Thursday, January 05, 2017

Notes to a widow: 'No possible way' to find N.Y. soldier's body

Grave markers for unknown soldiers at Fredericksburg (Va.) National Cemetery
 Like this blog on Facebook.

What's most striking at Fredericksburg (Va.) National Cemetery are the rows of small, square granite blocks. Two numbers are carved into the top of each grave marker. The first set of figures is the plot number, the second the number of unknown Union soldiers buried at the grave.

8. 4. 6. 7. 12 ...

Mind-numbing, awful numbers.

After the war, the Federal government conducted a massive effort to disinter bodies of Union soldiers from temporary graves on battlefields and elsewhere and re-bury them in national cemeteries. It had plenty of work in Fredericksburg and the surrounding area, where thousands died in battles fought at Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and elsewhere.

Of the 15,243 Union soldiers buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 12,770 are unknown. Smith Davis, a private in the 65th New York, may be among them. He enlisted in New York City on Sept. 24, 1861. 

        Site of church in New York City where Smith Davis was married on Feb . 20, 1864.
                The Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Paul was built on the site in 1897.

                                                                     (Google Street View)

After his first term of service had expired, Davis re-enlisted in Brandy Station, Va., the day after Christmas 1863. Apparently while on furlough, he married Mary Jane McLoughlin at the Third Reformed Presbyterian Church at 303 West 22nd Street in Manhattan on Feb. 20, 1864.  Nearly three months later, on May 12, 1864, Davis was killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse, shot through the head. The immigrant from Ireland was 32.

Shortly after her husband's death, Mary Jane applied for a widow's pension, using two condolence letters from men in the 65th New York (1st U.S. Chasseurs) as evidence of his demise. Writing in response to an inquiry from Mary Jane about her husband, 65th New York Chaplain Peter H. Burghardt and Sergeant James Grogan offered sympathy but no hope the soldier's remains could be recovered. (Complete transcriptions below.)

"He was I am told buried upon the field by his comrades," Burghardt wrote from Cold Harbor, Va.,  in June 1864, "and in our turning to the left of the Rebel Army his grave was left in the Rebel lines, and is now where there is no possible way of getting to it."

Davis' body, added the chaplain, was seen by another soldier,  who thought "it was robbed of all its effects and nothing [was] left upon his person."

In the heat of battle, Grogan recalled seeing Davis to his front, kneeling and firing at the enemy. "I spoke to him to come back,"  the sergeant wrote to Mrs. Davis on June 11, 1864, "as I could not fire while he stayed where he was. He either did not hear me or did not mind. He was killed inside of an hour afterwards."

Regarding the recovery of Davis' body, Grogan was blunt: "It would be an impossibility."

Mary Jane's pension claim was approved. At the time of her death on July 17, 1904, she was receiving $12 a month. Mary Jane never re-married.


National Archives via
Cold Harbor, Fri., June 1864

Mrs. Mary J. Davis

Dear Madam

Yours of the 21st inst. has just been received and I hasten to reply. Your noble and brave husband fell on 12th inst. when heroically urging on his comrades, struck in the head by the fatal bullet and expired instantly. He was I am told buried upon the field by his comrades, and in our turning to the left of the Rebel Army his grave was left in the Rebel lines, and is now where there is no possible way of getting to it, if indeed it can be found. I have seen M. Short who was with him when he fell. He thinks that his body was in the Rebel lines until it was robbed of all its effects and nothing [was] left upon his person. But while you are made to grieve his loss, you can console yourself that his noble soul is not in that decaying body but has gone to that world where you may follow him at least in a few short years. I knew him well and esteemed him very highly and can sympathize with you in this the hour of your great grief and deep affliction ...

National Archives via
... He has fallen a noble sacrifice for the country of his adoption. I hope a kind providence will be your unfailing support and in the midst of your tears that you may be comforted by him who has promised his aid in the hour of trial, and a father to the fatherless, and the widow’s God.

The men you name in your letter are now in line of battle, where I cannot see them, but I know very well that for the present it would be wholly impracticable to get any of the bodies that were buried at what is called the Battle Field of the Po.

Expressing my deep sympathy with you, I am,
Dear Madam, respectfully yours

P.H. Burghardt

PS. We are I suppose some 15 or 20 miles from the Field of the Po. Still fighting desperately. We are making a Flank movement to the left of Lee's Army. We are about 12 miles from Richmond on the South East.


National Archives via
1st U.S. Chasseurs
Near Coal Harbor, Va., June 11/64

Mrs. M. J. Davis 


Your letter of June 6 came to hand last night. Allow me to assure you that any information which I can give to the friends of my deceased comrades will always be cheerfully given, nor will anything I can do in that respect be considered other than a duty which every comrade owes to another while Providence sees fit to spare him.

Your husband Smith Davis fell on the 12th of May at Spotsylvania. I did not see him fall. When our Regt. came up to fire, Davis was next to me, as in fact he was all day. A road broke our line so that it became necessary for the extreme right to cross the road. It being impossible to maintain a position on it, it was every man for himself. I took up a position and commenced firing. After a shot or two your husband went ahead of me, kneeled down and commenced to fire. He was almost directly in front of me. I spoke to him to come back, as I could not fire while he stayed where he was. He either did not hear me or did not mind. He was killed inside of an hour afterwards. I do not hesitate to say from the account of those men of the Regt. who saw him struck that he lost ...

National Archives via
... all reason, not knowing what happened [to] him. I will give you my opinion in regard to recovering his body. It would be an impossibility. M. McLaughlin sent in one of his wife's letters all the information he could send. He went as soon as he heard we had peaceable possession of the ground where he fell to see and recover something belonging to him, but the burying parties had already removed him to his last resting place. We know nothing of that package being returned as it did not come to the Company.

We all regret Smith Davis as a comrade & soldier. I hope Providence in its mercy put some thought of the terrible danger his soul was in and as there is no limit to God’s mercy, let us hope his soul is at rest. Anything I can do for you will be cheerfully done. In regard to his bounty and pay, his papers will be sent in as soon as we stop long enough to make them out. Lieut. Henry Vanderweyde is our company officer. Any communication directed to him [at] Co. I will reach him.

With sincere regret to your loss, I am respectfully.
Your Obedt Servant

James Grogan.
1st Serg, Co. I, 1st U.S. Chasseurs
Washington D.C.

To Mrs. Mary Jane Davis
327 West 26th St.

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


-- Smith Davis pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., via

No comments:

Post a Comment