During World War II, mothers and wives feared receiving a War Department telegram, usually the bearer of bad news about a son or husband.
During the Vietnam War and every American war fought since then, families with male relatives in the service have feared seeing an official government vehicle turn into the driveway and stop before uniformed officers stepped out to deliver their bad tidings.
“The President regrets to inform you” a telegram might begin. “We regret to inform you” the officers might say. Either way, the news was bad.
But during the Civil War, women often learned about their loved ones’ fates only if a man’s comrades wrote condolence letters or a local newspaper published the latest casualty reports. Weeks and months might pass before — and if — a woman found out why her husband had stopped writing.
Some women never learned why. More than one mother or wife wrote to Maine Attorney General John Hodsdon asking if he knew the fate of a particular soldier. The state archives contain such letters written after specific battles.
When she awoke at her home in Kendalls Mills on Sunday, May 3, 1863, Ellie Philbrook was still a wife, married to Sgt. George H. Philbrook from Co. G, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment. By her noon meal, she was a widow.
But she did learn how her husband had died, thanks to comrades in arm.
About 10 a.m. that Sunday, Philbrook and his comrades from Co. G ducked and winced as Confederate artillery shells rumbled over head. The men lay concealed behind a slight crest on the lower slope of Marye’s Heights, the high ground just west of Fredericksburg, Va.
The 6th Maine and other regiments intended to ascend a 300-yard slope and wrest Marye’s Heights from its Confederate defenders. Bugle calls hauled the crouching men to their feet at 10 a.m.; sometime during the subsequent charge, a bullet struck Philbrook in the neck.
Sgt. John McGreger, a friend, saw him go down. Unable to help Philbrook immediately, McGreger found him afterwards and confirmed his death.
The 6th Maine lost 23 men KIA that fine spring morning. Home in Ellsworth Ellie Philbrook went about her typical Sunday business. She probably thought about George that day. Was he all right? Was he thinking of her? When would she see him again?
About 2½ weeks, a letter addressed to “Mrs. George Philbrook” arrived from the 6th Maine‘s “Camp near White Oak Church, Va.” Ellie may have received a few letters from George in the past few weeks; soldiers often wrote their loved ones on a battle’s eve, and letters often arrived before the casualty lists were published.
Dated May 12, 1863 and written by John McGreger, the letter confirmed for Ellie what she might have already suspected: She was a widow.
“Dear Friend,” McGreger wrote. “It becomes my painful duty to inform you that your Husband George H. Philbrook fell on Sunday … in making a charge on the Rebel works Near Fredericksburg. He was shot through the neck and died instantly.”
Although she did not realize it at the time, Ellie Philbrook was fortunate to learn where and how her husband died. Each battle exacted its toll in “missing,” men who failed to answer their company’s muster roll the next day. Some MIAs wound up in Confederate prisons; other MIAs vanished into history, and their families never knew their fates.
McGreger confirmed that he had found Philbrook’s body; unfortunately so had a uniformed ghoul, a Yankee thief who had searched Philbrook’s pockets while his body was still warm.
“His effects were all lost. He about one hundred & ten dollars in his pocket when he fell but before any of our men got to him his pockets were picked,” McGreger explained why so little of her husband’s personal items had been returned to Ellie. In fact, McGregor’s letter probably accompanied the box containing whatever items Philbrook had left in his knapsack, deposited on a Fredericksburg street before the charge.
McGreger extended his condolences as best he could. “Mrs. Philbrook this must be sad news for you,” he wrote Ellie, “but you are not alone; hundreds of our noble and brave fell in the same action.
“Hundreds of wives were made widows [and] thousands of children were left fatherless,” he pointed out.
“I felt it to be my duty to write you a few lines because George was a particular friend of mine and believing that you would like to know the particulars concerning his Fate,” McGregor wrote before concluding “Your sincere Friend, Sergt John McGreger.”
As the 6th Maine charged Marye’s Heights, Elisha Meservey of the 20th Maine watched the assault from the distance. A friend of Ellie Philbrook, he learned about George’s death in a roundabout way, as he indicated to in a June 4 letter.
“Dear friend Ellie, I read by the way of Elenora (apparently Meservey’s wife) the sad news of the loss of your husband in the late battle of Fredericksburg,” Meservey began his letter. “I can only say that I pitty [sic] you and sympathise [sic] with you in your great sorrow[,] but a soldier loves to pay tribute to the courage and bravery of a departed fellow soldier.”
Detailing the attack on Marye’s Heights, he explained that “I was a distant eyewitness of that glorious charge. There was no wavering [and] no giving back[,] but up up they pressed and deploying on either side they closed around the fort[ification] and pouring in over it carried it with wild huzzas.
“If any should ask me if your husband was a brave man[,] I should tell them that he belonged to the 6th ME Regt, and I know that his courage would never be doubted [by] any one who knows the history of that regiment,” Meservey assured Ellie.
He also shared a fear shared by every woman with a male relative in uniform. “Poor Nellie (perhaps Eleanor) wants to write[,] but she says she does not know what to write,” Meservey related to Ellie. “She says she can weep for you for she does not know how soon your fate may be hers.
“Ellie[,] this is a cruel cruel war[,] but we must fight if we would prove ourselves worthy of having a country,” he voiced an opinion shared by many Maine soldiers.
“For my part[,] I have made up my mind to give up every thing, even life itself, rather than give up the cause,” Meservey stated. “While you weep for the loss of your husband[,] it should be a proud satisfaction for you to feel that he died like a brave man battling for his country.”
Noting that he could hear “the distant booming of cannon” from “a heavy battle going up the river,” Meservey asked Ellie to “give my love to all those that enquire about me.”
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–