Friday, April 16, 2021

Robert Wallace Murray – Belfast Tobacco Entrepreneur and Confederate Veteran – an 1890 autobiography

I posted here about Murray back in 2013 (post here), his father's grave in 2016 (post here) and in August 2020 some photos of a tin of his Scotch Plaid brand of tobacco (post here). I've recently found an autobiographical account of his life and Confederate war service, from a lecture he gave to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society on 2 December 1890.

I hadn't known that he relocated from Virginia to Belfast between the ages of 19 and 24, before then going back to Virginia where he was caught up in the developing War, and joined the army aged 25. The account is online here, on, but I'm posting the text below for convenience. 


R. W. Murray, Esq., J. P., read a Paper on 

'The Southern States of America at the time of the Civil War, though determined to maintain slavery, were not fighting for it, as it had not been attacked, but for what they regarded as their rights under the Constitution.

I presume most of my audience are aware of the fact that I am a Virginian by birth. Circumstances occurred in 1855 which changed my residence from America to this country, and with the expectation of making it my permanent home I lived in Belfast until 1860.

Cogent reasons then existed for my return to the States, and, having decided on Norfolk, Virginia, as my future home, I returned to America in 1860, when not only the whole country was intensely excited by the Presidential campaign, then being hotly conducted, but anxiety was pictured in every face, as it was felt the only possible result was the election of Mr. Lincoln, the consequence of which was not difficult to foresee.

I remained quietly in Norfolk, a loyal citizen of the United States, until the battle of Fort Sumpter, which followed the secession of the seven cotton States from the Union, when Mr. Lincoln issued his famous proclamation calling upon Virginia and all other States in the Union to furnish their contingent of men to subdue the rebellion. Neutrality then became a crime, and Virginia had to decide whether to take her place by the side of her natural allies and fight for or against the rights, a principle she had successfully contended for on the first formation of the Union, and which had ever since continued the creed of the dominant political party. Her action was not doubtful, and, foreseeing that all intercourse with the outer world must soon close, I hurried North in April, 1861, with the object of arranging some private business before all communication was suspended. I was, however, only permitted to proceed to Baltimore. On the night of April 20th the great arsenal of Norfolk was evacuated, when nine ships of war were destroyed to prevent them falling into Confederate hands. This great Confederate success was achieved by the strategy of a Virginian citizen soldier and the bravery of three companies of Virginian volunteers. Troops from the South soon afterwards came in force, and a few days placed Norfolk in such a state of defence that the fears of the most timid were set at rest.

The action of the Federal Government had now only effectually crushed out the last lingering attachment of Virginia to the Union, and, having decided to join the Confederate Army, I spent a few months at the University, Virginia, where a school for drill had been established, and a course of lectures on the science of war was delivered by a French ex-officer.

A few months after the battle of Bull Run I entered the Confederate service as a private in a Norfolk company which had existed long before the war, and had formed one of three companies that had relieved the Federal Government of the Norfolk arsenal. It offered also this inducement, that it was composed almost exclusively of gentlemen. For some months we were encamped in the neighbourhood of Norfolk, Virginia. By far the most interesting event of my garrison life was the witnessing of the greatest naval engagement of the war between the Confederate ram "Merrimack" and the first Federal "Monitor." 

Shortly after this the term of enlistment of most of the Confederate army expired, and it had of necessity to be reorganised. I had been then offered a captaincy of a company, but, shrinking from the responsibility, I declined it for a first lieutenancy. I found subsequently, however, that I enjoyed all the responsibility of captain, but with only the rank and pay of first Lieutenant, my captain being only present in our first engagement...'

Mr. Murray then described the first battle in which he took part, an engagement before Richmond between the Federal General MacLellan and General Lee, who commanded the Confederate forces ; — and continued : 

'If I must honestly confess my own feelings, I had never any desire for a first engagement. The more I heard of the whistling of the bullets the more I became convinced that Charles XII was a madman. The Confederate soldiers were miserably armed at the time, particularly those regiments that had manned the heavy batteries around Norfolk, conspicuously among which was my own company. On inspection it was found that they were so miserably equipped that the option was given of remaining in camp. We had certainly never contemplated meeting an enemy with such weapons, but while I suspected that many shared my own feelings, I was sure that not one of us would have lagged behind, even though we had been asked without arms to act as a target for the enemy's shot. We, however, were placed in the rear as a reserve, and during the whole of the day the battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines raged in our front. About sunset our regiment was ordered forward, and we for the first time came under fire when it was too late to continue the contest. We bivouacked on the field, but all night long our rest was broken by the shrieks of the wounded and the twinkling lights of the ambulance corps. So sudden had the call been made upon us, that we had neither haversacks nor provisions, and we had to satisfy the cravings of nature by collecting biscuits from the haversacks of the dead which lay thickly scattered about us.' 

Mr. Murray, proceeding, gave an account of the other battles and engagements in which he took part or was a witness of. His description of the privations which he and the soldiers under his command, and the army to which he was attached, demonstrated, if the fact needed such, that a soldier's life in the time of war is anything but a desirable one.

He had numerous hairbreadth escapes, on one occasion, while carrying despatches to the colonel of his regiment, being the target for a considerable time of a number of Federal marksmen. In the course of his lecture he paid a tribute to the generalship of " Stonewall" Jackson and Lee. When he left the army the war had almost come to an end.

He closed with the hope that none of his audience might ever pass through a similar experience, and the prayer that "the weapons of our warfare may be spiritual, and not carnal." 


PS: This talk was presumably drawn from the content of a booklet of the same title that Murray had published at Warrington in England in 1877 (see entry here on WorldCat). His first wife, Marion, was from Warrington, the daughter of Robert Workman of Belfast. The Murrays moved to Belfast in 1880; she died in 1882 at their home, named Arlington, on Windsor Avenue, Belfast.