The Civil War in Virginia was in its closing moments. As Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tried its last desperate attempts to break through the ever-tightening Federal cordon, the last men died.
One of those men was First Lieutenant Hiram Clark of Company G, 185th New York. Clark was 26 years old and had enlisted when the 185th was raised in Sept. 1864. He mustered in with his lieutenant’s rank in December of the same year.
On April 9, 1865, the 185th was one of two regiments making up Joshua Chamberlain’s brigade within the Fifth Corps. As Chamberlain’s men approached Appomattox Court House, skirmishers leading the way, the battle was already dying out. John B. Gordon’s Confederate corps, “fought to a frazzle,” withdrew from their attacks against the Federal cavalry and infantry.
Yet before fully giving up the field, a Confederate battery located near the Peers house, not far from the actual Appomattox Courthouse, fired their last shots of defiance—indeed their last shots of the war. Only about three hundred yards away, the New Yorkers could have seen the puff of dirty-white smoke followed by the loud report of the cannon. And then before anyone could really react, Hiram Clark was dead. He was, as one of his men wrote, “killed instantly, the shell passing through his body and afterwards taking off a foot of a member of the 198th Pennsylvania.” The enlisted man eulogized Clark as “an excellent officer, a perfect gentleman, highly respected by all who knew him, not only for his soldierly qualities but his genial spirit, never dampened—and his kindness to and care for those under his immediate command.”
Even Clark’s brigade commander, Joshua Chamberlain, wrote of the slain officer. Remarking that the officer’s death was “not a strange thing for war,” Chamberlain nonetheless said, “it seemed a cruel fate for one so deserving to share in his country’s joy.” Perhaps of an even crueler fate was the fact that Clark was the 185th’s sole casualty in the battle.
This post is not meant to narrate the “last” casualty from the Army of the Potomac. There are plenty of possible candidates for the title, and it would be arbitrary to try and delineate one particular death as the last one—an unnecessary bit of trivia in the much-larger setting of the devastating war. Chamberlain wrote that, “It has been claimed that the last man killed in the Appomattox lines belonged to the Army of the James. That may possibly be so… The honor of this last death is not the proper subject of quarrel.”
The “proper subject” was within the sense that Hiram Clark, and others killed at Appomattox, fell in the final moments of the Eastern Theater’s war—they were the last in a list that at some points seemed like it would never end. But it did end. Grant and Lee would soon meet in McLean’s parlor, and though the war was not over yet—there were still tenacious Confederates in the field, the nation was one step closer to Lincoln’s promise of “a new birth of freedom.”