Telling Stonewall Jackson’s Story Atop Henry House Hill

Chris Rob Manassas 157th

This is just a picture of the Facebook video, not the video itself.

I always think of July 21 as Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born on January 21, 1824, so that’s his actual birthday, but he got his famous nickname at the battle of First Manassas, which took place in this date in 1861. That’s when he became “Stonewall.” That’s where the legend was born.

I had the privilege to tromp around on the Manassas battlefield for part of the day with my ECW colleague Rob Orrison, who invited me to participate in a series of Facebook videos shot throughout the day in “real time” to commemorate the 157th anniversary of the battle. We were joined by historians Bill Backus and Paige Gibbon-Backus, both of whom have made some great contributions to ECW over the past couple of years. Rob, Bill, and Paige all work for Prince William County’s department of historic preservation, and they were all over the battlefield all day long shooting these videos. They brought in a cool line-up of special guests, and I was lucky to be among them. 

My job was to get Stonewall Jackson onto the field at Manassas, first by marching the 2600 men of the Stonewall Brigade passed what is now the Ben Lomond Historical Site (which Paige manages). Then, we picked up the story in a field behind Jackson’s line at Henry House Hill and carried it onto the hilltop itself, finally ending next to the statue of Ares, God of War, atop his Warhorse of the Apocalypse—er, I mean, the Stonewall Jackson statue.

If you’d like to check out the videos, you can watch them on the Prince William Historical Foundation’s Facebook page (even if you’re not on Facebook, you can still watch them). Rob, Bill, and Paige filmed a series of ten segments–great stuff!

I grabbed a couple photos during the course of the day as we roamed around the battlefield around Henry House Hill. It was a gloomy day, and it started raining on us the moment I firs got out of the car, but it was still an excellent day to be on the field, on the anniversary, telling one of my favorite stories of the war.

And if you think you know the story of how Jackson got his name, I really encourage you to watch the video. The story as it happened, versus the story as people think it happened, are a bit different, although it’s every bit as dramatic.

Happy birthday, Stonewall.

UDC @ Manassas 2018

The United Daughters of the Confederacy have an annual wreath-laying ceremony for the Jackson statue at Manassas, but they got rained on today.

Bill Backus @ 4th Alabama Field

Bill Backus prepares to video Rob and me in the field where Stonewall Jackson got his name. Note: No Stonewall statue in this field. Surprised? Perhaps you only *think* you know the story….

Ricketts Battery

Ricketts’ Battery took a point-blank volley from the 33rd Virginia–part of the Stonewall Brigade–because the Virginians were wearing blue uniforms, which made them look like Federals.

Stonewall @ Manassas in Distance

There stands Jackson, off in the distance, like a stone wall.

Polk’s Resting Place

An altar image of Polk

Leonidas Polk remains something of an elusive figure to military historians. He owed his high rank to his friendship with Jefferson Davis. But Polk could have risen up the officer ranks on his own. He was charismatic, well-connected, wealthy, and a darling of New Orleans society, where he preached secession in the antebellum years as Louisiana’s Episcopal Archbishop. Politically reliable and a fire-eater and Southern nationalist for years before the war, he proved during the conflict to be stubborn and selfish, mostly noted for his long feud with Braxton Bragg, who commanded the Army of Tennessee. Yet he was brave and beloved by his men. He was easy to talk to and eschewed harsh discipline. He also showed some improvement as a commander. In the Atlanta Campaign he transferred a corps to Georgia and ably commanded it at Resaca.

On June 14, 1864, Polk was killed at Pine Mountain during an artillery barrage. As with many generals, he was not given a burial in a place of his choosing or a place dear to him. Central Tennessee and New Orleans, the two areas where he owned land and was a respected figure, were occupied by Union forces. Augusta, Georgia became his resting place. He received an elaborate funeral in Saint Paul’s Church, presided over by Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia. He was buried in a location under the present-day altar.

After the Civil War, Polk fit into the Lost Cause mythology. He was dead and, given the religious iconography of the Lost Cause, fit perfectly into its symbols. Yet, he was not part of the Virginia dynasty. He was also not a particularly successful battle commander. Commemoration of Polk mostly revolved around his faith and positive personal anecdotes. For example, he makes periodic appearances in Sam Watkin’s Company Aytch, where is is depicted as a warm and approachable commander.

Polk’s second grave

In 1945 Polk’s body was brought to New Orleans and re-interred at Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. The congregation had an interesting history. During the war, it was pro-secession, and Benjamin Butler closed it for refusing to offer prayers for Abraham Lincoln’s health and success, a common convention in the Episcopal Church. The current cathedral was constructed in 1886-1889. Polk’s old church Trinity Episcopal Church, on Jackson Avenue, still stands and honors the general.  Yet, Christ Church is the archbishop’s seat for Louisiana’s Episcopal Church, and therefore the headquarters of Polk’s successors.

On a quiet Saturday after I finished a Garden District tour, I went over to check out Polk’s resting place. I was let in by Reverend Travers C. Koerner. He showed me Polk’s grave, which is to the right of the pulpit. A mourning altar for Jefferson Davis, dating back to his death in New Orleans in 1889, is nearby.

Polk’s bishop chair

Polk’s bishop’s seat, crafted by the slaves on his plantation, also stood nearby and is roped off to prevent people from sitting in it. In another room a piece of altar art featured Polk looming above one of the many churches he built. Close at hand, another piece of art featured St. George slaying the dragon. Crafted in 1939, the dragon is laced with swastikas. It is another reminder of the falsity of presenting the Confederacy and Nazi Germany as equivalences. The person who crafted this art certainly did not think so in 1939.

As I left, I spied a simple picture of Polk in his robes. It was not the the old magisterial photograph that adorns many books but rather a simple piece, showing a younger Polk. It reminded me of the several postwar photographs of P.G.T. Beauregard. Unlike his wartime photos, where he is erect and formal, Beauregard was more relaxed in his postwar pictures taken. The images undermine our concrete views of historical figures, who themselves changed as surely as the times they experienced.

Home Run Derby Star Captain “Jack” Wildey–Part 1

When John Hay and George Nicolay drove their rented buggy over to Camp Lincoln to say hello to their friend Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, they found him wearing his “blouzy red shirt” and enjoying that New York favorite: Base Ball. Most New York firefighters played the game, and among those involved was Ellsworth’s aide-de-camp, Captain John “Jack” Wildey.

Baseball found on the Shiloh Battlefield

Wildey played ball before he became a Fire Zouave. He played for the New York Mutuals, named for his own Mutual Hook and Ladder Company Number 1. The Mutuals were formed in 1857 and played amateur ball at the Hoboken Grounds, their home grounds. Many firefighters and city employees played in a variety of New York teams, but the Mutuals were reckoned the best. It was perfectly normal for a handmade ball, a bit larger and softer than today’s baseball, to be found in the knapsack of an 11th New York Fire Zouave.

Captain Wildey was the person with Colonel Ellsworth the night before he was shot in Alexandria. Colonel Ellsworth asked Captain Wildey to come to his tent after 1:00 AM to help him dress for his first mission as a commanding officer.  Ellsworth had laid his uniform out on the camp bed. Ellsworth stood quietly as if thinking over his choices, and then said to Captain Wildey, “I was thinking in what clothes I shall die.” Wildey laughed and tried to cheer him up with a few joking words, but Ellsworth just shook his head, saying nothing for a moment. Then, smiling, he went to his trunk and opened it.  He withdrew an entirely new uniform, tagged and packaged from the tailor.  “If I am to be shot tomorrow, and I have a presentment that my blood is immediately required by the country–it is in this suit that I shall die.” Wildey helped him put on the new uniform, and within moments Ellsworth was his normal confident self.  Wildey wound the red silk officers’ sash around Ellsworth’s narrow waist.  And as discussed, this was the uniform in which Ellsworth died early on the morning of May 24.

Unit cohesion was difficult after losing Ellsworth, but leaders like (acting) Lt. Col. Noah Farnham, Major Charles Loeser, and Capt. Jack Wildey kept the Fire Zouaves together long enough to make it to the battleground of First Bull Run. The reputation of “Ellsworth’s Zouaves” was initially tarnished by regular Army officers testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It remained thus until recently, as historians such as Lesley J. Gordon (A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War and “I Never was a Coward” pamphlet), and Harry Smeltzer (Bull Runnings blog) have gone back to primary sources to look for another, truer, interpretation. Ellsworth said before he went to New York City that he wanted the New York firemen because they were men who could go into a fight immediately. This would prove especially true for Captain Jack Wildey.

“Ellsworth’s Zouaves”

July 21, 2861 is the date that the Battle of First Bull Run was fought. There is much to the battle, but the Fire Zouaves were only involved in the afternoon attempt to defend Union batteries on Henry House Hill. Control of the field around Henry House Hill changed hands several times, but ultimately the South held sway. There was some small fighting in which the guns changed hands a couple of times, but because the horses that had pulled them lay dead in their traces, it was impossible for anyone to remove the captured pieces from the field.  Finally, by 3:15 PM, after just over an hour of combat, the Confederate forces easily took possession of the Union guns and the 11th New York, among others was dispersed in retreat. The 11th did not “run like little girls or scared rabbits,” but they did not stay in retreat either. Many of them looked around the battlefield, identified another unit that was still fighting, and rushed to join in. Wildey joined in with the men of the 69th New York, who were having a bad time of it. Their leader, Colonel Michael Corcoran was taken prisoner and the Henry House Hill batteries had been taken. Still, they fought on. During this last encounter with the Confederates, the beautiful green flag that was held so proudly over Irish heads was taken. Who got it back?

Wildey and the B’hoys help take back the colors

At the fight at Bull Run, when the flag of the glorious Sixty-ninth Regiment  was wrested from them by a superior force of the enemy, Jack Wildey rushed forward at the head of his brave men, and after a bloody contest, in which he killed two men,–one a rebel officer, whose sword he took from him as a trophy,–recaptured the flag, and after marching four miles he restored it to the gallant corps from whom it had been taken.

New York Herald, July 27, 1861

Nevertheless, the Federal troops had been demoralizingly routed and, to make things worse, many ninety-day northern militia enlistments were about to expire. Some heroes were immediately needed. As Wildey’s fame spread northward he became a hero, especially in New York. The gallant Captain Wildey was called home to New York City, ostensibly to recruit more soldiers. However, Tammany Hall leader William Magear “Boss” Tweed had other ideas. He needed Wildey to represent Tammany in an upcoming city election.

To be continued . . .

Preservation News: CVBT Preserves New Ground at Spotsylvania Battlefield

Our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been hard at work acquiring and preserving more ground on the Spotsylvania battlefield. Last March, we told you a little bit about their work preserving a tract along the Brock Road near Laurel Hill. Last week, they sent the following update to us about the property and the events it witnessed during the battle 154 years ago. As always, you can support the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust in their efforts by visiting their website, CVBT.

The CVBT’s newly acquired property along Brock Road was closely associated with the first day’s fighting on May 8, 1864, when the Union assaulted Laurel Hill at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Several accounts by contemporaneous figures locate the property in conjunction with the fighting.

The property acquired by CVBT can best be described as roughly rectangular, with a rise (currently occupied by an abandoned house of no historical value) on the north where the property runs along Brock Road, a gradual downward slope dropping approximately forty feet over a tenth of a mile to a creek, and then rising gradually again to connect with the National Park Service land at Hancock Road where the main Union entrenchments
were later made. To understand the character of the hurried advances across the terrain, it is crucial to understand the opening stages of infantry fighting on May 8.

After several small delaying actions by Confederate cavalry, which caused a major bottleneck for the Federal army coming down Brock Road, the engagement began in earnest with the exhausted advance of first Peter Lyle’s and then Andrew Denison’s brigades across Sarah Spindle’s field. Their advances occurred east of CVBT’s property. The troops were exhausted from intermittently marching and standing since 9:00 p.m. the
previous night. On top of that, the day was rapidly heating up, with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.

Lyle’s advance on the Spindle field would be checked by the 3rd South Carolina, which only managed to reach their key position when the Federal troops were sixty yards away. Denison’s brigade would advance under the personal command of division commander John C. Robinson. The brigade broke into a panic as some of the first ranks stopped to fire while their comrades behind them pushed through, breaking unit cohesion. Officers
lost control of their men. Robinson was shot out of the saddle 50 yards from the Confederate position, later losing his leg. Denison simultaneously was shot, later losing his arm.

Because of the bottleneck along Brock Road, the reinforcements of Joseph Bartlett’s brigade (of Griffin’s Division rather than Robinson’s) quickly formed into line of battle along the road in the vicinity of the north end of CVBT’s new property. Rather than coming up the road into the rear of the units already engaged, they aimed to come into the right of Denison. These troops were no better rested. The preceding march had been punctuated with “starts and stops” resulting in a “dilatory pace…well calculated to aggravate weariness,” as Eugene Nash of the 44th New York recorded. One of the brigade commander’s aides shouted: “Hurry up, or you won’t get a shot at them.” Initially convinced that they were up against a light force of dismounted Confederate cavalry, the brigade was quickly disabused of that notion. They came “under a galling fire of infantry and artillery” as they began their charge at approximately 9:00 a.m., shortly after leaving the southeast edge of CVBT’s property. After crossing the Spindle farm, they reportedly would get within twenty yards of the Confederate line before opening fire. Some accounts reported bayonet fighting over the Confederate works.

On the heels of Bartlett’s brigade was Romeyn Ayres’s brigade, rushing to the sound of the guns in what one soldier of the 140th New York called “mad, blind style.” The men struggled to keep up with their general as his horse outpaced them. As the brigade crossed over the land that CVBT now holds, they may have been serenaded with the “cheerful and
inspiring” music of their brass band, ordered by Ayres to try to buoy his exhausted men forward. Many of the men who walked over the property would never walk back. According to historian Gordon Rhea, of the five hundred men with the 17th U.S. Regulars, only seventy returned. Disorganized, the brigade went into the attack bit by bit. Porter Farley of the 140th New York blamed their failure on their “dribbling into the attack regiment after regiment.”

The Confederate extension of their line to the right—which threatened the Union left flank—forced Lyle and Denison’s brigades to fall back by about 9:15 a.m.; Bartlett and Ayres shortly joined them. The pulling back of the Union infantry left the Union Third Massachusetts Battery in a vulnerable position from where they had come up to offer ineffectual support to the Union advances. The six twelve-pounder Napoleons were
reportedly forced to fall back to the vicinity of CVBT’s property as Confederate advances across the Spindle field threatened to capture the guns. As Augustus Buell in his controversial account notes, “The battery fell back with them by the right-hand road, about half a mile, to a small knoll which commanded the valley of a little stream running from our right into the Po.” This description matches the northern section of CVBT’s new
property, which then became an impromptu defensive line for the rallying Union troops. NPS Historian Frank O’Reilly has concluded, “We believe this to be a reference to the knoll on the [CVBT] tract.” A Lieutenant Appleton who was on the scene remembered, “They were on the second line, in position on the right of the road to guard against an attack on our flank.” This would place the battery right at the north end of the property. While in this area, the commander of the battery, Captain A.P. Martin would be severely wounded, getting hit in the back of the neck, “grazing the spine.” The entire movement was tracked by the guns of the Confederate batteries. One eyewitness remarked, “It seemed to be every man for himself, and the devil for us all.”

As Sweitzer’s Brigade came up, they too would have been placed along the northern edge of the property. By 10:30 a.m., the ground would again become a path of advance for Gregg and Robinson’s brigades (now of Cutler’s division) as they launched a second, more coordinated but ultimately unfruitful attack against the rapidly reinforcing and dug in Confederates.

The property would continue to play an important role through May 10th and 12th as the Union army continued to use it as an organizational area just arrears of their front line. By May 14, the Union army had withdrawn from the position to reorganize on the Fredericksburg Road, leaving the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, Parker’s Virginia Battery, and Brigadier General Pierce M. B. Young’s cavalry brigade to reclaim the uncontested position briefly before falling back to their own lines.

Those curious to learn more would do well to consider both Gordon Rhea’s 1997 book The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 and Gregg Mertz’s excellent 2004 article in volume 21, number 4 edition of Blue and Gray Magazine.

There is no doubt that CVBT has saved an incredibly important parcel in the 5th Corps tract. But much remains to be done: the non-historical structure requires demolition, wells
require filling, and trash and debris need to be removed. We remain dependent upon the irreplaceable support of our members and their generous contributions to help fund our work.

The Good Death of Private John Ide: U.S. Sharpshooters at Yorktown, Part 3

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson for Part 3 and the final “chapter”of this mini-series.

Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of the U.S. Sharpshooters and their role at the Siege of Yorktown.

Candles, honoring the soldiers buried in the national cemetery light one of the paths up to where the heroes are buried.

“Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”

Numbers, 23:10, often quoted in Nineteenth Century funeral sermons

On March 26, 1862, Private John S. Ide mailed a lengthy description he’d written about the first days of the Army of the Potomac’s Peninsula Campaign to the Claremont [N.H.] National Eagle. His hometown newspaper printed the letter— in which he confidently predicted he would soon be marching “on to Richmond”— on April 3. Two days later, during the fierce daylong fight that launched the Siege of Yorktown, Ide was shot dead as his 1st Regiment, United States Sharpshooters (U.S.S.S.) engaged with Confederate infantry.

The story of Private John Ide at Yorktown did not end with his death on April 5. A week or so afterwards, U.S.S.S. Sgt. George A. Marden saw Ide’s letter about the campaign in a copy of the April 3 Eagle that had been mailed to the regiment’s camp. Realizing Ide’s family and friends probably knew little, if anything, about how he had died, Marden sat down to write a letter-to-the-editor about his fallen comrade for publication in the newspaper. “I thought a few items in relation to [Ide’s] death that might be of interest to his friends,” he wrote at the beginning of a long tribute to the soldier’s courage, his “righteous” service to the Union and his noble death. The Eagle published the sergeant’s letter on April 23.[i]

A photograph of George Marden taken in 1861, prior to his enlistment in the U.S. Sharpshooters (Courtesy of Rauner Library Special collections Archive, Dartmouth college, Hanover N.H.)

The above chain of events exemplifies the ways in which Civil War soldiers on both sides often responded to a comrade’s death. The final link in that chain was the letter attempting to comfort the family. Many of the nurses, chaplains and doctors who attended those dying of wounds or illnesses in hospitals wrote similar testimonies. Marden’s long letter to the Eagle was more than a message of condolence. It also described Ide’s death and burial, casting them in the light of the so-called “Good Death.” This long-established Christian construct provided guidelines for dying, burial and mourning which were widely followed in the North and the South.

The sharpshooter’s letter, however, conveyed few of the hallmarks of an antebellum Good Death. Like many of the authors of the condolence letters that historian Drew Gilpin Faust examines in her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Marden had to adjust his words to the war’s brutal realities. The bloody conflict— which killed an estimated 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers— was changing the ways Americans understood and viewed death. What the wartime letters said and did not say, Faust asserts, indicate major shifts in American traditions regarding dying and memorialization. The letter Marden composed— which is excerpted below and was not part of Faust’s study— highlights some of the changes.

Up until 1861, ninety-five percent of the nation’s deaths took place in the home and were attended by a dying person’s family. The assembled watched for the physical signs of a Good Death, indicators that many religious pamphlets and popular books, poems and songs interpreted as signs that a soul was heaven bound. Key clues included a calm demeanor, last words voicing an acceptance of dying, and a declaration of faith in the Almighty. A peaceful countenance at the moment of passing further signaled that eternal glory awaited. A period of mourning and a proper burial, with family participating, were the final elements of a Good Death. [ii]

Relatively few men dying on the battlefield had the opportunity to utter last words that was afforded this idealized Union soldier. (From a detail of an advertisement for sheet music published in “National Songs of War” in 1895. Library of Congress).

The war completely disrupted these home-based traditions. Soldiers perished hundreds of miles away from their homes. The dying might have a reflective moment in the care of a comrade, chaplain or nurse, or be in a place where last words, affirmation of faith and acceptance of death could be witnessed. Think of Stonewall Jackson’s last hours, when the general proclaimed he was grateful to die on a Sunday and later, with his wife nearby, uttered those often-quoted final words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” But tens of thousands of soldiers— from privates to generals— died on chaotic battlefields or in crowded hospitals, far from their loved ones, many buried in mass or unmarked graves.  As a federal chaplain quoted by Faust told his regiment, no one in their time “had ever lived and faced death” imposed with such “peculiar conditions and necessities.”[iii]

Private Ide’s instant demise in Southern Virginia— from a Confederate marksman’s Minié ball passing through his head— is just one example of the “peculiar conditions” that challenged the standards of the Good Death. Sgt. Marden’s message to the people of Claremont reveals how those challenges were addressed, through a type of letter Faust describes as a new genre of American writing.[iv]

Many men died instantly, in the Civil War’s “peculiar conditions” of battle, essentially robbed of their opportunity for a Good Death. Tens of thousands more soldiers died in agony or delirium in hospitals.  (Drawing of the Battle of Williamsburg, no artist attribution, public domain, available at www.wpclipart.com.)

Marden recently had been transferred from the 2nd U.S.S.S. Regiment to the command staff of the 1st and may not have known Ide. Writing his letter, he probably drew from what he had heard about the slain soldier from comrades. The church-going soldier likely could have conjured up antebellum imagery for a “proper” death. Yet, Marden apparently adhered to what Faust writes was the “honesty [and] scrupulousness in reporting” exhibited by many letter writers. There is little evidence of a traditional Good Death in the letter excerpt below.[v]

Ide was a brave and faithful soldier, and was always ready to do his duty. He greatly desired to get into active service, and when the sharpshooters were ordered to advance, and were placed in position to pick off the rebel gunners… his trusty rifle was often heard speaking destruction to the foe… 

From 10 o’clock in the morning until 9 in the evening the fight raged unabated. Shell grape and shots from rifle pits were poured upon the sharpshooters, but they never flinched, and returned it with compound interest… Of the two [killed] Ide was one. He was shot through the head while aiming at the foe around the corner of a house. It was about four P.M. His body was got into the house and Lt. Col. Ripley, taking Ide’s [loaded] rifle, remarked that he “had a license to shoot that man” and brought him down at the first fire. The enemy then commenced to shell the house and it was impossible to bring away the body until after dark, when it was taken away and buried.[vi]

The kind of emphasis Marden places on Ide’s courage and other military virtues is common in wartime condolence letters. Faust writes that, as the war progressed, a soldier’s “duty to God and duty to country blurred, and dying bravely and manfully became an important part of dying well.” This kind of conduct and carrying on while under fire took the place of acts that had “traditionally prepared the way for the Good Death.” The sergeant does take care to describe the time, place and manner of death, and how the body was carried and buried by comrades. In a time when thousands of families were left with few or no details of how their soldier died, Marden was making Ide’s family and friends virtual witnesses to his passing and burial. Knowing that the men of Company E— Ide’s surrogate family in wartime— had attended to the fallen Sharpshooter provided some sense of a conventional Good Death.[vii]

Corpses of Confederate soldiers, collected by Union troops in front of Dunker’s Church after the 1862 Battle of Antietam. Their deaths in the chaos of the fighting— far from home and the usual antebellum deathbed— and their eventual burial in mass graves contradicted the standards for a traditional Good Death. (Photograph by Alexander Gardner, September, 1862, Library of Congress).

Towards the end of his letter, Marden writes: “Thus fell Mr. Ide with his armor on, and in the thickest of the fight. He could not have died a nobler death, and his comrades will always remember how his example stimulated them, and while they have a country to be saved will pray that if they are to die, ‘their last end may be like his.’”

The phrase in quotes is the only religious reference in the letter. It is paraphrased from the Bible, Numbers, 23:10: Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his. Rather than using a passage that testifies to Ide’s faith, his abiding belief in eternal salvation, or some other traditional indicator of a Good Death, Marden uses the Old Testament to present the image of a noble warrior dying righteously. Many Union and Confederate condolence letters and funeral sermons go even further, declaring fallen soldiers as Christian martyrs.[viii]

Faced with brutal realities of war, Faust writes, many kept to the traditional tenets of a Good Death as best they could. At the same time and on both sides of the battlefield, she continues, many began adhering to “a newly religious conception of the nation and a newly worldly understanding of faith.” Marden’s letter is one example of this redefinition. Another one of many Faust cited is a Confederate infantryman’s letter to the father of a slain comrade. No indicators of a Good Death are offered, just the consolation that the man’s son had “died in full discharge of his duty in the defense of his home & Country.”  For many, a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice for his Cause— whether he wore blue or gray— had become an act of “holy dying.” The norms of the Good Death had changed and would never revert to their mid-century standards.[ix]

End of series.

Thanks to Arthur Ruitberg for sharing his digitized copies of the letters written by John Ide and George Marden that I cited above.

[i] George Marden, letter to the Claremont National Eagle (Claremont N.H., published April 24, 1862)

[ii] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York; Alfred A. Knoph, 2008), 14-22.

[iii] Ibid., 15; Dr. Hunter McGuire, “Death of Stonewall Jackson” (Southern Historical Society Papers Vol. 14, 1886. [For the full text of  McGuire’s description of Jackson’s death, go to  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2001.05.0271%3Achapter%3D9;

  1. Clay Trumbull, War Memories of An Army Chaplain (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1898) 39, quoted in Faust, xiii. [Regarding Jackson’s words about crossing the river, his wife, Mary Anna, thought he likely was “reaching forward across the River of Death, to the golden streets of the Celestial City, and the trees whose leaves are for the healing of nations[.] It was to these that God was bringing him, through his last battle and victory; and under their shade he walks, with the blessed company of the redeemed.” If that was Stonewall’s meaning, his indeed was a Good Death. See Mary Anna Jackson, Life and Letters of “Stonewall” Jackson by His Wife (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1995), 471, quoted in “Stonewall Jackson’s Last Words” Chris Mackowski, ECW, Dec. 21, 2016.]

[iv] Faust, 15

[v]  Ibid., 30-31.

[vi]  Marden, letter to the Claremont National Eagle [Marden writes the fighting began at 10 a.m., while many other sources claim it started at 11. He may have been referring here to exchanges of fire between some Sharpshooters and Confederate cavalry that took place prior to the extended combat involving the 1st U.S.S.S. and Confederate infantry.] 

[vii] Faust, 25.

[viii]  Marden, letter to the Claremont National Eagle. [Marden’s letters indicate he was an abolitionist who had been brought up in and was an active member of the Congregational Church. He could have heard the Numbers verse from any number of sermons or eulogies by clergy. The abolitionist ministers of that era leaned heavily on the imagery of the fight to save the Union and end slavery as a just war and righteous cause sanctioned by God. To get a sense of the imagery of holy sacrifice and martyrdom on battlefield, glance through some of the Civil War funeral sermons for Massachusetts soldiers collected by the Harvard University Library archives: https://guides.library.harvard.edu/hds/civil-war/hds/civil-war-funerals.]

[ix] Faust, 25-26.

From the ECW Archives: Scattered Across the Earth

Headstones for fallen soldiers of the 7th Cavalry on Finley-Finkle Ridge. Company C, under the temporary command of Lt. Henry Harrington held this position before being overwhelmed.

On June 25, 2017, I wrote this article on the placement of headstones at the Little Bighorn battlefield. Today marks the 142nd Anniversary of the engagement. With that in mind, I decided to update the original work from the ECW archives and post it again.

Initially placed near the turn of the nineteenth century, many are located where Lt. Col. George Custer’s five company battalion perished. These simple marble markers are one of the more interesting aspects of the Little Bighorn story.

The first effort to identify the locations where soldiers fell came on June 28, 1876 with the initial interment by fellow members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. “Oh what a slaughter”, wrote Private Thomas Coleman when he saw Custer’s battlefield. “How many homes were made desolate over this sad disaster.” Coleman’s thoughts were echoed by John Ryan. Company M’s First Sergeant, Ryan had seen the worst of war as a member of the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. “I served through the Civil War and saw many hard sights on the battlefield”, he recalled, “but never saw such as sight as I did there.”  “The burial did not amount to much as we only had a few tools”, Ryan wrote. “We simply dug up a little dirt aside of the bodies and threw it over them.”

Captain Henry Nowlan, a member of the regiment who had been detached to serve as Quartermaster on Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry’s staff, drove a stake into the ground which contained an empty cartridge case with the name of the individual written on a piece of paper inside. This was only done, however, for the officers. Each grave was numbered and marked on a map drawn by Nowlan.

In July, 1877, Col. Michael Sheridan, Phil Sheridan’s brother returned to the Little Bighorn. Accompanied by a number of scouts and the reconstituted Company I, 7th Cavalry, his primary mission was to disinter the bodies of the officers for reburial elsewhere. Sheridan also  directed a party to collect willow shoots from banks of the Little Bighorn and the river valley. Spreading out in a skirmish line, they walked the field and planted a shoot whenever a grave was found. The following day, Sheridan’s men disinterred and reburied the remains, marking the grave with a cedar stake.

Questions quickly arose over the identification of the most famous soldier who fell in the battle. Initially buried on the slope below the knoll where he fell, Sheridan encountered some difficulty in the attempt to identify George Custer’s remains. The first attempt to identify Custer proved inconclusive. One trooper insisted that a second try was successful. “They gathered up nothing substantial except one thigh bone and the skull attached to some part of the skeleton trunk”, recalled scout Thomas LeForge, of Custer’s disinterment. “Besides these, the quantity of cohering  and transferable bodily substance was not enough to fill my hat.” Whatever of Custer remained were reburied in the West Point cemetery. Archaeological and forensic studies conducted in the latter part of the twentieth century added to this speculation. Remains examined in a plot at Little Bighorn National Cemetery matched an individual of Custer’s age and height, but did not yield a conclusive finding.

The passage of time along with visitors and souvenir hunters took its toll on these makeshift markers. Congressional visits finally prompted funding to place marble headstones on the battlefield at the location of each grave. In May, 1890, Capt. Owen Sweet and a contingent from the 25th U.S. Infantry arrived from nearby Fort Custer. For twelve days, Sweet’s men, like Sheridan’s before them, traversed the battlefield and erected the markers. Sweet’s work, however, does require some clarification.

There are an estimated 210 men who died with Custer. Sweet, however, placed 44 additional headstones on the ground encompassing his battlefield. These were intended to recognize the troopers who died during Maj. Marcus Reno’s Valley Fight that opened the battle. Sweet also indicated that he placed one headstone at graves where there appeared to be more than one interment. Additionally, he placed wooden markers at the graves of Custer’s brother Boston, nephew Harry Reed and reporter Mark Kellogg. These have since been replaced with modern headstones. The placement of headstones continued past 1890. In 1910, 1st Lt. James Porter and 2nd Lts. Henry Harrington and James Sturgis, the three officers from Custer’s battalion whose bodies were never identified, received headstones.

As one might expect there are some discrepancies which exist between the original placement of and in some cases, movement of the markers. For instance, George Custer’s headstone denotes the location where he was buried after the battle, as opposed to where his body was actually found. While Dr. George Lord likely perished on Last Stand Hill, his marker is located in the basin below near Deep Ravine.  In the late 1940s, Superintendent Edward Luce, through on the ground research, was successful in moving the marker for First Sergeant James Butler to a knoll separating Deep Coulee and Medicine Tail Coulee, two massive ravines that link near the river.

The headstone for First Sergeant James Butler can be seen in the middle of the picture.

Luce was also successful in moving 2nd Lt. Benjamin Hodgson’s marker. On the day of the battle, Hodgson acted as adjutant to Maj. Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command. He was killed on the east bank of the Little Big Horn River during Reno’s retreat from the valley. Hodgson’s headstone was initially placed atop the bluffs above the river crossing until Luce moved it closer to the river and the vicinity where he fell.

There are also markers for individuals who died during Reno’s Valley Fight, but inaccessible to the public. In August 1938, Little Bighorn historians E.A. Brininstool, Charles Kuhlman, Fred Dustin and R.G. Ellison placed a small granite monument where one of the regiment’s scouts, “Lonesome” Charley Reynolds died. A marble headstone also stands where the commander of Company G, 1st Lt. Donald McIntosh was killed.

Even in the latter part of the twentieth century, headstones continue to be erected across the battlefield. Probably one of the more interesting stands near the trail to Deep Ravine. During an archaeological survey 1984, remains were unearthed near two markers, including skull fragments. This individual was later identified through forensic and visual analysis as Mitch Boyer, one of Custer’s scouts. Today, Boyer has his own headstone.

Visitors will also notice different colored markers dotting the battlefield. Rather than white marble, they are red granite and mark the where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors died. Since the Sioux evacuated their dead from the battlefield, it is difficult to establish the exact locations. With research and tribal oral tradition, some of these sites have been identified.

Marker for Long Road, a Sioux warrior who died during the Reno-Benteen Hilltop Fight.

The most recognized of the Indian markers is for a Southern Cheyenne, Lame White Man, on the western face of Battle Ridge. Lame White Man led a charge that ultimately contributed to the destruction of Custer’s battalion. Where this assault took place remains a matter of debate among students of the battle.

No matter who they are for, the headstones remain one of the most striking and haunting sights on the battlefield. Conceivably, they are like individual monuments. Taken together, they form solemn tribute to the brave soldiers and warriors who died there.