Friday, April 26, 2013

One Soldier's Story

My vacations often turn into destination points.  This time a liitle note brought me to the story of a fallen Irish soldier from Lowell who did not come home.  So off to Sharpsburg, MD.
He was one of the 23,000 that died that day in Sharpsburg.  His family would never even have the privilege of having his earthly remains interred with other family members in Saint Patrick Cemetery.    He was not the only Lowellian to die at Antietam on that September day in 1862.  Few facts surround his brief life.  And his simple marble marker at the National Cemetery is all that is left to tell his story.

Maybe it was the lure of the glories of the battlefield that drew him to join the 19th Mass Infantry in August of 1861.  There were other Lowell boys signing up that day; perhaps that was the catalyst, or maybe it was the lack of work in the city and the need to help the family earn enough to feed themselves.  Maybe it was his way of showing his patriotism to his new homeland.  Records show a Cassidy family immigrating from Ireland living in the Acre at this time.  There is also a slate stone in the Catholic Burial ground with the names of a number of young children bearing the Cassidy name.  If this was the family we were looking for, Francis would have been about 18 at the time of his signing.
Within a few months, the 19th Mass found themselves in Virginia, part of the Peninsula Campaign.  Conditions could not have been worse.  The extreme heat, unsanitary conditions, diseases from wading through swamp water, and lack of food took its toll.  Private Cassidy is marked “missing.”  Eyewitness accounts state that many soldiers lay along the trails collapsed with dysentery and extreme fatigue.  Some soldiers resort to eating raw flour that was finally rationed to them, hunger overcoming common sense.  What happens to Pvt. Cassidy is not noted but he does return to his unit before the march to Antietam Creek.  He may have thought himself fortunate to have survived the Peninsula, but his final destiny awaited him.
Dunker's Church, Antietam
At 2 a.m. on Wednesday September 17th, 1862 Pvt. Cassidy is awakened to the sound of revelry.  The Confederates were on the move.  By dawn the sound of gunfire drew closer.  The men of the 19th became anxious.  Their Captain had them go through the manual of arms to relieve the building tension.  They were ordered to form 3 lines.  The rolling cornfields of the Maryland town became the site of the greatest loss of American lives in a single day.  Inept leadership then ordered the 19th to march forward through the cornfields.  The long single lines made perfect targets for the Rebel forces as they cleared the fields.  They did not stand a chance.  The bodies piled up on top of each other.  Those who did make it through found they were attacked on their flank.  The order was to charge, adding more numbers to the slaughter.  Less than 50% of the 19th survived the day.  It is most probable this is where Pvt. Francis Cassidy met his end.
The day after the battle, horse drawn carriages brought photographers to the battlefield.  This new technology documented what Americans had only read about previously.  Soldiers bent bayonets into hooks to drag bodies to shallow graves.  Pvt. Cassidy was fortunate that someone did so for him and marked a rough hewn board with his name and regiment.  He was lucky.  Many visitors weeks,

Grave of Pvt. Francis Cassidy
months, and even years later report limbs and skulls poking out of the ground from unburied dead.  More than likely his family could not afford to have his remains transferred back to Lowell.  Local papers often recorded when bodies arrived and when services would be held.  No such privilege for Pvt. Cassidy.  Several months later his remains were reinterred in the Cemetery just a mile from where he fell. 

There is a sad beauty to the Cemetery.  Thousands of marble headstones with simple inscriptions of name and regiment line up like soldiers standing at attention.  The white markers on a field of green give a sense of peace, countering the tragedy of young lives lost.

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