Friday, November 1, 2019

When Captives Become Captors - Pvt. Solomon Jefferson Hottenstein, 107th Pennsylvania

While researching Medal of Honor recipients who earned that distinction during the Petersburg Campaign, I happened across the amazing story of Pvt. Solomon J. Hottenstein. His feat is not well known but it shows the daring lengths that some soldiers went to to avoid the possibility of serving time in prisoner of war camps.

On August 18,1864, Hottenstein's regiment, the 107th Pennsylvania (Col. Peter Lyle's Brigade, Samuel Crawford's Division of the V Corps) found itself making its way through the thickets, swamps, and fields south of Petersburg as part of the V Corps' attempt to sever the Petersburg Railroad. This important rail line, also known as the Weldon Railroad ran south out of the Cockade City to Weldon, North Carolina, and eventually to Wilmington on the coast, an important port for Confederate blockade runners.

As Crawford's Division struggled to get through the dense woodlots, other V Corps units reached the railroad and started ripping up the tracks. Confederate forces arrived from Petersburg's defenses and halted the Union's advance. Both sides called off the fighting after dark.

Gen. Grant's movements a few days earlier north of the James River successfully drew Confederates to that scene and fighting at Deep Bottom, but there were still plenty of Southerners to trouble the Federals at Weldon Railroad. 

During the afternoon of August 19, Confederate Gen. William Mahone's troops furiously attacked the unsupported right flank of the V Corps, and in the process gobbled up hundreds of Union prisoners. Hottenstein's regiment and brigade was on that unfortunate Union right flank and found themselves prisoners in a matter of no time. About 300 of the 107th Pennsylvania and a handful of their officers were among the lot. Hustled off the battlefield, they apparently came under guard of the 18th North Carolina. If this is true, the 18th North Carolina, or part of the 18th must have been detached, as the rest of Gen. James Lane's Brigade was at Deep Bottom, north of the James River.

While being held as a large group, Pvt. Hottenstein circulated among his comrades explaining his dread of spending time in a southern prisoner of war camp. He soon convinced enough of this fellow captives to make a distracting ruckus, shouting that a Federal counterattack was coming. Hottenstein was to kick of the daring act by attacking a Confederate flag bearer who was armed with a pistol. Hottenstein's attempt to disarm the captor was successful as were those of his comrades. The tables turned as quickly in the other direction and soon the outnumbered Confederates were the captives. Taking additional advantage of the battle's confusion and limited view shed due to the thick woods and smoke, the rebels were marched over to Union lines with Hottenstein presenting the Confederate colors and prisoners to Gen. Crawford.

Rewards soon came to Hottenstein for his heroic act at Weldon Railroad. In early February 1865, he  received a promotion to corporal, a furlough, and the Medal of Honor. However, Hottenstein's luck ran out four days later when he was wounded in the hip at Hatcher's Run before he could get away on his furlough. Although his wound pained him greatly for the rest of his life, Hottenstein survived the war. He married after the conflict and ironically, moved to Manassas, Virginia in the late 1880s where he leased land to tenants. He died in 1896 at 52 years old and was buried in the Manassas Cemetery surrounded by Confederates, just as he had years earlier at Weldon Railroad.

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