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 stood in silence looking at his remains. His whole life rushed upon my memory; his affection for father and mother and brothers and sisters and relations, his finished education, his judgment and intelligence, and the hopes he entertained, in common with all of us, that when he had honorably served out the term of his enlistment for three years, he would return to his welcome home, and quietly resume his wonted avocations in civil life; gazing upon his lifeless remains before me, the wreck of all his and our fond anticipations, and feeling that I his father was standing there alone, a stranger in a strange land, far away from my family, with no one present heartily to sympathize with me in the loss, my emotions overcame me, and for a brief time my cheeks were wet with tears. No one can conceive of the agony of my trials on that occasion.
I gave the men directions to remove him from the grave, and place him in the coffin. This was soon done. They spread out the tent-cloth with the pitch on the outside, and laid his body in the cloth, upon his back; and stretching his legs, and folding his arms over his body, and winding the cloth around him, deposited the body in the coffin, which proved to be just the right length and size for his remains. I then requested them to nail down the top of the coffin and pitch the seams on the outside with hot pitch, and then deposit the coffin in the box prepared to receive it, and nail down the top and pitch the outside seams in the same manner.
Meanwhile I mounted my horse (for I could not bear to hear the driving of a nail) and rode rapidly to Fort Lamb, and there obtained from an officer an order or permit to have the body deposited in a bomb-proof, under guard, until it should be transferred to a transport. On my return to the grave, I found the work was completed; and we went immediately and examined some of the bomb-proofs, and came to the conclusion not to deposit the box there, as it was large and very heavy, and would take from four to six men to carry it; and I determined to send it to and deposit it in a building on and near the head of the wharf in Cape Fear River, abreast of General Terry’s headquarters—where it was accordingly carried and deposited, and remained under guard during the ensuing night.
The sun was near setting. I rode to headquarters, and General Terry’s brother directed an orderly to go with me, and we rode, with great speed, to the Point, where the orderly took my horse and returned to headquarters, and I went on board the Montauk. I sat down at the table, almost completely exhausted, but after supper felt revived. Perhaps it had been to me, the most painful day that I had ever experienced. As I was very weary, I soon betook myself to my berth, and slept soundly through the night.
Friday morning the 3d February, I again went ashore at the Point, and first visited the headquarters of Capt Lamb, the Quartermaster, and was told that he was at the headquarters of General Terry. I then had to wade through the sand and marsh to General Terry’s headquarters, and was there informed that Capt Lamb had gone to the Point. I found the box in the building on the wharf, under guard.
Soon afterwards I had a long, pleasant interview with General Terry in his private room, by special invitation. I told him I must see Capt Lamb, and that it was my wish to return to New York at the earliest possible moment. He ordered me a horse, and that an orderly should go with me to the Point to see Capt Lamb; and in a short time I was galloping, with an orderly by my side, back to the Point, where we soon arrived. Capt Lamb was not there, and I had to wait for him a long time; and so I sent the orderly back to headquarters, but kept my horse for further use.
When Capt Lamb came, I told him the body was ready for transportation, and inquired of him if there was any vessel there, bound for the Port of New York. He replied, no; but the Transport North Point was lying at anchor near the Montauk, and she would sail for Fortress Monroe that afternoon or early next morning. I told him where the box was. He said the Howard would soon go from the Point up the River to the wharf, and if I were there the box could be put on board and carried by the Howard and put on board the North Point.
While we were talking, the Howard came sailing around the Point up the River, on her way to the wharf. Seeing that this was possibly the only chance in my power for expedition, I mounted my horse and ran him as fast as I could make him run, until I reached General Terry’s headquarters. Meanwhile the boat had arrived at the wharf and was lying there.
I gave up my horse, and went immediately to the wharf, and had the box put on board the Howard; and shortly afterwards we were sailing down to the Point. On our right, over on the west side of the River, lay Admiral Porter’s flagship, two or three Monitors, and about twenty gun boats, quietly in the stream. We passed the Point, and soon came to the North Point, where the box was put on board of her …
On Saturday about 12 o’clock at noon the 4th February, we sailed out of the harbor, past Fort Fisher, across the bar, and then were detained two hours, awaiting dispatches from headquarters. On their arrival we put to sea, and I bade farewell to Fort Fisher. Our transport had no cargo on board, and having no side wheels, we were liable, at any time, to become the sport of the waves. However, we sailed very well through the night; and the forenoon of Sunday, the 5th February, was extremely pleasant and refreshing.