Wednesday, June 10, 2015

“This is Not the Way We Bury Folks at Home”: Killed in the West Woods, Part 3.

This is the third and final part of my three-part series. It describes the death and burial of the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts, in particular, Private Henry W. Ainsworth, a twenty-five-year-old clerk from Millbury, Massachusetts. To one soldier, Ainsworth’s burial was unforgettable.

Of all the units that suffered with Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division in the West Woods, the 15th Massachusetts endured the heaviest losses. When the regiment emerged from the fighting, it counted up a loss of 318 officers and men (out of 582), the highest numeric loss of any unit that served in the division. Similar to the other regiments in the division, the 15th Massachusetts had to leave most of its dead on the field. Further, the regiment could not recover its wounded men, who, lacking proper medical attention, soon died. As the survivors huddled around their campfires just west of Antietam Creek, they wondered what had become of their friends. Were they among the nerveless dead, or were they still alive—and suffering—trapped in the no-man’s-land between the lines?

Such ominous thoughts troubled the mind of Private Roland Bowen, Company B, who went strolling through the camp to see if his friend, Private Henry W. Ainsworth, had survived the fighting. On the night of September 17, Bowen journeyed to the bivouac of Company H and began asking around, but, as he wrote, “all any one knew of him was that when we had the order to fall back he was not hurt but started back with the rest.” Figuring that Ainsworth had merely gotten lost during the retreat, Bowen held out hope that his friend would make his appearance by morning.

However, by the evening of September 18, Ainsworth had still not appeared. Bowen grew worried. “Now the question arose,” he wrote, “is he Killed, is he Wounded, or is he Lost?” The possibilities tumbled over and over in Bowen’s mind. Writing down his thoughts, Bowen explained: “Ah, it can’t be the latter for he would have come back before now. My only hope was that he might be wounded. I could not believe he was Dead. Yet in order to believe that, I must know it.”

Soon, Bowen did know it, but the bad news arrived much later than he wanted. It came at 10 o’clock, September 19. A portion of the 15th Massachusetts’ burial party returned to camp, informing Bowen that they had found Ainsworth lying among some rocks, dead. The burial party explained that Ainsworth had been dead only a few hours when they found him, and they deduced this because Ainsworth’s body had barely decomposed. The announcement hit Bowen like a thunderclap; he did not want to believe that Ainsworth had been alive the entire time, lying alone in the woods, passing away in agony two days after the battle. Indeed, when Bowen wrote to Ainsworth’s father, Elam, telling him about the discovery of his son’s corpse, he discredited the burial party’s theory. Henry Ainsworth could not have been dead for only a short while, Bowen explained, citing several far-fetched reasons for his belief. Bowen wanted to believe that Ainsworth had died within twenty-four hours of the engagement.

In any event, Bowen rushed to the Locher cabin, where the burial party of the 15th Massachusetts had completed its work. Bowen accosted the leader of the burial detail, Lieutenant Samuel J. Fletcher, asking to see Ainsworth’s corpse and to receive permission to bury it separately. Fletcher replied that it could not be done, as he had just covered the corpses with dirt. Bowen took a long look at the gravesite and the scene filled him with disgust. In writing to Elam Ainsworth, Bowen described what he saw:

Perhaps you don’t know how we bury the dead. Let me tell you about this particular trench and it will suffice for the whole. The trench in w[h]ich Henry is buried is situated near a log cabin just out side the garden fence. I believe its on the West side. The trench was 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 3 feet deep. The corp[s]es were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. are put together. Co. H was buried first in the u[p]per end of the trench next [to] the woods. They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep. Henry is the third corpes from the upper end on the top tier next to the woods. Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home. I am sorry, but I was too late to have it different. Then there is a board put up at each end of the trench with the simple inscription, ‘15th Mass. buried here.’ There is 39 men in the trench with Henry.

As he walked away, the sight of the burial trench seared itself into Bowen’s memory. Bowen wrote that he felt sure he could identify the spot “a Thousand years hence as well as [I can] to day.” It nearly killed Bowen to think of his friend, Henry Ainsworth, had been buried near a garden stacked together with other corpses, with no casket, no gravestone, and no funeral service. It was a far cry from home.

Pvt. Roland Bowen served in the 15th Massachusetts. Unable to bury his friend, Henry W. Ainsworth, he at least wrote Ainsworth's father, describing his son's resting place.

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