Editor’s note: Dawn Langton of Florida is a great-great granddaughter of Willard Greenleaf Delano, who mustered with the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment in Bangor in 1863 and died at Petersburg on June 18, 1864.
This is the tale of her search for her ancestor’s burial site.
By Dawn Langton
A new family was born in a Civil War cemetery in Virginia the last weekend in April 2017.
They arrived as 60 strangers from throughout the United States at a ceremony for Civil War descendants marking the re-dedication of Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg on April 28. Amid tears and applause, they became family as Elizabeth Dinger, lead park ranger, described the 1½-year endeavor to bring the cemetery back to life.
Established in 1866 as a resting place for Union soldiers killed during the Siege of Petersburg, Poplar Grove National Cemetery was filled over the course of almost three years as bodies were recovered from the battlefield. Over the years, the cemetery fell into disrepair; then in late 2015, a massive effort to rehabilitate the nine acres began, shepherded by Dinger.
Today it is a peaceful place with about 6,000 well-tended graves. “The work on the cemetery records, getting to know some of the families, and trying to help tell the stories of my soldiers is the most important thing I’ve ever done, or will do,” said Dinger.
Somewhere among the soldiers under Dinger’s care is my great-great-grandfather, Willard Greenleaf Delano of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, who was mustered in December 1863 in Bangor. When he was killed at age 38 on June 18, 1864, he left behind his wife, Sarah, his parents Enos and Hannah (Prince) Delano, and his 3-year-old son, Walter Herbert Delano, my great-grandfather.
I know Willard was remembered and honored, because in 1892 his son was the commander of the Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. But Walter died when my grandfather Roland Hixon Delano was young, and his stories were not passed down. Until recently, all I knew about Willard was when and where he was born and killed.
History fills in the gaps. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery started out as garrison troops at the forts in Washington, D.C., according to Aaron Rowland, a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield, nine miles from Poplar Grove. But in the spring of 1864, they were sent to the front.
At the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 19, the 1st Maine lost the most men in a Union regiment in a single charge to that date. A month later, they fared worse at Petersburg, setting a final and devastating record, again for most men lost by a Union regiment in a single charge in the Civil War.
The 1st Maine fought bravely and loyally, said Ranger Rowland. When ordered to attack Confederate lines entrenched near Colquitt’s Salient, they did. But their supports, more seasoned veterans, held back. In 10 minutes, 632 men from Maine, including my great-great-grandfather, were killed or wounded, 70 percent of the regiment.
To visit that exact place at the Petersburg Battlefield, so far and foreign from Willard’s home in Bangor, was more moving than I could have imagined. Colquitt’s Salient is quiet now. A cat from a nearby home sat on a log and watched our progress along the trail in the hot sun.
A peculiar smell of southern wildflowers that I knew but couldn’t place was strong in the hollow below the ridge. I stood where Willard and his fellow Maine soldiers stood and sweated and sniffed the air before their charge. Today’s huge pines were not there back then. Ranger Rowland said none at the site are old enough to be “witness trees.”
Later at Poplar Grove, Ranger Dinger confirmed what we had suspected. Willard is one of the two-thirds of the soldiers there who are unidentified. “I’m 99.9 percent sure he’s here,” she said. “I suggest you pick out a marker for an unknown soldier and spend some time there.
“Maybe it’s him, or if not, it’s another soldier who may never have had a visitor. You can be that visitor, and maybe someone else will visit Willard,” she said.
As other descendants — our new-found family — wandered among the stones and evening came on, I followed a hopping sparrow to the six-inch square marker for solider number 4519 beneath a towering tree. I stood a while and thought.
So thanks to people who care today, I found Willard of Maine, in a way, among his soldier family and bore witness to their sacrifice of so long ago.
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.