Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: Yankee rests in rebel graveyard

Union Corp. George French and at least three Confederates are buried
 at the 160-year-old St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Lincolnton, N.C.
 The headstone in the foreground marks French's grave.
     Over 200,000 Americans died in battle during the Civil War: 110,000 from the United States and 94,000 from the Confederate States. Another 400,000 soldiers died of disease and other causes.
     Stoneman's Raid involved no major battles, so the death toll was relatively light. Nobody knows exactly how many lives were lost, however. Neither side left good records, and when they counted "casualties," they often grouped the wounded and captured with those who were killed.
     I know of at least 28 Union soldiers and 14 Confederates who were killed in action or mortally wounded during Stoneman's Raid. The Confederate toll is probably much higher, but records from the spring of 1865 are understandably lacking. Click on the links for their names and stories.
Corp. French was promoted
 posthumously to captain
     For this Memorial Day, as a tribute to all those who gave their lives, The Stoneman Gazette is honoring the memory of George J. French, a 21-year-old Union corporal who was mortally wounded April 18, 1865, in Lincoln County, N.C. He was shot by a bushwhacker near the South Fork of the Catawba River and buried the next day at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Lincolnton. 
     Just one week earlier, Corp. French had been praised by Capt. Adam Kramer for his gallantry near Lexington, N.C. He gravestone indicates that he was posthumously promoted to captain, which would make him one of the last two Federal officers who died in the Civil War. (The other was Massachusetts Lt. E.L. Stevens, who died the same day, April 18, in a South Carolina skirmish known as the Battle of Boykin's Mill.) 
     Here are two dispatches from our war correspondent, Capt. Henry Weand of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry.
      April 18, Lincolnton, N.C.: It was here that we lost the last man killed in our Regiment, Corp. Geo. J. French. He was on picket at the time, and was shot by a bushwhacker, dying shortly after being brought to camp. His gentlemanly manners had endeared him to all, and the loss was felt deeply. Before he died, he sent this message: "Tell mother and sisters that I die like a brave man and my comrades carried me from the field.
      So far on this campaign, our loss has been very light, only fifteen men. [NOTE: Weand is probably including those who were wounded or captured. As far as I can tell, his regiment had only two men killed during Stoneman's Raid.]

      April 19: We buried Corp. Geo. French today, with military honors, in the Episcopal graveyard, and several of the ladies in the town contributed wreaths of flowers to place on his coffin. It is pleasant to record this of them, and also of the change in their feelings toward us in twenty-four hours. They say we are not destructive and are so gentlemanly, and wish their own soldiers were more like us.
     The Lincoln Times-News wrote about the Civil War graves in a 2013 feature on Glen Thorpe, the sexton of St. Luke's Church.
      Four of the individuals were soldiers in the Civil War, each mortally wounded in battle.
      While the three Confederate soldiers and Union soldier—Capt. George French—fought on opposite sides during the war, death united them as they each entered their final rest at St. Luke’s.
      French served as part of the occupying force that entered Lincolnton at the Civil War’s end, Thorpe said. Two days before French and the rest of the Union Army arrived in town, residents from across the county gathered at sunrise on Easter morning to pray for God’s mercy and safety in advance of the upcoming attack.
      Residents were fearful Union soldiers were planning to avenge Abraham Lincoln’s death, since his assassination had occurred earlier that month, church documents said. [Actually, Lincoln's assassination was unknown in Lincolnton until Monday, April 17. He was shot on Good Friday, April 14. Easter Sunday was April 16.]
      Confederate soldiers buried at the church include Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur [1837-64]—the youngest major general in the Southern states’ army—and William and Edward Phifer.
     The Phifers bring another dimension to this story. William and Edward Phifer were the great-great-grandsons of Martin Phifer Sr., who emigrated from Switzerland in 1737 and settled near Concord, N.C. President George Washington stayed with Martin Phifer Jr. when he toured the southern states in 1791. 
     Martin Jr.'s grandson, John Phifer, became a prominent citizen in Lincolnton, and in 1865 he also had a distinguished houseguest: Union Col. William Palmer used the Phifer home as his headquarters while his cavalry occupied the town.
     Col. Palmer probably earned Mr. Phifer's grudging respect through his forgiveness of a Lincolnton youth who had shot at him, not to mention his generosity toward the widow of Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
      However, there must have been a terribly awkward moment when Mr. Phifer found out that Col. Palmer had been involved in the Battle of Chickamauga, where William Phifer was mortally wounded in 1863. In fact, Palmer led an important charge during that battle, so it was possible that young Phifer had been killed by one of the Pennsylvanians who were now camped around his home in Lincolnton.
     It is to the credit of both gentlemen that they were able to make arrangements for French to rest in peace just a few feet from the Phifer boys.
John Phifer's house on West Main Street in Lincolnton was Gen. William Palmer's headquarters for a week. Built in the 1820s, it was torn down in the 1970s.

     The Fifteenth Pennsylvania fought in some of the war's most famous battles, including Antietam as well as Chickamauga. Gen. William T. Sherman called the Fifteenth "the best regiment in my department." They were courageous but not reckless. Of the 1,700 officers and soldiers, just 25 were killed in action during three years of service. Another 103 died of disease. When Gen. Palmer earned the Medal of Honor in the Battle of Red Hill in January 1865, he did not lose a single man, even though he was outnumbered. 

Sgt. Angelo Wiser's maps of the 1st Brigade in Lincolnton. North is to the right.

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