Cpl. William H. Secor was the only member of the 2nd Vermont Infantry killed at the Battle of Antietam. At the time of death, he was carrying two ID discs better known today as “dog tags.” One of the objects eventually found its way to California and in 1955 arrived at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier. Thirty-six years later, the author of this article removed Secor’s second ID tag from the sacred soil of Antietam. These two artifacts once owned by the young corporal provided background for the following story.
On a beautiful autumn afternoon — Oct. 18, 1991 — my brother Don and I were pushing our metal detectors over a cedar-covered ridge just north of the Antietam Battlefield. In the shadow of a huge tree, the detector sounded the first good signal of the day. Digging to a depth of 5 inches, I removed a small round piece of brass about the size of a quarter. Rubbing off some of the dirt, I saw a hole on the edge of the token.
After the new find soaked all night in a strong solution of household cleaner to remove some of the corrosion, faint gold letters slowly came into focus: “Corp. Wm Secor / Halfmoon, N.Y. / Co. A / 2nd Reg. / Vt. Vol.” The reverse bore an eagle emblem with the legend: “War of 1861 / United States.”
During the Civil War years, before official Army dog tags, these patriotic keepsakes were sold to soldiers by enterprising sutlers. The sutler, using a small hammer and a series of lettered dies, would stamp the soldier’s name, regiment, hometown, etc., into the gold-plated brass disc. Normally paying about 25 cents per pair, the soldier would retain one tag and send the other home to family or a loved one. As any veteran relic hunter will confirm, when it comes to metal-detecting for Civil War artifacts, anything personally ID’d is the ultimate discovery.
Who was Cpl. Secor? Was he married? Where was he buried? A research project became an obsession that would bring the 19th-century warrior to life.
Records of the National Archives state that on May 14, 1861, 21-year-old William Heath Secor enlisted in Company A, 2nd Vermont Regiment at Bennington. Mustered in as a private, he was described as 5 feet 61/4 inches tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. It should be noted that although Secor was from Halfmoon, N.Y., he enlisted in Vermont. It was not unusual for a volunteer to enlist in a neighboring state. Occasionally this was done simply to spend time with friends or relatives who also were going off to war.
On July 4, Independence Day 1861, the Bennington Banner paid tribute to the 2nd Vermont Volunteers:
“The material of which the regiment is composed is the very best. The men are young and athletic. Many of them are very tall — a little less than five feet, ten inches. They have been by occupation principally agriculturists; nearly all have been engaged in out of door employments. They are consequently capable of bearing a great amount of fatigue and the intelligent, honest and patriotic expression their countenances bear, indicate that the fame of the Green Mountain Boys will not suffer at their hands.”
The 2nd Vermont was part of the Vermont Brigade, a force composed of five Vermont regiments attached to the 6th Corps, Army of the Potomac. This Federal unit did commendable service early in the war during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Secor was in its number for every engagement.
Early on the damp, misty morning of Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of the American Civil War began on the rolling land and wood lots just north of Sharpsburg, Md. Around 10 a.m., the Vermont Brigade (William F. Smith’s Division) reached the already bloody, smoking battleground. By this time, the fighting on the Union’s right flank at the Dunkard Church and the Cornfield was cooling off. A determined Rebel force, however, was holding its own in an old sunken farm road to the southeast — soon to be called Bloody Lane.
To give support to Gen. William H. French’s Division (2nd Corps), which was running low on ammunition, the Vermont Brigade was sent forward. Years later, 6th Corps surgeon George T. Stevens remembered: “The Vermonters behaved with their usual gallantry and although frequently subjected to the fire of artillery, they held their ground bravely.”
Finally, the battered Confederates pulled back from the country road, but not before both sides had paid a terrible price. Records of the 2nd Vermont showed “one man killed and several wounded.” The one man killed was Cpl. William H. Secor of Company A. When struck down, Secor was carrying the regimental flag — making an outstanding target for Confederate sharpshooters, who were enjoying a “field day.”
How did the corporal’s identification disc get from Bloody Lane to the cedar hillside where I found it, almost two miles north of the battlefield? There is one plausible explanation.
The area in which we were relic-hunting was known at the time of the battle as the O.J. Smith Farm. An old barn constructed of hand-hewn timber that once stood on the property was used to shelter the wounded from Bloody Lane. It is likely that the mortally wounded Secor was transported there along with countless other casualties to receive medical treatment that in many cases would prove to be fruitless.
After the Battle of Antietam, the Vermont Brigade encamped at Hagerstown, 12 miles north of Sharpsburg. It was there that Lt. E.O. Cole of the 2nd Vermont wrote to Secor’s stepfather in New York:
Camp near Hagerstown, Md.
Sept. 28th 1862
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of Corporal William Secor, Co. A. Vt. Vols. He was wounded in the battle of Antietam on the 17th and died on the 18th day of September. He was buried on the Smith farm near Sharpsburg. At the time he was wounded he was carrying the Colors of his Regt. Which position he had occupied for some time. He had many friends in his Regt. I saw the Chaplain that was with him in his last hours, and he said that it might be of consolation to his friends to know that he lived with a hope in Christ and was resigned to his fate. As a soldier, there was none better. He was always ready and willing. He had some personal property by him at the time of his death, a Testament, money and a diary, besides the things he had in his knapsack. They are at your disposal.
In his dispatch, Cole mentioned that Secor was buried initially on the “Smith farm.” Although this working homestead was owned by Dr. Otho J. Smith, it is doubtful that the Southern sympathizer lived there in 1862. The old barn on the property was torn down around the turn of the century. Its location was just yards below the ridge where Secor’s ID disc was discovered. I’ll always wonder if the tag slipped unnoticed from the corporal’s uniform at his original grave site when the body was disinterred from Antietam to be taken back to New York.
We now move the clock to Jan. 31, 1955, and move the location to Monrovia, Calif. An aging W.E. Farnsworth took a pen in trembling hand and wrote to the Vermont Historical Society: “Corporal Secor was my uncle — a half-brother to my mother.” The note went on to explain that when Mr. Farnsworth was a 15-year-old orphan, he was told that his Uncle William had been killed at Sharpsburg and that his grandfather (Secor’s stepfather) had brought the body north and buried it near Halfmoon, N.Y.
The letter continued: “Am glad to send Secor’s relics to Vermont, as neither my daughters or grandchildren show interest in family or other history. Probably the result of living in a part of the country that changes so rapidly and where no family history dates back much over 100 years.”
The correspondence ended: “Hoping these relics will be of some interest in the state for which Corporal Secor gave his life.” Three Civil War-era photographs of Secor and an identification disc bearing his name were enclosed.
According to Mr. Farnsworth, Secor’s ID was “taken from the body just prior to burial in the Baptist Church Cemetery in Halfmoon.” William Secor never married, which may explain why he carried both ID tags, or perhaps he was killed before having time to send the second one home to New York. Close comparison of the Antietam tag and a photograph of the one in New York shows that the only variation is a slight difference in the spacing of the letters. The New York disc is, of course, in better condition, as it hasn’t been subjected to underground elements for more than 130 years.
Letter to ‘Occupant’
In May 1984, the Vermont Historical Society decided it would be more appropriate if Secor’s identification tag was nearer his hometown and donated the disc to the Saratoga County Museum just north of Halfmoon. Today, Halfmoon is surrounded by a northern suburb of Albany called Clifton Park.
Reproductions of Secor’s photographs (two tintypes and one daguerreotype) were ordered from the Vermont Historical Society. Now there was one bit of research left to do.
In 1955, when Mr. Farnsworth mailed the corporal’s relics to Vermont, he put a return address in Monrovia, Calif., on the package. Knowing there was a strong possibility that the aging gentleman had passed away, but reasoning that I had nothing to lose, I sent a letter to “Occupant” at the California address, requesting “any information on a W.E. Farnsworth.”
Imagine the excitement and joy three weeks later when I received a phone call from a Mrs. Jean Putnum of California, a great-niece of Cpl. Secor’s and daughter of William E. Farnsworth’s. The current resident of Mr. Farnsworth’s former home knew the family and had forwarded my letter of inquiry to Mrs. Putnum.
Mr. Farnsworth had been almost blind by the time he died years earlier while living with his daughter, who had no idea her father had inherited Secor’s war items. Indeed, Mrs. Putnum had no knowledge that her great-uncle William Secor had served and had been killed during the Civil War.
William Edward Farnsworth was born in Manassas in 1882. His father died when he was 10 months old, and his mother died when he was 13. Mr. Farnsworth then lived with his grandparents, the Ketchams, who had moved from New York to Virginia after the war. The grandparents soon passed away as well, leaving him an orphan at 15.
To escape the cold winters in Manassas, Mr. Farnsworth, by then 21, moved to California in 1903, taking with him the wartime artifacts of Cpl. William Secor, the uncle he had never known. Mr. Farnsworth, a retired building contractor, passed away in 1970 at age 88, nearly 15 years after sending Secor’s relics to Vermont.
Jean Putnum said it wasn’t that her family had no interest in her great-uncle’s war items; her father simply never had mentioned them. She did recall him speaking at length about his early years in Manassas and all the Civil War relics he had found in the 1890s while “eyeballing” the Bull Run Battlefield.
It is believed Secor’s body was removed from Antietam by his stepfather, Ketcham (first name unknown). Saratoga County, N.Y., burial records show the remains were laid to rest in the Baptist Church Cemetery in Halfmoon with a tombstone inscribed:
Corp. William Secor ? 2nd Vermont Reg. Co. A
Wounded Antietam Sep. 17, 1862 ? Died Sep. 18, 1862
21 y ? 6 m
Several attempts have been made to locate Secor’s exact grave location. However, many of the stones in the small cemetery have been vandalized, and others have been worn smooth by the forces of nature. There is little doubt the fallen soldier is interred in the Baptist cemetery, but the actual grave site remains unknown.
Fortunately, sometime in his short military career, the Vermont warrior purchased the pair of ID tags, making it possible for his story to be published. Credit also goes to William E. Farnsworth for preserving the wartime mementos — thus saving his uncle’s legacy. If the corporal hadn’t carried those two small pieces of brass, one now in Maryland, one in New York, the name William Heath Secor would have become just another statistic lost forever in the battle and blood of Antietam.
Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to this page.