In his “From the Fields,” a tribute to the soldiers North and South who died on far-flung Civil War battlefields, folksinger Kyle Thompson claims that “from the fields I hear them calling, from the fields where they fell.”
During our first trip to Colonial Williamsburg, circa 1996-97, we made the obligatory trip to Yorktown to explore Revolutionary War history at Colonial National Historical Park. After touring the visitors’ center and walking around Redoubts 9 and 10 (a bit snake-infested that day), we headed south on the driving tour.
We parked at the nearby Second Allied Siege Line, where we noticed the brick wall enclosing Yorktown National Cemetery. Opening a wrought iron gate, we walked among the graves; as national cemeteries go, Yorktown’s quite small. A brick wall encloses the hallowed dead.
Then we discovered the boys from Maine. Buried individually and identified by name and unit, they lie among other Union boys who died during John B. Magruder’s epic “defense” of Yorktown with fake cannons (“quaker guns”) and Confederate regiments that marched and counter-marched to simulate an overwhelming number of defenders. Other Maine boys died during the Battle of Williamsburg or succumbed to Tidewater diseases (like malaria).
In the years since, we have walked reverently amidst the Union boys buried in other national cemeteries, from Corinth in Mississippi to Andersonville Prison in Georgia to Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg to the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Not every national cemetery shelters Maine boys sleeping eternally between exquisitely green grass or towering oaks; Maine units did not fight at Corinth or nearby Shiloh, for example.
That doesn’t mean that Maine boys didn’t die at those battles. If they did, they died fighting with out-of-state units, which was not unusual.
In his “From the Fields,” Thompson refers to “Northern blood in Southern soil” and “Southern blood in Northern soil, and another unknown [soldier] for the years.” I often listen to this haunting song – not the album’s best, but still poignant – and think about the Maine boys who lie forever in Southern soil.
After the war, most Confederate dead buried in Northern soil were disinterred and reburied below the Mason-Dixon Line. About the only Confederate dead remaining at Gettysburg are those buried in unmarked battlefield graves. Occasionally a backhoe or shovel locates a Southern lad; several “popped up” some years ago near the Unfinished Railroad Cut west of Gettysburg.
But not all Johnny Rebs rest peacefully in Southern soil. At Central Cemetery in Dedham lies another Confederate, Lt. Thomas W. Mitchell. Almost forgotten in Maine lore, Mitchell loved a Maine woman, and now he rests eternally here.
Born in Virginia on Oct. 5, 1832, Mitchell was a 5-7, brown-eyed store clerk in Lovington, Va. when he met and married a schoolteacher, Mary Ester Dexter, in October 1857. She hailed from Dedham, where she was born in January 1833.
Maine women seldom traveled into Dixie in the 1850s; Mary likely took a teaching position to earn money and perhaps enjoy a warmer climate. She bore Thomas a daughter, Anna, in February 1860.
Mary and Anna might have remained in the Shenandoah Valley had Confederate troops not fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Virginia soon seceded from the United States, and Old Dominion troops fought Maine soldiers at Manassas that July.
Thomas Mitchell avoided military service until Sept. 15, when he joined Co. D, 49th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Worried that her Maine roots might bring his wife unwarranted attention, Mitchell shipped Mary and Anna to Dedham to live with Mary’s mother and stepfather.
An unidentified disease led to Mitchell’s discharge from the 49th Virginia that December, but he re-enlisted as a Co. F second lieutenant in early September 1862. Mitchell possibly fought at Antietam, definitely battled Yankees at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and remained with the regiment until Union troops captured him on May 30, 1864.
He might have lived longer had he evaded captivity. Sent to a Union prison camp at Fort Delaware, a wind-swept fortification on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, Mitchell endured the boredom, poor food, and wretched living conditions prevalent in most wartime prison camps.
Among the diseases afflicting the Confederate prisoners were dysentery, scurvy, and smallpox; by spring 1865 Mitchell contracted “congestion of the lungs” (possibly pneumonia). Mary Mitchell possibly visited him that spring; he definitely intended to travel to meet her and Anna in Maine, so to gain release from Fort Delaware, Mitchell pledged his allegiance to the United States in May.
The War Department shipped him to Maine. His health failing, he arrived in Bangor on May 15 and rented a hotel room.
Only 10-12 miles from Dedham, Thomas Mitchell died in Bangor the next day. Mary buried him in the Central Cemetery on the Allen Road in Dedham and ensured that his headstone identified him as “Lieut. Thomas W. Mitchell of the 49th Va. Regt.”
Today two national flags, American and Confederate, mark Mitchell’s lonely grave far from his Virginia home. If he had lived, would he have returned to the Shenandoah with his wife and daughter? We will never know, but Mary never remarried. Later in life she lived with her daughter, Anne Phillips (an old-time Dedham name), before dying on June 7, 1902.
And Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor might shelter another Confederate soldier, buried under the name “C. Williams.” Scant information is available about him.
If anyone knows about other Confederates buried in Maine, “Maine at War” would be pleased the share the information with Civil War buffs.