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Remembering the fallen and their families

Losing one son in a war is tragic. Imagine the heartache of a mother and father losing four sons. How do they bear the sorrow? Such a story could be a work of fiction or from a far and distant place, but tragically, it happened to an ordinary family right here in Fredonia more than 150 years ago. Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who died while in service to our country, couldn’t be a more fitting time to tell their story as a reminder of what the day is about and to never forget our “yesterdays.” In this case, perhaps it is the mother who should receive a medal for the pain she had to endure.

Apthorp, George. Apthorp, James. Apthorp, Samuel. Apthorp, Thomas. Apthorp, William. These names couldn’t help but jump off the page while combing through lists of men from Chautauqua County who served during the Civil War. Could these men, all from the “Town of Pomfret,” be from the same family? Considering the small rural community it was, the haunting question begged to be answered. It had to be more than a coincidence.

A somewhat tedious and on-going search through census records, old Fredonia Censor newspapers on microfilm, various resources at the Barker Historical Museum, and the Pioneer Cemetery revealed that four of these men were brothers and the fifth most likely their cousin. All were killed in the war. Two are buried in the Pioneer cemetery near other family members, two at the site of a former Prisoner of War camp in North Carolina, and the other in Virginia.

Their story begins happily as they appear in the 1855 Census in the Town of Pomfret. A large family of eight children (William Jr., James, Henry, George, Samuel, Charles, Mary, Joseph) with parents William and Sarah, all but the youngest two were born in England. In the United States for nearly 10 years, William as well as the older boys were farmers.

By 1860, William Jr. had married Susan and had a child, Willie. James had married Mary and had a child, Lewis. Henry died in 1857. George still lived at home as did Joseph and Mary. Samuel was residing as a farmhand with another family in town.

There appeared to be one or two other Apthorp families in Pomfret during this time. These families likely came from the same area of England and had been living here for about 10 years; it was possible they were relatives.

As genealogical researchers know, it can get a bit hard to keep track of different families who also have similar first names, and such is the case with the Apthorp family. One of these had a son named Thomas who was also killed in the war.

Picture all four brothers enthusiastically enlisting together with several other young men from town, typical during this time. They were all mustered into Company I of the 112th NY Infantry Regiment in late August 1862 to serve three years. Known as the Chautauqua Regiment, they participated in many battles throughout the war with a total of nearly 450 casualties.

James Apthorp was the first son to die on Aug. 19, 1863; followed by William six months later on Feb. 17, 1864. James was sent home on sick leave in June, but died of dysentery (chronic diarrhea) at age 26. Many deaths during the war were the result of infection, poor hygiene, and unsanitary conditions within army camps. William also returned home on sick leave in November of 1863, but died three months later at age 28 from similar causes. Both young men left behind a wife, child, and their parents. Both are buried in the Pioneer Cemetery.

Samuel Apthorp was the third son to die less than a year later on Nov. 2, 1864. His brother George died just 11 days later on Nov. 13, 1864. They were both captured near Petersburg, Virginia on Aug. 25, 1864 and housed at the Salisbury Prisoner of War Camp in North Carolina.

As the war progressed and prisoner exchanges ended, POW camps became overcrowded. Salisbury was meant to hold 2,500 men. By fall 1864 when Samuel and George were there, the population bulged to 10,000. Terrible suffering from lack of food, lack of protection from the weather, and unsanitary conditions caused rampant disease and deaths. According to the Salisbury Confederate Prison Association, prisoners even had to try to seek shelter by digging burrows in the hard, red soil. Dead soldiers could no longer be buried in individual coffins, but were taken to the “dead house” to be counted and loaded into a wagon to be buried in mass grave trenches in a nearby abandoned cornfield. Now a national cemetery, there are 18 trenches, 240 feet long, with a head and foot stone for each trench. Their exact resting place is known only unto God. Samuel and George are not at home, but in Salisbury, N.C.

Thomas, the other Apthorp and possible cousin, enlisted in 1861, a year earlier than the others, and was mustered into Company I of the 49th NY Infantry Regiment. Also present in many battles, the regiment suffered about 430 casualties. Thomas was wounded in action at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia on May 12, 1864 and died of his wounds in one of the many makeshift hospitals in the Union-held city of Alexandria, Virginia on June 24 (or 23), 1864.

The story of this local “ordinary” family will continue to be told in more detail because it should not be forgotten and is part of our history. The details I have been able to fill in so far are due to the incredible resources at the Barker Museum and the expertise of Walt and Lisa Sedlmayer, who are more than willing to help visitors at the museum, their home away from home. The 4th edition of the book, “No One Forgets – Our Fallen Heroes of Chautauqua County” by George Burns III, will soon be out and include additional men from other wars.

Such tragic loss cannot be fully measured but surely include unfulfilled dreams and suffering to the families of the young men whose lives were cut short far too soon.

Make it a good week by remembering these people and planting some flowers at their graves. I plan to give some loving attention to the grave of Sarah, the mother who had to bury too many sons before their time.

Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Send comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com

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