A roadside Rebel grave in a rose garden
July 1, 1863, saw the opening actions of the Battle of Gettysburg in nearby Adams County, Pennsylvania. However, even while the artillery roared and musketry crackled from the fields and woods north and west of Gettysburg, thousands of troops from both armies were hustling to reach the scene.
Late in the afternoon the 146th New York Volunteer Infantry reached the picturesque town of Hanover, Pennsylvania. Near the crossroads were lying the bloated carcasses of half a dozen cavalry horses, slain in the brief skirmish between Judson Kilpatrick‘s and J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalrymen the previous day. Close to the road, near the scene of the main cavalry fighting, stood an old farmhouse, at the gate of which was an old-fashioned pump and horse trough. The pump handle was in constant motion, as the weary, foot-sore soldiers flocked around it to quench their thirst with the delicious water that flowed into the mossy trough.
What follows is the memory of a veteran of the regiment, perhaps a bit fanciful, but it makes for a good human interest story…
Lieutenant George F. Williams of the 146th NY later recalled, “Coming up and waiting for my turn to drink, I noticed a sunburnt, gray-haired man, leaning over his rude gate, watching the troops. He was dressed in a faded, well-worn suit of homespun, having no doubt spent the day in the hayfield; and I could see that he was pleased that his pump was doing such good service.
“Good-evening, sir,” said I to him, removing my cap, and mopping the perspiration from my face. “It’s rather hot weather, this, for marching.”
“I ‘spose it ’tis, though I never did any marching,” was his brief response.
As the old farmer uttered the words he moved a little; and my eye was attracted by a new-made grave among a clump of rose-bushes, just inside the fence. Wondering at the sight, I ventured to ask the reason for its being there.
“Whose grave is that?” said I, pointing to the mound of fresh earth.
“A reb’s,” he replied laconically. “One that got killed in the fight the horsemen had here to-day.”
“Indeed! and so you buried him.”
“Yes: buried him myself. They left him lyin’ in the road, out thar, just as he fell. I could do no less, you know.”
“Of course! but why did you make your rose-garden a graveyard?”
“Wa-al, it was the wimmen that wanted it so. Yer see, stranger,” and the old man’s voice trembled and grew husky, “yer see, I had a boy once. He went out with the Pennsylvany Resarves, and fou’t along with McClellan, down thar among those Chicka-oming swamps. And one day a letter come. It was writ by a woman; and she told us as how a battle had bin fou’t near her house, while she and another woman lay hid all day in the cellar. When the battle was o’er, them wimmen came out, and found our Johnny thar, his hair all bloody and tangled in the grass. So they digged a grave in the soft earth of their gardin, and buried my boy right amongst their flowers, for the sake of the mother who would never see him agin. So when I saw that poor reb a-layin’ out thar, all dead and bloody in the dust of the road, I sed I’d bury him. And the gals, they sed, ‘Yes, father, bury him among the rose-trees.’ That’s why I did it, stranger.”
Then the poor old father’s voice was choked by a smothered sob, while a faint cry behind him betrayed the presence of a sister to the dead hero lying in his garden grave near Richmond.
“Indeed, sir,’ said I, feeling my own throat tighten over the sweet pathos of the little story, “I can appreciate the love you bear your dead son. It must be some consolation to remember what you have done for the man whose body lies there under the bushes.”
“Yes, stranger: that ‘ere grave ain’t much,” — and the old man turned to look at the rude mound his hands had made, — “it ain’t much, but it will be something to remember our Johnny by.”
Bidding the fanner good-by, I hastened after the regiment, my eyes dimmed with tears, but my spirits strangely strengthened by this touching instance of human love and forgiveness.”
George F. Williams, Bullet and Shell: War as the Soldier Saw It. (New York: Forbes, Howard, and Hulbert, 1884).