Saturday, May 06, 2017

Virginia horror: 'Tell my mother I die patiently and contented'

War-time print of Emory U.S. General Hospital in Washington, where Henry Morris
died on May 28, 1864, U.S. Capitol Building appears in the background. (Library of Congress)
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Three months before the beginning of the end of his short life, 19-year-old Henry Clay Morris aimed to calm the fears of his widowed mother in Brooklyn, N.Y.  In ill health, Cornelia Morris was greatly concerned for the welfare of her only son, who had enlisted in the Union army the day after New Year's 1864.

"Please keep up good spirits and don't be despondent,"  the 39th New York corporal in Company K wrote from a camp near Stevensburg, Va., on Feb. 12, 1864. "All things have an end and so will my time of service. I hope for the best. Hope for and feel instinctively that I will see you all again in Brooklyn."

Powhatan Robinson House, used as a hospital by Federals
at Battle of Morton's Ford. Perhaps the slightly wounded
Henry Morris sought treatment for his "scratch" here.
Henry wished Cornelia would send him a carte-de-visite from her recent sitting with a photographer -- a keepsake that surely would be with him "all the time."

"Dear mother," Morris added, "keep up a good heart and remember you have a son who is always thinking of you."

Just days earlier, Morris had been slightly wounded at the Battle of Morton's Ford, Va., the Union army's brief but unsuccessful effort to penetrate Robert E. Lee's stout defenses along the Rapidan River. In his first battle of the war on Feb. 6  -- a cold, foggy and rainy winter morning --  the balls flew "thick and fast," wrote Henry, who was hit by a Rebel ball that tore through his overcoat, pants and drawers before it landed in his "boot to sleep."

Although the bullet left only a scratch on his thigh, Henry was "very proud" of his wound and intended to send home the one-ounce piece of lead that caused it. The bullet had hit a rock before it struck Morris, perhaps preventing it from doing more damage.

"I am now very well indeed," Morris wrote to his 42-year-old mother days after the battle. "We may not go away from camp again in 3 months."

Trace of war-time road leading to Morton's Ford, perhaps route Henry Morris took on Feb. 6, 1864.
Morton's Ford, where Henry Morris and his comrades crossed the icy, waist-deep Rapidan River.
         Federals attacked toward the camera at Battle of Morton's Ford on Feb. 6, 1864. 
                      Pan right to see site of wartime Morton House in the stand of trees.

In early May, Morris and the 39th New York moved with the Army of the Potomac toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va., following brutal battles in the dense thickets of the Wilderness. After vicious fighting at the Bloody Angle on May 12 resulted in a stalemate and thousands of casualties on both sides, Ulysses Grant shifted his army to the left to pound the Rebels again. After a stretch of gloomy weather, Mother Nature provided a beautiful spring morning on May 18. It was an incongruent scene if there ever was one.

"The rain had ceased and all nature seemed refreshed," a 116th Pennsylvania soldier recalled, "but on ground occupied and fought over by the Regiment on this morning nothing of charm or beauty was visible." Rotting, unburied bodies from fighting on May 12 littered the field. "The sight was hideous," the soldier remembered, "the stench overpowering and sickening."

On this grisly tableau, Morris and the 39th New York charged Confederate works during the Third Brigade's assault. Rebel artillery fire was so intense the attack was doomed from the start. Among the scores of Union casualties was Morris, who had his right arm "entirely blown off by a shell, not a shred hanging" and lost the thumb and fingers from his left hand. Adding to his misery, a bullet or piece of a shell also struck the teenager in the back, penetrating his lungs.

Assistant quartermaster's document notes Henry Morris' official
cause of death: "Gun shot wound of chest involving lung."
(National Archives via
In separate visits with Morris at a division hospital, New York chaplains were struck by the calm demeanor of the grievously wounded corporal, who seemed resigned to his fate. Each of them wrote short letters to Cornelia Morris, but neither provided hope her son would survive. (Complete transcriptions below.)

"He is yet alive," 64th New York Chaplain Oliver D. Hibbard wrote on May 18 after recounting Henry's numerous wounds. "[He is] perfectly conscious, self preserved, converses in the most intelligent & collected manner & has won the admiration of all."

Two days later, 111th New York Chaplain John N. Brown wrote: "Though a stranger to you, I take the liberty of addressing you this time, knowing the anxiety you will feel as a mother for the welfare of your son, your noble boy. I came across him day before yesterday among the wounded and became deeply interested in him."

Despite his wounds, Henry seemed comfortable, noted Brown, who made no mention of any drugs Morris may have been given to ease his pain. When a surgeon told the young soldier there was no hope for him, Henry reportedly said, "Then tell my mother that I die patiently & contented."

"We very seldom see," Brown wrote, "a more perfect example of true heroism."

Later that night, Henry was sent to a hospital in Fredericksburg, about 10 miles away. "I do not think it possible for him to live long," Brown bluntly wrote to Morris' mother. Later, he was transported to Emory U.S. General Hospital in Washington, one of the many Union hospitals in the capital. Morris somehow survived that trip, but died there on May 28, 10 days after he was wounded.

On June 1 at 4 p.m., a funeral service was held for Henry Clay Morris at his mother's house at 337 Gold Street in Brooklyn. Henry's friends, 39th New York soldiers and friends of his father, who had died in 1854, were invited. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

       PRESENT DAY:  Morris' funeral was held at his mother's house at  337 Gold Street
                 in Brooklyn. The house was torn down long ago.  (Google Street View)

National Archives via
In the field near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Hospital 1st Division
2nd Army Corps  May 18, 1864

Mrs Cornelia Morris

In an assault on the enemy's works this morning your darling son Henry Clay Morris fell mortally wounded we think. His right arm was blown entirely off by a shell, not a shred left hanging, carrying away portions of the shoulder. His thumb, the first & second finger on the left hand were shot away & a piece of shell entered the back & cut into the lungs.

He is yet alive -- perfectly conscious, self preserved, converses in the most intelligent & collected manner & has won the admiration of all.

He has talked to me of his mother, his religious training, his minister ...
National Archives via
... says he thinks he can entirely and wholly trust in the Saviour & commit his soul to his keeping. I shall see him as often as practicable while he lives & be what service I can to him.

May God deal kindly & tenderly with you is the wish & prayer of yours.

Most sincerely,
O.D. Hibbard
Chaplain 64th NY Vols

Washington D.C.

Mrs. C. Morris

National Archives via
Field camp Spotsylvania, Va.
111th Reg NY Vols May 20, 1864 

Mrs. Cornelia Morris

Dear Madam, Though a stranger to you, I take the liberty of addressing you this time, knowing the anxiety you will feel as a mother for the welfare of your son, your noble boy. I came across him day before yesterday among the wounded and became deeply interested in him. He was mortally wounded in the battle of May 18 when our Brigade charged the enemy's works. His right arm was entirely ...

National Archives via
... cut off by a shell & his left thumb & two fingers were also cut off by another piece of shell. A ball also entered his back between his shoulders penetrating his lungs. He seemed to be in but little pain from his wounds but a more patient sufferer I scarcely ever saw. He bore his misfortune with the fortitude of a brave and courageous soldier. When the Surgeon told him that he could not do anything for him, he said, "Then tell my mother that I die patiently & contented." We very seldom see a more perfect example of true heroism ...

National Archives via
... I talked with him on the subject of religion & prayed with him. He said that he was praying for a preparation for his death & that he could rest by faith upon the merits of Jesus Christ for his salvation & that he was fully resigned to the will of God. He told us that he had a Christian mother who was connected with the Presbyterian Church. When I saw him last he seemed to be failing, though he was in hopes of living. He was sent with the rest of the wounded to Fredericksburg in the evening but I doubt whether he lives to ...

National Archives via
... get there. I do not think it possible for him to live long. All his comrades write in pronouncing him one of the best & bravest boys in the 39th Reg -- always calm, always patient, always brave. Though young he has made a record that will live forever. To a covenant keeping God, the God of the widow & the fatherless I commend you in your present great grief.

Yours sincerely
John N. Brown
Chaplain 111 Reg NY V
1st Division 3rd Brigade 2d Corps

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-- Corporal Henry C. Morris pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via (Includes letters to his mother dated Feb. 10 and 12, 1864.)
-- Mulholland. St. Clair A., The Story of the 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, The Record of a Gallant Command, Philadelphia, P. McManus, Jr. & Co., 1903, Page 223.
-- New York Times, June 1, 1864.


  1. An amazing story recounted compassion. To bad is resting place is missing.

  2. Scott Hagara4:37 PM

    Such strength and courage in faith for a 19 year old. Sad to say, but at least his mother had closure, unlike so many mothers that were never contacted by unit chaplains.