By telegraph and letter, by railroad and newspaper, word of Virginia's deadly spring of 1864 reverberated across America.
This weekend, amidst the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Overland Campaign, National Park Service battle sites in Virginia and communities North and South are remembering those who fell at The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.
The loss of men in Virginia constituted deep wounds to communities across Michigan. Places like Dearborn, Williamston, Pontiac and dozens more reckoned with the loss of men who would never come home—most of them buried today as unknowns on Virginia's fields.
This weekend, at The Henry Ford, in the village that reminds us so much that America’s heart is built around home and community, we join with the staff of The Henry Ford to remember.
We remember families like the Churches of Williamston, whose son Charles went to fight with the Third Michigan Infantry. War interrupted his quest to become a pig farmer, but he found both purpose and improvement in his service. “I am ten times better a man than I ever was before this war,” he told his homefolk in 1863. “It is the best school I ever attended and…people need not be troubled about my well fare.”
But then, in May 1864, came word from the Wilderness in Virginia, scene of the first clash between Grant and Lee, a horrific place of fire and death. That spring of sadness, letters like this flew across America like daggers.
Camp of the 3rd Michigan Infantry
May 20, 1864
Dear Sir it becomes my painful duty to inform you that your son Charles H. Church is [presumed] to be killed. Our regiment went on a charge May 6th and after going until the rebles shot fell thick and fast all around. We fell back and to our surprise he did not fall back with us… Some of our regiment saw him and they say he was wounded in the bowels and fell back a short ways but was compelled to give up. The johnnys soon held the ground that we had gained and all that he had with him fell into the enemys hands. Our regiment with you mourn his loss for he was a good soldier and a brave man. ….. We have lost two thirds of our regiment since we left on this campaign. Many brave officers and men have been killed. We mourn their loss.
Edgar W. Clark, Co. G, 3rd Mich Inf Washington, D. C.
Julia Wheelock, a teacher in Ionia, Michigan, traveled to Virginia to care for the wounded in 1864.
The Civil War touched every corner of or nation and drew into it not just soldiers and sailors, but sisters and loved ones. In 1862, Julia Wheelock, a teacher in Ionia, Michigan learned that her brother Orville had been wounded at the Battle of Chantilly. She rushed to Washington to find and care for him, but got there too late. Julia sought no refuge from her grief. Instead, she stayed and helped in the hospitals around Washington and would quietly forge a career of courage and accomplishment as a caregiver. Her published letters are among the best from a woman serving at the front.
In 1864, Julia (now an agent of the Michigan Soldiers’ Relief Association) traveled to Fredericksburg to care for the wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania. In her letters, she recorded heart-wrenching dilemmas, scorching moments. She wrote on May 15:
“Among the hospitals I have visited today is the old Theatre…I took a quantity of pillows, chicken soup, and crackers. The moment I entered the hospital, oh, what a begging for pillows came from all parts of the room! `Please give me a pillow, I’m wounded in the head and my knapsack is so hard,’ said one. Another wants one for the stump of his arm or leg. `I don’t think it would be so painful if only I had a pillow, or cushion, or something to keep it from the hard floor; there, that small one will do for me; please lady, let me have that….” For a few moments I stood with the pillows in my arms, unable to decide what do. I could not supply all, and to whom should I give?”
In that same theater, Julia came across a wounded captain facing death. Julia fed the Captain broth, then asked if there were anything she could do for him before she headed off to her next patient
“If you will, please write a few lines to mother,” he said.
Remembered Julia: “Taking her address, I inquired whether there was anything in particular he wished me to write. I shall never forget the expression…as he looked up and said, “Oh! Give her some encouragement, but tell her I’m trusting in God.” He hesitated a few moments, and then added: “It will be so hard for my mother, for she is a widow, and I am her only son.” I tried to speak a few words of comfort, telling him that if his trust was in God all would be well….In a moment the thought of the anguish that would soon pierce that lone widowed mother’s heart, rushed upon my mind, and poor, weak human nature was overcome, and I could only bow my head and weep. The poor fellow seemed fully conscious of the fact that he must die; and while he would have his mother know the worst, he wished the sad intelligence to be gently broken. The language of his heart seemed to be, ‘Who will care for my mother now?’”
The story of war invariably revolves around home. Some fought to defend homes. Others aspired only to reach home once more. Deaths in Virginia halted those journeys home and sent shockwaves through homes across Michigan and America, challenging the will of families, communities, states, and nations to continue.
Continue they did, crippled by hardship, awash in heartbreak, civilian and soldier alike. It is a sad, difficult story to be sure. But the hardship endured is also a measure of the commitment and determination of those who toiled and sacrificed on our behalf 150 years ago.
Those who gave so much asked only one thing of those who followed: that we remember. And this weekend, we do. We remind ourselves that the fruits of their toil and sacrifice constitute the foundation of our nation still: a still-improving place of freedom and justice and unprecedented prosperity.
John Hennessy is Chief Historian, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, with the National Park Service. The Henry Ford is pleased to partner with the National Park Service in delivering special presentations and outreach programming through the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield relating to the 150th Anniversary of General Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864 during Civil War Remembrance.