Sunday, December 10, 2017

A dog, a Pennsylvania soldier and a death at Fredericksburg

An illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, a war-time newspaper, entitled "An Incident of Battle 
-- A Faithful Dog Watching the Dead Body of His Master."
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In the weeks following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Northern newspapers were filled with stories expressing indignation about the Union disaster at the Virginia town along the Rappahannock River. Outrage poured from newspaper editors and soldiers alike.

"To call it a battle is to dignify it by a title that it does not deserve: it was a slaughter, a massacre," a Pennsylvania newspaperman opined in a searing editorial.

The Fredericksburg dog story appeared in
the Raftsman's Journal, a Clearfield, Pa., newspaper,
on Jan. 21, 1863. The story was published 

in other Northern newspapers as well.
"Why were so many noble lives sacrificed, so much suffering caused, and misery and mourning brought to so many families?" wrote an officer who witnessed the horror.

"We are butchered like so many animals," wrote a Pennsylvania captain who was there.

Amidst considerable post-battle coverage  another story appeared -- the poignant account of a dead Pennsylvania soldier and a dog. The short story was published in many Northern newspapers, several appearing under the headline "Singular Fidelity of a Dog on the Battlefield." (The story was published in some Southern newspapers as well.)

On the Monday after the battle, according to the story, Pennsylvania Congressman John Covode and several officers walked the plain beyond Fredericksburg. Two days earlier, on Dec. 13, 1862, wave after wave of Union soldiers had been cut down there in a futile effort to dislodge Confederates from an impregnable position at Marye's Heights. As Union burial crews went about their ghastly work during a truce, Covode's party came upon a heart-rending scene: a small dog lying by the corpse of a soldier.

"Mr. Covode halted a few minutes to see if life was extinct," according to the story. "Raising the coat from the man's face, he found him dead. The dog, looking wishfully up, ran to the dead man's face and kissed his silent lips. Such devotion in a small dog was so singular that Mr. Covode examined some papers upon the body, and found it to be that of Sergeant W.H. Brown, Company C, Ninety-first Pennsylania."

The soldier was William Henry Brown, a 27-year-old laborer from Philadelphia. Married to Sarah Christine in 1857, he stood 5 feet 5 1/2 inches, had a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

Pennsylvania Congressman John Covode, a Republican,
 visited Fredericksburg shortly after the battle. 
(Library of Congress)
The story continued:
"The dog was shivering with the cold, but refused to leave his master's body, and as the coat was thrown over his face again he seemed very uneasy, and tried to get under it to the man's face. He had, it seems, followed the regiment's late battle, and stuck to his master, and when he fell remained with him, refusing to leave or to eat anything. As the party returned an ambulance was carrying the corpse to a little grove of trees for internment, and the little dog was following, the only mourner at that funeral, as the hero's comrades had been called to some other point."
Elements of the story are indisputable: Covode, a 54-year-old abolitionist and Republican congressman from Pennsylvania's 19th district, traveled to Fredericksburg after the battle, ostensibly as chairman of the Committee on the Conduct of the War but undoubtedly also out of concern for the welfare of his state's soldiers. (A story made the rounds that Covode had been captured by Confederates while visiting the town, but it was false.)  In the final wave of attacks on the heights, William Henry Brown of the 91st Pennsylvania had indeed been mortally wounded at Fredericksburg. But here's where this story, a footnote in history, takes a slight twist.

Obviously concerned about the fate of her husband, Sarah Brown may have read the account of William's impromptu funeral in a newspaper. She made an inquiry to his commanding officer, Captain Theodore Parsons. Two days before Christmas 1862, from the 91st Pennsylvania's camp near Fredericksburg, he wrote a two-page reply. (See letter and complete transcription below.)

91st Pennsylvania Captain Theodore Parsons (above) explained the 
circumstances of  William Brown's death in a note to the soldier's
 widow.  "I think that death relieved him of  a great deal of pain 
for he suffered untold agony," he wrote.
(Photo courtesy Joe Fulginiti)
"I am sorry to inform you that he was mortally wounded on the 13th inst and died, from the effects of his wounds on the morning of the 16th," Parsons wrote of William. Struck by a shell that injured both his legs and tore apart his thigh, Brown "suffered untold agony from the time he was wounded," the officer noted. Brown's leg had been amputated.

Aware of the congressman's visit, Parsons wrote: "Hon John Covode is very near correct; with the difference that it was not on the battle field but three miles away that [William] died, and I left Conrad [Brown, perhaps William's brother] and John Wright to bury him as I was ordered away with the company." According to the captain, Brown died on the Falmouth, Va., side of the Rappahannock River, not on the battlefield.

Of course, this dog of war story begs many questions:

In relaying the story to a reporter, could Congressman Covode have been incorrect on the date and location of Brown's death? Was Brown really dead when Covode saw him? Did Parsons have his own details of the story incorrect? Did a newspaper reporter -- fake news! -- simply get details of the story wrong? Did the dog really belong to Brown?

Is this story simply embellished ... and, if so, by whom?

And, if true, whatever became of the little dog that kissed the corpse of a soldier at Fredericksburg?

Wounded severely in the left leg at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, Theodore Parsons did not survive the war. His leg was amputated, and he died of pyaemia at Seminary Hospital in the Georgetown section of Washington on June 26, 1863. He was 29.

Death also rocked the family of Congressman Covode during the war. His son, George Hay Covode, an officer in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was killed at Saint Mary's Church, Va., on June 24, 1864. Nearly three years after the Civil War ended, Covode introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to impeach President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln's successor.

On Feb. 28, 1863, Sarah Brown successfully applied for a widow's pension. She initially received the standard $8 a month. Beginning in September 1916, her pension was increased to $20 a month. Unable to care for herself later in life, she was assisted by her niece. Brown died of senility on May 4, 1924. She never re-married.

Whether Sergeant William Brown's remains were returned to Pennsylvania is unknown.

(National Archives via
Camp near Fredericksburg Va
Dec, 23rd 1862

Mrs Sarah Brown,

I received your letter of inquiry in regard to your Husband William Henry and I am sorry to inform you that he was mortally wounded on the 13th inst and died, from the effects of his wounds on the morning of the 16th; he was brought to this side of the river and had his leg amputated and had attention paid him untill he was buried. I was present with him when he died, and I think that death relieved him of a great deal of pain for he suffered untold agony from the time he was wounded; he was struck by a shell which injured both legs and tore off part of his thigh. The account of his burial ...

(National Archives via
.... by the Hon John Covode is very near correct; with the difference that it was not on the battle field but three miles away that he died, and I left Conrad and John Wright to bury him as I was ordered away with the company. His body can be sent home but we are all out of money: he will have to be embalmed and I would like to know wether you would like to have his body remain where it is untill some of his Relatives come for it or wether you will wait untill the Regt is paid off when Conard proposes to send him home. It will cost about $50 to get his body to Philada. Conrad is safe so is Harry McKane.

I remain
Yours &c [?]
Capt T H Parsons,
Co "C" 91st P.V.

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


-- Hat tip to Harry Ide, who has superbly compiled information on William Henry Brown as well as other 91st Pennsylvania soldiers. Access Ide's information on Brown here. His remarkable site on the 91st may be found here.

-- Columbia Democrat and Bloomsburg (Pa.) General Advertiser, Jan. 10, 1863.
-- Raftsman's Journal, Clearfield, Pa., Jan. 21, 1863.
-- The Indiana (Pa.) Weekly Messenger, Dec. 24, 1862.
-- William H. Brown widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. via

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