- 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
Thus equipped, we moved forward, and arriving at General Ames’ headquarters, we loaded in the coffin, and box, and tent-cloth, and rosin, and pitch, and started for Edward’s grave. On the way I conversed freely with one of the men, a Lieutenant, who was the most intelligent, and did the most important part of the work. He said his father was an undertaker.
Having arrived at the grave, we selected a spot about five feet below the top of the knoll, just west of where Edward was buried; and then while they were digging a hollow place and lining it with large stones, and procuring pine wood for a fire, I rode around into the rear of the Fort, and there I found an old iron pot partially broken, and a bit of an old iron sauce pan, which we carried to the place; and putting on fuel upon the stones and starting a fire and fixing the pot thereon, we threw in a plenty of pitch, with a little rosin, and when it was boiling hot, we put it on with an old brush and swab, and covered the inside and top board of the coffin, so that it appeared to be air tight. We pitched the inside and top of the box in the same manner—always filling the cracks and seams of box and coffin. We then covered one side of the tent-cloth with pitch, so that it appeared water tight.
We then repaired to the grave, and the men began to dig. By this time, including straggling soldiers, there were about twenty standing around the grave. I stood at the foot, anxiously watching every particle of sand that was removed. When they had dug down about four feet, they came to his body. They carefully removed the sand.
He was lying partly on his back and partly on his right side, with his face inclining toward the East. He was buried in his military dress, just as he appeared when he was shot on the parapet. The collar, or rather cape, of his coat had been drawn up, and each end of it folded over his face. When they came to move aside the collar, or cape, revealing his countenance, I was sadly struck with the sight. His face was white and very much swollen; his eyes had evidently been in some way injured, his chin dropped down very low, and his upper teeth were very prominent. However, his forehead and eyebrows and hair and ears were very natural, his hands were unmistakable, and his limbs,—all were evidently his remains. In addition to this, he had on his left shoulder the badge of Sergt. Major.
I saw the holes made by the ball that was the cause of his death. It had passed through the muscles of his right arm, about equidistant between the shoulder and elbow, and entered his right breast, perhaps five inches below the collar bone. He had evidently been shot while fighting with his sword in his right hand, by a minie ball, from the rifle of a sharpshooter. He was shot while on the southeast verge of the top of the first mound at the northeast extremity of the Fort at about five o’clock in the afternoon. His legs gave way under him, and he dropped down where he was shot. He had marched with his Regiment across the bridge about four o’clock in the afternoon, when they climbed up around and on the top of the mound and fought there, often hand to hand with the enemy until he was killed. He was the fifth man that first entered the Fort.
The morning after the battle, Capt John Knowles, his tent mate, and who was near him on the same mound when he fell, went and found Edward’s body lying under three other dead bodies on the top of the mound in the same spot where he was shot, with his pockets turned inside out and his watch stolen. Capt Knowles removed his body from the mound which was covered with the dead, and buried it where I found it. As he lay in the grave, his left arm was lying across his body, and his right arm was extended at an angle of forty five degrees from his body, with the hand open and fingers curved inward. His left knee and left foot rested upon his right knee and right foot, his legs being akimbo and drawn up toward his body. He had his military shoes on; otherwise, he had no blanket or covering other than his ordinary military dress. The grave had evidently been dug about five feet in length and about four feet in depth. I still stood at the foot of the grave, and looking at everything critically, wishing to satisfy myself entirely that it was, beyond a doubt, the body of Edward.
Observing a manifest disposition to proceed in the removal, I requested the men to delay a short time, as it was my desire to become first fully convinced of his identity.
“And ye can have no doubt about that,” said a rough son of Erin, “for sure now he greatly resembles ye.”
On some other occasion, such an Irish bull might have provoked a smile in me; but it passed unheeded.
Edward had been in the two expeditions to Fort Fisher. The first had occupied near 24 days, and he had written us that he had lost flesh. The second, though of shorter duration, was accompanied with storms and high winds. He had had no rest, was sea sick, and had taken a severe cold; yet when he landed with the rest of the forces on the 13th January, he was in comfortable health. He was evidently thin in flesh when he was killed. He had been about two and a half years in the service, and had been in fifteen battles, some of them very severe engagements.