Every Memorial Day weekend I make the short pilgrimage to Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg to pay my respects at the grave of Captain Charles Carroll Morey, 2nd Vermont Infantry. Reading Charlie’s correspondence with his family during the war fundamentally changed the way I approached my research and sharing his story was the feature of my first published article. Visiting him each year is the least I can do in return.
Charlie struggled with the transformation from citizen into soldier. He desperately yearned to be his family but only on his terms: after his work was accomplished. “I think I would enjoy being home very much if the war was ended and an honorable peace once more established but this little job must be accomplished first,” he wrote in his last letter to his mother on March 31, 1865. Charlie survived the initial Breakthrough assaults on the morning of April 2 but was mortally wounded on the outskirts of Petersburg that evening.
“It is with great pain to me that I take my pen to inform you of the death of your son,” wrote a fellow Vermont captain to Reuben Morey. “I was by his side when he fell. He was killed by a grape shot striking him in the right shoulder and breaking it badly. He lived about twenty minutes after he was hit. I stayed with him until he breathed his last. He never spoke after he was hit, but he recognized me for about a minute. I closed his eyes and saw him carried off the field by some of the men of his own company and they buried him with as much respect as possible. There was a chaplain with the men when he was buried and he made a prayer at his grave… his name written on a board and nailed on a tree by his head.” After the war, Morey’s body was re-interred at Poplar Grove National Cemetery and is the second one in from the entrance gate to greet visitors to the final resting place of the 6,718 casualties buried there.
I stopped by the graves of a few of Charlie’s comrades, whose stories I just recently discovered, including Corporal Henry Green Fillebrown of the 4th Vermont Infantry who was on furlough in April 1865, a temporary reward earned by having presented the most soldierly appearance of all non-commissioned officers in his regiment. During the war Henry sent half of his pay home to his elderly father James who was now too feeble to support himself. James had taught himself brick-making and traveled in between farming seasons to employ his trade to earn a living for his large family. Now it was Henry who traveled, going without a scratch for nearly four years during the war. He had an excuse from the fight on April 2, 1865, but had been with his regiment in its every engagement of the war, and would not permit it to go into battle without him. His peers regarded him as the best soldier in the company… he was its only casualty during the Breakthrough. His father James struggled to live off of Henry’s back pay until the paperwork for the pension was finally accepted.
“I think it is wrong for one who is able to do duty to stay away,” Charlie claimed in 1864 while frustrated by a wound that temporarily kept him from his unit. That sense of devotion perhaps explains why Henry refused to allow his comrades to fight without lending a hand. Violent deaths in combat would not exclude a soldier for his devotion. Instead, it often claimed those most persistent in their duty. It would neither spare a soldier because his loved ones needed him back home. Two granite markers in Virginia bore that witness for the Morey and Fillebrown families.