The Death of Brig. Gen. James Samuel Wadsworth

Gen. James Samuel Wadsworth

Brig. General James Samuel Wadsworth “was shot through the head on the second day of the Wilderness Battle in early May 1864. Upon hearing of his death, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary that “few nobler spirits have fallen in this war….No purer or more single-minded patriot than Wadsworth has shown himself in this war. He left home and comforts and wealth to fight the battles of the Union.” In New York City, George Templeton Strong wrote in his own diary: “We have lost a brave and useful man, but this is just the death Wadsworth would have ordered of the destinies had they consulted him on the subject.”

This remarkable journal contains the handwritten notes of the death—and recovery of the body of—Gen. James Samuel Wadsworth who was shot down in the Battle of the Wilderness and died less than two days later in a Confederate field hospital. The information in the journal appears to have been compiled and composed by Captain Montgomery Harrison Ritchie (1826-1864), a son-in-law of Gen. Wadsworth, and an aide to Colonel Dixon Miles. Capt. Ritchie died less than six months later (7 November 1864) of a “disease contracted in the service.”

Capt. Montgomery Harrison Ritchie


General Wadsworth was wounded on Friday the 6th May 1864 and lingered unconscious until Sunday about 7 o’clock the 8th of May.

<newspaper clipping entitled “General Wadsworth Reported Killed” that reads, in part, “Gen. Wadsworth was killed and not captured as reported this morning. He led a charge, perfectly brave man as he was, and fell at the head of his division, pierced with a ball through the brain…”>

<newspaper clipping entitled “Obituary Gen. James Samuel Wadsworth”>

<newspaper clipping entitled “Obituary, Gen. Wadsworth.”

<newspaper clipping continued> From the New York Times, May 1864, Written by [Henry Jarvis] Raymond, previously editor of the N. Y. Times.


Information concerning Brigadier General J. S. Wadsworth collected by M[ontgomery] Richie at Fredericksburg, Va., from 11th to 18th May 1864.

J[acob] Ebersole, Surgeon, 19th Indiana Volunteers in charge 5th Corps Hospital, not from personal knowledge, but from information derived from wounded men of the 4th Division, 5th Corps, was conversant with the general facts concerning the General, whom he had known and served with for a long time. This Surgeon, in whose charge were many wounded men belonging to General Wadsworth’s Division (4th Div., 5th Corps) stated his belief that General Wadsworth had been killed on Friday the 6th May 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. No details regarding the death were given by this Surgeon, but being in charge of 5th Corps Hospital, he was in a position which enabled him to express a reliable opinion.

Surgeon [William J.] McDermott was taken prisoner at Stevens House in the Wilderness. He was left in charge of the wounded on the field on Friday 6th May. He was paroled by J[ames] C. Borden, Capt. Co. A, 1st N. C. Cavalry, who stated to Surgeon McDermott that General Wadsworth’s body was in their (the enemy’s) hands: that General Lee had ordered a coffin and that the body would be delivered to an unarmed Flag of Truce.

Surgeon McLean, ¹ Confederate, attended General Wadsworth till his death.

Maj. Benjamin T. Kneeland

Maj. B[enjamin] T. Kneeland, New York Cavalry Surgeon, formerly from Nunda, Livingston county, was sent out from Fredericksburg by Surgeon Dalton, Medical Director at that depot, under a Flag of Truce on the morning of the 12th May. A train of ambulances with supplies for the wounded were under the orders of Maj. Kneeland. Maj. Kneeland, being a neighbor in the country of General Wadsworth and well acquainted with him for years past, was the most useful person to take charge of this train. Maj. Kneeland’s instructions were to proceed to the battleground of Friday the sixth in the Wilderness, or as near to it as the enemy would permit, to ascertain concerning General Wadsworth’s fate as accurately as possible and to ask permission to bring back an ambulance [with] the remains.

On the 5th in the morning, Maj. Kneeland reported that he had acquired some precise information in regard to General Wadsworth’s death and the place of his burial, but that the ambulances had been obliged to return from the Wilderness without the body, the forage for the horses and the provisions of the men (drivers) had given out & Maj. Kneeland stated that the officer commanding the escort had refused to remain any longer inside of the enemy’s lines. About one thousand of our men were reported by Maj. Kneeland to be lying wounded in and about the rebel hospital he visited in the Wilderness. The dead remained unburied and the supplies taken out for the wounded by this train were much needed.

Maj. Kneeland was informed that General Wadsworth was wounded on Friday, 6th May, by a shot on the top of the head, the missile remaining in his body [and] that the General lingered until Sunday the 8th in and insensible state; that Patrick McCracken—a farmer—had buried the body on his farm about seven miles from the battlefield. It was stated to Maj. Kneeland that McCracken’s motive for this service was a personal one arising out of his gratitude for kindness received from Gen. Wadsworth when Military Governor of Washington, & when McCracken was a prisoner in the Old Capitol Prison. ²

¹ Possibly William S. McLean, Asst. Surgeon, North Carolina State forces.

² In his book,General Wadsworth: The Life and Wars of Brevet General James S. Wadsworth, Wayne Mahood described Patrick McCracken as a “34-year old native Irishman who had been released in 1862 by Military Governor Wadsworth after giving assurances that he was a farmer, not a spy, and would not assist the Confederacy.” Mahood wrote that McCracken “buried Wadsworth in the McCracken family burying ground ‘with the clothing as he fell on the battlefield’ and covered the coffin ‘with plank and then dirt.’ Afterward he had a ‘large plank planed and marked for a headstone,’ which he placed at the head of the grave.”


That General Wadsworth’s character, his acts of kindness, had inspired numbers of his prisoners with feelings of high personal esteem and of gratitude towards him is made manifest from the conduct of McCracken. There likewise lived in Fredericksburg a Mr. Rome, a lawyer, who also had been a prisoner under General Wadsworth in the Old Capitol [Prison]. This Mr. Rome is an intelligent, active, & energetic man, said to have a very extensive acquaintance in and around Fredericksburg. Through him, at any future time, it is probable that more expeditions and [more] safely that in any other way, the family of General Wadsworth will be able to communicate with Patrick McCracken and in that manner, learn more particulars than are at present known to them concerning the General’s fate. Mr. Rome, hearing that Capt. Ritchie—a member of the family—was in Fredericksburg, desired to see him, expressed a strong respect for General Wadsworth’s character and the personal obligations he was under towards the General for kindness received from him when Military Governor of Washington and when Rome was a prisoner in the Old Capitol [Prison]. Mr. Rome stated to Capt. Ritchie that he knew McCracken very well and from his account, it appears that McCracken is a man of about forty-three and a small farmer. In order to get the exact address of Mr. Rome, a letter might be addressed to Mr. T. F. Knox, Fredericksburg, Va., in whose house Capt. Ritchie and Maj. Cutting lived when in Fredericksburg.

Col. Homer R. Stoughton

Colonel [Homer R.] Stoughton, 2nd Regt. U. S. Sharpshooters stated to Capt. M. Ritchie that during the Battle of the Wilderness, he was quite new to General Wadsworth with whom he was acquainted [and] that on the morning of Friday, probably about noon, General Wadsworth led a charge on the Plank Road near where Brock’s Cross Roads intersects the Plank Road. The General was waving his hat and cheering on his men when a shot grazed his forehead. The firing was chiefly from infantry of intense severity and very close. A second shot killed the general’s horse and at the same time one of his staff lost a horse. The General sent an aid for spare horses and soon after was struck by a shot on the top of his head and fell to the ground. ¹ About this moment the enemy turned our left flank and our troops were obliged temporarily to fall back & to leave General Wadsworth’s body on the road.

On the return of the first Flag of Truce, without the body, but with the information about the burial place, the Medical Director Dalton immediately dispatched a medical officer with another Flag of Truce and ambulance. A[rthur] K. St. Clair, Asst. Surgeon 1st Michigan Cavalry was the officer in charge of the second Flag of Truce. He showed great zeal for the mission on which he was sent and promised, if needful, to stay a week inside the enemy’s lines in endeavors to accomplish his object. He deserves from every member of the family to be remembered with gratitude for the service he rendered and the spirited manner in which it was performed. The road to the battleground of the Wilderness was occupied by guerrilla troops and the pickets of the enemy had been advanced so as to prevent any access. Surgeon St. Clair was not allowed to proceed as far as the first Flag of Truce which had been sent out, and on sending in his request that he might be allowed to take possession of General Wadsworth’s body, he was informed that it would not be delivered to us unless General Meade or General Grant made a written request for that purpose.

¹ In his book,General Wadsworth: The Life and Wars of Brevet General James S. Wadsworth, Wayne Mahood wrote that when Confederate surgeons finally examined Wadsworth’s wound thirty hours after he was wounded, “they found that ‘the ball had entered near the top of his head, had gone forward, and was lodged in the anterior lobe of the left side of the brain.’ Thus, [it was concluded] that the general was either falling or bent forward ‘in anticipation of a volley from the advancing enemy.'” [page 254-5].


Surgeon St. Clair rode to the Headquarters of the Army, presented the letter to General Lee, commanding the enemy’s forces, and then, after some delay, the body was brought in a wagon to their outside pickets and delivered up to us.

On Tuesday, about 10 o’clock a.m., Surgeon St. Clair reported to the Medical Director [Edward Barry] Dalton at [the Depot Field Hospital in] Fredericksburg with the General’s body in his ambulance.

A room was procured. Dr. [John] Ross, an embalmer brought from Washington for that purpose, was in attendance. The coffin in which the remains had been placed by the enemy was coffin shaped, well made, and painted black. A [metallic] coffin had been brought from Washington for the purpose of placing in it the remains and was brought in to use.

There were present, when the coffin in which were General Wadsworth’s remains, was opened, Major Kneeland, Surgeon New York Cavalry, [Walter] Cutting A.D.C [Aide-de-Camp] to Major General [Christopher C.] Augur, and Montgomery Ritchie. Also two hospital orderlies of Major Kneeland’s. Together with the coffin there came a head and a foot board on each of which the name of Brig. General Wadsworth was written in pencil and the place and date of his death given.

When the coffin was opened, it was the 17th of May. The General is stated to have died on the 8th or nine days previously. After Maj. Kneeland & Cutting and Mr. Ritchie were satisfied in regard to the identity of the remains, they were carefully transferred to the coffin brought from Washington. Dr. [John] Ross, the embalmer, though unable to embalm the body [due to the advanced stage of decomposition], rendered what services he was able.

The enemy had evidently treated General Wadsworth’s remains with unusual respect and they had not been robbed of clothing. Even the white cotton stockings marked J. W. in red thread were on the feet. ¹

From all the authorities, military and medical, in Fredericksburg, every assistance possible towards recovering the body of General Wadsworth was rendered. Col. Shriner, Inspector General, Army of the Potomac, was commandant at Fredericksburg. From the Secretary of War and General Meade down to the surgeons in charge of the Flags of Truce, there was shown a desire to mark their high sense of General Wadsworth’s character and their appreciation of the magnitude of the loss which, in his death, had fallen upon the country and the Army. But one uniform testimony arose from all his enemies or his friends & companions in arms. All bore witness to the sterling worth of his character, to his great courage, and shining patriotism, and to his simple kindness of heart and to his great magnanimity.

It was owing to this general sympathy, to these double honors shown to General Wadsworth’s memory by his enemies and his friends that it was possible to recover and so fully and satisfactorily identify his remains.

¹ In his book,General Wadsworth: The Life and Wars of Brevet General James S. Wadsworth, Wayne Mahood that before Wadsworth’s body was taken for burial by McCracken, Confederate soldiers had taken his hat and boots and every button off his coat. “Bob Archer of the 6th Virginia appropriated the general’s pocketbook and $90, while John Bolote grabbed Wadsworth’s gold watch, and an unknown (to this day) took his ‘elegant’ and very expensive field glasses.” [page 257].


On the evening of the 17th May, the body arrived at Belle Plain Landing. It was put on board a steamer and arrived at Washington on the morning of the 18th. On the following morning, it was delivered into the charge of Brig. General [John T.] Sprague, Adj. General of the State of New York who took charge of the body in the name of the State of New York.


[Note: Numerous newspaper clippings are pasted on the pages that follow, many but not all are shown here.]



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