Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Died as a Soldier Should Die"

Many years ago, I worked as a ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. I held plenty of responsibilities, not the least of which involved leading tours on the battlefield. During my first summer, I had to research and prepare four programs. One of them was a forty-minute guided walking tour of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. My program addressed the aftermath of the battle, the burial of the Union dead, and the meaning of Lincoln’s dedicatory remarks—things that I believed all visitors ought to learn.

One aspect of my tour made it especially memorable (to me, anyway). At the end of it, I halted the tour at the gravesite of a New York soldier: eighteen-year-old Sergeant William H. Ambler, Company D, 57th New York. During the course of my research, I had found a few documents that described Ambler’s death. I closed the program by reading some lines to the crowd. I’d like to share some of them here.

This article appeared in South Salem New York’s local newspaper:

South Salem—In Memoriam.
Among the slain at the battle of Gettysburg was Wm. AMBLER, of the 57th. Regt., N.Y.S.V., a young man from this place. He was killed by the explosion of a shell, a piece going through his body and cutting him nearly in two. He was among the first of the three years’ men who responded to their country’s call and for two years has served his country most faithfully. Youth, though he was—being but eighteen at the time of his death—he sought the battle-field from no enthusiastic desire of adventure, but because he felt that duty called him, and manfully and courageously did he discharge the obligations devolving upon him as a soldier. The frequent letters he wrote to his widowed mother are unmistakable evidences that he never regretted the path he had chosen; they are characterized by a spirit of lofty patriotism and devotion to the cause of liberty and the right. He was in nearly all of the hard fought battles in which the Potomac army has been engaged, and once only having been wounded. But his battles are over. On the bloody field of Gettysburg death claimed the young hero as his victim, and amid the thousands that fell on those terrible days none died a truer soldier than he. Sleep brave boy in thy early but honored grave! The roar of cannon shall not disturb thee more, and drum and trumpet tone will roll unheeded above thy resting place, for thou sleepest ‘the sleep that knows no waking.’

But the night dew that falls though in silence it weeps,
Shall brighten with verdure the grave where he sleeps;
And the tear that we shed though in silence it rolls,
Shall long keep his memory green in our souls.

C. F.


This letter—which I always read—was addressed to Mary Ann Timson Ambler, William’s mother:

Mrs. Ambler,

It is with most painful feelings, that I inform you of the death of our beloved Willie. He was killed instantly at the battle of Gettysburg by a solid shot entering his right shoulder and passing through his left side. He was gallantly performing his duty & died as a soldier should die, beloved by those in command over him & by those he commanded. He was always prompt to do his duty & although he enlisted as a private, he had risen to fill the position of a Sergeant & was in a fair way of promotion. His company & officers sympathize with you in your loss and will always remember Willie as a true & fine soldier in the support of our glorious country. It will be a matter of great satisfaction to you, to know, that we took possession of his body and buried him in a soldier’s grave in the presence of his cousin Lieutenant Meade of the 4th Michigan Vols. Willie had some money in his possession, but before we recovered his body, the enemy had taken it from his pockets. His watch &c. I delivered to Lieutenant Meade, who will see that you get them. I would have written before, but this is the first opportunity that has offered. As soon as we reach camp, I shall arrange matters so that you can get pay, bounty, & pension. Hoping that you will meet your loss with Christian resignation & fortitude & that you may feel that Willie died in a good cause while protecting the stars and stripes.

Your Obedient Servant, O.F. Middleton, Lieutenant commanding, 57th Regt. N.Y.V.


I worked at Gettysburg for eight summers. In the end, I’m not sure how many tours of the cemetery I ended up leading, but that number certainly crested 100. In each one, Sergeant Ambler’s story made a prominent appearance. Often, I think back to Memorial Day weekend, when each gravesite had a flag to adorn it. I liked those days best.
I imagine that they are all adorned that way right now.

(Here is Sergeant Ambler's grave, New York Section, Row E, Number 91.)
(I've found only two photographs of Ambler. This one is the one most often reprinted.)
(Here's me--on the far right--leading a tour to a group of GNMP visitors on a rainy summer morning.)