Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"And I stood among strangers"--John Lemuel Stetson and the 59th NY in the West Woods

Traveling north from Sharpsburg along Route 65 you eventually come across a series of roadside markers on the right leading up to the 15th Massachusetts Monument. Before the markers, however, is an often overlooked memorial to John L. Stetson.

The monument, often mistaken for a tombstone, reads: "Here fell in the foremost of the advance of Sumner's Second Corps John Lemuel Stetson of Plattsburgh, N.Y. Lieut. Col. of the 59th New York 1862 - Volunteers - 1919." The year 1919 is the year the monument was placed by his family.

John Lemuel Stetson (March 8, 1832-September 17, 1862) was the son of Lemuel Stetson, an attorney, an Essex and Clinton County judge, and sometimes politician who served in the NY state assembly and in the 28th U.S. Congress (mid-1840s).

John married in 1856 Lucy Maria Platt (1835-1860) the great great grandaughter of the founder of Plattsburgh, Zephaniah. The photograph to the right was taken of the Stetsons in 1857. The couple set up their home and he his law practice in Plattsburgh. Maria died in February 1860 leaving no children.

With the outbreak of war, John helped raise the 59th New York and was commissioned as its Lieutenant-Colonel. The unit saw little action leading up to Antietam and spent most of its time on garrison duty in and around Washington.

In the days following the battle, families both north and south received telegrams telling of a son or husband's fate on September 17. Some received the news through the local newspaper's listing of the dead and wounded. If the family had the means, a father, mother, wife, or son traveled to Sharpsburg to their loved one. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the father of Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes of the 20th Massachusetts (The Harvard Regiment), journeyed from Boston to Sharpsburg in search of his wounded son--he had received a telegram early on the 18th sent by Lt. Col. and Quartermaster W.G. LeDuc. The senior Holmes published an account of his journey in the Atlantic Monthly ("My Hunt After the Captain") and it represents the experience of those who hurried to the field to recover their own. While Holmes eventually reunited with his wounded son, Lemuel did not have as happy an outcome. What follows is a transcription of a remarkable letter Lemuel wrote to a friend and then published in the Albany Atlas & Argus of October 2, 1862 describing his journey and its sad ending. John Lemuel Stetson was the second son he had buried in the course of the then short war.

"Baltimore, September, 27, 1862.

Dear Sir:

I left Albany on the evening of the 19th quite abruptly and without seeing you as I desired. I had just seen my son's name, John L. Stetson, Lieut. Col. of the 59th, in the Journal's list of the casualties of the battle of Antietam; but it did not state whether killed or only wounded, and of course I went forward under anxious suspense. Arriving here the following afternoon I found at the U.S. Hospital two wounded privates of the 59th, just brought in from the battlefield. They left me little to hope; they reported him killed upon the field. I pursued my journey with many others, principally from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, who were equally anxious. We went by a special train to Frederick, and then via Middletown, Boonesboro, and Keedysville, by wagons and ambulances. At the latter place I came upon the hospital of Sedgwick's Division and found there a large number of wounded officers and men of the 59th. They confirmed the previous report. The Lieutenant Colonel was shot from his horse, in the heat of the action, at nine and a half o'clock A.M., Wednesday, the 17th of Sept. He was struck by a Minnie ball, in front, just below the pit of the stomach. The 59th stood in the center of Dana's Brigade; the 42nd N.Y. and the 7th Michigan being on the left, and the 19th and 20th Mass. on the right. They had pushed up the west bank of the Antietam two miles from Keedysville, crossed the turnpike leading from Sharpsburg to Hagerstown a mile and a quarter north of Sharpsburg, and entered the oak openings to the west of a broad cultivated filed a little way north of the Dunkard's Meeting House. They entered the forest under the direct order of Gen. Sumner, upon the doublequick. As they left the clear ground they passed a crest running north and south to which point they had been all the way ascending from the Antietam. This crest had protected them from the shot of the enemy--concealed by the forest to the west--while they were in the cleared field, except from shells thrown over the forest. Entering the forest the land descended considerably to the west, and then formed a plain some forty rods in width to the edge of the oak openings on the west side of the forest. This plain, however, was undulating and formed into gently rising mounds. At the edge (west) limestone rocks cropped out on the same level with the plain, and along this was a gully or ravine some six or eight feet deep, forming an impregnable line of defence for the rebels. From this ravine or natural wall or ditch, the land rose sharply to the west for half a mile, and upon this eminence the Confederates had planted batteries which raked the plain over the heads of their own men concealed behind the abrupt line of limestone ledge. Dana's Brigade, brought to the centre of the oak openings, received the double fire of cannon shot and small arms. But this was not all; the Divisions were not closed on the South, and the Confederates entering the opening flanked the Brigade as they stood exposed to the terrific cross-fire. The 7th Michigan and the [42nd N.Y.] {1} were turned, and General Sumner, ordered the line to fall back, which they did by moving hurriedly to the north upon their own line, under the pressure of the flank attack upon the left.

"The position of Lieut. Col. Stetson was at the right of his regiment, and as the men fell back to the point he changed front to the South, and earnestly stimulated the men to rally upon their colors. It was here that he received the fatal shot. He fell, and his horse galloped from the field. The Confederates occupied the spot until the following Friday morning, when the threatened pressure upon other parts of their line forced them to abandon this, the only point in the field from which they had been directly forced. Then the body of the Lieut. Col. was recovered, and was immediately interred, under the advice of Dr. Burr, the surgeon of the regiment.

"The rebels had rifled his pockets and turned them inside out. They had taken his hat and boots. But a Rebel Major returned his wallet, marked with his name and residence, to Lieut. Rosa, of the 59th regiment, lying wounded upon the same field, saying that it contained nothing of value which they wished to keep. They had emptied it of everything but Confederate notes, which had been procured near Richmond, and held as curiosities. Lieut. Rosa gave the wallet to Captain Lyne, and then died of his wound, and Captain Lyne placed the wallet in my possession.

"They buried the Lieutenant Colonel on the spot where he fell, upon a gently rising mound. Two trees stand to the west of the grave, the one, three paces from the head, and the other a like distance from the foot. The trees are scarred by shot, and the one at the south has three fresh hacks on the east side. Eight feet east of the grave lies and oak top, felled by a cannon shot. To the southwest and close upon the two oaks, the mound is skirted with several clusters (5) of dark brown moss covered limestone rocks, that crop out from one to four feet. Directly south on the next gentle mound or swell, is a long line of fresh earth; it covers the remains of the gallant men of the 59th, who perished in the same conflict. They were collected an interred by the burial party of the regiment, on Saturday. The forest is so open that you may drive a carriage almost in any direction; but the oaks are nearly every one marked with bullets, grape, cannon shot or shell. On some I counted over a dozen bullet marks. The marks upon the trees are so thick that it is wonderful that any one could have stood there in the conflict unharmed.

"I found the burial rude and imperfect, like all soldiers' graves upon the field. On Tuesday morning I returned from Sharpsburg with a burial party, and had a wall twenty inches high built around the grave, close to the vault. This was filled with fresh earth and raised above the wall, and completed in the usual form. Then along the sides to the crest I laid slabs of dark brown limestone, at at the head and foot stand heavy stones trenched into the ground. Over the whole I lad green boughs cut from the top of the white oaks felled by the cannon shot, nearby. The duty was ended; the burial was complete--complete as might be under an exigency, which cannot be understood without too long an explanation--and I stood among strangers,--the rank and file of the army,--to make my grateful heartfelt acknowledgments for their kind assistance.

"But you may in all times of affliction rely upon the the human and generous sympathy of the common soldiers. They have a respect for grief, and feel sympathy by instinct. I thank them again, one and all, for their kindness. The burial place and the field of battle at that point are owned by Colonel Miller, of Sharpsburg, now in the seventieth year of his age. He was a Captain in the war of 1812, in the 2nd Regiment Maryland Militia, and second under Colonel Richard K. Heath. I called upon him and received his own as well as the lively sympathies of his amiable family. His is a spirit of undoubted loyalty to the Union; and, I will say here that, I did not anywhere in all my journey and intercourse with citizens, from Baltimore to Harper's Ferry, meet any expressions or manifestations of feeling except of earnest loyalty. I have fixed your attention upon mine and myself--it was due to the occasion; but I do not desire you to think, that amidst my own profound grief, I was unmindful of the sufferings that everywhere, clustered along my path in the track of the army. I threaded the hospitals from Baltimore to Sharpsburg in search of a particular fact and the horrors that met my startled vision everywhere as I progressed were too appalling ever to be forgotten. Every church was a hospital. Private houses and barns were converted to the same use. Hundreds lay quietly upon the same church floor. The horror was not from any screeching or other manifestation of bodily pain. The wounded were without a solitary exception quiet and resigned. But it seemed that I had arrived among a race of men fashioned unlike the rest of mankind,--men with only one arm--men with only one leg--men with no arms--men with no legs--men with bodies otherwise disfigured, and yet men who talked and cheered, smiled and thanked God that it was no worse with them. Then again, in the vestibule of the church lay a naked body of a young man of exquisite form slightly covered with movable drapery. One large red dot in the breast marked the entry of the Minnie ball, another smaller one near it marked a slight bayonet wound, and the half closed eye and oppressed respiration told the beholder that his relief was nigh, and they he had given to the cause of the Union--all that a man could give--his life. I do not conjure up figures, I describe positive facts, unwelcome as they may be to the sensibilities of readers in the vale of comparative peace and happiness in the Northern States. Can you not see that when there are 10,000 killed and wounded, that there must be among the surviving sources of suffering and misery indescribable--not merely to themselves, but to anxious near relatives and friends?

"But I am departing from my purpose--the curse of mankind--war, is upon us; and yet it is only by war--vigorous, earnest, resolute war to the knife,--war in the minds and hearts of our people at home, as we see and feel the horrors of the front, and in the track of battle, that can save our nationality and preserve to us, or recover for us, the decent respect of mankind.

"From Sharpsburg, I returned by the way of Harper's Ferry, staying two nights on the crest of Bolivar Heights in Virginia, Sumner's Camp. The rebel pickets were two miles to the west. To get into camp I was forced to ford the Potomac, by the stupid driving of a full-blooded contraband. He did not know how to manage six mules with a single ribbon. He shut his eyes, threw up the rein, yelled and let the mules have their own way; they went wild and stuck fast against a heavy wagon loaded with part of a pontoon bridge. He lost his position in line of transportation, and wagons and artillery swept by for an hour. To extricate myself I took off my boots, put my sox in my pocket, rolled my pants up to my knees and took to the water. The water was warm and agreeable but the sharp stones in the bed of the river hurt my feet, but I had to bear it, for no teamster would take pity on me. I asked the passing artillery to let me mount a cannon, and offered money, but no, it was against orders,--red tape prevailed. I got three-fourths of the way over, and stopped on an island of small boulders, made by the low water, when a fine looking officer of the artillery recognized me, and asked if I could ride. I replied that I could ride better than I could swim or wade. He dismounted the private from a fine supernumery artillery horse, and I sprang into the saddle with the renewed horsemanship of youth and rode into camp at the very elevated Bolivar Heights with the pride and dash of a cavalry officer. My deliverer was Lieutenant Egan, of Rickett's Battery, a cadet of the last class at West Point--a native of my own village, a generous, whole-souled Irishman--a gentleman, soldier and humanitarian. I dined with his mess; and thanking him for his humanity, hope he will soon recover from fever and ague. Recovering the horse and accoutrements of my deceased son, I returned to this place last evening by train from Sandy Hook, one mile below Harper's Ferry. Some days may elapse before I can return North.

"The conduct of Colonel Tidball, and Major Northedge, of the 59th, is described as gallant and resolute in the action of the 17th. The regiment went into action with less than 400 men. It lost in killed 47; wounded 143; 13 of 21 officers were killed or wounded.

Respectfully yours, L. Stetson."

Stetson Kindred of America, Account of Second Reunion and Other Data, (n.p., n.d.); Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web at (blog entry); Freepages Genealogy (listing for Riverside Cemetery); Touched with Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., ed. by Mark De Wolfe Howe (NY: Fordham University Press, 2000), p. 65-66 notes; Freepages Genealogy (; Maj. William Glidden (Ret), letter to the editor, Albany Times Union (September 20, 2009. Retrieved 11/11/09 at; photo John Stetson from Antietam National Battlefield Library.

{1} In article, "62nd N.Y." The 42nd New York was on the right of the 7th Michigan.

No comments: