You’ve got the wrong guy in that coffin!

Dr. Richard Burr, an embalming “surgeon,” pumps embalming fluid into a dead Union soldier placed on a door set atop two barrels. This incident took place when Burr was trailing along with the Army of the James, probably in 1864. (Library of Congress)

Stephen King could have penned the Somerset County horror story unfolding in mid-January 1863.

At Pittsfield on the Sebasticook River, Reverend Ephraim Johnson and his wife, Abigail, had bid their two oldest sons, 23-year-old Franklin and 20-year-old Henry, “farewell” in the past few months. Farmers toiling the soils near the flood-prone Sebasticook, Ephraim and the fecund Abigail were raising 10 children (ranging in age from Sarah, 24, to Ada, 1) when a spelling-challenged census taker visited the farm in 1860.

An 11th child, Howard, would be born in 1861.

Ephraim Johnson was also an amateur fishermen, sufficiently proficient so that his friend, Hannibal Hamlin, occasionally joined his trips to secret fishing holes along and near the Sebasticook. The pre-war friendship cultivated with Hamlin with important to both men; Hamlin’s grandson and biographer, Charles Eugene Hamlin, remembered his grandfather describing Johnson as “a friend of his.”

Besides tilling the soil, Ephraim Johnson ministered at a local church. With real estate worth $500, he was not wealthy, and losing his oldest sons to the army — Franklin to Co. E, 16th Maine Infantry on August 14 and Henry to Co. D, 24th Maine Infantry on October 13 — cost his farm two valuable laborers.

Rumbling from Maine on a train with the 24th Maine, Henry caught typhoid fever; comrades left him in a New York City hospital as duty pushed them onward to Washington, D.C.

Franklin (“Frank“ on the Co. E rolls) caught a minie ball while charging with the 16th Maine across the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg on December 13. Leaving a small entrance hole, the minie ball mushroomed while en route through the leg and blew out every bit of bone and tissue in its path.

Retreating across the Rappahannock, the 16th Maine boys and their parent 1st Brigade camped “near Fetcher’s Chapel,” a Methodist church built in 1851 in King George County, just south of the Stafford County line.

“Occupied as a hospital,” the rough-hewn chapel was “filled with the sick, the victims of the former exposure and want [suffered during the Blanket Brigade’s recent cross-Virginia march], the fell effects of which were seen in the unusual mortality in the cases of amputation, eight in nine proving fatal,” a 16th Maine veteran recalled.

Minus a leg, Frank Johnson now lay in a Union hospital, possibly Fletcher’s Chapel.

Sensing the Death Angel hovering around their boys, Ephraim and Abigail Johnson collected every coin they could spare; perhaps the good reverend’s parishioners even passed the collection plate for a special offering.

Reverend Johnson departed Maine in late December. En route to New York, he encountered Henry’s embalmed body, “on the way” home in a coffin. The heart-broken father could at best weep over the coffin and let Abigail deal with its arrival in Pittsfield; Franklin needed his father, so onward to Washington Ephraim Johnson traveled.

There he learned that Franklin had died; comparing the provided times, Johnson realized he had died “within an hour” of Henry on Christmas Day 1862. His 16th Maine comrades buried Frank with appropriate ceremony.

Amidst Washington’s hustle and bustle, the trusting Johnson discovered his pocket picked, leaving him “without a cent of money when every moment was worth a day to him at any other time,” Charles Eugene Hamlin wrote years later. As he would do if in trouble at home, Johnson sought assistance from his nearest friend, Hannibal Hamlin.

The vice president “was just retiring” when Johnson knocked on his door. The heart-broken father explained what had happened to his sons and his meager travel funds.

Hamlin “flung on his clothes, gave Johnson whatever money he had, rushed around Washington, rousted up the members of the Maine delegation, and raised more money.” The generous donations would pay an embalmer to make Franklin fit for travel.

Johnson returned “home with a promise” that Franklin’s body “should follow immediately.” In a few weeks a crate containing the dead son’s lead-lined coffin arrived in Pittsfield.

Ephraim, Abigail, and at least some older children watched as friends removed the coffin from its crate. “When the coffin was opened the weeping parents looked upon the face of a stranger!” a local newspaper proclaimed. “By some unfortunate blunder the wrong body had been sent.”

The screams echoed across the Sebasticook Valley; the weeping could have flooded the ice- and snow-covered Sebasticook River.

Sources: A Sad Case, Waterville Mail, reprinted in the Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, January 26, 1863; 1860 census for Pittsfield; Maine in the War for the Union; The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin, by Charles Eugene Hamlin

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The Civil War In Song

Join Civil War enthusiast and re-enactor Paul Dudley and his band of toy “dancing Dans” as they share traditional songs and more at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 16 at the Isaac Farrar Mansion, 166 Union Street, Bangor.
Sponsored by the Bangor Historical Society, this lively presentation has been presented in schools and is great for children and adults.


Listen to Maine at War on the air

Join me every Friday on WBFY-FM (100.9 FM) at 7:50 a.m., 11:50 a.m., and 6:50 p.m. for A Maine Civil War Moment. Broadcasting on Belfast’s new community radio station, A Maine Civil War Moment draws on the Maine at War files to tell the tales of Maine men and women who helped save the country during the Civil War.

You can also catch A Maine Civil War Moment at wbfy.caster.fm.

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.