Oliver Johnston Youmans

By Mac Wyckoff

Many Civil War soldiers possessed a physical courage beyond the comprehension of most peaceful living citizens today. Few, then or today, possessed the moral courage shown by Oliver Youmans in the spring of 1864.

Oliver Johnston Youmans was born on the last day of 1838 on the Mexico Plantation in what is now Hampton County, South Carolina. His father owned two plantations one of which used ninety-eight slaves in 1860.  Youmans graduated from The South Carolina Military School (now called The Citadel) in 1859, seventh out of his class of fifteen and as the class orator.  He continued his studies at what is now The University of South Carolina and passed the bar in November of 1860.

Youmans enlisted as a corporal in Company C, 2nd South Carolina on April 8, 1861.  That Fall he was promoted to sergeant and later junior second lieutenant.  That winter, like many he developed pneumonia and went home to recover.  By Spring he had returned to Virginia.  For his conduct at Chancellorsville in May of 1863, he won a "Valor and Skill" promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.  Following the carnage at Gettysburg in July of 1863 he was elevated to 1st Lieutenant and acted as company commander  for the next seven months.  When the captain was unable to return, Youmans stood in line for promotion to captain.

Such would not be the case.  In the Spring of 1864, Youmans faced a difficult decision.  In April, the three-year enlistments had expired for most of the men in his company.  The men could re-enlist in the same unit, transfer to another unit, or go home in which case they night face conscription.  The problem was two-fold.  General Ulysses S. Grant was preparing to mount the biggest offensive of the war.  The 2nd South Carolina which had just returned to Lee’s army from Tennessee needed every available man in the ranks.  Youmans and others who had a military background tended to be harsh disciplinarians.  Probably for this reason, he was unpopular among the men of his company.

Youmans was undoubtedly an ambitious, proud young man, yet he choose resignation rather than accepting the promotion to captain.  He stated his reasons, "the expectation that I am to command the company which I belong to the re-enlistment of nearly half the members."  Furthermore, he re-enlisted as a lowly private in the same unit to continue his service to his state and country.  To do the right thing when it requires swallowing one’s pride and ambition requires a moral courage not often seen in today’s world.

In his first battle as a private, Youmans was killed at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864.  A friend characterized him as "a victim to his unshrinking courage" who had been "intellectual, truthful, conscientious, and pure; a high toned gentlemen, a gallant soldier, a devoted patriot, and a consistent Christian."  Buried on the field, he had "amid strange faces and from strange hands, received the rude burial of the soldier in soil now in lines of the hated foe."

Youmans’ story continues, as radio commentator Paul Harvey likes to say, with the rest of the story.  In an article I wrote on Youmans in the October, 1989 issue of The Fredericksburg Times Magazine, I speculated that Youmans family probably did not no where Youmans was buried.  The family had lost their fortune during the war, but had recovered it.  One day after my book on the history of the 2nd South Carolina was published in June of 1994, a descendent of Youmans went into the bookstore on the Fredericksburg battlefield.  Happening to notice my book for sale, he bought the book and turning to the roster learned of Youman’s burial location in the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery.  He hurried over to the cemetery to pay tribute to his ancestor.  The next day he looked me up and in response to my question stated that to the best of his knowledge no one else in the family had ever known where Youmans was buried.

I had speculated that this was the case because the wording on the grave; stone nineteen, row three, section thirteen, simply reads  "_____ Yowmans, S.C., killed May 6, 1864."  Had the wealthy family known this, they likely would have retrieved the body for burial in his hometown or replaced the headstone with one stating his first name and correctly spelling his last name.