Finding the dead at Gettysburg

No sooner than Saturday, July 4, 1863, Timothy O'Sullivan photographed these six dead Union soldiers killed during the first day's fighting at Gettysburg. The position of the bodies — legs straightened and arms often even with or above the shoulders — suggest that a Union burial party had gathered the men together to bury them. (Library of Congress)

No sooner than Saturday, July 4, 1863, Timothy O’Sullivan photographed these six dead Union soldiers killed during the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. The position of the bodies — legs straightened and arms often even with or above the shoulders — suggest that a Union burial party had gathered the men together to bury them. (Library of Congress)

Twenty-four days after arriving at Gettysburg, Dr. Albion Cobb of the 4th Maine Infantry finally left his patients long enough to explore “the field of battle.” On Saturday, July 25, Cobb walked across the terrain defended by Union troop and gazed in astonishment at the soldiers still there.

“I find the whole country planted with graves,” Cobb realized.

Graves to the right of him, graves to the left of him, and graves all around him: Everywhere rose the up-turned earth mounds marking fresh graves.

Today, estimates of the total number of men killed because of Gettysburg range from roughly 8,000 to 10,000; some guesstimates run higher. Burial parties scoured the battlefield for days in early July to find and bury the dead; “a detachment sent out to bury the dead found fifty dead rebels upon the ground where we had fought,” said Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine Infantry.

Sometimes a man’s comrades found and buried him, usually in an individual grave. “Our dead were buried, and their graves were marked by the loving hands of their comrades,” Gerrish said, referring to the 20th Maine’s heroes slain at Little Round Top.

Grave diggers apparently tried to mark the grave of each slain soldier with an individual marker, typically a wood board carved with the corpse’s name (if known) and unit (ditto). Since they could not identify dead Confederate soldiers, the Union grave diggers might have marked scratched those markers with the phrase “Confederate, unknown.”

Dead Confederate soldiers lie in a burial trench at Gettysburg. The Union soldiers designated to bury the dead were placing a wooden headboard to mark the resting place of each enemy soldier. Once the burial parties were finished, thousands of such rudimentary grave "stones" jutted from the Gettysburg soil. (Library of Congress)

Dead Confederate soldiers lie in a burial trench at Gettysburg. The Union soldiers designated to bury the dead were placing a wooden headboard to mark the resting place of each enemy soldier. Once the burial parties were finished, thousands of such rudimentary grave “stones” jutted from the Gettysburg soil. (Library of Congress)

Albion Cobb looked for a particular grave.

So did Corp. Levi Perry of Co. D, 4th Maine Infantry.

The son of Chandler Perry Sr. and Sarah (Hall) Perry of South Thomaston, Levi (sometimes spelled “Levy”) was 19 when the war started. The Perrys responded enthusiastically — a bit too much, as events proved — when the Lincoln Administration asked Maine to raise several infantry regiments in spring 1861.

Chandler Perry Sr. was days shy of his 49th birthday when he and Levi joined the 4th Maine in May. Chandler’s oldest son and namesake, Chandler Jr., was born in 1836. Already married when Fort Sumter surrendered, he declined to enlist with his father and brother, then joined Co. I, 19th Maine Infantry in summer 1862.

And Chandler Sr.’s brother, George, joined the 17th Maine that summer, too.

Chandler Sr. and Levi served at First Manassas, father as a hospital steward and son as a rifleman. Confederate troops captured Chandler Sr. and shipped him to Richmond, where he died of typhoid fever on Nov. 27, 1861.

Captured at Chancellorsville in May 1863, George Perry died of disease in February 1864.

A simple monument identifies where 104 Maine soldiers are buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The Maine boys lie just west of the cemetery's Baltimore Street entrance. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A simple monument identifies where 104 Maine soldiers are buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The Maine boys lie just west of the cemetery’s Baltimore Street entrance. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Levi had traipsed and fought hither and yon with the 4th Maine Infantry when Chandler Jr. signed up. “I think he has done wrong,” Levi wrote his mother on July 26, 1862. “I wish Chan was here now[;] I would give him a small piece of my mnd (sic).”

The 4th Maine got into the fight at Chancellorsville late — literally late on Saturday, May 2, 1863, when the regiment participated in a nighttime charge “through a thicket of pine and cedar and over a long piece of fell[ed] trees that would make it hard work to go through in day light,” Levi told Sarah.

The 4th Maine boys “went in with a yell that would almost raise the dead,” he recalled. Bullets flew fast and furious; “I had two [musket] balls pass through my clothes[,] one through the left leg of my trousers and the other the sleeve of my jacket[,] but neither of them touched me.”

Almost three weeks later he informed Sarah, “I have seen Chandler once [since] the fight[;] he is enjoying himself about the same as usual.” Levi also reported that “Uncle George Perry” had been captured at Chancellorsville.

Then the 4th Maine and 19th Maine and many other Maine regiments and artillery batteries went into Pennsylvania to find and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia. The 4th and 19th played critical roles during the Battle of Gettysburg:

• The 4th Maine fought around and within the Devil’s Den on July 2. Read the details at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2013/07/11/a-fight-with-the-devil-in-his-gettysburg-den/

• The 19th Maine plugged a hole in the Union line below Cemetery Ridge on July 2 and plunged into the bayonet-and-rifle-butt scrum that ejected Confederate troops from the Copse of Trees on July 3. For more information, log onto http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com/2013/07/25/keeping-a-date-with-a-guy-named-pickett/

So the Perry brothers helped defeat Robert E. Lee’s veterans at Gettysburg. On Saturday, July 11, Levi wrote a letter for himself and Chandler.

Henry S. Small of Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry was killed at Gettysburg. His grave, marked by an American flag, lies in the town's national cemetery. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Henry S. Small of Co. A, 3rd Maine Infantry was killed at Gettysburg. His grave, marked by an American flag, lies in the town’s national cemetery. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“Dear Mother, I will try this morning to write you a few lines,” Levi addressed Sarah. “You have heard of the battle of Gettysburg before this and are anxious to hear from your boys.”

Did Levi pause, blink, and let the tears well in his eyes? “I am well as usual[,] but Chandler is no more[.] he was killed the 2nd[.] he was shot throu the heart.”

Chandler Perry Jr. had died as the 19th Maine stopped a Confederate advance east of the Codori Farm. Levi admitted to Sarah that “I was unable to see him[,] our Regiment being engaged on the left of our line.”

But Levi did find his brother. “I see his grave the 4th [of July,] he is buried near the spot where he fell,” Sarah learned. Levi also recovered Chandler’s “watch[,] wallet and Diary and will send them home as soon as possible.”

Chandler Jr. lies among the 104 Maine heroes later buried in the national cemetery at Gettysburg. The boys are located in Lot C, almost due west of the cemetery’s entrance off Baltimore Street. Enter the cemetery and, a short distance beyond the elegant New York monument, look for the fan-shaped spread of interconnected headstones set at ground level.

“Sergt. C.F. Perry Co. I. Regt. 19.” lies here with the other Maine heroes. So do some 20th Maine lads known by Theodore Gerrish.

“I suppose that their remains have since been removed to the National Cemetery,” he commented years later, “but somehow I wish they had been left where they fell, on the rugged brow of Round Top, amid the battle-scarred rocks which they baptized with their blood as they died.”

The next time you are in town, stop by the Gettysburg National Cemetery and say “hello” to these veterans who gave their all for their country.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.