Tony Horwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has historically examined such subjects as John Brown and his bloody raid and European exploration of North America, released his delightful “Confederates In The Attic” in 1998. A “must read” for Civil War buffs, the book explores why the war remains so palpable in many Southern locales.
But the Civil War remains palpable in various Maine locations, too, particularly in two cemeteries where Confederate flags wave over lonely graves.
Let’s start in Gray, to which a coffin allegedly containing Lt. Charles H. Colley took the wrong train in early autumn 1862.
Colley joined Co. B, 10th Maine Infantry Regiment, on Oct. 4, 1861. The 10th was the resurrected 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, a Portland-centric outfit organized for 90 days’ service in spring 1861.
Colley “was among the first to rally in defense of his Country,” the inscription on his elaborately carved gravestone indicates. Wounded in a knee during the 10th Maine’s epic and bloody participation in the Aug. 9, 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain in central Virginia, the 29-year-old Colley was evacuated to a Union hospital in Alexandria, Va.
Promoted to second lieutenant on Sept. 17, Colley died on Sept. 20, 1862; he was buried the same day in a small cemetery in Alexandria. According to the Find-A-Grave information provided by Debi Curry of Gray, Colley’s mother, Sally, made arrangements for her son to be embalmed.
His family would have sent money for the embalming; hovering like vultures above dying prey, funeral directors hanging around Federal hospitals offered embalming services for a good fee. Relatives of dying soldiers often arranged in advance for their loved ones to be embalmed and shipped home as soon as possible after death.
And funeral directors did not accept credit.
A coffin (described by Find-A-Grave as a “plain pine casket”) that should have been lined with lead (mandated by the railroads to better contain the coffin’s contents) and containing Colley’s body shipped by train to Maine for burial in the Gray Village Cemetery. Colley’s relatives probably opened the coffin for a last glimpse of their fallen warrior; as the published funerals of Maine officers indicate, an embalmed soldier was often allowed to lie in state at his home or in a local church before his funeral.
The embalmed body of Gen. Hiram Berry was displayed at his Rockland home in May 1863, for example. The fact that the body’s physical condition was none too cheery by the time of Berry’s funeral was irrelevant to his grieving family.
Someone definitely did open the coffin to view the fallen Colley. The audible and psychological reactions of his relatives remains only imaginable 152 years later; inside was an embalmed Confederate soldier, clad in an appropriate uniform.
Well, the Confederate could not go into Colley’s grave, and no one knew where to ship a coffin marked “Return to Sender” down South. The “Ladies of Gray” raised the funds to bury the unknown enemy soldier in the local cemetery.
He went into history as “Stranger,” the name engraved on his gravestone. “A Soldier of the late war died 1862” was also carved on his white stone.
Hurried communications with Army officials in Virginia led to another coffin being shipped north to Gray. This coffin supposedly contained Colley’s body.
His family buried him about 100 feet away from the Stranger, a decision that ironically placed the lieutenant close to the future Exit 63 of the future Maine Turnpike.
That should have been that for Colley, who lies near many other Civil War veterans. In a historical plot twist, Johnson Smith of the 27th Maine Infantry Regiment was buried beside the Stranger, who has the much larger gravestone.
But Mark Faunce, a Limington resident who is a Colley cousin several times removed, recently discovered that Colley was buried in a national cemetery in Alexandria, Va. Historical records place Colley there, and no evidence has been found that Colley was disinterred and shipped to Maine.
And Debi Curry has provided documentation — “War Department Q.M.C. (Quarter Master Corps) Form No. 14, Revised Oct. 6, 1928” — indicating that Sgt. Charles H. Colley was buried in “Grave No. 325,” located “in the Alexandria, Va. National Cemetery.” This form lists his date of death as “Sept. 20 1862” but does not list a “date in interment.”
Curry has also provided a “Record of Deceased Soldiers and others buried under the direction of Capt. C.B. Ferguson, A.Q.M.U.S.A. (Acting Quarter Master, United States Army), Alexandria, Va.” The neat writing with which entries were made on the page bearing Colley’s name indicates that Charles H. Colley belonged to Co. B, 10th Maine Infantry and that he was buried in Grave 325 in the Alexandria (Va.) National Cemetery, an approximately 5.5-acre site that predates Arlington National Cemetery.
Grave 325 is in Section A of the Alexandria cemetery.
The “Record of Deceased Soldiers” also indicates that Colley died of septicemia at a hospital on Prince Street in Washington, D.C. on Sept, 20, 1862 and that he was buried the same day. His “hospital” (patient) number was 1049.
So where does Charles Colley lie buried? In Alexandria or Gray? The fact that his relatives spent money to have such an ornately carved headstone created for him suggests that they believed they had buried him in Gray.
Colley’s stone in Alexandria is the traditional headstone that the War Department provided for deceased Civil War veterans.
The whereabouts of Charles Colley remains an enduring mystery.
When I visited the Gray Village Cemetery earlier this spring, I found the Stranger’s grave marked by one large and two Confederate battle flags and a Confederate national flag. The large battle flag rises from a “Confederate War Veteran” flag holder.
Managed by the Gray Cemetery Association, the Gray Village Cemetery lies in the area bordered by Route 202, the Maine Turnpike, and Shaker Road. Exiting the turnpike, I turned right onto 202 and then left onto a cemetery road running past a small cemetery building painted light blue (think ”Florida” light blue).
Parking shy of the road’s crest, I started looking for Colley and the Stranger. First I noticed a tall monument all but completely camouflaged amidst surrounding cedar trees — and then, just to the northeast, toward Shaker Road, I saw the Confederate flags fluttering in the breeze.
And about three rows to the southeast toward Route 202 lay Charles H. Colley.
Unlike the Stranger buried in Gray, the Confederate buried at Central Cemetery in Dedham has a name; he is Lt. Thomas W. Mitchell, a Virginian who fell in love with a Maine woman.
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.
Mary bore Thomas a daughter, Anna, in February 1860. When the Civil War began, Thomas Mitchell avoided military service until Sept. 15, 1861, 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.
Sent to a Union prison camp at Fort Delaware, a godforsaken and 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.
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. Mary never remarried. Later in life she lived with her daughter, Anna 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,” but that is another story altogether.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.