Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Civil War history lost ... and found

The Fletcher family (clockwise from upper left): Brothers Josiah and George and
their parents, Ephraim and Margaret. George was killed at Gettysburg.
Thanks to about 10 minutes of Internet detective work, a great piece of family history is back where it belongs.

Several weeks ago, I spotted a grouping of four Civil War era photos of the same family for sale on the Historical Shop web site. The 1/9 plate ambrotypes were billed as possibly Samuel or James Fletcher, his brother George and their parents, Ephraim and Margaret. George, shown above at right in uniform, was purportedly killed at Gettysburg while serving in the 15th Massachusetts Infantry. Price for the four ambrotypes in a beautiful thermoplastic case: $625.

The 15th Massachusetts monument at Antietam.
Photos of soldiers who fought at the most storied battle of the Civil War are highly sought by collectors, so I was intrigued enough to investigate.

Was George really killed at Gettysburg? And what about the other brothers, Samuel and James? Did they serve during the Civil War? If so, did they survive? Did the other photo show Samuel or James or perhaps another family member? And were these really photos of the Fletcher family?

I knew exactly where to start digging for the information. Susan L. Harnwell has put together a terrific site on the 15th Massachusetts, one of the most hard-fought Union regiments of the Civil War. After several clicks, I was able to find extensive bios of George, Samuel and James.

According to the 15th Massachusetts site, Corporal George Fletcher indeed was killed at Gettysburg. A machinist from Northbridge, Mass., he was only 19 when he died on the third day of the great battle. His brother, James, was 22 or 23 when he was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. And there was yet another Fletcher brother who served. Like his siblings, Samuel J. Fletcher, a 2nd lieutenant. served in Company H of the 15th Massachusetts. He survived the war, although he was shot through the jaw at Antietam. (The Fletchers' cousin, Edward Fletcher Chapin, was shot at Gettysburg and died of his wounds a month later in Baltimore.)

James Fletcher was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
His name is on 15th Massachusetts monument there.
Many of the bios on the 15th Massachusetts site are supplied by contributors. In the Fletchers' case, the info was provided by a descendant, Sherry Fletcher, whose e-mail address was at the bottom of each entry.

I dashed off a quick e-mail to Sherry, alerting her to the possibility that photos of four of her relatives were for sale online. A week later, I received this reply:

Yes! I purchased them and I should receive them via post either tomorrow, Thank you ever so much for the heads up!

Sherry confirmed the ambrotypes are indeed her ancestors. I'm not sure how the photos got out of the hands of the Fletcher family. What's important is that they're finally back in their rightful home.

This "witness" tree in the West Woods at 
Antietam  dates to the time of the battle,
 according to park  volunteer Jim Buchanan. 
Did the Fletcher brothers
 walk past it or shoot into it?

As it turns out, the photo at top left is of neither James nor Samuel. Instead, it's Josiah Spring Fletcher, another Fletcher brother. A farmer, he apparently did not serve during the Civil War.

UPDATE: According to a recent e-mail from Sherry Fletcher, Josiah Spring Fletcher fought against Quantrill's Raiders, a pro-Confederate guerilla group, in Kansas. "I have only lately discovered that Josiah moved from Massachusetts to Ohio and from Ohio to Eastern Kansas, where he dealt with the Missouri raiders, like Quantrill," Sherry wrote of her great-great grandfather. "So Josiah, for unknown reasons did not join the 15th Mass, like his brothers and cousin, but fought a guerilla-type warfare in bloody Kansas."

George Fletcher easily could have met the same fate as his brother, James, at Antietam. According to an account on Jim Buchanan's excellent Walking The West Woods blog, George was struck by a bullet in the chest, but a folded up issue of Harpers Weekly stopped the bullet, sparing him injury.

The Fletcher family has a fantastic record of military service dating to the Revolutionary War. James was named after his great-grandfather, one of the famed Minutemen during the Revolution. Sherry's son, John, served in Desert Storm during the war against Iraq, and other members of the family have served in Viet Nam and Afghanistan.

Of the Fletcher brothers who served during the Civil War, I was especially interested in James, a sergeant. During my visit to Antietam last week, I found his name on the 15th Massachusetts monument, the most impressive monument on the field. The 15th Massachusetts suffered huge losses in the West Woods at Antietam, with 75 killed and 255 wounded in only 20 minutes.

After the battle, many of the 15th Massachusetts dead were buried on the field, on the northwest side of Mary Locher cabin, and later disinterred and buried in family plots back home or in the national cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md. Buchanan has an excellent account of the Fletcher boys and a photo of James' final resting place on his blog.

Park volunteer Jim Buchanan, an expert on the vicious fighting in the West
Woods at Antietam, shows where 15th Massachusetts soldiers probably were buried
 after the battle. The Mary Locher cabin behind Buchanan is being restored.

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