Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Robert Ferriss' death at Antietam: 'We feel his loss deeply'

Corporal Robert Ferriss of the 8th Connecticut. (Image courtesy Ferriss descendant)
                                    8TH CONNECTICUT MONUMENT AT ANTIETAM:
                         The regiment's dead and wounded lay in this field after the battle.
                                  (Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama.)

Perhaps no Union regiment's color guard at the Battle of Antietam suffered more than the 8th Connecticut's. Sergeant George Marsh of Company A was killed by the concussion of a solid shot about dawn and 10 other color bearers were killed or mortally wounded in the thick of a fierce fight near Harpers Ferry Road late on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862. Among them was Robert Bruce Ferriss, a 27-year-old corporal in Company I from New Milford, about 50 miles west of Hartford.

Antietam was an especially bloody battle for the 375-man 8th Connecticut, which suffered 56 killed or mortally wounded, including 16-year-old Private Dwight Carey of Canterbury, who was the youngest soldier from the state to die there, and 54-year-old  Private Peter Mann of Enfield, who was the oldest. "The whistle of iron was terrible," an officer in the regiment later wrote. (Download my Excel spreadsheet of Connecticut Antietam deaths here.)

In late September 1862, it fell to Company I Captain William J. Roberts to inform the Ferriss family of the death of their son. In a two-page letter to Ferris' mother, Roberts described in detail the moment Robert was shot, the recovery of his body and where he was buried in a trench on John Otto's farm on the battlefield, a short distance from where Ferriss took a Rebel bullet in the chest. The note is similar to condolence letters other commanding officers sent to the families of 16th Connecticut Private Henry Aldrich and 11th Connecticut privates Daniel Tarbox and Fennimore Weeks, also casualties in the battle.  Antietam was an agonizing experience for Roberts, who despite being violently ill and vomiting throughout the battle remained with his regiment.

For years, the condolence letter to Louisa Ferriss and many letters that Robert wrote home after he enlisted on Sept. 21, 1861, were stuffed in shoe boxes. Handed down to one of Ferriss' descendants, they are now kept in two large, protective binders, safe for future generations of the family. Thanks to that descendant's generosity, the letter breaking the news of Robert's death 152 years ago is shared here.

PAGE 1.

"It was near the close of the battle that he reeled and fell down near me." 


Mrs. Ferriss:

It is with great sorrow that I write to you concerning the death of your son Robert who was almost instantly killed by a musket shot through the breast at the battle of Antietam on the 17th of this month. He fell at his post on the right of his company when he was cheering his comrades and fighting with all his strength. It was near the close of the battle that he reeled and fell down near me, giving me a very forlorn look which he also directed towards Col. [Hiram] Applemen [Appelman], who was also very near him. I asked him if he wished for anything but the blood rushing from his mouth prevented him from speaking & his head sinking upon the ground satisfied me that he was dying. My attention being called to another part of the line I saw no more of him as we were soon ordered away. 

In my first letter home, I could not report him dead as there might have been a possibility of his having only fainted & of his revival. That night & following day the enemy held that field but the day after we drove them back & I hurried to see the fate of our missing comrades & found Corp. Robert Ferris where we left him lying peacefully on his back with a very pleasant smile upon his countenance, as if he had lain down to his long rest with the sweet consciousness that his work was done, and well done. We [illegible] his limbs and composed his body for the grave wrapping a blanket about him. On account of the great numbers of the slain on this portion of the field and the scarcity of implements for burying it was impossible to make separate graves and our comrades were laid side by side decently in a trench with the others killed of our Regt. where their [illegible] will mingle in death as their strength united in life to defend their country and its land. Of Robert at home I knew but little but I know well that he was the same steady, honest man on the day of his death that he was the day he left New Milford for the purpose of fighting the battle of his country.


PAGE 2

"We sympathize truly with you in your great affliction..." 



As a company we feel his loss deeply, one of our best and most efficient officers had fallen. He was looked upon among the 1st to take command of important & dangerous posts. Brave, yet prudent, firm and unyielding. Our country has lost a gallant soldier, our state an excellent citizen, his comrades a trusted friend and his parents a noble son.

Ferriss' weathered state-issued marker in
 Center Cemetery in New Milford, Conn. His body
 was returned to Connecticut for burial.
 (Richard M. Clarke/Find A Grave)
We sympathize truly with you in your great affliction and would offer words of consolation were it necessary to offer such to those who have given their sons to their country.

The money and valuables which Robert had about his person were taken from his body by the enemy. His knapsack is at Washington and I will have [it] sent home as soon as we receive them.

With respect I remain yours truly

Wm. J. Roberts

P.S. The grave of Robert is marked by a stake on which is nailed a piece of board with his name and rank cut upon it. His body could be taken up if his brother or some one should come after it. The trench in which he is laid is on the South side of a pen containing four large grain stacks upon the battlefield. It is situated on the left side of the road after crossing Antietam Bridge and directly in the rear of and opposite side of the 1st house on the road. This house is now used as a hospital for the wounded.

Corporal Robert Ferriss was originally buried in a field on John Otto's farm near the large tree 
in the right background of this early-20th century photograph.

5 comments:

  1. Very nice post John, as always. Thank you! It's great to see this first-person view. I've updated my material for Corporal Ferriss and chased down Capt Roberts, as well. Thanks again and happy holidays to you and your family.

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  2. You too, Brian! The descendant is tracking down the image of Robert, so we'll add that soon.

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  3. Very sad letter of this 28 year old corporal dying on behalf of his country..

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  4. It is very comforting to know that Robert was laid to rest next to his comrad in arms David Lake and that Captain Roberts lies so close to them both for etenity. You did a great job documenting the stories of all of these brave men who fought and died for their country.

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  5. "We [illegible] his limbs and composed his body for the grave wrapping a blanket about him."

    The illegible word is poorly written but certainly "straightened".

    On a rather gruesome note, the writer was likely telling Robert's widow a "little white lie" as to how his body appeared at the time of recovery. Robert's corpse would have certainly been in full rigor mortis after being exposed on the field for well over a full day in ambient temperature conditions of high 60's to mid 70's with high humidity.

    http://www.deathreference.com/Py-Se/Rigor-Mortis-and-Other-Postmortem-Changes.html

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