October 7, 2009

In Search of my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather

My Great^3 Grandfather Robert Henry Gray is buried somewhere in Fredericksburg, VA, and I'm on a mission to find him.

Robert was one of four brothers from the tiny town of Stockton ME (near Belfast), who fought in the Civil War. Of the four, Robert, Clarendon, Madison & Augustus, Clarendon was the only one who returned. Madison fell at the Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec 13 '62) age 18, Robert at the Battle of the Wilderness (5 May '64) age 28, Augustus at the Battle of Cedar Creek (Oct 19 '64), age 16. Clarendon saw virtually every significant battle of the Civil War, from First Bull Run to the surrender at Appomattox.

Robert's Civil War story is actually pretty spectacular. He signed up in '61 with the 4th Maine Volunteer Regiment, Company I, and was quickly made Sergeant. At First Bull Run he was wounded and captured; he escaped back to his lines with only a newspaper map for a guide, floating across the Potomac on a fencepost. He received prompt medical care, and was promoted to 2nd Lt. After Fredericksburg he replaced the slain 1st Lt, and was promoted to Major after Gettysburg. On the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness he was shot from his horse by three Rebel bullets, and died being transported back to Fredericksburg.

Many years ago my father transcribed his 1862 diary (which is kept at the Harvard library), and my uncle and namesake Bob presented the family with an annotated version a few years ago. It's a pretty interesting look into the day-to-day minutae of a soldier's life. A lot of the time he was at Camp Knox in Alexandria, and frequently was downtown, so I may have traced his footsteps over the past three years. Through most of the year he was ill with dysentery. That year marked the birth of his daughter Alice and the death of his brother Madison. While not forthcoming with deep emotional insight, one can read between the lines... typical Yankee terseness. Also, quite a lot of "when will these poor Secech's see the error of their ways" type stuff.

According to a letter written in the first decade of the 1900's by his comrade Frank Farnham to his son, Frank Boynton Gray, Major Gray was hastily buried in the Fredericksburg town cemetery (as was brother Madison 18 months earlier), the only Yankee officer buried there. An email inquiry to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery (a memorial cemetery for the fallen Yankee troops) suggests that they were not re-interred, so they're likely still there. The question is are their graves marked?

My intention this past weekend was to go to the cemetery to see; I was going to an audition in Staunton on Saturday, so I took the back roads back thru to Fredericksburg. After staying in Staunton for lunch with some colleagues, by the time I arrived in F'burg it was after 5pm and the sun was starting to descend, giving me only a good hour of exploring at best; plus I was under strict instruction from Al to find a legendary icecream stand called Carl's (every bit as good as its reputation promised). So my next available weekend (after this coming weekend's Baltimore wedding) will see me back down to F'burg for another look.

On the drive from Staunton to Fredericksburg, I did stumble across the Wilderness battlefield site, which I stopped at for about 20 minutes. My research afterwards that evening showed that I wasn't on the part of the field where he fell, so I may go back there as well.

Why am I so interested in finding and communing with my Great-Great-Great Grandfather? After all, I'm a pacifist. I think there's something about the Gray brothers' story that I find inspiring. Not the killing and dying, but I just wonder how I'd react in the circumstances they were in. Would I have the wherewithall to react like he did? Would I find such courage under fire? Do I carry some of that in me, being his descendant? Who knows.

More reports to follow after I go back and attempt another search.

1 comment:

Scoopernicus said...

You went on a Civil War Pilgrimage without me? I'm amazed at the amount of detail you've unearthed. I have a great-great-great-great grandfather through my Paternal Grandmother who served with a regiment from Plaistow who was a Sgt., I think with a Massachusetts regiment (must have crossed the border to enlist). All I have to go on is his Obituary that says he "served with Banks in Mississippi", which suggests the Port Hudson Campaign. He died in 1907, hit by a train in Saco while walking home late at night. I probaby should do more research and see what I can find out.