Hidden Histories

Killed at Gettysburg: Death Elegies Written about Philadelphia Soldiers Who Lost Their Lives in the Famous Battle

Thursday, 9/15/11

It was a common practice in America, from the Colonial period and well up into the American Civil War era, for family members to express their mourning or grief, in what are referred to as elegies, a written 'lament' or tribute to the dead. Often times these elegies were rhymed couplets, which appear quite frequently in newspapers of the day, revealing not only the bravery, courage, and sacrifices of the soldiers involved, but also the eloquence in writing, of those who paid tribute to the deceased in verse.

Various regiments of volunteer soldiers from Philadelphia, fought at the Battle of Gettysburg in early July of 1863, resulting in the tragic deaths of many of its residents. The newspapers are filled with sorrowful yet proud poems honoring those who'd gave the ultimate sacrifice during that famous engagement in Adams County, Pennsylvania.

For example, Augustus Joseph, of Co. 'H,' 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, or 'Rush's Lancers' (though his body had not yet been retrieved), had the following poem printed in his behalf, within the Philadelphia Public Ledger, on August 7th, 1863:


"On Gettysburg's bloody field, a wounded soldier lay;
Hist thoughts were on his happy home, some hundred miles away.
A soldier friend stood by his side, a tear stood in his eye,
And cold the sweat stood on his brow, he felt he soon must die.
'When you see my mother dear, be careful how you speak,
The cords of life may snap too soon, her heart may be too weak.
Go tell her that my aching heart, did heave a gentle sigh.
Go tell her that her son so true, a soldier's death did die."

Robert W. Ray, of Frankford, age 37, of Co. 'I,' 121st Pennsylvania Regiment, was honored by the following in an elegy written by his wife:


"His country' s cause, it was his own, before his foes he would not bend.
He stood upon a freeman's throne, for equal rights did he contend.
When husband last was home to rest, I little thought death was so nigh.
He pressed our children to his breast, and said, 'for you and these I'll die.'
From home into the field he went, where armies met a dread array.
Where tyrants and oppressors sent, to beat out freedom's gentle sway.
The Lord of Hosts our army led, and victory on our banner hung,
And when they searched among the dead, my husband amid the throng.
My heart it beats with anguish deep, as o'er the dead, I sit and mourn.
But why cast down my soul and weep, for soon will dawn a glorious morn.
The Saviour will for thee appear, to gather up thy little dust;
Husband, children, and father dear, in Christ our Saviour shall find rest."

Forty-six members of Baxter's Philadelphia Fire Zouaves, or the 72nd Regiment of Pennsylvania Infantry, lost their lives at Gettysburg, while another sixteen would later die of wounds received during the battle, some as late as November of 1863. Many elegies appear in honor of these men in Philadelphia newspapers after the battle, and like those above, for space considerations, I've rendered these tributes simply as 'run-on' verses, when in reality they appear published as 'couplets' within the press.

Samuel A. Morrison of Co. 'B,' had this simple, but special verse published in his behalf:


"No mother near him when he died, no brother nor sister's hand to cheer.
His death, his country's noblest pride, A Union volunteer."

Twenty-five year old John F. Walbert, of Co. 'F,' was honored by the following:


"Sleep, noble warrior, sleep, the tomb is now thy bed.
Cold in its bosom thou dost rest, in silence with the dead.
We tell thy doom with many tears, how rose they morning sun.
How quickly too, alas, it set; Warrior, thy march is done."

The elegy of Frederick B. Shoner, of Co. 'A,' states:


"Rest, soldier, rest, thy warfare o'er, the battle-roll thou'll hear no more!
Thy duty bravely, nobly done--The conflict past, the victory won.
All honor to the fallen brave, who on his country's altar gave,
A noble heart, a generous soul, the freeman's standard to unroll.
Their battle cry is liberty---"Our country must and shall be free."

George Mickle, of private of Co. 'C,' is mentioned in his obituary as being "killed, while nobly fighting for his country, at the battle of Gettysburg," at the age of nineteen. By July 18th his body had still not been recovered, yet the following verse was penned:


"Returned, alas! returned too soon, stricken low in his youthful bloom.
While yet his heart beat high; striving for truth and right,
He sought the thickest of the fight, and, wounded, fell and died.
They've brought him back to his parents' heart, but not as they saw him
Last depart. In uniform so gay;
He's lying in his coffin now, with his death white marble brow,
And they can only pray."

Far many individuals today such verses may sound morbid or even depressing, yet many families on both sides of the conflict, were products of their culture. Such 'cultural baggage' in dealing with the death of soldiers was nothing new to them.

As far back as the 625 B.C., Tyrtaeus, the famed poet of the Greek militaristic state of Sparta, had penned his lengthy poem, Code of the Citizen Soldier, which echoed many of the same sentiments as those expressed by families who lost loved ones during the American Civil War, or for that matter, those in American today who have lost loved ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, or on 9/11.

Tyrtaeus remarked of such losses in the following manner:


"Why such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
And all his polis {city-state} goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed out with pride, and so are his children, and his children's children,
And afterwards all that is his.
His shining glory is never forgotten. His name is remembered, and he becomes immortal,
Though he lies under the ground.
When one brave man had been killed by the furious War God, standing his ground and
Fighting hard for his children and land."

The words above speak for themselves. Honor, courage, bravery, sacrifice, have always been character traits revered by most peoples, especially Americans. Perhaps we can pay no greater honor to our Civil War dead during this 150th Commemoration, than to at least remember their sacrifices which were placed upon the 'altar of freedom,' as revealed in the many stirring elegies or tributes, found within the collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.