Sunday, May 08, 2016

A walk in the Wilderness, where George Austin 'disappeared'

Saunders Field, where 140th New York charged on May 5, 1864. Below: An interactive panorama.
(CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
            Pan to the right to view the 140th New York monument in Saunders Field.

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To thousands of motorists who zoom past every day on busy Virginia Rt. 20, this scene, a mile or so from McDonald's, a Sheetz gas station, E&M Auto Sales and Divine Nails, may just be another rolling field and patch of woods. Perhaps some don't have time to notice as they drive to their homes nearby in the upscale Fawn Lake subdivision, where streets are named after Civil War generals and signs mark "preserved" trenches and earthworks.

Augustus Meyer: 140th New York captain was
 mortally wounded during the charge at Saunders Field.
(Image courtesy 140th NYVI Living History Organization)

But momentous, and tragic, events occurred here in Saunders Field along the historic Orange Turnpike and in the woods nearby on May 5, 1864 -- the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness. This is where 529 soldiers in the 140th New York, its ranks filled with immigrants from Germany and Ireland, burst from the woods on a wet, foggy morning that soon turned hot, charging an enemy entrenched near a distant woodline. Dressed in the regiment's colorful French North African Zouave uniforms, soldiers named McNamara, McVeen, Sprinkler, Seiger, Vanderhuff and Ziegler, among others, gained a foothold in that woodline. But after about 30 minutes, they were forced to retreat, suffering nearly 50 percent casualties.

Augustus Meyer's grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in
Rochester, N.Y. (Photo Joel Shore/Find A Grave)
This is where German immigrant Augustus Meyer, the 34-year-old father of 5-year-old girl named Therese, received a mortal wound through the upper right side of his abdomen. Initially expected to recover, the captain died 19 days later at a hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., about 15 miles away.

Meyer's death undoubtedly was a life-altering event for his wife, Augusta Eickemeyer Meyer, to whom he had been married for seven years. The officer's remains were returned by the Genesee Valley Railroad to Rochester, where the former clerk in a dry-goods company was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery -- a well-attended service that was described as "of a most imposing character."

"An uncomfortable rain storm prevailed during most of the afternoon,"  the Rochester Evening Express reported about Meyer's funeral service, "and so large a turn out, under the circumstances, was an expressive testimonial of the respect in which Capt. Meyers was held."

This is also where 140th New York 1st Sergeant Charles L. Taylor,  a blue-eyed, 36-year-old salesman and produce dealer, was killed. Nearly a month after the battle, a comrade searching the battlefield discovered his remains, perhaps bringing some comfort to his wife Elizabeth back in Brockport, N.Y. The distinctive Zouave uniform and a brown beard were telltale signs the body was Taylor's, 140th New York veteran John B. Snyder noted shortly after the war. Devastated by Charles' death, Elizabeth left a light burning in a window in her house, according to an account, so her husband could find his way home. She died in 1918, having never re-married.

And this is where 24-year-old Sergeant Joseph Seiger was mortally wounded. After he mustered into Company E of the 140th New York in September 1862, he gave his widowed mother his $90 bounty and a major portion of his army pay. Before he enlisted, the unmarried laborer regularly handed over $1 of his weekly $4 salary at Cunningham's Carriage Factory in Rochester to Mary Seiger, who emigrated to the United States from Germany after her husband had died.

George Austin's marker in Lakeside Cemetery in
Hamlin, N.Y. (Find A Grave)
And, finally, this is where George Austin vanished.

Shortly after the 140th New York attacked that morning, the married private was shot and killed. When the regiment was forced to retreat about a half-mile, it left its dead and wounded in the hands of the enemy, noted Austin's friend, Private Charles W. Starin. George had "disappeared," according to an August 1865 pension affidavit signed by Henry Allen, a commanding officer in Austin's Company A, who added "I have no personal knowledge of his fate." George's remains initially may have been buried by the Rebels, or, like many soldiers killed during this battle in the dense forests, his body simply may have rotted in the woods. The 27-year-old soldier has a marker in Lakeside Cemetery in Hamlin, N.Y., but it is unclear if he is actually buried there.

Shortly after dawn one recent rainy morning, I walked through the woods where the 140th New York gained its short-lived foothold. Halfway through my serpentine trek on the well-marked National Park Service trail, I was made uneasy by the loud barking of dogs in the distance. Brown leaves crunched beneath my feet, and the distinctive tat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers echoed. An interpretive marker noted the mortal wounding nearby of a Rebel general. Remains of trenches from both armies zig-zagged through the woods, which I'm told are not nearly as dense as they were in the spring of 1864.

And near the end of my walk, I stopped, briefly closed my eyes ... and imagined what it was like in early May 1864.


SOURCES

Widow's pension file documents for Augustus Meyer, Charles L. Taylor, Joseph Seiger and George Austin, National Archives and Records Service, Washington D.C. via fold3.com.

The remains of Union trenches deep in the woods near Saunders Field.
 Confederate General Leroy A. Stafford was mortally wounded in woods near Saunders Field.

4 comments:

  1. I first visited the Wilderness about 25 years ago with my Dad, who was a Civil War buff. A park ranger happened to be there that day who described the battle in detail that I never forgot. We had driven down from New York to tour Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, New Market and other sites. I was at the Wilderness for a second time last spring, bringing my 15 year old daughter. This time, I came for a different reason. Through Ancestry.com, I found a cousin who had information on my 4th great uncle, Oliver Nichols, who had joined Co.D, 122nd NY. This cousin had many letters and muster roll papers for Oliver Nichols, including a "Declaration for an Original Invalid Pension". Oliver Nichols was "wounded in the shoulder and upper arm in the Wilderness May 6/64" according to his papers. Oliver was sent to Philadelphia to recover from his wounds and from reading his paperwork, it looks like he owed the U.S. government varying amounts of money for "transportation." Oliver Nichols would return to NY, marry and have a family. He was appointed twice by Governor Hughes as an Indian Agent representing the Onondaga's on the Onondaga Reservation. Oliver died in 1923, at 85 years of age. I wondered upon my first visit to the Wilderness why there wasn't a building, more markers, something...more. Now, I'm not sure. Maybe it's preserved the way it should be. I didn't realize that there is a housing development so close by though. The traffic was just as bad as I remembered!

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  2. On May 5, 2014, 150 years after the Battle of the Wilderness began, the Civil War Study Group at Lake of the Woods placed a memorial to the men of both North and South who still remain long after the battle is over. http://civilwarstudygroup.org/Pages/AboutUs/WreathCeremony.html

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  3. I would like to thank you for your efforts to bring these places to life for us. I recently learned that my 3xs great uncle William Wallace of Albany, New York died May 6 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. He had recently been advanced to Captain, but hadn't received pay as a Captain. He left a wife and young son. during his time served he was captured by the Confederate Army. Your writings help me see these events from the life's of these men.

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