Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Four)

This is the last of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C, 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg in July, 1863. Part Three, on Billings' death at the Fifth Corps Hospital, may be found here.

At last receiving word that her husband had been wounded, Ellen hastily made preparations for the long journey to Gettysburg. Daughters Isadore, then thirteen, and Lizzie, three, were sent to live with family while she was away. The trip itself took a minimum of four days [1]. Accompanied by Billing's brother John, Ellen travelled in the cramped, hot quarters of the railway cars, her mood swinging between hope and dread in the face of the unknown.

Arriving exhausted in the early evening of July 15th, having had little sleep, she waited at the boarding house while John rode out to the Christian Commission camp at the Fifth Corps hospital. The stench of the battlefield was still thick in the humid air. The town's residents had long since closed their windows despite the summer heat, in a vain attempt to shut out the sickeningly sweet odor of decomposition and decay.

Late at night, John returned with a clergyman dressed in black. The Rev. Parvin spoke words of the Captain's death earlier that morning and sought to console Ellen. The chaplain conveyed Billing's last message and delivered the mementos that the Captain had left with him. She spent another sleepless night. The next day, they went to the embalmer's and made arrangements for the Captain's body to be sent home. They returned to Clinton and, alongside his daughter Alice, Charles was buried in the cemetery by the Sebasticook River.

Having no letters that were exchanged between Charles and Ellen, we can only imagine their content and tone. In his letter to his father of May 31, Billings wrote that he depended on him to write news "on matters of interest" about home, as Ellen was "not much of a hand to write news outside of the family." That she was concerned primarily about domestic matters is not surprising, given the hard work of caring for her two daughters and keeping a home. She had little time, whether she was so inclined or not, to see much beyond the immediate tasks of the everyday. Perhaps Charles' letters to her were softer in tone than those to his father, given less to flights of patriotic rhetoric and matters of business back home. His closing words to his father on May 31 suggest an affectionate man: "Share love with the family."

During the course of the Civil War, hundreds of families travelled to the front in search of loved ones. Presumably, some of those were women and, as was the custom of the day, they were properly accompanied by men. And yet we can't help but admire the courage, devotion, and sheer physical stamina that Ellen evidenced in traveling so far from home. We may imagine it likely that, in her thirty-one years, she had never left the state prior to July, 1863.

In his talk to the meeting of the Christian Commission in February, 1864, about his ministrations to Captain Billings at the Fifth Corps Hospital, the Rev. Parvin painted a classic picture of the Good Death colored, as it was, by the Victorian and Protestant piety of the time. That Billings was at least a conventionally religious man, there can be no doubt. Duty to one's God and to one's country were cornerstones of mid-nineteenth masculine identity, the two often conflated and seen as one: "I have tried to serve him in the army, and he will not forsake me now." We may safely assume that he took comfort from the prayers of the chaplain. 

As he lay dying, Billing's acknowledged a consciousness of his fate and his willingness to accept it: "I have no fears." He showed signs of belief in God and in the promise of salvation: "My hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ." And, by way of a message conveyed to the chaplain, he uttered those "life-defining" last words to Ellen. Furthermore, he left his knapsack, sword, and other mementos behind to sustain a link, even in death, with his beloved wife.

Amid horrendous conditions and in the face of  Billings' slow, painful death, Parvin sought to construct a narrative of a Good Death that would make meaning out of unbearable suffering. In so doing, he exalted the sacrifice made by Billings and did his part in redeeming the otherwise meaningless slaughter of the battlefield. Although he may have omitted some of the hard circumstances of the Captain's death, we cannot fault the chaplain for seeking to strengthen the "home-link" by throwing out a life-line between the unutterably horrific world of battle and the familiar and known world at home. Late on the night of the 15th, as a means of offering her hope and reassurance, he no doubt conveyed the substance of that narrative to Ellen.

In December, a mere five months after her father's death in Gettysburg, three-year old Lizzie died. Ellen's grief was compounded. Late in July, she had applied for a soldier's pension from the US government. Due to there being no official record of her marriage to Charles on file in the town office at Clinton, it was not until almost a year later, in June, 1864--and after the justice of the peace who officiated at the ceremony in 1849 was located in Baltimore, Maryland--that she was finally awarded a pension of $20 dollars a month. Presumably, her pension was retroactive to the date of Charles' death the previous July. Billing's father, Abijah, coping with an unwieldy bureaucracy, had worked tirelessly for months as an advocate for his daughter-in-law in securing the needed documentation.

On September 25, 1883, a group of Clinton Civil War veterans voted to name a new post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Billing's honor. Years later, on May 18, 1912, through the efforts of the Billings Women's Relief Corps who raised a "mile of pennies," a Civil War monument was erected and suitably dedicated. At that time, Ellen was the sole surviving member of the Billings family, her daughter Isadore having died in 1887.

Ellen Hunter Billings died on April 6, 1924 in Lancaster, New Hampshire at age ninety. She remained a widow, having not married again after her husband's death. Her body was brought home to Maine and buried alongside that of her husband Charles and their daughters Alice and Lizzie in Riverview Cemetery. A government form records that her last pension payment of $30 was received on April 4. She was dropped from the roll on May 8th.

[1] Information on train schedules and routes, Augusta, ME to Gettysburg, PA, provided by the National Railway Historical Society.

(I am indebted to Mr. Buddy Frost, President of the Clinton Historical Society, for sending me transcripts of the two Billings letters. He also generously provided vital family records of the Billings family. Pension information came from the Billings pension file at the National Archives in Washington, DC.)  da5wx8p7zf

Photo Credit: David S. Heald. The Billings Plot, Riverview Cemetery, Clinton, Maine. The graves of Charles, Ellen, Alice, and Lizzie respectively, are to the right of the obelisk. The obelisk records the dates of Billings wounding and death at Gettysburg, as well as Ellen's death.


Geoff said...

Thanks for this series on Billings, Dave. On one level, it's a dimension of the Civil War, and of Gettysburg in particular, that we rarely see and don't hear enough about. If suffering is given to us to point us in the right direction, then passing over that suffering in the report of any war is a diservice to succeeding generations. Then again, how much can we listen to?

On another level, of course, the series honors the memory of Charles AND Ellen. Strange to be hearing about wives collecting the dead and wounded on a battlefield...

Thanks again. Great stuff.

David Heald said...

Thank you. Yes, it's meant to be a tribute to both Charles and Ellen. Maybe even especially Ellen--her courage, her determination, her suffering...

Rebecca said...

I enjoyed reading through your series on Captain Billings. Stories like these are what makes the Civil War real to me. They remind me that real people really fought and died. They're not just statistics.

David Heald said...

Thanks very much, Rebecca!

Carolyn Heald Miyasaki said...

Thank you for the series on the Billings couple. I love reading ANYTHING about the civil war, but it is the personal tragedies that make it more real to most of us. Was doing research on "Heald" and came across your blog. I'm glad someone else with "our name" is interested in our past.