Thursday, June 08, 2017

Virginia road trip: Prom photos, vultures and a 'horrible hole'

 5th Alabama Infantry Batallion Private James Tompkins "returned" to Gaines' Mill battlefield, 
where he  was mortally wounded. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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Nearly 155 years after scores of young people died near the Watt House on the Gaines' Mill battlefield, teenagers and their parents gathered on the same ground for an American tradition: prom photos.

Just steps away, I photographed an albumen of 5th Alabama Infantry Batallion Private James Tompkins next to an old (and dirty), black-and-gray painted historical sign that briefly explained what happened at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862. A "bright and promising boy," Tompkins, wounded in the leg, lay on the Gaines' Mill battlefield for hours until he was carried to a makeshift field hospital, where he died that night.

His life cut short at 20, James was"just budding into manhood," a post-war account noted, "when, with so many of his generation, he was called from the school room to the battlefield; called to exchange his books for the haversack, the promise of a bright future for almost certain death at the hands of a countless, overwhelming foe."

It was a strange experience during a three-day road trip through Virginia that also included visits to the battlefields of Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, North Anna River and elsewhere in the Civil War-torn state.

Deep in the woods of Cold Harbor, a South Carolina reenactor poses by a torch during 
a 153rd anniversary commemoration candleight walk.
A well-preserved Confederate trench near the visitors' center at Cold Harbor.
COLD HARBOR:  As I stared into the deep-blue sky Saturday afternoon, the 153rd anniversary of the slaughter that took place at this most eerie of battlefields, a turkey vulture circled, circled, circled over ground still pockmarked by trenches dug by soldiers on both sides. For me, it was just another reminder of the morning of June 3, 1864, and Ulysses Grant's infamous charge across a seven-mile front.

"Black against the pale, hot sky," author Ernest B. Furgurson wrote of the birds that circled above the Cold Harbor battlefield  in early June 1864, "they drifted into sight by ones and twos, floating high above the overgrown creek bottoms and zigzag trenches. Gradually there were dozens of them, wheeling, banking, slowly spiraling lower, slipping down toward the fields so thickly dotted with Union blue."

The black vultures had come to feast on the wounded and dead.

Carmel Baptist Church was used as a Union headquarters. The Civil War-era church burned in 1874.
A painting that hangs in a Carmel Baptist Church side building shows what the church may 
have looked like during the Civil War.
Ulysses Grant and George Meade plotted strategy at the church during the Overland Campaign in 1864.
CARMEL BAPTIST CHURCH: On historic Route 1, the old Telegraph Road, history lurks around every bend. After failing to solve the mysteries of the Battle of North Anna River, a stop at this church in rural Ruther Glen proved revealing. In late May 1864, Grant and George Meade hatched plans for the rest of the Overland Campaign at Carmel Church, just north of the North Anna River. (The Civil War-era church burned down in 1874; it was replaced by the red-brick building on the site today.) Theodore Lyman, an aide to Meade, described the scene:
"If you want a horrible hole for a halt, just pick out a Virginia church, at a Virginia cross-roads, after the bulk of an army has passed, on a hot, dusty Virginia day! There was something rather funny, too. For in the broad aisle they had laid across some boards and made a table, round which sat Meade, Grant, General [Seth] Williams, etc., writing on little slips of paper. It looked precisely like a town-hall, where people are coming to vote, only the people had unaccountably put on very dusty uniforms."
During a brief visit, Gerald Castlebury, the 65-year-old pastor who's originally from Louisiana, gave me a tour of the small interior of his church. On a good Sunday, he said, Carmel Church draws 100 or so faithful to a service. (The church was known as Mount Carmel Church during the Civil War.)

On display in a side building, Castlebury pointed out a small box of Civil War relics found in the immediate area as well as an old set of Carmel Church bibles in a large, glass case. According to local lore, Caroline County was so devastated by the war that residents would pick corn kernels from the manure of horses used by Union soldiers in the hope the seeds would reap rewards during harvest season.

SOURCE: Lyman, Theodore, With Grant and Meade From the Wilderness to Appomattox, George R. Agassiz, editor, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922.

Historic Blanford Church, a Confederate memorial, survived the Siege of Petersburg.
Grave of George Guy Johnson, a Petersburg Reserves adjutant who originally was from Connecticut.
PETERSBURG: Throughout sprawling Blandford Cemetery, Confederate flags are planted next to the graves of those who served in the Southern army. Among them is the ornate gravestone for George Guy Johnson, a 59-year-old adjutant in the Petersburg Reserves and a native of Stamford, Conn.  Johnson is one of 30,000 Confederates buried in the ancient cemetery who died during the Siege of Petersburg. A tobacconist, Johnson was wounded at the Battle of  Rive's Farm on June 9, 1864; he died the next day from "effects of wounds received in defence of his adopted city," according to words carved into his marker.

      PANORAMA: Of 1,192 Union soldiers buried at Glendale Cemetery, 234 are known.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)
Gravestone for three unknowns at Cold Harbor National Cemetery.
      PANORAMA: Poplar Grove Cemetery, near Petersburg battlefield (Western Front).
                                          (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

BIVOUACS OF THE DEAD: No one else was around as I examined pearl-white gravestones at Cold Harbor, Glendale and Poplar Grove national cemeteries. At Cold Harbor, pennies -- Lincoln side up -- had been placed atop markers toward the back of the cemetery. Before I left there Saturday afternoon, I photographed the grave of John Coakley of the 16th Maine, hoping to find out a little more about him later.

An immigrant from Ireland, Coakley, a 22-year-old day laborer from Rockland, originally enlisted in the 4th Maine in 1861. He was transferred to 38th New York, but was discharged after he was wounded in battle. He couldn't escape the war for long, however. On Aug. 7, 1863, the unmarried son of Catherine Coakley was drafted into the 16th Maine.

Gravestone for 16th Maine Private John Coakley, 
an Irish immigrant, at Cold Harbor National Cemetery.
Before he left home, John gave his hometown's mayor $140 from his bounty to help take care of his widowed mother. Catherine's husband, John, had died in Ireland in the late 1840s; she and her son John journeyed to America about 1852.

After John's "instant death" by gunshot at Cold Harbor on June 2, 1864, Catherine filed for a dependent pension. She had nine other children, "some of whom are dead," according to a document in her pension application. The "whereabouts of others, if any, she knows nothing, not having heard from them in many years; they having married and settled in distant parts of the country and unable to write."

Catherine was "entirely dependent" on financial support from John, who frequently sent money home to his mother while he was in the army.

"I knew his mother to have been unable to do but little work herself," Rockland Mayor George Wiggins noted in Coakley's claim for government assistance, "and [was] entirely without means or income of her own and no other children to render her any aid."  After John joined the army, the town of Rockland allocated Catherine $3 a month for her support. Coakley's pension claim was approved, providing her $8 a month from the U.S. government.

Whether Catherine Coakley ever visited her son's grave in far-off Virginia is unknown.

SOURCE: John Coakley pension file, National Archives & Records Service, Washington, D.C., via

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