Saturday, February 17, 2018

Death spiral: A sad end for house where Antietam officer died

Boarded up and battered by time and nature, the circa-1850 Jacob A. Thomas house near Boonsboro, Md.
(CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
The summer kitchen and farmhouse have seen much better days.

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In its death throes, the circa-1850, red-brick house is cloaked in sadness.

As if scooped out by a massive hand, gaping holes expose the heart of the abandoned, two-story structure on a knoll just off a Maryland country road. Steps away, tall weeds grow from a pile of rubble -- all that remains of what once was a splendid bay window. An ancient, well-worn set of stone steps is an orphan due to the demise of small, wooden porch. Once an eye-catching accessory on an impressive house, a second-floor porch mirroring others in the area is nearly gone.

Because peeling green paint and graffiti on the front door aren't unwelcoming enough, a small sign on the weather-beaten, white transom warns would-be intruders: "Private Property Keep Out." Probably baked on the farmstead kiln long ago, bricks litter the sloping front yard. A stone's throw from the back door, a wooden privy and summer kitchen slowly lose their battle for life while yards away a beautifully restored, post-Civil War barn thrives.

The interior of the once-stately home may be seen through gaping holes.
(CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A warning sign to trespassers on the weather-beaten and graffiti-marred front door.
Who trod on these well-worn -- and probably original -- steps?
A view of the once-splendid second-floor porch.
A close-up of outside brickwork reveals effects of time and neglect.
Time, nature and trespassers conspire to wreak havoc inside the Greek Revival-style house. Debris spills from a fireplace on the first floor -- one of five in the once-stately home. A brown doorknob, perhaps a victim of a vagrant, lies on the floor, forgotten. Boarded-up windows block a magnificent view of South Mountain.

Wary of falling through rotting wood, two visitors gingerly make their way upstairs, carefully stepping over more rubble. Bricks choke the hearth of a bedroom fireplace while steps away, a beam of light from the outside reveals walls painted deep blue in a small room. Nearby, a chasm created by the collapse of a section of the second floor prevents further exploration. 

Briefly alone upstairs, one of the visitors closes his eyes and says a silent prayer for a long-ago inhabitant of one of the bedrooms.

Debris litters the steps leading to the second floor.
(CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
Bricks and debris clutter a second-floor bedroom. Could this be where Wilder Dwight died?
Light streams into a second-floor bedroom, revealing the remains of a bed (left) near a wall.
In late-summer 1862, this was the home of Jacob and Sarah Thomas and their daughters, 23-year-old Annie and 17-year-old Eliza. In the vortex of the war in mid-September 1862, families such as the Thomases heard the boom of artillery and crackle of musketry as Union and Confederate armies clashed nearby at South Mountain and at Sharpsburg, near the banks of Antietam Creek.

Wounded at Antietam, Wilder Dwight 
died two days later in a bedroom at the
 Jacob A. Thomas house near Boonsboro, Md.
On the afternoon of September 18, war arrived on the doorstep of the "airy and comfortable" house of Mr.  Thomas, a wealthy farmer. A sense of urgency spurred a group of Massachusetts soldiers, who carried their grievously wounded commanding officer into one of the family's upstairs bedrooms. The lieutenant colonel, a Harvard-educated lawyer, had somehow endured a harrowing, three- or four-mile mile journey on a stretcher from the Antietam battlefield, where his left thigh had been shattered by a Rebel bullet. As he lay in agony near the Hagerstown Pike on the morning of September 17, he completed a note, stained with his blood, to his mother: "All is well with those that have faith."

As comrades lifted him into his bed at the Thomases' house, the soldier repeated, "Now, boys, steady and true! Steady and true!" Soon after soldiers left the bedroom, the wounded man summoned enough energy to tell them, "Wait a minute, boys; you've taken good care of me, and I thank you very much. God bless you!"

Thankfully, the beloved officer was in good hands -- unlike many of their neighbors, the Thomases were a staunch Union family. A devout man and member of the United Brethren Church, 46-year-old Jacob Thomas may have even tended to the spiritual needs of his important house guest.

Also shot in the left wrist, the officer -- who "seemed quiet" -- suffered intense pain in his wounded leg that afternoon. But 2nd Massachusetts Chaplain Alonzo Quint still expected he would live a few more days. Growing weaker, the officer sent a note to a surgeon. "They tell me," he said, "that I may recover. I do not believe it ... " He wondered if his brother, William, a colonel in the 70th New York, were near. Preparing for the worst, he also had a dispatch sent to his father back home in Brookline, Mass., urging him to quickly travel to the red-brick house near Boonsboro, Md.

Painting of Wilder Dwight, completed in 1863. 
(Harvard University Portrait Collection,
 Gift of the children of Mrs. William Dwight
 to Harvard College, 1884.)
The next morning, the ever-attentive Quint kept the blinds closed in the soldier's bedroom and allowed no one to enter. At about 10 a.m., the chaplain noticed his comrade was "considerably weaker." About two hours later, Quint was in the kitchen with Sarah Thomas, who was preparing a beef tea. Suddenly, the wounded soldier's servant alerted the chaplain, "The Colonel is wanting you quick, sir." Quint rushed to the bedroom and  "instantly saw a change" for the worse. Grabbing the wounded man's hand, he said a short prayer; the officer, who couldn't distinguish Quint's features, slowly moved his lips in prayer, too, concluding with an audible "Amen."

Pale and his eyes sunken, the lieutenant colonel slipped away at about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 19, 1862. "Oh, my dear mother!" he said shortly before he died.

Wilder Dwight -- "the best man in the world," according to a 2nd Massachusetts comrade -- was only 29. He left behind his parents, William and Elizabeth; three brothers and scores of comrades and friends to mourn.

Art Williamson, the friendly owner of the old Jacob Thomas property, on the front steps
 of the crumbling farmhouse. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

Understandably, this Civil War story of the old house and the Massachusetts officer fascinates more than just its two visitors.

"If only I had known this history back then," says 76-year-old Art Williamson, who bought the Jacob Thomas house and surrounding property, including a barn, in 1986.

A peek inside the decrepit summer kitchen, 
which also pre-dates the Civil War.
A retired Bethlehem Steel employee, Williamson and his wife, Judy, originally intended to restore the farmhouse. A contractor gave the couple an estimate of what it would cost to make the place liveble and to modernize it. But the price tag was exorbitant, Williamson says, so Art and Judy moved instead into a large house they had built nearby on the property. Even as long ago as 1978, the homestead was on life support. "... deteriorated seriously in recent years," a Maryland Historical Trust report noted then about the Thomas farm and other area properties.

In 1999-2000, Williamson did sink a considerable sum into renovating the circa-1870 barn on the farmstead. Justifiably proud of that fabulous structure, he also enjoys showing visitors about his farm, where he raises llamas, emus, toy donkeys and an assortment of goats. "It's my funny farm," Williamson says with a chuckle. On a recent morning, the gregarious man flaps his arms to shoo away two pesky llamas while an inquisitive donkey nudges a visitor.

Some think the Thomas house is haunted, says Williamson, who regrets that wayward youths have used it for parties and other mischief. As visitors inspect the back of the house, he tells the story of a local man who used a first-floor room for much more ceremonial purposes. His fiancee relished old houses, and so one day the man took her to the Thomas house, where he had a bottle of wine, two glasses and an engagement ring placed on a small table. He proposed right there. "How 'bout that?" says Williamson.

The bedgraggled backyard outhouse.
As the visitors leave the "funny farm," they try to imagine the awful September day the mortally wounded Wilder Dwight was brought to this beautiful western Maryland countryside. And they also mull many questions, perhaps unanswerable:

Could the property somehow have been saved long ago?

In what room did the courageous 2nd Massachusetts officer die?

What was Dwight thinking as his life flickered out?

What was the reaction of the Thomas family upon his death?

What written record, if any, exists of the family's thoughts about that day?

As the visitors drive off, a small part of them also grieves. A remarkable house is dying, and a sliver of our history will soon die with it.

I thank my friend, longtime Washington County (Md.) resident Richard Clem, among the best Civil War detectives around, for his tremendous assistance on this story.

Donkeys and an emu approach a visitor on Art Williamson's "funny farm."

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


SOURCES

-- Dwight, Wilder and Dwight, Elizabeth Amelia, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight, Lieut.-col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols, Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1868.

-- Wilder Dwight battlefield letter to his mother, Sept. 17, 1862, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection.

5 comments:

  1. So sad to see this beauty in such shape.

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  3. As much money as our government wastes it is a shame they do not assist in the preservation of historical sites such as this.

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  4. Thanks! John for recording for history this site with your photos and narrative. As a reader, I greatly appreciate the care you have taken to link to sources...Maryland Historical Trust report and photos from 1978...the Thomas family information...especially. It is interesting to note that according to the 1978 Trust report that "this is one of the several farms in the Keedysville area owned by the US Steel Corporation. At one time fine agricultural properties with substantial improvements, these farms have deteriorated seriously in recent years."

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  5. Thank you for keeping the memory of the houses existence alive.

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