I’m going to stray a bit from Fredericksburg and the battlefields to look at a story that unfolded in Caroline County, Virginia. The National Park Service does have a vested interest in Caroline’s Civil War history, as it maintains the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, the small plantation office building where the Confederate general died in 1863. The events discussed in this and follow-up posts occurred only a few miles from the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.
A small government-issued Confederate headstone stands in the northeast corner of the Fredericksburg City Cemetery. Aside from its inscription, it doesn’t appear any different than the other Confederate stones scattered about the cemetery. The stone marks the grave of William Storke Jett, a native of nearby Westmoreland County who served in Company C of the 9th Virginia Cavalry.
Willie, as he was known, spent less than one year in Confederate service. He joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry on June 16, 1864, at the age of seventeen. Thirteen days later, Willie received a severe wound when shot in the abdomen during the First Battle of Reams Station in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. The wound so incapacitated Willie that he never returned to active duty with the regiment. By his own account, once he recovered from his wound he served the remainder of the war as a commissary agent on duty in Caroline County, Virginia. When he learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Willie claimed that he made his way to Westmoreland County to meet up with his brother, Lucius, who was a private in Colonel John S. Mosby’s 43rdBattalion Virginia Cavalry. If he could not rejoin the 9th Virginia Cavalry, he would join another command.
From Westmoreland, Willie traveled to Loudoun County, where he learned that Mosby’s command had already disbanded. At that point, Willie determined to return home to Westmoreland County, believing the war was over. First, however, he would pay a visit to friends in Caroline County. Willie Jett’s name would most certainly have been forgotten to history if not for a chance encounter on his trip home. On the afternoon of April 24, 1865, Willie, in the company of two other former Confederates, waited for the ferry along the Rappahannock River at Port Conway. There, they made the acquaintance of the most wanted man in the country, John Wilkes Booth.
For ten days, since his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth had been on the run, attempting to escape into the south. Traveling with him was a co-conspirator, David Herold. On April 24, the pair had made it as far as the Rappahannock River and it was there, while waiting to cross that young Willie Jett and his companions just happened
to encounter them. As they waited together, the two groups fell into conversation, and Herold attempted to curry favor and assistance with Willie and his associates. First Herold claimed that both he and Booth were Confederates with General Ambrose P. Hill’s command, using the aliases David E. and James William Boyd. Herold could not keep their identity secret and finally divulged that they were Lincoln’s killers. Together, the two parties crossed the river from Port Conway to the village of Port Royal.
Once across the river, Herold asked Willie to help find a place for Booth and himself to stay. The group rode a couple blocks south from the ferry landing to the home of Randolph Peyton, an acquaintance of Willie. Mr.
Peyton was not home, but his two sisters, Sarah Jane and Lucy were and they let Booth in the house, under the impression that the assassin was a wounded Confederate soldier. Sarah Jane had second thoughts on allowing Booth to stay the night in the house with two unmarried women, so she asked Jett to take Booth and the others away. Willie crossed the street to seek shelter at the home of George Washington Catlett. The Catletts were not at home, so Sarah Jane suggested that they might find accommodations down the road at Richard H. Garrett’s farm. The group mounted their horses and continued the ride.
At the Garrett Farm, Willie Jett introduced himself and Booth, continuing the ruse that his companion was a wounded Confederate soldier in need of a place to rest. Mr. Garrett agreed to take Booth in. At this point, Willie and Booth parted ways. They would meet again, but under much different circumstances.
Part 2 of this story can be found here.
Eric J. Mink