Saturday, April 19, 2014

History revealed: Sgt. Harvey Tucker's Fredericksburg grave

NO. 1: A photographer employed by Mathew Brady made this image of the burial of Federal dead,
 probably on May 20, 1864. (Library of Congress collection)
NO. 2: In this enlargement of the original image, "SAR" and "H. Tuck" appear on the grave marker
 by the  solder's right foot. A shovel obscures the rest of the writing on the marker.
NO. 3: An extreme close-up of Sergeant Harvey Tucker's wooden grave marker.

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The scene at the top of this post, photographed by Mathew Brady's operators in Fredericksburg, Va., on May 19 or 20, 1864, probably was repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the town and the surrounding, war-ravaged countryside during the Civil War. Two wooden coffins lay on the ground, the bare feet of a dead soldier protruding between them (PHOTO 4) while two other bodies wrapped in blankets lay nearby. A man, perhaps a chaplain holding a Bible who was preparing to give the dead men a Christian burial, gazes into the distance while a burial detail and soldiers take a break from their sad tasks. A body appears on a stretcher in the background, which also includes at least 40 wooden markers designating the graves of Union soldiers who were killed in action or died from wounds or disease in or near the town along the Rappahannock River.

NO. 4: In this enlargement, a
 dead soldier's feet protrude
from behind a coffin.
Gravediggers stayed busy that spring. To keep pressure on Robert E. Lee and threaten the Rebel capital in Richmond, the Union army fought especially bloody battles at the Wilderness (May 5-7), Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-21) and elsewhere near Fredericksburg, causing thousands of casualties on both sides.

In his ground-breaking 1983 book, "Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865," Civil War photography expert William Frassanito dissected this image and six other photos of this scene in Fredericksburg. Frassanito believed the image was taken by a photographer working for Mathew Brady on May 19 or May 20, 1864, but he was unable to pinpoint its location. Years later, painstaking research by Noel G. Harrison of the National Park Service revealed the photograph's location as the edge of Fredericksburg, on Winchester Street between Amelia and Lewis streets. Using a magnifying glass to view details in the original negative at the National Archives, Frassanito identified a soldier's name as well as his regimental number scrawled on the marker near the gravedigger's hand at the extreme right of the photograph (PHOTO 5). Further research by Frassanito identified that soldier as 121st New York Sergeant Lester Baum, 24, who had been mortally wounded at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 10, 1864, and died nine days later.

NO. 5: In another enlargement of the original image, Sergeant Lester Baum's marker appears
 just below the right hand of the gravedigger at the far right.
PRESENT-DAY: Approximate site of Fredericksburg burial site in 1864. (Google Maps)

Thankfully, I don't have to travel to the Library of Congress or National Archives in Washington or use a magnifying glass to examine glass-plate images from the Civil War, as Frassanito had to while researching his book in the 1970s and '80s. Easily enlarged, digitized versions of Civil War images are available on the excellent Library of Congress web site in JPEG and TIFF formats.

As examination on my blog of these Antietam images by Alexander Gardner shows, the detail found in glass-plate images is amazing, especially in TIFF format. In spring 2014, I re-examined the Fredericksburg burial image, eager to find overlooked details. A gravedigger's shovel, socks on the dead men wrapped in blankets and even wording on the tall marker (perhaps Private Alexander Read of Company K of the 84th Pennsylvania) are easily seen. But another grave marker in the right background, next to the seated soldier, attracted my attention. A shovel obscures part of the marker, but the letters "SAR" and "H. Tuck" appear by the soldier's right foot (PHOTOS 2 and 3).

Tucker died from the effects of his wounds on May 20, 1864,
 according to this document, dated July 10, 1864 and signed by
 6th Michigan 2nd Lieutenant William Creevy.
Determined to identify who was buried underneath that marker, I spent a half-hour on the American Civil War Research Database to narrow the possibilities. I assumed the soldier's rank was sergeant by the apparent misspelling "SAR" at the top of the marker. I also assumed the soldier's last name was Tucker and searched all soldiers with that last name and a first name that began with "H" who did not survive the war. I ruled out soldiers with last names such as Tuckett or Tucksberry  because they didn't die in Virginia in the spring of 1864, their first names didn't begin with "H," or they didn't meet other criteria. Of the 13 Tuckers who did not survive the war, only one had a first name that began with "H" and served near Fredericksburg in 1864:

Sergeant Harvey Tucker of the 6th Michigan Cavalry. 

Wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, Tucker died two weeks days later in Fredericksburg. He was 37 years old. Examination of 55 pages of documents in Tucker widow's pension file on revealed many more details about the Michigan man's life — including his last days on Earth.

According to the 1860 U.S. census, Harvey Tucker was a married father of four children.

Thirty-five year-old Harvey Tucker enlisted in the U.S. Army in Cottrellville, Mich., about 50 miles northeast of Detroit, on Sept. 10, 1862. Born in Massena, N.Y., he had gray eyes, dark hair, a swarthy complexion and stood 5-foot-7, about average height for a Civil War soldier. The decision to join the army must have been difficult for Tucker, a married man who lived in Ira Township, Mich., which rises from the shores of Lake St. Clair.

In June 1860, the Federal census taker noted that Tucker's household included his 27-year-old wife, Lovina, and four children: Susan, 7; Lyman, 5; Mary, 2; and Douglas, 9 months. (Another child, John, was born in September 1861.) A farmer and a blacksmith, Tucker had real estate valued at $700 and personal property worth $180, modest totals. Lovina's first husband abused her, and she "was taken away by her father," although the couple apparently did not legally divorce. Born in Canada, she married Harvey on May 20, 1852, when she was 19.

NO. 6: Does this enlargement of the
original image show
 6th Michigan
Chaplain Stephen S.N. Greeley?
 In May 1864, he was 50 years old.
A little more than a month after his enlistment, Tucker mustered into Company C of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, one of four regiments that formed the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Its young brigadier general, George Armstrong Custer, would earn great acclaim during the last three years of the Civil War — and infamy in 1876 at Little Big Horn.

The 6th Michigan served mainly on picket duty until it saw its first major fighting during the Gettysburg Campaign on June 30, 1863, at Hanover, Pa. The regiment "particularly distinguished" itself, according to General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, on July 2, 1863, at Hunterstown, Pa., where Custer set a trap and whipped Wade Hampton's cavalry. On July 3, in a cavalry fight east of Gettysburg, the brigade fought well against Jeb Stuart's horsemen, according to Custer, who wrote "there were many cases of personal heroism, but a list of their names would make my report too extended."

Earlier in 1863, Tucker apparently had attracted the notice of superiors, who promoted him to corporal on New Year's Day 1863 and to sergeant a little more than a month later. Battles in Virginia that fall at Brandy Station, Buckland Mills, Mine Run and Morton's Ford followed for the regiment, but fighting at the Wilderness dwarfed all the others.

A regimental band played "Yankee Doodle" as the 6th Michigan Cavalry dashed into battle on May 6 at the Wilderness, mostly thick woods that offered little visibility. Confederates nearly enveloped the Michiganders, who were armed with Spencer repeating rifles. But they turned the tide and held the right of the brigade's line. Sometime during the fight, a bullet struck Tucker a little above the hip, exiting at his opposite shoulder, perhaps indicating a shot from below. By 1864, the Army of the Potomac ambulance corps was well organized, and Tucker soon may have been transported 10 miles over the rough roads to Fredericksburg. The town became "one vast hospital" during the war as scores of buildings became sites to treat wounded and sick soldiers. 

Chaplain Stephen S.N. Greeley,
probably late 19th century.

He died in 1892 at age 79.
(Courtesy John Dickey)
Initially, Tucker appeared to be doing well. He had "regular passages of the bowels" and gave the regimental chaplain his address so he could write a letter home to his wife. But two weeks after he was wounded, Tucker suffered an internal hemorrhage, and the end came quickly at Cavalry Corps Hospital on May 20, 1864 — his 12th wedding anniversary. Later that morning, Chaplain Stephen S.N. Greeley wrote a four-page letter to Lovina Tucker to explain the circumstances of her husband's death. (See complete letter below).

"A kind-hearted, simple-minded gentleman of the old school," Greeley was not well suited to the rigors of war, a veteran wrote after the war. "[I]n the field he was more like a child than a seasoned soldier and needed the watchful care of all his friends to keep him from perishing with hunger, fatigue, and exposure." But the chaplain, 50 years old in May 1864, toughed it out with the 6th Michigan from 1862 through the end of the war, ministering to soldiers and often breaking sad news to loved ones back home.

"It becomes my painful duty to convey to you the sad intelligence that is often sent to dear wives and families of our noble soldiers," Greeley's letter to Tucker's wife began. "In this dreadful war they pass away by hundreds — and after battles by thousands."

At one point during the war, according to Harrison's research, burial crews interred Union dead in Fredericksburg "four deep" and often without identification or a proper burial service. In a 1998 article in Military Images Magazine, Harrison wrote that Corporal Albert Downs of the 57th New York, detailed to Fredericksburg as part of the provost guard, became appalled by the lack of concern for the dead. He persuaded superiors to provide proper burials for soldiers. On the morning he died, Tucker received a respectful service.

Post-war image of Fredericksburg National
Cemetery. The wooden markers shown
 here deteriorated and were replaced 

with stone markers.
 (Photo courtesy Jerry Brent,
executive director
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust)
"We had your husband enclosed in a coffin, while others were laid only in their blankets," Greeley wrote to Tucker's wife, " and when his body rested in the appointed place, many soldiers who stood round and a detachment of grave diggers uncovered their heads and stood in silence while I administered for your husband the right of a Christian burial."

Greeley's description of the service prompts several questions:

Could the scene he described be the same scene photographed by one of Brady's assistants in May 1864? Are the bodies wrapped in blankets in the image the same ones the chaplain described? Is Greeley actually the man holding the book in the image (PHOTO 6)?  Many other burials took place at the site in 1864, so the man with the book could be someone else, perhaps a member of the U.S. Christian Commission. Further research could yield definitive answers, maybe even a photograph of Sergeant Tucker himself. Although not conclusive evidence, the date of  Greeley's letter leads me to believe the photo of the Fredericksburg burial scene was taken on May 20, 1864.

After the Civil War, workers disinterred 328 bodies buried in the soldier's cemetery on Winchester Street and re-buried them in Fredericksburg National Cemetery, less than a mile away. Tucker's body was probably originally re-buried there under a marker that read "Unknown" — one of nearly 13,000 unknown Civil War soldiers graves in the cemetery on Marye's Heights overlooking town.

Sixth Michigan chaplain Stephen S.N. Greeley sent this four-page letter to Tucker's wife
explaining the circumstances of the sergeant's death after he was wounded at the
 Battle of the Wilderness. (
Cavalry Corps Hospital
Fredericksburg Virginia
Friday morning, May 20, 1864

Dear Mrs. Tucker

It becomes my painful duty to convey to you the sad intelligence that is often sent to dear wives and families of our noble soldiers. In this dreadful war they pass away by hundreds -- and after battles by thousands. Our campaign opened on the 3rd day in May and for eight days after crossing the Rappidan and meeting the enemy there were most fearful and bloody engagements.

In one of the battles in the Wilderness our cavalry force had a terrific struggle. Your husband was pierced by a ball a little above the hip -- passing upward...

After he was wounded in the hip, Sergeant Harvey Tucker was transported to the 
Cavalry Corps Hospital  in Fredericksburg, Chaplain Greeley wrote. 
... and coming out below the opposite shoulder. This was on Friday, two weeks ago today. He was conveyed with some 15,000 wounded men to this town of Fredericksburg, where is established the Cavalry Corps Hospital -- and where I have remained with the cavalry department.

A day or two since Segt. Tucker requested me to write you for him and gave me your name & address. He seemed to be doing nicely. He had regular passages from the bowels and as far as I could see had every prospect of a speedy recovery. He was visited by Christian men of the "Christian Commision" and had kind attention in matters pertaining to the body & soul.

I was about to write you yesterday to be of good cheer with respect to him, but was delayed by business of town. On returning to ...

"Grave diggers uncovered their heads and stood in silence" at Tucker's burial, Greeley wrote.
... my surprise I found that yesterday afternoon he had been taken with internal hemorage (sic), together with a copious discharge of pus through the wound, and died in a very few minutes. My hopes that the ball had not touched the bowels had now proved fallicious.

I attended his remains this morning to a new Soldiers' Cemetery we have just secured. The dead were being constantly brought in from hospitals in every direction -- but we had your husband enclosed in a coffin, while others were laid only in their blankets, and when his body rested in the appointed place, many soldiers who stood round and a detachment of grave diggers uncovered their heads and stood in silence while I administered for your husband the right of a Christian burial. May God comfort ...

This letter appears on and is available in Tucker's widow's pension file at the
 National Archives in Washington. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
... you in your bereavement -- is the desire and prayer of .

Yours with respect and sympathy.

S.S.N. Greeley
Chaplain Sixth Mich. Cavalry

Mrs. Lovina Tucker
Bell River, Mich.

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



  1. This is excellent work, John.

  2. Fascinating, John. You are the new Fraz.

    Now help me find out where the body of Edward E. Sturtevant of the 5th New Hampshire wound up. A controversy then, still unresolved.

  3. Hey, thanks! He's my hero.

  4. thanks for the kind words, Pat.

  5. MarkJ3:21 PM

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but there is a lesser known image in this same series (taken about 180 degrees in the opposite direction) actually showing the face of one of the dead soldiers seen in the foreground. Are you familiar with this particular view?

  6. Hi, Mark J.: Yes, I am familiar with the image. Will post when I get a chance. Will also post close-up of other images taken at the Fredericksburg scene in May 1864.

  7. Might the "unknown" Captain from the 49th in the cemetery picture be John F. E. Plogsted, killed May 6, 1864 at the Wilderness?

  8. Sorry, spoke too soon. The 49th appears to have lost FIVE captains in May 1864:

    John F. E. Plogsted
    William Theodore Wiggins
    Reuben B. Heacock
    Clarence H. Hickmott
    Seward H. Terry

    1. Anonymous8:33 PM

      I was going to do that same research.

  9. Great detective work and a very interesting story

  10. Thank you so much for this most interesting article! Great work...great work indeed!

  11. John what a touching story. You need to write another book about these touching stories throughtout the union army. I already love your work on Connecticutt soldiers.

    All the best!


  12. John what a touching story. You need to write another book about these touching stories throughtout the union army. I already love your work on Connecticutt soldiers.

    All the best!


  13. Greg Acken12:35 AM

    Wonderful work as always John

  14. War is bad my friend got a bullet in the arse hole in Afghanistan sounds funny but i assure you he died in great pain and took 7 days.

  15. To the left of Lester on the headboard I see "Read" Co. K, 8? PV.

  16. Just FYI, there are quite a few updates to the 1100 block of Winchester Street since it was captured in the Google image above. The yellow house with the blue trim porch on the left has been replaced by a brand new stone and hardiplank house. The empty lot to the left now has a new brick home. The red building on the right has been refurbished with white siding. The blue house and the mustard apartments in the center are essentially unchanged.

  17. I could be entirely wrong but on the headboard to the left of Lester as I posted above I have done further investigation and I think this may be the grave of Private Alexander Reed, Company K, 84th PV
    who was killed at Spottsylvania Court House, May 12, 1864.

  18. Very interesting read. I was very surprised to read that Sgt. Tucker lived in Ira Township, Michigan, my home since 1984. Excellent research.

  19. Anonymous9:08 AM

    I am curious if there is record of any attempt to locate and move any remains on Washington St. before the more modern houses were constructed.

  20. John Modzel9:59 PM

    Thank you very much for this research. Harvey was my great, great, (actual number unsure) grandfather on my mothers side. I knew that post 229 of the Grand Army of the Republic in Marine City, MI was named after him.

    1. Ah, tremendous to hear from you, John. Glad you enjoyed the story. Would any family members have a photo of Harvey? Be well.

  21. Hi,my father is trying to locate a picture of his 3rd great grandfather Ruben Comer he is in a mass grave in i think Delaware from the civil war,he does know that his last name is spelled wrong on the engravement it is spelled Coner, he has never seen a picture of him,thank you for your time

    1. Anonymous7:59 PM

      Look over to Finn’s Point NJ by Salem NJ, Fort Delaware (Civil War prison) in DE River buried their dead across the river there.

  22. John- amazing work again and a tribute to these soldiers especially Sgt Harvey Tucker of Company C of the 6th Michigan Cavalry and American history. Our ancestor Pvt Henry Mannering Clackett, 40th NY was also in this area as he was captured on May 12th, 1864 at Spotsylvania and somehow survived his time at Andersonville to get back to Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY the following year to his wife & children (2 of whom were deaf).

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Charles. I remember digging into this story seven years ago on a rainy weekend in Connecticut.

  23. Annakulcs8:45 AM

    This is a really interesting example of the "good death". Thanks for sharing! Another missing piece of the puzzle we call the civil war has been found!

  24. Great research on your part in deciphering the words on the markers.
    Regarding image No. 6: When I first saw the bearded man holding the book, I immediately thought he resembled Allan Pinkerton, detective in the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Even the hat looks like a hat he used to wear in some of his photos.

  25. Anonymous9:44 AM

    Great post John !