Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Historian 'pieces together' an Illinois soldier's story that ended in Georgia attack

Charlotte Reid and daughter Katy Johnson at Kennesaw

Charlotte Reid and her sister, Twilla Zellman, began their journey of discovery with a last name, a little family history and a cannonball tucked away in a bedroom dresser. 

Through research, they attached a first name with the last name of an ancestor who fought and died during the Civil War: Pvt. John G. Wilson of Potomac, Ill.

From there, the sisters, with the help of Reid’s daughter and an historian in the Atlanta area, have reconstructed a young life lost at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.

The family’s journey came to an emotional apex on the evening of June 28, 150 years and one day after the battle.

More than 3,100 memorial luminaries flickered during a sesquicentennial ceremony at the battlefield. One shone for Reid’s great-grandfather, mortally wounded in a desperate, failed attack on strong Confederate defenses on Cheatham Hill.

John G. Wilson grave at Marietta National Cemetery

“We turned around (to see the luminaries) and I had no words,” Reid recalled last week. “Tears were going to flow if I did not get my Kleenex out. It was overwhelming.”

Reid, who lives in Modesto, Calif., last month made her fourth visit to Kennesaw in five years. Joining her was daughter Katy Johnson, of Franklin, Tenn.

They met up again with Brad Quinlin, a Civil War author and historian, who took a call from mother and daughter in 2009 while volunteering at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.

Quinlin has filled in holes in the service and last days of Pvt. Wilson:

-- Wilson was buried at Marietta National Cemetery near Kennesaw, rather than in Chattanooga, Tenn. The family had thought the soldier was buried in Chattanooga and checked there first. “Mom was pretty much speechless when we first found his grave,” said Johnson.

-- The 125th Illinois Infantry, Company I, soldier was shot in the gut on June 27, 1864, and died two days later at a tent hospital in Big Shanty, as the nearby town of Kennesaw was then known.

-- Wilson and 61 others Union soldiers were buried in a peach orchard behind the hospital. His remains, likely marked by a wooden headboard, were moved to Marietta National Cemetery on April 27, 1867. 

Brad Quinlin and Charlotte Reid at battlefield

Reid said Wilson’s wife, Mary Melissa Copeland Wilson, and a young daughter died just before the war. The soldier, who enlisted in September 1862, left a 2- or 3-year-old son in care of his wife’s parents while he went off to fight. There are no known surviving photographs of Wilson, thought to be about 28 when he was killed.

“He went anyway because her parents were going to raise the boy and President Lincoln made a real push to get a large number of men to enlist from Illinois,” said Reid. 

Reid’s mother came to live with her in California about 15 years ago. Reid and Twilla discovered two objects in a dresser. One proved to be a round rock, the other a small cannonball.

Reid theorizes that Wilson brought the cannonball home to his boy as a souvenir while he was on a medical furlough in Kentucky.

Wilson was buried in peach orchard that is now a lawn.

The three women traveled to Marietta in September 2009 and spent the full day with Quinlin, who showed them where Wilson camped and fought on the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield. They also got to see the hospital site, now a vacant parcel, and made a return visit to the national cemetery and the grave.

“It was interesting to … walk on the soil he was on,” Johnson said. “You didn’t know you were missing something until someone informed you.”

“Brad was the one who put all the pieces of the story together so far,” said Reid.

Quinlin, who was volunteered at the battlefield for 27 years, said the day “was very emotional” for the women.

“All day, we took the journey of John Wilson from where he camped June 21 to June 26 … down to the Cheatham Hill site, where we talked about the attack of (Brig. Gen. Dan) McCook’s men.”

The historian pulled regimental books, Union hospital records and pension and muster records kept at the National Archives. The 125th Illinois saw service in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

Hospital once sat on what is now a vacant lot.

The regiment was right in the thick of things during the fruitless June 27 assault on the “Dead Angle” at Cheatham Hill.

“They came up right where the Illinois Monument is,” said Quinlin.

Having done extensive research at Marietta National Cemetery, Quinlin knew that Section J contained graves from men buried near a spring and Camp McDonald in Big Shanty.

Books at the National Archives gave the hospital’s location and accommodations. “That hospital had no main building; it was just made up of tents.”

Wilson and other wounded soldiers were first treated at a field hospital on what is now Cheatham Hill Road. “Once they were stabilized, they were taken to this hospital at Big Shanty.” 

Quinlin said he is allowed to pull National Archives muster rolls down to the company level. 

The records included notations on Wilson’s wounding and death two days later.

Twilla Zellman, Brad Quinlin and Charlotte Reid at the gravesite.

“It was very personal to these sergeants. These were their friends.” Quinlin said of the records. “The sergeant wrote down, “'Comrade John G. Wilson, stomach wound.’”

The author considers Union Chaplain Thomas B. Van Horne a hero for his development of Federal cemeteries in Chattanooga and Marietta. Van Horne, of the 13th Ohio, was tapped to recover the remains of Union soldiers who died in the Atlanta Campaign.

The chaplain was known to go to every grave, kneel down, recite a prayer and document everything that was found with a soldier’s remains, said Quinlin, whose great-grandfather, John James of the 93rd Indiana, is buried in an unmarked grave at Vicksburg, Ms.

Van Horne kept hospital records for the 62 soldiers buried behind the Big Shanty hospital.

Quinlin said he has identified 49 Marietta National Cemetery graves, previously marked as unknown, in his extensive research of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

At his website, Quinlin offers battlefield and cemetery tours. For $150, he provides a “complete record” of a Union soldier’s service, including regimental and muster information kept at the National Archives. 

“You will know day by day what happened to your soldier. With the regimental records, find out the days they were on guard duty, picket duty, on report and the days they were present on duty or in the hospital,” the site says.

Quinlin said he has done research for about 70 families. Many are more difficult than the Wilson project, he said. “Everything fell in place with everything gathered.”

During the sesquicentennial observance at Kennesaw Mountain, Quinlin spent some time with 42 families who traveled to the battlefield.

Among them were descendants of 125th Illinois commander Lt. Col. Oscar Harmon, also cut down at Kennesaw Mountain. The family brought Harmon’s uniform, boots and sword to the events. 

A formal ceremony that weekend on Marietta Square included comments from other descendants of men who fought in the war.

“We had this really cool moment when this lady from India walks out and takes the mic from me. She looks at all the descendants and said, ‘I just got to this country, and I had no one who fought and died from this country. I want you to know I am here and know what the word freedom means because of the sacrifice of your ancestors. Thanks to your ancestors I know what freedom means.’”

Charlotte Reid with daughter Katy Johnson

“There was not a dry eye in the place,” said Quinlin.

Charlotte Reid said her quest to learn more about John G. Wilson is not over. She’s interested in the different battle engagements and details of where the 125th Illinois campaigned for almost two years before Kennesaw Mountain.

Despite the heat, hilly terrain and the use of a cane, Reid, 81, said she was determined to attend the June 28 rededication of the Illinois Monument, not far from where her great-grandfather fell in battle.

Katy Johnson recalled, too, gazing down at the thousands of lighted luminaries.

“It pretty much took your breath away…."

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