December 5, 2011

'There Sleeps a Pennsylvania Volunteer': Death Visits the 79th Pa

Location: Camp Negley, Nolin Station, KY
The Soldier's Grave (HW 11/5/1861)
Although the Lancaster County Regiment was a model of health for its first month in Kentucky at Camp Nevin, the regiment changed camp at exactly the wrong time.  As soon as they left Camp Nevin for Camp Negley, the weather soured.  As November turned to December, a week of snow and rain turned everything to mud, and health began to deteriorate for a handful of soldiers.  On December 5, 1861, the 79th Pennsylvania suffered the first death of one of its members, drummer-turned-private Samuel H. Clair of Company E.  Clair had been sick for a little over a week after going out on picket duty, and died in the camp hospital of "typhoid pneumonia."  The regiment's officers decided not to send the body back to Lancaster, and Clair's remains were buried in a quiet corner of the camp.  (I haven't done any research to ascertain if they were subsequently moved.)

PA Card File record for Samuel H. Clair

His captain, Morris D. Wickersham, sent the following note back to Lancaster, which reveals an attempt to rationalize health and disease and reassure readers in Lancaster who might be worried about a friend or relative in the regiment.  It was published in the December 13, 1861, Daily Evening Express: (alternate link)

Two weeks later, Elias H. Witmer followed up with more complete eulogy as part of a December 22 letter to the Church Advocate, which appeared in the January 9, 1862, edition of the newspaper:
There has been but one death in our regiment, which speaks encouragingly for the health of the "Lancaster County Boys."  Samuel H. Clair, of Company E--a young man loved by all--was the first, and, as yet, the only victim.  He possessed those noble traits of character which endeared himself to all, who held intercourse with him.  But while we had to mourn his early loss, we have the glorious consolation that he died as he lived--an honest man, kind and affectionate friend, and, above all, a pious and devoted Christian.  We buried him in a secluded corner, and inscribed upon his tomb, to tell the passer-by, there sleeps a Pennsylvania Volunteer.  We enclosed his grave with a fence, so that nothing could disturb his resting-place; we shed another tear over his grave, sung the hymn, "A charge to keep I have," with the chorus, "There will be no more parting there," and cast another look upon the little mound of earth, after which we turned our steps toward the camp, with the hope that if we could never visit the spot again, that we may meet "Where the wicked cease from troubling, And the weary are at rest."

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