“I will remember them”

He died on June 30, 1862 in a field near Charles City Crossroads, a rural area of fields and woods 13 miles southeast of downtown Richmond, Virginia. His remains are still there, buried where he fell or reburied at the national cemetery a mile away. There is no way to know.

Sergeant John Williamson is “not accounted for” in military records.

He was only 23 years old when he died on the battlefield over 300 miles away from his home in Eckley, Pennsylvania, now an open-air museum called Eckley Miners’ Village. There is a photo of him and a plaque in his memory on the wall at the visitor center there. John was a mule driver in the coal mine before he became a sergeant in Company K of the Pennsylvania 81st Volunteer Infantry.

During the seven months he was in the Union Army, John wrote dozens of letters home to his wife, signed “your affectionate husband till death.” John never got to see his daughter Matilda, who was 3 months old when he was killed.

Fully aware of what might happen, he said in one of his last letters to Hester “…I hope it will never be said that I flinched when the hard pinch came…”

John’s transcribed letters are in my book You Dream Every Night That I am Home. The title is a quote from one of his early letters, in which he wrote “…You say you dream every night that I am home. I get home once in a while myself but find my mistake when I get awake. Put your mind at ease, your dream will be realized some of these days…”

When I learned about John a few years ago, I became obsessed with wanting to learn everything I could about him. I read his letters over and over again, written from the time he arrived in training camp in Easton, Pennsylvania up until a week before his death—his last letter was from the battlefield at Fair Oaks, about ten miles from his final battle and resting place.

In the summer of 2021, my husband and I followed John’s journey from Eckley, Pennsylvania to Charles City Crossroads in Henrico County, Virginia. By that time, I’d done tons of research about the places that John talked about in his letters, and it was remarkable that some locations were basically the same as when John had seen them while others would be completely unrecognizable to him. We took dozens of photos for my book-in-progress, and at each location I tried to take a moment to think of John and the other men in Company K of the Pennsylvania 81st Volunteer Infantry.

I published the book on Amazon last year, but I still often think about John Williamson, the young man from the area my mother’s family is from, who died on a battlefield about an hour from my current home–we moved south a few years ago for my husband’s job.

We went back to Charles City Crossroads yesterday. A mowing crew was there when we arrived, so we left and came back a while later.

The air was heavy with the humidity of on-again, off-again showers and the scent of newly cut grass. At Glendale National Cemetery, the simple white military markers stand in rows of tidy concentric circles around an enormous flagpole with an American flag. In a field visible over the stone wall around the cemetery, wheat waved in the breeze and shimmered in the bursts of sunshine that broke through the clouds. It was very quiet and still.

I wandered the cemetery, reading names and pondering the markers that read “Unknown US Soldier”, “3 Unknown US Soldiers”, “6 unknown US soldiers.” During the Civil War, fallen soldiers were either buried on the battlefield, or if the unit was on the move–as the 81st was during the Seven Days War–left to be buried (hopefully) by the local residents.

After the war, national cemeteries were established near battlefields and the remains of the fallen, what could be found, were reinterred. Of the 1,192 Union soldiers from the battlefields of Glendale and Malvern Hill buried at Glendale National Cemetery, only 234 are identified. I took photos–I suddenly felt compelled to try to go home and capture the scene with brush and pen, as imperfectly as I am able.

We then drove by the area where the position of the Pennsylvania 81st was located during the battle, according to a battleground map. The location, a field at the time of the battle is woods now owned by the National Park Service and inaccessible with nowhere to park a car. To look at it, you would never know that a terrible battle costing hundreds of lives occurred there.

Sometimes I wonder why I can’t let John go, but then I saw something online the other day that I believe sums it up well:

“I am bound to them,

though I cannot look into their eyes

or hear their voices.

I honor their history.

I cherish their lives.

I will tell their story.

I will remember them.

–Author unknown”

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