John and Margaret Plyler, Siblings and Southern Soldiers
by Gordon Thorsby
From 11 April, 1865, the Charlotte Western Democrat
A young soldier was arrested here yesterday on suspicion of being a female, and she admitted she was. She gave her name as Margaret Plyler, and says she is from Union County, in this state, and has been nine months in the army. We learn she was sent to a hospital for further examination.
The right Rev. C.A. Plyler, a Methodist minister and wife, Millie were parents to eleven children. Two ended up serving for the South in the Civil War. One would not expect that a brother and sister would end up serving.
To begin, allow an explanation of brother, John Wesley’s story.
John Wesley Plyler was 20 years of age when he enlisted in the Lancaster Greys of Company A in the 5th South Carolina. He enlisted on April 13, 1862 while the firing was going on in Charleston Harbor. The 5th was organized by Lt. Col. Barnard Bee (killed at Manassas.)
The regiment fought at First Manassas near McLean’s Ford. John was In Longstreet’s Division when he was severely wounded at Seven Pines where the regiment incurred 200 casualties. It required several months to recover from the injuries. He fought at Burnside' Bridge at Antietam and on the Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg. The brigade was detached in Virginia and he did not go to Pennsylvania.
John went west with the 5th in August. In the Spring, 1864, John fought in the Overland Campaign, where John was wounded a second time at the Wilderness. It was less severe and he was back with the regiment for Cold Harbor.
It was in August where things changed. An attack by Union troops hit a section along the Darbytown Rd. The 5th was attached with three regiments of Benning’s Brigade and recaptured a line of works that Union forces had taken and the defense of Petersburg was being threatened. The regiment charged resulting in the loss of one officer killed, two wounded, six enlisted men killed and eighteen wounded. John was one of the enlisted killed.
John died August 16, 1864 on the New Market Road. The Lancaster Ledger reported his death this way:
… he met the fatal stroke which terminated his earthly pilgrimage. On the day of his death he was with his company on pickets; in the effort to relieve himself from the tedium of lying in the trenches, his person became exposed, and a ball from the enemy's sharp-shooters entered his brain and killed him instantly. In this solemn hour, there were non present connected with him by the ties of blood to wipe away the dew of death from his youthful brow; but he was beloved by all his brothers-in-arms, and we have the assurance of his commanding officer, that his remains were as decently interred by his comrades as circumstances would allow.
He was possibly killed prior to the regiment’s charge. John Wesley was twenty-three at the time of his death. The Lancaster Ledger gave John an grand obituary to a young man... too young to have married.
There was also his sister. involvement in fighting. It was approximately in April, 1864 that Margaret Plyler, the sister of John, may have enlisted in the Jeff Davis Legion. Margaret was born in Lancaster, South Carolina in 1846. In 1864, she was living in Union County, NC (abt 8 miles and across the state line) is documented on the 1860 Union County, NC census. The story raises skepticism but after a century of questioning it continues to hold. Here is how it goes.
Richard S. Torry was 19 when he enlisted in Montgomery, Alabama on August 10, 1861 in Stone's Company volunteers, later Company D of the Jeff Davis Legion. Records showed nothing of note until March-April 1864, when he was serving “as a scout.” He was back with the Legion in September. Several newspaper accounts through the years reported that Margaret Plyler Torry alias Charley Mills became part of Company D. The story claims that Margaret reported “she married, and one month thereafter she joined the company of her husband, and has been on duty since that time, has been in all the fights, was never sick or absent from duty. .” Richard and Margaret married and served together with Margaret disguising that she was actually a woman. According to the Daily Conservative in early April 1865, a Raleigh paper, “She is 20 years of age, has good features, bronzed skin, dark eyes, and short hair. She states that ten months ago she married, and one month thereafter she joined the company of her husband, and has been on duty since that time, has been in all the fights, was never sick or absent from duty.” At some point, the two must have married in 1864, possibly during his time on detached service.
Richard was apparently killed at Bentonville either March 19, or 20, 1865 as part of H
Jeff Davis legion. Confederate records were poor especially by 1865 but any existence of Torry around this time is a dead end. Margaret’s reporting of his death has credibility. With Richard dead, she no longer had a reason to remain in the army, “she now made known her sex and wished to return to her home in Union County, N.C.”
There is no record of a marriage in NC but it does not affect the story. That there was no Charley Mills in the unit is of question. No name is documented as serving in the company or regimental muster rolls. This is a problem. There were no articles describing interviews with Margaret’s mother or father as to what she had done.
The Fayetteville Observer on March 19, 1927 (72 year anniversary) reported that then Governor Angus W. McLean related a story told by his late father, a former artilleryman in Company B, 13th North Carolina Light Artillery Battalion, at the Battle of Bentonville.
“We were intently watching our cavalry about 200 or 300 yards distant in an open pine forest in our front skirmishing on the brow of a small ridge when someone exclaimed, 'Hello, there's some one killed." Quickly a comrade was seen spurring to his side, and with some assistance, although under a continuous fire from sharpshooters, succeeded in raising his bleeding form across the front of his saddle, and with the most profound resoluteness rode by us to the rear, with his body dangling on either side of the horse's shoulders. Imagine our surprise when, a few days later, we heard that our faithful warrior was a woman, and none other than the wife of him whose remains she had so heroically borne from the field, having volunteered, it was said, disguised as a man…"
Margaret Plyler remained unattached for the rest of her life, passing in 1910.
The occasional stories of women serving in Union and Confederate forces have included hoaxes or inconsistencies in their stories. This story might be one of those times except 1) her brother, John Wesley served and died, she had an uncle killed at Fredericksburg and another who died before Chancellorsville. Margaret gained nothing by the story. Telling a false story would detract from those in her family killed in the war. Margaret is buried in Tabernacle Methodist Cemetery, Lancaster with her Methodist minister father, her mother and most of the family. Altogether, Margaret’s story is probably true, at least her serving in the Jeff Davis Legion. Some aspects of the story have been embellished but separating them is near impossible considering the passing of time.
Much of the information on the 5th South Carolina soldiers was obtained through the work of the Confederate Veterans of Lancaster County, South Carolina and donated to the Archives by Mattie Adams Plyler on July 1, 1981. Yes, A descendant of John and his sister Margaret.
The Lancaster Ledger- September 10, 1864
(Charlotte) Daily Bulletin, March 2, 1865.
April 11, 1865, the Charlotte Western Democrat
Civil War women, Margaret Plyler Torry, posted by Judy Heit, November, 2013.
Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections, Winthrop University, "Confederate Veterans of Lancaster County, South Carolina - Accession 468 - M192 (234)". Finding Aid 418.
Historical Data Source, Inc., P.O. Box 35, Sudbury, MA.