Friday, July 17, 2015

Swallowed Whole: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 4

For the past three posts, we’ve heard from survivors who belonged to the unfortunate 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, the regiment captured at the Battle of the Wilderness. This last post will be told by one of the officers who avoided capture (at least for a time).

On May 5, 1864, Second Lieutenant William H. Dieffenbach, a 24-year-old machinist from Perry County, found himself in a tight situation. Dieffenbach commanded Company B, the company deployed on skirmish duty. During the confusing engagement near the Permelia Higgerson farm, Dieffenbach’s skirmishers became separated from the rest of the brigade. As the battle heated up, Col. William McCandless charged forward with the 2nd, 7th, and 11th Reserves, but before Dieffenbach’s skirmishers could catch up with the line-of-battle, a Confederate unit interposed between them and the rest of the brigade. The 2nd and 11th Reserves collapsed and broke for the rear. Those regiments cut their way out of the trap, but in retreating, they left the 7th Reserves surrounded. Dieffenbach’s men were nearly caught as well. As Dieffenbach told it, “I tried to rally the battalion, but it was no use. About 11 of my men were lost before I got out of the Wilderness, which piece of strategy I accomplished about 4 PM after some of the gayest maneuvering ever heard of in this army.”

That evening, as the Union 5th Corps reformed west of the Lacy House, Lieutenant Dieffenbach called the roll; he discovered that only 44 men from his regiment were present and accounted for. Some of these men belonged to Company B, but a few others had been with the main body of the 7th Reserves and fled when the regiment surrendered. In any event, the enlisted men pointed out that Dieffenbach was now the only surviving officer. The small battalion looked quite pathetic when McCandless called it into line the next day, yet the band of survivors gamely stuck to the mission at hand, to battle the Confederates until they surrendered. Although 86% of the regiment was now captured, Dieffenbach’s men fought every day from May 6 to May 13. Writing to his uncle, Dieffenbach reported, “For ten days we had been under fire during the day, and either under fire or marching at night. I lost eight gallant boys wounded out of the few I brought out of the first engagement, and as for myself, I was completely ‘played out’.”

Lieutenant Dieffenbach commanded the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves for eleven days. On May 16, Captain Samuel B. King, an officer who had been on recruiting duty, arrived with a handful of men. By virtue of seniority, King assumed command of what was left of the regiment. Dieffenbach was glad when it happened: “I tell you, I was pleased to see him come, for I am really tired of being Colonel, Quartermaster, Doctor, and everything else myself.” Later on, two other officers arrived, both of them having fled the Confederate provost guards. Bravely, they swam the Rappahannock River below Fredericksburg to make their escape. This brought the officer contingent in the 7th Reserves up to four.

The loss of his regiment and the rigors of the Overland Campaign forced Dieffenbach to question the tactics of the general-in-chief. Dieffenbach lamented, “For my part I am tired, and want rest. I approve of Gen’l Grant quelling the rebellion this summer, but he has been quelling it entirely too fast for me during the last two weeks. I would rather he take several bites at the cherry than try to swallow it whole.”

Thirteen days after writing those lines, on May 30, Dieffenbach was captured at the Battle of Bethesda Church. As it turned out, he ended up confined at Camp Oglethorpe, reunited with the other officers from the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, those who had been captured twenty-five days earlier.

If only Dieffenbach had managed to last one day longer. On May 31, Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren read farewell orders to the division, and on June 3, it left the front lines. Dieffenbach was captured in the 7th Reserves’ very last battle.

On June 16, the 7th Reserves returned to Philadelphia for muster out. It numbered only 53 officers and men.

The exact number of 7th Reserve soldiers who died in prison is unknown. As stated earlier, 273 officers and men were captured on May 5. Andersonville prison claimed the lives of 67 of those men, but 135 others died of non-battle causes. Presumably, many of those men died inside Florence Stockade or other various other prison pens that held members of the regiment. If so, incarceration may have killed 49% of the number captured on May 5.

Dieffenbach worried that Grant had tried to do too much, trying to swallow the rebellion whole. In the process, the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves got swallowed whole instead.
This image depicts Company F, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry. The officer in front is probably LeGrand Speece, who was captured on May 5, 1864.
This is Company H, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry. Lieutenant Jacob Heffelfinger can be seen standing in front holding his sword.
Although there is some debate about this image (some authors contend that it is the 96th Pennsylvania), this is most likely an image of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, taken in the winter of 1863.

This is Lieutenant William H. Dieffenbach, who commanded the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry for 11 days after the entire field, line, and staff, were captured on May 5.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

“Hell Will Have Swallowed Hell”: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 3

In the last two posts, I profiled the prison experiences of two enlisted men from the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. In this post, I intend to follow the experiences of an officer. Unlike the enlisted ranks, this man experienced an easier time in captivity, and even witnessed several escape attempts.

Lieutenant Jacob Heffelfinger was a 24-year-old teacher from Cumberland County. Interestingly, he had been captured twice already. He had been wounded at Gaines Mill and Fredericksburg, and both times, the Confederates overran the position where he fell. On May 5, 1864, Heffelfinger was among the contingent from the 7th Reserves that surrendered to the 61st Georgia. On May 8, three days after his third capture, Heffelfinger wrote in his diary, comparing his three prison experiences: “This is a blue day to me. Although this is my third imprisonment, yet it seems to me that I have never realized untill now, what it is to be a prisoner. Before I was wounded and disabled—felt like a useless thing picked up by the rebels—a burden instead of a prize. But now it is mortifying to ones feelings in the extreme—hearty, strong, disarmed and guarded by the rebels.”

Unlike his previous imprisonments, in 1864, Heffelfinger did not expect an immediate exchange. After the massacre of surrendering soldiers at Fort Pillow, Ulysses Grant brought a halt to the prisoner-exchange system. Further, Heffelfinger did not travel with the enlisted men. At Lynchburg, the Confederates weeded out the officers and put them on a different train. Instead of going to Andersonville, Heffelfinger went to Camp Oglethorpe, in Macon, Georgia. He arrived there on May 24 along with the other officers taken at the Wilderness. Like Andersonville, a wooden stockade surrounded the prison, but the 1,600 inmates had shelter in the form of abandoned fair grounds buildings.

Life was easier at Camp Oglethorpe, but it was no picnic. The inmates received decent rations, but nothing in which to cook them. Dust infested everything. The prison commandant threatened death to any inmate for failure to arrive at morning roll call. The guards shot at soldiers randomly. Heffelfinger had been there only a few days when a cruel guard killed a lieutenant in an Ohio regiment for no apparent reason. 

Despite all the horrors they faced, the Union officers were a feisty bunch, and took every opportunity to tunnel their way to freedom. On June 27, several officers escaped by burrowing through the sink. When Confederate guards searched the camp, they discovered three other tunnels nearly ready for use. By late July, when the escape attempts became more numerous, the inmates were transferred by rail to Savannah Prison Camp. On July 31, at this new prison pen, several inmates tunneled under the walls and escaped. On August 12, an officer almost escaped by passing out the main gate by wearing rebel clothing. Then, on August 8, the officers attempted another tunneling scheme, but again came up short. Heffelfinger got a good look at this one:

A tunnel had been opened in a tent near our squad and completed to the outside of the enclosure. It only remained to open the further end and the means of Exodus would be complete. Dozens of officers were ready to take their departure. All being ready one of the number opened the hole, and on raising his head above ground discovered a sentry pacing his beat not three feet from the hole. It was afterward discovered that a line of sentries surrounded the wall on the outside, in addition to those on top of the wall. Thus a nicely laid scheme was brought to nought. 6 PM. This afternoon Maj. Wayne, commanding the prison, entered the camp with a few men and commenced tearing down all tents not raised from the ground. This was done without any previous order of notice, and can only be termed a mean, contemptible trick. Many of the officers are without shelter.

Despite the profusion of escape attempts, Heffelfinger never participated in any of them. However, in March 1865, he participated in a large-scale officer prisoner exchange, joining Union lines in Eastern North Carolina. Heffelfinger wrote:

The happy day has at length arrived. Prison life is ended, and we are free again beneath the stars & stripes. . . . The scene was indescribable, and the exuberance of our feelings, it is beyond our power to narrate. Cheer upon cheer rent the air, cornmeal was thrown to the winds, and corn bread was trampled underfoot.

However joyful he felt, Heffelfinger could not silence feelings of guilt. As an officer, he had endured a less gruesome prison experience than the enlisted men of his regiment. Further, he had been exchanged. Tens of thousands of enlisted men were still in captivity. Heffelfinger wrote, “We have only one thing to mar our joy, and that is the knowledge that many of our brave enlisted men are left back to die, just on the eve of the day for which they have long hoped and prayed.” Heffelfinger knew that the enlisted men endured worse trials than he did. He could not imagine what the hell of Andersonville or Florence Stockade felt like, but he probably spoke for many members of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves when he wrote, “Hell will have swallowed hell when this Confederacy receives its just doom.”

Lieutenant Jacob Heffelfinger, Co. H, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, was captured and endured 11 months in Confederate prisons.
This image depicts Heffelfinger as a sergeant. He is the man in the center.
Here is yet another image of Heffelfinger, this time as lieutenant, standing in front of his company.
This sketch depicts Camp Oglethorpe, the first prison pen that held Heffelfinger. According to him, it initially housed more than 900 Union officers, but the population eventually grew to 1,600.

In late-July 1864, Heffelfinger and dozens of other officers received a transfer to Savannah Jail. This illustration by Robert K. Sneden depicts the Savannah stockade prison as it appeared about October 1864, when it was filled to capacity.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“The Gates of Hell Were Closed on Us”: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 2

In the last post, I profiled a prisoner of war from Company A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, Private Samuel Elliot, a man who endured the horrors of Andersonville Prison and Florence Stockade. In this post, I intend to profile another member from that unit, one who remembered Andersonville vividly, even forty-two years later.

In April 1864, Sergeant John Ignatius Faller of Company A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, was a light-hearted sentry on duty in Alexandria, Virginia. Every day, he patrolled an uneventful beat up and down Washington Street. Although Faller was a veteran of a half-dozen battles—including the Seven Days, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg—he had no desire to stay in the army any longer than necessary. His brother, Leo, had been killed at Antietam, so he felt it incumbent to return home as soon as possible to save his parents from the chance of losing two sons in the war. Although many men in Faller’s regiment had re-enlisted over the winter, adding three additional years to their term of service, Faller chose to let his contract expire. He expected to go home sometime in May; accordingly, he believed he had already fought his last battle. Indeed, as spring drew nigh, his thoughts drifted to home. As of January, his parents had purchased a new house in Carlisle, and Faller expected that he would have a chance to live in it after he mustered out. He wrote his sister, Anastasia, telling her, “I want you to have a room fixed up for me when I get home next summer.”

Sadly, the Army of the Potomac did not heed Faller’s wish. On April 18, Maj. Gen. George Meade reassigned the 7th Reserves to the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Brandy Station. Then on May 4, the Army of the Potomac commenced marching into the Wilderness, one day before orders arrived granting the 7th Reserves the opportunity to muster out. As it happened, Sergeant Faller and 272 other soldiers from the 7th Reserves were captured near the Permelia Higgerson Farm on May 5. (Essentially, if Ulysses Grant had postponed his Overland Campaign by one day, Faller and dozens of others would have avoided capture!) On May 16, eleven days later, Faller had a chance to mail a short note from Danville, Virginia, telling his family that he was now a prisoner of war. Still reasonably light-hearted, he saw no reason to worry his parents and sisters about his fate. He wrote, “We have been treated first rate since our capture.” All he had to do was survive in a rebel prison, he thought. The war would be over soon. It would be easy.

Faller’s optimism didn’t last long. On Sunday, May 22, he and the other enlisted men arrived at their new home, Andersonville. Never forgetting his first day there, he recalled how Captain Henry Wirz ordered them to form into detachments of 270 men. As a sergeant, Faller helped lead the 51st Detachment. “We were then marched up to the big gates,” remembered Faller. “Soon the gates of hell on earth were closed on us. Many a poor soul never passed out again—except to be carried to the dead house.”

In a short memoir written in 1906, Faller remembered many of the horrible sights of Andersonville—cruel guards, raider gangs, starvation, lack of shelter—but the aspect of Andersonville that I’d like to emphasize in this post was the primary killer of the inmates, the Stockade Branch, the small stream that brought refuse into the camp, spreading disease far and wide. Like many inmates, Faller knew that the Stockade Branch was the most dangerous enemy in the prison. Not only did it bring disease, but it brought swarms of maggots. He recalled:

A small stream of water, about twelve inches deep and eight feet wide, entered and ran through it (the enclosure). This stream had its origin in a swamp a short distance from the stockade. The water was warm and impure. To add to its natural filthiness, the rebels had built their cook house across the stream on the outside and the water was always covered with filth and grease; they also washed their dirty, filthy clothes in the stream and also used it for bathing purposes. We were obliged to drink it or do without. . . . On each side of the stream the ground was low and swampy and the filth that accumulated during the long summer months can neither be imagined [n]or described. Most of it collected in and about this swamp, and I have seen these three acres of swamp [become] one animated mass of maggots, from one to two feet deep, the whole swamp moving and rolling like waves of the sea.

By August, the Stockade Branch became overrun with vermin. Rats and maggots swarmed the edges, devouring the inmates who dwelled along its edge, those too weak to move elsewhere. Remembered Faller, “Many of the prisoners who had become too weak to help themselves were covered up with them [maggots] and were literally eaten alive.” He lamented, “To look upon these poor creatures and not be able to give them assistance was a sight so sickening and horrible that it was enough to make one insane with terror.”

Typically, when inmates wanted water (and lacked the provisions for digging wells), they crowded around the west side of the prison, trying to get the water as soon as it passed underneath the stockade wall. That water, claimed Faller, was always a bit more palatable. Sadly, this always caused a mob to form along the deadline, the imaginary barrier which the inmates could not cross without facing the threat of being fired upon by a sadistic guard. As the inmates clambered for water, the guards took the opportunity to shoot at any who might accidentally trespass. Faller remembered one of these shootings. In August, an inmate dipped under the deadline, and a guard, “who had been watching and waiting for such a chance,” opened fire. The ball missed its intended target, but instead struck the head of another man standing near him. His skull cracked open and he died instantly. His body fell into the stream, polluting it with blood and brains.

The incident incensed Faller more than anything else he ever witnessed at Andersonville. “With horror and indignation,” he wrote, “I could not run but turned and stood looking at the monster who could murder a fellow being for so slight an offense.” The guard coolly reloaded his weapon, as a cluster of prisoners loudly condemned the shooting. The guard raised his gun and threatened, “Scatter thar or I will blow some more of you over!” Faller boiled with rage. Before departing, he screamed, “My God how long must we endure this?” Giving the guard the evil eye, he remembered, “I really believe that I would have given my life for one chance at him.”

Faller survived Andersonville (and Florence Stockade). In March 1865, Confederate authorities finally released him. He had been a prisoner of the Confederacy for eleven months. Had all gone as he expected, he should have mustered and returned home in May 1864. Instead, the gates of hell closed on him, chaining him to a vicious plot of Georgia sod, where even the water did its very best to kill him.
In 1906, Sgt. John I. Faller, Co. A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, wrote a graphic account of his Andersonville prison experience.
Here, you can see an image of Andersonville's sinks. The small cluster of tents at middle distance is "the Island," where the most far-gone soldiers lived. This the area where the swamp overflowed and maggots literally ate men alive.

This is another view of Andersonville taken along its east wall. The deadline can be seen running along the right side of the image, and the Island is in the left foreground.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Death! Nothing but Death!”: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 1

For the next few posts, I plan to tell the tale of a once proud regiment, the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, an Army of the Potomac unit that faced wholesale capture and a slow, agonizing death in several Confederate prisons. Today’s tale will be told by a private from Carlisle who endured seven horrible months inside two ghastly prison camps, Andersonville and Florence Stockade. Amazingly, he lived to tell it.

Here’s how it all began.

At 6 P.M., May 5, 1864, amid the Battle of the Wilderness, Colonel William McCandless’s brigade surged onto the Permelia Higgerson farm field, taking heavy fire from Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Georgia brigade. One of McCandless’s regiments, the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, found itself surrounded (by only two companies from the 61st Georgia, of all things) and it took fire from front, left, right, and rear. A lieutenant from the 7th Reserves jotted in his diary, “[We] attempted to escape to the right and left, but were fired into from all sides.” Eventually, Colonel Henry C. Bolinger ordered his men to stack arms, and nearly the entire regiment, 273 officers and men, became prisoners of war.

For the next seventeen days, the forlorn captives made an uncomfortable journey south, passing through Orange Court House, Gordonsville, Lynchburg, Danville, and eventually to Andersonville prison.

On May 22, 1864, the 7th Pennsylvania—and the other Union prisoners taken at the Wilderness—arrived at their new home.

Private Samuel Elliot, a 22-year-old Carlisle resident who served in Company A, wrote in his diary that day. Obviously, this was his first encounter with Andersonville, which by then had been in operation for three months, and he never forgot it. Elliot wrote:

The camp contains about fifteen thousand men, most of whom have been prisoners from eight to ten months [but kept in other prisoners before this one], and were once strong, able bodied men, but are now nothing more than walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin, and can hardly be recognized as white men. The horrible sights are almost enough to make us give up in dispair—the ground is covered with filth, and vermin can be seen crawling in the sand. In the centre of the camp is a stream of dirty water so warm and greasy we can scarcely drink it. The sights I saw on this, my first day in Andersonville, so filled me with horror that I can give but a poor idea of this prison den.

The next day, May 23, was Elliot’s birthday. He wrote in his diary, “[This is] a miserable place to celebrate one’s birth day.” The next several months passed in agony. Elliot described the abysmal food at Andersonville:

Friday [June] 2. The majority of the camp drew fresh meat which the rebel Quartermaster calls beef, but he can’t fool “old soldiers” with his mule and horse flesh. It might have been pretty good had they brought it in within a week after its death, or had given us a large enough piece to allow for the maggots; we were too hungry to consider long about eating it, also drew “chicken feed,” and a small piece of wormy pork—quite a variety for one day; went out for wood: the first time I have been outside the stockade since here. What a relief it is to see the outside world and get a breath of fresh air.

One month later, Private Elliot cataloged the sight of an inmate dying a horrible death:

Wednesday, August 3. On different battle fields I have witnessed many horrible sights, but none to compare with what I saw today—a man lying on the bank of the stream being eaten to death by maggots. They could be seen issuing from his eyes and mouth, and his body was eaten completely raw in several places. We could do nothing with him but let him alone to die a miserable death.

Every so often, a member of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves died in captivity. Like other inmates who belonged to the 7th, Elliot remembered one of the highest-ranking deaths, Sergeant Van Buren Eby, a 23-year-old tinner from Carlisle. He also mentioned the death of Private Charles Jarimer, age 34, who died of scurvy:

Wednesday [August] 10. This evening we were called upon to witness the death of another of our comrades, Van B. Eby. He bore his prison life bravely, but has at last fallen a victim to ill treatment and starvation. He was loved by all who knew him, and his loss is mourned by many friends. . . .

Thursday [August] 25. Charles Jarimer, a recruit of our company, and a bunk-mate of mine, died today, after a long and painful illness; helped to carry his body to the “dead house”—a house built in the rear of the hospital, outside the stockade. There were about twenty-five other bodies, most of which had been stripped of all their clothing, and were so black and swollen they could not be recognized. While I was there I saw them piling the bodies one on top of the other, into the wagon, to be hauled to their graves or ditches. I passed through the hospital on my way back, and the sights I saw there were enough to make one sick: the tents were filled with what could once have been called men, but were now nothing but mere skeletons. The short time I was there I saw several die. A man is never admitted to the hospital until there is no hope of his recovery, and when once there it is seldom, if ever, he returns.

Mostly, Elliot witnessed death in all forms. He hated seeing his regiment whittled away, one at a time. On September 4, Elliot attended the funeral services of a member of Company F who died during the night. He opined, “It is terrible to see how our regiment is thinning out; every day brings the sad news of the death of one or more of our comrades. Death! nothing but death!”

Eventually, in mid-September, to deal with the problem of overcrowding at Andersonville, the Confederates transferred Elliot and hundreds of other inmates to Florence Stockade, a prison camp that held about 18,000 inmates. Elliot suffered worse inside this awful pen, so he claimed. On October 31, he drew a comparison between his experiences at Andersonville and Florence: “While at Andersonville I did not suppose the rebels had a worse prison in the South, but I have now found out that they have. This den is ten times worse than that at Andersonville. Our rations are smaller and of poorer quality, wood more scarce, lice plentier, shelters worn out, and cold weather coming on. I have stood my prison life wonderfully, but now I am commencing to feel it more sensibly, and am getting too weak to move about. To add to my misery I have the scurvy in the gums.”

In mid-December, Union and Confederate authorities finally agreed to a limited prisoner exchange, and Elliot was among the first to leave Florence. On December 26, 1864, he finally arrived at Harrisburg. He wrote, “Arrived at Harrisburg some time in the night and took lodgings at the ‘White Hall.’ After breakfast I went to the depot and met my brother, who passed me without knowing me. It is not necessary for me to tell of the joy it gave me to meet my friends, or of the joy it gave them to see me, after so long an absence.”

Private Elliot survived his ordeal. He recognized, however, that no regiment had experienced the war as the 7th Pennsylvanian Reserves had experienced it. Captured whole at the Wilderness, for the next seven months, it witnessed a constant parade of death. Unlike other regiments, it beheld no victory. It saw nothing but death.
This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the main gate at Andersonville. New prisoners--such as those from the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves--see the inside of the stockade for the first time.
This impressive watercolor by Robert K. Sneden, an inmate at Andersonville, depicts the vast sea of humanity inside Andersonville prison. During the summer, more than 26,000 inmates huddled inside the stockade, which encircled only 25 acres. This image is looking south, toward the Stockade Branch (middle distance). Captain Henry Wirz's headquarters can be seen atop the hill in the distance.
This drawing by James E. Taylor depicts Union soldiers about to leave Florence Stockade, the prison that Union soldiers dubbed ten time worse than Andersonville.

This is White Hall School, the building where Private Elliot encountered his first good meal since leaving Confederate captivity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Shot in the Heart

Once, I read a Civil War letter written by a man in love. This is the tale that goes with it.

Charles Wilkins was born on July 7, 1835, in the town of Henniker, New Hampshire. On June 1, 1861, shortly after the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in Company B, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry. On July 21, during the Battle of Bull Run, he received a severe gunshot wound through the shoulder. He spent the remainder of the year recovering from his injury and mustered out of his regiment on February 20, 1862, accepting a commission in another unit.

Wilkins became a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Regular Infantry, which was then stationed in Missouri. By January 1863, his regiment had been moved to Corinth, Mississippi, in preparation for joining Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Army of the Tennessee for the Vicksburg Campaign.

I’d imagine that Lieutenant Wilkins had many things on his mind that January, but nothing vexed him quite so much as his thoughts about a woman. He addressed his letters to: “Dearest Friend Sarah.” (Sadly, I cannot tell you anything about her, as I have no clue to her identity.) Apparently, he agonized over Sarah and wanted to marry her, but he did not know if she felt the same way. After due deliberation, Wilkins decided it was time to go for it. He executed the timelessly awkward male ritual of putting himself out there:

In my last letter I promised to tell you the subject of my thoughts while writing. I hardly dare tell you and I am also at a loss how to commence. The subject of my thoughts was yourself. Dear Sarah, I love you. Do you? Can you love me in return?

In a world without texts, or cell phones, or skype, Wilkins faced a grand challenge indeed. He had to woo a woman at long distance but without the help of verbal communication. His medium was the written word. Let’s see how he made his case:

I know not how to express my feelings in suitable language. May I hope that the day is not far distant when I shall call you my own. I know that in my present position I am exposed to many dangers and that perhaps I ought not to have asked this question at present. But you know not how much I should feel to know that you loved me. I should feel that I then had something to live and fight for through life. I am now twenty seven years old—and it seems almost as if I had loved without an object, but have tried to do my duty. If I have failed think it is through no fault of mine.

According to the above, the war’s danger compelled him to break his silence and ask a question that he felt he “ought not to have asked.” Finally, he concluded with a rather obvious line: “Hoping soon to get a favorable answer.” I chuckle at that whenever I read it.

All right, you’re all wondering: did Wilkins get a “favorable answer” from Sarah, the object of his affection? Near as I can tell, he did not. As of February 2, 1863, when Wilkins wrote Sarah again, she had not replied. He generously assumed that she had not seen his letter, but knowing what I know about the efficiency of the nineteenth-century postal service (and the fact that the letter existed—I even held it), I’ll bet she received his letter and refused to reply to it. Why she chose not to reply is anyone’s guess.

If the absence of Sarah’s love injured Wilkins’s heart, the pain did not last long. In June, a Confederate sharpshooter picked him off during the Siege of Vicksburg. A Union hospital ship transferred him to St. Louis where he died on June 20, 1863. He was twenty-seven-years-old. He had the honor of being the first person buried in the New Henniker Cemetery on Old Concord Road. (As a side note, Wilkins’s older brother, George—who was a lieutenant in the 16th New Hampshire—died of disease two months later and was buried in the same cemetery. It was a sad season for his parents, to be sure.)

I don’t have much more on this story. I have no idea of the identity of “Dearest Friend Sarah.” I have no image of Lieutenant Wilkins. Although I know where Wilkins’s grave is located, I have no image of it.

I know one thing: Wilkins was shot in the heart.

Sad Romance.