Five Union Soldiers Find Peace
Shortly after 10 o'clock on a crisp Saturday morning two weeks ago, 75 folks solemnly clutching small American flags and digital cameras assembled in a grove of young pines at a modest farm in the Zion community, tucked into in the soft hills west of downtown Rockingham.
Their objective was to honor five forgotten Union soldiers who died in a skirmish only days before the end of the Civil War. Until now, the solders' remains have lain in hand-dug graves marked only by small piles of white stones for 145 years, their identities unknown.
The event, sponsored by the Richmond County Historical Society, was an unlikely memorial service to honor their service to country and unveil official grave markers for the newly identified deceased. Invited guests included ancestors of the dead soldiers from as far away as Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, plus local citizens and history buffs and even a color guard made up of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from both North and South Carolina.
As local historian James Clifton reminded the participants, what happened at Lassiter Farm on March 7, 1865, was only a tiny incident in the bloodiest conflict in American history, a vast conflagration that produced more than a million casualties including 620,000 soldiers - an estimated 8 percent of all white males from the North and 18 percent from the South. More American soldiers died in the Civil War than in the next six wars combined.
Ironically, it was only the honor of a Confederate soldier that kept the memory of the five Union deaths from vanishing forever into the ether.
The story goes that Daniel Lassiter returned home to learn of five fresh graves on his property just weeks after the guns fell silent. He learned the bodies in the graves belonged to Union troops who'd been on a foraging mission on horseback and wagon when they evidently encountered remnants of the Richmond Home Guard. Records show that more than 35 Union Army deaths occurred from running skirmishes and scattered house-to-house fighting that took place in Richmond County during the closing days of the war.
After hearing the story, it's believed Lassiter expressed sympathy for the deaths of his former enemies and their families, citing the need for the nation to heal its wounds. He pledged that the graves of his former enemies would be marked and never disturbed as long as his family owned the farm.
Lassiter's promise passed through several generations of his family. In 1974, a man named Roy Moss purchased the property, and he agreed to honor the graves of the unknown soldiers by leaving them undisturbed as well.
'Homecoming of Sorts'
Two years ago, during a casual conversation with a fellow member of the Richmond County Historical Society, former Richmond County Daily Journal owner Neal Cadieu Jr. learned about the presence of the graves. A campaign was undertaken to see if the men could be identified and their final resting spots properly marked with grave markers.
A Union Army historian named Bruce Frail undertook the research in Washington and turned up more than 300 pages of research on the five dead soldiers, including their names.
"This really amounts to a homecoming of sorts for the families who lost their ancestors and for those of us here who looked after these graves for so long," Cadieu said to me as we stood watching the color guard load their rifles. "In the larger scheme of things, it not a very big thing, I suppose, but to me it's a powerful commentary on human kindness and brotherhood - how one man ended a war and honored his enemies by giving them a proper resting place, a home."
After taps was played hauntingly by a lone bugler off in the October-lit pines and a three-shot volley was fired by the honor guard, family members and guests filed silently along a narrow pine-needled path to a clearing in the pines, where five new grave stones stood draped with Yankee blue cloths.
One by one, the new grave stones were revealed - in at least two cases by a relative who also planted an American flag.
As the silent, moving ceremony unfolded, a line from Homer's "Odyssey" slipped into my head: All I want and all I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming.
Five soldiers who probably pined for the same thing died anonymously far from home but found peace - an unexpected home - in an enemy's pasture.
Cpl. Reed Alcorn served in the 8th Indiana Calvary. Not much is known about him.
Pvt. Matthew Ross was from the same unit. He hailed from Carroll County, Indiana, and stood 5 feet 8 inches tall. He'd been 18 for only 21 days.
Pvt. David Woods was even shorter, standing just 5 feet 5 inches. He came from Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, and enlisted on New Year's Day, 1864.
Pvt. Henry Stennett was from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and enlisted at Harrisburg on August 26, 1861.Thirty years after the war, his brother came to Richmond County searching for his brother's grave. He was reportedly unsuccessful.
Pvt. Calvin Simpson was a shoemaker before the war, having enlisted at Harrisburg in 1862. For 15 years after his death, his surviving daughter received $8 a month as a death benefit from the United States government. The payments stopped after she passed away. Her father's eyes were blue.
"Makes you realize how," murmured a woman standing beside me as Simpson's grave marker was unveiled. She had a pronounced Southern accent and was wiping her eyes, clearly moved.
Aiming her Canon camera at the whiskered Union and Confederate re-enactors standing at attention beside the graves, she cleared her throat and added, "Every American ought to be here this morning to see this. If they did, we might not be in such a big ugly rush to tear each other apart."
As we filed solemnly out of the woods and back to our parked cars and busy weekend lives - heading off to the grocery store or the high school car wash fundraiser or some college football game on a perfect autumn day made of equal parts polished brass and peach brandy - it was impossible not to be moved by the elegiac ceremony.
Pining for Past
In a season of homecoming, what is it about home that always makes us pine for something that may have vanished?
"I was raised in a tiny town tucked in the pinelands and red fields of southwest Georgia," relates best-selling novelist Sue Monk Kidd in "Firstlight," a fine collection of her inspirational writings. "A beautiful nowhere, my college roommate called it when she visited.
"For me, though, it's an enduring somewhere, a long suffering lap of Southern life. It's there, where my parents still live on the same farm that my great-great grandparents settled, that memory leans heavily against my heart."
Kidd tells of learning to set a proper table by correcting a "test" table her grandmother laid out. Knife blades turned the wrong way, iced tea spoons where soup spoons should be, "an array of table-setting atrocities so subtle the Queen of England couldn't spot them. I am 12, and my job is to do what the queen cannot. A half hour later, I have triumphed, except for the individual saltcellars, which are missing their tiny spoons."
Unlike Kidd, whom I judge to be about my age - owing to an itinerate newspaperman for a father - my own sense of home is scattered across the four Southern states where we lived before settling down for good in Greensboro, my dad's hometown.
I still have vivid pieces of each place in my memory, tiny slivers of home.
In Dallas, we shared a common pasture with neighbors and owned a gentle mule named Oscar. I can still see Oscar's handsome smiling face. He smelled good, too.
In Gulfport, we lived in an old house across the street from the beach, where my my mom and I used to collect interesting shells after Gulf storms. I mounted dozens of beautiful shells on large pine boards. How I loved those boards, those shells. Wonder where they ever got to?
In Florence, we had a maid named Jesse May, who doctored my mom back to health after a miscarriage and taught her to cook and showed my brother and me how to "feet dance" in our kitchen to the radio.
I had perfect attendance that year in first grade, though I don't remember a blessed thing about it. I read picture books while sitting in a large cardboard box on our porch. My dad's pressman, an ink-stained gentle giant named Earl, showed me his famous "floating finger trick."
Jesse died that winter, and we attended her funeral in a stark white church set on a dome of red clay. I remember the hymns. I remember hating to leave Florence and my best friend, Debbie Dean, the old blue tick hound across the street, even the strange little man who had the "bomb shelter" in his backyard.
Never could do the "floating finger trick" worth a lick.
Enemy Turned Brother
Americans are the most mobile race on earth, yet every one of us still pines for home.
My son Jack left Friday for his autumn break at Elon, burning the highway up to his mom's place in Maine, where his heart beats happiest.
Our plow guy in Maine used to kid me about being from "away." He was fiercely proud of being a native Mainer, which meant he could make fun of people from Massachusetts
I once told him I was proud that both my kids were -children of Maine, which by some law of human transitivity made me a father of Maine - maybe even an adopted son.
"Your young 'uns may be from Maine," he said, shaking his head, "but that don't make 'em Mainers."
My kids, not unlike Sue Monk Kidd, grew up in a small coastal town with the same friends and neighbors for years, with a Scottish grandmother who lived up in the hills above Moose Pond on a 500-acre farm with a 200-year-old barn that's tumbling down.
Still, when I hear my son speak of finishing college here in North Carolina and someday going "home" to rebuild his grandmother Bennie's ancient farmhouse, I hear the same voice of memory as Sue Kidd's - just a slightly different accent.
Home to him is the town's annual Halloween parade, snow by Christmas, a chilly Bowdoin hockey arena, the smell of Cundy's Harbor in spring, his mama's homemade cinnamon rolls. Jack's big sister, the other kitten from the oven, keeps her own home list, too.
"I live among a population, extraordinary in our culture, that lives where it lives because it loves the place," New Hampshire poet laureate Donald Hall once observed on the subject of home. "We are self-selected place lovers. There is no -reason to live where except for love."
When I described the moving saga of the lost Union soldiers to my neighbors Max and Myrtis on a recent golden Sunday afternoon, they simply smiled, understanding home as well as anybody.
We happened to be eating lunch on the lawn at the annual homecoming luncheon following services at the Red Springs Presbyterian Church, where Max and Myrtis Morrison were -married 51 years ago last August.
Myrtis' daddy was the town's only general practice physician. He once birthed a baby in his garage.
"There were more than 650 people at the reception," Max said over his lunch plate. "Do you have any idea what it's like to shake that many hands on a night when it's 90 degrees?"
As we ate our fried chicken, autumn squash and delicious coconut cake, they told me other funny stories of homecoming, and I just listened with pleasure, still thinking about those dead Yankee soldiers who wound up resting in a beautiful nowhere, honored by an enemy turned brother again, wondering how their families ever made peace with just not knowing.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story