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This is the archive for August 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Of the more than 320,000 Union soldiers who died during the Civil War only an estimated 20,000 were embalmed and had their remains sent back home to their loved ones. The rest were buried close to where they died, either on the battlefield, or in cemeteries located in proximity to hospitals. The cost of embalming and transporting a body back home was borne exclusively by the family, or through the occasional generosity of comrades, but the sad reality then was that it was, practically speaking, a financial burden most could not bear.

In researching the 18th Massachusetts, we've found a few examples of family members or friends traveling to battlefields or hospitals to bring bodies home, or comrades accompanying the bodies home on trains. Most of these retrievals, however, occurred early in the war, when casualties, or deaths from disease, were still relatively low in comparison as to what would come later. Martin Scorsese's vision of rows of wooden caskets running the length of a New York City dock in "Gangs of New York" spoke more of Viet Nam then it ever did of the Civil War.

The question of whether family members were ever able to visit cemeteries so distant from their homes, such as Arlington, the Military Asylum in D.C., Andersonville, or countless others, has always nipped at my heels whenever I've walked among the rows of graves at those hallowed places. I don't have the answer and I suppose that nobody else does. I'd like to believe that widows and children and parents and siblings laid flowers on those graves, but the sad reality was that in all probability, and practically speaking, it was a financial burden most could not bear.

There are two men, among others from the 18th Massachusetts Infantry, who lie buried at the Military Asylum Cemetery in Washington, Cyrus Hall and Peleg Benson. Hall died of Typhoid Fever at Carver Hospital in Washington on October 19, 1862 and was buried in Section G, Grave No. 5372, leaving a widow Armenia and five children, Armenia, Albert, Cyrus, Rufus, and Edward, who ranged in age from 10 months to 12 years. Benson, who was 28 when he died of disease at Washington on Nov. 17, 1862 and was buried in Section F, Grave No. 1490, was survived by his parents Asa and Sally.

Both men have this in common: they were Shoemakers from Middleboro, Massachusetts and they have monuments at the Rock Cemetery located in that town. They were loved by their families, who each had a stone cutter carve a name into granite, giving each family a place to mourn and a place to leave their flowers.

Cyrus Hall's grave - Military Asylum Cemetery

Cyrus Hall's grave - Rock Cemetery, Middleboro, MA

Peleg Benson's grave - Military Asylum Cemetery

Peleg Benson's grave - Rock Cemetery, Middleboro, MA

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Corey Gardner came through with the information on William "Billy" G. Gardner, who, as a Private in Company A of the 14th Georgia Infantry, claimed to have shot and captured Rutherford B. Hayes either at Chancellorsville or the Wilderness. The claim first surfaced when Hayes was running for President in 1876, and, while dismissed as poppycock by the Northern press, rallied the State of Georgia to Gardner's defense.

This 1876 story, from an unidentified and undated Charleston, SC newspaper clipping, was responsible, in part, for fueling Gardner family lore.

"A Charleston paper says that Mr. W.G. Gardner, a gentleman and an old Confederate soldier (Gardner was about 45 at the time), living at Gogginsville, in Forsyth county, says he shot and captured Gen. R.B. Hayes at the battle of the Wilderness or Chancellorsville. Mr. Gardner was a member of Company A, 14th Georgia Regiment. Capt. Robert Merritt, commanding the company, confirms the statement.

"Is the identity of the Republican nominee in dispute?"

W.P. Wright, a doctor in Gogginsville, submitted an affidavit in support of Billy Gardner's pension claim. Again, the document is undated.

"Mr. W.G. Gardner the faithful old soldier and very worthy applicant did on the 6th days of April 1863 capture his highness expresident Hayes then a General in the U.S.A. and one orderly by himself having to shoot off his magistys forefinger before he would surrender, bring him into camp and turning him over to the provo guard. Said capture was made to the left of the old plank road near Chancellorsville in the Wilderness in old Va. He is also burdened with an afflicted wife and has been for twenty years and prays that you may accept this application for a small pension."

What is immediately wrong with this story is that Rutherford B. Hayes did not hold the rank of General in April 1863 and wasn't anywhere close to Chancellorsville in either April or May 1863. According to his diaries from 1861 to 1865, which are accessible on Google Books, Hayes was at Fort White near Charles Town, West Virginia. At the time of the Wilderness fight, Hayes was with Crook's command crisscrossing the border between North Carolina and Virginia

In Part One of this story, which appeared on August 3rd, the possibility that Billy Gardner may have shot Col. Joseph Hayes of the 18th Massachusetts at the Wilderness was raised. Joseph is now discounted because he wasn't taken prisoner until the Second Battle of Weldon Railroad three months later. Which raises the possibility that Brig. Gen. William Hays was the person Billy was referring to.

Billy's story turns problematic again, even if allowing for a case of mistaken identity, because while William Hayes was wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Chancellorsville, along with over 6,000 other Federals, his capture, confirmed in a May 8, 1863 report from Little Powell Hill, was credited to William Dorsey Pender's brigade, which was comprised entirely of North Carolina regiments.

I've steered Corey toward Roy Duberry's "History of the 14th Georgia Infantry Regiment," published by Heritage Press. The book focuses entirely on Company A and is based on letters written by some of the original 119 enlistees, tracking them from Second Bull Run to the surrender at Appomatox.

When you read Billy Gardner's story, it makes you wonder why he made his claim about Rutherford B. Hayes in the first place. We're not dealing with somebody who sat out the war, somebody who skulked, or somebody who was a constitutional coward. We're talking about a soldier who was wounded a number of times while engaged in some of the most brutal fighting the Civil War had to offer as a member of A.P. Hill's division and later Corps. Maybe the story started off innocently enough, i.e. throwing around bullshit on a general store porch, and it snowballed from there, until it was totally out of Billy's hands, and ultimately became something he couldn't retract without being labeled a liar.

I think Corey Gardner suspects the truth, but in some ways still wants to cling to Billy's story. It really is a neat little Civil War saga, one that can be handed down from generation to generation, and has been, although Corey admits other relatives are and have been skeptical.

I'll let Corey tell Billy's story now. There's more justice than if I try to summarize, so I'll simply let it speak for itself. However, maybe there's a reader out there, more authoritative than I am, who can shed additional light on this subject.

"William G. Gardner was born abt. 1832 at South Carolina. The family migrated to Georgia where his grandfather, John Gardner owned a plantation and his father, Jim Gardner was a gunsmith. Billy Gardner was a skilled gunman and became a sharpshooter.

He was a farmer, married, fathered children, and enlisted in the 14th Georgia Infantry as a private in 1862, serving as a sharpshooter throughout the entire war. He never served in a sharpshooter regiment so he must have been the best shot in his regiment. Gardner was probably the gunslinger of his regiment and had been the champion shooter I am assuming.

"He was wounded in the head in 1862 at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He claimed he shot and captured Hayes on April 6, 1863 in VA. He fought at Chancellorsville in 1863 and was wounded in the shoulder. He then fought at Wilderness and Richmond and received gunshot wounds in the forehead and shoulder. He then fought at Petersburg and was wounded in the foot, being captured in a hospital near Richmond, being released in May of 1865 at Newport News, VA.

"Gardner was a war hero and a seasoned warrior. He lived out his days as a farmer and died in 1912 from old age. He first made his claim in 1876 when Hayes was campaigning for the Presidency. The Northern press of course denied it, but his home state of Georgia hailed him as a hero and never questioned his claim. Gardner was a distant cousin of mine."

Note: William G. Gardner's service record and that he was wounded at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Petersburg is confirmed by information on the "Civil War Data" Web site (

Monday, August 03, 2009

The query that was posted as a comment on our Blog was about as unusual a reason for requesting information as anyone is bound to get from a reader. That reader, Corey Gardner, was looking for the service record on Col. Joseph Hayes of the 18th Massachusetts, for a very specific reason. I did a post not that long ago on Hayes, who, I proudly pointed out, was the only Volunteer officer ever placed in command of a brigade of U.S. Infantry Regulars.

Corey wrote that his ancestor, a Confederate sharpshooter, claimed to have shot Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes, either at Chancellorsville or the Wilderness. In investigating that claim, Corey determined that the future President was never close to either battlefield and suspected the victim may have been Joseph Hayes. Hayes, who commanded the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the Fifth Corps at the Wilderness, suffered a gunshot wound to the forehead on May 5, 1864, survived the wound, and was subsequently promoted to Brigadier General.

I agreed with Corey that he might very well be on the right track. However, the story gets muddied by the fact that there were two other high ranking Union officers named Hays or Hayes, William and Alexander, both of whom were shot; William at Chancellorsville and Alexander at the Wilderness.

Hopefully Corey will respond to my email with more information on his ancestor. It's a story that, regardless of how it shakes out, would certainly qualify as one of those little oddities of the Civil War. After all it's not often, in a war that involved so much long range killing and wounding, that you're able to learn who actually fired the shot that sent a man to his grave, to captivity, or the hospital.