My Favorite Historical Person: Captain Sewell Gray

My Favorite Historical Person from the Civil War Era

Sewell Gray

Capt. Sewell Gray, 6th Maine Infantry

“Sabbath and a lovelier day never overtook a soldier,” wrote Capt. Sewell Gray on the day he died. It was Sunday, May 3, 1863, and Gray, a 22-year-old captain with the 6th Maine Infantry, was among 4,700 soldiers ordered to storm Marye’s Heights during the battle of Second Fredericksburg—a position previously thought impregnable. Gray tried scratching a few final lines in his diary as he awaited the assault.

“God strengthen our arms that we may be victorious,” he wrote. “If we fall God strengthen the bereaved.”

A typescript copy of Gray’s diary—which had never been published—found its way to the staff library at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. There, one day early in 2008, as my colleague and co-author Kris White was reorganizing the books, he came across Gray’s diary in a three-hole binder that had slipped behind one of the bookcases. After skimming a few pages, he called me up.

“This is gold, Jerry—gold!” Kris said, quoting one of his favorite Seinfield episodes.

Gray Diary pg2The tragedy of Gray’s last diary entry alone made the story compelling, but there was plenty more there to work with, too. Our mentor, Frank O’Reilly, had recently suggested that we try to write something for publication, and Kris thought this offered perfect material to work from. The more he read to me, the more I agreed.

Gray’s story spoke to me on a personal level, too, because he came from a place where I had spent much of my life. The men of the Sixth mustered into the army from Downeast Maine and the Penobscot Valley. Company “I” came from Old Town, where I attended high school for two years. I returned to the area to attend the University of Maine for graduate school. My father still lives in the area—has for nearly 45 years.

Gray’s hometown was Exeter, northwest of Bangor. He stood six feet tall and was blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and brown-haired. He listed his profession as “laborer.”

Gray enlisted on April 24, 1861, and on July 15, was mustered into service as a first sergeant for a three-year enlistment. By January 27, 1862, he had worked his way up to captain. “He is a man of strictly moral & temperate habits, of undoubted courage, a good disciplinarian, fine command well TRUSTED in the duties of an officer and universally beloved and respected by the officers and men of his company,” wrote one of his superior officers, Lt. Col. Charles H. Chandler.

On Sunday, March 1, 1863, while home on leave, Gray married his hometown sweetheart, Bodicea, “the object of my love and hope.” They would enjoy only days of matrimonial bliss before his return to the army.  Just two months and two days later, he would be dead—killed while charging Marye’s Heights. “As we reached the stone wall,” wrote regimental adjutant Charles Clark, “my old schoolmate, Captain Gray, of Company A, was shot and instantly killed.” Grape-shot hit Gray squarely in the chest.

The copy of Gray’s diary came to the park’s library through Larry and Ginny Hjalmarson, who lived in Texas. Gray’s wife, Boadicea, was the sister of Larry’s great-grandmother, Sarah Abigail Thompson. Kris and I began corresponding with Larry and Ginny and secured several wonderful images, including a picture of Gray and a picture of his diary.

Our article on Sewell Gray finally appeared in volume 7 of Fredericksburg History and Biography, published by the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust in 2008. This was the first piece Kris and I co-authored for publication, which did much to set us on the course that eventually led to Emerging Civil War and so much else. I also had the opportunity to present some of our research at a conference at the University of Maine that fall, which felt very much like bringing Sewell Gray “home.”

By this point, we’d come to think of him not as “Gray”—the common professional practice of referring to someone by their last name—but rather as “Sewell.” We’d spent a lot of time with him, and we felt like we knew him well. He wasn’t just a guy with a brilliantly sublime final diary entry—he’d become someone we liked.

In the top photo, Sewell Gray appears in the lower-left corner. He is surrounded by a room full of photos and names of the dead and wounded from the Fredericksburg-area battles.

After the publication of the article, I had one final opportunity to honor Sewell. Larry and Ginny donated a copy of Sewell’s picture to the park for inclusion in a permanent display in the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center that honored the dead and wounded from the area’s battles. I had the opportunity to write up a brief bio to accompany the photo. Larry and Ginny came from Texas to meet Kris and see the installation Sewell’s image in the exhibit.

I owe a lot to Sewell Gray. While I spend most of my time writing and talking about battles and leaders and mud and blood, Sewell taught me early on to remember that these were men, not just stories. They were guys just like me and Kris. And If I was going to tell their stories, it had to be for a higher purpose than just turning history into yet another form of consumable entertainment. Telling history is, among other things, a form of commemoration. It’s also an important tool for education.

I do what I do because of Sewell Gray and the 740,000+ guys who weren’t able to come home and share their own stories—guys who never lived to see “a lovelier day.”

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4 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: Captain Sewell Gray

  1. KSe says:

    Thank you! This resonates very deeply, as I feel the exact same way about the North Carolinians I research and write about – “getting to know” one soldier so well also led to publication in my case. And I, too, “do what I do because of [Jesse Barnes and Tom Martin] and the 740,000+ guys who weren’t able to come home and share their own stories—guys who never lived to see “a lovelier day.”

  2. Very touching! Puts a human dimension on this tragic conflict. Thanks for sharing. You enrich our lives. Good wishes.

  3. Charlie Downs says:

    Is there a copy of the transcribed diary on-line or has it been published? I would love to read it.

  4. Meg Groeling says:

    Lovely, Chris. Just lovely. These men and women add such dimension to our lives. I wish history could be taught so that everyone could clearly identify the threads that run from the past through the present and on into the future. That this connection to the past isn’t a part of all lives is tragic. I am so glad to know you folks!

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