- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

A survivor of the bloody encounter at Gettysburg described the field hospitals behind Cemetery Ridge: “[A]nd there they gathered in numbers, a great army, mutilated, bruised mass of humanity.” One of these unfortunate members of humanity, suffering from amputation and loss of blood, was Thomas Henry Hunt of the 44th New York Infantry.

The Hunt family came from Ireland and had settled in Genesee County, N.Y., in 1849. The Irish were known for never walking away from hard work or a good fight. To preserve and protect their new country, the Hunt brothers considered it an honor and duty to exchange native shamrock green for a musket and a uniform of federal blue.

Early in 1860, the Hunts were farming near Batavia in western New York. When rumors of civil war became reality and the nation called for volunteers, Joseph Hunt was one of the first to enlist to fight for the Union cause.

For many Northern farmers, hard times fell when the War Between the States exploded. Most of the young men signed up to preserve the Union, leaving the operation of the farms to women, children and older folks.

Around the time of Joe’s enlistment, his twin brother, Mark, remembered, “My father was an old man at sixty, crippled with rheumatism, etc. When I was twenty I was in charge of a big family and farm and had no time to indulge in the artistic.” Mark couldn’t be on the firing line but stayed behind to “hold the horses,” or in this case, plow with the horses.

In a letter to a friend, Mark wrote, “My brother Joe went into the 12th New York Volunteers. His company was entirely formed by Batavia young men. The ladies had made rosettes of ribbon and also useful articles for each of the boys, such as articles for holding thread, needles and pins, useful for camp life. I went with him to Syracuse, where they were uniformed. Joe was in the first battle of Bull Run” on July 21, 1861.

With ink on tear-stained paper, the note continued, “Joe died of some camp fever in the following January at Upton’s Hill near Mount Vernon, where they were encamped for the winter. We hadn’t heard of his being sick. The first news we got was that his remains were being shipped to Batavia.”

Several days after the sad news of Joe’s death, the family received the body, which arrived by train — one of thousands of military careers cut short not by bullets, but by sickness and disease.

Escaping Antietam

Thomas Hunt, an older brother of twins Mark and Joseph, was employed as a carpenter in Albany when the war began. Thomas enlisted on Aug. 16, 1862 — seven months after Joe’s death — in Company A, 44th New York Volunteers.

The elite regiment, known as “Ellsworth Avengers,” was organized in honor of Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who had been shot and killed on May 24, 1861, after removing a Confederate flag from the top of a hotel in Alexandria.

Unlike most Civil War regiments that were organized from local communities and surrounding areas, the 44th was handpicked by the state of New York.

These unique soldiers were required to meet certain standards: “good moral character, 5 feet 8 inches in height and not exceeding 30 years-of-age.” The state also armed this special unit with the finest military equipment available.

Attached to the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, the 44th New York was held mostly in reserve at Antietam. In a letter home to brother Mark, Thomas described the aftermath.

“Many a poor fellow have I seen dead and dying on the field and in a pile of straw in the barn yard. This is one vast burying ground. You can see on every little hill at the base of every tree and in the valleys the many graves of soldiers.”

The elder Hunt brother had escaped with his life during the bloodiest day of the Civil War, but his trials and tribulations were far from being over.

A close call

On Nov. 10, 1862, Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside replaced Gen. George B. McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. One month later, Burnside faced Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. While camped near Falmouth, Va., Thomas wrote a letter in which he described the slaughter on the foggy morning of Dec. 13, 1862, along the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.

“140 guns were at play on the doomed city of Fredericksburg. We were ready at a moments warning to cross the pontoons. We crossed over and marched through the city at the back of which was under fire of shell and musket ball of a Rebel enemy. We formed our line of battle and lay down in the mud and water to await further orders.”

Thomas Hunt then told what happened as the 44th New York started forward.

“A shell burst in our ranks knocking the four men on my left down. It was a close one for me. It cut the calf out of one man’s leg. Another shell tore the side out of our sergeant and a piece went through the flag cutting the blue on which the stars are on in two. Out of 343 that started with we had left 242. When all was quiet for the night some of us started back over the field to look for our comrades as best we could.”

Once again, the carpenter-turned-soldier was not listed with the fallen.

He fought again on May 2, 1863, at Chancellorsville and reported it as his “hardest fight.” Thomas Hunt had cheated death again, but the “luck of the Irish” was running out.

Blood at Gettysburg

The greatest battle of the American Civil War was fought on the first three days of July 1863 at a small crossroads village in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. After black-powder smoke settled on the first day’s fighting, the landscape northwest of town was cluttered with countless casualties, both blue and gray.

On the second day, the Union’s left flank was anchored on a small knoll known as Little Round Top. Defending this boulder-strewn hill was Col. Strong Vincent’s brigade, comprising the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan.

Late in the afternoon, a Confederate division commanded by Gen. John Bell Hood launched a furious assault against Vincent’s defensive position.

In a matter of minutes, gray granite turned crimson red, spattered by blood — some belonging to Thomas H. Hunt, 44th New York. The regimental history of the 44th New York Infantry (page 324) records the casualties following the clash on Little Round Top. Company A lists Thomas Hunt as “wounded in left leg — since amputation is doing well.”

Mark Hunt had lost his twin brother, Joe, but now had hope Thomas’ life would be spared and he would return home alive. Time has a way of changing things, however, as the Batavia farmer reported later.

“The first time we knew of Thomas being wounded, was when it was published in the paper. He wrote cheerful letters about dancing with a wooden leg when he got home. Next the word came that he was dead. Gangrene had set in. They operated again and he sank under the operation. He died on July 24, 1863. He was twenty seven-years-old.”

Sorrowful search

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the federal government forbade the removal of the dead from battlefield graves until the first of October. Although remains would have been in a bad state of decomposition, the act helped prevent the spread of disease.

In many cases, however, this law was overlooked as untold numbers of Yankee bodies were taken North. Determined to bring his brother’s body home to New York, Mark Hunt arrived in Gettysburg by train the day before the first of October.

Years later, the last remaining brother scribbled down his reminiscences of this sorrowful trip to the battle-torn village in Pennsylvania.

“The town of Gettysburg was much like a county fair. People were living in tents.” He recalled, “Some embalmers pointed out the place where they thought I’d find my brother’s grave. Some graves were marked with a piece of cracker box or stave of a barrel, name written in with a lead pencil. I searched that place over without finding the name of my brother.”

His quest continued: “I saw a pile of clothing on the battlefield, faded by the weather, so I couldn’t tell whether it was blue or gray. I ran a finger along each side of a button on a suit of clothes to read it and found a body in the clothing.”

Toward evening, Mark spotted a white farmhouse in the distance that had been used as a hospital for the 5th Corps.

“It was after dark when I got to the house. The farmer was out doing his chores with his lantern. I asked him if he could help me in my dilemma. He said he hadn’t time, but would lend me a lantern and show me where to go.” So, with only a flickering flame from a sperm oil lamp to guide his steps, the grieving brother pressed on.

“I followed fences as he directed and finally came to an enclosure of rail fence on the edge of the woods. I got over the fence and with the lantern read the little headboards. I found my brother’s name cut with a knife. I was satisfied, for I had found what I was seeking.”

A long time would pass before Mark Hunt could escape the memory of that night searching for his brother’s grave in the moonlight under the shadow of Little Round Top.

Detritus of war

In all probability, Mark had gone to either the Fiscel or Weikert farm — both were used as hospitals for the 5th Corps and were located just east of Little Round Top.

After carefully marking the grave, he headed back toward Gettysburg to purchase a casket. Stumbling in the dark, using the “shoe leather express,” Mark attempted to locate a turnpike leading the three or four miles to town.

While crossing a small stream, he noticed a pale, ghostly light reflecting from the bottom. This soft glow Mark thought to be “phosphorescence from a body part.”

Finally, after receiving directions at “a brick house in a grove,” Mark reached one of the main roads heading north to Gettysburg. He referred to this road as “used by U.S. artillery going to the battle of Gettysburg.” This roadway full of deep ruts would have been the Baltimore Pike.

Mark Hunt’s writings reveal yet another painful moment.

“We had sent a box of jellies, etc., to my brother and the day I arrived in Gettysburg, I went to the express office and found the box still there.” With a pass from the provost marshal, Mark distributed the “box of goodies” that had been intended for his now-dead brother to the sick and wounded soldiers in what he called the “only one hospital in operation in Gettysburg at that time.”

This hospital of tents was called Camp Letterman, named for Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, and was situated one mile east of Gettysburg along the York Pike.

Mark also described the aftermath of battle and destruction to the Gettysburg area.

“I saw oak trees shot off by cannons. The country was stripped of fences. The soldiers had used the fences for campfires. Barns were stripped too.”

The scattered detritus of war, although still considered “federal property” three months after the battle, was picked up by the thousands of visitors to the battlefield. Mark Hunt was one of the souvenir collectors.

“I brought home some relics of the battlefield, but not many; not what I went for. The relics were a bayonet, canteen and a bombshell. At that time one could take a hayrack and load it full with saddles, blankets, etc., etc.”

Telegram home

Following a restless night in an “unplastered, candlelit room” in Gettysburg, Mark returned to the vicinity of Little Round Top to exhume Thomas’ body. Once identification was made, the remains were taken back to Gettysburg. He sent a telegram to Batavia for family and friends to assemble for a funeral so the body could go straight to the cemetery. The casket was then loaded on the next train north. Beside the body were carefully placed battlefield relics and a sacred little piece of pine slat from a cracker box carved: “THOMAS HUNT — 44th NEW YORK.”

Toward the end of the war, Mark Hunt took his family and left New York to start a new life of homesteading on the Iowa prairie. Left behind in Batavia Cemetery were two young Irish immigrants who had fought to preserve a nation and to liberate those who had been held in bondage much too long.

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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