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Sgt. A.V. Waterbury and the last letter he wrote, lost to the family for more than 150 years.

| 4 min | by Doug Marrin |

Memorial Day is different in the sense that while it is a much-celebrated holiday, it is also a time of solemnity in recognition and remembrance of those who have served in our military forces.

The roots of Memorial Day can be traced back to the Civil War when, according to Yale University historian David Blight, about 10,000 Charleston, SC, residents gathered and spread roses over the graves of 250 Civil War soldiers.

Dexter resident Bene Fusilier remembers and recounts the tragic story of her great grandfather, Sgt. A.V. Waterbury, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. “My great grandfather was taken prisoner of war and sent to Andersonville confederate prison camp. When he first enlisted, he left behind a pregnant wife and two little boys.”

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Sgt. Waterbury’s wife, Margaret, gave birth a month after her husband’s muster. The baby, Bene’s grandfather, was named “Fredrick,” and he would never meet his father who would be killed when the steamship transporting him home exploded.

“To me the story is so sad,” Bene says in a phone call. “These Union soldiers had survived some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and the horrors of the South’s most brutal prison camps. Finally, they were going home. Packed aboard the steamboat Sultana, more than 2,000 Union soldiers were on their last journey of the war. Spirits were high.”

Bene’s great grandfather, Sgt. Aaron V. Waterbury, enlisted with the Union Army on August 8, 1862 in Quincy, MI, with the newly formed 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Twenty-seven years of age at the time he enlisted, Sgt. Waterbury would fight in eight battles, most notably of which were the Battle of Antietam that left 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing; and the Siege of Vicksburg which some historians believe that, along with Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, was the turning point of the war.

A year after the Siege of Vicksburg, the 17th Michigan fought the 14-day Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. On the fifth day of fighting, May 12, 1864, Sgt. Waterbury was captured by Confederate troops and sent into what might have been his greatest battle of the war – the notorious Andersonville Confederate prison camp in Georgia.

In his book, “Life and Death in Rebel Prisons,” Sgt. Major Robert Kellogg of the 16th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment described his arrival at Andersonville as a prisoner a few days before Waterbury’s.

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”

Constructed only a few months before Waterbury’s arrival, Andersonville prison was commanded by Captain Henry Wirz who was later tried, found guilty, and executed for war crimes. During his 12-month stay there, Waterbury survived the scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery that plagued the inmates. Prisoner gangs also preyed upon the population. He would have also been keenly mindful of perhaps the prisons most deplorable feature – the infamous “dead line” drawn 19 feet from the stockade wall. Any prisoner crossing or touching the line was shot without warning by sentries who considered it a grand sport.

Andersonville prisoners and tents, southwest view showing the “dead line” wooden railing, August 17, 1864 | Photo: Wikipedia

It is a testament to Waterbury’s determination and fortitude that he survived when nearly one out of every 3 of the 45,000 prisoners who passed through Andersonville died.

General Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 and except for a few skirmishes, the war was finished. But by then, with the handwriting on the wall, Andersonville had already begun releasing prisoners.

Sgt. Waterbury was part of a group transported to Camp Fisk, a transitional camp 428 miles away in Vicksburg, MS. From here, he and other Union soldiers would begin their journey home by steamship up the Mississippi River. While in Camp Fisk, he wrote his final letter to his wife. Neither the letter nor its author would ever reach home.

Bene and her brother have long been fascinated by the story of their great grandfather. Doing research and attending reunions of the descendants of those on the Sultana, the two pieced together the story of Sgt. Waterbury. Thinking she had as much information about her great grandfather as was possible, Bene would soon learn of a critical missing piece that had been lost to the family for more than 150 years.

An acquaintance of Bene’s surprised her not long ago by informing her there was a letter written by her great-grandfather Waterbury for sale on eBay. Employing the help of a nephew, Bene submitted the winning bid and procured the treasured artifact.

In the letter, dated April 10, 1865, the day after the war ended, Sgt. Waterbury writes to his wife Margaret of his anticipation of returning home and providing for his family once again.

“Well Marge I tell you it seems good to get among our own people agane, but it would seem better to get home with you and the children, but I can’t tell a thing about when I will get home or get my pay. I wish I could draw some money to send you for I know you nead it but the only thing is to do is to wate and let Uncle Sam take his motion and may be he will come down with his greenbacks some time.”

“It’s a real treasure,” Bene says of the letter. “I am so happy to have it.”

The ill-fated Sultana set sail on her final voyage from Vicksburg the night of April 24 and was doomed from the start. The ship had a capacity of 376 passengers but was loaded down with 2,137. One of her boilers was leaking and had been incompetently repaired before the voyage.

Sultana at Helena, Arkansas on April 26, 1865, a day before her destruction. A crowd of paroled prisoners covers her decks | Photo: Wikipedia

“On the morning of April 26, 1865 the Sultana docked briefly at Helena, AK,” recounts Bene. “Here, a photographer took her picture with throngs of soldiers posing on the decks and roofs. On April 27 at 2:00 a.m., seven miles up the Mississippi River from Memphis, the Sultana blew its boilers, scalding to death hundreds and throwing the rest into the Mississippi. Up to 1,800 were killed, including my great grandfather.” 

“It was and still is the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, killing more people than died on the Titanic but it was overshadowed at the time by the recent assassination of President Lincoln, which dominated the headlines,” she adds.

Sgt. Waterbury’s wife never received his final letter. It was lost somewhere along the way finally making its way to the family more than 150 years later.

“In the letter he writes how good it will be to get home to his wife and children,” says Bene. “The last line of the letter says,

‘Well Marge you must remember your faithful and loving husband AV Waterbury.  good by.’”

“How sad the letter never reached his wife and family,” she adds.

Bene has attended several reunions of the Sultana’s descendants and plans on being at next year’s gathering in Springfield, IL. She will bring along the letter written by her great grandfather.

“The descendants feel the story of the Sultana should be told,” she concludes.

And it is in the telling, and retelling, that we remember.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Well-written and researched. Today, I forwarded your story to the 300 + email addresses on my membership list!

    Norman Shaw, Founder, The Sultana Descendants Accoc.

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