Al Williams escapes a Gettysburg grave, part 1

President Abraham Lincoln delivers his 271-word “Gettysburg Address” during the Nov. 19, 1863 dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery under development on Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. (National Park Service)

Despite some 8 inches of snow dropped by what the Weather Fools dubbed “Winter Storm Avery” (real people don’t name snowstorms), the 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication went ahead as planned on November 19, 2018.

Ultimately, 104 soldiers went into Maine’s section. As with all the soldiers initially buried in the cemetery, the Maine lads’ headstones lay flush with the grass and fan out in eight rows from the single above-ground stone simply engraved “Maine 104.”

When you stand at this stone and look across the Maine graves, you notice how they line up northward with the New York monument, added later. The cemetery’s Baltimore Street entrance lies just beyond that monument.

There should have been 105 Mainers buried at Gettysburg, but from Augusta comes the tale (and documentation) about Sgt. Albert N. Williams, the one who got away.

Whether buried or not, the dead lay all around Gettysburg after the July 1-3, 1863 battle, and Union soldiers assigned to burial details could not dig graves fast enough. A stench — if you have “smelled” death, you never forget it — filled the air.

Possibly in late autumn 1863, black grave-diggers exhume Union soldiers buried on the Gettysburg battlefield. Each Union soldier went into a pine coffin provided by the War Department. (Hanover Area Historical Society, Hanover, Pa.)

Gettysburg attorney David Willis contacted Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin about acquiring a suitable burial site for the Union dead then scattered from Herr’s Ridge and the Chambersburg Pike southeast beyond Big Round Top and the Devil’s Den. Curtin approved the proposal, and Willis found land alongside the town’s Evergreen Cemetery on Cemetery Hill.

Pennsylvania bought the land and hired “landscape gardener” William Saunders of Germantown, Pa. to design a suitable cemetery. He created an arc-shaped layout, essentially half a wheel, radiating clockwise from south around to west and then to north, focused on a point that a future monument would occupy.

Appointed “the Superintendent of the exhuming of the bodies of the Union dead that fell on the battle field of Gettysburg,” Samuel Weaver hired “a contractor,” a free black named Basil Briggs, and grave-diggers to relocate Union soldiers to the new “Soldiers’ National Cemetery,” the initial name of Saunders’ vision.

Exhumations began on Tuesday, October 27, 1863. Delayed by wet weather and frozen ground and “also by the number of bodies exceeding our first calculations,” grave-diggers did not complete their work until Friday, March 18, 1864, Weaver reported.

The work has been protracted much beyond our original anticipations,” he commented

Grave-diggers reburied 3,354 men in the national cemetery and retrieved another 158 Massachusetts soldiers “by special contract” with “the authorities of the city of Boston,” Weaver noted. Those bodies were shipped to Massachusetts for burial.

Located just west of Hancock Avenue at Gettysburg National Military Park, this 19th Maine Infantry flank marker indicates where the regiment’s right-most company deployed in a line facing west toward the Emmitsburg Road and the Codori Farm (upper right). South Mountain lies on the far horizon; Confederate troops attacked toward the photographer’s position in late afternoon on July 2, 1863. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Just under four weeks after exhumations started, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his 271-word dedicatory speech that obliterated any memory of the 13,607-word, two-hour “Battles of Gettysburg” oration provided by Edward Everett.

Not many Union boys lay in the national cemetery that Thursday, November 19; thousands would follow.

Belonging to Co. G, 19th Maine Infantry Regiment, Sgt. Albert N. Williams of Augusta should have joined the other 19th Maine lads (not many) to be buried in the eight rows of Section 15, assigned to Maine. While their families often paid to have slain officers embalmed for shipment home, enlisted men’s families usually lacked the funds to bring their heroes home for burial.

Albert Williams should have stayed at Gettysburg. He did not.

Twenty-four and married when he mustered with Co. G, on August 25, 1862, Williams arrived at Gettysburg 24 hours after the battle started. The 19th Maine boys and the 1st Brigade “marched upon the battlefield” about 7 a.m., Thursday and with their brigade initially went into reserve “in close column, by regiments,” approximately 75 yards behind the other two brigades deployed along a 500-yard front facing the Emmitsburg Road, according to regimental historian John Day Smith. The 2nd Brigade held the right of the line, the 3rd Brigade the left.

About 275 or 300 yards in their front was a large brick house, known as the Codori House,” Smith noted.

Albert Williams would not see the Codori House for long.

Next week: Friends ensure that Al Williams does not stay forever at Gettysburg.

Sources: Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine, Appendix D, p. 557; John Day Smith, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry 1862-1865, Great Western Printing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909, p. 69

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys 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.