Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Captain John Thompson: An old soldier who faded away

Shown in a post-war photo, John Steven Thompson served in the 3rd Vermont.
(Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
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In the fall of 1985, longtime relic hunter Richard Clem of Hagerstown, Md, uncovered a small identification disc that belonged to a Civil War soldier named John Steven Thompson. The rare find was the start of Clem's nine-year journey to discover more about Thompson, who served in the 3rd Vermont until the end of the war. Clem and his brother, Don, have hunted for Civil War relics in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland for four decades. Here's his story on Thompson:

By Richard Clem

Early on the morning of July 22, 1899, a body was discovered floating face down in Plum Creek, Rice County, Kan. A small crowd slowly gathered from nearby Bushton as the bloated, unrecognizable corpse was pulled from the muddy water. A local newspaper reported  that “the body was a horrible sight, having been in the water for a week. Upon examination, a pension voucher was found in one of the pockets which showed it to be the body of an old soldier, once a member of the 3rd Vermont Infantry -- John Thompson.” A coroner rendered a report: “Cause of death -- unknown.” The Civil War veteran was buried in the Bushton Cemetery beneath soil he had farmed for so many years.

Richard Clem told tales of his relic hunting exploits
 at Connecticut Day at Antietam in April.
To trace Thompson’s journey from Vermont to Kansas, let’s turn the clock to Oct. 11, 1985. On that beautiful fall afternoon, my brother Don and I were searching for Civil War relics with metal detectors just west of Antietam Creek in Washington County, near Funkstown, Md. The land we were searching was camped on by the Army of the Potomac following the Battle of  Gettysburg. On this line in July 1863, General George G. Meade’s blue-clad soldiers carefully watched General Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia at Williamsport. Lee nervously waited for the flooded Potomac River to recede for a safe crossing to Southern soil.

Around 6 inches deep, beside a flat limestone ledge, I dug up a brass disc about the size of a quarter. Although traces of gold lettering appeared, it was determined the strange object was not a U.S. coin. While cleaning the small medallion that evening with a standard household cleaner applied with a toothbrush, I could read “J. S. Thompson, Co. B, 3rd Reg., VT. VoL., Glover.” The front of the Civil War ID tag displayed an American eagle with raised words, “War of 1861 -- United States.” The medal contains approximately 50 percent original gold-plate. These keepsakes were sold by enterprising sutlers who competed for a soldier’s $13-a-month pay. Once purchased, the sutler would stamp the soldier’s name and regiment on the back, driving the letters into the brass, thus preserving the gold inscription as the surface or face wore away.

Who was J. S. Thompson? Did he survive the war? Where was he buried? Extensive research provided answers to these questions far more interesting than ever anticipated.

John Steven Thompson was born on Feb. 29, 1835, to John Thompson Sr. and Sarah Ann Wells near the Canadian border at Wheelock, Vt. At age 15, he had taken up residence in Glover, Vt., where he worked on a farm. The small, peaceful village remains about the same today as in the 1800s.

Vermont is known for producing good fighting men, dating to the “Green Mountain Boys” of the Revolutionary War. When clouds of civil war began to appear, that same patriotic fire was rekindled in the souls of those famed warriors from the Green Mountains; John Thompson would uphold that tradition.

Reverse and front of John Thompson's 
Civil War ID disc.
(Photos courtesy Richard Clem)
On May 10 1861, the 26-year-old Thompson enlisted for three years at Coventry, Vt., to serve and preserve the Union. He was described as 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches tall with blue eyes and auburn hair. Receiving the rank of  corporal, he became a member of Company B, 3rd Regiment Vermont Volunteers. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont regiments comprised the Vermont Brigade, attached to the 6th Corps, Army of the Potomac. Early in the war, Corporal Thompson fought in every major engagement of the Army of the Potomac without serious injury; however, in the fall of 1862, near the town of Sharpsburg, Md., he received his first “red badge of courage.”

Fought Sept. 17 1862, the Battle of Antietam (called Sharpsburg in the South) became known as the bloodiest day of the Civil War. A casualty list of more than 23,000 killed or wounded included Corporal John S. Thompson. According to official records, while under heavy fire from sharpshooters and artillery near a sunken farm lane (Bloody Lane), Thompson was struck by a musket ball just below the right shoulder blade. Luckily, the slug had lost most of its force -- otherwise death would have been the result. The wound was serious enough to have the Vermonter admitted to a field hospital near Hagerstown, 10 miles north of Sharpsburg. It was there following Antietam that the Vermont Brigade served as provost guard as recorded in one Federal soldier’s diary: “The duty on picket by no means severe, and the boys found little difficulty in procuring abundant supplies of luxuries, such as soft bread, hoecakes and other articles, from the farmers; and as the enemy was at Winchester, they were not in great alarm from Rebel raids. There was little duty, and the invalids had time for recovering their exhausted strength.” Federal archives records state three months after Antietam, John Thompson fought in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862), indicating a full recovery from his wound.

On July 4 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s battle-weary Army of Northern Virginia retreated from the bloodstained fields of Gettysburg. During the “exodus of grief,” on July 10, the Vermont Brigade distinguished itself in a costly encounter with enemy troops near the hamlet of Funkstown, Md. In a stretch of woods southeast of Funkstown, the Union battle line was quickly formed. After three consecutive attacks from a larger Confederate force, the Green Mountain Volunteers, including Thompson, stubbornly held their ground. Two days later, while camped in view of Funkstown, Thompson lost the ID disc that was  recovered 122 years later by the author of this article.

In the spring 1864, flowering dogwood and redbud lined the path of the 6th Corps marching into the Wilderness in Virginia. Knowing the reputation of the veteran Vermont Brigade, General John Sedgwick cried aloud, “Keep the columns closed, and put the Vermonters ahead!” Fought in May 1864, the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House proved to be the bloodiest contests of the war for the boys from Vermont. “Uncle John” Sedgwick was among those killed, struck by a sharpshooter's bullet at Spotsylvania Courthouse. 

General John Sedgwick, a Connecticut native, admired 
the fighting skills of his Vermont troops.
(Library of Congress collection)
During the Union slaughter at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864,Thompson, who had been promoted to sergeant, had the middle finger of his left hand broken by a rifle ball. Thompson's injury wasn’t nearly as painful as the sorrow carried in his heart after he received  news that his older brother, Sam, had  recently been killed at Spotsylvania Court House.

The Federal 6th Corps was ordered to report for duty in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the autumn of 1864. The ever-growing list of casualties forced the 3rd Vermont to reorganize. On Aug. 28, Thompson was transferred to Company E and justifiably earned the rank of lieutenant. A battle-scarred Thompson was promoted to captain on March 23, 1865, in command of Company E, 3rd Regiment Vermont Infantry.

After Gettysburg, it was an uphill struggle for the Confederacy. Fighting out of desperation against superior numbers, Southern forces made several gallant stands in the Shenandoah Valley, but the end was near. No one knew this better than General Lee, who surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. When the war ended, Captain Thompson was mustered out at Bailey’s Crossroads, near Alexandria, Va. A few days later, the veteran campaigner started the long trip north to Vermont.

At this point, my research on Captain Thompson was difficult. No obituary or grave registration for a John S. Thompson could be found in Vermont. A pension file from the National Archives, however, listed a Captain John Thompson from Vermont homesteading near Bushton, Rice County, Kan. Immediately, letters requesting any information on Thompson were mailed to a newspaper in the Bushton area. In a matter of days, I received numerous replies filled with material on the Thompson family along with my first photo of Thompson, taken from a mural hanging in a Rice County museum. Some of the greatest people on Planet Earth living in central Kansas made it possible to continue the Vermont veteran’s story.

His military career over, John lived in Cabot, Vt., where he was employed as a merchant, but it seemed his soul was still bent on planting the soil and raising a family. Being serious on “family matters,” John married a local Cabot girl, Alma Dell Stone, on Nov. 23, 1869. Two years later, on Feb. 14, 1871, Alma gave birth to a son, Johnnie Jr.

The Homestead Act of 1862 provided a man 21 years old could acquire 160 acres of land in some Midwestern states for a modest fee; he was then to occupy and cultivate the land for a period of five years. The generous offer attracted countless settlers to the open plains. Among these early pioneers making the westward journey were John Thompson and traveling companion Frank Shonyo, also from Vermont. Shonyo was a close friend of John’s and a comrade in the army. The plan once the men claimed ownership on their new property and “toughed it out” the first winter was for their wives to make the journey in the spring.

When John and Frank eventually reached Rice County, Kan., they selected adjoining homesteads just south of Bushton. John’s first winter was spent in a hole in the ground appropriately called a dugout, the entrance of which is still visible today. Land records of the Receiver’s Office in Larned, Kan., reveal John S. Thompson paid $8 and received a deed to his homestead. Not a bad price for 160 acres of fertile farm land.
According to old Rice County documents, “Alma Thompson taught school in her sod home until a frame school house was erected in 1880.” During the early days as the first teacher in the “Eldorado District,” Alma also had her hands full raising three children -- Johnnie; Olivia, born 1873, and Pearl in 1877.

On Oct. 7, 1994, nine years after discovering the Thompson ID tag, I received a letter from a Marie Theilken of Black Diamond, Wash. Marie’s great-grandfather was Captain John Steven Thompson; her grandmother was Thompson’s youngest daughter, Pearl Thompson Barner. Theilken's genealogy research revealed her great-grandfather had homesteaded in Kansas. She had sent a letter to Bushton requesting information on the Thompson family. One of the good citizens of the little prairie town mailed her a copy of an article published in the Bushton Centennial based on Thompson’s ID tag that I had found in 1985. After several phone calls and letters, Marie came to Maryland and shared stories handed down through the family with this ever-grateful writer. This new material, including the second post-war photo of Thompson, made it possible for the Vermont veteran’s legacy to be completed.

Like many patriotic Civil War veterans, John refused to accept charity or a government pension. He would bitterly explain to Alma, “I didn’t fight the war for money; I fought it to keep the country together.” When John finally applied for his pension after Alma’s persistence in 1884, he would take his monthly check, slam it on the kitchen table in front of his wife and say, “Woman, there is your damn blood money!”

Relic hunter Richard Clem found Vermont soldier John Thompson's Civil War ID disc at 
this site near  Funkstown, Md., in 1985. The U.S. flag, next to a photo of Thompson,  marks 
the spot of his discovery.  (Photo courtesy Richard Clem)
In a correspondence to his wife’s brother living in Vermont, Thompson wrote about a harsh winter on the plains when the family had absolutely nothing to eat at Christmas. As he returned from the well with a bucket of water early in the morning before the holiday, he spotted a large Canadian goose beside the sod house. There wasn’t a mark on the apparently lost, exhausted bird. It doesn’t take long to guess what the Thompsons gratefully prepared for Christmas that year.

Suffering from wounds received during the war, Thompson turned bitter. The once-proud army captain and his wife slowly drifted apart. John would spend hours wandering aimlessly across the vast Kansas plains.

“Was it suicide?” This question appeared in the Bushton newspaper after Thompson’s body was found in Plum Creek. Edwin Habiger of Bushton wrote me, “It was my father who helped recover the body of Mr. Thompson. There was no determination on what caused the drowning.” The 90-year-old Habiger explained how this story was told to him by his father, who came to Rice County in 1880. This would have put Edwin’s father around 19 years old when Thompson’s body was discovered.

In earlier days on the western plains, farmers would help their neighbors at harvest time; long before the age of modern agricultural machinery, crops had to be harvested by hand. Marie related how her great-grandfather Thompson and several neighbors had finished harvesting one of the farms, and while walking to the next property, John said he would “cut across the fields” and meet them at the next job site. Unfortunately, he never showed. Because of the July heat, some believe the aging farmer may have tried to get a drink from Plum Creek but suffered a stroke or heart attack. Cause of the mysterious death was never determined. One thing was certain: The war was finally over for Captain Thompson.
Richard Clem has a jar of dirt from John Thompson's 
Kansas grave on his bookshelf at home.
(Photo courtesy Richard Clem)

A local newspaper carried the following:
The death of Mr. Thompson has caused sadness over this community. Mr. Thompson was known and loved among his acquaintances as a  faithful friend, and a kind and pleasant associate. Though of a retiring nature, he was a well read man. There were three brothers in the Thompson family, and not one of them died a natural death. One was killed by a falling tree, and another was killed in the Battle of the  Wilderness, and the last one in the way known. Mr. Thompson was 65-years-old. His wife and three children are residents of this place.
Alma placed a beautiful black, granite tombstone, the largest in Bushton Cemetery, on her husband’s grave. Olivia Thompson married George Jefferies and moved “somewhere” in southern Kansas; Pearl (Marie Theilken’s grandmother) married Ira C. Barner and relocated to Oregon Territory in the Northwest. With her daughters and husband gone, Alma and Johnnie moved into a new two-story home in Bushton. Johnnie Thompson Jr. never married and took care of his mother until her passing in 1919.

Sitting on my bookshelf next to Civil War volumes rests a small jar labeled “Soil from grave of Capt. John S. Thompson, 3rd Vermont Regt. -- Buried: Bushton, Kansas.” This sacred ground was taken from  Thompson’s grave years ago by Marie Theilken, who generously shared a handful with me. When I examined this black dirt from the Kansas plains and held Thompson’s personal ID disc, words of General Douglas MacArthur came to mind:

“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

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


  1. Tom Hart6:09 AM

    There are so many good things about this story: John Thompson's Civil War service, his and his family's role in settling the West, the perseverance of Richard Clem, and the desire of so many to keep Thompson's story alive. And to think I decided to read it simply because my family vacationed for years a few miles from Glover, VT.

  2. Like your blog akot but i was under the impression Sedgewick ordered the Vermonters to be put ahead enroute to Gettysburg, not in the Wilderness campaign

  3. Thank you for this very interesting story of a common soldier. To read a similar account of my Civil War ancestor in the form of two novels, see Civil War novels based on pension file military records http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001HPJGH0.

  4. Very interesting to story. Judging from the "post-war photo", John Thompson continued to wear his military vest with his civilian clothes for some time after the war.