[Author’s Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2003 issue of Military Images magazine. It has been updated with additional research for inclusion in this blog]
Many Southern born officers and enlisted men actively serving in the United States Army wrestled with conflicting loyalties in the months preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. Among these was a 30 year-old North Carolinian named John Starke Ravenscroft Miller. Stationed at Ft. Laramie, Nebraska Territory, Miller wrote his father back home in Caldwell County on February 5, 1861: “I am placed in a peculiar position; as a soldier I must bear allegiance to the Federal Government. I have sworn to serve the United States against all her enemies and opposers whatsoever. If called upon I might be compelled to battle against my own friends and relations and unless I am free of the Army, although it would be bitter indeed, I will not swerve from the path of duty.”
Miller had joined the 4th Regiment, U. S. Infantry on October 6, 1857. The reasons prompting his enlistment while in his late twenties are not known. Miller soon transferred to the cavalry arm and served with the 2nd Dragoons under Albert Sidney Johnston on the Mormon Expedition. Soldiering agreed with the young man, and he progressed rapidly. An estimation of his value to the service is shown by his promotion to Sergeant Major on May 11, 1861. Yet, after North Carolina seceded from the Union, Miller chose to align himself with his native state. In what was clearly a painful move, he requested his discharge from the U. S. Army and returned home.
Miller wasted no time in putting his prior military experience to use. He was initially appointed 3rd Lieutenant of the newly formed Washington Volunteers, which became Company “G” of the 1st North Carolina State Troops. However, his soldierly qualities quickly drew the notice of Naval Academy graduate Montfort Sydney Stokes, Colonel of the First. Miller was named 1st Lieutenant and regimental adjutant to date from May 16, 1861.
John Miller had four brothers who also served the Confederacy during the war: Captain Nelson Miller, Co. C, Avery’s Battalion; Pvt. Elisha Hamilton Miller, Co. F, 3rd NC Cavalry; Pvt. Julius Sidney Miller, Co. A, 22nd NCT, and Sgt. Anderson Mitchel Miller, Co. E, 6th NCST.
When the 1st N. C. was sent to Virginia following the Battle of Manassas, Adjutant Miller struggled to bring his unit to fighting trim. In a letter dated August 14, 1861 from near Richmond, he noted with some frustration: “I have been continually employed preparing the Regiment for action and bringing everything into working order. No one has drilled the Regt. at all but myself and the officers (Subalterns & Captains) are so incompetent (with one or two exceptions) that we will be in bad condition or order for an engagement. Our Lt. Col & Major know comparatively nothing of military affairs [and] Col. Stokes is away . . .” Miller proved relentless in his efforts. A brother officer in the First avowed: “As adjutant, in all the army, he had but few equals and no superiors in his position. He was not only theatrical but practical, and all the minutiae of his office seemed perfectly at his command. Years of drill in the ranks made him perfect in his bearing as a soldier and his appointment to the highest non-commissioned rank had given him the style of an officer that added to his well-proportioned form, dignity and grace.”
At Mechanicsville, Va. on June 26, 1862, the 1st North Carolina faced the test of crossing a makeshift bridge over the Chickahominy River and performing its first deployment while under fire. A private remembered how “the quick eye of Adjutant John S. R. Miller, who had served in the regular army, took in the situation and he galloped to the front, with drummer boys following with markers to indicate formation line [while] Ensign Obed Scott promptly placed [the regimental] colors . . . then the regiment double-quicked into position by companies just like on dress parade.”
The First proceeded to move forward against a formidable Federal line posted behind Beaver Dam Creek and was summarily slaughtered. Colonel Stokes was mortally wounded and every field officer in the regiment either killed or severely injured. Adjutant Miller was so badly wounded that it was thought for a time he would be forced to resign. He was not able to rejoin his unit until after the Maryland Campaign. In October, Miller was awarded the captaincy of Company “H.”
He was present with his company at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. On June 10, 1863, as the Army of Northern Virginia again prepared to move northward, Miller outlined his prospects for the upcoming campaign in a letter to his mother: “I scarcely think we will have a general engagement as the Yanks are disposed to play ‘shy’ as they have been so roughly handled that they can scarcely make up their minds and when they do they soon become [so] terror stricken that they show no courage or determination . . . Our troops are so accustomed to victory that it would be impossible to whip them. You need have no uneasiness about us at home as we are perfectly confident and with Lee to guide us are certain of success.”
Five days later, Captain John S. R. Miller was killed at the Battle of Stephenson’s Depot, Va., while pursuing General Robert Milroy’s fleeing Federals down the Shenandoah Valley. A note in Miller’s combined service record could well be his epitaph: “Universally admired as a gallant officer.” He is buried in his family cemetery at Mary’s Grove, N. C.
Of interest to collectors is Captain Miller’s surviving red-striped, bluish gray North Carolina issue blanket, now housed in the collection of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
by Bob Williams