Joseph Herrick deserves better.
Herrick is one of about 200 Maine Civil War soldiers whose remains lie in unmarked graves, a series of trenches dug to hold the bodies of those who died in a Confederate-run prison in Salisbury, N.C.
While he lived, Herrick exemplified many of the traits that Mainers hold dear: hard work in farm and forest, family, grit, and self-sacrifice.
Herrick’s great-great-grandniece, Tracey McIntire, would like to know why, 150 years after Herrick’s death, the federal government still refuses to name Herrick and Maine’s other soldiers on a memorial on the site.
The Maine soldiers, most of whom were trained in Augusta as part of the Union’s Maine 32nd Infantry 150 years ago, are one portion of a larger group of thousands of veterans.
McIntire, who today lives in Boonsboro, Md., grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and had family in Maine.
“Just to go through that hell on Earth and then get dumped in a trench and then no recognition, it just … it breaks my heart,” McIntire said. “I just want his name to be remembered. He made the ultimate sacrifice.”
The Veterans Administration says that it can’t erect a headstone at the prison site, now Salisbury National Cemetery, because of a rule regulating the headstone and marker application process that was added to the Code of Federal Regulations in 2009.
Under the rule, only a person’s proven next-of-kin can apply for a marker.
“It doesn’t really allow for genealogical research alone,” said Josephine Schuda, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
McIntire said the rules might be appropriate for recently deceased veterans, but it amounts to an impossible barrier for people like her, who want to honor a relative from the bloody conflict, which left by varying calculations between 600,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead.
“I’ve got all this proof. I’ve got my family tree to show that I’m related. There are no direct descendants,” McIntire said.
She said she has called the VA, as well as her congressmen and senators, without results.
“I don’t know what else they want,” she said. “I’ve just hit a stone wall as far as action goes.”
The regulation requiring next-of-kin is meant to prevent situations that would cause families pain, according to the VA.
“Adherence to this regulatory definition is intended to avoid the possibility that a person lacking familial relationship to the Veteran may alter the Veteran’s grave site in a manner not desired by the Veteran’s family,” wrote Steve L. Muro, undersecretary for memorial affairs of the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a March 24 letter released by the VA in response to a request for information by the Morning Sentinel.
In the letter, Muro said it could change the policy, writing that the definition of next-of-kin in the rule “may be too limiting, and we are reviewing the current regulation to include the applicant definition.”
The Civil War still seems close at hand to McIntire. She has memories of her grandfather, who in turn had clear memories of his grandmother, Herrick’s sister.
Herrick’s anonymous remains are not alone.
SOUTH HELPS NORTH
Civil War historian Mark Hughes, whose ancestors died fighting Herrick’s comrades, said his first clear memory of a Civil War cemetery came in Richmond when he was just 8 years old.
“On one of the headstones instead of a name, it said unknown,” he said. “I asked my mother who was buried there, and she said, â€˜Honey, nobody knows.’ And I thought that was a shame.”
Hughes, who has been studying Civil War cemeteries for 28 years, is a product of the American South. He addresses people as “sir” or “ma’am” in his thick southern accent.
Two of his own ancestors were killed by the Union Army and another was wounded, but he still feels the Union men in the ground at Salisbury should be recognized.
“I care because they’re American soldiers who fought for their country,” Hughes said.
More than 10 years ago, Hughes went on a hunt for the original registry that was used by the Salisbury Prison hospital. Hospital registers have been used to identify the soldiers in other mass burial sites created during the Civil War, including at Andersonville in Georgia, the most notorious prison of the war.
Knowing the document might have been preserved, Hughes hunted for the hospital registry in the National Archives, despite being told by two archivists that they probably didn’t exist.
But he found it 10 years ago, with the names of 3,501 Union soldiers interred at Salisbury. For each soldier, the name and cause of death is listed.
“For a historian, this is one of those stories they don’t ever get in a lifetime,” he said.
What he didn’t know was that getting the registry was easy. The hard part of his journey was about to begin.
“I assumed that the VA would say, â€˜Yes, this is what we need to do,’” Hughes said.
Instead, it was the beginning of a decade-long process during which he has called and traded letters with VA officials, only to be stymied at every turn. Hughes says the VA is bound by federal law to erect markers on unmarked graves in national cemeteries.
He says that the 2009 regulation doesn’t apply — he doesn’t want individual headstones. Instead, he wants some form of group marker, which would bear multiple names on brass plates somewhere in the cemetery.
Such monuments have been erected in several mass grave sites, he said, including the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
This isn’t the first time Hughes has campaigned on behalf of long-dead soldiers.
In 1996, he found a burial roster from the hospital register that allowed the city of Orangeburg, S.C., to mark the graves of 16 Union soldiers.
But the sheer number of memorials at stake in Salisbury has made it something of an obsession for Hughes.
“I won’t move on,” he said. “I think we need several people like myself to talk to the right senator or congressman. I don’t think it would take an act of Congress. I think it would take an Appropriations Committee discussion.”
Hughes said he’s seen similar graves for Confederacy soldiers be marked because of a robust and vocal group of southern Civil War enthusiasts, but that the message to honor northern Union soldiers doesn’t resonate in the same way.
Hughes has bad eyes. His eyesight is failing. He doesn’t like to admit it, but there’s a chance that he will be blind before he dies.
He said he’d really like the marker to be erected when he can still see it with his own two eyes.
THE EARLY YEARS
McIntyre has pieced together the tragic details of Herrick’s life through visits to the National Archives and digitally scanned documents, including his military records, family letters and pension applications.
Herrick was born to Henry and Ruth Herrick in January 1845 in Greenwood.
By today’s standards, the family was enormous. Herrick had 14 brothers and sisters: Eliza, Sarah, Nathaniel, Rebecca, Edward, Mary, Newton, Orpha, David, Ruth, Willie, Howard, Rose and Harriet.
The family was very poor. They owned a couple of cows, but no land.
When the war first began in 1861, Herrick was a teenager. His father, 43, left to fight against the South in Louisiana as a member of Maine’s 14th Regiment.
Herrick’s father survived, but was injured and permanently disabled. McIntire has seen his application for a disability pension, a nearly illegible scrawl full of misspellings and grammatical errors. The tone was desperate.
“He was basically begging them for money,” McIntire said.
But the federal government denied his claim, based on a pre-existing condition.
By the time Joseph Herrick was 18, he was the primary breadwinner for a family that included his mother, his disabled father and a raft of siblings.
“Everything fell on Joseph’s shoulders to support his parents,” McIntire said.
By 1863, working on farms and in mills was no longer enough.
“That’s when he took up the timbering. He would work, they would pay him in sacks of grain, and Joseph would carry the sacks of grain a couple of miles on his back to feed the family,” she said. “It was a very hardscrabble life, for sure.”
Tom Desjardin, a Maine historian, author and a member of Gov. Paul LePage’s staff, said that by this point in the war, private people throughout the state were actively recruiting others to serve. The most effective recruiters were awarded with positions of rank within their own companies.
The system was designed to help meet a federally imposed quota of recruits from each town. Towns that failed to meet the quota were subject to a draft.
For Herrick, the temptation to enlist would have been tremendous, because it carried a signing bonus of $300, a huge sum at the time.
In March 1864, at 19 years old, he enlisted in nearby Norway. He would never see 20.
McIntire believes he did it because he could see the desperate situation his family was in.
After Herrick died, a neighbor wrote that the “last conversation I had with Joseph, he told me he could better support his parents by enlisting.”
He used the $300 to make a down payment on a farm for his family to own.
TO THE BATTLEFIELD
Herrick left his parents and his 14 brothers and sisters behind in Greenwood, traveling to Augusta, where a camp had been established to train and deploy Maine’s regiments.
Along with hundreds of other former farmers, loggers and mill workers in Maine’s 32nd Regiment, Herrick was given a uniform and rifle and taught over a period of weeks how to march in formation and complete firing drills.
The training, Desjardin said, was never really sufficient.
Herrick’s unit, Company G, missed the famous Battle of the Wilderness while waiting to deploy, but he was soon sent south, first by train to Washington, D.C., and then by riverboat and finally by marching in formation to the battleground near Petersburg in Virginia.
His enlistment card described him as 5-feet, 8-inches tall with blue eyes, light hair and a light complexion.
If he had any dreams of battlefield glory, they were short-lived.
Herrick arrived in time to participate in the Battle of Cold Harbor, which began on the last day of May 1864. The outcome was so disastrous for the Union that General Ulysses S. Grant called it his greatest regret after well-fortified Confederate soldiers stood off Grant’s assault, killing thousands in the process.
“It was a slaughter for the union,” McIntire said. “That was probably his first seeing the elephant, his first experience under fire. Not a good way to get initiated.”
Their advance thwarted, Union forces entrenched themselves, where Herrick, who had survived the battle unscathed, soon fell deathly ill with chronic diarrhea, a common and serious ailment for soldiers.
McIntire said that throughout his service, he sent most or all of his pay, about $13 a month, home so that they could make mortgage payments.
In those times, the public had not yet made the connection between poor hygienic conditions and disease.
“It wasn’t anything unusual for soldiers to fill their canteens from mud puddles,” she said. “They wouldn’t dig the latrines far enough away from the drinking water. If they were on the march, they carried salt pork that could go bad but they’d eat it anyway.”
He was shipped to a hospital in D.C. and then returned to the front lines in early September, just a few weeks before the Sept. 30 Battle of Peebles’s Farm, another major Union offensive against the Confederates in the Petersburg area.
The battle went better for the Union army, which gained ground, but worse for Herrick, who was one of four men from Company G captured by the Confederates that day.
Desjardin said Herrick may have suffered some sort of injury on the battlefield that caused him to be taken prisoner.
“What normally happened in these cases was a guy would get wounded, and then where he fell would end up in the hands of the enemy,” he said. “After they treated their own wounded, they would treat the enemy’s wounded. At some point they shipped them off to a prison camp.”
PRISON AND DEATH
Herrick was taken to Salisbury Prison, probably by train.
If the conditions in the field were bad, the conditions in the overcrowded prison were worse. Faced with a major influx of prisoners, the Confederates ran out of resources to care for them. Soldiers slept in ditches they dug themselves and covered with a blanket.
“Most of the people died at all of these camps,” Desjardin said. “A lot of them of scurvy, lack of food, exposure to the weather. A lot of gangrene or some infection related to the wound.”
On the walls of the makeshift stockades, armed men kept guard.
“If you got closer than 10 feet, they called it the deadline,” Desjardin said. “They would be shot dead.”
Herrick suffered a relapse of his chronic diarrhea. Instead of receiving medical care in a Union hospital, he languished and deteriorated among thousands of others who were dying all around him.
Desjardin said the chronic diarrhea was often a symptom of typhoid fever.
“The nutrients and stuff is coming out of you. You’re not keeping anything in or down,” he said. “You just have no strength. If you had food, it just came out.”
Just seven weeks after being captured, Herrick died on Nov. 22.
“They had what they called the dead house,” McIntire said. “They would bring the dead in, take whatever valuables off them, put them in a cart and then take them to this mass burial site. They had a mass of bodies to deal with and it was just expeditious to do it this way. They were buried in common trenches.”
Back in Greenwood, with Herrick dead and gone and without his pay to draw on, the family struggled, as is evident in an application his mother submitted to the government for a pension for Herrick.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said. “Once he died, that monthly income was gone. The father could no longer work the farm. They owed a mortgage on the place. They became destitute and relied on the town for support. They lost the farm, but I’m not sure what happened to them after that.”
McIntire said town records from Greenwood show that Herrick died in Salisbury and that there is a Herrick family plot there.
By 1869, three of Herrick’s siblings — Eliza, Nathaniel and Ruth were dead.
In a letter from that year, his mother gave an update of her other children: Sarah married a soldier. Rose was sickly. William, 13, was unable to work because of a disabled right hand. Edward and Newton, both 20, were working and sending money home. Rebecca was also married.
Herrick’s sister married a railroad man named Charles McIntire of Reading, Mass.
Their son, Herbert McIntire, was a fireman and worked in the post office; their son, Arthur McIntire, worked for B&M Railroad; his son, Donald McIntire, was an electronics engineer at Raytheon and veteran of both World War II and Korea.
Donald’s daughter, Tracey McIntire, is the only one left who cares about Herrick.
“I’m it,” she said. “I’m left.”
McIntire has paid to have Herrick’s name included on a wall at Pamplin Historical Park, a Civil War museum in Petersburg that is close to the site of the battle in which he was captured. She joined the Salisbury Prisoners Association, which keeps the memory of the soldiers there alive.
It helps, but it is inadequate, she said.
“He’s not buried at Petersburg. He’s buried in Salisbury. It’s like anybody would feel if your ancestor is in an unmarked grave. I would like to have his name up there. But I’m not holding my breath.”