e was last heard from on a boat after being a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. He never returned home and has never been heard from.”
That’s what Mary Ann Gunter wrote to the Georgia pension board in 1900 when she made her annual renewal request for a widow’s pension based on the service and subsequent death of her husband, Thompson Gunter.
In earlier years, Mary Ann had noted that her husband had been captured at Vicksburg, had died on Aug. 3, 1863, onboard a steamer while being conveyed to Mobile, Alabama, and that his body had been “conveyed to the waves.”
But all she knew for sure was that he never returned home. She may have grieved for him but she never had a grave to visit.
How did she know any of the details about his being on board a steamer as a prisoner of war, that he died on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico and that his body was conveyed to the waters? No cadre of well-dressed soldiers appeared at her door to offer their condolences and assistance because neither side of this war had a system for notification.
She may have read it in a local newspaper. She may have gotten a letter from or talked with one of her husband’s fellow prisoners who saw his body buried at sea. She may have gotten a letter from an officer in his unit who himself had “heard” of Thompson’s fate.
We can be sure that Union officers on that steamer certainly did not convey Thompson’s body to the waters in an official ceremony honoring his service and his death — he was the enemy and a prisoner.
His body probably was quickly tossed overboard. Actually that disposal, while certainly not what we want to learn of an ancestor, is much easier to picture than the deaths of those who died on battlefields.
For example, we remember the Battle of Antietam (Maryland) as the bloodiest one-day battle of the war. The dead were reported at 23,000, and a week after the battle most of those had not been buried. For this and other battles, their bodies lay rotting in the fields.
Following most battles, the dead were covered in trenches and buried in mass graves as unidentified soldiers.
Neither side in this war had grave registration units. Soldiers were not given official identification papers and none wore “dog tags.” Many families never knew the fate of their loved ones and never knew where they were buried.
After the war, the federal government established 74 national cemeteries for the Union dead, and more than 300,000 soldiers were identified and reinterred in those graveyards. But a staggering 54 percent of the reinterred were not identified.
Of course, the Confederacy no longer existed, and reinterring Southern soldiers from the trenches and mass graves fell to private organizations such as the Ladies Memorial Association in Petersburg, which reinterred 30,000 men into the city cemetery.
Thompson’s service file has several entries stating that he died on Aug. 3 or Aug. 15. The most telling of the entries was for on an undated “List of Confederate prisoners captured at Vicksburg, Miss., July 4, 1863. A remarks section on this list showed an entry from Jno C. Merrill, Surgeon in Charge, that Thompson was among the sick and wounded shipped from Vicksburg on Str [steamer] St. Maurice for Mobile via New Orleans on July 30, 1863.”
As Thompson’s descendant and researcher, I possibly know more “for sure” about when and where he died than his surviving family ever did, because they didn’t have access to service and other military records.
We as family historians are challenged — yet again — to dig through records such as published diaries, written recollections of survivors, letters held in library special collections, digitized collections of newspapers of the day, military records not traditionally used for this purpose and, yes, even Googling with creative search words and phrases.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at [email protected] .com. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”