Friday, April 27, 2018

A white cross and red roses: Remembering Private John Roby

10th West Virginia Private John Roby's grave in Antietam National Cemetery.
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Walk through Antietam National Cemetery and you're sure to find a token of remembrance atop many of the weather-worn Civil War gravestones. You may see a pebble, a penny or two, perhaps a flower or a jar with a small candle -- all efforts by someone to tell us an ultimate sacrifice long ago still has deep meaning.

If you ventured toward the back of the beautiful, well-manicured grounds recently, past the massive soldier's monument known as "Old Simon," John Roby's grave may have caught your eye. A large, white cross affixed with fresh, red roses leaned against the marker for the 10th West Virginia private. More than 155 years after he died, someone still cares. The discovery sparked our curiosity: Who was John Roby?

In this document dated April 28, 1864, a surgeon at the Union hospital
 noted John Roby's cause of death: "phthisis pulmonalis," commonly 
known today as tuberculosis(National Archives via
A laborer from Anderson's Store, Va., he enlisted in the Union army in Bennett's Mill on Sept. 25, 1861, leaving behind a wife named Elizabeth and at least two children living at home: Marcellus, 10, and Falista Margaret, 8. John may have been in his early 60s, more than 35 years older than the average age of a Civil War soldier. When hostilities began in Charleston, S.C., in April 1861, the Robys had already been married for nearly 34 years.

In early December 1862, Roby contracted a "disease of the lungs" near New Creek, Va., while he was "engaged in the normal duties of a soldier." Days later, he lay in "U.S. General Hospital" near Cumberland, Md., probably the Clarysville Hospital that opened in early March 1862 for the care for hundreds of ill and injured Union soldiers. On Christmas Eve, Roby died of disease, by far the leading cause of death during the war.

On June 6, 1863 -- 12 days before West Virginia was granted statehood and became part of the Union -- Elizabeth traveled to the courthouse in Lewis County, Va., where she provided evidence for a widow's pension claim. The 54-year-old woman declared she had married John in "David Heart's house" in Pendleton County, Va., on Aug. 30, 1827, and said the couple had 13 children together. Two friends of the family vouched for Elizabeth's claims, noting letters from 10th West Virginia soldiers that confirmed Roby had died in a Union hospital. Although she initially could not provide acceptable evidence of the birth of her youngest children, Elizabeth's claim was approved in 1864 at the standard $8 a month.

Signature of John Roby's widow on a pension file document. (National Archives via
Whether Mrs. Roby traveled to Cumberland to mourn at her husband's grave is unknown. In a massive post-war effort by the Federal government, thousands of Union dead who were buried on battlefields or at church graveyards, hospital sites or elsewhere were disinterred for re-burial in newly established national cemeteries. John's remains may have been identified because of a well-marked grave or perhaps by a personal item such as a watch or another keepsake. When Antietam National Cemetery was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1867, Roby's grave probably was marked by a wooden marker, later replaced with a pearl-white tombstone.

Of course, we may never know who left the magnificent remembrance at the old soldier's final resting place on the hill in the village of Sharpsburg, Md. But that's OK. When you remember one, someone once said, you remember them all.

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


-- 1860 U.S. census
-- John Roby widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via


  1. And now we remember! Bless him.

  2. Great history, John. I will be sure to pay my respects during my next visit to the cemetery.

  3. A story of heroic dedication to the Union...

  4. A story of heroic dedication to the Union

  5. A story of heroic dedication to the Union...