Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dying 108th N.Y. soldier: 'Tell Charlie I tried to do my duty'

Rifle pits at Petersburg, Va. Private John W. Bailey was mortally wounded at Petersburg 
on June 18, 1864. (Library of Congress collection)

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In the spring of 1864, the hardfighting 108th New York struggled to replenish it ranks after brutal battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. "Difficulty was experienced in getting recruits to join our regiment," a soldier in the regiment recalled, "as they said it was sure death to join the 108th."

Chaplain Thomas Grassie, probably in a post-war photo.
He wrote a letter to Charles Bailey about his brother's
final hours after he was shot at Petersburg.
But when a call went out in Monroe County, N.Y., for men to join the 108th,  John W. Bailey was all-in. And so, on Feb. 25, 1864, the 20-year-old orphan from Webster mustered into the regiment as a private, joining his brother Charles in Company F.  (More than a decade earlier, the brothers' parents had died, leaving sister Lydia as their guardian. John leased a farm of "about 75 acres" in Webster, using income from his labors to help support Lydia and another sister.)

It didn't take long for Charles and John to participate in relentless, terrible fighting together. On May 6, 1864, Corporal Charles S. Bailey, a color-bearer, was wounded at the Wilderness, knocking him out of the war. At Spotsylvania Courthouse six days later, John was severely wounded, but he recovered in time to re-join the regiment at the front at Petersburg.

On the morning of June 18, the 108th New York came under Confederate fire near Petersburg, the strategic town about 25 miles south of Richmond, the Rebel capital. According to Thomas G. Grassie, the regiment's 32-year-old, Scottish-born chaplain, John was shot in the back when he "left the breastworks to go toward" Confederate fire. Another soldier recalled a slightly different scenario.

"... while the regiment was reposing upon a roadside, much annoyed by sharp-shooters," he recalled, "[Bailey] was struck by a ball on his spine. In his excruciating agony he partially raised upon his elbow, and seeing us across the road, cried out, 'Haven't I done my duty? I can die happy that I have done so.' We responded, 'Yes, yes, John you have truly and unflinchingly done heroic duty.' "

John Bailey's grave in City Point National Cemetery
in Hopewell, Va.
(Find A Grave)
John was transported to a hospital, where he "bore the pain with admirable fortitude and with Christian resignation," Grassie recalled in a poignant, six-page letter to Charles. (See complete transcription below.)

"I gave him a soothing medicine which soon eased his pain & lulled him to sleep," the chaplain remembered. But even though John's pain apparently briefly subsided, there wasn't much that could be done for the severely wounded private, who said he was unafraid to die.

In his final hours, Bailey told Grassie he had expected to be killed when he joined the army -- and spoke frequently about his brother, Charlie.

"Tell [him] I thought of him when I was dying -- and my sisters too," John said, according to the chaplain. "Tell Charlie I tried to do my duty to my country & tell him I hope he will be spared to his friends. Tell him I was ready to die & expect to see him again. Tell all our folks not to feel bad for me."

Two hours later, at about 10 a.m. on June 19, 1864, John W. Bailey died. "I had to go to the Regt. & had not returned before his brave spirit was released," wrote Grassie, who added John was buried in a II Corps graveyard near Petersburg. After the war, Bailey's body was recovered and re-interred in City Point National Cemetery in Hopewell, Va., where the remains of more than 5,000 other Civil War soldiers are buried.

National Archives via fold3.com.
Front of Petersburg
Since 8th July 

Dear Bailey

Your letter of 3rd inst. is received this morning & I reply by today's mail. It is sadly true your dear brother is dead. He was shot in the morning of the 18th June and died about 10 c'clock the next day. He died like a soldier and a Christian. It was in front of Petersburg. Our troops had advanced the day before & were behind breast-works & very near the enemy's line. The bullets were frequently coming from the enemy's skirmish end. John left the breast-works to go toward a fire & received a bullet in the ...

National Archives via fold3.com.
... the back passing through. He acted as [indecipherable] soldier. When it was seen that he would die he said, he was not sorry & did not fear he would die like a soldier. Better than that -- far better -- he died like a Christian. As soon as possible he was brought to the Hospital. When I first saw him after he was struck he was suffering much but he bore the pain with admirable fortitude and with Christian resignation. I gave him a soothing medicine which soon eased his pain & lulled him to sleep. He remained in a drowsy state, but easily roused to consciousness till he died next morning...

National Archives via fold3.com.
... Charlie Bailey, I'd be proud to have a brother, even in the grave, who died as nobly as yours. I was moved with admiration. His was real patriotism & real supporting religion.

When his pain was a little soothed I began to talk with him. He said when I told him he would not live, "I see that. I've made up my mind to that, but I'm not sorry. I've expected this. I got ready for it before I left home. I'm not afraid to die. I left myself in the hands of Christ & He is with me now. I settled that matter last winter about the same time brother Charlie did. I'm not sorry I'm dying. I'm not sorry I came out. I staid as long as I could. I couldn't stay longer ...

National Archives via fold3.com.
... when my country needed me. I expected to be killed & I'm not sorry. " He afterward said, "It is worth all the world -- worth everything to have a hope in Christ now.  Oh, I wouldn't be without this hope for anything." He spoke of you several times & hoped you would be spared. A short time before his death he said, "Tell Charlie I thought of him when I was dying -- and my sisters too. Tell Charlie I tried to do my duty to my country & tell him I hope he will be spared to his friends. Tell him I was ready to die & expect to see him again. Tell all our folks not to feel bad for me. I'm not sorry. I'm willing to die." After this in about two hours he died. I had to go to the Regt. & had not returned before his brave spirit was released. He lies in the grave-yard of the first Hospital ...

National Archives via fold3.com.
... established by the 2nd Corps in front of Petersburg. It is five miles from our present position & near where our wagon train is at present five miles from this camp.

Not knowing your address I sent to your friends at home an account of John's death, and since then I sent by the Sanitary Commission one or two articles he had with him.

It is not a matter of unmingled grief by any means when such a one dies. He died worthily & not in vain. He was one of those who freely gave life a sacrifice for God's truth.

I hope God will comfort you, Charlie, & make you a more earnest hater of wrong & lover of truth ...
National Archives via fold3.com.
... by the meaning of Him who standing for truth against its enemies yielded up his life.

Nothing is known of Alfred Kingsbury. (*) Such of the Chris[tian] Association as still remain have nightly meetings at present. They are very few, but not in vain are they absent. We shall be very glad to see you again in the Regt..

Very truly yours,
Thos. G. Grassie
Chaplain 108 N.Y.

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NOTES AND SOURCES

-- * Chaplain Grassie undoubtedly meant Andrew Kingsbury, a private in Company F of the 108th New York. He was originally listed as missing at the Battle of Laurel Hill (Va.) and was presumed killed. It was his first battle of the war.
-- Charles Bailey was discharged from the army in West Philadelphia, Pa., a year after he was wounded at the Wilderness.
-- Washburn, Private George H., A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regt. N.Y. Vols., From 1862 to 1864, Rochester, N.Y., 1894.
-- John Bailey and Andrew Kingsbury pension files, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via fold3.com.

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