Shortly after 3 p.m. September 15th 1861, shots rang out from across the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry, and private John L. Spencer fell dead from his horse. The other six men in his scouting party jumped from their horses and took cover in the water on the banks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Lt David L. Brown commanded the squad. They fired back at the concealed Confederates until their ammunition ran out. They used up Spencer’s ammunition too. Enemy fire kept them pinned down for 2 1/2 hours.
Spencer was the only Union death in the engagement along the river that day, known as ‘Pritchard’s Mill” but he was the first man in the 13th Mass. Regiment killed by enemy fire. His death was keenly felt.
Moses Palmer, who organized the company, kept the bullet that killed Spencer and his family has it to this day.
“This is the ball that killed John L. Spencer of Co. “I” 13th Regt. Mass. Vols. Spencer was shot on the tow path of the Canal near Sandy Hook, Md. and was shot by the Rebels from the Harpers Ferry side of the River Potomac -- first man killed in the Regt. His body was sent to Marlboro. The ball passed through his body killing him instantly.” M. P. Palmer, Comdg Co “I”
It was still early in the war, and there was time to reflect on the death of a soldier.
A letter describes the funeral service held for Spencer two days later by Co’s. I & K, the two companies of the 13th Mass detached at Harper’s Ferry:
Harpers Ferry Lock Sept 17th 1861
I have rote you two letters this week and now I will write you another in My last I told you that one of Com. I Men had bin killed and now I will tell you of his funeral the Orderly Sargent Kimbal came into our Mess room yesterday Morning and wanted 12 Men to go as Berriers to the Funeral and Fly and Myself and 10 others went we went without our Equipments then we went into the room and placed the coffin or rather a box on two barells the American Flag was wrapped around the coffin the coffin was made of rough boards
And he had one of our New Winter under Coats on and pants and Stockings and green leaves at the head of the coffin and a bunch of snow balls on his breast after we fetched him out and placed him on the Barrells then the Company made there Apperance Comp I of which he was a Member . they had there Guns and Equipments on they fell in front of the Coffin and then Capt Blackmer came out and Spoke to them and us telling them that there was some thing Singular about this Mans death only the Night before he was up all Night with the Man that Shot himself accidentally and did not leave his side all Night and then to think he was the first one to be shot dead the
Next day but he said it was glorious to die in such a noble cause and at his Post he said who will be called next God only knows he said we had bin verry Lucky about Loosing our Men since we Started the man stood the first Man in the ranks of his company in the lines
Then he offered a prayer and then we started for Sandy Hook a distance of two Miles and we carried him all the way 6 of us would carry him and then 6 more when they got tired, we carried him in the Midle of the ranks and the Company on each side the two drummers had there drums Muffled and drapped in Mourning and they played all the way and when we got there we sat
The coffin down and the Company came up and fired 3 rounds over the coffin some 300 Shotts and then we placed him in the cars and left there Sargent with him to go to Massachusetts Marlboro Mass his Father Living in New York State somewhere but they didn’t Know where and so they were goin to take him there to the Man that he used to work for and then we came back but the Minister said perhappse this mans was [when? It? came? bravest? because?] that Such a hour as we think not we may be taken Mother I am on guard to day and it is most time to go out and relieve My Man I am on the Post with Mr. Joseph Fairbanks today but I must close
I am all right and [page torn] some and Tough as a nut(?) but I must close Good bye Love to All
The letter describing Spencer’s funeral is written by my Great Great Grandfather, William Henry Forbush of Company K. Until I purchased it on ebay two weeks ago I had no idea it existed.
To be continued.