Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A mysterious death, a new clue

War is chaos, leaving many mysteries in its path. During the Civil War one of them surrounded the death of Edward E. Sturtevant, New Hampshire’s first volunteer. I had the good fortune to use letters from Sturtevant’s early life to tell his story in the first chapter of Our War, but I knew him long before that book.

Edward E. Sturtevant was killed at Fredericksburg.
Mark Travis and I found Sturtevant during the 1990s when we researched and co-authored My Brave Boys, a history of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers under Col. Edward E. Cross. Sturtevant was a former printer and cop who became a captain in the 5th and later its major. At Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, he was killed during the assault on Marye’s Heights.

Evidence about his death and the disposal of his body conflicted. We sifted it, decided what was most plausible and wrote it. At the end of the book Mark and I included a long footnote explaining the evidence and how we interpreted it.

At Fredericksburg, Lt. Janvrin Graves, of Tuftonboro, N.H., was 30 years old and second in command of the 5th’s Co. H. The captain was William A. Moore of Littleton, just 21. Moore was killed in the battle, Graves wounded. Five days later, from the 5th’s camp in Falmouth, Va., across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Graves wrote Moore’s father, Dr. Adams Moore, a letter Mark and I did not have before we wrote My Brave Boys. Here it is:

“It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son, Capt. William A. Moore of Co ‘H’ 5th NH Vols. who was killed at the battle of Fredericksburg Va. December 13, 1862. He was wounded through the left forearm while nobly leading his Co. in the fight.

“After receiving the wound in the arm he at once gave me notice of the fact and started to the rear. While passing from the battle field to the city he was hit by a shell, and in all probability instantly killed.

“I was not sure of the result till the day after the battle, when I got information from a wounded man who recognized him as he passed his body on the field. Being wounded myself I could do nothing personally towards getting his body, but everything was done by the Regt to get him & others that could be done.

Charles O. Ballou of Claremont, N.H. 
“There has been a detail sent across the river to bury the dead. His body was found & buried with Maj. Sturtevants & Lieut Ballous. I have a small valise, an overcoat, and one or two books which I shall send you the first opportunity.

“His pockets was rifled of all their contents by the rebels. I think he had near $40. on his person when we went into the fight and some little notions which I am not able to mention. Any other particulars I can give I will readily do so at your request.”

The wounded private who found Moore’s body on the battlefield was A. Morrison George, 22, of Acworth, N.H., whose grave is in nearby Lempster. George tried in vain to remove Moore’s sword to keep enemy or Yankee troops from stealing it. The next night, a search party mounted by Cpl. John McCrillis found George in a pigpen.

The “Ballou” mentioned in Graves’s letter was Charles O. Ballou, a 29-year-old from Claremont who was shot in the neck and killed at Fredericksburg.

Graves’s statement that Sturtevant’s body was buried with Ballou’s and William Moore’s is new to me, but it squares with the account Graves shared with William Child, who wrote the regimental history 30 years after the war. Graves was wounded beyond the Stratton House, more than a hundred yards from the stone wall that protected the Confederate infantry. He hobbled to the other side of the house for shelter. In describing the scene there, he told Child that Moore, Sturtevant and Ballou were among those who lay nearby. But he also said Col. Cross was there, which cannot be true, as Cross lay wounded just beyond a ravine back down the hill.

Graves’s letter to Adams Moore was written shortly after the battle, which lends greater validity to his statements. On the other hand, being wounded, he did not actually see the burial of Sturtevant’s body.

In researching My Brave Boys, I found no evidence in accounts other than Graves’s that officers or men saw Sturtevant alive on the battlefield after Cross was wounded. I concluded that he was killed by an artillery shell at about the same time Cross went down. Here is the footnote to that conclusion as it appeared in the book:

“Accounts of Sturtevant’s death were conflicting and vague. New Hampshire newspapers reported the deaths of other officers but said only that Sturtevant was ‘missing and supposed dead.’ Livermore*, who did not march to battle with the Fifth at Fredericksburg, wrote in 1866 that Sturtevant had been hit not far beyond the ravine ‘and died in a ditch.’ In Days and Events, his later memoir, he wrote that Sturtevant had died near the stone wall. According to his footnote in Days and Events, other officers in the regiment had ‘assured’ him that his 1866 account was incorrect. But there is no evidence Sturtevant was with the regiment beyond the first artillery fire. 

Capt. James Larkin
“James Larkin** gave no specifics of Sturtevant’s death in his letters to his wife. Although Janvrin Graves, George Gove, John M. McCrillis and others wrote in detail of deaths beyond the Stratton House, none mentioned Sturtevant’s. No contemporary account described any action by Sturtevant during the battle; in all other cases in which an officer of the Fifth was killed at Fredericksburg, there were such accounts.

“John W. Crosby’s*** recollections of the battle, published in the 1880s but probably written earlier, seemed accurate in nearly all aspects. Crosby wrote that Sturtevant was at the left of the regiment just as it cleared the ravine and was hit and killed at about the same time Colonel Cross was wounded, possibly by a fragment of the same shell. This early demise is close to the careful Livermore’s initial account and consistent with our reading of all the material we could find on the Fifth at Fredericksburg.”

*Lt. (later Col.) Thomas Livermore, who wrote Days and Events, his detailed and reliable memoir of service in the 5th, shortly after the war.

**The letters of Larkin, a 5th captain, were detailed. Like Sturtevant, he was from Concord and knew Sturtevant well. Larkin was the senior captain and the next in the chain of command after Sturtevant. It seems likely he would have written of Sturtevant’s death had he learned how it happened.

***A rebel ball shattered Pvt. John W. Crosby’s elbow at Fredericksburg. He lost the arm but returned to the regiment, rose to lieutenant and fought at Gettysburg. Crosby was from Milford, N.H.

So, what to make of all this?

You’re free to decide for yourself, of course, but I’m sticking to Mark’s and my original judgment about Sturtevant’s death. But we’re also open to new evidence.

Maybe one day the definitive story will turn up. Meanwhile, such mysteries make studying the war fun.

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