A Philadelphia Civil War Soldier's Death Premonition in 1861

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A Philadelphia Civil War Soldier's Death Premonition in 1861

2014-10-31 14:40


For centuries, soldiers serving in various battles have believed and stated to their comrades-in-arms that they were about to die, or would within the near future. Hundreds of such accounts exist for the Civil War era of United States history.  For the most part, such statements are common to men in battle, but enough well-documented and detailed narratives exist to convince any skeptic that such beliefs are not always figments of imagination or products of irrational fears.

The belief that one is about to die is often referred to as a “death premonition” in folklore, but during the 19th century such personal experience narratives were often referred to as “presentments.”  Frank Moore, an avid collector of Civil War accounts on a variety of subjects, published one such belief in 1889 within his famous work, The Civil War in Song and Story: 1860-1865.  This account concerns Sewall (or Sewell) Randall, a soldier serving in Co. D, of the famed California Regiment or the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. 

The 1861 edition of McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory lists Randall as a carpenter.  Moore states how Randall, “the night before the engagement {he} had a singular dream.”  The “engagement” he was referring to was the ill-fated conflict known as the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, fought in Virginia on October 21, 1861.

Colonel Edward D. Baker, a United States Senator from California and close friend of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, was given the task of demonstrating to the Confederates near Poolesville that the Union armed forces were ready and willing to defeat the rebellious enemy. However, the battle became a massacre, not for the Rebels but for the Yankee invaders. Over nine hundred Union soldiers would be either killed or wounded during the engagement, including Col. Baker as well as Corporal Sewall Randall.

Moore recalls how Randall’s dream prior to the battle, made such a vivid impression upon his memory, that he related it to a fellow soldier, adding how he knew that it was an evil portent or omen of what was to come. “Neither ridicule nor reason could move him from this strange conviction” says Moore, adding how Randall went into action “as though he had received his death-warrant.”

Crossing the Potomac, Randall had only barely reached the top of the opposite bluff when he was shot by a Confederate bullet through his side. Samuel P. Bates compilation, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-5, Vol. IV, published after the War, lists Co. D as having been recruited in Philadelphia, with Randall having enlisted on May 28, 1861, and “killed at Ball’s Bluff, Va., October 21, 1861.”  Also, Randall’s obituary would appear in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, on November 9th of that year, stating how he had been “killed at the battle of Ball’s Bluff,” and invited relatives, friends, and “No.4, American Mechanics, and the Order in general,” to attend the funeral to be held “from the residence of Joseph H. Comely, Esq.” Comely resided at the hotel on Main Street in Frankford, above Orthodox Street.

Sewall Randall was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, located on Frankford Avenue and Bridge Streets in Philadelphia. Records here at the Society reveal that he was 21 years of age at the time of his death, and had “died of wounds received in Battle of Ball’s Bluff.” On the same page of the Death Register for Cedar Hill, is listed Joseph D. Williams age 26, who incidentally was a 2nd Lieutenant in the same Company D as Randall, and also lost his life during the same battle.

Gary G. Lash, in his work, Duty Well Done: The History of Edward Baker’s California Regiment (71st Pennsylvania Infantry), published in 2001, also refers to Corporal Randall’s dream and death, adding how his remains were buried in a “plain deal box” along with the Nation’s colors, while an honor guard fired a volley three times over his temporary place of internment, since his final resting place would be at Cedar Hill on November 10th of 1861.

Many death premonitions or presentments of Civil War soldiers may be found within the Civil War collections housed at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in the form of diaries, letters, and various publications. We invite all to come and browse through this material, especially during the upcoming Halloween season for your supernatural enjoyment.

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