Pain wracking his shattered body, George Ray Parsons shivers as he stirs in the damp Fredericksburg mud in midafternoon on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1862. He’s been hit, whether by a 0.58-caliber lead bullet or a shell fragment, he cannot tell.
Seeping blood suggests the wound in his side is bad … real bad.
Parsons lies among many, many other blue-clad bundles strewn across a muddy farm field covered with corn stubble. Just minutes earlier, he was charging with Co. B of the 16th Maine Infantry across the field toward a railroad embankment a few hundred yards to the west.
Near him rushed Corp. Alvan M.C. Heath, like Parsons a Gardiner resident who had joined the 16th Maine last Aug. 14. As editor of the Gardiner Home Journal, the 34-year-old Heath was well-known in the Kennebec Valley town. Because “he deemed the ranks the most honorable position in which to serve his country,” he eschewed an officer’s commission.
Breathing in tight gasps, Parsons cannot clearly remember what happened these minutes past. Oh, yeah, that’s right: Lt. Col. Charles Tilden had just led the 16th Maine in a charge toward where the Confederates huddled behind the railroad embankment.
They were there trying to stop Union troops from capturing that wooded hill Parsons had noticed a little while ago. Prospect Hill, some 16th Maine officer had called the high ground. That’s the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad that we’ve got to capture on the far side of this field.
We get over that railroad and grab that hill, and we drive the Confederates from Fredericksburg, the officer had explained to his curious corporals and sergeants.
Parsons remembers running real fast — and the mud clawing at his brogans and slowing him down. He jumped several water-filled drainage ditches. Men were falling — lots of men were falling around him, then something punched him hard, and he went down.
Did he see Alvan Heath fall? How ironic, Parsons realizes, that the older Heath — married and the father of three sons and a daughter — should report to him, a 20-year-old sergeant.
For a fleeting moment, Parsons even smiles at the thought of Heath in a baggy blue uniform. Who back home in Gardiner could imagine Alvah Heath being a soldier? After all, “his whole character, tastes and instincts were opposed to a military life.”
Suddenly Parsons coughs; the sharp pain spreads more blood into his clothing. This is not good, the youth knows.
Back home in winter-clad Gardiner, his parents — Alonzo and Susan — are going about a typical pre-Christmas Saturday. Do their thoughts stray to their far-off son? He certainly thinks about them this day.
Violent noise penetrates his hazy mind. Lead bullets zip! zip! zip! around him, and cannons thump relentlessly. A few hundred yards away, near where Tilden has gathered his surviving soldiers, Capt. James Hall oversees the fast-loading and -firing gunners of the 2nd Maine Battery. Parsons does not know that Hall’s gunners had driven off Confederates chasing the 16th Maine boys from the woods they had captured on the lower slope of Prospect Hill.
Sensing the Angel of Death hovering nearby, Parsons slips his hands into various pockets. Finding a pencil and a paper scrap, he desperately forms words. By now his mind is so fuzzy, he’s unsure as to the actual date.
“On the Battle Field, December 12th or 13th, 1862.
“Dear Father : —I write you while lying on the battle field, wounded, perhaps fatally,” Parsons addresses his message. “I am very weak. I fell, wounded in the side.
“Good bye, if I never see you again. Tell mother I think of her while lying here, and wish I had her to be with me in my last parting moments. Much love to all,” he greets his family.
“I fell while doing my duty. I think Corp. Heath was near when I fell. He did his duty like a soldier. He was cool and deliberate.” Parsons cannot know that Alvan Heath lies seriously wounded a short distance off; the words of praise with be shared with his wife, Sarah.
George Parsons notices his fading eyesight. The sun’s still low over the Fredericksburg hills, so a lack of natural light is not dimming his vision.
Then Parsons looks up, blinks, and sees the Angel of Death approaching. “Farewell,” the teen-aged sergeant tells his father.
“I may never see you again on earth, but I hope to meet you in Heaven, where there will be no fighting, and where I hope we shall meet, an unbroken family,” Parsons writes as his hand shakes. “Farewell, father, farewell mother, and brothers, and sisters. Yours affectionately, Geo. R. Parsons.”
By signing his name, Parsons guarantees that whoever finds his body will know its identity. Later on Saturday, Union troops do retrieve him and Alvan Heath from the battlefield.
Uncertainty exists as to exactly when Parsons dies: Most sources claim Dec. 13, another source the next day. His body possibly goes home for burial; his family hires a stone carver to chip a poignant tribute to the fallen soldier on the Parsons monolith in Oak Grove Cemetery in Gardiner.
Heath’s embalmed body does go home. More than 1,000 people will pack the Methodist church in Gardiner for Heath’s funeral, and most mourners will escort the body to an open grave at Oak Grove Cemetery.
A comrade either delivers or mails to Gardiner the last letter written by George Ray Parsons. Editor Ezekiel Holmes publishes the letter in its entirety in the Maine Farmer on Thursday, Jan. 8, 1863.
Holmes has seen the letter: “The lines were traced with difficulty, and the paper was tinged with blood,” he tells his readers.
The quotes pertaining to Alvan M.C. Heath are taken from the Thursday, Jan. 1, 1863 issue of the Maine Farmer.
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.