Stillman Wightman traveled 1,200 miles from New York to Fort Fisher to bring his son home
By Kevin Maurer
The wind cut into Stillman Wightman as he worked his way along the berm searching for overturned dirt near Fort Fisher’s northern stockade.
It was 13 days after the Union victory that would doom the Confederate rebellion, and Wightman, a 62-year-old New York lawyer, was on a mission to find his son, Edward. Days before he’d learned of Edward’s death and now, after traveling 600 miles by train and boat, he was at Fort Fisher to bring home his son’s remains for a proper burial.
Wightman pulled his coat closer as the stiff ocean wind made the January day along the Atlantic even colder. He was about 250 feet from the wall when he spotted overturned dirt.
There were 30 graves, most with no marker. He had heard fallen soldiers were often buried en masse in trenches. Struggling through the salt marshes and loose sand, the possibility of failing on his quest weighed on him when he spotted a small, narrow pine board at the head of another grave. The wind kicked up sand and dust, forcing Wightman to shield his spectacles as he leaned in to read the inscription painted on the board.
“Sergt Major 3d N. Y. V.— E. K. Wightman.”
On Jan. 15, 1865, Union troops led by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry launched a second attack against Fort Fisher. Nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the South,” the Confederate stronghold protected the Cape Fear River and the South’s lifeline through the Union blockade.
More than 9,000 Union troops and 60 ships attacked the fort manned by almost 2,000 Confederates. The Union victory closed the port of Wilmington, choking off the last supply line to Confederate troops. The battle cost the Union Army over 1,000 casualties. Among the dead was Edward K. Wightman, serving with the 3rd New York Volunteer Infantry.
After traveling from New York City to Fort Fisher, Wightman — who lived to be 96 — sat down and documented his three-week journey, including stops in Hampton Roads, Va., New Bern and Morehead City in a vivid, yet heart-wrenching, travelogue. At a time when our nation is still struggling with the aftermath of the Civil War, Wightman’s story erases the myth that war is glorious and instead shows us the human cost of war. His story is a stark reminder that it is the politicians who talk of causes, but it is the soldiers who give up their lives to give those words meaning. And it is the soldiers’ families who are left to pick up the pieces.
Wightman learned of his son’s death in the Jan. 19, 1865 edition of the New York Herald. Printed in black and white, the paper announced “Sergeant Major Whiteman (sic) 3d N.Y.V. was killed” at the second battle of Fort Fisher.
Edward, 27 years old at his death, was a writer before enlisting in the Army. He had already served 2 1/2 years of his three-year enlistment and took part in 15 battles, from Antietam to the first attempt to take Fort Fisher.
His last letter home — written onboard the steamship Atlantic — talked about the family’s Christmas letter and how much he missed home. Sent Jan. 12, Edward complained the Christmas letter gave him “such a shock of homesickness and hunger that I came near being annihilated,” adding that if he saw another Christmas he hoped it was a jolly one.
He closed the letter on a high note:
“Let us hope that the year 1865 will restore peace in the country and to all Americans the rights and privileges of respectable citizens.”
Edward would die three days later when a minié ball tore through his arm and chest, knocking him to his knees at the top of a parapet on Fort Fisher’s northwest wall.
After hearing the news of his son’s death, Wightman’s house was “immediately enveloped in sad mourning,” so he went to his law office to think and pray. He returned home with a plan. It was his duty to go to Fort Fisher and get Edward’s body. His family didn’t discourage him, despite the difficulty of the journey.
Wightman left New York on Jan. 19 and after a sleepless train ride arrived in Washington, D.C. It was dawn as he set off to get a pass to and from Fort Fisher. Wightman knew Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who wrote him a letter of introduction to the secretary of war, who issued him a pass. With his pass in hand, Wightman boarded a steamer headed for Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold in Confederate Virginia. The fort stands at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk.
From the deck of the steamer, crowded with soldiers and civilians, Wightman watched chunks of ice float past. He roamed the boat unable to sleep. When fatigue finally took hold, he pushed two narrow chairs together and found a cushion for his head. The steamer arrived at Fort Monroe at 10 o’clock on Saturday. Wightman went ashore looking for passage to Fort Fisher, but learned the next boat wasn’t heading south for a few days.
When Wightman learned that Capt. Warren, who had served with Edward, was in a nearby hospital, he got a pass to visit him. Wightman walked three miles Sunday morning to meet Warren and Lt. Behan, who was also wounded in the battle and being treated in the same room.
Both soldiers expressed their condolences. Warren described Edward as “affable” and “kind,” and “was held in great esteem by the men of the regiment.” In battle, Edward was cool under fire and brave executing his duties.
“Perhaps, the best description I can give of him, is, that I considered him a model soldier,” Warren said.
They also told Wightman about the attack. It started around 2 p.m. with a naval bombardment that silenced the fort’s guns. Union soldiers cut a path through the outer defenses and by 5 p.m. were storming the fort’s walls.
Edward was out front and leading his regiment up the first mound at the northeast extremity of the fort. Confederate defenders were at the top firing down on the Union soldiers.
“Edward was mounting the slope in front, and just upon the point of reaching the same parapet, near me, not far from the northwest end of the fort, when he was shot, as I think, in the left breast by a minié ball from a rifle, and fell while shouting to the regiment to press bravely on to the charge,” Behan told Wightman.
Another soldier rushed to his aid, pressing a cup of water to his lips. But Behan said Edward’s eyes were closed and never opened again. Edward was found under three dead bodies. His pockets were turned out and his watch was stolen.
Wightman returned to Fort Monroe that night. As he walked back, a sadness hung over him. Edward’s unit mates confirmed the grim reality that his son was “no more a living man in this world.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 24, 1865, a transport ship — the Ellen S. Terry — from New York arrived in route to New Bern. Wightman knew the ship’s captain and booked passage. On board, the stench was terrible. The transport was hauling horses and 60 head of cattle. Two of the cattle died between New York and Fort Monroe and were thrown overboard. But the smell lingered below decks and wafted out of the hatches, making the journey unpleasant and keeping Wightman on deck. He watched the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras slip by as the ship rolled in the waves.
The ship arrived too late for Wightman to take the train to Morehead City, so he spent the day in New Bern before traveling to the port on Friday morning. At the port, he found E. R. Middlebrook, who went to Wightman’s church, the First Baptist Church in New York City. Middlebrook was the chief clerk at the quartermaster’s office and provided Wightman with a pine coffin and passage on the transport Montauk. The ship was taking in supplies for the army at Fort Fisher.
The sun was shining bright and clear the Sunday morning Wightman landed two miles north of Fort Fisher. He waded through loose, deep sand and muddy salt marsh as he walked toward the fort’s battered earthworks.
Halfway to the fort, Wightman started to shake. He was an old man, and 10 days and nights traveling, sometimes exposed to the wind and cold of the Atlantic, started to take a toll. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He stopped walking and searched for a place to sit, but he was in a salt marsh. There was no cover from the cutting wind. It was then that Wightman started to pray, and as God came into his thoughts, he wrote:
“As thy days, so shall thy strength be.
“Fear not, for I am with thee.
“I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
Each sentence brought resolve, then strength and finally joy.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” Wightman said aloud and then started to sing a hymn as he pushed toward Fort Fisher.
As he approached the earthworks, the scars of war were everywhere. A damaged cannon. The wheels from a wagon. Artillery shells — broken and unbroken — littered the area. A ditch filled by the tide ran along the fort’s wall bordering the sea.
Wightman followed in his son’s footsteps. He passed through a gateway cut in the stockade at the north extremity of the fort, crossed a small bridge and walked to the northwest end of the fort where Warren and Behan told him Edward had fallen. A Union soldier was walking nearby. Wightman called to him.
“Any graves in this area of soldiers killed in the battle of the 15th January?” Wightman said.
The Union soldier said yes and pointed him toward an elevated knoll of sand, where he found the small pine board marking his son’s resting place.
Three times Wightman tried to leave his son to report to Gen. Terry’s headquarters. Three times he returned — even after walking some distance away — transfixed by the inscription. When Wightman finally arrived at Terry’s headquarters, he needed the officer’s sympathy and support to complete his mission.
He shook Terry’s hand when they finally met and asked if Terry used to practice law in New Haven, Connecticut.
“I was,” Terry said.
“Well, I am a practicing lawyer in New York City, but I once resided, near five years, in New Haven, while I was at Yale College, and studying law, and I subsequently practiced law in Connecticut, until I removed to New York City in 1843,” Wightman said.
Terry seemed to recognize Wightman.
“Is this Stillman K. Wightman?” Terry said.
“Give us your hand,” Terry said, shaking the man’s hand again. “How are you? I have, a long time, known you well by reputation. Anything that I can do for you, shall be done with the greatest pleasure.”
Wightman told Terry why he was at Fort Fisher, and Terry issued orders to Gen. Adelbert Ames, who led one of Terry’s divisions, to help with the removal of Edward’s body. Wightman took the orders to Ames, headquarters, but an Army doctor, Dr. Washburn, asked if he had a lead coffin. Wightman only had the pine one from Morehead City. Washburn said too much time had passed, and Edward’s remains needed a lead coffin. Wightman was stunned. His whole journey was in jeopardy. His mind searched for an argument that would win the day. Alas, he threatened to never leave.
“It has been a never-failing rule with me hitherto, never to abandon a thing I have undertaken, until it is accomplished, provided it be an object worth pursuing,” Wightman said. “This is an object eminently worthy of my utmost efforts, and I must say, without intending to give offence, that if it be not counter to God’s will, I will never leave Federal Point without taking the body of Edward with me.”
Ames paused and let the silence fill the room.
“Well,” he said. “I will cheerfully aid you all I can, but we are as yet in a very unsettled condition.”
The next day, an officer told Wightman three bodies that had been buried three months were taken to New Bern wrapped in tent cloths covered in hot pitch, which was used to seal wooden sailing vessels and containers. Washburn said if the coffin was filled with salt and rosin and sealed with pitch, the remains could be transported north in the cold weather.
Wightman spent the next three days scouring the camp and fort for supplies. He inquired of every person and got only one answer: no.
On the third day of his search, Wightman found himself near the rear of the fort where he spotted a “rising knoll of sand” in the tidewater of the Cape Fear River. Using a fragment of a pick-ax, he cleared away the sand and found a barrel filled with rosin. He slumped in the sand and started to cry. The next day, the Cape Fear River ebbed, exposing a barrel of pitch buried in the sand near the rosin. Terry ordered the hospital to provide the tent cloth, which Wightman picked up at Ames’s headquarters where the coffin, rosin and pitch waited. With a “detail of men,” Wightman headed for the grave.
After heating the pitch, they sealed the coffin and tent cloth before they started digging. By now, more than 20 soldiers gathered to watch them exhume Edward’s body. Wightman stood at the foot of the grave. After digging four feet down, Wightman saw his son, Edward, lying on his back with his face toward the east.
“The collar, or rather cape, of his coat had been drawn up, and each end of it folded over his face,” Wightman wrote. “When they came to move aside the collar, or cape, revealing his countenance, I was sadly struck with the sight. His face was white and very much swollen; his eyes had evidently been in some way injured, his chin dropped down very low, and his upper teeth were very prominent. However, his forehead and eyebrows and hair and ears were very natural, his hands were unmistakable, and his limbs — all were evidently his remains. In addition to this, he had on his left shoulder the badge of (Sergeant) Major.”
The minié ball that ended Edward’s life had passed through his right arm and pierced his right breast below the collarbone.
Wightman asked the soldiers to stop working while he studied the remains to make sure it was Edward. An Irish soldier joked that no delay was needed.
“And ye can have no doubt about that,” the Irish soldier said. “For sure now he greatly resembles ye.”
Wightman would have laughed at any other time, he wrote. Standing at the foot of his son’s grave, he just stood in silence overwhelmed by what he saw in front of him.
“His whole life rushed upon my memory,” Wightman wrote. “Gazing upon his lifeless remains before me, the wreck of all his and our fond anticipations, and feeling that I his father was standing there alone, a stranger in a strange land, far away from my family, with no one present heartily to sympathize with me in the loss, my emotions overcame me, and for a brief time my cheeks were wet with tears. No one can conceive of the agony of my trials on that occasion.”
Wightman finally stepped aside and the soldiers removed Edward’s body from the ground, wrapped it in tent cloth and laid him in the coffin. The soldiers sealed the top with pitch and started to nail it down. Wightman mounted his horse and rode back to Ames headquarters. He couldn’t bear to hear the driving of the nails.
That night, he returned to the Montauk anchored nearby, ate dinner and collapsed in his bed, where he slept soundly.
“Perhaps it had been to me, the most painful day that I had ever experienced,” he wrote.
Friday morning Wightman made plans to return home. The transport North Point was headed to Fort Monroe that afternoon or early morning, so Wightman had the coffin loaded and Saturday afternoon — Feb. 4 — the ship headed north. After a brief stop at Fort Monroe, Wightman found a steamer headed to Baltimore, where he got a train to New York.
Edward’s funeral was held Feb. 11, 1865, in Middletown, Connecticut, at the family burying ground.
“I came away feeling that all my care and toil was nothing, compared with the satisfaction of knowing that his remains had been taken up from a grave in an enemy’s land,” Wightman wrote, “and had been safely transported to the land of his birth, and peacefully buried in our family cemetery.”
After the service, Wightman lingered at the grave as if he didn’t want to take the final few steps of his 1,200-mile journey.
Kevin Maurer is an award-winning journalist who lives in Wilmington. His latest book is American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent.