Friday, September 27, 2019

“I Could Not Restrain My Tears”: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 6.

On April 16, 1865, 1st Lt. Frederick E. Lockley found himself inside his headquarters at Fort McHenry, Maryland. He commenced writing a sad letter to his wife. On February 27, his worn-out regiment had come off the front lines, and since that day, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery had lost no additional men to the rebels.

But then, a single death caused this usually steady officer to collapse in grief. Lockley had learned of the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Lt. Lockley called Lincoln’s assassination a “fearful tragedy.” He confided to his wife, Elizabeth: 

I could not have believed that the death of a public character could have afflicted the individual mind with so poignant a feeling of grief as ‘this sudden taking off’ of our national chief has produced. Men grieve for him as for the loss of a parent. He has carried us through the maelstrom of civil war with so undaunted and skilful a hand; he has shown such an impassibility to any human infirmity of temper, rising like a demigod above all the angry and senseless invective with which his name and character have been assailed.

In the wake of Lincoln’s death, Lockley was wrote as if all human history was coming to an end: “[Lincoln’s] death creates such a gap in all our plans for our political future. For four years of political convulsion his name has been upon our lips so constantly that he has become identified with the age and the events which are to grow out of it. We cannot dissociate his name from our purview; with him away it seems as if our history had come to a sudden collapse.

That morning, Lockley had tried to soothe his feelings by attending church. (He did not say where, but it was surely in Baltimore.) It was Easter Sunday, but the festive attitude of that religious holiday did nothing to brush aside the gloom that could be seen everywhere. The church’s minister—“Dr. Johnson”—tried to assuage the grief of his listeners by suggesting that sorrow over a “public figure” did not resonate as deeply as the loss of a personal friend. However, Lockley wasn’t buying it. Lincoln’s death hurt as badly as the death of any comrade on the battlefield. He explained:

The exercises were painful. Sitting there with Meditation for your counsellor, as I listened to the preacher’s powerful contrast between the exuberant feeling which brightened every face as we gathered together at our last Sabbath worship to render God thanks for our signal victories, and to sing poeans at our delivery from the dark wilderness of desolation, and our feelings now. A great nation humbled in the dust, a great man fallen this day in Israel. Dr. Johnson says that the talk of the public heart being afflicted at the death of a public character, is mere exaggeration—people grieve but for their own friends. Until today I would have sworn by that scripture. But this event disproves the doctors saying. I could not keep my countenance composed—I could not restrain my tears—and I noticed there were but few dry eyes in church. The president does not seem a stranger to us. Common danger and common affliction have knitted the people’s heart to his—he has been with us in every moment of reverse and humiliation—the destiny of the country was in his handand every man knew that if human wisdom and a patriot’s integrity could preserve our honor unsullied—the foresight and the truth were in that leaders brain and heart to go through triumphantly with us. Particularly was he the soldier’s friend. During this fearful carnival of blood when the enraged passions of man were lashed into a tempest—and statesmanship was thrust aside until in the shock of encountering armies one side or other was borne to the ground, we all knew and felt that in the President we possessed a friend who was ready to every appeal—who watched the struggle in silent awe, and whose hand was extended to avert the strife the moment it could be done without compromising our national honor.

When Lockley departed the church, his thoughts returned to the dead from the Civil War; or rather, Lockley considered the fate of war dead, generally. He recalled a story about Lord Byron who visited the battlefield of Waterloo in May 1816. While there, a tour guide had pointed out the grave of a friend he had known. Inspired by the visit, Byron incorporated the experience into several stanzas of his poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” At this point, Lockley (who had been born in London)—a veteran of a vastly different warrecalled those same lines:

There have been tears and breaking hearts for thee
And mine were nothing—had I such to give;
But when I stood beneath the fresh green tree
Which living waves where thou didst cease to live,
And saw around me the wide field revive
With fruits and fertile promise, and the Spring
Come forth her work of gladness to contrive,
With all her reckless birds upon the wing
I turned from all she brought to those she could not bring.

Lincoln’s death made Lockley recollect the fate of his unfortunate regiment, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He remembered the confused attack at Alsop’s farm, where 76 men had been killed or wounded. He remembered the brief moment of triumph at Cold Harbor where his regiment had pierced the Confederate line, even when all the nearby veteran regiments refused to go forward. He remembered the death of Colonel Morris, felled by a rebel sharpshooter while passing between two rifle pits. He remembered the calamitous assault on June 16, 1864, when 301 members of his regiment were captured. He remembered the rout at Reams Station, when his regiment retreated, leaving behind its young commander, Major Edward Springsteed. He remembered it all, and now the tears began to flow.

Sometimes, one death can symbolize the death of a generation. 

At the end of his letter, Lockley tried to push these dour thoughts from his mind. In a few short weeks, he was going home to his wife. He had to focus on the positive. “What are national troubles to you?” he concluded. “Love to the babes—a rapturous kiss—ah—nice!”

In 1905, Frederick Lockley died a few days shy of his eighty-first birthday. He is buried in Oregon. His gravestone reads: “First Lieut. Co. F. 7th  N.Y. Vol. Heavy Artillery. A Brave Soldier. A Good Citizen. A True Friend. His life was gentle and the elements So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up And sing to all the world, ‘This was a man’.” (A line from Shakespeare.)

Here, Baltimoreans await the arrival of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train. I assume Lt. Lockley is in the crowd.

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