1863: David Wills to Rev. Robert Fleming Wilson

Attorney David Wills of Gettysburg & his letter of 24 July 1863

The following remarkable letter was penned by Gettysburg Attorney David Wills on 26 July 1863 to Rev. Robert Fleming Wilson (1825-1905), a Presbyterian Minister of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, responding to Wilson’s request for information on how to recover some of the dead of the New York Excelsior Brigade, and informing him of plans to establish a soldier’s cemetery at Gettysburg. Composed just three weeks after the battle, this rare previously unpublished letter was written by Wills on the same day that he wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin outlining his proposal for a Soldiers’ Cemetery—a proposal that Wills soon implemented with the Governor’s approval.

This letter is from the personal archives of Charles T. Joyce who authorized me to publish it on Spared & Shared. He also shared with me his belief that Rev. Wilson must have been enquiring about the following members of the Excelsior Brigade.  Co. E of the 70th New York Infantry (1st Excelsior Regiment) was recruited largely in Pittsburgh.   According to Travis W. Busey & John W. Busey (B&B), Union Casualties at Gettysburg, there were four killed in action in Co. E that hailed from there (also, one mortally wounded, but he didn’t die until August 18, at the Newton Hospital in Baltimore).  The four were:  1st Sgt. Samuel Croft, Corporal Matthew McGraw, and Privates William Brookmeyer and James Montgomery.  Of these, there’s no information as to where Croft is buried (Charles suspects he was disinterred and buried somewhere at home). McGraw was buried first in the Catholic Cemetery in Gettysburg, and then re-interred at Evergreen. Brookmeyer was listed as wounded and missing, with no record of what happened to him thereafter; B&B states he was “probably killed.”  Only James Montgomery definitively made it into the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg.  He’s buried in Row B, Plot 128 of the New York Section.


Gettysburg [Pennsylvania]
July 24th 1863

Rev. R. F. Wilson
Dear Sir,

Your favor of the 21st inst. is at hand. The Excelsior Brigade was raised as a New York Brigade. It is only a list of the Penna. Vol. Regiments, dead & wounded, that I have made by order of the Governor. The Act of Assembly only applies to the Penna. Volunteers. Those enlisting in regiments of other states do not come within the provisions of the law furnishing transportation, &c. However, if I knew of the locality of the graves of your friends, I would give you the desired information. Dr. Dimond 1 is here preparing a map of the locality of the graves of New York Regiments & I presume he could in a few days give you the locality. I presume there will be no trouble in finding the graves. I think, however, that you had better advise allowing the bodies to remain undisturbed for a month or two. There will be an arrangement made for a general cemetery for the burial of all the dead now on the fields with appropriate head markers, &c. Yours &c. — David Wills

1 Dr. Theodore Dimon was the youngest member of the Yale graduating class of 1835. Receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1838, he then set up practices first in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and later in Utica, New York. In 1841 he married Sarah Watson Williams, daughter of a Utica magistrate. Two of three sons were born in that city before Dr. Dimon moved to Auburn, New York, to become resident physician at the Auburn State Prison, where, with the exception of three years spent in the California gold fields, he remained until the outbreak of war. In April 1861, the 45 year-old doctor volunteered as surgeon in the 19th New York Infantry (which later became the 3rd New York Artillery). He served with the unit in North Carolina through June 1862, when he was transferred to the 2nd Maryland, where he served through the campaigns of Second Manassas, Chantilly, South Mountain, and Sharpsburg. In October 1862, he rejoined his New York battery. He was mustered out of service shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, yet he answered the call for physicians and spent weeks caring for the human debris of that three-day engagement. A lack of suitable burial places for the dead moved Dr. Dimon to suggest a soldiers’ cemetery for New York troops at Gettysburg; with the aid of several officers and government officials, he obtained approval of the undertaking from Governors Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania and Horatio Seymour of New York. He then acted as volunteer agent in the Relief Service until the end of the war. [see A Federal Surgeon at Sharpsburg, by James I. Robertson, Jr., The Kent Sate University Press]

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