It being Memorial Day Weekend, we are reminded of all who gave their lives in the armed services of the United States. Not all of these deaths were combat related; experts tell us that 414,152 perished from disease during the Civil War (twice as many as from battle). Forgotten Stories is dedicated to discovering the individuals behind the numbers, and in honor of Memorial Day, we present you with the death and funeral of one of these 414,152 men; Charles Myrick of Maine. Although we usually edit articles from the past for brevity (our forbearers were incredibly long-winded), today we present the article from Frank Leslie’s of February 7, 1863 in full:
Imagine a crowded transport steamer, homeward bound from the war, with her human freight of sick and wounded, of officers returning on leave for a brief respite from Southern miasma and camp toil, of poor, enfeebled men dragging themselves home to die.
The lamps are lit in the long upper saloon. Though the vessel heaves and strains in the wild, angry sea, they shine pleasantly on the little groups which surround the card-tables, gather round some veteran story teller, or chat eagerly as they anticipate, in imagination, their safe arrival and welcome home. All seems bright and cheerful. There is a little stir, a sudden interruption; a poor soldier, himself an invalid, as his sunken cheeks and hollow yet brilliant eyes but too clearly indicate, enters and asks eagerly for a physician – his comrade is dying. A little party, of whom the writer is one, detach themselves from the light and noisy gaiety of the comfortable upper cabin and go down into the hold, which has been roughly fitted up for human habitation. It reeks with smells; it is dimly lighted by swinging lanterns, which rock to and from, keeping time, pendulum-like, to the roll of the sea.
The sounds which salute the ear are in keeping with the scene. Here a smothered groan, an impatient murmur, a weary sigh, the heavy monotonous clang of the ever-moving machinery, mingle strangely with the dull swash of the waves as they glide by, or break angrily beneath our counter, making mournful music. The man leads us on to the darkest dreariest corner. He pauses by a miserable bunk, where, upon a blanket, with his knapsack for a pillow, lies something that, in the dim, uncertain light, takes human shape and form. “Bring a lantern here,” says the doctor. A light, which had hitherto hung against a distant bulkhead, is brought. It reveals a filthy, foul-smelling resting-place, upon which lies stretched a young soldier, yet in the agonies of dissolution. The rattle is already in his throat. I take the cold hand in mind, the pulse just flutters – that is all – the extremities are already chill in death. He swallows a little stimulant, but the lingering disease (chronic diarrhea) has already done its wasting work. His comrade leans over and strives to rouse him. He shouts “Charley! Charley!” but the words fall upon an ear already deaf to all earthly sounds.
I think to myself how many times has he heard the name in his far-off New England home, from a mother’s, a sister’s, it may be yet dearer lips. And now the broad chest heaves convulsively, the face is distorted and drawn in its death agony. The eyes are opened, then closed again. They will look no more upon the sunlight; they are sealed, to open upon the resurrection. There is a shudder, a contraction, and expansion of the limbs, the jaw drops, a ghastly hue overspreads the face – the man is dead; a soul drifts out upon the stormy night wind, on its way God alone knows whither – a unit is removed from the sum of human existence – a Union soldier, who died as patriotically as though he has fallen upon some hard won field, has gone to his long account.
And what a death! No one to weep over the clay; the stiffening hand held in a stranger’s grasp; the attenuated corpse rolling to and fro with each motion of the angry waves over which we ride, as it lies waiting for the speedy burial which already hastened corruption renders necessary. The body is borne forward and placed between decks. It is sewn in the camp-worn, travel-stained blanket. The chaplain and the officers are called. We gather round a strange, mysterious bundle whose rigid lines and mummylike shape indicate what is concealed within. Every brow is bared, every utterance hushed, as the corpse, stretched upon a board and covered with the flag he died to serve, is carried to the gangway. Then come the solemn words with which the Episcopal Church commits the body to the deep, “to be turned into corruption, looking for the general resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come.” The lanterns throw their sickly gleam upon the funeral rites, upon martial forms, upon the bare headed seaman, waiting to perform the last offices which mortals can render to mortality. The stars shine without, the gloomy sea heaves and tosses, the waves lift up their white-fingered hands, as if pleading for their prey. There is a pause, a lifting of the shrouded clay, a dull, heavy splash, and the vessel staggers on, to lie weighted down beneath the sea and to drift with the tide.
I turn away, and go sadly back to muse over the strange burial I have witnessed. A hand touches my shoulder, I turn around. The sick soldier who had shouted “Charley!” in the dead man’s ear hand me the “descriptive list” which he has taken from the pocket of the deceased. I carry it into the light, and read “Charles Myrick of Co. A, Captain Perry, 8th regt. Maine Volunteers, enlisted August 23d, 1861, at Lowell, Maine, aged 21 years.”
A little more about Maine’s Eighth Volunteer Regiment can be found here: