They’re not supposed to be here.
So why are they?
Red brick walls surround the manicured Wilmington (N.C.) National Cemetery, a lovely greensward that abuts the four-lane Daytona International Speedway known locally as Market Street. Forget turning left when exiting the cemetery’s single access gate: That hand-crafted brick wall blocks views of inbound traffic, so a smart visitor yanks the steering wheel “hard a starboard,” punches the accelerator, and joins the flow toward 3rd Street, the main north-south route through downtown Wilmington.
Civil War buffs associate Wilmington with Fort Fisher, constructed well down the Cape Fear River to prevent Yankee troops and warships from closing Wilmington, the South’s major remaining port after David Farragut shuttered Mobile Bay. The Union’s “combined forces” — joint Army-Navy — captured the well-defended Fort Fisher on Jan. 15, 1865. In a bloody battle reminiscent of the wild combat depicted atop the Battery Wagner ramparts in “Glory,” Yanks and Rebs fought mano a mano during the second (and successful) attack on the fort.
Union troops later pushed north along both banks of the Cape Fear River before capturing Wilmington and shutting down Robert E. Lee’s last railroad lifeline to the sea. Union boys lost to combat or disease lie buried in the Wilmington National Cemetery, which also shelters veterans of later wars.
The Union order of battle lists no Maine regiments among those Army units that attacked Fort Fisher. The unflappable Thomas Stowell Phelps represented Maine at sea, where he commanded the USS Juniata, a sloop of war that bombarded the fort during the January 1865 attack.
I recently visited the Wilmington National Cemetery to see if any Maine boys might lie there. Having digested the Fort Fisher battles, I figured no men from the Pine Tree State could possibly represent Northern blood buried in Southern soil, at least here in Wilmington.
New Hampshire’s here: John W. Perkins, Co. D, 3rd N.H. Infantry; William Kenney; Alfred Taylor. Next to Perkins lie two unidentified Union soldiers, one honored with a full head stone, the other honored with the nondescript squat stone that permeates national Civil War cemeteries from Shiloh to Fredericksburg. These stones — Wilmington has many — convey two stark messages: “We don’t know who you are,” and the War Department was too cheap to provide full-size stones for all the unknown Union soldiers.
Then I encountered the Maine boys: Eight of ’em, at least, aligned in a row perpendicular to Market Street and tucked behind the cemetery’s maintenance facility. They’re not supposed to be here, so why are they?
Meet Asaniah W. Childs, Edwin Hayes, A. Jackson, Hiram W. Jackson, Greenwood C. Pray, Moses Sims, Amos Welts, and George Wood. They lie here in Wilmington because they died defending the Union, but why are they here?
I later turned to www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers for answers. Seven of these heroes belonged to the 9th Maine Infantry Regiment, which arrived by sea at the captured Fort Fisher on Feb. 11-12, 1865. The regiment participated in the successful operations against Fort Anderson, a Confederate strong point on the Cape Fear’s west bank, and marched to Goldsboro to join William Tecumseh Sherman and his army in late March.
Then there’s Moses Sims, the “odd man out” who should not be here. He was Private Sims of Co. M, 2nd Maine Cavalry Regiment, a sadly overlooked outfit that fought in the lower Mississippi Valley and by the time of Sims’ death was chasing Confederates through the thick puckerbrush around Mobile Bay.
Sims died on March 7, 1865, weeks earlier than did the 9th Maine lads. Why he was in or near Wilmington while his regiment fought three states away remains a mystery.
Sims was No. 757 of the interments at the fledgling Wilmington National Cemetery. Numbers 758, 759, 760, and 761 are unknown Union soldiers: No. 760 got a full head stone, and the other three got the squat blocks.
Obviously, next to 761 lies grave 762, in this case that belonging to Private George Woodward, Co. H, 9th Maine. He died on April 4, 1865, the latest date among these Maine lads.
Corp. Greenwood C. Pray lies in grave 763. He served in Co. A, 9th Maine.
Private A. Jackson lies in grave 764. Not much information is available about him except that he died on March 30, 1865. I believe he is Private Andrew Jackson, Co. F, 9th Maine Infantry.
Private Amos Welts lies in grave 765. Assigned to Co. H, 9th Maine, he died on March 30, 1865.
Next to Welts in grave 766 lies Private Hiram W. Jackson, assigned to Co. E, 9th Maine. A former member of the 23rd Maine Infantry, he apparently liked the Army so well that he joined the 9th Maine after mustering out in 1863.
Could he have been related to A. Jackson? They share the same death date as Amos Welts.
Private Asaniah W. Childs occupies grave 767. Assigned to Co. F, 9th Maine, he died on March 24, 1865.
So did his neighbor in grave 768, Private Edwin Hayes, Co. I, 9th Maine.
The seven 9th Maine Infantry lads lie numerically in a row. Their death dates range from March 24 to April 4. Without digging deeper, I am not sure how they died.
Let me theorize, though.
The numerical burials suggest the bodies arrived at this cemetery at the same time. Ironically, Woodward died later than his comrades, but he got the lower grave number; this indicates that he was buried first, because no burial detail would leave an empty grave to be occupied at a later date by a guy from the same regiment as Numbers 763 to 768.
Were the seven men killed or seriously wounded during a brief, yet disastrous fight — perhaps a skirmish — that possibly occurred on March 24, 1865? The men are scattered among different companies; they might have been assigned to a detail guarding a wagon train that was attacked by Confederate guerrillas.
Or disease might have felled these Maine boys.
No matter how they died, their bodies were interred elsewhere before all seven were shipped to Wilmington for burial. Because the cemetery was not established until 1867, these Magnificent Seven and Sims could not have been buried in Wilmington soon after their respective dates of death.
As the rat-race traffic whizzed past on Market Street — and the cemetery’s brick wall and geographically higher terrain mercifully masked the vehicles from sight — I touched Pray’s grave stone and quietly thanked him and the others for their service. Long gone from this Earth, they cannot hear me, but I owe them a debt of gratitude for what they accomplished before they died.
They helped save the United States. Identifying myself as being from Maine — it’s the only connection I have with these eight heroes — I thanked them for their sacrifice.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.