The final journey of Captain Edward P. Lawton (part 2)

From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

Col. William W. Teall, who escorted Evelina Lawton across the Rappahannock

Evelina Lawton’s southbound journey from Alexandria with her husband’s corpse had a stunningly empty conclusion. After the train from Aquia Landing  pulled into Falmouth Station (where the Eagles Lodge now stands on Cool Spring Road), the train emptied, leaving her alone in the car with the coffin. Union colonel Teall, the fatherly looking son-in-law of General Sumner, arrived at the station expecting to find two other women bound for Confederate lines. Instead, he found Mrs. Lawton, alone, “attired in deep mourning.” He took her hand, which “she extended with such an air of sadness, even despair.” Teall called for the officer of the day, and soon Mrs. Lawton and the coffin were on the platform, with an honor guard over them. They shortly departed for the Phillips House, Sumner’s headquarters. “She seems so thankful and submissive,” Teall wrote that night. Captain Lawton’s coffin sat in an ambulance on the slope in front of Phillips house.

The Phillips House

It was too late to arrange for a crossing that day, so Teall made arrangements for the following morning–determined, he told his wife, to “place this sorrowing woman on her homeward journey with all the kindness and attention  I should hope you would received were you in her place.”

He summoned 20 men from the 10th New York Infantry, the National Zouaves, as an escort, and summoned an ambulance pulled by four white horses.

“After giving the order to proceed I took my seat beside her & this little procession moved slowly towards the river. She was entirely ignorant of the demonstration of respect to her husband’s remains,& as our ambulance turned into line & the escort moved solemnly with arms reversed to the music of 2 muffled drums her surprise was instant and complete. I saw the struggle.  She turned to me and said, ‘Col I needn’t tell you how gratified I feel’ & burst into tears. Oh! what a moment of anguish was this, of grief pure & intensified. It was more than I could bear & involuntarily gave way myself to the pressure of the mournful scene.”

Down the slope toward the river the procession slowly traveled, and as they came into view soldiers and civilians on the Fredericksburg side of the river rushed out to watch, lining the river bank (Teall had given the Confederates notice that Mrs. Lawton was coming). More lined the road on the Stafford (Union) side of the river. Right onto river road, to the upper crossing.

[In his letters, Teall describes several instances when dozens or even hundreds of soldiers and civilians turned out at the upper crossing site to witness the passage of civilians and prisoners back and forth. As Noel Harrison notes in his post on the upper crossing, it was likely one of these passages captured by the photograph below. Based on Teall’s description of the crossing of Mrs. Lawton, it seems unlikely this image is of the crossing on January 7, 1863, for Teall describes an even busier scene than is represented in the photo. Still, this photo conveys a strong sense of what was likely the scene that day.]

The upper crossing, with spectators–surely looking much as it did the day of Mrs. Lawton’s crossing.

Teall crossed first, with the coffin, falling short of the south bank because of low tide. Confederate soldiers rushed to bring boards to bridge the mud; they quickly produced two doors from one of the nearby houses. Teall returned for Mrs. Lawton. Zouaves placed boards to the boat, and holding onto Teall’s arm, she stepped in. The boat had no seat, so the two stood amidships arm in arm. As the boat pulled away, she turned to the Union soldiers onshore and said, “Soldiers, I thank you all.”

As they approached the Fredericksburg shore, “the crowd seemed instinctively to fall back” and Confederate general Joseph Kershaw stepped forward to meet Teall and Mrs. Lawton. “I beg Genl to commit this lady to yr tender care,” Teall said, and placed her arm on his. Kershaw thanked Teall for his “kind attention.” Teall took Mrs. Lawton’s hand. “Good by madam–God bless you.” She attempted to speak, but her “features and tearful eyes expressed more…and the gentle pressure of her hand told of the depth & intensity of her emotions.” Teall, oppressed with sadness, jumped into the boat and made his way to the north bank, ending what he called “one of the saddest scenes I have encountered since our arrival in the Valley of the Rappahannock.”

Not surprisingly, this episode received far less attention than the accusations of atrocities on both sides, but several newspapers did in fact note and comment upon it.  The Richmond Examiner correspondent in Fredericksburg called the scene “touching” and wrote that it was “no less grateful to our feelings than it was creditable to the magnanimity of our foe.” The New York Herald correspondent welcomed the contrast with past reports of atrocities, and he  hoped that a little Union magnanimity might go a long way among the Confederates: “May this feeling extend to all now in arms against the country that gave them birth–that nursed and protected them–and which they are now seeking to divide and destroy.”

Robertville Baptist Church, Jasper County, S.C., where Captain Lawton is buried.

Evelina Lawton travelled with her husband’s remains to Jasper County, South Carolina, where he was buried in the cemetery of Robertville Baptist Church (you can see pictures of his grave here). Evelina never remarried. With her three children, she moved to Charleston, where she opened a boarding house in her family home. She died in 1893.

We seem to be going through a period (with respect to Civil War historiography) where stories of this sort–Kirkland too–are at a discount. The theory goes that they feed the reconciliationist mania that gripped the nation in the postwar years and in the process caused collateral damage to the nation. But to dismiss such accounts is no more valid than asserting their primacy (as many did, and some still do). Instead, it seems to me, our great challenge as public historians is not to choose between Arabella Pettit’s rancor and William Teall’s magnanimity in order define the war. Rather we need to accept that the Civil War was both those things (and much more), in a complex, rich mixture that renders the war almost in-exhaustively interesting.

3 thoughts on “The final journey of Captain Edward P. Lawton (part 2)

  1. What a beautiful and haunting story. Thank you so much for sharing it. It brought to mind my visit to Belle Grove plantation at Cedar Creek, where Gen. Custer went to the bedside of his dying West Point classmate CSA Gen. Ramseur to grieve. It also recalls the extraordinary bereavement stay of Emilie Todd Helm at the White House following the death of her Confederate general husband. Indeed, the very fact that First Lady Mary Lincoln lost so many Confederate brothers/other relatives in the war illustrates how complex the conflict was. I can’t imagine now a sitting First Lady whose brothers are commanders in a war against our country. The amount of cognitive dissonance our ancestors had to endure during the Civil War is staggering to me.

    If I may share a story–I am a hospice nurse and took care of a 107 year old black woman who was born in 1892 of parents who had been slaves well into their teen years. Touching her was like reaching back in time, and helped me realize that the Civil War is not ancient history.

  2. John,
    Really appreciated the story. Accounts like this reminds us once again that wars are fought by human beings not just “numbers in armies”. Such a sad story. Reminds me of the stories of the families looking for their family members who died in one of the four battles and searching after the war in vain to identify their remains, only to be told that they were probably among the “unknown” in the cemetery.
    Thanks for the info.

  3. As a former Army wife–my proudest achievement, I might add–I remember giving samples of cheek-swabbed DNA in an effort to help build a military data base for all members of the military. It bothered me at first, that the government was asking for my most personal information, but then I thought about all the early wars where a soldier left home, and was never heard from again. There are so many tombs of “Unknowns” and now we have the technology to change that. When my son went into the Army, I knew my DNA was there for him, in case of–well, just in case. LET THERE NEVER AGAIN BE AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER. Let them all come back to honor, as Captain Lawton did.

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