Moving forward while still looking backwards

I want to take a moment to make an apology to any regular readers out there. Recently the blog has taken a back seat to both work and family life. Funny how a new job and a new baby will do that to you! As much as I want to get out there and focus more on field trips and research it just hasn’t happened as often as I’d like. I’m still going to keep updating but the posts may be a little thinner and less frequent for a while. Hopefully as the little HistorySprout gets older she can come along on my field trips too, but that’s still a ways off. As we get closer to summer I will be doing some larger posts on the actions of the various Home Brigade regiments during the major military campaigns of the war (Gettysburg, Antietam, the Valley Campaign, etc.). All of the various PHB regiments had roles to play – sometimes on the periphery and sometimes right in the middle of things. Seeing how they fit into the wider context should be an interesting exercise. Of course I’ll still continue with the usual fare as well – stories about the men themselves and the unusual, the heartbreaking, or the exhilarating circumstances they found themselves in. And of course there will be more visits to historic cemeteries. I’ll also be giving a lecture later on this summer, and I’ll post the details as we get closer.

As I move forward with all of these exciting plans it never ceases to amaze me how inspiration continues to pop up at the strangest times. Case in point, the other night I was desperately trying to get the HistorySprout to fall asleep – and I’m sure most parents out there know the struggle all too well! – and I lucked into what has now become my secret weapon. Bleary eyed and exhausted I scrolled through Netflix and decided to watch Ken Burn’s Civil War for the thousandth or so time. As soon as “Ashoken Farewell” started up the crying died down and eventually stopped. HistorySprout wasn’t asleep but she was enthralled by the music and the slow parade of black and white images. It was a godsend for tired old dad.

It was also an amazingly nostalgic moment for me. I know the series has its flaws, but watching it again always takes me back to my youth like few other things can. I was only about six years old when the series first aired and I was completely eaten up by it. I even convinced my mom to let me play hooky from school for a day so I could catch the marathon screening of every episode. That was the single defining moment that I knew I wanted to study the Civil War. From then on I read everything I could get my hands on. I begged my folks to spend our family vacations touring battlefields and museums. Somewhere I have old photo albums of me as a kid in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, climbing the observation towers at Gettysburg, and standing in the McLean parlor at Appomattox. Over the years I’ve drifted into other periods and places – most notably the late 18th century with the American and French Revolutions – but I always come back to the Civil War. It’s my first love and I have Mr. Burns to thank for that.

As the soothing sounds of the documentary lulled us to sleep my eye caught something that gave me pause. As the narrator discussed the horrors of the prison at Andersonville the camera slowly panned across row upon row of gravestones. I paused, rewound, and watched again. Sure enough, in that sea of white marble, there was a familiar name…


Over on the right…William Carr, of Maryland

A quick double-check of my spreadsheet and sure enough Private William Carr served in Company D of Cole’s Cavalry. I have literally lost count of how many times I’ve seen this series, so you can imagine my surprise at my love of the Civil War coming full circle like this. Thousands and thousands of Civil War aficionados have seen Carr’s name flash across their screens and likely never given it a second thought. In honor of Private Carr let’s take tonight and learn a little more about the man in grave number 5036.

William Carr was born in Frederick, Maryland in 1843 to William and Drucilla Carr. William died shortly after his son’s birth, and five years later Drucilla remarried, this time to Benjamin Smith. Smith worked as a shoemaker in Frederick City. Oddly the 1850 census doesn’t list young William as living with his mother and stepfather, so I suspect he was living with a relative. Unfortunately for Drucilla the marriage wouldn’t last. Her second husband passed away in March of 1851, leaving her and William alone again. By 1860 she and William had moved back in with her mother, Elizabeth Tucker; Drucilla supported herself by working in one of Frederick’s wool factories.

William was 18 when the war began, but he didn’t enlist until the summer of 1863. As the Gettysburg campaign wound down the men of Cole’s Cavalry had seen plenty of hard riding and skirmishing with the enemy. The unit was in need of reinforcements and on July 23 William left his twice-widowed mother and enlisted in Company D (1).



Through the fall of 1863 he rode with his unit on numerous scouts into Loudoun and Fauquier County and even down into the Shenandoah Valley. Private Carr’s luck ran out on New Year’s Day, 1864, though. He was part of Captain Hunter’s ill fated expedition to Rectortown  and was one of the thirty-odd cavalrymen captured by Mosby’s Rangers in the debacle at Five Points. Like the other prisoners he was soon shipped south, first to Richmond and then on the Andersonville.

Throughout the war at least 80 soldiers of the various Home Brigade regiments died at Andersonville, including at least 27 from Cole’s Cavalry alone. Private William Carr was one of the unlucky ones. He died August 8th, 1864; The cause of death listed was “diarrhea.” And so Private Carr ended up in the massive cemetery at Andersonville, and ultimately on the Ken Burns documentary. His story doesn’t end there, though.

Enclosed with his service record is a letter written by his mother while he was imprisoned in Richmond. It seems she was desperately trying to get word from her son and so she wrote to the Secretary of War in an attempt to get through to him. The letter to William is lost to time, but we do have her correspondence with the Union command.

January the 21st, 1864

Mr secretary of war will you oblige by being so kind as to write and tell me if this letter can go to my son or if I can hear from him by you doing so will favor me grately

Mrs. Drucilla Smith



Writing a letter like this was a painful ritual all to familiar to thousands of families North and South. You can feel her heartbreak and desperation in those few lines. Here is a woman who has lost her only child to the uncertainty of a prisoner of war camp. We do know that the letter was forwarded to Fort Monroe and hopefully on to Richmond and to William.



Of course we know that Drucilla never saw her son again, but I hope her letter did make it to him. I hope it offered some solace to William as he suffered so far from home. After his death the following memorial appeared in the Frederick Examiner:


Frederick Examiner 4 January 1865 (Courtesy of Crossroads of War/Catoctin Center)

In 1865 Drucilla applied for a widow’s pension on the grounds that her son was her only source of income. Her application was successful and for the rest of her life she drew $8 a month (later increased to $12), but no amount of restitution could make up for the loss of William. Drucilla left Frederick after the war and retired to a farm near Brownsville, just west of Crampton’s Gap on the old South Mountain battlefield. She lived to the age of 94, passing away in 1917. Her obituary in the Frederick Post gave testament to her loneliness:

Her only son whom she gave to her country in the Civil War who fell a patriot on a bloody Southern field, has long gone, her husband died soon after some 60 years ago and she lived there after for 50 years in Brownsville. No close relatives survive. Mrs. Mohler, of Frederick, a niece, was with her when she died (2).

It’s a sad story with a sad ending, to be sure. It’s also an important reminder that every one of those men who marched off to war left someone behind who had to pick up the broken pieces. I can almost see the poor widow Smith on the porch of her home in Brownsville, staring off towards the south, waiting for a son that would never return. It’s a sobering reminder of the human cost of the war. As a historian these are the stories that I need to tell. Hopefully when HistorySprout grows up she’ll appreciate the importance of the past as well. Until then it’s more sleepless nights and more Ken Burns.



NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland. Roll:0019

2 The Frederick Post. 8 February, 1917

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