Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Connecticut soldier's gruesome Antietam death

In the Chicopee Soldiers Record, handwritten accounts of the Civil War service of 600 men
from Chicopee, Mass., the gruesome cause of Private William P. Ramsdell death
at Antietam is noted. (Click on image to enlarge.)

As the 14th Connecticut was under fire during the Battle of Antietam, William Ramsdell quietly talked about how he preferred a quick death if he were shot. A short time later, he was killed, struck in the back of the head by a fragment of artillery shell.

In reporting a blog post that included an account of  Henry and Samuel Talcott, brothers from Coventry, Conn., who died of wounds suffered at Antietam, I discovered the story of the gruesome -- and unusual -- death of one of their Company D comrades.
Benjamin Hirst (above):  "The first man I
recognized  was W. P. Ramsdell with the
top of  his head blown off." (Company G
14th Regiment  Conn. Volunteer Infantry, Inc
.)

A 28-year-old private, Ramsdell was born in Belchertown, Mass., and apparently lived most of his life in that state. The son of Porter Ramsdell, William, a machinist, enlisted for three years in the 14th Connecticut on July 28, 1862. (1) His residence during the war was Vernon, Conn., about 15 miles northeast of Hartford.

On Sept. 17, 1862 -- a little more than a month after breaking camp in Hartford -- Ramsdell and the 14th Connecticut fought in the farm fields of Samuel Mumma and William Roulette on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, Md. Antietam was the first battle of the Civil War for the 14th Connecticut, which had marched from its camp near Washington only 10 days earlier.

As Company D hugged the ground by a stone wall near a lane on Roulette's farm, a sergeant overheard Ramsdell softly remark "that if he was going to be hit, he would prefer to have the top of his head blown off." (2)

"When midway between the wall and the position assigned to us, I was about the center of Fourteenth Regiment, C. V. Infantry company, urging the boys to close up, when a rebel shell came whizzing by and struck about two files in my rear," Company D Sergeant Benjamin Hirst of Vernon recounted. "As soon as I could turn I saw about a dozen men lying in a heap and the first man I recognized was W. P. Ramsdell with the top of his head blown off."

In this engraving in the Oct. 18, 1862 edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated,
a popular newspaper during the Civil War, civilians watch as Antietam
dead are buried near Bloody Lane.
Besides Ramsdell, Company D soldiers Henry Tilley and Russell Griswold were killed by the shell and four others were wounded -- including Henry Talcott of Coventry, who died of his injuries on Nov. 10, 1862.

"Although the bursting of the shell was a great shock to regiment," the regimental history noted, "it closed up and moved on." (3)

I found a corroborating account of the circumstances of Ramsdell's ugly demise in the Chicopee Soldiers Record, a late-19th century compilation of the Civil War experiences of 600 men from Chicopee, Mass. The Chicopee Public Library recently digitized the entire handwitten ledger, a terrific resource for Civil War researchers. Although unclear, Ramsdell, who was single, apparently had ties to Chicopee.

According to the Soldiers Record, a fragment of artillery shell struck the back of Ramsdell's head and "literally tore his head in pieces." Along with his two other dead comrades, Ramsdell was buried on the battlefield -- one of at least 700 soldiers buried on farmer William Roulette's property after Antietam. Soon after the battle, Ramsdell's remains were disinterred and re-buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Chicopee, Mass. Unfortunately, I could not find his final resting place among the many well-worn and tipped-over markers in the cemetery that dates to 1836.

In an interesting twist, a veteran from the 14th returned to the Roulette farm a few years after the battle and spotted in the ground a piece of artillery shell he believed killed his comrades.  "It does not require much imagination," the 14th Connecticut regimental history noted, "to conclude that this was the same deadly missile." (4)

William Ramsdell is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Chicopee, Mass.
(1) Chicopee Soldiers Record, Town of Chicopee, Page 220
(2) History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Charles Davis Page, Pages 43-44, 1906
(3) Ibid, Page 44
(4) Ibid, Page 44

1 comment:

Angela Riotto said...

Dear Mr. Banks: I wanted to provide you with the proper citation for one of your images. Please see the link below:
http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=702455&imageID=813245&word=Antietam%2C%20Battle%20of%2C%20Md.%2C%201862&s=3&notword=&d=&c=&f=2&k=0&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&total=19&num=0&imgs=20&pNum=&pos=19