As Veterans Day approaches, the final resting place of a long-forgotten hero mentioned in an obscure journal has been “found” …
… and, actually, he was there all along.
Dr. Albion Cobb, assistant surgeon of the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment, helped care for the myriad wounded of Gettysburg during and after the battle. He saved men’s lives, and he saw men die.
Cobb routinely wrote in his dairy, yet made little reference to his actual work. Perhaps the sights, sounds, and smells proved too difficult to describe, as suggested when, on July 5, he expressed his desire to “escape from this horrid and bloody war.”
Cobb occasionally mentioned a particular patient; on July 6, he told his diary, “I omitted to record in the proper place that Lieut. Bray died yesterday and was buried by some army Chaplains.”
On Saturday, July 25, Cobb explored the battlefield for the first time. He may have reached Rose’s Woods, which partially covers Houck’s Ridge and abuts the wheat field where the 17th Maine had fought ferociously on July 2; Cobb described seeing “a thick forest of small oaks near where a portion of our Corps was engaged on the 2nd.” He wandered into that forest and discovered “there was scarcely a tree to be found which is not marked by one or more bullets.”
And Cobb searched for the grave of “Lieut. McCobb, who died at the hospital” overnight between July 2-3. Cobb checked only those graves marked with individual markers, usually wood boards into which friends carved the dead men’s names and units.
He found McCobb’s grave “marked by a new headboard.”
Hailing from Boothbay, 2nd Lt. Charles S. McCobb was second in command of Co. E, 4th Maine. Despite fighting at the Devil’s Den, Co. E had suffered only one fatality during the battle: McCobb, brought mortally wounded off the battlefield to die that night. However, the badly wounded Corp. Willard T. Barstow of Damariscotta and Co. E would succumb to his injuries on Aug. 28.
Cobb did not indicate how long he searched for the grave of McCobb. There were many places to look; “I find the whole country planted with graves,” Cobb realized.
Three weeks earlier, he would have seen “the whole country” planted with bodies.
After sunset on Friday, July 3, 1863, the combat-eviscerated 17th Maine Infantry “was sent out on picket in the field in front,” said Pvt. John Haley of Co. I and Saco. “It has never been my lot to see and experience such things as on this occasion.”
He explained that “the dead lay everywhere” in the darkness; the bodies had started to decompose “as soon as life is extinct,” and the smell was “so great that we can neither eat, drink, nor sleep.”
To survive their nighttime duty amidst “the dead [who] are frightfully smashed,” the 17th Maine boys “pass the time bringing in the wounded and caring for them,” Haley said. Union soldiers recovered wounded Yankees and Johnny Rebs alike; a 17th Maine officer “crawled out on his hands and knees to give a wounded Rebel a drink,” and a Confederate picket fired at the officer — and missed.
We who have never seen combat cannot imagine the human debris strewn in its wake. “No tongue can depict the carnage, and I cannot make it seem real,” Haley admitted. He described seeing “men’s heads blown off or split open; horrible gashes cut; some split from the top of the head to the extremities.”
Other horribly mangled men reached the Union hospitals where surgeons like Albion Cobb battled to save lives. Only once (on July 20) did Cobb mention participating “in another ordinary amputation of the arm.”
Cobb did not mention where Lt. Bray was buried. If he had sought the burial site, Cobb could have looked for Bray’s grave forever.
In the late 1990s, Cobb’s lengthy diary arrived at the Maine State Archives via Connecticut resident Richard F. Potter and the Moosehead Historical Society. Civil War historians have studied the diary; at least some have read the July 5, 1863 reference to the death of Bray.
But the lieutenant does not exist. While researching Albion McCobb for “Maine at War,” I looked for Bray on the 4th Maine’s rosters pertaining to Gettysburg. No Bray listed there, nor in the 4th’s regimental returns for 1862 and 1863, as published in the respective Maine Adjutant General’s reports.
In fact, only three or four Brays were commissioned as Maine officers during the Civil War, and none were associated with the 4th Maine.
So I re-read the 4th Maine’s chapter in “Maine at Gettysburg,” the bible of Maine-related Civil War books. One line on page 174 cites “Second Lieutenant George M. Bragg, commanding Co. K, w’d, died July 5.”
“Bragg” is “Bray,” a mistake that possibly was a transcription’s error.
The 19-year-old George Bragg enlisted in Co. F, 4th Maine Infantry, on May 16, 1861. He stood 6-foot, ½-inches tall and had blue eyes, brown hair, and a dark complexion. The young George was an educated and talented individual; a teacher in civilian life, he was promoted to corporal, sergeant, and second lieutenant by mid-1863.
So Bray has been correctly identified as George M. Bragg. I was not familiar with the name — then I discovered Bragg and I had met at Gettysburg, at his grave in the national cemetery.
Soldiers from all the loyal states represented at Gettysburg lie buried state by state in the cemetery Representing Maine are 104 men buried side by side in Lot C almost due west of the cemetery’s Baltimore Street entrance.
Over the years I have photographed many Maine graves. After identifying Bray as Bragg, I looked for him among the photos.
Yep, George M. Bragg is there. Incorrectly identified in Albion Cobb’s transcribed journal, Bragg has never left Gettysburg, where he died on July 5, 1863. My next trip there, I plan to find George and say “hi.”
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. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.