Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Message in a bottle: How Antietam soldier's remains were ID'd

The marked battlefield grave of a Union soldier from Pennsylvania who was killed at Antietam.
(Alexander Gardner | Library of Congress)

 Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

Shortly after the war, the grim task of disinterring bodies of Union soldiers from the Antietam battlefield and the immediate surrounding area fell to the United States Burial Corps. Most remains were re-buried in a national cemetery established on a hill overlooking the south end of the field, Confederate-held ground on Sept. 17, 1862.

The Corps' work was daunting.

7th Maine Private William C. Stickney's
 weathered gravestone at Antietam National Cemetery.
(Find A Grave)
"The country is dotted over with soldiers’ graves," a  New York Tribune correspondent wrote from Sharpsburg, Md., in January 1867. "Some were killed in battle and in skirmishes, others died of disease or woods in the hospital, and not a few at private houses. They are buried by the roadside, in the woods, in the fields, and frequently in gardens."

Interestingly, bodies with red hair and whiskers were "invariably found in an almost perfect state of preservation," the reporter noted, "while all other colors are found in a state of decay." Sometimes "relics" were found in the graves -- "three ambrotype likenesses," a silver watch and ring, rusted pocket knives and even a rosary, "which some pious soldier had carried, perhaps as a charm against deadly bullets." Burial crews occassionally found a piece of artillery shell with a skeleton or a bullet rolling around the interior of a fractured skull -- awful reminders of the carnage that occurred in late-summer 1862.

Identification was impossible for many soldiers. "The ‘frail memorials’ erected by their comrades have disappeared," the Tribune reporter explained, "and everything seems to have been taken from their persons that could lead to their identification."

A soldier from Maine, however, was among the "lucky" ones. When his remains were uncovered, a bottle was found containing a small piece of paper that read: “Wm. C. Stickney, Co. C, 7th Regt. Maine. Died Sept. 26, at 11 o’clock p.m. Residence, Springfield, Maine.” The 22-year-old son of a farmer was originally buried either at Smoketown, one of the two large tent hospitals near the battlefield, or at a VI Corps hospital, perhaps at Hagerstown, Md.

Whoever performed the noble act of identifying his body with the messaage in a bottle is lost to history.

One of 12 children of Rachel and Moses Stickney, William was shot in the left shoulder, probably during the 7th Maine's futile charge on Henry Piper's farm. "... he was a sound and able bodied man," Charles D. Gilmore, an officer in the 7th and 20th Maine during the war, recalled in 1869, "and one of the best soldiers I ever knew.”

            PANORAMA: The 7th Maine made a futile attack through the Piper orchard.
                                    (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

For William's parents, their son's death undoubtedly was traumatic. Neither Rachel, 56, nor Moses, 59, was in good health, and the couple depended on William for financial support. During his little more than a year of service in the Union army, William sent home about $10 a month.

“Mrs. Stickney has no property, either real or personal excepting a cow worth about thirty five dollars," neighbors noted in an affidavit in Rachel's claim for a mother's pension. "She has since the death of her said son William C. Stickney supported herself by working for her neighbors (and) with what assistance she has received as charity from her friends." William, the neighbors recalled, "contributed regularly and constantly to the support of his said mother."

William's father may have been in more dire condition than his mother.

Able to do "but very little labor" for years, Moses suffered from "chronic rheumatism & hemorrhoids of a very distressing character," the family's longtime physician noted. "... His disease was brought on by hard labor & exposure, river driving, and hard fare.”

Mrs. Stickney's pension claim was approved at the standard rate of $8 a month. The national cemetery where her son was buried was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1867. Whether the Stickneys ever visited William's simple grave there is unknown.

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


-- New York Times, Oct. 2, 1862.
-- New York Tribune, Jan. 8, 1867.
-- Stickney, Matthew Adams, Stickney Family: A Genealogical Memoir of the Descendants of William and Elizabeth Stickney From 1637 to 1869, Salem, Mass., Essex Institute Press, 1869.
-- William C. Stickney pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via fold3.com.


  1. Such a tragic loss for a family in need. The war was such a brutal, bloody one.
    Charles D. Gilmore is actually my Great Great Great Grandfather. Where did his remarks come from, like how does one know he said that? Is there a memoir, or a paper trail I could find? I am doing some research on him currently and would love to learn more information on him.

  2. Gilmore note came from William Stickney pension file.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful story!