Corporal William Church
Around 1965 I acquired four letters addressed to a Mr. Melvin Church of Highgate, Vermont along with other Church family documents. The particulars of these letters are the process a Mr. Foof, employed by Mr. Church, to locate his sons remains killed at the battle of Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. The letters are only one side of the story and the dual process can only be assumed. The context of two of the letters is the events of Mr. Foof's actions to locate the body and return the remains home for burial. The remaining two are letters from David Wills, instrumental for the gathering of soldier's remains for internment in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The first letter is requesting Mr. Church to let the remains rest at he cemetery and the second is an explanation of certain expenses. At first I was particularly interested in knowing was the body returned home or was it let to be interred at Gettysburg? However, research turned up more intriguing questions that I wanted to answer. The information discovered is very interesting and fortunate due to the amount of information that was documented relating to these letters. An attempt is made to provide a historical sketch of the events surrounding and people related to these letters and formulating assumptions that seem reasonable.
The first order of business was to identify this particular Church. What is known from the letters is that Church was a Corporal, was killed July 3rd, 1863, and was most likely from Highgate, Vermont. Researching the internet produced fascinating facts. First we must give credit to the Vermont Civil War Site (vermontcivilwar.com) for its excellent contents in preparation for the 2011 anniversary of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Second we must give credit to all those who provide information and donate the information to the site. Special thanks to Tom Ledoux who provided invaluable information and resources for further research. Searching by surname produced numerous Church's. From the list the obvious could be eliminated. The first to go were the Church's that survived the war. From there research was continued until a killed in action date that was July 3rd and the individual was a Corporal was found. From this it was determined Church's name was William A., a Corporal in the 13th Vermont Infantry, Company K, "The Highgate Company." From the roster of soldiers serving in the Civil War another individual with the name of William A. Church was discovered. What can be determined is that they are one in the same. Evidently William A. Church first enlisted for three months with the First Infantry Regiment, Company A, "The Swanton Company" as a Private and served from May 9, 1861 to August 15, 1861. Was mustered out when the First Regiment returned home. The following year enlisted for nine months with the 13th Vermont on September 11, 1862 and mustered in on October 10, 1862. At this point I figured that was all the basic information I would get other than a service record. However, this was not the case.
Continuing to research the site I did find reference to William Church, but the information was a reiteration of what I already knew. For example, enlistment dates, mustering dates, unit_abb, and date of death. Finding a reference to unit publication, "Pictorial History: Thirteenth Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865" by Ralph Orson Sturtevant, privately published, 1910, a wealth of information was soon discovered. This was a reunion history of the 13th Vermont published in 1910. Documented was a chapter from this book on the founding of the unit, its activation and election of officers and noncommissioned officers. At the head of the Chapter was dedication to Corporal William Church. The dedication reads, "Dedicated in loving memory of our brave comrade Corporal William Church, slain in battle at Gettysburg, Pa. July 3rd, 1863. There is no greater honor than to die in defense of home and country."
At this time no known picture of William Church exists. If we had a picture of William Church, he would probably be as Sturtevant describes in his book. He would be about twenty-three years old, Yankee born, active, healthy, strong, good height, good sized, good natured, good looking, happy and jolly, generous and kind, brave and courageous, a devoted Christian and from a prominent family. Further in each of the books of the history of the 13th Vermont, refers to Church as a farm boy from Highgate.
The start of Church's second enlistment for the 13th Vermont, Company K was at Johnson's Hotel in Highgate. Sturtevant describes the process and who was appointed to be the noncommissioned officers of the company during their stay at the hotel. According to Sturtevant, these appointments were announced and became effective Friday, September 19, 1862 in accordance with General Order No. 1, Headquarters, Highgate Company, Johnson's Hotel, Highgate VT. General Order No. 1 appointed George E. Blake as third sergeant. It can be assumed that George E. Blake did know Church quite well, not only coming from Swanton himself, but also serving time as Sergeant with the First Infantry Regiment, Company A, the same Company as Church. Later I shall discuss George Blake further as to the final outcome of this research. Under these same General Orders Church was appointed as Second Corporal of the Regiment.
On September 26, 1862 election of officers was held. On this day Captain Lawrence D. Clark from the old 1st Vermont was elected to Captain and would serve as commanding Officer of Company K. Captain Clark later failed the physical requirements and would relinquish command prior to the actual mustering in of the unit. According to roster records Clark was forty-eight years old and this could be a related reason for failing the physical. On September 26th, 1862 a contested election was held for the vacant Captains spot. Through much political maneuvering George Blake was elected Captain.
The Second Brigade, 13th Infantry was formally organized at Brattleboro Vermont on October 10, 1862. The duration of enlistment was to be for nine months and was attached to Abercrombie's Division, Military District of Washington until February 1863. The 13th was with Casey's Division, 22nd Army Corps until April 1863, then attached to Abrocrombie's Division, 22nd Army to July 1863 and finally the 3rd Division, 1st Army Corps, Army of the Potomac through July 1863. Participation in the Battle of Gettysburg, the 13th Infantry was started after guard duty at Occoquan Creek on June 25, 1863 and under orders of General John Reynolds they began pursuit of Lee's Army to Gettysburg.
The 13th arrived at Gettysburg July 1, 1863 after marching for seven days and 125 miles. Upon arriving at the field of Gettysburg, the 13th took up positions in a field of clover to the left of Buford's Calvary guarding the left of the Army that had taken positions upon Cemetery Ridge after the first days battle.
The next morning, July 2nd, the 13th along with the rest of the Brigade moved to the right to support the batteries on Cemetery Ridge. The 13th witnessed the fighting of Little Round Top, the Wheat Fields, Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road. Also during the day was under converging artillery fire from three different directions from rebel batteries. That night they slept under arms near the position they would hold on the last day of battle.
On July 3rd prior to Pickett's Charge, General Stannard ordered a detail from each Company of the 13th to gather fence rails and place them in line about forty-five yards in front of the Regiment. When Pickett's Charge was well advanced, General Stannard ordered the 13th forward to the breastwork of rails, which held the right of the Brigade. Upon their arrival Colonel Randall ordered the men to lie down and hold their fire. To the 13th left was the 14th Vermont whose line extended diagonally down the valley. The 14th opened fire on the charging column moving by the flank towards the 13th. No sooner had the men of the 13th lain down, a deadly volley of fire passed over their heads. Fortunately Colonel Randall had quickly given the order to lie down, for if he had not, many casualties would have resulted. Upon return of the 16th, who were deployed as skirmishers returned through the 13th line, the 13th opened fire. When the smoke cleared, the 13th fire was deadly indeed. The enemy returned fire, but there were few casualties and the enemy continued on to the right until the front of the 13th was uncovered. At this point General Stannard ordered the Regiment to charge by advancing to the right and forming at a right angles to their present positions. After proceeding two hundred yards to the right into a slight depression, very close to the enemy. The 13th reloaded on the run and when on line began firing. At the same time, the line on their left and front was pouring a deadly fire into Picketts force. Very soon the charging force became a tangled mass of men and was attacked on the left flank by General Alexander Hayes' brigade. Within a minute or two after the 13th opened fire, the confederates began to throw down their arms and waved their hands to surrender. Colonel Randall ordered the regiment to cease-fire but could not be heard over the fire of musketry. Colonel Randall immediately went to the front of the Regiment and waved his sword and hat and shouted until the order could be understood. While still under fire from both the enemy and the Union positions, to include the batteries on the high ground, Colonel Randall escorted the prisoners, numbering two hundred and forty-three back to the main line. During the interim, the 16th came up and formed on the left and began firing on the Confederates that were running away. The 16th then about-faced and charged four hundred yards on the left flank of Wilcox's brigade. Companies G and I guarded the prisoners and the rest of the Regiment returned to their original position prior to the start of Pickett's Charge.
From walking the battlefield the events described above can still be traced today. The 13th Vermont's line is clearly marked on the battlefield. It should be noted controversy is debated by some, insist the line should be about 100 yards further South. In walking this ground this does seem reasonable and matches the description of the land as described in the official reports. If one was to pace 45 yards from this point to the front where the split rail fences were laid, the ground is as described in the official reports. Standing on this line, facing the Confederate advance the Angle would be to your rear and the right. Within this area about 200 yards to the Northeast is a depression. Should this be the correct depression, a deadly fire would have resulted. As the old saying goes, "like shooting fish in a barrel." In addition, converging fire would have resulted from both the Vermont Regiments and batteries and other infantry units on the hill.
From right to left, the Companies of the 13th participating in the attack were Company A, G. I, E, C, H, K under Captain George Blake, F, D, and B. When the battle ceased on the field, artillery fire continued and the Regiment suffered further loss. At this point documentation contained in the Pictorial History: Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, 1861-1863", page 708, describes Corporal Church's death.
On Page 708 an extract of his death is; "After the battle had been won, and the victory was ours, and we were returning to a position in the front line, a hostile shell hit him and burst causing almost instant death. Among all the bodies that I had seen on this gory field, his was the most horribly mangled. On the following day we carefully gathered up his remains, moved them to the brow of the hill where we had dug a shallow grave and lovingly and tenderly placed him in it and at the head we set a mark that the place might be found should occasion require it."
Walking back to the 13th Vermont's position Church would have probably been killed just in front the established union lines. Directly behind the lines is a hill and this would be where Church was buried. Although as of yet the reference to the old Log barn has not been established which would give a more exact location of the grave. It would be a reasonable assumption his comrades moved the body for two reasons. One is at that time no one knew the battle was over and the body would be in hostile territory. Two, being possibly related to fellow soldiers and growing up together from the same towns extra care was taken to preserve the grave for later retrieval to the family.
From 13th history, other interesting facts are revealed. First the same shell wounded other soldiers from Company K.. Two of the identified soldiers were Pvt. James Hogaboom and Pvt. Clark Butterfield and reference is made that others were slightly wounded.
Referring to the two letters written by Mr. Foof in November of 1863, while employed by Mr. Church to find, recover and return the remains to Vermont, the letters indicate other landmarks and marks were used to guide him to the grave. The first letter of the two does not have a date, but is documented as Friday Eve. The second letter from Mr. Foof is dated November 9, 1863 and refers to the previous letter and if correct would be November 6, 1863. Within these letters there is a reference to a log barn and a board placed on his grave with his name on it. The letters also refer to there being many graves in the area and one could assume that these are graves of people the Regiment buried as referenced in Official Adjutant General Reports prior to Picketts Charge as well as after the battle.
A book that offers a great deal of information on the aftermath of Gettysburg is "A Strange and Blighted Land Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle", by Gregory A. Coco. Within this book it explains the orders given to soldiers for marking graves of fallen comrades. During the Civil War, what we commonly refer to as "dogtags" was not in practice at the time. Identification discs could be purchased by soldiers from sutlers but was not common. Other methods such as scraps of paper in the uniform were placed to give the finder instructions and names of the deceased. The Army's orders for marking the graves were to place a board at the head with an inscription of the person's name and unit. However, such markings were prone to fault. Names would be made in pencil and would not last through the elements of rain or prolonged sun. Others to mark their friend's graves would remove boards or other markings used. Looting was also common and identification would be lost as the looter rummaged through the effects looking for valuables. Also curiosity seekers and souvenir hunters made identification impossible in some cases.
On November 4, 1863 David Wills sent a letter to Mr. Church. In this letter it indicates the body was found and at Mr. Church's request the body was not to be disturbed until removal for shipping home. Mr. Wills explained the process and costs to have the remains shipped home. Also Mr. Wills made a plea to let Corporal Church remains be moved to the new National Cemetery. When looking at the dates of these three letters, questions arise. First, Mr. Foof's letters are dated after Mr. Wills who is informing Mr. Church of discovery. So the question being was Mr. Foof practicing deception or stalling for more time because he could not find the remains with the directions provided, or stalling to get paid for services, or possibly are the dates of the letters incorrect?
The final letter from David Wills provides information to Mr. Church who actually found the grave and the costs associated with it. From this letter is where Captain Blake enters the scene. To further quote from "Pictorial History: Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers, War of 1861-1865", gives the following information: " In a short time Captain Blake after he had been mustered out returned to that great battlefield where many thousands had been buried, and guided by the mark we left, readily found the grave, opened it, and found the body, and brought it to Vermont, and he was buried in the Church Street Cemetery at Swanton Falls, and a modest head stone now marks his last earthly resting place." The inscription on the headstone reads, "Wm. Church, Co. K, 13th Rgt. Vt. Vols. Killed at the battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3, 1863, age 24 years & 5 months." Within the final letter David Wills refers to Mr. Fry assisting Captain Blake in locating the grave. It also appears there is a discrepancy with billing of services or accounts and Mr. Church wrote David Wills for further information.
When visiting the Church Street Cemetery, another point of interest discovered is Lt. Stephen F. Brown of Company K is buried next to Cpl. Church. Lt. Brown was first to render assistance to Cpl. Church after being struck by the artillery shell. From documented evidence it appears the shell horribly mangled Cpl. Church and body parts were scattered about. Further, Cpt. Blake is also buried in the Church Street Cemetery, two rows down and slightly to the left.
Within the second letter Mr. Foof gives Mr. Church details of services he is to perform for recovering another Vermont man's remains and shipping them home. From this letter he describes going to the Funkstown battlefield in Maryland. There he was to retrieve the body of William A. Green . Research indicates this to be Corporal William A. Green of the 6th Vermont Volunteers, Company K. The letter further explains the method of shipment and expected arrival in Swanton Vermont. However, there appears to be several discrepancies within this letter. These discrepancies are the letter refers to Green as Sergeant, when research indicates he was a Corporal mortally wounded on July 10, 1863 and died on July 14, 1863. The other discrepancy is the letter refers to his father as George Green, when his father was Alonzo Green. So far have no indication of his burial site to determine that he was actually shipped home to Franklin.
Another interesting piece of information is that Captain George Green Blake was 1st cousin to George Green. Captain Blake's mother was Ann Minerva Green, sister to Alonzo Green, who was the father of George Green.
Source: Biography and letters courtesy of Doug March.