A Rainy Day at Salem Church

Picture of the historian as a young photographer: Kris White at Salem Church

Kris and I spent a cold day in the rain today at Salem Church. We were out doing some research for an upcoming book we’ve been given the green light to write.

Union and Confederate forces swirled around Salem Church on May 3 and 4, 1863—an oft-overlooked part of the Chancellorsville campaign.

Unfortunately, not much remains of the Salem Church battlefield. Most of it has been lost to commercial development. We took some time to grab some pix, though. Here’s a quick look at Salem Church through our eyes:

The 23rd NJ monument at Salem Church (photo by CM)
Route 3 runs through the heart of the Salem Church battlefield (photo by CM)
The 23rd NJ had to oversee the loss of the battlefield (photo by KW)
Salem Church sits on 2.76 acres of land (photo by KW)
The church still bears the pockmarks of battle (photo by KW)
The bolts through the exterior walls help support the interior balconies (photo by CM)

23 Responses to A Rainy Day at Salem Church

  1. Thank you for this post. My 3rd G-Grandfather and Uncle both were in the 23rd NJ, Co A, also known as the ‘Yahoos’, which was boldly emblazoned on their regimental battle flag.
    My G-Grandfather was Pvt Joseph P Cliver, and has already been mustered out due to illness by the time of the Battle of Salem Church. However, his brother Pvt. John Cliver was still in the 23rd and was killed in action at Salem Church on May 3rd during the rebel push. He was 19 years old at the time and took a “Ball to the heart and died instantly” based on letters from his fellow soldiers.

    Now this is where documented history and pension files, etc., end. Family lore says that after the battle, that the 23rd, and the rest of the battalion retreated and moved quickly on leaving their dead behind. Again, according to family lore, the rebels did not bury the Union dead and had left them on the field where they lay. The town’s folk supposedly came out later in the week and buried the Union dead in a nearby unmarked mass grave, where they lay unknown today.

    His mother (Anne Cliver) requested and received a pension for her son. The pension files back up everything to the point of his death during the battle, but make no mention of his final disposition. I have been unable to find any record of his burial and it seems that family lore may be correct.

    An interesting point is that his mother had a hard time initially getting the pension as his name had been erroneously reported as John Oliver, rather than John Cliver. Seems the penmanship of the pension office caused the capital “C” in his last name looked a lot like an “O” in the paperwork. The pension file has a letter in it confirming the mistake and making the correction. I often wondered if he was reinterred under the wrong name and is buried somewhere as John Oliver. Though my research has not turned up a John Oliver either.

    Brian Mackay
    (Reenactor in the 97th PVI, Co B)

    1. Brian,

      There are accounts of both Union and Confederate soldiers burying the dead near Salem Church. There were many Union medical staffers captured at Salem Church. They worked side by side on the wounded,while some of the staffers assisted in burying the dead. One of the Confederate surgeons was actually related to Mary Todd Lincoln.

      Those who were buried on the field received rough head “stones” made from a nearby wooden fence. Later the Union dead exhumed and reburied in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery on Marye’s Heights.

      For such a short battle the Union losses were very high.

      Great story about your relatives!

      1. Kristopher,

        Thank you for that information, it has opened up a new chapter in my g-uncles story, and one that I can now add to my families documented CW history. As I learned very early in my researching years, family stories are usually colorful, compelling, heroic and sometimes even vengeful, but rarely accurate.

        I would like to think that he was amongst those given a proper soldiers burial on the field and later reburied at Fredericksburg. Although I may not have a grave to visit and memorialize, I do have his story and the sacrifice that he and so many others before and after him made.


  2. The Salem Church battlefield destruction actually has one positive aspect (a perverse positive, surely, but nonetheless, a positive….) which is that it is a powerful example of what our still existing battlefields may very well look like in the not too distant future if those of us who understand what these fields mean to our community and to our country don’t get up and get involved in their preservation.

    When you see the ground forever sanctified by the blood and bravery of Private Cliver and his companions (wearing both blue and gray), men who were willing to risk all for cause and comrade and country, men who paid the ultimate price because of that willingness to follow where their hearts led them, when you see that ground destroyed without a thought to its being sacred soil
    it should both sadden you and be a wake up call. It should make you mad.

    But don’t just get mad. Get active. Join and generously support your local battlefield organization, Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT), which is celebrating its 15th year of existence this year, having already saved over 900 acres of hallowed ground on all four of our major battlefields, and which continues to work hard and tirelessly to preserve more.

    Want to avoid more Salem Church-like destruction? Join us.

    Mike Stevens
    Centra Virginia Battlefields Trust
    (check us out at http://www.cvbt.org)

    (By the way, if you want to know more about CVBT, we have a 30 minute video, “On the Front Line,” we prepared in celebration of our 15th anniversary. The video tells who we are, what we’re about, why we do what we do, what we’ve accomplished and hope to accomplish, etc. It was written/produced/directed by CVBT’s Director of Communications, Tom Van Winkle, edited by Scott Eyestone, and narrated by Scott Walker. It’s well worth seeing, and if you want to know how to get a copy, contact us.)

    1. Excellent plug, Mike. You’re absolutely right: Salem Church is a case study in what not to do and a cautionary tale of what happens if people don’t get involved with preservation efforts. You guys do a tremendous job and a real service for us and for future generations.

  3. I believe one can still make out the “ledge” or “hedgerow” where the Confederate forces were positioned during the battle. True?

    I have been doing some research on Colonel Gustavus Washington Town, the 23-year old commander of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, part of David Russell’s brigade at Salem Church. His brother, Thomas Jefferson Town, was a 21-year old major in the same regiment. Both brothers were from Philadelphia. Colonel Town was shot through the heart and killed during the battle and Major Town was seriously wounded with a bullet to the hip, and resigned his commission in August 1863 due to disabilities.

    The 95th Pennsylvania was on the Federal right flank during the battle, a few hundred yards northeast of the church, and was opposed by Paul Semmes’s brigade of Georgians. The 95th suffered 156 casualties at the battle, including 23 dead, 113 wounded, and 20 missing. When visiting the battlefield today, we forget that the fighting extended for hundreds of yards north and south of Salem Church, battlefield lost to development today, but nonetheless hallowed ground and worth explorting.

    Colonel Washington’s remains were brought to West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson Town worked as a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service after the war and died in 1916, and is buried in Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia.

    1. Todd,

      Great info on the 95th. They have some great first hand accounts from the battle.

      Unfortunately the topography of the battlefield has been devastated. There is a small patch of woods in the rear of the church. The patch of woods is not in same place it stood during the battle. It helps to block the view shed as you look across the street at a bank, Arby’s Resturant, 7-11, etc… Part of the original road trace is still there, though very little of it.

      If you walk to the side of Route 3 and look east toward Fredericksburg you can see that you are on higher ground. Some of the veterans called the battle “Salem Heights.” As you look down Route 3 you will see a new church across the street, a few strip malls, two furniture stores, etc…

      George Pickett’s division cut earthworks behind Salem Church during the winter of ’62-’63. Some of Wilcox’s men used these works as the fought off the attack of the 121st NY, but those works are long gone. Also gone is Jone’s Woods and a small log school house that was there during the battle, among other buildings and landmarks.

      All that remains of the battlefield is the church and approximately 2.5 acres and a four monuments. (That number does not include the four small markers the 23rd NJ placed at the corner of its monument.)

      The area the 95th advanced across is covered today by a K-Mart, Checkers Restaurant, Church, and Strip mall.

  4. These descriptions of men who fought are so interesting–thanks to all who take the time to share them. Mr. Mackowski, can you tell us anything about the upcoming book?

      1. OK, we are all keenly awaiting any disclosures whenever they may be forthcoming! In the meantime, thank you for your informative and enjoyably readable posts. This one especially engaged me because I’ve just read a biography of Cadmus Wilcox about whom the author opined that Salem Church was his shining performance of the war. Hope to visit that spot sometime. It is helpful to view these photos and take in all of the accounts that everyone shared.

  5. My family certainly participated and gave their blood at Salem Church. My great-great uncle lost his life, leading his Co. F. 121st New York. In fact he was standing by Upton himself when killed. Also in that 121st were approximately 9, yes 9 nephews. I have been to Salm Church and it was a very emotional pilgramage for me.

    1. To add to my earlier post, Dr. Daniel Holt, surgeon of the 121st New York was captured that day and immediately put to work caring for both Yankees and Rebs in the yard and church proper. Had they bothered to search him they would have found considerable money on his person. He had been given money by the members of the 121st New York to get back to their loved ones in the event they did not survive. He was able to do this and I have documentation showing that he took over $200 back to my great-great grandmother.

      It was two or three days after the battle and the Rebs did bury the Yankee dead in a long trench very near the church. They needed clothihng and shoes, so they stripped the bodies. Later those bodies were taken to Fredericksburg and interred there, again in a mass grave.

      I have letters of family members that were there that day stating this information.

  6. Having had 13 relatives in the Battle of Salem Church, I have been there twice.

    Yes, those Union soldiers that were killed there were initially buried in a big pit, minus their clothing, as the Rebs needed clothes. After Fredericksburg National was opened those remains were taken and placed in a mass grave there. Prisoners were kept there for about 3 days before they were taken to Guinea Station, where they were transported to Richmond. Those Salem Church prisoners were at Guinea Station when Stonewall Jackson died.

    What I really find ironic about the Battle at Salem Church and the monument to the New Jersey regiment that was there. I can’t say exactly how many accounts I have read from diaries, letters, etc. stating that the New Jersey Regiment didn’t do much. How come I wonder if there that huge memorial to them and not to the other regiements, especially one that lost 62 % of theirs soldiers.

  7. My great-grandfather was wounded at Salem Church. He was carried off the field by his brother & another soldier. He was Benjamin Reeve Haines, born Aug. 29, 1841 in Pemberton, NJ. His brother was Aaron Wells Haines, born July 12, 1836, also in Pemberton, NJ. They were both volunteers with the 23rd NJ Infantry, aka the “Yahoos.” On Benjamin’s Muster-In Roll document, the “Remarks” states, “Promoted from 4th Sergeant Co. E to be 2nd Lieut Co I.”
    How I would love to find a photo of Benjamin!
    Nancy Peregrine

    1. Yes, I have also wondered about that New Jersey unit. I know that the New York men should have had some sort of recognition there.

  8. The 23rd was very active at the battle of Salem Church. In fact my GGG uncle George S Hullings, H company 23rd NJ Regiment was killed in action on May 3rd 1862 during the beginning stages of the battle, leading me to believe they were at the point of attack. The monument is there because veterans of this regiment felt it important enough to raise the money to install the monument. So one thought it important enough because it is the only monument erected to a 9 month regiment

  9. My 2nd great grandfather, Richard G. Shultz, Sr., served in the 95th Regiment that fought at Salem’s Church. He was shot in the leg and never gained use of it again. Thank you for sharing the photos.

  10. My ggg uncle Stephen Benjamin Ellington was a private in company A of Cobbs Legion, CSA and was killed May 3, 1863 in the Chancellorsville battle. Not sure if at Salem Church or elsewhere on the battlefield, but would love to know.

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