- Historic Sites
In Search Of My Son
In 1865 a father went from New York to North Carolina to reclaim the body of his boy, killed in action. Here is his account of how the task was done
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Newbern must have been at the commencement of the War, a desirable place for business, and for the residence of gentlemen of leisure. Before the War, probably some ten or twelve thousand inhabitants were residents there; but since our army took possession, most of the inhabitants have abandoned their homes, and many of the buildings are occupied by our officers and troops for war purposes. Having leisure I spent Thursday in rambling through the town. Aside of officers, soldiers, horsemen, and heavy baggage wagons each drawn by a team of six mules, I saw very few persons in the streets, except Negroes who were very numerous. Although it was a severe cold day, I was surprised to find the tree tops filled with robins and other birds, chirping from limb to limb as if it were midsummer. I returned at night to the Ellen, satisfied from observation, that the place was ruined for the time being.
On Friday morning at 9½ o’clock, I took the cars at the depot for Morehead City. The cars proceeded on southerly over a thin, sandy, level soil, tinctured occasionally with iron, and extensively covered with pine forests, until we arrived at Morehead City. Now and then I could see three or four Negro huts by the wayside, and there were three or tour military stations on the route, and a Fort about five miles north of Morehead City; but on the whole road, a distance of forty miles, I did not discover a single dwelling house. I was told the land was worth ten shillings per acre.
It was a very cold day, and having suffered severely with cold feet and frosty air while riding in the cars, I alighted with great pleasure on the wharf at Morehead City, opposite Beaufort, N.C., at 11½ o’clock, on the same day, Friday the 27th January, in the forenoon, and immediately went to the Quartermaster’s office for information. There I was pleased to find E. R. Middlebrook, a brother of [the man at] the First Baptist Church, New York City, who kindly proffered me every assistance in his power. He was chief clerk in the department, and he and Capt Wheeler, the Quartermaster, insisted on my dining with them, to which I reluctantly assented; and after a full repast, resumed the prosecution of my business. Brother Middlebrook furnished me with a good pine coffin, ready made, for Edward, which I got put on board the Transport Montauk, then lying near the wharf, and went on board of her myself about five o’clock in the afternoon on my way to Fort Fisher. She was taking in supplies for the army nearly all the following night.
On Saturday morning, at 9½ o’clock, the 28th of January, the Transport Montauk, Capt Greenman, started for Fort Fisher. We had a moderately rough time during the day and ensuing night, and arrived at Fort Fisher about 7 o’clock on Sunday morning, the 20th January, and anchored within the bar, near the southern extremity of Federal Point, just easterly of where Cape Fear River empties into the ocean. Here we had a fine view of the river, which is about a mile in width, and of the Point, and Fort Buchanan, Fort Lamb, and Fort Fisher, and the headquarters of the army further north on the east bank of the river.
The sun was shining bright and clear, but the wind was cold and piercing. I felt well nigh worn out with want of rest, fatigue and exposure; but my anxiety was so great to learn further particulars of Edward’s fate, that at about 9 o’clock on Sunday morning, the Capt at my request landed me on shore; and I proceeded immediately on foot toward Fort Fisher, the north eastern extremity of which was about two miles from the place of my landing. The whole distance was but a continuation of loose, deep sand or muddy salt marsh which was covered much of it with water by every flowing tide.
Everything was new and strange to me. Fort Buchanan was on the Point, an earth work perhaps 50 feet in height, somewhat in the shape of a cone. Fort Lamb was situated about three quarters of a mile easterly on the shore of the sea, being another earth work of conical form, of much greater magnitude, rising perhaps 70 feet from its base. Upon both these forts were heavy ordinance. And then near Fort Buchanan, were the offices of the Commissariat, the Quartermaster, and the Captain of the Port; and interspersed between Fort Buchanan and Fort Fisher were encampments of some of our troops.
None of these novelties however, hindered me in my progress toward Fort Fisher. The travelling was irksome, the wind was cold and cutting, and came sweeping from the northwest over Cape Fear River, and the salt marsh and sand beach with an irresistible rush; and by the time I had walked one half the distance, my frame began to quiver, and I felt that the days of my youth were gone. I had travelled over eight hundred miles, by land and by sea, had been subjected for ten days and nights to great exposure, and had made every inquiry I could, but had only learned that Edward was shot and killed at the battle of Fort Fisher on the 15th of January.
There was an explosion of a magazine in the Fort on Monday the 16th January, and many had been killed or buried in the ruins. Whether Edward’s body had been buried at all, or had been covered in the ruins, or whether I should ever be able to find or identify his remains, was to me a matter of entire uncertainty; especially as I was told it was a custom where many were killed, to bury the bodies in trenches, sometimes three or four deep, and when buried in separate graves, there were comparatively but few instances where the name of the deceased was to be found indicating his identity.