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
These doubts and difficulties, and my well nigh exhausted condition, all had a strong tendency to almost dishearten me, until the pressure of my feelings began to find vent in tears. At first I thought I would sit down and rest, but I was in the midst of a salt marsh, and that was impracticable. Next, I sought for some spot where I might be partially shielded from the cold, cutting wind; but there was not any place any where near me to afford the least relief. It was at this time that my heart broke forth in prayer to God, to strengthen and nerve my mind and body, and enable me to perform what I had undertaken, if it could be consistent with His holy will. Almost at the same instant, the promises of God came into my thoughts with great force and energy. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” “Fear not, for I am with thee.” “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
Other passages of similar import came into my mind, until I was comforted, and became joyful, and exclaimed aloud in the language of the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;” and then I commenced and sang the hymn—
The Lord my shepherd is I shall be well supplied, Since he is mine and I am His, What can I want beside.
I would walk and sing till my breath began to fail, and then stop and rest, and then again, walk and sing.
Meanwhile I had reached the more immediate region of the battleground of Fort Fisher, which was strown with shells broken and unbroken, with balls, shot and shrapnell, and diverse other missus and implements of death. Torpedoes, broken cannon, and fragments, wheels and carriages, and other evidences of destructive warfare arrested my vision in various directions; while the massive earthworks before me and on the right, rising to an elevation of about 25 feet, with traverses or mounds of earth on the parapet rising perhaps 20 feet still higher, and the whole extending from north to south more than half a mile, and then from south to west almost a like distance, until nearly reaching Fort Lamb, lay just before me and on my right in fearful grandeur.
All the front of the Fort not bordering on the sea had a ditch at its base, filled with water from the tide, and also a strong stockade outside the ditch, built of the bodies of small pine trees placed in juxtaposition about 12 feet in height with sharpened points at the top and holes cut through in near the ground for the use of sharpshooters. The Fort in front and rear, rose almost perpendicular from its base. It embraced about 70 acres of land, and to the eyes of a civilian, would seem absolutely impregnable.
I passed through a gateway cut in the stockade at the north extremity of the Fort, and crossing a small bridge, turned to the right, and came immediately upon a plain of sand that stretched southward to the sea, and northward perhaps two or more miles to a pine forest, and westward, with salt marsh, to the banks of Cape Fear River. I was now in front of the northwest end of the Fort, and within about 250 feet of the stockade. Here the fierce, cold wind made a rushing sweep, raising at times clouds of dust.
With the exception of a single soldier strolling near me, I was alone. I inquired of him if there were any graves in that region, of soldiers killed in the battle of the 15th January. He replied there were, and that some of them lay at a short distance from me on a slightly elevated knoll of sand in front of the Fort. Thither I repaired alone immediately where I saw perhaps thirty graves, the most of which were left without any indication of the name or identity of the person buried. Extending my vision northward, I saw several other places where there were many graves at convenient distances, but most of them without any identification.
I began to feel alarmed lest, after all my long, wearisome journey and constant anxiety and hopeful anticipations, it might be my sad lot to fail in the accomplishment of my purpose; and yet I could not delay a moment in my eager efforts. I commenced with the nearest grave to the Fort, about 250 feet northerly of the stockade. It had no indications of identity. The next grave had a small, narrow pine board erected at the head of it. I turned my back to the wind, to keep off the flying dust, and leaning over the grave and looking through my spectacles, read the following words, legibly written with a small lamp-black brush upon the board:—“Sergt Major 3d N. Y. V.—E. K. Wightman.” !!!
O, how my heart leaped with joy! No tongue nor pen can describe my feelings. Within perhaps three or four hundred feet of the spot in the parapet where Edward was killed, with the evidence before me, I could not hesitate in the belief that his body was buried there, and that I was standing beside his grave, which gave me unspeakable satisfaction. All his life came up before me, and how beloved he was by his parents and brothers and sisters, and what an interest we had felt and manifested in his welfare and happiness,—and there I stood alone and mourned and wept.