Thursday, May 26, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: Van Buren Towle

A private in the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, Van Buren Towle died in 1864. 

Nearly 147,000 Massachusetts men served in the Union army during the Civil War. (1)

More than 6,000 were killed in action.

Almost 1,500 died as prisoners of war.

And 5,530 died of disease, including a shoemaker from Haverhill, Mass., named Van Buren Towle.

After purchasing a set of four tinypes of  Towle at The Horse Soldier in Gettysburg two years ago, I was eager to find out more about him.  Who was the grim-faced young man in the photo who stood, ramrod straight, with a musket topped with a bayonet at his side? How did this soldier who peered back at me from 140-plus years ago live and die?

Where is the final resting place of Van Buren Towle?

I found the answer to that question last spring at the National Archives in Washington.

A 1/6-plate tintype of Van Buren Towle in my collection of Civil War images.

 Towle enlisted as a private in Co. B of the 14th Massachusetts Infantry in Boston on July 5, 1861. Perhaps the 26-year-old soldier with blue eyes, black hair and dark complexion was caught up in a wave of patriotism after the Fourth of July. Or maybe Van Buren, like many in Haverhill, was an abolitionist and eager to fight to end an awful Southern institution. Haverhill, located on the Merrimack River about 30 miles north of Boston, was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, which helped runaway slaves to escape north. It also was a major shoe manufacturing town, so it was probably no surprise that Van Buren became a shoemaker. 

Van Buren had five other siblings -- a brother, Carroll, who also served in the Union army;  Amos, who was too young to serve; and three sisters, Clara and twins Henrietta and Isabella. His parents were no doubt proud of Van Buren, who probably plunked down about a buck and a half to have his photo taken in his newly issued uniform shortly after he enlisted. Towle and his wife, Tryphena, married on Dec. 29, 1863, and had no children. (2)

The 14th Massachusetts, which later was designated the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, served mostly garrison duty in the defenses of Washington early in the war. Towle's  Co. B was ordered to the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va., in December 1862, and it served garrison duty there until July 1, 1863.  Whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor or army life simply agreed with him, Towle re-enlisted on Dec. 4, 1863, in Arlington, Va.

After suffering huge losses in fighting in Virginia, Gen. Ulysses Grant pulled heavy artillery units, including the 1st Massachusetts, from the defenses of Washington to join the Army of the Potomac. On May 19, 1864, the 1st Massachusetts saw its first fighting of the war -- "seeing the elephant" it was called -- and Private Van Buren Towle's world turned upside down.

The infamous Civil War prison at Andersonville, Ga. (Library of Congress collection)

At Harris Farm, near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va., the untested 1st Massachusetts slugged it out against Stephen Ramseur's veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. They "got a little mixed and didn't fight very tactically," a Union officer said later, "but they fought confounded plucky." After four hours of fighting, the 1st Massachusetts suffered nearly 400 casualties. Van Buren Towle was among those captured on May 19 and shipped to  hell -- Andersonvile, Ga., the most infamous prison camp of the Civil War.

By August 1864, Andersonville was home for 32,000 Union prisoners of war in about 26 1/2 acres. POWs, who drank from the polluted stream that ran through the camp in southwestern Georgia, suffered from overexposure, malnutrition and disease. Nearly 13,000 died during the camp's 14 months of existence. (2)

Towle died Dec. 8, 1864, of chronic diarrhea
and was buried at sea, according to this
document from the National Archives.


Towle spent nearly six months in Andersonville and undoubtedly became quite ill. There are conflicting accounts of his death. According to one document I found in the National Archives, Towle died at Andersonville around New Year's Day 1865. But there's another, more telling document that I think confirms what really happened to the young soldier.

Amazingly, Carroll M. Towle, a 19-year-old private in Co. H of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, was a POW at Andersonville at the same time. Carroll recalled seeing his brother, who had been paroled and was in the process of heading home, in another Confederate prisoner of war camp. Van Buren, suffering from chronic diarrhea, was at death's door.

"I last saw him on the seventh day of December A.D. 1864 in Florence, S.C. in a rebel prison," Carroll Towle wrote matter-of-factly in an undated pension claim affidavit. "He left said prison that day in feeble health. Since that day I have never heard from him. I was confined in said prison at that time and for several months subsequently. He was my brother. I was in prison with him from about the first of July 1864 until he was paroled. He was in prison first at Andersonville, Ga. and was transferred to Florence, S.C. I have no doubt that he died soon after leaving the prison." (4)

Indeed, another document confirms Van Buren's death and burial on Dec. 8, 1864, after shipping out from Charleston, S.C. (5)
According to this undated affidavit from the National Archives, Towle's brother,
Carroll,  had  "no doubt"  Van Buren died after leaving a Rebel prison.
"On board U.S. Transport 'Northern Light," a War Department casualty sheet for Towle reads, "and was buried at sea."

Sadly, there is no grave on which to plant a flag on Memorial Day in memory of Van Buren Towle, the young shoemaker from Haverhill, Mass.

(1) Massachusetts Civil War Research Center
(2) Van Buren Towle's records in National Archives
(3) National Park Service web site
(4) Pension claim affidavit in Van Buren Towle's file, National Archives
(5) War Department casualty sheet dated Jan. 29, 1878, National Archives


  1. Fantastic research. Excellent, and well-timed for Memorial Day.

  2. Anonymous10:41 PM

    this is really excellent work,,,,thanks for posting this so close to Memorial Day,

  3. thanks for the kind words... good to give these guys their due as Memorial Day gets closer. Gone but not forgotten.

  4. Great research and and an excellent post.

    Van Buren Towle is a cousin of my great (x3) grandfather, Elbridge Gerry Towle. Both men were born in Kingston, NH and neither returned home from their service in the Civil War. I am presently searching for Elbridge Towle's final resting place. This post gives me hope that I may one day find the answer.

  5. Laurie: Thanks very much for the kind words. If you need help on your research, I would be glad to help. Just contact me through the email address on this blog. I have Van Buren's records from the National Archives and would be happy to share with you. Good luck on your search!

  6. Thank you so much for your offer, John. Another kind someone is scouring NARA for information on Elbridge for me. I suspect Elbridge too was buried at sea. I should hear something in the next few weeks or so. I'll keep you posted. :)

    Thanks again for your kindness.

  7. Laurie: Excellent. Would love to find out more. I read your info on Elbridge on your blog. Very interesting. I enjoy the stories behind the names of the Civil War soldiers.

  8. Interesting to hear, via Laurie, about the Towles being from Kingston, NH. I'm researching four men from Kingston who, like Carroll Towle, were members of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and were imprisoned at Andersonville after the surrender of the Union garrison at Plymouth, NC in April 1864. (These prisoners were known at Andersonville as the "Plymouth Pilgrims.") Three of the men died at Andersonville and the fourth died at Florence, SC where he was transferred after Andersonville was closed. The four men are included on the newly restored memorial in Brookline, MA where they enlisted. Three of them are also listed, mistakenly, on the memorial at Kingston, MA. (Some records incorrectly list them as being from that Kingston.) Carroll Towle enlisted the same week as these four, although in a different company of the regiment. There may have been others from Kingston and nearby Haverhill who joined at the same time and place. I'm going to contact Kingston MA about their memorial and want to find out if Kingston, NH has a memorial as well.

  9. Ken: Good luck with your research. Sounds like interesting -- and challenging -- work. I am interested in finding out what you dig up.

  10. Anonymous12:09 PM

    Interestingly VAN BUREN Towle is listed as buried at Beaufort National Cemetery with a DOD as 1.1.1885!!

    Apparently his name and rank were mistakenly listed on Union Soldiers buried in South Carolina as #816
    "Towle. G. B. L. Private 1st Mass Cav {Co B} died Dec 6, 1864"

    Ref Vol 9-12 Roll of Honor .p.152

    Beaufort memorial at Find A Grave

    PS His relations can join either the SUVCW or DUVCW or ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic

    ALso a Civil War Penions listing

  11. Van Buren Towle is buried in Hildale ave Cemetery in Haverhill Mass the Lot number is 375 I will locate his lot and see if it has a marker

  12. Hi, Kyle: Doubtful he is really buried there. Probably just an effigy grave -- a marker for the family to remember him. If you find out differently, let me know. Thanks for the heads-up.

  13. Philadelphia Inquirer [12-21-64, page 1] (just added to confirms he died on the Northern Light, although his regiment is mistakenly listed as 115th NY. VBT was one of 55 who died en route to the North aboard Northern Light. My ancestor was a guard on the Northern Light on the way down (with Confederate POWs) to Savannah and Charleston and back with recovered Union POWs (to Annapolis).