A Dead Civil War Soldier
Waldo Potter was a cousin of mine who perished on the battlefield the day before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It was only the beginning of April and in Upstate New York where his family awaited news of his whereabouts the earth was still barren of color and cold. Taylor, the little Cortland town he hailed from, had already lost at least one other young man to the war who was also a cousin of mine.
I wonder if snow topped the soft mountains or if spring plowing had begun. Had the cows had calves yet? For on Waldo’s enlistment papers it says he was a farmer and 19 years old. The papers tell me he was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. His hair was dark and he stood at 5 feet 9 inches.
New York provided 400,000–460,000 men during the war, nearly 21% of all the men in the state and more than half of those under the age of 30. The average age of the New York soldiers was 25 years, 7 months, although many younger men and boys may have lied about their age in order to enlist. Wikipedia
By the time Waldo’s parents received word that their son would not be coming home the war had ended and Lincoln had been killed. The short note from the artillery lieutenant explained that Waldo had been wounded on the battlefield near Farmville, Virginia in one of the final engagements against Lee’s army. He had died a day later and been buried in a marked grave on the Brooks Plantation — a place that would have meant nothing to Waldo’s grieving family. The lieutenant wrote that he’d been a good soldier and friend.
POPLAR GROVE NATIONAL CEMETERY
I’d wondered why he had not been buried in Taylor with his family. When the war was truly over crews of men were sent out to gather the dead to be brought to national cemeteries where many of their identities would be lost.
“About 100 men comprised the “burial corps.” With ten army wagons, forty mules, and 12 saddle horses, these men began their search and recovery mission. One observer noted “a hundred men were deployed in a line a yard apart, each examining half a yard of ground on both sides as they proceeded. Thus was swept a space five hundred yards in breadth . . .In this manner the whole battlefield was to be searched. When a grave was found, the entire line halted until the teams came up and the body was removed. Many graves were marked with stakes, but some were to be discovered only by the disturbed appearance of the ground.” (See below: The Awful Work Begins)
Those in coffins were mostly bones when pulled from the earth. Those in mass shallow graves were in varied stages of decay. Some bodies were missed in thickets. Most bodies never went home.
And all of it gone — the Brooks Plantation, the men, the families with their broken hearts, the memories of young men fighting to end a way of life that none of them had ever encountered. The North that Waldo had left was bleak and beautiful and only for the individuals ready to break their bodies in hard work. I wonder what young Waldo thought as he lay dying on plantation land once worked by slaves. Would he have felt he’d died for the glorious cause of freeing them? Would he have thought nothing at all of slavery as we do today even as we wear clothing made by slave laborers?
No, I will not allow for people to say that all white men are somehow guilty for a thing that they actually ended, if only on one continent. I wonder what cause I would be willing to die for and come up blank.
“Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the
first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Walt Whitman
Images: Library of Congress