Saturday, July 2, 2011

Stranger

I have passed through Gray, Maine several times each year since 1988 and yet I have never stop to visit the village cemetery and the Civil War monument. The latter was erected at Gray Corner in May 1911 and dedicated on June 20th of that year. This summer the town is celebrating its centennial. The monument has been moved several times over the years as the traffic patterns changed, and it now stands across the street from the cemetery where 178 Union soldiers, and one lone unknown Confederate soldier, lie buried. This monument is significant because Gray sent proportionately more men to the Grand Army of the Republic than any other town in Maine, and the state of Maine sent more proportionately than any other New England state. Many of the units mustered throughout the state distinguished themselves in battle; perhaps none more than the 20th Maine Regiment commanded by Joshua Chamberlain who turned the tide of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Union’s favor. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor and returned home to Maine to become the president of Bowdoin College, and later Governor of Maine.

Near the center of the cemetery is the burial plot of the Colley family. Amos and Sarah operated a small farm on Colley Hill, not far from Gray Corner and its cemetery. In 1861 young men throughout the Union and the newly established Confederate States of America joined their separate ranks to go to war in a conflict that often pitted brother against brother. Amos and Sarah’s 28 year old son Charles left the farm and traveled down to Portland in October and mustered into the 10th Maine Volunteer Regiment for two years of military service. Following basic training Charles and his comrades-in-arms shipped down to Washington, DC and the battlefields that awaited them.

The Army of the Potomac was deployed into northern Virginia and the Department of the Shenendoah and the 10th Maine Volunteers tasted battle for the first time near Winchester, Virginia in the spring of 1862. Later that summer, Lieutenant Colley and his regiment were part of a Union advance into central Virginia under the command of Major General Nathaniel Beale. This Union force numbering approximately eight thousand troops encountered twenty thousand battle-tested Confederates commanded by Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson near Culpepper Courthouse on August 9, 1862 in what would later be known as the Battle of Cedar Mountain. When the smoke eventually lifted over the battlefield nearly 3500 brave men, casualties almost equally divided by the two foes, lay dead or wounded. The 10th Maine Volunteers lost nearly half its men at Cedar Mountain, and among the wounded was Lieutenant Charles Colley of Gray Corner, Maine.

Colley was evacuated to a field hospital in Alexandria, Virginia where he lingered for over a month before he died on September 20, 1862, just three days after the remnants of the 10th Maine Volunteers fought at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The War Department contacted Amos and Sarah to inform them of their son’s death and to inquire whether they wanted his body shipped home to Maine for burial. If so, they would be required to reimburse the government for embalming and freight costs. They agreed to pay and went about preparing for the funeral and burial of their son in the family plot. When the coffin arrived, the local undertaker opened it to confirm the identity and to allow the grieving parents one last look at their son. When he lifted the lid what he found was not Charles Colley but an unidentified body wearing a Confederate uniform. The error was brought to the attention of the War Department but there was no way to identify the body or to determine where it should have been shipped. Nor was there any explanation how it came to be shipped to Maine. Was the dead stranger also named Colley? No one will ever know.

Wondering what had become of their son, Amos and Sarah recognized that there were other parents mourning the death of their son who deserved a proper Christian burial. The unknown Confederate was laid to rest in the village cemetery and the Ladies of Gray, a group of mothers who had lost sons in the war, eventually arranged for a simple headstone to be placed on the grave with the inscription “Stranger: A Soldier of the Late War. Died 1862. Erected by the Ladies of Gray.” There was a rumor that a Union solider named Colley is buried in Gray, Georgia. If so, it is not Charles Colley. Shortly after the Confederate soldier was buried in the village cemetery, the body of Amos and Sarah’s son finally arrived home and he was buried in the family plot only a few paces from the Stranger.

Today the Stranger rests next to Johnson N. Smith who fought in the 27th Company of the Maine Volunteers in the Union Army. The graves of each Civil War veteran buried in the village cemetery is marked with a metallic star of Post 78 of the Grand Army of the Republic, and on Memorial Day a fresh American flag decorates each grave. The people of Gray likewise honored the memory of the Stranger; he was a brave lad who fought and died for his country. In 1956, someone in Alexandria, Virginia learned of the Stranger’s grave in Maine and sent a Confederate flag to be placed on his grave. Since then the Daughters of the Confederacy have sent a Confederate ensign to the town of Gray to fly over the Stranger’s grave and there is now a metallic shield to recognize him as a Confederate Army veteran. .

The names of each local boy from Gray who served in the Union army is etched into three side of the nearby Civil War monument, while the fourth side bears the simple inscription “To Perpetuate the Heroism and the Sacrifice of the Struggle 1861-1865.” The monument also pays homage to the lone unknown Confederate solider buried far from his southern home. The good people of Gray, Maine past and present have made him one of their own. The Stranger is a stranger only in the fact that we do not know who he is or where he came from. Just another American boy who died far too young.

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