In August 1861, William Wintersteen left his widowed mother in New Jersey and made his way to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he enlisted in the 2nd New York Cavalry. [Originally envisioned as a regiment of U.S. Regular Cavalry, several companies came from states other than New York]. An officer officially mustered Wintersteen, (aka Winterstein and Winterstean) on August 20, two months to the day before he died of typhoid fever. Col. Jared Mansfield Davies issued the following Special Order to the regiment the day after the young soldier died.
“The colonel commanding the regiment announces with regret the death of private William Winterstein of Company K. He died in the service of his country and sacrificed his life for the cause of the Union equally with those who fall amid the din of battle. The remains are to be forwarded to his friends by the liberality of his comrades of the company, and the generous advance of the funds by their Captain. Though this method of establishing fellowship may not generally be practicable, the spirit from which it arose is very commendable & as such should [actuate] good soldiers…”
William’s mother, Julia, had already lost two husbands; William’s father had died in 1845 and her second husband in 1857. William may have been her sole means of support, though she later received a pension of $8 per month.
In December, Cpl. Hugh Scott and Pvt. Owen Martin died of disease, and, as he had done previously, Colonel Davies announced their passing by means of a special order, telling their comrades, “The Col. commanding wishes to remind the officers and soldiers of the regiment that although they fell by disease and not by the hand of the enemy, they are not less to be regretted or their memories less respected, than their more fortunate companions who are to sustain the honor of the regiment and our flag on the field of battle.”
Days later, Pvt. Nathan Hosford died at a hospital in Washington and, again, Davies honored his memory with a special order. Describing Hosford as “a remarkably faithful and amiable young man, [who] possessed the confidence and esteem of his officers, and the respect and affection of his comrades,” Davies explained, that though he had died of disease, Hosford “is as much a martyr in the great cause of Constitutional Government as though he fell on the field of battle. His memory will be cherished by his comrades and his example of cheerful obedience to authority [will] long be felt by them.”
William Wintersteen had not been the first man in the regiment to die. Surviving records suggest he was the sixth; three men had died in a railroad accident in early September, one had died of disease, and a fifth man had died of an unstated accident earlier in October. That Colonel Davies had honored the service of Wintersteen, Scott, Martin and Hosford by means of a regimental order suggests he had done the same for the five men who had preceded them in death, though surviving regimental records do not include such orders. As the death toll continued to grow, however, Davies, consumed with the task of training and equipping his men, soon ended his practice of honoring his fallen soldiers in official orders. Though his men had yet to hear their first shot fired in anger, death had already become rather common place.
The staggering death tolls which soon decimated regiments like the 2nd New York left the men hardened and cynical in a general sense but each man, no matter how hardened, still felt the loss of close friends and messmates. Armies generally abandoned battlefields quickly, leaving the grim reminders behind. The long encampment of the Southern army around Manassas and Centreville in 1861-62 proved one exception.
Months later, Union troops, most of whom had never been in battle, reestablished positions around Centreville, and the fields at Manassas and Chantilly became curiosities. On Christmas Day, soldiers from the 12th Vermont Infantry visited the Chantilly battlefield. “Our object was two-fold,” one soldier explained, “partly to gratify our curiosity and partly for the humane purpose of caring for the still unburied dead.” Traversing the field, the men quickly assumed the task of providing “such burial as our means afforded.” Pausing by the exposed skeleton of an unknown soldier, the untested men pondered his death, believing he had died “alone and unhonored.” Other men, viewing remains “unburied & uncared for,” must have wondered if they might soon earn a similar fate.
On June 17, 1863, most of the veterans of Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s Cavalry Corps passed through the Manassas battlefield. The men marched with no real expectation of battle, though within hours many of them lay dead or wounded just a few miles away, near the small town of Aldie. Passing across the plains of Manassas, a trooper in the 1st Maine callously retrieved a skull from the field “upon which was cut…J.D.D. July 24, 61.” Observing the trooper, a comrade wondered, “Is it many steps from that to making drinking horns of them, or drumsticks of human shinbones?”
By the end of the day, the 1st Maine Cavalry had helped to turn near defeat into a hard-won victory, losing at least 30 men in the process, including Col. Calvin Douty. Just after the fight at Brandy Station, an officer had said of Douty, “The Colonel of a regiment gives character to it; our regiment has character.” Ten days after his death, his family and “an immense crowd of friends” laid Douty to rest in Dover, Maine. A journalist explained, “Immediately after dinner all the roads leading to the village were thronged with teams of every conceivable style, filled with persons anxious to testify their respect to his memory. Hundreds of teams were in the streets, and we believe we speak within bounds when we say that from three to four thousand people were present. One eulogist said of Douty, “His was no halfway devotion. He loved his country – he loved his flag – and was willing to lay down all, home, friends, and even life itself, for liberty…He has quitted the service of his government – he has entered the service of his God… his memory would live in the hearts of his neighbors, and history would not fail to do justice to Colonel Douty, a patriot, and a noble, brave and gallant officer.”
Earlier in the fighting, Lieut. Daniel Whitaker, 2nd New York Cavalry, had fallen to a Southern bullet. Daniel and his brother Edward, both lieutenants in the regiment, came from a broken home and the brothers had only re-connected with their father the previous November, when Daniel had told him, “I shall never leave the army as long as my services are needed and if I should fall in battle you may rest assured that I counted the cost when I enlisted and prepared myself for any fate.” Years later, a trooper in the regiment recalled, “That night was a rather blue time for us. Lt. Whitaker a fine officer of my regiment was among the killed…Our men induced a wheelwright in the village to work that night making coffins for some of the officers who had been killed.” Edward escorted his brother’s remains home, arriving in Hartford, Connecticut on June 21, and laid his brother to rest in Ashford three days later. According to one scribe, “There were no military present, except a few disabled soldiers; but the people flocked in, in crowds, from the country ten miles round, to pay the last sad tribute of respect to a brave and honored soldier.”
A trooper in the 2nd New York wrote to his sister regarding the men in the regiment who died at Aldie, including William Dodge, who had lingered through the night. “He lived 14 hours after he was shot the ball went in his right breast and came out alongside his back bone and another flesh wound in his thigh he thought a great deal of me, and George Hadley and myself carried him off of the field and stayed with him until he died and then we took him to a church yard and buried him decent. We cut his name company and regiment and the date of his death on a board and placed it at the head of his grave.” Today, William Dodge rests in Arlington Cemetery.
Most of the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers who fell in the fighting received a soldier’s burial on the field; a shallow grave and a few inches of dirt. Comrades and burial details placed some in solitary graves, others went to their rest in twos and threes and others in long trenches. Some received hastily scratched markers bearing their name and unit, though these likely fell victim to the elements rather quickly. The slowly moldering remains of dozens of dead horses may have proved a more lasting memorial to the men who fell at Aldie.
Two days later, and possibly while listening to the guns at Middleburg, Lieut. Col. Roswell Farnham, 12th Vermont Infantry, wrote, “How soon the dead are forgotten! At home they are forgotten soon enough, even with every effort to preserve their memory, but here in war men die & are buried where they fall & no one remembers them,” he lamented. “There is a grave just back of my tent, not ten feet from it. No one knows whom it is. There is no head board – nothing of the kind, just two sticks stuck into the ground.” Nearby, a headstone marked the grave of a soldier named Larkin, who had died on August 8, 1861. “On battle fields men are not buried,” he explained. Rather, “they are simply covered with earth where they fall… It is horrible to think of & I would not write these things, but I know that there are thousands at home who know nothing about the horrors of war.”
As Colonel Farnham put pen to paper at his camp near Union Mills, men were dying at Middleburg, 23 miles to the northwest. In the key charge at the south end of the field, a Southern bullet felled Lieut. George Kimball, 1st Maine Cavalry. A graduate of Bowdoin College, the 28-year-old lawyer had just received a captain’s commission a few days before his death. His actions not only helped turn the battle in favor of the Union but also exemplified the underappreciated role played by young company officers in the rise of the Union cavalry that summer. His remains reached Gardiner, Maine on June 24 and his funeral followed three days later. Mourners, including Gov. Abner Coburn, heard a eulogist remember Kimball as “a young man of fine talents, highly beloved by his men, and whose heart and soul was in the cause to which his life was made a noble sacrifice.”
The 1st Maine lost at least 35 men in the fight at Middleburg, including three non-commissioned officers killed, Sgts. David Bryant and Justin Swett and Cpl. Charles Johnson. Their commanding officer, Lieut. Charles Ford, may have assumed the painful task of writing to the families of all the men in his command who died at Middleburg, though his letter to Sergeant Swett’s father is the only such letter yet located.
“It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son Sergt. Justin [L.] Swett of my company. He fell mortally wounded while fighting [brutally] at the head of the company at the battle of Middleburg on the 19th inst. It was a most desperate affair and I only came out of the charge with six men left.
I received the body of your son and had him buried with two other of my non-commissioned officers in a beautiful spot, in a field under a chestnut tree.
I saved his money, memorandum book & c which I send with this to you as the last testament of respect which I can pay to him.
Poor fellow, he has died the soldier’s noblest death, while fighting at the head of his company, and I feel to mourn his loss very deeply, for he was one of the bravest of the brave, and his place will not be filled again in the company as he filled it.
He was greatly endeared to all the company and none enjoyed a better reputation in the whole Regt. than him, but it has pleased God in his wisdom to take him home and let us bow meekly to his will, hoping and praying that he is far better off than while here.
Any further information which you would like in regard to him or his effects I shall be most pleased to give you
With much respect
I remain very sincerely yours”
A memorial stone in a cemetery in Westbrook, Maine, honors Sergeant Swett and the other men of the regiment who died at Aldie, Middleburg or Upperville.
Pvt. Charles Marr, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, also died at Middleburg. The Pennsylvanians drew the unenviable task of clearing a broad, open farm field, under rifle fire from North Carolinians posted in the woods where Kimball died moments later. Advancing in a long, dismounted skirmish line, the Pennsylvanians lost at least 15 men, including Marr, who fell with a bullet to his head. After the battle, several of his comrades had a rude coffin made for “Marr and buried him as decently as we could in the Sharon cemetery at Middleburg and marked his grave with name & regiment.” Today, Marr rests in Arlington Cemetery.
When the fighting resumed on the 21st, the forces moved quickly from position to position as the Confederates fell back through the morning and early afternoon. Soldiers who died likely remained on the field until the following day, when Pleasonton fell back over the same fields. By the afternoon of the 22nd, Southern forces had reclaimed their former positions and buried their own dead.
As General Stuart fell back from Cromwell’s Run to Goose Creek, he ordered Col. John Black, 1st South Carolina Cavalry to fight a delaying action at Rector’s Crossroads, supported by Capt. Marcellus Moorman’s Lynchburg Artillery. Within moments, Moorman’s gunners found themselves facing a hail of counter-battery from Union artillery. One round tore John T. Edmundson “to pieces,” and severed the lower portion of Charles Saunders’ leg. In the hasty retreat which followed the brief, but furious, engagement, their battery-mates left the dismembered remains of Edmundson on the field but carried Saunders back to Upperville, where he died a couple of hours later. Just 19 years of age, Saunders had been with the battery for a year. He died attended by several “kind ladies,” a local Baptist minister and his servant, a freed Black named John. Mourners later remembered Charles as, “Blameless in life, pure in heart, gentle and affectionate in disposition – yet brave and chivalrous in the discharge of duty, he was loved by all.” During a visit from his mother the previous year, Charles had reportedly declared, “He would not give up his place in the army for ten thousand dollars.”
The following day, assisted by the minister, his comrades obtained an “elegant coffin,” and returned Charles to his family. Later in the day, men from the battery buried John Edmundson where he died and marked his grave with a boulder, on which they cut his initials. Edmundson remains in the field where he fell, with his final resting place marked by the boulder and a modern plaque.
Cpl. John West, 20th Maine Infantry, probably died near the Goose Creek Bridge after being struck “by a solid shot, or unexploded shell.” The next day Capt. Ellis Spear and several squad mates buried the 38-year-old father of two young girls “near the stream above the stone bridge on Goose Creek.” Corporal West now rests in a cemetery in Waldoboro, Maine.
As the fighting progressed along the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike, General John Buford led his 1st Division in a flanking march to the north. Continually frustrated by high water, rocky terrain, narrow roads and stone fences, Buford soon found himself battling a tenacious Southern rear-guard. During the skirmishing, a Southern bullet struck down Pvt. Hanson Town, 8th Illinois Cavalry. Just after his death, a letter arrived for Town from his sister, Jane Welch. 1st Sgt. Henry Humphrey (later captain and whose name also appears as Harvey) wrote the following note to Mrs. Welch.
“Your letter of June 14th came too late to be read by your brave and noble brother Hanson, whose heart on the 21st was pierced by a rifle ball aimed by the enemies of our country and our common foe. He is among the honored dead who left their home, friends and all comforts of life to suffer the hardships and privations of a soldier’s life for the sake of his country in this hour of need.
He fell facing the foe and in the cause of God and the whole civilized world that of crushing out this inhuman rebellion against the best government ever established by man and that of reestablishing the respect and honor of our dear old flag. Torn from the blackened walls of [Sumter] by rebel hands and by rebel feet trampled in the dust. Could there be a nobler cause in which a man could die? No. All honor the brave that are gone. I assure you that you and all his friends have the full sympathy of the whole company. We lose in him a generous and noble-hearted [comrade] and miss him [badly].
I have undertaken the duty of informing you of his death. Please accept this and forgive me if I have [badly] performed my painful task.” Hanson Town rests today in a cemetery in Franklin, Vermont.
Buford finally closed on the two Southern brigades led by Gen. William Jones and Col. John Chambliss in the farm fields of George Ayre and Nathaniel Thomas just north of Upperville. In a furious action, which may have lasted no more than 30 minutes, at least 166 men became casualties. The 7th Virginia suffered the second highest regimental loss with 20 men killed, wounded or captured, including Lieut. William Walter Buck and Pvt. Joseph Warren Brent.
Lieutenant Buck had been riding with another officer during the retreat, discussing how homesick both men felt. As they bantered back and forth, the two men discussed their chances of receiving a wound just severe enough to allow them to return home. As the battle erupted ahead of them, both men returned to their regiments. Moments later, Buck fell with a mortal wound to his throat. Before the day passed, rumors of the fight at Upperville had reached Walter’s family near Front Royal. The following day, a trooper brought a letter from Walter’s cousin, Capt. Thomas Horace Buck, informing the family of Walter’s death. His father set out for the battlefield immediately and returned with Walter’s body the next morning. Sgt. William Cloud, another cousin and a member of Walter’s company, accompanied his lieutenant home. Walter’s death devastated his family, especially his sister, Lucy. Within hours, friends and extended family thronged the Buck home to pay their respects and condolences. According to Lucy, “the mountain people” had come to regard Walter “as a kind of Sir William Wallace – his adventures and associations with them last summer when scouting endeared him to them so much.” After laying him in his grave, Lucy wrote, “Dear Walter – a lonely slumber will be your’s tonight – all with the silent dead, but you will not heed…Your head does not ache as mine does now and you have not dreary, heavy sorrow at your heart.”
Pvt. Joseph Warren Brent, 7th Virginia, probably died within yards, if not feet, of Lieutenant Buck. Like Buck, Warren had earned the respect of his officers and his peers. He had died “at the head of his men,” and had refused to surrender when “hemmed in so there was no escape.” He had been shot three times before the fatal bullet struck him in the chest. Lieut. Colonel Thomas Marshall, commanding the regiment, honored both Buck and Brent in his official report of the fight, terming them “noble spirits.” Devoting an entire paragraph to their memory and service, Marshall wrote, “Few more gallant have yielded up their spirits on the gory field since the opening of the war. Lieutenant Buck was bright, intelligent, and full of zeal in the service of his country… The manly qualities of Private Brent are well illustrated by his words of encouragement to his fellows at the battle of Beverly Ford – ‘Come on, boys; it is better to die a brave man than live a coward.’” Fighting at the head of the column at Upperville, Brent had, according to Marshall earned the respect of his enemies as “the bravest rebel they had ever met.”
After the war, the Union Quartermaster Department made a concerted effort to recover the bodies from the scattered fields. Families claimed some of the remains, others were moved to national cemeteries. Some now reside in local cemeteries, including Sharon Cemetery in Middleburg and Ivy Hill Cemetery in Upperville. Others almost certainly remain where they fell, the silent sentinels of the Loudoun Valley.
Please remember and honor all our fallen soldiers and all our veterans this Memorial Day.
Documents from the National Archives
Norman Ball Diary, Connecticut Historical Society
Roswell Farnham Papers, Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont
Walcott Mead Letters, Vermont Historical Society
Isaac Ressler Diary, Civil War Times Illustrated Collection, USAHEC
Nathan Webb Diary, William Clements Library, University of Michigan
Works Project Administration Records, Fauquier Library
Bangor Daily Whig & Courier
Hartford Daily Courant
Richmond Times Dispatch
St. Albans Daily Messenger
The Official Records
Richard Armstrong, 7th Virginia Cavalry
William P. Buck, editor, Sad Earth, Sweet Heaven, The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck During the War Between the States
Henry Meyer, Civil War Experiences under Bayard, Gregg, Kilpatrick, Custer, Raulston, and Newberry
Robert H. Moore, II, Chew’s Ashby, Shoemaker’s Lynchburg and the Newtown Artillery
John J. Shoemaker, Shoemaker’s Battery, Stuart Horse Artillery
Abbott Spear, co-editor, The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear
Donald Wickman, editor, Letters to Vermont from Her Civil War Soldier Correspondents to the Home Press