Sunday, May 08, 2016

A walk in the Wilderness, where George Austin 'disappeared'

Saunders Field, where 140th New York charged on May 5, 1864. Below: An interactive panorama.
            Pan to the right to view the 140th New York monument in Saunders Field.

Like this blog on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter

To thousands of motorists who zoom past every day on busy Virginia Rt. 20, this scene, a mile or so from McDonald's, a Sheetz gas station, E&M Auto Sales and Divine Nails, may just be another rolling field and patch of woods. Perhaps some don't have time to notice as they drive to their homes nearby in the upscale Fawn Lake subdivision, where streets are named after Civil War generals and signs mark "preserved" trenches and earthworks.

Augustus Meyer: 140th New York captain was
 mortally wounded during the charge at Saunders Field.
(Image courtesy 140th NYVI Living History Organization)

But momentous, and tragic, events occurred here in Saunders Field along the historic Orange Turnpike and in the woods nearby on May 5, 1864 -- the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness. This is where 529 soldiers in the 140th New York, its ranks filled with immigrants from Germany and Ireland, burst from the woods on a wet, foggy morning that soon turned hot, charging an enemy entrenched near a distant woodline. Dressed in the regiment's colorful French North African Zouave uniforms, soldiers named McNamara, McVeen, Sprinkler, Seiger, Vanderhuff and Ziegler, among others, gained a foothold in that woodline. But after about 30 minutes, the Rebels forced their retreat. The Union regiment suffered nearly 50 percent casualties.

Augustus Meyer's grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in
Rochester, N.Y. (Photo Joel Shore/Find A Grave)
This is where German immigrant Augustus Meyer, the 34-year-old father of 5-year-old girl named Therese, suffered a wound in the abdomen. Initially expected to recover, the captain died 19 days later at a hospital in Fredericksburg, Va., roughly 15 miles away.

The Genesee Valley Railroad transported Meyer's remains to Rochester, where the former clerk in a dry-goods company was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. His well-attended funeral service was described as "of a most imposing character," probably little comfort to his wife of seven years, Augusta.

"An uncomfortable rain storm prevailed during most of the afternoon,"  the Rochester Evening Express, "and so large a turn out, under the circumstances, was an expressive testimonial of the respect in which Capt. Meyers was held."

This is where 140th New York 1st Sergeant Charles L. Taylor,  a blue-eyed, 36-year-old salesman and produce dealer, was killed. Nearly a month after the battle, a comrade searching the battlefield discovered his remains. The distinctive Zouave uniform and a brown beard were telltale signs the body was Taylor's, 140th New York veteran John B. Snyder noted shortly after the war. Struggling to accept Charles' death, Elizabeth "Libby" Taylor left a light burning in a window in their house in Brockport, N.Y., according to an account, so her husband could find his way home. She died in 1918, having never re-married.

Saunders Field is where 24-year-old Sergeant Joseph Seiger was mortally wounded. After he mustered into Company E of the 140th New York in September 1862, he gave his widowed mother his $90 bounty and a major portion of his army pay. Before he enlisted, the unmarried laborer regularly handed over $1 of his weekly $4 salary at Cunningham's Carriage Factory in Rochester to Mary Seiger, who emigrated to the United States from Germany after her husband's death.

George Austin's marker in Lakeside Cemetery in
Hamlin, N.Y. (Find A Grave)
And this is where George Austin vanished.

Shortly after the 140th New York attacked that morning, the married private was shot and killed. When the regiment was forced to retreat about a half-mile, it left its dead and wounded with the  enemy, noted Austin's friend, Private Charles W. Starin. George had "disappeared," according to an August 1865 pension affidavit signed by Henry Allen, a commanding officer in Austin's Company A, who added, "I have no personal knowledge of his fate." George's remains initially may have been buried by the Rebels, or, like many soldiers killed during this battle in the dense forests, his body may have rotted in the woods. The 27-year-old soldier has a marker in Lakeside Cemetery in Hamlin, N.Y., but it is unclear if he is actually buried there.

Shortly after dawn one recent rainy morning, I walk through the woods where the 140th New York gained its short-lived foothold. Dogs bark in the distance. Brown leaves crunch beneath my feet. A distinctive tat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers echoes. An interpretive marker notes the mortal wounding nearby of a Confederate general. Remains of trenches from both armies zig-zag through the woods.

And near the end of my walk, I stop, briefly close my eyes, and imagine the scene in May 1864.

The remains of Union trenches deep in the woods near Saunders Field.
 Confederate General Leroy A. Stafford was mortally wounded in woods near Saunders Field.

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


Widow's pension file documents for Augustus Meyer, Charles L. Taylor, Joseph Seiger and George Austin, National Archives and Records Service, Washington D.C. via


  1. I first visited the Wilderness about 25 years ago with my Dad, who was a Civil War buff. A park ranger happened to be there that day who described the battle in detail that I never forgot. We had driven down from New York to tour Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, New Market and other sites. I was at the Wilderness for a second time last spring, bringing my 15 year old daughter. This time, I came for a different reason. Through, I found a cousin who had information on my 4th great uncle, Oliver Nichols, who had joined Co.D, 122nd NY. This cousin had many letters and muster roll papers for Oliver Nichols, including a "Declaration for an Original Invalid Pension". Oliver Nichols was "wounded in the shoulder and upper arm in the Wilderness May 6/64" according to his papers. Oliver was sent to Philadelphia to recover from his wounds and from reading his paperwork, it looks like he owed the U.S. government varying amounts of money for "transportation." Oliver Nichols would return to NY, marry and have a family. He was appointed twice by Governor Hughes as an Indian Agent representing the Onondaga's on the Onondaga Reservation. Oliver died in 1923, at 85 years of age. I wondered upon my first visit to the Wilderness why there wasn't a building, more markers, something...more. Now, I'm not sure. Maybe it's preserved the way it should be. I didn't realize that there is a housing development so close by though. The traffic was just as bad as I remembered!

  2. On May 5, 2014, 150 years after the Battle of the Wilderness began, the Civil War Study Group at Lake of the Woods placed a memorial to the men of both North and South who still remain long after the battle is over.

  3. I would like to thank you for your efforts to bring these places to life for us. I recently learned that my 3xs great uncle William Wallace of Albany, New York died May 6 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. He had recently been advanced to Captain, but hadn't received pay as a Captain. He left a wife and young son. during his time served he was captured by the Confederate Army. Your writings help me see these events from the life's of these men.

  4. George Austin is my fifth cousin, so I'm thrilled to see his story being shared with others. He also had served in the 13th New York--along with his older brother, Sumner--until transferring to the 140th. Thanks for creating this moving tribute to him, John!

  5. Ah, that’s great David. Glad you found the post. Be well!

  6. John,
    Why don't you put a book or two together compiling these writings you've been doing on your jaunts?

    1. Yah, I will probably do that. Just need to find the time. :)

    2. Yes...that would be a great idea!!!!!

  7. Thanks John.

    I've read so many accounts of the battle, but I have never had the chance to visit the site in person. Your writing, as usual, brings it all to life, and sadly, to death.



  8. Anonymous7:58 AM

    After three days on the Booth escape route last spring I had a half-day left and spent it at The Wilderness. Very poignant.