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A Tragic Life

Corporal Ernest Simpson of Battery E, 1st Rhode Island Artillery lived a short and tragic life. Born in Leipsic, Germany, as a young man he had quarreled repeatedly with his parents, who strongly disapproved of a particular love affair. Despondent, Simpson left home and migrated to London, England, where, alone and brooding, he tried to commit suicide but failed. Simpson bought passage on a boat to the United States and sailed to America to start over. He eventually settled in York, where he lived at the start of the Civil War. On October 7, 1861, a train arrived carrying Battery E, 1st Rhode Island Artillery, and, “attracted by the great reputation of Rhode Island batteries,” Simpson decided on the spot to enlist. He fully expected to be put out of his misery on the battlefield.

Ernest Simpson sought out the battery commander, Lieutenant John K. Bucklyn, and begged to enlist. He was given the rank of private. Later, he was promoted to second corporal in January 1862 and assigned as the company clerk, reporting directly to Bucklyn. The two grew fond of each other, and Simpson called the officer “the only friend I have in America.” He wrote his will and gave it to Bucklyn.
Simpson traveled to Virginia with the regiment and served faithfully as the clerk. He became very sick in August and spent months in a field hospital, not returning to his battery until January 1863. He resumed clerking for Bucklyn (who won a Medal of Honor for bravery at Chancellorsville).
Simpson returned to Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign. Hoping to realize his death wish, he begged Bucklyn to allow him to go into combat. Bucklyn, also fatalistic in his thoughts on the upcoming battle, told him they would “probably be killed,” and asked him to settle the officer’s accounts with the government.
During the fight, Corporal Simpson wandered over to his commander and asked permission to take charge of one of the cannons. Bucklyn consented. To his horror, a few minutes later, Simpson’s short life was over, as a Confederate shell took off his head. Bucklyn years after the war recalled the German volunteer who had perished at Gettysburg, calling Simpson a “brave and noble soldier.”
Simpson was buried July 5 near where he fell. His remains were later dug up and reinterred in the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg, where he lies today in the Rhode Island section. His name is engraved on the roll of honor on the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Providence.