In response to her husband’s reported death in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Capt. Theodore H. Parsons (1834-1863) wrote Sarah Brown the following letter. The letter was short and direct though not very sensitive to the no doubt shattered life of the fallen soldier’s widow.
Theodore volunteered as the 2nd Lieutenant of Co. C, 91st Pennsylvania Infantry on 21 September 1861. In less than five weeks he was promoted to the Captain of his company whom he led until he was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville on 3 May, 1863. He died of his wounds on 26 June 1863.
Capt. Parsons wrote the letter to Sarah (Christine) Brown, the widow of Sergeant William Henry Brown (1835-1862)—a wheelwright residing in Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward before the Civil War. Clearly she had heard of or read the account of her husband’s death that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 19 December 1862:
On Monday last [15 December], as Hon. John Covode, in company with a number of officers, was passing over the battle-field beyond Fredericksburg, their attention was called to a small dog lying by a corpse. Mr. Covode halted a few minutes to see if life was extinct. Raising the coat from the man’s face, he found him dead. The dog, looking wistfully up, ran to the dead man’s face and kissed his silent lips. Such devotion in a small dog was so singular that Mr. Covode examined some papers upon the body, and found it to be that of Sergeant W. H. Brown, Company C, Ninety-first Pennsylvania.
The dog was shivering with the cold, but refused to leave his master’s body, and as the coat was thrown over his face again he seemed very uneasy, and tried to get under it to the man’s face. He had, it seems, followed the regiment into battle, and stuck to his master, and when he fell remained with him, refusing to leave him or to eat anything. As the party returned an ambulance was carrying the corpse to a little grove of trees for interment, and the little dog following, the only mourner at that funeral, as the hero’s comrades had been called to some other point.
It’s difficult to reconcile John Covode’s account of Sergt. Brown’s death with that offered by Brown’s captain. There was a flag of truce on 15 December—the day Covode claims to have visited the battlefield with some Union officers—in order for Union troops to bury the Union dead remaining on the field. But perhaps the Congressman misinterpreted the notes he kept that day. If Capt. Parson’s account is to be believed, Sgt. Brown was still very much alive on the15th of December, though writhing in agony from his mortal wounds.
Serving with Sergt. Brown was his younger brother, Pvt. Conrad R. B. Brown (b. 1838) who enlisted on 2 November 1861. Conrad was wounded at Petersburg on 18 June 1864 and discharged on Surgeon’s Certificate on 29 December 1864 as a veteran.
Capt. Parson’s letter can be found in the Pension Office records (WC4959). It was offered as an exhibit to prove the death of her husband in order to merit a widow’s pension.
Camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia
December 23rd 1862
Mrs. Sarah Brown, Madam,
I received your letter of inquiry in regard to your husband William Henry [Brown] and I am sorry to inform you that he was mortally wounded on the 13th inst. and died from the effects of his wounds on the morning of the 16th. He was brought to this side of the river and had his leg amputated and had attention paid him until he was buried. I was present with him when he died and I think that death relieved him of a great deal of pain for he suffered untold agony from the time he was wounded.
He was struck by a shell which injured both legs and tore off part of his thigh. The account of his burial by the Hon. John Covode 1 is very near correct with the difference that it was not on the battlefield but three miles away that he died and I left Conrad and John Wright to bury him as I was ordered away with the company. His body can be sent home but we are all out of money. He will have to be embalmed and I would like to know whether you would like to have his body remain where it is until some of his relatives come for it or whether you will wait until the regiment is paid off when Conrad proposes to send him home. It will cost about $50 to get his body to Philadelphia. Conrad is safe. So is Harry McKane. 2
I remain yours &C., — Capt. T. H. Parsons, Co. C, 91st P. V.
1 Hon. John Covode was a member of Congress from Pennsylvania.
2 Henry (“Harry”) McKane (1824-1894) was a member of Co C, 91st Pennsylvania. He was wounded between the eyes at the Battle of Fredericksburg though Capt. Parson reports he was “safe.” Later in the war, Harry was detailed as a hospital nurse. He was discharged in August 1864.