First, the best perspective…
Render therefore to all their dues… honor to whom honor.
– Romans 13:7
Memorial Day is a time to pause and remember those who have given their lives in defense of our nation. Although placing decorations and flowers on the graves of deceased soldiers is an ancient custom, here in America, a special day was designated following the Civil War. In the early days, it was called Decoration Day, and was popular in the South as well as the North.
In honor of this Memorial Day, I would like to honor one of my own relatives – Thomas Burnick – a Union soldier who died at Fort Pike, Louisiana on September 4, 1862. Following is his story as related in my book, Taconic Tales, the story of the Michaels family in America.
Pittsfield, Feb 10, 1862
I was promised a furlough last Saturday but could not get one and there is to be no more furloughs to be given out so I cannot come down home and I want to have you come up and bring the children as soon as you can for we are to leave from this camp on Wednesday morning. We was paid off on last Wednesday and I had to pay Mr Morry Eight dollars and Capt Page one dollar whitch left me four dollars and now I send three dollars and
keep one Myself.
from Your Dear Husband
P.S. Please remember me to all Friends and Neighbors
Thomas and Johanna were married in Pittsfield, Massachusetts just ten years earlier. Both were born in Ireland, and came to America as adults, but the details concerning their emigration are obscure. It is possible, but not certain that other members of their extended families also made the Atlantic crossing. Their first child, Ellen was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1853. Next, Amelia was born in 1856, and John arrived nearly two years later, in November 1858.
Thomas was a laborer, and this caused the family to move frequently, as they followed the various employment opportunities that became available.
Perhaps the prospect of steady income induced Thomas to enlist in the Union Army in November 1861. He enlisted in the town of Lee,
as part of the Massachusetts 31st Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, and was mustered into service as part of Company I on 28 January 1862 at Camp Seward, in Pittsfield. Less than two weeks later, Thomas wrote the above letter. Soon after the letter was sent, the regiment was transferred to Camp Chase, in the town of Lowell. Once final training was completed, the men of the 31st embarked on ships that would take them to the war front. There were some delays, but Thomas, and his regiment eventually reached Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi on 23 March 1862.
Conditions at Fort Massachusetts were difficult for the soldiers for several reasons. When Thomas arrived, the fort was in an unfinished state, and the walls were only six to eight feet high. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers resumed construction, but was faced with several challenges. Construction materials had to be brought in from distant New England, and there was a shortage of skilled labor. In addition, the weather became a factor, and the summer heat caused health problems for many. The men of the 31st were stationed at Fort Massachusetts for about six weeks. During this time, Thomas
wrote the following letter to his wife Johanna:
Dear Wife I now set down to let you know that we arrived heir safe and sound I rote to you one Week before I started from Lowell but did not receive aney answer yet. When you answer this letter you will please let
me know how you and the children prosper We did not get any pay yet But hope to soon. I was very sick since last Sunday But ame geting Better now there was too large Worms come out of my moth and fore past me. We do not expect to stay hire longer than Sunday one next day When We intend
to go to the moth of the Mississippi Where We expect to do som fighting.
I have no more to say at present. Send my blessing to Pat Lhy and all the rest of the naybors.
I remain your beloving husband
Co I Rockwell. 31. Mass. Vol.
I sent this letter by Ben Donneley. Direct your letter to
T. Burnick 31 Reg. Mas Vol. Ship Island
NOTE: The reader will notice the difference in quality between the first letter and the second. It’s not clear if Thomas wrote one or both of the letters, or if another person wrote what Thomas dictated, but in either case it’s clear that his health had deteriorated significantly.
During the month of April 1862, Admiral David Farragut led an expedition up the Mississippi River to capture the city of New Orleans. The city was protected by two forts … Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, but the two garrisons surrendered on 28 April. The men of the 31st were then sent to New Orleans for guard and provost duty, and this was the first regiment to land there. Thomas was likely present with his company during the occupation of New Orleans, and when several companies of the 31st regiment were sent to Fort Pike in August 1862, Thomas was among the men who were transferred.
In spite of medical care at Fort Pike, Thomas’ condition worsened, eventually leading to his death on 4 September 1862. His service record states, “Cause – disease, with remark – homesickness.”
Weeks passed, then months. Johanna and the children waited in vain for a letter to arrive from husband and father. After being patient for a reasonable length of time, Johanna wrote to Army authorities. Eventually, the dreaded news arrived from New Orleans, in a letter dated 12 February 1864 …
Mrs. Burnick New Orleans La Feb.12/64
Yours of the 26th January is received and in reply it becomes my painful duty to tell you that your husband died at Fort Pike – the 4th of Sept 1862. Consequently has been dead over one year. He died very sudden dropping off his bed dead on the floor and never spoke. He was buried with military honors. We were paid up to the first of May, so there was four months and four days pay due him and his clothes were sold for $15. You had better go to Judge Porkwell in Pittsfield or to young Harding in Lee to get his bounty and back pay.
I wish I could do more for you but I cannot.
Apparently, an accidental oversight, compounded by numerous errors delayed the news of Thomas’ death, which did not reach his family for more than sixteen months. Although the letter states that he was buried with military honors, no gravesite has been located. There was a graveyard outside the fort, but a hurricane struck the coast in September 1869, and inundated the area with water. Much
of the graveyard was washed away, and even today, the area remains flooded. The federal government provided financial benefits to the children of soldiers who died while in active service. Johanna applied for these benefits on behalf of Amelia and John, and the necessary approvals were obtained. The family would receive $8.00 per month, and $2.00 per child monthly, until the children reached the age of sixteen.
Johannah later remarried and her children Amelia and John grew
to adulthood. Amelia eventually married Peter Michaels, my great-grandfather. The letters from Thomas were passed down through
the generations and I am privileged to be the current steward of these historic treasures. Other facts were obtained from Thomas’ military records on file at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Fort Pike still stands and is open to visitors. Nearly 200 years old, it was the first permanent or ‘third system’ fort built for the coastal defense of the United States.
The men and women who gave their lives in defense of our great nation should be known, remembered, and duly honored for their sacrifice. And let us also remember that the families of those lost
on far-away battlefields have suffered much as well. May God
bless each one with great comfort and peace.