Monday, August 13, 2012

Antietam: A father retrieves the body of his son

Orderly sergeant Wadsworth Washburn, 26,  was killed at the Battle of Antietam
on Sept. 17, 1862. His father retreived his body from the battlefield.
(Connecticut State Library archives.)

Kristen Duke, a former graduate student at Central Connecticut State, researched and wrote this story on 16th Connecticut Orderly Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn, who was killed at the Battle of Antietam.  If you have a photograph of Wadsworth Washburn, contact me here.

By Kristen Duke

As thousands met their deaths on Civil War battlefields, families back home faced a grim task: the retrieval of bodies of loved ones -- an effort that was often expensive and considered distasteful by some.
This grim list of those killed at Antietam in the
 16th Connecticut --  including Wadsworth Washburn --
 appeared in the  Hartford Courant on Sept. 25, 1862.

“The desire to bring home from long distances the remains of deceased friends is, by some persons, regarded as evidence of a morbid sensibility, or a best an unreasonable expenditure,”Asahel Cornwall Washburn, a pastor noted for his deeply religious sensibilities, wrote in a letter published in the Hartford Courant on Nov. 12, 1862. “Others cherish that desire as a dictate of true love and in strict conformity with christian culture.”

Washburn himself faced the grim reality of death upon learning that his only son, Orderly Sergeant Wadsworth Washburn of the 16th Connecticut, had been killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862,  But for the pastor from Berlin, Conn., the decision about what he must do for his dead son was easy:

He had to bring Wadsworth home.

Thankfully for the Washburn family, Wadsworth’s temporary battlefield grave was well marked. John Burnham, the 16th Connecticut’s adjutant, supervised the recovery of bodies of soldiers in his regiment who had been killed at Antietam and carefully noted the location of their graves on the property of a 58-year-old farmer named John Otto.

"There is a stone road running due east from Sharpsburg to the Stone Bridge across the Antietam Creek, for possession of which hard fighting took place in the morning," Burnham wrote in a letter that was published in the Hartford Courant on Sept. 30, 1862. "It is about one mile from Sharpsburg to the bridge, and the spot selected for the grave is about midway between them on a hill on the south side of the road, just back of a white house with a high piazza in front, and opposite of which is a large house and a barn." Washburn was buried in a large trench along with Privates Henry Aldrich of Bristol, John Bingham of East Haddam and Theodore DeMarrs of Cromwell.

Describing his journey home to Connecticut with his son's body as a “sensation of relief,” Reverend Washburn was comforted by the idea that Wadsworth’s final resting place could be “planted with flowers, visited often by friends, moistened with their tears.”

“The dumb marble,” of his son’s gravestone, he added,  “will warn his former associates to also be ready.” (1)

Wadsworth Washburn, an orderly sergeant in
the 16th Connecticut, is buried in Bridge Cemetery
in Berlin, Conn. An ornate wrought-iron fence

surrounds his grave.
The aftermath of Antietam was agonizing for the state, with scores of  funerals held in Connecticut from late September through mid-October 1862.  "It is seldom that we are called upon to bury so many braves in so short a space of time," the Courant reported on Oct. 13, 1862.

Born Aug. 15, 1836 in Vermont, Washburn was 25 years old when he enlisted as a private on Aug. 8, 1862. Sixteen days later, he was mustered into the 16th Connecticut's Company G -- known as Hayden’s Company, in honor of its captain, Nathaniel Hayden of Hartford. Like many from the 16th who signed the oath that summer, he was killed about a month later in Otto’s cornfield. Ill-prepared for a major battle, the 16th Connecticut suffered severely in a desperate effort to turn the rebels' right flank. Of the four Connecticut regiments engaged that awful Wednesday, the 16th Connecticut suffered the most killed, 42.

On Monday afternoon, Oct. 13, 1862, Washburn received a hero’s funeral in Berlin, a small town 15 miles from Hartford.  Eight members of the 25th Connecticut carried his casket into the Congregational Church, which was filled with mourners. Reverend Wilder Smith, whose brother, Heber, had been killed at Cedar Mountain, Va., nearly two months earlier, conducted the services. A moving tribute was given by Lieutenant Jacob Eaton of the 8th Connecticut, who had suffered a leg wound at Antietam.

After a choir sang "America," Washburn's friends, who took a last glance at two photographs of him on the coffin, slowly filed past the dead soldier. The casket was then borne a short distance down the road to the cemetery, where Wadsworth Washburn was finally laid to rest. (2)

His grave surrounded by a beautiful, ornate wrought-iron fence, Washburn today lies buried beside his younger sister, Emma, at tiny Bridge Cemetery. Praised by the Hartford Courant  for his “heroic bravery” on the “fatal field of Antietam,” the seldom-visited gravesite, now tucked into a suburban neighborhood, is a moving tribute to a fallen hero. (3)

(1) "Soldiers Graves,” The Hartford Courant, Nov. 10, 1862.
(2) “Funeral of Sergt. Washburn,” Hartford Courant, Oct. 14, 1862.
(3) Ibid

FACES OF CIVIL WAR: Stories and photos of common soldiers who served during the war.
MORE ON 16th CONNECTICUT SOLDIERS: Tales of the men in the hard-luck regiment.
MORE ON ANTIETAM: Read my extensive thread on the battle and the men who fought in it.
Wadsworth Washburn's funeral service was held at this Congregational Church in Berlin, Conn.

1 comment:

  1. How sad it is to think of all these fathers and family members having to travel all that way to dig up and bring home their dead loved ones. So tragic.