Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Only 9 were left standing:" Company H, 15th Massachusetts in the West Woods

On September 25, 1862 The Worcester Daily Spy published news of the battle of Antietam and included this report from Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

"Whitinsville. This village has suffered severely by the loss of its volunteers, all of whom were connected with the 15th regiment. The killed, so far as heard from, are seven, as follows: Orlando Batcheller, Arthur W. Andrews, Henry W. Ainsworth, James B. Fletcher, Isaac Marshall, Andrew Addison, George N. Smith. The following are heard from as wounded: James S. Flannegan, Edwin Smith, Eben Prest, Charles H. Plimpton, Ira Partin. The intelligence has cast a deep gloom over the village. -- PWD."⁠[1]

Eight days before, the 15th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry had entered the West Woods with 606 officers and men under the command of Lt. Col. John W. Kimball. As they emerged from the West Woods soon found themselves “hotly engaged” with what was left of the divisions of J. R. Jones, Ewell and Hood, and a portion of D. H. Hill's division who were “well covered by the nature of the ground, field of grain, hay-stacks, buildings, and a thick orchard” that was the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead. For twenty to thirty minutes both sides exchanged volleys—and both stood firm. As the Fifteenth’s left wing pushed into the farmstead “under a most terrific infantry fire” to “not more than 15 yards” away when brigades from McLaw’s and Walker’s Divisions fell on their left and rear, “pouring in a deadly cross-fire” and forcing the regiment from the field. The cost to the regiment was high: twelve officers were killed or wounded and 336 enlisted men were killed, wounded, and missing. Of these casualties, twelve were from the small village of Whitinsville. This is their story.⁠ [2]

Whitin Machine Works, 1879
National Park Service

Whitinsville straddles the Mumford River Valley in south central Massachusetts. It shares the valley with other nearby small villages—East Douglas, Linwood, and Uxbridge—all of whom depended on the river to drive the small mills and factories that dotted the early 19th century New England landscape. As the number of the river-powered mills grew, machinists, carpenters, clerks began to fill the boarding houses and mill cottages. At first, most migrants to the Mumford valley were from the farms and villages of eastern Massachusetts but the late 1840s saw an influx of Irish, Dutch, and German workers. Of the mill villages along the Mumford, Whitinsville was one of the largest and most prosperous. [3]

Whitinsville’s rising importance during the first half of the 19th Century was fueled by the ambitions and fortunes of two families—the Fletchers and the Whitins. It is to these two families that the lives of many of the Whitinsville volunteers connect—either by birth or by commerce. [⁠4]

By the 1780s, the Fletchers had established themselves as Whitinsville’s leading family. Col. James Fletcher owned most of the land around the town and operated a prosperous forge established by his grandfather. The family’s growing business required a steady influx of apprentices, journeymen, and master machinists, clerks, and other skilled and unskilled labor. One of those who arrived to find work in Fletcher’s forge was Revolutionary War veteran from nearby Uxbridge, Paul C. Whitin.⁠ [5]

Starting out as an apprentice, Whitin’s talents quickly advanced his fortunes. His abilities must have pleased James Fletcher because he allowed him to marry, in 1793, Fletcher’s daughter Elizabeth. By 1815, the Whitin and Fletcher family fortunes combined in the Whitin & Fletcher Cotton Mill.⁠ At the same time, James Fletcher brought his two brothers Samuel and Ezra into the firm. The partnership lasted until 1826 when Whitin bought the Fletchers out and brought his sons (and James Fletcher's grandchildren) Paul Jr. and John Crane Whitin into the business. Renamed Paul Whitin & Sons, the firm added a state-of-the-art factory that employed power looms and new spinning technologies to weave cotton textiles. This factory was followed by two more, so that by the outbreak of war in April 1861, Whitin & Sons, ran three cotton manufacturing factories which also made them the biggest employer in the river valley.⁠ [6]

In July 1861, Company H of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was formed from boys and men from Whitinsville and surrounding farms and villages of Northbridge township. Those enlisting that month included the great-grandsons of Col. James Fletcher and the descendants of Paul Whitin as well as numerous machinists and mill workers many of whom worked in the mills and factories of Paul Whitin & Sons. Their common bond was Whitinsville but their greater one was to the brothers, cousins, fathers and sons who filled the ranks of these two companies. ⁠[7]

Lt. Samuel J. Fletcher
Courtesy, Worcester Historical
First Lt. Samuel Judson Fletcher commanded the sixty-two men in the Whitinsville company; he was related to three. His brothers George and James and his cousin Edward Chapin had all joined Company H on July 12, 1861. Of the four, Sam and Edward Chapin had gone on to college—Sam graduated Brown in 1857 and Edward had left Harvard to join his cousins. On joining the company, each listed their occupation: Sam, civil engineer; Edward, student; George, mechanic; and James, clerk.⁠ [8]

The Fletcher brothers parents were Ephrahim S. Fletcher (1805-1868) and Margaret Ann Chapin (1808-1897) and their grandfather was Whitinsville founder Col. James Fletcher.⁠[9] Edward Fletcher Chapin’s mother was Margaret Fletcher (1807-1887) the sister of Ephraim S. Fletcher, and aunt to the Fletcher brothers. He was also descended from Paul Whitin, Jr. [10]

For Sam Fletcher, the day began with mail call.

“…Before going into battle our mail came My Brother George received Harpers Weekly_He folded it several times and put it in his blouse pocket a bullet struck the pocket and pierced the paper. He sent it home and it was found that this bullet passed through 64 thicknesses of the paper thus saving his life: this was where we lost the most men in a battle we were fighting not more than half an hour: my company had 62 when we went into battle and when I ordered them back only 9 were left standing: as I gave the order my brother James fell shot through the head. I caught him as he fell but he was dead. The Rebels were within 3 rods as we fell back. George and my Cousin Edward Chapin who left Harvard College to go as a recruit were of the 9."[11]
With the 15th vacating the West Woods there was little that Sam or others could do to recover their dead and wounded but wait. Sam continues...
"The Rebels held the ground for a day or two and then I had charge of the party to bury the dead of our regiment I had orders to be as quick as I could[.] I had a long grave[.] [T]he Soil was very hard the men brought the bodies and I helped place them in the grave laid them two deep and buried 43[.]"⁠[12]
Others from Whitinsville were searching for friends and family too. Roland Bowen in Company H describes his search for his friend Private Henry Ainsworth. 13

Locher Cabin, west side
“Now when I heard [Henry Ainsworth] was dead, which was 10 or 11 oc on Friday the 19th, I went righ[t] over to the battle field to find his body so that I could bury it in a separate grave. I looked over a number of hundreds of bodies but I could not find Henry any where. So I went down to the front of the wood, and here I found a burying party from the 15th under a Lieut[tenant] from Co. H. [14] I asked him if he had go the body of Henry Ainsworth. Yes said he and have just covered the corpes {sic} over. Said I. I am sorry. I wished to see it and bury it separately. But I was too late, he was buried. Perhaps you don’t know how we bury the dead. Let me tell you about this particular trench and that will suffice for the whole."

"The trench in which Henry is buried is situated near a log cabin just out side the garden fence. I believe it is on the West side.[⁠15] The trench was 25 feet long, 6 feet wide and about 3 feet deep. The corpes [corpses] were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. Are put together. Co. H was buried first in the uper {sic} end of the trench next {to} the woods."

James S. Fletcher and
George F. Fletcher
"They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top of the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep. Henry is the 3rd corpes from the upper end of the top tier next to the woods."

"Mr. Ainsworth, this is not the way we bury folks at home. I am sorry, but it was too late to have it different. Then there is a board put up at each end of the trench with the simple inscription. ‘15th Mass. Buried here.’ There is 39 men in the trench with Henry. There is others of our Regmt buried near by. Some of our men had their clothes taken off by the rebels. Henry did not have anything taken but shoes and what was in his pockets.”⁠ [16]

⁠While George Fletcher's luck held this day, it ran out the following July at Gettysburg where he was killed. His cousin, Edward Fletcher Chapin, severely wounded there, died the following month in Baltimore. Of the four Fletcher family members at Antietam, only Sam survived the war. Sam returned to the West Woods some time later "and took up the body and sent it home to Witensville.” He would return once more to the Woods, "with the regiment in Sept 1900 and we dedicated a monument there." [17]

To be continued...
Note: The Roster and Genealogy Project of the 15th Massachusetts Online maintained by Susan L. Harnwell provided much of the biographical information in this entry. This remarkable and unique online collection of individual histories, many with photographs, of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 1861-1864 is a valuable resource for any student of the Civil War. You can find it at 
I would also like to thank Sherry Fletcher for her correspondence and for kindly forwarding Fletcher family information including photographs, correspondence, and a copy of Samuel J. Fletcher's manuscript account of his life with the 15th.

Thanks also goes out to the Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts for their permission to post Samuel Fletcher's photograph on this blog site. 

1 The Worcester Daily Spy, September 25, 1862 (Volume 17, Number 230), retrieved from The Roster and Genealogy Project of the 15th Massachusetts Online maintained by Susan L. Harnwell (hereafter 15th Massachusetts Online), entry for Henry Ainsworth, 
2 Andrew Elmer Ford, The Story of the Fifteenth regiment Massachusetts volunteer infantry in the Civil War, 1861-1864 (W.J. Coulter, Courant Office, 1898), pp. 194-95; Lt. Col. John W. Kimball, "Report on the actions of The 15th Mass. during Battle of Antietam: Headquarters. 15th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, Camp near Sharpsburg, September 20, 1862” (OR). The final figures were 330 casualties—75 killed and 255 wounded and, of these, 43 would eventually succumb to their wounds.

3 In 1835, the village of South Northbridge was renamed Whitinsville. Don Gosselin's Blackstone Daily website at; National Park Service, Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor at

4 National Park Service, Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor at

5 Col. James Fletcher's father was Samuel Fletcher, whose grandfather had established a forge in South Northbridge in the late 1700s. Steven D. Ittel, The Ancestors of Alexandra Carter Lundgren (n.p. 2006), pp. 48-49; Henry Chapin, Address delivered at the Unitarian Church, in Uxbridge, Mass, in 1864. (Worcester, MA. Press of Charles Hamilton, 1881), pp. 81-82; Library of Congress, American Memory Project (online) entry for Whitinsville;

6  Retrieved from Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor at

7 Brothers Samuel J. Fletcher, James B. Fletcher, George Fergo Fletcher along with their cousin Edward Chapin and their brother-in-law George Davison enlisted in Company H of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteers. The Fletcher brothers were the great grandchildren of James Fletcher. Edward Chapin’s great aunt was married to Paul Whitin, Jr. Samuel Chapin Ancestors and Descendants (online), maintained by Deanne Driscoll at

15th Massachusetts Online; Henry S. Burrage, Civil War Record of Brown University (Providence, R.I., 1920), p. 23; Ancestry Online. Historical Data Systems, comp., U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009. Original data: Data compiled by Historical Data Systems of Kingston, MA] and citing Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War Massachusetts GAR: Journal of the Annual Encampment. 

15th Massachusetts Online.

10 Paul Whiten, Jr. brought another prominent Whitinsville family into the Fletcher/Whiten nexus by marrying Sarah Richardson Chapin. And Samuel Fletcher's (b. 1779) son, Ephrahim (1805-1868) contributed to the three-family alliance by marrying Margaret A. Chapin (1808-1897). Margaret gave birth to three sons and a daughter Samuel J. Fletcher (1831-1924), James B. Fletcher (d. 1862), George Fergo Fletcher (d. 1863), and Abby E. Fletcher who eventually married George Davison. 15th Massachusetts Online, entry for Henry Ainsworth,; Steven D. Ittel, The Ancestors of Alexandra Carter Lundgren (n.p. 2006), p. 40.

11 Manuscript of reminiscences by Samuel Fletcher.

12 Manuscript of reminiscences by Samuel Fletcher.

13 Henry W. Ainsworth (1838-1862). Elam Waldo Ainsworth, blacksmith, b. 11 Aug 1810, d. 24 Feb 1864 and mother Candace Allen b. 3 Jan 1800, d. 6 Jun 1861. When he enlisted in Company H, he listed himself as a clerk. The 1860 Census shows him living in a large boarding house run by the Burgess family. Rank at Antietam, private. His brother Samuel A. Ainsworth joined the First Massachusetts Sharpshooters. At the time of his enlistment he listed himself as a gunsmith. 15th Massachusetts Online

14 This was Lt. Samuel Fletcher. In another letter, Bowen writes: "“The Lt. has a brother buried there. He says he thinks he shall remove his remains another winter, …”⁠ Roland Bowen to Carrie Ainsworth, (no date, no place) and published and published in From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg…And Beyond: The Civil War Letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1864. Gregory A. Coco, editor. (Gettysburg, Pa: Thomas Publications, 1994),  pp. 128-29.

15 Walter Gale, a 15th Massachusetts officer reported that the dead of the 15th “were buried in a small garden-spot, quite near the scene of action. It is known as Lucca Place, and is about one mile from the village of Sharpsburg. Any one in the neighborhood will point out the location, -- the exact spot is marked by a headboard, -- and the proprietor has promised that this, together with those near it, shall be preserved.” The "Lucca Place" is the Locher Cabin. Walter Gale to Mary Ann Allen, September 24, 1862 and published at 15th Massachusetts Online.

16 Roland Bowen to Elam Waldo Ainsworth, Bolivar Heights, Va, September 28, 1862 and published in From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg…And Beyond: The Civil War Letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1864. Gregory A. Coco, editor. (Gettysburg, Pa: Thomas Publications, 1994), pp. 124-28 [hereafter Coco]; identification of Mary Derby from 15th Massachusetts Online.

17 Manuscript of reminiscences by Samuel Fletcher.


Image of Samuel J. Fletcher published with permission of the Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts. Image of James Fletcher's gravestone provided by Sherry Fletcher. All other images retrieved from National Park Service Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor at