Like Dana Shoaf, historian and editor of the Civil War Times Magazine found Nevin’s diary at the John Hines Regional History Center in Pittsburgh, Elijah V. White, a Confederate cavalry officer, stumbled upon the lost Union soldier by chance.

Purely By Chance

John I. Nevin was a 28-year-old teacher in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, when the Civil War began. He enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned in the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment as a Second Lieutenant under General John W. Geary earlier in the war. As he goes through the uncertainties of 1861, the former Pittsburgh newspaper editor keeps a diary of his experiences. Unfortunately, some of his entries were missing. However, a good chunk of the intact pages was about his service during the war.

Major John I. Nevin
A portrait of Major John I. Nevin during his 93rd Pennsylvania service in the 1860s. (Image source: History Net)

Very early in the war, Nevin was among the soldiers tasked with going to Loudoun County, where they would march down Leesburg Waterford to surveil the area. When they were ordered to move, Nevin was unfortunately sick. So he remained behind at a house in Harpers Ferry. Nevin decided to drag himself out of bed the next day and follow his regiment, feeling annoyed about being left behind—plus the fact that he didn’t want to miss the war.

He could not find his comrades as he ascended to the summit and described the eerie silence around him as “that warlike had passed.” He later confessed in the pages that he was lost.

“The Leesburg Valley lay peaceful and still in the bright warm sunshine that I now felt certain that I had for some time suspected that I had lost my way. Yet, I felt but little concern. We had not met any of the enemies since we had crossed (Harpers Ferry) upon the pontoon bridge that now stretched like a thread across the bright Potomac. Our pickets extended far beyond the spot where I stood. Over the valley I had quitted and our detachment was going into. I could look back and see other detachments in Harper’s Ferry, like thin black threads marching into the town. I sat down on a large rock to rest for a few moments and consider what to do.”

Shoaf explained that at this point, Nevin had already become a sort of tourist who sat over the rocks, admiring the view.

Historian Dana Shoaf
Dana Shoaf at the Loudoun County Museum fundraising event, reading John Nevin’s journal entries. (Screenshot from C-Span)

Nevin continued: “How glorious it did seem to me. What a moral sublimity was added to the natural beauty of the scene. The Yankee army was still marching into the town caring with it what destinies? What terrible errands? What consequences to reach the enemy? Who can tell even at this moment? The bright sunlight glances fitfully back from the burnished bayonets of some regiment as it crosses that black thread of a bridge while the mellow strain of its band faintly fills the air.”

Unfortunately, the moment of tranquility of this lone soldier abruptly changed when he heard a rustling noise and “saw men in some coarse gray overcoats with Sharps carbines in their hands.” He was so enraptured with the view, as well as lost in his thoughts, that by the time he noticed the enemies, it was too late for him to escape.

“They closed in on me [from] all sides […] pointing 40 guns at my breast, called on me to surrender,” Nevin penned.

The now captive lieutenant watched closely as a man stepped forward, deliberately drew his pistol, and pointed at his forehead, saying, “I’m in the habit of treating my prisoners kindly, and I wish to do the same by you. But as sure as there is a God in heaven, if you don’t tell me the truth about your army, I will blow your damned Yankee brains out this moment,” Nevin recounted. This man turned out to be Col. Elijah White.

The Harrowing Mishap of Second Lieutenant Nevin

When the Rebels spotted Nevin, Col White and his men were on a reconnaissance mission, monitoring Geary and Union troop movement over the bluffs.

Confederate General Elijah V. White
A photo of Confederate Col. Elijah V. White, published in 1942 in the History of Virginia. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

He pressed on with his entry, describing the unpleasant sensation “one feels with the muzzle of a cock revolver pointed six inches from your eyes.”

“I experienced a curious feeling in my forehead. I had a consciousness of a little circle about a half inch in diameter—just between my eyes—as if that particular spot was suddenly endowed with extra nerves for the purpose.”

He scanned the “threatening faces” of the men around him and wrote how “ludicrous of this sudden falling off the end of my magnificent scheme struck me.” Yet, as terrified as he was, Nevin stated in his diary how he successfully hid his fright from the rebels, or at least that was what he assumed in his head.

“I may have turned pale,” Shaof read, making the audience laugh. “But I know I had a smile on my face as I replied: I am an officer of the federal army and, of course, I am not at liberty to tell you anything in regard to the numbers and moments, and if you are caring on war, according to civilized customs, you won’t expect it. I don’t believe you will shoot me. I think there’s too much discipline among you to allow any of you to shoot a prisoner.”

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Col White did not draw information out of him, but Nevin remained White’s prisoner and he brought him back to Leesburg for interrogation. He was still sick when all of this was happening, and his sluggishness didn’t go unnoticed by White. According to the Union soldier, the Confederate cavalry officer had treated him with “utmost kindness” and even ordered one of his men to “dismount and give me (Nevin) his horse.”

On the way to Leesburg, Nevin said that White had entered into “a long rambling discourse about himself, his exploits, the southern cause, [and] the last ditch defence of the Everglades of Virginia, where they (Confederates) were all going to go die if the war went poorly.”

“The captain, although somewhat vain, was a pleasant enough fellow—honest in his hatred to the north and his mistaken zeal for southern rights,” Nevin said, and goes on, saying, “He (White) rants about Col. Geary and how Geary’s 28th Pennsylvania is taking and stealing everything.”

Shoaf closes off his story by describing how he loved reading Nevin’s entries, saying, “There’s a big war going on and here this guy’s (Nevin) having his own little private experience with Elijah White.”

Omitted from history

After arriving at Leesburg, Nevin was sent next to Centerville, where Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson interrogated him before he was transferred to Libby Prison in Richmond. Months passed, and he was again moved to Salisbury in North Carolina when George B. McClellan’s forces moved on the city during the Peninsula campaign. Nevin was eventually paroled, to which Shaof deduces was around when the former prisoner of war wrote his entries.

Nevin resigned his commission for a brief period as part of his parole, and when he later returned, he served as a Major of the 93rd Pennsylvania in April 1863. He commanded the regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg three months later as a major, “because the Colonel had an alcohol problem,” Shoaf remarked.

Battle of Gettysburg
A retouched portrait of The Battle of Gettysburg, initially illustrated by Thure de Thulstrup in 1887. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The historian said that although Nevin did excellent service, the latter “is pretty much omitted from its regimental (history) because, I think, he’s an outsider—from Western Pennsylvania in an Eastern PA regiment.” Plus, the fact that “they don’t want to acknowledge that the (Union Army) had a problem with their Colonel, so they just sort of ignored Nevin,” the editor said.