- 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
I found that I was almost transfixed to the spot, until a reference to my watch warned me of my duty to proceed to headquarters. I made three efforts to leave the grave, and in each instance, after having walked away some distance, found myself back again, engaged in reading the inscription. At length, I started for headquarters, distant about a mile northerly from the Fort. I passed large numbers of rifle pits and breastworks, that had been hastily dug and thrown up by our forces, in their approaches to attack Fort Fisher; and soon came to camps of soldiers, and finally first to the headquarters of General Ames, and then just beyond, to the headquarters of General Terry, which were situated on a sandy soil, somewhat elevated above, and a few rods easterly of the easterly side of Cape Fear River.
My first object was to get an introduction to General Terry. I went to his headquarters and found he was absent, but would return soon. Meanwhile I had a conversation with his chief clerk, and he became interested in my behalf. After a time General Terry came in, and at my request I was introduced to him. He shook hands and treated me in a gentlemanly manner. But I felt that I must enlist his sympathy.
“General,” said I, “were you not formerly a practicing lawyer in New Haven, Connt, and a clerk of Court?” “I was,” said he. “Well,” I continued, “I am a practicing lawyer in New York City; but I once resided, near five years, in New Haven, while I was at Yale College, and studying law, and I subsequently practiced law in Connecticut, until I removed to New York City in 1843.”
“Is this,” said the General, “Stillman K. Wightman?” I replied, “It is.” “Give us your hand,” said he. “How are you. I have, a long time, known you well by reputation. Anything that I can do for you, shall be done with the greatest pleasure.” Whereupon orders were forthwith given to me, directed to General Ames, to afford me all the facility in his power, in the removal of the body of my son, and to the Chief Quartermaster, Capt Lamb, to furnish me with every facility for the removal of the body by government transport.
With these orders I proceeded to the headquarters of General Ames, presented my authority, and made known my wishes. He treated me very kindly, and sent for the Surgeon general Dr. Washburn, and other officers, who soon appeared, and thereupon we held a conversation. I first made a brief statement when and where I had been informed Edward was killed, and that I believed I had found his grave; and spoke of my desire to procure his remains and take them home with me. Surgeon Washburn enquired if I had a lead coffin. I replied no, it was simply made of pine, and was all I could obtain at Morehead City.
“I think,” said he, “it is too late for you now to take up the body and carry it away with only a pine coffin; and my advice to you would be to abandon the idea for the present. At some future time, you might perhaps send a lead coffin, eight or ten months hence, and obtain the remains of your son.” A chaplain of a regiment was there, and he approved of the Surgeon’s views, as did others present. I felt that it was an important moment with me; and if I could not get their approval, I would probably fail in the whole object of my journey. Thoughts whirled through my mind with great rapidity, during which time not a word was spoken by anyone.
At length I broke silence, and addressing myself to General Ames, “General,” said I, “a long and tedious journey from New York City I have just performed to this place, to obtain the body of my son. I have the affections and feelings of a kind father. I have left at home his mother and several brothers and sisters, all of whom loved Edward; and if I were to return home without his remains, when they are evidently so near within my reach, it would be a sad disappointment to all of us. It has been a never-failing rule with me hitherto, never to abandon a thing I have undertaken, until it is accomplished, provided it be an object worth pursuing. This is an object eminently worthy of my utmost efforts, and I must say, without intending to give offence, that if it be not counter to God’s will, I will never leave Federal Point without taking the body of Edward with me.”
Here another pause ensued. “Well,” said the General, “I will cheerfully aid you all I can; but we are as yet in a very unsettled condition.” Others present proffered their services. “It is possible,” said Surgeon Washburn, “if the body were deposited in the coffin, and the residue of the space filled with salt and rosin, you might be able to carry the remains north in tolerable safety at this season of the year.” Having arrived at this favorable point, I did not deem it advisable to press the matter further for that day; and so I bade them good afternoon.
The night was approaching and I was three miles from the Point, and was obliged to be there about sunset, or I might fail to get them to send me a boat from the Montauk, where I was forced to go and stay nights, as there was neither food nor lodging of any kind for me on shore. So I commenced and waded through quicksands and salt marsh to the Point, where, in about a half an hour afterwards, they sent me a boat, and took me on board the Montauk. I had had no food since morning; my excitement had been very great, and my frame was weary. After supper I sat awhile, and then went to the after cabin, where, after thanking the Lord for His mercy and goodness to me, and praying for the success of my enterprise, if consistent with His will, I lay down in my berth and slept soundly and sweetly through the night.