From Beth Parnicza:
It was a dark night. By all accounts, the darkness that fell in Fredericksburg on May 25, 1865 was remarkable, obscuring the events and identities associated with a fateful occurrence. In the streets of “Liberty Town” just west of downtown Fredericksburg, one man said he could only see six steps in front of him.
As the church bells tolled 9:00 p.m., 25-year-old August Ebert sat in the darkness beside a “colored boy” on the pavement outside Charles Miller’s store at the corner of Commerce Street (modern William Street) and Liberty Street and watched four Union soldiers enter his sometime employer’s shop. First one pushed open the door and walked inside, then three more arrived soon afterward.
Inside the shop, a typical Thursday night scene played out. Charles Miller’s older brother George had walked in earlier, remarking that if the weather was good, he would plant Charles’ lot the next morning. Mr. Louis Kruger, a Baltimore resident who helped Charles mind the shop, walked into the store proper from a next door room just after the soldiers entered.
Charles attended the soldiers who quietly gathered in the store. The first man asked for a quart of cherries; the three who joined sat at the counter and ate with him. Another soldier called for a round of cigars, which Charles distributed. When they finished the cherries, a soldier asked for an orange apiece, and Mr. Kruger obliged.
The first soldier stated the price for the fare: 50 cents. Charles objected; the price for all the goods was 70 cents. The soldier disagreed. He was only prepared to pay for the cherries and oranges, which totaled to 50 cents, leaving the cigars to his friends’ responsibility. When Charles agreed, it seemed the matter was settled as the soldier reached to pay for the goods.
Drawing his hand back from his pocket, the soldier changed his mind, declaring, “Oh well, charge it to Uncle Sam!”
“Uncle Sam had nothing to do with that. That thing was played out, whoever calls for an article must pay for it himself!” the shopkeeper rejoined.
Two of the soldiers had made an exit during the conversation. The others started for the door. George Miller asked his brother in German if they should hold the men until they paid for the articles, but Charles responded in German, “Never mind. Let them alone. I do not want to interfere with them.” Charles later said that he did not want any trouble.
Charles went for his coat and walked out saying in German, “I will see about it, whether Uncle Sam pays for them articles or not.” George said that he would go along on his way home as Charles sought a guard. Mr. Kruger stood in the shop’s doorway as he, Mr. Ebert, and the young, unknown boy watched the brothers disappear into the darkness.
A relative calm ensued for several minutes until August Ebert heard a cry in the night. He described it as a groaning “hallo,” and with his young companion and Mr. Kruger, August struck out down Commerce Street to find its source.
About 25 steps down Commerce Street, George Miller supported himself with his hands on the brick Masonic Cemetery wall, crying out to the darkness. When he saw a friendly face, he called out, “Mr. Kruger, oh help me in the house!”
The two men brought him into the house portion of the store, laid him on the floor face down, put a bag under his head, washed the blood off the back of his head and cut his hair away from his wound. He had a cut on the back of his head but was so hurt that he believed himself shot. George declared that he was willing to die because he thought that he was hurt too badly to live and keep his senses.
Charles returned with a guard to find his brother suffering from his wound. As he went back out into the streets, a lieutenant approached him and asked if he wanted a doctor. Charles pled for him to find a doctor to see to his brother. A short time later, Dr. E. F. Dodge, assistant surgeon to the 19th Wisconsin Volunteers, arrived to examine George and dressed and sutured his wound. The doctor left when he finished, intending to check in again the next morning.
Between one and two o’clock in the morning as Charles sat up with his brother, he found George unresponsive. Touching his brother’s hands, he noticed they were cold. His feet and face were, as well. Though his body was a bit warm, they sent for the doctor, who confirmed their fears. George had died.
Louis Kruger found George’s cap on Commerce Street in the next morning’s light, a silent witness to the evening’s tragedy.
The investigation began immediately the next morning as the provost guard sought to identify the four soldiers who had entered Charles Miller’s store the night before. The resulting court martial would shed some light on the incident and the individuals involved, but countless questions lingered in its wake. What act had the darkness of May 25 concealed?
Follow up posts will use court martial proceedings and other evidence to pull together the events and repercussions from the night of May 25, 1865.
Sources: Court Martial for William Irvin, John Wilson, and Amos Fielding, May 28, 1865, NARA File #mm-3131; Court Martial for James Lynch and John Wilson, NARA File: oo-926
Special thanks to Sean Maroney and Lori Syner at Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., Noel Harrison, and Eric Mink for research assistance.