- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

Having survived the bloody encounter at Gettysburg, Bill Herndon of the 59th Georgia Infantry fell mortally wounded just days later in a small village in Maryland.

Like countless Civil War soldiers killed in action, Herndon died on strange land and was buried in an unknown grave. In the case of this Rebel soldier, however, there was a difference: A “guardian angel” sat at his side as death approached and took time to write a compassionate letter to Herndon’s wife back home in Georgia.

William Beverly Herndon of Culverton, Hancock County, Ga., enlisted on May 7, 1862, as a private in the Turner Guards. When the War Between the States erupted, his unit, organized in Sparta, became Company I, 59th Georgia Regiment. The 59th saw little service in 1862, just a few skirmishes in Georgia and North Carolina. On Dec. 24, 1862, Herndon was promoted to corporal.

Taking Federal pressure off Virginia, in June 1863, the Confederacy decided once again to carry the war into the North — the first Southern invasion having failed at Sharpsburg (Antietam) the previous September. The 59th Georgia by then was attached to Gen. George T. Anderson’s Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia.

A stubborn three-day stand of the Army of the Potomac (Gen. George G. Meade commanding) brought a sudden, disastrous halt to the Confederates’ second invasion at a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

In this campaign, Herndon experienced his first taste of real combat. There on July 2, in support of the Texas Brigade near Devil’s Den, Anderson’s Brigade took a costly pounding from what an officer called a “terrific fire of the enemy’s batteries.” Two days later, after black-powder smoke had settled, Gen. Robert E. Lee reluctantly escorted his battle-weary legions from the blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg — which some military historians call the turning point of the war.

Swollen river

When the Army of Northern Virginia reached Williamsport, Md., the rain-swollen Potomac River was at flood stage, making it impossible to cross to Virginia (West Virginia today). The only natural barrier separating the retreating armies was Antietam Creek, which flows near Sharpsburg 10 miles to the south. It is the same stream where, almost a year before, these same two armies had fought to a tactical draw.

Knowing the difficulty that Federal artillery and ammunition wagons would encounter moving over soft, muddy fields to reach his position, the crafty Lee gave orders to block the bridges over the Antietam. This move stalled the pursuing Union Army, giving the “Gray Fox” time to establish a formidable line of entrenchments.

Two of these picturesque limestone bridges span the Antietam at Funkstown — one on the Old National Pike (Alternate Route 40) leading one mile north to Hagerstown, the other just downstream on a dirt road (East Oak Ridge) extending westward to the Hagerstown-Sharpsburg Turnpike.

Anderson’s Brigade, including the 59th Georgia along with Confederate artillery, was placed on a high bluff overlooking Funkstown’s upper bridge on the road leading to Hagerstown. The imminent battle would be the last in Herndon’s short military career.

Friendly fire

Funkstown, laid out in 1767, originally was named Jerusalem. Years later, the name was changed in honor of its founder, Henry Funk. Residents of the village experienced the war for the first time in the fall of 1862, when Lee’s army marched through just before the Battle of Antietam. However, 10 months later, during the retreat from Gettysburg, the folks of Funkstown felt the war’s devastation and destruction.

Around 1 p.m. on July 10, 1863, Col. W.W. White, by then commanding Anderson’s Brigade (Anderson had been wounded at Gettysburg), received orders from Gen. J.E.B. Stuart to leave the bridge and bring the brigade forward just southeast of Funkstown to meet the “advancing enemy.” Stuart’s orders were simple: “Hold the town, block the Old National Pike and the approaches to both bridges.”

Part of the Federal 6th Corps and a cavalry brigade commanded by Gen. John Buford were heading fast toward Funkstown from the southeast and along the Old National Pike. To engage the coming adversary, Confederate infantry supported by artillery quickly formed their battle lines. By this time, Buford’s troops were dismounted and, along with infantry, were concealed behind rocks in a heavily wooded area.

After a tremendous shelling of the woods, White’s seasoned veterans started forward, with the 59th Georgia bringing up the extreme right flank of the brigade. In his official report of the action at Funkstown, White recorded what happened next:

“We rushed forward to the crest of a hill, driving the enemy’s sharpshooters from the barn behind and in which they had advanced in heavy force. Here the right regiment [59th Ga.] halted, owing to the confusion caused in their ranks by the fire of Stuart’s Horse Artillery, who threw and exploded several shells in their ranks, killing and wounding 6 men in one company and several others.”

When the fighting ended, Herndon and 57 of his comrades in the 59th had been killed or wounded from Federal bullets or “friendly fire.” Casualties on both sides totaled 479. The service of Southern soldiers at Funkstown presented Lee with much-needed time to strengthen his position at Williamsport and an extra day for a raging river to return to a suitable depth for crossing. Their sacrifice was not in vain.

Scene of suffering

The next morning — July 11, 1863 — a gentle rain began, removing the sulfuric odor of gunpowder hanging low in plowed fields and wooded lots surrounding Funkstown. Several homes and a church on the east side of town were converted into hospitals; in the yards, amputated arms and legs could be seen stacked in bloody heaps.

Somewhere within this scene of pain and suffering, Herndon lay mortally wounded. Then, through the morning mist from among this confusion came a tall figure who knelt down by the young soldier’s side as he was drawing his last breaths.

The author of this article was contacted recently by a Georgian, a great-grandson of William Beverly Herndon’s. He had been searching for the grave of his fallen ancestor. With my knowledge of local Civil War history, he thought I might assist him in the quest.

The only shred of evidence we had to help us was a letter mailed from Funkstown at the time of the Civil War and addressed to “Mrs. W.B. Herndon, Culverton, Hancock Co., Georgia.” The old document, turning yellow with age, was dated “July 11, 1863” and signed “Josiah E. Williams.”

Josiah Williams

Who was Josiah Williams, who took time on that tragic, bloody July morning to fulfill the last request of a dying Confederate soldier? Local research produced the following story.

Josiah, the oldest son of five children of Abner and Mary Williams, was born in 1830 near Death Curve on the Old National Pike two miles south of Funkstown. At age 20, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was told he would never live to see his 21st birthday. By studying books on health, taking long walks in fresh air, eating as little as possible — and by the grace of God — Williams not only survived tuberculosis, but extended his life 73 years. He died in April 1925, less than five months before his 95th birthday.

It’s understandable why Williams, who had vast medical knowledge and a personal acquaintance with suffering and pain, was one of the first to show up at the hospitals after the battle at Funkstown. Sending the letter to Herndon’s wife probably was just one of numerous good deeds this caring, generous man performed on that day of turmoil.

In his consoling correspondence, Williams described Herndon’s condition.

“He is I fear mortally wounded. Musket ball in the groin.” Then the letter describes some of the items carried by the dying soldier. “I found in his knap sack a Testament a present from his sister has the appearance of having been used.” Also discovered were locks of Herndon’s children’s hair that the soldier requested be returned home with the letter to Georgia.

Enclosing the hair, Josiah added, “I write now for fear I may not be able to send a letter to you should the Confederate troops move from this place.”

He mailed the letter none too soon, for late that day or early the next morning, all Rebel forces who were able to walk pulled out of Funkstown and moved west to the Confederates’ thin entrenchments in front of Williamsport. On the morning of July 14, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia escaped across the still-receding Potomac to Southern soil, ending the Gettysburg Campaign.

Burial theories

What happened to Cpl. Bill Herndon? Evidently, he died just hours, if not minutes, after Williams finished his letter. As an afterthought, the correspondence ends, “He will be decently interred in the cemetery by the citizens if he should die here.”

It is probable Herndon’s body was interred in Funkstown’s community cemetery, as the letter suggests, but there are no records or tombstone to prove it. Another theory is that the corporal’s remains could have been buried in one of the town’s church graveyards. At least one of the old churches has been removed and the cemetery replaced with an asphalt parking lot.

The remains also could have been removed from Funkstown and reinterred in the Confederate cemetery in nearby Hagerstown, but this is only speculation. If the grave had a marker, it was destroyed by vandalism or weather years ago.

It is doubtful that Herndon in his critical condition could have been taken across the river with the retreating Rebel army. Burial records were checked along the Confederate army’s route at Winchester and other locations in Virginia, with the same results — no William B. Herndon.

There are no indications the body was returned to Georgia. Mrs. Herndon had no idea where Funkstown was, nor did she have the means of transportation or finances to have her husband’s remains shipped home. It would have been dangerous for any Southern citizen to travel north to retrieve the dead. Although south of the Mason-Dixon line, Western Maryland was mostly Union territory.

White-bearded gentleman

In 1921, an aging Williams sold his Funkstown property and moved to the Fahrney Memorial Home near Boonsboro, Md. Some residents of the retirement home (Fahrney-Keedy Home today) remembered that “Mr. Williams was determined to keep the woodpile full.”

One can only imagine what the doctors who had pronounced Williams terminally ill at 20 would have thought if they could have seen the white-haired old gentleman splitting wood at age 90.

As Williams had never married or had children, his entire estate went to the Mary Quinter Hospital in India, a missionary project of the Beaver Creek Church of the Brethren, where he had been a longtime member. He was buried in the Beaver Creek Church Cemetery just east of Funkstown.

Although no photograph exists of Herndon or Williams, a Funkstown old-timer described “Ole Joe” as looking like a biblical saint — tall and thin, with a long white beard.

Surviving document

The final resting place of the soldier from Georgia remains a mystery.

One artifact has survived: a letter written in 1863 in Funkstown and mailed to Georgia, with a copy returned to Maryland and now published in a newspaper in Washington. A copy of Williams’ handwritten letter also hangs in what was his Funkstown home, beautifully restored.

No doubt, Mrs. Herndon was grateful for Williams’ sympathetic letter, for without it she never would have known whether her husband had been captured, left suffering on some field of battle or perhaps had died from a disease in a strange Northern prison. It’s true that knowing her husband had been mortally wounded must have brought unbearable grief, but what comfort to know that someone who cared had been near his side as he departed this world for the next.

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

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