Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Final Resting Place

See Part One of this story...
See Part Two...

In the weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, community members in Haverstraw, New York continued to mourn the losses suffered by Company F of the 95th New York on July 1st. Toward the end of the month, the Rockland County Journal published a memorial tribute to Corporal William G. Smith.  "Few young men have fell upon the battlefield more deeply and widely regretted than young Smith," the paper printed.
Of few so many loving words have been said. And the brave young martyr was worthy of them all. To live a gentle, loving life--to die a brave heroic death--to stand firm battling for the right, and then, to fearlessly meet death in its defence under the glorious folds of the dear old flag, is a weight of glory, honor, and immortality, above the common lot of man. Our brave young friend has gathered in this shining harvest. His name is autographed in undying characters on the lengthening roll of honor headed by our revolutionary sires, and now closing in with the names of their sons, so worthy to be associated with them, neither to be forgot until "the last syllable of recorded time."
Few could question Smith's deserving place on the country's roll of honor. For his father though, remained an unfinished task. While in battle on July 1st, the 95th was unable to recover the bodies of either Corporal Smith, or his tent-mate, Corporal William Ackerman. Both were likely buried by detachments of the Army of the Potomac on July 5th, and neither was known to have any articles that would enable a successful identification. Officers of the regiment wrote to the elder Smith, as well as Ackerman's father, expressing their belief that both faced an impossible task in locating their sons' remains. Despite this, an attempt was made, and in the coming months, readers of Robert Smith's own newspaper, the Rockland County Messenger, could follow this effort in print.

On August 20th, Smith published a letter by Dr. Gordon Winslow, the Sanitary Inspector for the Army of the Potomac. The letter, dated July 28th and written to a family friend from Haverstraw, read as follows:
SIR--The Soldiers W.G. Smith and W.E. Ackerman, killed in battle at Gettysburg on the 1st of July, I regret to say, not having been duly marked at their burial, and through the strife and changes of battle not having been buried till some time after the battle, and then by a detail who had no means of identifying their persons, even if they formerly knew them, it will be impossible to restore their bodies to their friends. They will be obliged to wait with thousands of others till the resurrection day, with the assurance that they sleep with the honored dead, who lost their lives nobly in the defense of their country.
Despite yet another negative answer, Robert Smith and John Ackerman would continue to strive to locate  the remains of their sons, perhaps seeking some form of closure. Armed with a map drawn by Major Edward Pye of the 95th showing the location where both Williams fell in battle, Robert Smith opened a correspondence with David Wills of Gettysburg, who Governor Curtin had appointed as Pennsylvania's agent in organizing the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Smith and Ackerman hoped to travel to Gettysburg when the re-interment process began for those soldiers buried west of town. With Major Pye's map, perhaps the two fathers would be able to identify their sons. Wills promised to let Smith and Ackerman know when to come to Gettysburg. Understandably, given his other tasks that fall, Wills never sent a letter. And as dedication day approached, the two grieving fathers would determine to travel to Gettysburg for the ceremony, and to make one last attempt at recovering the remains of their sons.

The story of their sad and unsuccessful journey, appeared the following week:
Last Wednesday morning we left this village, by the I.P. Smith (accompanied by Mr. John Ackerman, of this village) en route for Gettysburg. Our errand to this place was of a twofold character, the first was to witness the solemn services of the dedication of the National burying place, and listen to the Address of that accomplished orator, Hon. Edward Everett--the other was to try to identifty the grave, and if possible recover the remains of our sons, who fell in that battle, but in both of these we were disappointed, as the sequel will show.
They arrived in Baltimore at 4 a.m. on November 19th. That morning, they proceeded to the Camden Street Hospital, in hopes of obtaining the assistance of Sergeant Fenton Gardner of the 95th, in escorting them to Gettysburg. They struggled to obtain a furlough for Gardner, and ultimately failed...
Instead of going by the 7 o'clock train, we did not get away till three in the afternoon, and when we arrived at Hanover Junction we found the passengers of the morning train all waiting to be conveyed to Gettysburg--the mail bag was laying on the platform and parcels were lying about in great confusion to the mercy of anyone that might lay their hands on them. Nine empty pocket books were found at this place during the day, having been rifled of their contents by the thieving gentry of Baltimore on their way to Gettysburg....

We were detained at Hanover Junction till 3 o'clock on Friday morning, waiting for a train to take us to Gettysburg, which we reached at 6 a.m. The Exercises being all over the day before, we proceeded at once to the office of the Agent of Gov. Curtin to ascertain whither our sons remains had been removed or not, and we were informed they had three weeks ago. We had been in correspondence with this Agent several weeks ago and he promised to let us know when to come on and procure the remains, but he had neglected to do so till it was too late.

By a map which we had with us marked by Major Pye, we were enabled to find the exact spot where our sons fell, but their remains had been taken up and interred in the new Cemetery, in the part designated the "Unknown." They have taken up all the unknown first, and those that are marked, their relatives have been notified that they will remove them also, if not applied for in 30 days, after that period they do not wish them to be taken out of the new burial place. The remains are taken up single and placed in very neat and well made planed pine coffins six feet long and placed about a foot from each other. Those who have died in the hospitals and buried in the hospital burying grounds previous to the 26th of October are to be taken up and placed in the new Cemetery after they have buried the dead from the battle field.

The dedicatory services took place on the 19th, [the day before we got there,] in the presence of an immense concourse of citizens with a grand military and civic display. Prayer was offered by the Rev. Mr. Stockton, a brief dedicatory address was made by the President, after which an oration was delivered by the Hon. Edward Everett.

We left Gettysburg on Friday afternoon about two o'clock, and arrived at Jersey City at half past seven on Saturday morning, and reached home at night by the I.P. Smith.
Thus, Robert Smith and John Ackerman's search ended. Corporal Smith, and Corporal Ackerman, likely found their final resting place in the unknown section of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, where they reside today. Despite not finding the remains of their sons, both fathers did eventually find some closure. On Sunday, December 13th, 1863, the Methodist Episcopal Church in Haverstraw hosted a memorial service for Corporal William Ackerman, attended by many friends, loved ones, and comrades. And today, a visitor to the Mount Repose Cemetery in Haverstraw would find a cenotaph honoring Corporal William G. Smith, who gave his life to his country on July 1st, 1863.

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