Thursday, December 14, 2017

Honoring a 15-year-old, mortally wounded at Fredericksburg

Gravestone of  Private Daniel H. Otis in Maromas Cemetery in Middletown, Conn.
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Daniel H. Otis
As 15-year-old Daniel H. Otis crossed a bridge over a millrace during the first wave of attacks on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, the 14th Connecticut private was mortally wounded by an artillery shell. The youngest soldier in the regiment died four days later. Daniel's remains were  recovered by his father and re-buried in a small Middletown, Conn., cemetery. Farmer Erastus Otis, Daniel's brokenhearted father, died on Aug. 4, 1864, the second anniversary's of his son's enlistment in the army. On the 155th anniversary of Daniel's wounding, I visited the teenager's grave in Maromas Cemetery (see video below).

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Fredericksburg casualty list, NY Daily Herald, Dec. 16, 1862

On Dec. 16, 1862, the New York Daily Herald published this mind-numbing, four-column list of  Union casualties from the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought three days earlier. Imagine the anxiety of those who searched this massive list for a loved one or friend.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In pension file docs, a snapshot of a life lost at Fredericksburg

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Va. Private Thomas Roach
and his 72nd Pennsylvania comrades were in the first wave of attacks on the heights west of town.
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While Mary Roach's son served at the front in the Army of the Potomac, the Irishwoman eked out a living in Philadelphia by washing clothes and cleaning houses. Her husband, whom she had married in Liverpool, England in 1841, didn't support the family financially and probably never would. In his early 60s in 1862, John Roach was "a habitual drunkard," a family acquaintance noted, "totally incapable of earning a living in consequence of said habitual drunkenness."

In the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 16, 1862,
Private Thomas Roach was listed among the
104 killed and wounded in the 72nd Pennsylvania.
Before he enlisted in the 72nd Pennsylvania -- Baxter's Fire Zouaves of the Philadelphia Brigade -- Thomas worked as a clerk, giving a major portion of his weekly wages to his mother. And while he was in the army, the 21-year-old private often wrote letters to his mother on impressive patriotic stationery, including $20 or so with the correspondence -- enough money for Mrs. Roach to pay rent on the house and to meet other family obligations.

Then came Dec. 13, 1862, a date that rocked the Roach family forever. Sometime during the first wave of attacks on Marye's Heights, Thomas suffered a mortal wound. Along with scores of other Union dead, he may have been stripped of clothes and shoes by the enemy and later tossed into a trench by a Union burial crew. Roach's final resting place is unknown.

Soon after her son's death, Mrs. Roach, who had four young children to raise, filed an application for a mother's pension. Included in her paperwork were several war-time letters written by her son, who often mentioned in that correspondence about sending his mother money. Unsurprisingly, Mary's pension application was approved at the standard $8 a month.

Here are documents from the Roach pension file in the National Archives (via that provide a glimpse of a soldier whose life was snuffed out on the plain outside Fredericksburg, Va. (Note: Some words in the letters below are illegible. Can you help decipher? E-mail me here or put a note in the comments section.)


On patriotic stationery, Thomas Roach wrote this letter on Dec. 4, 1861.

Poolsville, Md.
December 4, 1861

Dear Mother

I take the pleasure of return [ing] you these few lines to let you now [sic] I am rite well and to send you some good news. We got paid to day and i will send you $20.00 dollars to morrow by Adams Express Company which i hope you will get. I got $34.53 dollars. I [illegible] the sutlers [?] $7.00 dollars and i had to ...

Private Roach signed his letters with a bold flourish.
... pay him and less the balance to by things I will want. I will get paid again the first of January. Those will be more truble [sic] after the first payment. Give my best respects to all enquiring friends. Now [sic]  more at present.

Dec 4th 8 o'clock in the evening i send this letter to Washington a [illegible] men [illegible] as you will.

Your obedient son,

Thomas Roach


Mary Roach lived at 1341 Olive Street in Philadelphia. (Google Street View: Olive Street today.)


Adams Express Co. was widely used by soldiers for shipping money and more back home.


In early June, the 72nd Pennsylvania was involved in fighting at Fair Oaks, near Richmond.

Camp Dispatch Station
June 6/62

Dear Mother

I take the pleasure of returning you these few lines to inform you that I am well and hope you are all the same. I send you $20 dollars by express to day. Have nothing new out here at present. We are with in 4 miles of the city of Richmond and we expect a battle every moment. We have drove the rebels back 2 miles since the battle. General Sumner says our regiment made one of the best bayonet [charges?] ...

that ever was made. He says he will put our regiment and batery against brigade in the rebel army. Our regiment jumped a 4 railed fence and chased and drove them half mile this morning. We have lost 2 men killed and 8 wounded. The regiment was left a [illegible] at the time in to the line of battle. News come down to day our regiment charged over one of Richardson's brigades. It has been raining for 5 days very near. ...

We are camp in the line of battle all the time with tents. We are released every 12 hours. I wish you would get me a red flannel shirt, one all ready made 16 inches wide in the neck, and take it down to the post office and have it mailed to me. Don't send it by express or I won't get it. Get a good one as a bad one aint worth nothing out here. ...

... Yours respectfully, Thos Roach


Roach used phonetic spellings for some words in his letters home.
June 11/62

Dear Mother, 

I received your kind and efecsined letter this morning and i am glad to here that you and all the children is well as i am the same. I sent you $20 dollars on the 6th by Adams Express Company. I did not get your letter in time to send it to where you moved to. It is directed to 1324 Heath St. ...

Our regiment had a skirmish with them on Monday. We drove them out of their rifle pits and a half mile on charge bayonets. We lost 4 [illegible] killed and 38 wounded. Don't forget to send that red hat [?]. Rap it up nice and tite and take it to the post office and have it waided [sic].

Your Efecsined son
Thomas Roach
Comp. A Baxter's Fire Zouaves 72 P.V. 
Burns Brigade Sedwick's division


In this pension affidavit, an acquaintance of the family did not have nice things to say
 about Private Roach's father, John. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)


By February 1895, Mary Roach lived at the "insane dept."of the almshouse in Philadelphia.
She died there on Sept. 29, 1896. The fate of her husband is unknown, as is 

the final resting place  of Thomas. 

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

A dog, a Pennsylvania soldier and a death at Fredericksburg

An illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, a war-time newspaper, entitled "An Incident of Battle 
-- A Faithful Dog Watching the Dead Body of His Master."
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In the weeks following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Northern newspapers were filled with stories of indignation about the Union disaster at the Virginia town along the Rappahannock River. Outrage poured from newspaper editors and soldiers alike.

"To call it a battle is to dignify it by a title that it does not deserve: it was a slaughter, a massacre," a Pennsylvania newspaperman opined in a searing editorial.

The Fredericksburg dog story appeared in
the Raftsman's Journal, a Clearfield, Pa., newspaper,
on Jan. 21, 1863. The story was published 

in other Northern newspapers as well.
"Why were so many noble lives sacrificed, so much suffering caused, and misery and mourning brought to so many families?" wrote an officer who witnessed the horror.

"We are butchered like so many animals," wrote a Pennsylvania captain who was there.

Amidst considerable post-battle coverage  another story appeared -- the poignant account of a dead Pennsylvania soldier and a dog. The short story was published in many Northern newspapers, several appearing under the headline "Singular Fidelity of a Dog on the Battlefield." (The story was published in some Southern newspapers as well.)

On the Monday after the battle, according to the story, Pennsylvania Congressman John Covode and several officers walked the plain beyond Fredericksburg. Two days earlier, on Dec. 13, 1862, wave after wave of Union soldiers had been cut down there in a futile effort to dislodge Confederates from an impregnable position at Marye's Heights. As Union burial crews went about their ghastly work during a truce, Covode's party came upon a heart-rending scene: a small dog lying by the corpse of a soldier.

"Mr. Covode halted a few minutes to see if life was extinct," according to the story. "Raising the coat from the man's face, he found him dead. The dog, looking wishfully up, ran to the dead man's face and kissed his silent lips. Such devotion in a small dog was so singular that Mr. Covode examined some papers upon the body, and found it to be that of Sergeant W.H. Brown, Company C, Ninety-first Pennsylania."

The soldier was William Henry Brown, a 27-year-old laborer from Philadelphia. Married to Sarah Christine in 1857, he stood 5 feet 5 1/2 inches, had a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

Pennsylvania Congressman John Covode, a Republican,
 visited Fredericksburg shortly after the battle. 
(Library of Congress)
The story continued:
"The dog was shivering with the cold, but refused to leave his master's body, and as the coat was thrown over his face again he seemed very uneasy, and tried to get under it to the man's face. He had, it seems, followed the regiment's late battle, and stuck to his master, and when he fell remained with him, refusing to leave or to eat anything. As the party returned an ambulance was carrying the corpse to a little grove of trees for internment, and the little dog was following, the only mourner at that funeral, as the hero's comrades had been called to some other point."
Elements of the story are indisputable: Covode, a 54-year-old abolitionist and Republican congressman from Pennsylvania's 19th district, traveled to Fredericksburg after the battle, ostensibly as chairman of the Committee on the Conduct of the War but undoubtedly also out of concern for the welfare of his state's soldiers. (A story made the rounds that Covode had been captured by Confederates while visiting the town, but it was false.)  In the final wave of attacks on the heights, William Henry Brown of the 91st Pennsylvania had indeed been mortally wounded at Fredericksburg. But here's where this story, a footnote in history, takes a slight twist.

Obviously concerned about the fate of her husband, Sarah Brown may have read the account of William's impromptu funeral in a newspaper. She made an inquiry to his commanding officer, Captain Theodore Parsons. Two days before Christmas 1862, from the 91st Pennsylvania's camp near Fredericksburg, he wrote a two-page reply. (See letter and complete transcription below.)

91st Pennsylvania Captain Theodore Parsons explained the 
circumstances of  William Brown's death in a note to the soldier's
 widow.  "I think that death relieved him of  a great deal of pain 
for he suffered untold agony," he wrote.
(Photo courtesy Joe Fulginiti)
"I am sorry to inform you that he was mortally wounded on the 13th inst and died, from the effects of his wounds on the morning of the 16th," Parsons wrote of William. Struck by a shell that injured both his legs and tore apart his thigh, Brown "suffered untold agony from the time he was wounded," the officer noted. Brown's leg had been amputated.

Aware of the congressman's visit, Parsons wrote: "Hon John Covode is very near correct; with the difference that it was not on the battle field but three miles away that [William] died, and I left Conrad [Brown, perhaps William's brother] and John Wright to bury him as I was ordered away with the company." According to the captain, Brown died on the Falmouth, Va., side of the Rappahannock River, not on the battlefield.

Of course, this dog of war story begs many questions:

In relaying the story to a reporter, could Congressman Covode have been incorrect on the date and location of Brown's death? Was Brown really dead when Covode saw him? Did Parsons have his own details of the story incorrect? Did a newspaper reporter -- fake news! -- simply get details of the story wrong? Did the dog really belong to Brown?

Is this story simply embellished ... and, if so, by whom?

And, if true, whatever became of the little dog that kissed the corpse of a soldier at Fredericksburg?

Wounded severely in the left leg at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, Theodore Parsons did not survive the war. His leg was amputated, and he died of pyaemia at Seminary Hospital in the Georgetown section of Washington on June 26, 1863. He was 29.

Death also rocked the family of Congressman Covode during the war. His son, George Hay Covode, an officer in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was killed at Saint Mary's Church, Va., on June 24, 1864. Nearly three years after the Civil War ended, Covode introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to impeach President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's successor.

On Feb. 28, 1863, Sarah Brown successfully applied for a widow's pension. She initially received the standard $8 a month. Beginning in September 1916, her pension was increased to $20 a month. Unable to care for herself later in life, she was assisted by her niece. Brown died of senility on May 4, 1924. She never re-married.

Whether Sergeant William Brown's remains were returned to Pennsylvania is unknown.

National Archives via
Camp near Fredericksburg Va
Dec, 23rd 1862

Mrs Sarah Brown,

I received your letter of inquiry in regard to your Husband William Henry and I am sorry to inform you that he was mortally wounded on the 13th inst and died, from the effects of his wounds on the morning of the 16th; he was brought to this side of the river and had his leg amputated and had attention paid him untill he was buried. I was present with him when he died, and I think that death relieved him of a great deal of pain for he suffered untold agony from the time he was wounded; he was struck by a shell which injured both legs and tore off part of his thigh. The account of his burial ...

National Archives via
.... by the Hon John Covode is very near correct; with the difference that it was not on the battle field but three miles away that he died, and I left Conrad and John Wright to bury him as I was ordered away with the company. His body can be sent home but we are all out of money: he will have to be embalmed and I would like to know wether you would like to have his body remain where it is untill some of his Relatives come for it or wether you will wait untill the Regt is paid off when Conard proposes to send him home. It will cost about $50 to get his body to Philada. Conrad is safe so is Harry McKane.

I remain
Yours &c [?]
Capt T H Parsons,
Co "C" 91st P.V.

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-- Huge hat tip to Harry Ide, who has superbly compiled information on William Henry Brown as well as other 91st Pennsylvania soldiers. Access Ide's information on Brown here. His remarkable site on the 91st may be found here.

-- Columbia Democrat and Bloomsburg (Pa.) General Advertiser, Jan. 10, 1863.
-- Raftsman's Journal, Clearfield, Pa., Jan. 21, 1863.
-- The Indiana (Pa.) Weekly Messenger, Dec. 24, 1862.
-- William H. Brown widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. via

Saturday, December 09, 2017

A private's death in 'desperate' Fredericksburg street fighting

On Jan. 3, 1863, an illustration by Alfred Waud of Union soldiers engaged in street fighting
in Fredericksburg appeared in Harper's Weekly. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Present-day view of the 20th Massachusetts' route of advance up 
Hawke Street. Heavy fighting took place at this intersection on Dec. 11, 1862.

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After a Union artillery bombardment of Fredericksburg, the 20th Massachusetts crossed the Rappahannock River in rowboats, joining other Federal regiments in the beleaguered Virginia town. The date was Dec. 11, 1862, a mild late-fall day that would prove especially deadly for the Harvard Regiment, a mix of bluebloods and commoners from the Boston area.

"He was killed instantly by a musket ball,"
20th Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Ropes
(above) wrote of Private John Donnelly.
In the vicious street fighting that ensued, the 20th Massachusetts suffered more than 100 casualties in the 335-man regiment. Among them was Irish-born Private John Donnelly of Company K, who was shot through the head and "instantly killed," according to one of his commanding officers. Leaving County Tipperary in Ireland, John had immigrated to America with his parents James and Ellen aboard the Ocean Monarch in 1847.

Nine days after Donnelly's death, 20th Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Ropes wrote a short condolence note to the 28-year-old private's father. (See below.) In a "desperate fight in the streets of Fredericksburg," John died "a true soldier's death," noted Ropes, who added Donnelly was buried near where he fell by his friends in the regiment.

For reasons unclear, Ellen Donnelly apparently did not begin the process of obtaining a mother's pension until after the war. A "common laborer" in his mid-60s at the time of his son's death, James Donnelly was "infirm and feeble" and unable to financially support his family.  To buttress Mrs. Donnelly's claim for a pension, local residents provided testimony of her dependence on John, an unmarried laborer.

"I was with [John] once in the later part of the year 1860," one of them recalled, "and saw him buy a barrel of flour at the store of Mr. Seaver in Roxbury, pay for it and heard him direct for it to be sent to his mother's house." Another local resident noted: "I have also at various times seen him give his mother money to buy clothing and provisions."

Ellen Donnelly's claim was eventually approved at the standard rate of $8 a month. The final resting place of her son is unknown.


-- John Donnelly pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via

National Archives via
Camp 20th Mass. V
Near Falmouth, Va.
Dec. 20th 1862

My dear sir,

It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son John Donnelly, a private in my company.

He was instantly killed by a musket ball which passed through his head during the desperate fight in the streets of Fredericksburg, Va., on the afternoon of the 11th inst.

He must have instantly died without suffering. His body was buried near the spot where he fell by his friends ...

National Archives via
... and the place marked by a headboard bearing his name, company & regt.

Your son was a brave and faithful soldier and fell bravely fighting with his regt. A true soldier's death. Please accept my dear sir my sincere sympathy for you & for your family in this deep affliction and believe me.

Your obt. servt.

Henry Ropes
Lt. Comdg Co. K
20th Mass. Vols

Mr. James Donnelly

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Friday, December 08, 2017

A holiday message home: John Roach is in a 'dying state'

National Archives via
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After John Roach was seriously wounded in the Irish Brigade's attack on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, the 28th Massachusetts corporal was transferred to Douglas Hospital in Washington -- one of many military hospitals in and around the capital. In grave condition, the 33-year-old laborer from Shirley, Mass., arrived at the hospital on Christmas Day. Unable to write and eager to alert his family back home, Roach had another man, perhaps a hospital steward, write the heart-rending note above to his brother-in-law.

Whether Roach's wife Margaret received the news before John died on New Year's Day 1863 is unknown. Cause of his death: Gunshot wounds. The Roaches had four children: Julia, 8;  Honora, 6; Mary, 4; and William, 1. The letter was discovered in the pension file paperwork of Dennis O'Neill, who became guardian of Roach's children after his sister Margaret died in early 1864.

Douglas Hospital
Dec. 27th 1862

Mr. Denis O. Neill

I write in haste to inform you of the arrival of Mr. John Roach on Xmas day. He requests me ask you to let his dear wife & family know his condition; he was dangerously wounded in the late battle of Fredericksburg, Va., and is now in a dying state. After receiving all the rites of the Church he is unable to say much. Thank God he appears to have excellent dispositions and received all necessary care. Sincerely wishing you all the blessings of this holy season. I remain yours.


K.M. Collete

John Roach's final resting place is unknown.

An undated photo of Douglas Hospital in Washington, where Corporal John Roach died 
on Jan. 1, 1863. (U.S. Military Institute)
Another war-time view of Douglas Hospital in Washington. (Library of Congress)

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--John Roach pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Snapshots: Who died in front of Fredericksburg's Stone Wall?

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, Private Jesse Banker's objective on Dec. 13, 1862.
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After the armies agreed to a truce, the horrifying work of burying the dead from the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, began in earnest. In the Marye's Heights sector, Union burial crews found bloated and blackened bodies of comrades, some stripped of uniforms -- even of their shoes. The remains often could not be identified.

Granite markers for the unknown buried in
Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
"As we approached the battle field," wrote a Federal soldier of the plain in front of the Stone Wall on Mayre's Heights, "the sight reminded me of a flock of sheep reposing in the field. But as we approached nearer, who can describe my feelings when I found them to be the dead bodies of our brave men, which had been stripped of their clothing." More than 600 Yankee dead were buried in a 100-yard trench, a makeshift Union defensive position during the battle. Twenty-three were placed in another trench; 123 more were tossed into another.

Word of the fate of Union soldiers on the plain outside Fredericksburg soon filtered into Northern newspapers, which often expressed indignation of the treatment of their dead. "Persons who visited the battlefield of Fredericksburg with our burial parties," a Pennsylvania newspaper reported, "state the dead were all stripped of coats, pants, shoes, stockings, and in some instances drawers. The old garments of the rebels were strewed all over the battlefield. Evidently as they stripped our dead they took off their old 'duds' and put on the garments of the dead. Could anything exceed this in disgusting cruelty?"

Wrote a 7th Rhode Island soldier: "They are making a complete burying ground of Virginia. I cannot describe the scene."

Who were these Union dead, many of whom probably lie today with other unknown Federal dead in the national cemetery on Marye's Heights? Using information mainly culled from pension files found in the National Archives (via, here are snapshots of some of those who died in a futile attempt to take Marye's Heights and the infamous Stone Wall:


While Banker's pregnant wife probably agonized over her husband's fate, his brother searched for his body near Marye's Heights.

Days earlier, Bennett Banker was by his 24-year-old brother's side when Company I of the 51st New York was ordered on the double quick into the fight against the Confederates behind the Stone Wall on the heights. In the awful chaos, 19-year-old Bennett lost track of his brother, but before a 51st New York lieutenant left the battlefield, he saw Jesse fall wounded, presumably from a bullet through the lungs.

During a truce, one of Banker's comrades found Jesse's cap on the plain -- Bennett was certain it was his brother's because part of his name as well as his regimental and company designations appeared inside it. Jesse was presumed dead, killed the day after his third wedding anniversary.

Based on a tell-tale scar on a body's knee, a soldier in Company I who was part of the burial detail believed he may have found Jesse's remains. The dead man was "naked," the hair on the head was gone and the body was "nearly rotten."  But decomposing Union dead such as Jesse Banker, their clothes stripped off, had gruesomely turned black, making a certain identification impossible.

By the time Mary Banker's widow's pension application was winding its way through government bureaucracy, that Company I soldier who was part of that Fredericksburg burial detail could not be deposed -- he had died in a Confederate prison.

On June 5, 1863, Mary gave birth to a son. She named the boy Jesse.


John A. Kerr's promotion certificate to second lieutenant, found in his mother's pension file.
(National Archives via
Evidently impressing his superiors, Kerr was given a promotion from sergeant to second lieutenant in the fall of 1862. He was never mustered in at the higher rank.

 "His failure ... was not through neglect or refusal on his part," 53rd Pennsylvania Colonel George Anderson wrote, "but because he was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., on the 13th day of December, and his commission did not reach the Head Quarters of said Regt. until two days after he was killed."

Rosanna Kerr, John's mother, included the promotion document, embossed with an impressive seal, among paperwork filed in 1866 seeking an increase in her pension from $8 to $15 a month. In his short time in the army, Kerr sent home to Latrobe, Pa., part of his wages to support his parents -- it amounted to at least $80 within a year's period, according to Rosanna's neighbors.


Like their comrades, neither Henry Cole nor Richard Ratcliffe reached the Stone Wall.
Even as Cole, Ratcliffe, Kenyon and the rest of their 7th Rhode Island comrades formed up in the streets of Fredericksburg for an attack on Marye's Heights, danger lurked around every corner. A shell exploded on a side street at the feet of Nicholas Matteson of Company F, "cutting off one foot at the instep as with a cleaver and mangling the other at the ankle," a soldier in the regiment recalled. Taken to a makeshift hospital nearby, he bled to death. Another Rhode Island private was struck by a bullet in the right temple, leaving a ragged hole and turning his face a gruesome shade of purple. He somehow survived.

"...the shot and shell from the enemy were falling around us" before the regiment moved out into the open, recalled Ethan Jenks, a 2nd lieutenant. "Men of the regiment were killed then & there."

By the time the 7th Rhode Island had crossed a railroad cut and advanced toward the Stone Wall in the third wave of Union attacks, Jenks had lost track of Cole, a 33-year-old farmer and a close friend. "I never heard anything more of him," he recalled, "though I made a very diligent inquiry for him because of my long intimacy with him. He was a good soldier. From my long acquaintance with him & his general good character, I feel confident that he could not have have deserted but must have been killed that day ..."

Probably stripped of his clothing, as were many Union dead, Cole's body would have been impossible to identify, Captain George Durfee noted. In a post-battle report, he was simply listed as "missing." Cole left behind a widow,  Frances, and two children, Minnie, 7, and Georgianna, 4.

No one in the regiment knew where the bodies of Ratcliffe or Kenyon ended up either.

Perhaps Ratcliffe, an immigrant from England, was blown to atoms by artillery.  "I testify that his name appears in the records of the regiment as missing after action & supposed to have been instantly killed during the progress of the battle of Fredericksburg," 7th Rhode Island Surgeon James Harris wrote nearly a year after the private's death. In her widow's pension claim, Ratcliffe's wife, Sarah, included a copy of their 1849 marriage certificate from Manchester, England. The couple had no children.

A farmer, Kenyon was "struck by a shell and both legs were shot off," Captain Rowland Rodman recalled of the married father of a 4-year-old son. "I saw him after he was struck & left him on the field. I have no doubt that he died that day from said wound."

Copy of 1849 marriage certificate for "bachelor" Richard Ratcliffe and "spinster" Sarah Turner.
(National Archives via


While he was engaged with the enemy, Private James McAneny was just a few steps from James Kennedy. Suddenly, a bullet crashed into his fellow private in the Irish Brigade regiment. "He did not move but once after he was struck," McAneny recalled, "and that was very soon after he fell." Presumed dead by comrades, Kennedy fell into the hands of the enemy; the 19-year-old soldier's body apparently was not recovered.

For Kennedy's mother Margaret, his death was another cruel blow for the family. A widow, she had for years earned a meager living as a peddler of chinaware in Boston. In the two years before he enlisted in January 1862, James earned about $4-$5 weekly selling dishes and such for his mother. He gave half his earnings to Margaret, two close friends of the family recalled, and kept the remainder to buy himself clothing and other goods. Because she was in her 50s and in poor health -- neighbors claimed she had little use of her limbs for the previous 18 years -- Margaret could only work during the summer months. Her two daughters weren't old enough to help in the family business. 


Marriage certificate for Charles and Abby Knowles.
(National Archives via
Shot and killed by a bullet through the neck, Knowles was found rolled up in a blanket -- an ignominious end for the wheelwright from South Kingstown. Knowles was among the 150 casualties, including 38 killed, in the regiment of about 550 soldiers.

Born in Rhode Island on March 10, 1826, Charles was the eldest son of James and Ann Knowles. When he was 25, he married Abby Snow Baker on Sept. 21, 1851 -- she used the couple's marriage certificate as proof of their union when she filed for a widow's pension. The Knowles had five children: Kate, 9;  James, 7; twins Ella and Alice, 7; and Maggie, 1.

Charles' brother, John, a 2nd lieutenant in the 4th Rhode Island, was killed at the Battle of the Crater, near Petersburg, Va., on July 30, 1864. Like Charles, his final resting place is unknown.


Reilly's death on the plain outside Fredericksburg was a staggering emotional blow for his family back in Chelsea, near Boston. It created significant financial hardship as well. Before Patrick's enlistment in January 1862, he worked odd jobs to help support his Irish-born mother, Catharine. A local storekeeper said Patrick, whom he described as "very steady," bought his mother groceries, often with his own money. And after he joined the army, the 19-year-old soldier regularly sent home part of his pay -- a major assist to a family that made do without paternal support.

"My husband is still living," Catharine noted in an affidavit for a mother's pension on Jan. 9 1863, "but he has not supported me for five years. During that time he has been confined in the house of correction as many as five times."  Friends of the family were scathing in their assessment of Phillip Reilly, whom Catharine had married in Ireland in the early 1840s. He was a "worthless character," two of them noted in January 1863 in a pension affidavit. A "common drunkard," another one called him.

Catharine's pension request eventually was approved at the standard $8 a month.


In a field beyond the Stone Wall, Warner Valentine was buried by comrades.
Before the war, Valentine was a college student at the Free Academy in New York, where the children of immigrants and the poor could get a good education. Because his father could provide sufficiently for the family at the time, Warner wasn't required to work. But sometime after the breakout of hostilities, Valentine's father, Christian, suffered from paralysis and became bed-ridden. To support his Dutch-born parents, Warner sent home a portion of his army wages -- according to his mother Anna's acquaintances, he provided at least $150.

It's unknown whether Valentine was wounded during the 57th New York's futile storming of Marye's Heights or during the regiment's escape from the plain the night of Dec. 13. According to an officer in the regiment, the firing from behind the Stone Wall during its advance was "so tremendous that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure."

"Within one hundred yards of the base of the hill we dropped down, and then flat on our bellies, opened fire while line after line of fresh troops, like ocean waves, followed each other in rapid succession," 57th New York Lieutenant Josiah M. Favill recalled, "but none of them succeeded in reaching the enemy's works."

After the battle, no one else in the 57th New York saw Valentine, so the 20-year-old private was presumed dead. Bodies of the regiment's fallen remained on the field for "two or three days,"  Sergeant John McConnell recalled, until a burial crew took care of the remains. A member of the detail -- a soldier in Valentine's Company D -- believed he saw Warner's corpse, but the remains were in such rough shape that he wasn't sure.


Marriage certificate of Owen and Margaret Gallagher, dated Sept. 4, 1859.
(National Archives via
After the carnage, the fate of the Union hung heavy from the shoulders of Rhode Island soldiers. The regiment had suffered mightily, losing men such as the Irish-born Gallagher, a 24-year-old factory worker from South Kingstown, who died of a wound to the head. Married to Margaret Fagan in 1859, the couple had two sons, Francis, 2, and Owen Jr., born 22 days before his father's death. Apparently illiterate, Margaret signed a widow's pension affidavit simply with an "X."

Perhaps Gallagher's comrade, writing about the day after the battle, summed up the feelings of thousands of other Union soldiers who attacked Marye's Heights that day:
"We were burdened with the thought that the glory of the starry flag was departing; that the Union, which had stood forth like the sun in heaven, was passing away with dishonor. During our brief absence at the firing line a terrible change had come over the city. The windows had been broken out or removed, the doors were utilized for stretchers, while parlor and cellar, corridor and garret, court-yard and garden were filled with the wounded and dying. The harrowing industry of the surgeons was conspicuous. Men with every degree of mutilation were lying around on bare boards with only a haversack or a canteen under their head, seldom a blanket. Most were suffering keenly, some were dying. The floors were stained with pools of blood. One of the saddest sights the author witnessed was that of a soldier whose leg had been amputated close to his body. Almost choking with grief he exclaimed, noting the compassionate look of the stranger, 'I should not care for this if we had been put in where we had the least chance. I would not have cared for my leg so much if we'd had any show. It's gone for nothing!' "

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-- Favill, Josiah Marshall, The Diary of a Young Officer Serving with the Armies of the United States During the War of the Rebellion, Chicago, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909
-- Hopkins, William Palmer and Peck, George Bacheler, The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War, 1862-1865, Providence, R.I., Snow & Farnham, Printers, 1903.
-- Jesse Banker, Owen Gallagher, James Kennedy, John Kenyon, John A. Kerr, Charles Knowles, Richard Ratcliffe, Patrick Reilly, Warner Valentine pension files, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via
-- The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg (Va.), Sept. 22, 2001.
-- 7th Rhode Island Private William "Henry" Jordan letter to his parents, Dec. 28, 1862, accessed on eBay, Dec. 6, 2017.
-- Raftsman Journal, Clearfield, Pa., Jan. 21, 1863.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Can General William Franklin's Crampton's Gap HQ be saved?

The circa-1820 Shafer house was Union General William B. Franklin's headquarters
during the Battle of Crampton's Gap on Sept. 14, 1862.
The Burkittsville Preservation Association aims to restore the historic property.
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From the outside, the old brick house near Burkittsville, Md., looks like it belonged in The Blair Witch Project, the 1999 horror film set in the hamlet at the foot of South Mountain.

Union General William B. Franklin, the
 VI Corps commander, made his headquarters
at Martin Shafer's farmhouse, about a mile east of
Burkittsville, Md., during Battle of Crampton's Gap. 
(Photo illustration courtesy Paul Mitchell)
Yellow paint on the exterior is peeling, and the foundation and walls badly need expert repair. Several outside window panes are broken, perhaps victims of wayward youths. A large board covers the front entrance to a post-Civil War addition, an effort to keep out vandals. And next to the ancient brown door on the creaky front porch, a sign near a recently placed holiday wreath warns: "No Trespassing. This is Historic Private  Property."

More than 155 years ago, this circa-1820 house at the corner of Gapland and Catholic Church roads was the setting for momentous events. In September 1862, thousands of soldiers in the Union Army's VI Corps camped in the fields surrounding Martin Shafer's house, about a mile east of Burkittsville. As cannon boomed nearby, Union General William B. Franklin established his headquarters on the property on the afternoon of Sept. 14. The 39-year-old corps commander, a career soldier and expert engineer, apparently made himself at home, enjoying a meal and smoking cigars in the yard with fellow generals Baldy Smith, Winfield Scott Hancock and Henry Slocum, among other VI Corps brass.

From a broken window inside the house, a view
 of South Mountain, where the armies
clashed on Sept. 14, 1862. The hamlet of
 Burkittsville, Md., is a mile down the road.
Meanwhile, about two miles away at Crampton's Gap on South Mountain, vastly outnumbered Confederates under the command of General Howell Cobb awaited Franklin's soldiers, who used the Shafer farm as a staging area. After several fits and starts, the Federals routed the enemy in the key but often forgotten Maryland Campaign clash. Three days later, the armies would fight again nearby at Sharpsburg, Md., during the much more costly Battle of Antietam.

After years of neglect, the property was donated in September 2016 by a relative of its last owner to the Burkittsville Preservation Association, which aims to restore it and make it a tourist attraction in the Civil War-rich area. The BPA, led by Paul Gilligan, faces significant challenges, not the least of which are financial. In addition to suffering from old age, the house has been abused by squatters and other trespassers. The outbuildings -- a Pennsylvania-style bank barn, meat house and a well house -- also need significant repairs. Total cost to save the property could perhaps top $1 million. (If you wish to donate money to help save the property, go to the donation section of the BPA site.) Preservation Maryland is also involved in the effort to save the Shafer farm.

                      GOOGLE STREET VIEW: Explore the area near Shafer house.

While the stunningly beautiful area surrounding the Shafer farm looks much as it did in 1862, the  farmhouse is much changed since the Civil War. Volunteers have made significant outside repairs and removed heaps of trash and other debris from inside the once-stately home, a veritable time capsule. Among the items discovered inside was a late-19th century William Jennings Bryan political pin.

A bottle of DDT, the
long-banned  insecticide,
on a shelf.
A recent visit inside the house revealed damage done by vandals,  time and nature. Graffiti defaces walls and a door. Perhaps a target of thieves, an old fireplace mantle is loosened from its moorings. A bird's nest rests on a beam in a small room. On the floor in an upstairs room, damage caused by an attempt to light a fire is apparent. Cracks snake their way through interior walls.

On my impromptu tour with BPA board member Todd Remaley, I examined curiosities. Covered with dust, an old brown bottle of DDT, the long-banned insecticide, stands on a dusty shelf. In the attic, beams are numbered with Roman numerals, a common construction practice long ago. In a downstairs room, perhaps the very one where Franklin met with Union commanders in 1862, four old ironing boards rest against a wall. Were they used by the most recent owner, who may have used the house as a laundry during the Depression?

Of course, many other questions remain: What would an archaeological study of the property reveal? Where are accounts of soldiers who briefly made the Shafer property home in the fall of 1862? What other secrets does the house, last lived in in 2000, hold?

But the greatest question is this one: Can this historic property really be saved for future generations?

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

The well house (left) and meat house in the backyard.
The meat house must be stabilized.
The foundation and walls of the house need significant repairs.
Front entrance to the Shafer farmhouse.
A downstairs room shows the ravages of time.
An apparent target of a thief, the fireplace mantle is loosened from its moorings.

An old mirror in a downstairs room reflects recent visitors.
Roman numerals carved into ancient attic beams.