Murder in Fredericksburg: The Legacy of a Tragedy (Part 4)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the fourth and final in a series exploring the details of the death of German shopkeeper Charles Miller’s brother George after an exchange in Charles’ shop with four Union soldiers on their way home from war in May 1865. The previous posts can be found here: Part One, A Darkness on Commerce St.; Part 2, Suspects and Scapegoats; and Part 3, Doctor Galland Takes the Stand.

Four soldiers of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, stood trial in late May and early June on charges of murdering a citizen of Fredericksburg. Beginning on June 1, 1865, a court martial convened to hear the case of Private William Irvin, Co. D, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Private Amos Fielding, Co. E, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers brought up on the charge that they did, “maliciously and unlawfully take the life of George Miller a Citizen of the City of Fredericksburg, Va.” Both pled not guilty.

The next trial convened just two days later, charging Private James Lynch, Co. A, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers that he did, “unlawfully and maliciously aid and abet in taking the life of George Miller.” A fourth soldier, Private John Wilson, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was brought to both trials, but charges were not specified against him.

A standout among the other witnesses, Doctor Galland, an African American camp servant and cook, offered pivotal testimony. His words refuted James Lynch’s testimony against John Wilson and identified Lynch as a suspicious individual along with the other men. The resulting verdict demonstrated that the courts gave validity to Galland’s testimony over Lynch’s—a remarkable decision in itself, to trust a black man’s word over a white man’s.

Modern view of tan historic building with two doors at a corner, one opening to Liberty Street and the other to William Street.

Modern view of Charles Miller’s shop at 600 Commerce Street (William Street). The brothers exited the door to the left, walked past where today stands the “Do Not Enter” sign, and continued down Commerce Street toward the river in search of a provost guard. Brick-wielding Union soldiers attacked them halfway through the next block. George Miller was found injured just 25 steps from the front door of his brother’s shop.

Irvin, Fielding, and Lynch were all found guilty not of murder, but of manslaughter, recognizing that Miller’s death was not premeditated. Wilson alone escaped with a “not guilty” ruling.

All three soldiers were sentenced to three years of hard labor and “confined to solitary confinement on Bread & water during the first ten days of each month of the first year.” All three of the guilty soldiers also suffered “loss of all pay or allowances due or to become due him from the United States,” presumably including a future pension.

For reasons unknown, Amos Fielding’s sentence was remitted in November of 1865, and he was sent back to Harrisburg to be mustered out and given discharge papers.

In the aftermath of George’s death, word spread through the Union army, causing at least one soldier to remark on a slight stir in the army’s ranks. Private Stephen W. Gordon, 15th New Jersey Infantry, wrote in a May 29, 1865 diary entry: “There was about two thousand of our Corps straggled ahead and got in the town. Some of them murdered a Merchant of the town. They was all arrested and sent to Washington.”

Pencil handwriting on lined diary paper.

Private Stephen W. Gordon’s diary entry for May 29, 1865, noting that men had been arrested for having “murdered a merchant of the town.” Gordon incorrectly adds that the suspects had been sent to Washington, but the courts martial tried the men in Fredericksburg.

The Fredericksburg Ledger alerted the Fredericksburg community of the news and lamented George Miller’s death, writing, “Mr. Miller has been residing here for several years, and was regarded as a peaceable and quiet citizen.”

Beyond his legacy as a “peaceable and quiet citizen,” George Miller left behind a wife and several children. His death was recollected in public memory as recently as 1987, in a Fredericksburg Times article. The article incorrectly stated that his death came after he and his wife and five children huddled in the basement of Charles’ shop during the 1862 bombardment of Fredericksburg. The recounted story claimed that he was struck by Union soldiers throwing bricks in the streets before the battle in December 1862. Though the family’s memory falsely associated George’s death with the Battle of Fredericksburg, it is worth noting that 122 years later, they still connected his fate to bricks in the hands of Union soldiers.

Interestingly, none of the newspaper articles or Gordon’s diary entry regarding the murder offered commentary on the conduct of Union soldiers or the army at large.

Turn of the century black and white photo of Charles Miller's shop at 600 Commerce Street. View shows man sitting on a barrel on the curb with several men standing behind. A horse and cart wait at the corner.

As shown by the sign reading “Groceries and Liquors,” Charles Miller’s shop continued its use as a grocery store through the turn of the century. It was operated as a store for many years by the Bode family, and is today an Italian restaurant, Primavera Pizzeria & Grill.

In the years following the incident, Fredericksburg’s 1870 census shows 38-year-old Charles Miller, his wife Catherine, and their six children. Charles had listed his place of birth as Hanover, Prussia, and another family of Millers also lived in Fredericksburg, headed by 44-year-old Sophia, with four children, all born in Hanover, Germany. Connected by last name, proximity of age, and birthplace, it is likely that this was George’s family, still living in Fredericksburg. One son was also named George, then 15 and working in a woolen mill.

By 1880, widowed Sophia and son George moved to Baltimore and were living with daughter Henrietta and her family. Sophia later became a boarder in Baltimore and died in 1903. She never remarried.

In the tragic events of May 25, 1865, we see the legacy of the dark underbelly of war. The four soldiers were out on the town, perhaps relaxing and celebrating their return home when some of them crossed the line.

Perhaps the soldiers felt entitled to a treat after surviving the war, or perhaps their war-weariness clouded their ability to cope with southern civilians. Perhaps the men had fallen prey to common prejudices of the times against immigrants or individuals with German backgrounds. Perhaps seeing the Miller brothers strike out for a provost guard threatened their approaching freedom from the army, and they panicked.

Whatever caused the men’s reactions, a cheerful homecoming for three soldiers and the Miller family’s future were both shattered in a few fateful moments. George’s family never saw him come home that night, and no one planted Charles Miller’s lot the next day.

A murder was not a promising entrance to postwar life in Fredericksburg or across the occupied South. The soldiers’ treatment of Doctor Galland spoke further volumes, both about their character and the future of the nation at large. Doctor Galland’s courage in taking the stand to represent the truth demonstrated a measure of hope in the dark trial. The war was over, but it would be a long and difficult peace.

The prevailing darkness on May 25, 1865, was more than an environmental factor.

 

Special thanks to Noel Harrison, Luisa Dispenzirie, and Eric Mink for research assistance and source material for this post in particular and throughout this series.

Sources: Charges and sentencing: 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; “Findings of the Military Commission,” New Era (Fredericksburg, Va.), July 14, 1865. Army Reaction: Gordon, Stephen W., diary entry for May 29, 1865, in FRSP collection. Community’s Reaction and Memory: “Murder Committed—A Citizen Killed—Detectives on the Track of the Murderers,” Fredericksburg Ledger, May 26, 1865; “‘Times’ Building Reflects Heritage of Liberty Town,” Fredericksburg Times, September 1987.

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6 thoughts on “Murder in Fredericksburg: The Legacy of a Tragedy (Part 4)

  1. I look forward to these articles and read them through. HOWEVER, I cannot spend much time on the computer due to an eye condition that makes reading from the monitor painful. I wish I could print out these articles, but can only get the first part to print. What gives?

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the definition of “murder” as applied to wartime. Is taking a life always murder? Or is that law suspended during war? In peacetime a cold blooded killer is someone who plans and carefully executes someone; so does that that mean a Sharpshooter is a murderer? I understand the the murder of George Miller falls outside of these musings in that 1) he was a civilian 2) his murder didn’t happen during wartime.
    Lots of gray areas here. I wonder how many civilians were killed during the war by soldiers who were never reprimanded. Hundreds, I imagine.

    • Some soldier’s wrote that they considered sharpshooters, who prowled the lines looking for a hapless victim, murderers and even rejoiced when one was killed, regardless of who’s side he was on. It was especially heinous for a sharpshooter to kill a man when he was “answering” the call of nature. All war is government sanctioned murder.

  3. Great series, Beth. For many, the span of 150 years seems so very long ago. These articles add a human element, even insofar as a murder, that reminds us those times and their inhabitants are not so very far away. Thanks for your research.

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