interest, a most crucial witness, Lieutenant Samuel Henry Ringstaff had been severely injured at Gettysburg and locked away in Yankee prisons for more than nine months. He was basically missing from action for the entire period of John Medlin’s escape. And having only recently been exchanged at Aiken’s Ferry VA on 11 Oct 1864, it’s amazing he was able to made it back to Union County in order to testify. But as records have shown, Lieutenant Ringstaff did in-fact testify.
Up to this point the reader has seen the prosecutorial information gleaned from letters, newspaper articles and witness statements supporting the Bill of Indictment. The prosecution had ended and now it was time for the defense. As written in the Attorney General’s report, the prisoner’s counsel argued that:
1. The prisoner did not do the act of shooting.
2. If he did, it was excusable, as it was done in self-defense — defense of the prisoner’s dwelling.
Sending the jury to deliberation, Judge Baily charged them with five truths that must be adhered to in making their decision. And of that, I ask you the reader to study these closely:
1. That if these men banded together as deserters, with a common understanding and determination to stand together and resist all persons who might lawfully come to arrest them, and if the prisoner killed in consequence of this determination, it would be murder.
2. If the prisoner knew he was a deserter, and sought as such by persons having proper authority to arrest him, and killed to prevent such arrest, it would be murder.
3. If the prisoner believed, and had reason to believe, that a mere trespass only was intended, and killed to prevent such trespass, it would be murder.
4. If the prisoner killed for revenge for anything that had been done to his house, and out of malice, it would be murder.
5. That if the prisoner killed because his house was broken into in the night, he not knowing what was to follow, he would be guilty of nothing; that if the prisoner believed, and had cause to believe, that a known felony was about to be committed on himself, his property, or his family, the parties being in apparent situation to commit said felony, and he killed to prevent it, then he would be guilty of nothing. house; in defense of his person and family, and in prevention of a threatened felony.
Upon the return of a guilty verdict, the court case is recorded as follows:
Being chosen, tried, and sworn to speak the truth of and concerning the premises upon their oath, say that they find the said John Medlin Junior guilty of the felony and murder in manner and form as charged in the bill of indictment. The prisoner John Medlin Junior is placed at the bar and it being demanded of him what he has to say why the court should not proceed to judgement of death on him, he moves for a new trial and for a venire de novo, and their motions are overruled, and the rules discharged, and it is ordered and adjudged by the court that the prisoner at the bar, John Medlin Junior, be taken hence to the jail of Mecklenburg County and there remain until Friday the twenty fifth day of November A. D. 1864, and that on that day he be taken by the sheriff to the said county to the place of Execution for said county between the hours of ten o’clock A. M. and four o’clock P. M. and then hanged by the neck until he be dead.
From the said judgement the said John Medlin Junior prays an appeal to the Supreme Court which is granted upon the prisoner John Medlin Junior giving bond and security.
The case of State vs. John Medlin had already been moved from Union to Mecklenburg County and now, once again, he requested a new trial at a new location. The request was denied though the appear to the Supreme Court was granted. Dated 20 Nov 1864, the N. C. Argus, which is published in Anson County NC, reports the following:
In Union county last week …A man named HELMS, charged with being accessory to the shooting of Little, was tried and acquitted. It will be remembered that MEDLIN, HELMS, and other deserters, were concealed in a house when the deceased Little, and other officers, approached it for the purpose of capturing them. MEDLIN is to be tried here this week. Charlotte Democrat.
…On Friday, John MEDLIN, from Union county, was tried for killing Hosea Little. MEDLIN was a deserter and Little and others were trying to arrest him, when MEDLIN fired and killed Little. The jury returned a verdict, guilty of murder. The prisoner, MEDLIN, took an appeal to the Supreme Court. – Charlotte Democrat
John Medlin Junior won his right to appeal. Seeking information from the depositions and trial results, I immediately went to the Mormon FamilySearch site online which has supposedly recorded all the loose papers supporting past North Carolina Supreme Court cases. But, upon looking there, I did not find the Medlin case. As it turns out, the Mormon effort did not copy ALL the cases. And of those that did not get copied, I have no idea as to why. Then going to NC State Archives, I looked through the card index of cases, quickly pulled the file, and found a treasure trove of depositions which make up most of what’s found in this post. And also included was Justice Richmond Mumford Pearson’s report which follows. Pearson was chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme County.
State vs. Medlin
In State vs. Jarrott, this court taking to the law to be that insolence on the part of a slave to a white man would justify battery, but not an excessive one, awards a veniere de novo on the grounds that the instruction to the jury must be understood as having reference to the testimony, and was in that sense erroneous, and used these words – “the language of his honor indeed is that” if the prisoner used the provoking language testified by the witness the deceased had a right to whip him.” “But by the phrase whip he must necessarily be understood as meaning to whip in the manner testified by the witnesses,” that is with a knife and a piece of fence rail.
In this case, we think the prisoner has ground to complain of the third instruction, i. e. “if the prisoner, believed and had reason to believe that a mere trespass only was intended and killed to present such trespass, it would be murder.” Forsaking the law to be that a mere trespass to personal property does not mitigate where the killing is with a deadly weapon, but that a violent trespass to the person does mitigate, this instruction must be understood as having reference to the kind of trespass spoken of by the witnesses, and in that sense is erroneous. His Honor having in the second instruction presented the case to the jury in the footing that the deceased and the party to which he belonged had proper authority to arrest the prisoner, in the instruction now under consideration assumes that the deceased and the party to which he belonged were acting without proper authority, and that what they did or intended to do was a trespass, and must necessarily be understood as meaning the kind of trespass testified by the witness, that is going to a man’s house in the night time with a number of armed men for the purpose of seizing his body! – – Killing to prevent a trespass of this nature is certainly no more than manslaughter.
It occurred to us that this error might be owed by the fifth instruction. On consideration we are satisfied that instruction cannot have the effect, because it is qualified and reshiated by the words “he not knowing what was to follow.” On the supposition that he did know what was to follow, that is, that they intended to arrest and take him off as a deserter, the killing was mitigated, unless they had proper authority to do so, which view is not presented by this instruction, and consequentially it does not cure the error of the third instruction. The first and second instructions assume that there was proper authority to arrest. The other instructions assume that there was not. This most important question is left undisposed of, and to that omission the want of cleanness in the case is to be ascribed.
As is said in Gaither vs. Ferrebee 1 Winston, 315, “his Honor has left the case to the jury in such a manner as to make it impossible for this court to know what his opinion was on a question of law, arising on the facts of the case, and of course making it impossible to review his decision .” Unless his instructions are to be considered as mere abstract positions of the law without reference to what was testified by the witness, there is error. Veniere de novo.
For me this intriguing story begins to wind down with the above Supreme Court ruling. With little fanfare, it appears John Medlin may have been acquitted due to the improper nature in which his home was approached in the middle of the night. That, and the fact that no official authorization was ever presented. A man has the right to protect himself. But though he was not found guilty, it appears John Medlin Junior and Senior may have felt the sting of community wrath. Less than two years following the trial, the two removed to Lawrence County, Illinois where they lived out the rest of their lives.
Going back to early fall 1864 when the murder case was moving towards retrial in the Mecklenburg County Courts, Col. Samuel H. Walkup wrote a telling letter to Governor Z. B. Vance. Of concern were the actions of a local battalion of the Home Guards. On 2 Sep 1864, Walkup wrote of their combing the county in search of deserters. This, at a time when the sorghum and molasses industry was in high demand and yet, most working aged men were at war. Walkup further claimed that the action was overbearing considering it impacted everyone and yet sought to arrest but a hand full of deserters. To that point Walkup pleaded for a temporary cease in the searches, at least until the demands of the fall harvest ebbed:
Monroe N. C. Septr 2nd 1864
His Excellency Gov Z. B. Vance
Col. Brown of the 63rd Bat. Home Guard has been in this county from Mecklenburg for three or four days – & Majr Ashcraft has the Battalion out of the Home Guards from this county – I also learn that a Battalion from Anson Co. is ordered here.
Now there is but six deserters reported present in this county. Two of them have come in under your proclamation & two others I am informed will be in in a day or two – So that there appears to be no call for any forces here for purpose of arresting deserters. There are none to arrest. There have been no depredations made by any of them in this county for some time past. Those who had committed any have all been taken & sent back to their Regts sometime since.
If the purpose is to put the Battalions under organization so as to be ready for any emergency, that objective has already been accomplished. They are now organized & will be in a state of readiness for meeting & moving at short notice.
I would most respectfully bring to your excellency’s attention, with great diffidence the citizens of the county – Our county (Union) has very few slaves & the few white men left here are the laborers who are necessary to save the growing & matured crops. It is now in the beginning of tine to save fodder & the Sorghum Molasses are now ready for manufacturing & there is a considerable quantity of it planted. Neither can be saved unless these men are left at home – & this is, I learn the case in Mecklenburg & other places – Our county had to rely for its supply last year beyond its limits for some of these necessities of life & it behooves them to use all their resources to keep from suffering.
I hope you will therefore take the premises into consideration & have the home guard released from active service until they can collect their fodder & Sorghum – or until some greater emergency arises for their surmise & when they can be more conveniently spared – this is the general wish & cannot desires of all concerned in the prosperity of the county & its necessities – whatever may be the condition of the county in other sections. I feel sure that there are not ½ dozen if more than two, deserters in Union County – Nor do I believe there are any worth notice in any adjoining counties fewer in fact than ever before.
You will please excuse me for making so free as to suggest these remarks
Respectfully & Truly
Your Obedient Servant
S. H. Walkup (Col. 48th N. C.)
Again, things go quiet. Then, starting around 1874, estate records for the deceased Henry Ringstaff begin to appear in Union County. Harkening back to his roots, many of the documents originate in Orange County NC as distributions from family there. One last time the spheres of influence coalesce as a member of the Houston family is awarded guardianship of Lieutenant Ringstaff’s children. The order was signed in 1876 by Samuel Hooey Walkup, Probate Judge.