In Search Of My Son

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On January 15,1865, the United States Army and Navy bombarded, stormed, and captured Fort Fisher, the great Confederate strong point which guarded the outlet of Cape Fear River just below Wilmington, North Carolina. This battle closed the Confederacy’s last port for blockade runners; it also cost the Federal Army and Navy some 1,300 casualties.

Among the men killed at Fort Fisher was Edward K. Wightman, of the 3rd New York Volunteer Infantry, who was shot to death in the attack on the northwest bastion of the fort. His father, a New York attorney named Stillman King Wightman (1803–1899), at once concluded that it was his sad duty to go to Fort Fisher, recover his son’s body, and bring it north for proper burial. Despite grave obstacles, the father did this, and two months later, with the experience still raw and fresh, set down in writing his account of it.

In the long course of time—for Mr. Wightman lived to the age of ninety-six—the manuscript passed into the hands of his descendants. Through the courtesy of his grandson, Dr. Orrin Sage Wightman of New York, and of his great-grandson, Dr. Henry Booth Wightman of Ithaca, New York, we are privileged to publish it for the first time, verbatim. We are also in the debt of Robert T. Horn, assistant treasurer of Cornell University for his assistance.

Stillman Wightman was persevering. It was hard to reach Fort Fisher; harder yet to find the body of the dead soldier and to arrange matters so that the body could be brought back for burial in a Connecticut cemetery; still harder for the father to steel himself for the performance of a grim but necessary task. In his recital of this experience, Mr. Wightman somehow managed to speak for all of the men, in all times and lands, who have had to see a precious light go out under the smoke of battle. He opened the grave where his boy had been buried, looked upon what remained, satisfied himself that this was indeed the body of his son, lived through the harrowing job that then became necessary, brought the coffin back home—and then devoutly thanked God for the infinite mercy that had enabled him to do all of this.

There were hundreds of thousands of fathers and mothers in the Civil War who felt as this man felt, and there have been hundreds of thousands since then who have had to live with, and master, the grief he felt. Because his artless narrative expresses something not merely timeless but ennobling and inspiring, AMERICAN HERITAGE presents it here as a haunting echo from the nation’s terrible time of testing. —Bruce Catton

It was on Thursday morning the 19th of January, 1865, we found it announced in the Herald of that date, that “Sergeant Major Whiteman 3d N.Y.V. was killed” in the battle. Our house was immediately enveloped in sad mourning. I went down to my office and made inquiries, and soon came to the conclusion, after prayerful deliberation, that it was my duty to go to Fort Fisher. It was a great undertaking for me at that season of the year, and especially as I was not at the time in very good health, and I had not for many years been subject to so great exposure. I returned to my house and held a consultation with my family, and told them what I had thought of doing. They did not discourage me, but left the matter to my own sense of duty.

I accordingly resolved to go; and at seven o’clock on the evening of the same day, I started in the cars at Jersey City, and after riding through a cold, sleepless night, I arrived in Washington, D.C., at six o’clock the next morning. My object in going to Washington was to procure a pass to and from Fort Fisher. I was informed that it was difficult to procure such a pass; and so in order to be more certain of success, I first waited on Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, an old friend of mine, who gave me a letter of introduction to the Secretary of War, which proved all sufficient in insuring me a pass. I forthwith presented the note to the War Department, and immediately obtained the pass; and at three o’clock in the afternoon of Friday, the 20th January, was on board a steamer lying at a wharf in the Potomac, and soon afterwards was sailing down the River in her for Fortress Monroe.

The vessel was crowded with soldiers and civilians, all of whom were strangers to me. For several hours- indeed until long after nightfall—our progress was much impeded with floating cakes of ice. I roamed about the boat until late at night, when being well nigh exhausted with fatigue, I laid myself down on two narrow chairs with my head on a cushion, and fell into a broken, fitful sleep for about two hours. We arrived at Fortress Monroe about 10 o’clock in the forenoon of Saturday the gist January, and immediately went on shore.