- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

Early on the morning of July 22, 1899, a body was discovered floating face down in Plum Creek in Rice County, Kan.

A small crowd slowly gathered from nearby Bushton as the bloated, unrecognizable corpse was pulled from the muddy water. A local newspaper said: “The body was a horrible sight, having been in the water for a week. Upon examination, a pension voucher was found in one of the pockets that showed it to be the body of an old soldier, once a member of the 3rd Vermont Infantry — John Thompson.”

A coroner rendered a report: “cause of death — unknown.” The Civil War veteran was placed in the Bushton Cemetery, not far from the soil he had farmed for many years.

To trace Thompson’s journey from Vermont to Kansas, let’s turn the calendar to Oct. 11, 1985. On that beautiful fall afternoon, my brother Don and I were searching for Civil War relics with metal detectors just west of Antietam Creek in Washington County, near Funkstown, Md.

The land we were searching was camped on by the Army of the Potomac after the bloodbath called Gettysburg. On this line in July 1863, Gen. George G. Meade’s blue-clad soldiers carefully watched Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia at Williamsport. Lee was nervously waiting for the flooded Potomac River to recede for a safe crossing to Southern soil.

A strange object

Beside a flat limestone ledge, I dug up a brass disc about the size of a quarter. Although traces of gold lettering could be seen, it was determined that the strange object was not a U.S. coin. That evening, while cleaning the small medallion with the help of a standard household cleaner applied with a toothbrush, I could read “J.S. Thompson, Co. B, 3rd Reg., Vt. Vol., Glover.”

The front of the Civil War ID tag displayed an American eagle with raised words, “War of 1861 — United States.” The medal was approximately 50 percent original gold plate. These keepsakes were sold by enterprising sutlers who competed for the soldiers’ $13-a-month pay. The sutler would stamp a soldier’s name, regiment, etc. on the back, driving the letters into the brass, thus preserving the gold inscription as the surface or face wore away.

Who was J.S. Thompson? Did he survive the war? Where was he buried? Extensive research provided answers to these questions far more interesting than ever anticipated.

First wound

John Steven Thompson was born on Feb. 29, 1834, to John Thompson Sr. and Sarah Ann Wells Thompson near the Canadian border at Wheelock, Vt. At age 15, he had taken up residence in Glover, Vt., working on a farm. The small, peaceful village remains about the same today as in the 19th century, with one of the largest trades being a taxidermist shop.

On May 10, 1861, 26-year-old Thompson enlisted in the Army for three years. He was described as being 5 feet 9½ inches tall, having blue eyes and auburn hair. He received the rank of corporal as a member of Company B, 3rd Regiment Vermont Volunteers.

The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont regiments composed the Vermont Brigade, attached to the 6th Corps, Army of the Potomac. Early in the war, Thompson fought in every major engagement of the Army of the Potomac without serious injury. However, on Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, he suffered his first wound.

According to the Official Records, while under heavy fire from sharpshooters and artillery near a sunken road that came to be known as Bloody Lane, Thompson was struck by a “musket ball just below the right shoulder blade.” Luckily, the slug had lost most of its force — otherwise, death would have been immediate.

The wound was serious enough to cause the Vermonter to be admitted to a field hospital near Hagerstown, 10 miles north of Sharpsburg. National Archives records state that three months after Antietam, Thompson fought in the First Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862, indicating a full recovery from his wound.

Bloody contests

On July 4, 1863, Lee’s battle-weary Army of Northern Virginia retreated from the bloodstained fields of Gettysburg. During the “exodus of grief,” on July 10, the Vermont Brigade distinguished itself in a costly encounter with enemy troops near the hamlet of Funkstown.

The Union battle line was formed quickly in a stretch of woods southeast of town. After three consecutive attacks from a larger Confederate force, the Green Mountain Volunteers, including Thompson, stubbornly held their ground. Two days later, while camped in view of Funkstown, J.S. Thompson lost his ID disc, to be recovered 122 years later by the author of this article.

In the spring of 1864, flowering dogwood and redbud lined the path of the 6th Corps marching into the Wilderness in Virginia. Knowing the reputation of the veteran Vermont Brigade, Gen. John Sedgwick cried aloud, “Keep the columns closed, and put the Vermonters ahead!” The battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, fought in May 1861, proved to be the bloodiest contests of the war for the boys from Vermont.

During the Union slaughter at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, Thompson, by then promoted to sergeant, had the middle finger of his left hand broken by a rifle ball.

For the second time, J.S. Thompson had shed blood for his country, but this injury wasn’t nearly as painful as the sorrow carried in his heart when he received news that his older brother, Sam, had been killed at Spotsylvania Court House.

Mustered out

The Federal 6th Corps was ordered to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the autumn of 1864. The ever-growing list of casualties forced the 3rd Vermont to reorganize, at which time, Thompson was transferred to Company E with the rank of lieutenant. The battle-scarred Thompson was promoted to captain on March 23, 1865, while in command of Company E, 3rd Regiment Vermont Infantry.

When the war finally ended that spring, Capt. Thompson was mustered out at Baileys Crossroads near Alexandria. A few days later, the veteran campaigner started the long trip north toward Vermont.

At this point, my research on Thompson came to a temporary halt. No obituary or grave registration for a John S. Thompson could be found in Vermont. However, a pension file from the National Archives listed a Capt. John Thompson from Vermont homesteading near Bushton, Kan. Immediately, letters requesting “any information on Thompson” were mailed to a newspaper in the Bushton area.

In a matter of days, I received numerous replies filled with material on the Thompson family along with a photograph of Thompson taken from a mural hanging in a Rice County museum.

Journey west

His military career over, Thompson lived in Cabot, Vt., employed as a merchant, but it seems he had his sights set on planting the soil and raising a family. He married a local Cabot woman, Alma Dell Stone, on Nov. 23, 1869. On Feb. 14, 1871, Alma gave birth to a son, John Jr.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed a man to acquire 160 acres of land in some Western states for a moderate fee; the man was then to occupy and cultivate the land for a period of five years. The generous offer attracted countless settlers to the open plains, bringing with them enough provisions to last until their first harvest.

Among these pioneers making the westward journey was John Thompson and a traveling companion, Frank Shonyo from Vermont. Shonyo was a close friend of Thompson’s who had been a comrade in the Army. Their plan was to tough it out on their new properties during the first winter before their wives would make the journey in the coming spring.

When Thompson and Shonyo eventually reached Rice County, they selected adjoining homesteads just south of Bushton. Thompson spent the first winter in a hole in the ground appropriately called a dugout, the entrance of which is still visible today. Land records of the Receiver’s Office in Larned, Kan., reveal that John S. Thompson paid $8 and received a deed to his homestead. Not a bad price for 160 acres of fertile farmland.

Old Rice County documents mention that “Alma Thompson taught school in her sod home until a frame school house was erected in 1880.” During the early days as the first teacher in the Eldorado District, Alma also had her hands full raising three children — John, Olivia (born in 1873) and Pearl (born in 1877).

Rest of the story

On Oct. 7, 1994, nine years after discovering the Thompson ID tag, I received a letter from Marie Theilken of Black Diamond, Wash. Marie’s great-grandfather was Capt. John Steven Thompson; her grandmother was Thompson’s youngest daughter, Pearl Thompson Barner.

Mrs. Theilken had been doing genealogical research and knew her great-grandfather had homesteaded in Kansas. She had sent a letter to Bushton requesting information on the Thompson family. One of the good citizens of the little prairie town mailed her a copy of an article published in the Bushton Centennial newspaper based on the Thompson ID tag that I had found in 1985.

After several phone calls and letters, Mrs. Theilken came to Maryland and shared stories handed down through the family with this ever-grateful writer. This new material, including the second postwar photograph of Thompson, made it possible for the Vermont veteran’s story to be completed.

Like many patriotic Civil War veterans, John refused to accept charity or a government pension. He would explain bitterly to Alma, “I didn’t fight the war for money; I fought it to keep the country together.” When John finally applied for his pension after Alma’s persistence in 1884, he would take his monthly check, slam it on the kitchen table in front of his wife with the words, “Woman, there is your … blood money!”

A suicide?

In a letter to his wife’s brother in Vermont, Thompson wrote about a harsh winter on the plains when the family had nothing to eat at Christmas. Early in the morning before the holiday, as he was returning from the well with a bucket of water, a large Canada goose was spotted beside the sod house. There wasn’t a mark on the apparently lost, exhausted bird. It doesn’t take long to guess what the Thompsons gratefully prepared for Christmas that year.

Life turned sour for the aging Rice County farmer, still suffering from wounds received during the war. As war, work and worry took its toll, the once proud Army captain and his wife slowly drifted apart. John would spend hours wandering aimlessly across the vast Kansas plains.

“Was it suicide?” This question appeared in the Bushton newspaper after Thompson’s body was found in Plum Creek. Edwin Habiger of Bushton wrote me: “It was my father who helped recover the body of Mr. Thompson. There was no determination on what caused the drowning.” The 90-year-old Mr. Habiger closed by explaining how this story was told to him by his father, who came to Rice County in 1880. This meant Mr. Habiger’s father was about 19 years old when Thompson’s body was discovered.

In earlier days on the plains, farmers would help their neighbors at harvest time. Mrs. Theilken related how her Great-Grandfather Thompson and several neighbors had finished harvesting one of the farms, and while walking to the next property, Thompson said he would “cut across the fields” and meet them at the next job site. He never showed up.

‘Known and loved’

Some think the aging farmer may have been trying to get a drink from Plum Creek and suffered a stroke or heart attack. Cause of the mysterious death was never determined. One thing was certain — the war finally was over for Capt. John S. Thompson.

A local newspaper carried the following: “The death of Mr. Thompson has caused sadness over this community. Mr. Thompson was known and loved among his acquaintances as a faithful friend, and a kind and pleasant associate. Though of a retiring nature, he was a well read man. There were three brothers in the Thompson family, and not one of them died a natural death. One was killed by a falling tree, and another was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, and the last one in the way known. Mr. Thompson was 65-years-old. His wife and three children are residents of this place.”

Alma placed a beautiful black granite tombstone on her husband’s grave — the largest in Bushton Cemetery. Olivia Thompson married George Jefferies and moved “somewhere” in southern Kansas; Pearl (Marie Theilken’s grandmother) married Ira C. Barner and relocated to Oregon Territory in the Northwest.

With her daughters and husband gone, Alma moved with John Jr. into a new two-story home in Bushton. John Thompson Jr. never married and took care of his mother until her death in 1919.

Sacred ground

Older folks in Bushton remembered John Thompson Jr. after his mother died as being “a loner, hunting, fishing and trapping for skunks and other animal hides.” One woman in her 90s remembered him as “living alone in that big Thompson house with his only companion, Brownie, his dog. She also recalled attending John Jr.’s funeral in May 1947.

Sitting on my bookshelf next to Civil War volumes rests a small jar labeled “Soil from grave of Capt. John S. Thompson, 3rd Vermont Regt. — Buried: Bushton, Kansas.” This sacred ground was taken from Thompson’s grave years ago by Mrs. Theilken, who generously shared a handful with me. When examining this black dirt from the Kansas plains and holding Thompson’s personal ID disc, the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur softly echo from the past: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Richard E. Clem of Hagerstown, Md., is a frequent contributor to this page.

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