Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Wilderness: Snapshots of death from a 'most lonely place'

1865 image of soldier remains in the Wilderness, near Cemetery No. 2. (Library of Congress)
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Faint from loss of blood, a grievously wounded young soldier lay alone near scores of Confederate dead in the Wilderness. Unable to stand, the "poor fellow," a Union soldier observed, slowly crawled across the blood-soaked ground gathering violets. He had already made a beautiful bouquet.

3rd Vermont Captain Erastus Buck, wounded on 
May 5, died in Washington on May 22, 1864. 
A thousand people attended a service for him in 
East Charleston, Vt., according to an obituary
in the Orleans Independent Standard.
"I saw him taken up tenderly and borne away wearing a brave, sweet, touching smile," the witness recalled.

The fate of the boy, like so many other wounded who suffered in the dense, wooded undergrowth of Virginia in early May 1864, is lost to history. Perhaps he survived despite his serious wound. More likely he died -- one of hundreds who perished from wounds suffered in the battle.

Then came the funerals. Scores of services were held in the North and South. Sometimes with a body of the deceased, often without. Here are snapshots of what Vermont lost in the Wilderness -- the "most lonely place I ever saw," according to a sharpshooter from the state. In the spring and summer of 1864, the Green Mountain State's newspapers were filled with death and despair.

The corpse of Lieutenant Colonel John Steele Tyler, a "mere boy of only 21 years," arrived at the train depot in Brattleboro, Vt., about 10:30 a.m. on May 24. The remains were received by officers from the 8th Vermont, who were en route to New Orleans, and a "company of invalids from the garrison" near town. Tyler's body was escorted to the town hall, where his nearly 90-year-old grandmother was among the mourners.

Wounded in the thigh at the Wilderness, Lt. Col. John Steele Tyler
died in a hotel in New York.  (John Gibson collection)
From a prominent family, Tyler, the son of a reverend, had been promoted only days before the Battle of the Wilderness. Shortly after he was shot, John realized his wound, which sliced his femoral artery, was mortal. Still, he lingered for nearly two weeks, dying in the Metropolitan Hotel in New York on May 23. A civilian doctor who examined him there believed the wound was caused by buckshot, not a bullet.

"Death, in a sudden and mysterious manner, has removed him," Vermont's governor wrote to Tyler's uncle, a judge, "and we are left to mourn the loss of a brave and worthy officer." Tyler received a posthumous promotion to colonel from the governor.

Throughout the day in Brattleboro, citizens paid their respects to Tyler, many of them placing flowers atop his coffin.

"Appropriate verses were also stuck on the bayonets of the stacks of arms at the head and foot of the coffin," a newspaper reported. One of them caught the eye of a reporter:

"How beautiful is death when earned by virtue! Who would not be that youth? What pity is it that we can die but once to save our country! Why sit this sadness on your brows, my friends? I should have blushed if Cato's house had stood Secure, and flourished in a civil war."

At 6 p.m., Tyler's remains were escorted to the Episcopal church by two fire companies, a company of the 17th Vermont, local cadets and a company of "invalids," who were stationed at a nearby military camp.  After the church service, a band played a dirge as the casket was escorted to a nearby cemetery. During the graveside service, mourners were drenched during a brief thunder shower and startled by "one very vivid stroke of lightning."

Muffled drums rolled. The casket was lowered into the ground. Three farewell shots were fired over the grave.

"Seldom have the people of Brattleboro been called on to witness a more solemn and impressive pageant," the Vermont Record reported.

             PANORAMA: Vermont Brigade monument in the woods near the intersection 
        of Brock and Orange Plank roads. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Captain George Randall of the 6th Vermont was shot through both legs above the knee on May 5, the first day of the fighting, and lived until about 4 p.m. that day

"He was decently interred and the enemy never rifled his pockets or polluted his person," an officer recalled in an account published in a Vermont newspaper. "Even to the last, he would never give up, but remarked that he was not wounded very severely. He bled to death, and I doubt if medical aid had been near at first whether he would have survived."

The 21-year-old soldier's remains rest in an unknown grave in Virginia.

22-year-old William W. Wilson, a private in the 1st U.S, Sharpshooters, died in a hospital. 
He had been in 27 battles, according to his obituary in The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press on June 15, 1864.

In Calais, Vt., on June 5, a large congregation assembled to "testify to their respect to the memory" of 25-year-old William Stowe. A private in the 2nd Vermont, he was killed near the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank roads. Stowe was part of the Vermont Brigade -- five regiments of soldiers from the Green Mountain State -- which suffered 1,234 casualties making a desperate stand on May 5-6, 1864.

"Was the result commensurate to the sacrifice?" Lewis Grant, the brigade's commander, wrote weeks after the battle. "Whether it was or not, the battle once commenced had to be fought. There was safety only in success."

Stowe's death was "peculiarly distressing," according to a local newspaper. "He was the first in town to respond to his country's call for three years' men and enlisted into the Second Vermont Regiment, of which he continued a brave and honored member, beloved and respected by all his comrades."

"His term of service having nearly expired, he was fondly anticipating a speedy return home, and a happy sojourn with affectionate friends," it added. "But instead of his welcome presence came the sad intelligence that he was shot in battle in the afternoon of the first day's fighting."

Lucius Ingalls, the only son of Azel and Leafy Ingalls, died in a hospital in Washington from wounds
suffered at the Wilderness, according to a brief account in the Vermont Journal on July 9, 1864.
His right arm had been amputated. Ingalls was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

After conducting the funeral in early June for George Whitfield, a private in the 17th Vermont, a preacher made a proposal.  "And I move that when this war shall have ended, and when this town shall have purchased land for its contemplated cemetery," he said, "that a separate lot be preserved expressly for our fallen brave of this war."

"And then upon our festive days, our national anniversaries and the like," he added, "let the good ole 'Stars and Stripes' be unfurled there, that their drifting shadows float above the honored dust of those who laid down their lives in their defense."

 Newton Stone was killed on May 5, 1864. A lawyer as a civilian, he had "two brothers fighting
 for the cause for which he gave his life," the St. Johnsbury (Vt.) Caledonian noted
on May 27, 1864. He was buried in Readsboro, Vt.

In early August in Cabot, Vt., a service was held for a pair of brothers, Edwin and Abel Morrill. A captain in the 11th Vermont, Edwin was mortally wounded in the bowels trying to escape after he was captured at the Battle of Weldon Railroad in Virginia. Abel, acting adjutant in the 3rd Vermont, was killed at the Wilderness. Shortly after the war, Edwin's remains were recovered and re-buried in his native state. Abel's body was never found.

"Resolutions of condolence and sympathy were adopted," the local newspaper reported about the brothers. "The exercises were largely attended by sympathizing friends from Cabot and adjoining towns."

Corporal Lucian Bingham of Morristown, Vt., died in a Washington hospital from wounds suffered
at the Wilderness. The 23-year-old was a "worthy brother" and a "brave soldier," according to this account
in the Lamoille Newsdealer on July 27, 1864. He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On June 25, 1864, The Burlington (Vt.) Times reprinted a poem by George Baker, recalling the seriously wounded young man picking flowers in the Wilderness. It's a fitting tribute, perhaps, to all the soldiers who suffered there.


Mangled, uncared for, suffering thro’ the night
With heavenly patience the poor boy had lain;
Under the dreary shadows, left and right,
Groaned on the wounded, stiffened out the slain.
What faith sustained his lone,
Brave heart to make no moan,
To send no cry from that blood-sprinkled sod,
Is a close mystery with him and God.

But when the light came, and the morning dew
Glittered around him, like a golden lake,
And every dripping flower with deepened hue
Looked through its tears for very pity’s sake,
He moved his aching head
Upon his rugged bed,
And smiled as a blue violet, virgin-meek,
Laid her pure kiss upon his withered cheek.

At once there circled in his waking heart
A thousand memories of distant home;
Of how those same blue violets would start
Along his native fields, and some would roam
Down his dear humming brooks,
To hide in secret nooks,
And, shyly met, in nodding circles swing,
Like gossips murmuring at belated Spring.

And then he thought of the beloved hands
That with his own had plucked the modest flower.
The blue-eyed maiden, crowned with golden bands,
Who ruled as sovereign of that sunny hour.
She at whose soft command
He joined the mustering band,
She for whose sake he lay so firm and still,
Despite his pangs, not questioned then her will.

So, lost in thought, scarce conscious of the deed,
Culling the violets, here and there he crept
Slowly—ah! slowly,—for his wound would bleed;
And the sweet flowers themselves half smiled, half wept,
To be thus gathered in
By hands so pale and thin,
By fingers trembling as they neatly laid
Stem upon stem, and bound them in a braid.

The strangest posy ever fashioned yet
Was clasped against the bosom of the lad,
As we, the seekers for the wounded, set
His form upon our shoulders bowed and sad;
Though he but seemed to think
How violets nod and wink;
And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,
He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.

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-- Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 27, 1864
-- Orleans Independent Standard, Irasburgh, Vt., June 3, 1864.
-- St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, May 16, 1864.
-- St. John's (Vt.) Caledonian, May 27, 1864.
-- The Burlington (Vt.) Weekly Sentinel, June 10, 1864.
-- The Burlington (Vt.) Daily Times, June 25, 1864.
-- Vermont Journal, July 9, 1864.
-- Vermont Record, Brandon, Vt., June 3, 1864, June 24, 1864.
-- Vermont Watchman and State Journal, Aug. 19, 1864.


  1. Was there a man dismayed?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder’d.
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die.


  2. George W. Hill, my wife’s great uncle, Member of Co. F. 4th Vt. Vols. According to the "Compendium of the War of the Rebellion", the regiment was mustered in September 21, 1861. Participated in Battle of Antietam, September 16-17, 1862, Battle of Fredricksburg, December 12-15, 1862. He was then later killed by a sniper during guard duty May 5, 1864 in Battle of Wilderness.
    John Cupak