The family of a Confederate colonel killed at Gettysburg learned that the dead must sometimes remain truly and forever lost.
Every soldier must face the possibility of his own demise, knowing that troops must often sacrifice themselves for their cause. After three days of fighting at Gettys burg, more than 7,600 dead littered the region, a scale of carnage unprecedented in American history. Many families gained some consolation by recovering their relatives’ remains after what one Union officer called the “carnival of death.” But for thousands of families North and South, it took years to discover what had happened to their fathers, husbands and brothers in Pennsylvania. For some, the dead were forever lost.
Most of the remains were buried where they had fallen. Soon after the killing stopped, one could see in every direction an endless profusion of mounded graves rising out of the flat fields surrounding the town. One young boy recalled that near a long trench with fresh earth was an inscription in pencil on a blazed tree: “Forty Rebs buried to the right.”
Colonel John Augustus Jones, commander of the 20th Georgia Infantry, was one of the Confederate soldiers buried in such a crude grave. On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, he was shot dead, and the story of how he died, and how his loved ones yearned to give him a proper burial, reveals how difficult it could be for the wartime generation to deal with the aftermath of death in battle.
John “Jack” Jones, born in 1821 in Baldwin County, Ga., was the only son of Seaborn Jones, a prominent lawyer and political leader from Columbus, who grew up in the lap of luxury. The elder Jones built a fine house, called El Dorado, and owned 20 slaves in 1850.
Jack graduated from Emory College in 1842 and, like his father, took up the law as his profession. In October 1843, he married Mary Louisa Leonard. The following year the first of their seven children, Seaborn Leonard Jones (called Leonard), was born. At first Jones practiced law with his father in the firm of Jones & Jones. Later he joined forces with Henry L. Benning, his brother-in-law and a local politician.
After Fort Sumter fell in 1861, Jones and his partner enlisted. While Benning raised the 17th Georgia Infantry and became its colonel, Jones—then 40—raised a company of men from the Columbus area that would be known as Company G of the Southern Guard, and was elected its captain. His 16-year-old son Leonard also enlisted in the Guard as a musician, but returned home in August to help his mother and supervise the family’s slaves.
Following the Confederate victory at Manassas in late July 1861, the Southern Guard was sent to Virginia. By early September, it had been mustered into service as Company I of the 20th Georgia Infantry under Colonel William Duncan Smith and placed in Brig. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Brigade. In the spring of 1862, Early’s Brigade was sent to the Virginia Peninsula to stave off the Army of the Potomac’s march toward Richmond. Jones was promoted to major of the regiment, then lieutenant colonel.
Jones and the 20th Georgia came under significant enemy fire for the first time at Malvern Hill on July 1. The regiment, now under the command of Colonel J.B. Cumming and assigned to Brig. Gen. Robert A. Toombs’ Georgia brigade, came under a “heavy, deadly, and incessant fire of artillery and infantry,” according to Toombs.
Jones was either wounded, sick or had returned home to Columbus after Malvern Hill, since he was not with the regiment at the Second Battle of Manassas in August. From the scant evidence, it seems that he remained absent through the subsequent Maryland Campaign, including the battle at Sharpsburg on September 17.
By late March 1863, Jones was listed as being in a Richmond hospital with an undisclosed illness, but two months later, when Colonel Cumming received a promotion to brigadier general and relinquished command of the 20th Georgia, Jones was elevated to full colonel. The Georgia Brigade, now permanently under Benning’s command, had been placed in Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Division of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps.
On June 26 Jones and the 20th Georgia crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport, Md., and the following day they set up camp near Chambersburg, Pa., about 25 miles west of Gettysburg. Four days later, on the evening of July 1, Colonel Jones and his Georgians began their march toward Gettysburg. As Jones and his regiment got closer to the town, they began to see wounded men lying on the sides of the road and the porches of farmhouses. Benning’s Brigade finally halted for a rest near Marsh Creek, about two miles west of Gettysburg, after 3 a.m.
Around noon on July 2, Hood’s Division marched over dusty roads and farm fields to the south, where Longstreet was to deploy two of his divisions and attempt to roll up the Union army’s left flank. But Longstreet, suspecting that Federal signalmen on the crest of Little Round Top had spotted his maneuver, ordered his men to countermarch back to where they had begun their approach, wasting time and exhausting the men. At last Hood’s Division reached the Emmitsburg Road and Warfield Ridge, about three miles south of the town and a mile from two prominent hills: Little Round Top and Big Round Top.
The order to advance came just minutes after 4 p.m. Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s brigade of Alabamians stepped off first, with Brig. Gen. Jerome Robertson’s Texans moving quickly to sustain a solid front. But the slanting ground made Law’s regiments move faster than they should have, and declivities wreaked havoc with the units’ massed formations. Stone walls and wooden fences also stood in the path of the advancing Confederates.
Exploding shells and solid shot, particularly from a Federal battery positioned on Houck’s Ridge, began ripping through the gray lines. As the Alabamians and Texans moved quickly down the slope toward Plum Run, which meandered along the base of Big Round Top, they saw two farmhouses and a scattering of outbuildings—the Bushman and Slyder farms, which were connected by a dirt farm lane that led from the Emmitsburg Road to a small pasture on the western slope of Big Round Top.
Suddenly, from the vicinity of the Slyder Farm, expertly laid down gunfire from the green-coated members of the 2nd U.S. Sharp Shooters began to tear into the already disorderly lines of the Alabama and Texas brigades. Law’s Brigade began to move steadily toward the right, forming a dangerous gap between his lines and those of Robertson’s Brigade to his left. Robertson also discovered, much to his dismay, that it was impossible for him to maintain his left on the Emmitsburg Road while also keeping his right closed on Law’s Alabamians. Soon he decided to leave the road and allow his left to move into some thick woods in front of him. Eventually Robertson’s two left regiments, the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas, lost all contact with his two right regiments. As the Confederate advance began to unravel, a jagged piece of shrapnel slashed into Hood’s left arm. He was out of the fight.
There was confusion among the brigades of Law and Robertson, also sensed by Benning as he attempted to follow orders, advance his men and keep his brigade 400 yards behind Law’s Alabamians in support. When the order to advance finally came, Benning turned to his brigade and shouted: “Give them hell, boys—give them hell.” Jones and the other regimental commanders in Benning’s Brigade encouraged their own men along, ordering the double quick, to keep up with the lines in their front.
Benning, Jones and the men of the 20th Georgia could not know that instead of following Law’s Brigade into battle, Benning had led his brigade in support of Robertson’s left regiments, which Robertson had been unable to hold along the edge of the Emmitsburg Road. Meanwhile, Anderson’s Georgia brigade veered to the distant left toward the Rose Farm and the Peach Orchard, leaving Benning’s own left flank in the air.
To Benning’s immediate front was, in his words, “a sort of uneven, irregular shelf”—Houck’s Ridge, where a Union battery had been expertly deployed. “To the right and left of the battery,” Benning reported, “as well as immediately in its rear, were lines of infantry….” Benning’s left wing—the 15th Georgia and 20th Georgia— faced the formidable obstacle of Devil’s Den and its Union defenders. Colonel William F. Perry, commanding the 44th Alabama, aptly described it as “a wild, rocky labyrinth.”
Lead rained down on Colonel Jones and his men as they pushed through a triangular-shaped field toward Devil’s Den. An artillery shell killed or wounded all the 20th’s flag-bearers. In their dash up the hill, the Georgians paid dearly. Twenty-one men died, and more than 75 were wounded. As the Georgians approached the crest of the ridge, the Union artillerists spiked and abandoned their three guns and hand-to-hand combat broke out. Benning observed Jones behaving with “great coolness and gallantry” as the 20th took possession of the Federal guns and dislodged the ridge’s defenders. But at some point during the frenzied fighting, the colonel was shot dead.
Private J.W. Lokey, Company B, 20th Georgia, later remembered that he had come upon Jones “lying on his back with about half of his head shot off.” A few weeks after the battle, General Benning sadly remarked in his official report that Jack Jones, his brother-in-law, business partner and friend, “was killed late in the action, not far from the captured guns,” and noted the irony that Jones had died “just as success came in sight.” Lieutenant Colonel Waddell, who took over command of the 20th Georgia, also lamented Jones’ loss. “He was an excellent officer and devoted patriot,” wrote Waddell, “and a braver spirit never fought beneath a flag. His loss will be felt in this command.”
The fight for Houck’s Ridge and Devil’s Den went on after Jones’ death, with the Georgians and Texans suffering even more casualties as the long afternoon finally turned to dusk. The Confederates continued to hold the ground as the day waned and the summer darkness deepened. That night Colonel Jones’ body was carried—probably by men of the 20th Georgia who had served under him—about 500 yards through some thick woods and over swampy ground to a spot near the Slyder farmhouse, which stood beneath the wooded slopes of Big Round Top. The burial party managed to locate a cherry tree about 150 yards from the house, where the men dug a deep grave for their former commander.
The practical problem of disposing of the dead coincided with community support in Gettysburg for memorializing the great battle that had been fought in its streets and over its fields and hills. By the end of July, plans began moving forward for the creation of a national cemetery, the result of hard work as well as political maneuvering by a local attorney, David Wills.
With the approval of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, Wills purchased the ground adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery on Cemetery Hill to be used for the soldiers’ burial ground. He also hired a contractor to exhume the Union dead on the field and transfer the remains to the new cemetery and appointed a local businessman, Samuel Weaver, to oversee the exhumations. These efforts laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association.
Weaver supervised the grisly work of reinterring the remains in the new cemetery. Under his direction, however, they left the Confederate dead where they lay. Work began in October 1863, and was in full swing when Abraham Lincoln visited the town in November. The exhumations were not completed until the following March.
Weaver and his laborers removed a total of 3,354 remains to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. In doing so, Weaver took great pains in identifying each body, sometimes by relying on the temporary headboards found at many Union graves, but otherwise resorting to items found with the remains, such as letters, diaries, bibles, photographs, receipts and medals.
Whenever possible, Weaver then returned the personal belongings to the deceased’s next of kin. The remains were placed in wooden coffins before being reinterred.
In the process of locating the Union dead, Weaver opened the graves of more than 3,000 Confederates— which were immediately covered again, since Weaver made great effort to ensure that no Rebel remains would find their way into the national cemetery. Nevertheless, he kept careful records of where the Confederate graves were located, even identifying them by name where wooden markers still stood.
It seems likely that Benning informed Jones’ family of his death by a letter of consolation to Mary Louisa. The general may have mentioned where Jones had been buried, for Mary learned from someone that her husband lay beneath the soil of a Pennsylvania farm belonging, it was believed, to the Snyder family, south of Gettysburg. In agony, Jones’ widow—at home with four children (three others had died over the years)—read the news of her husband’s death and burial.
News of Colonel Jones’ demise at Gettysburg sent shock waves of grief rippling through his extended family. Even before Weaver’s official report of the exhumations for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was published in 1867, news of the report, which Weaver had written in March 1864, spread below the Mason-Dixon Line.
In Columbus, Ga., Mary Jones learned about Weaver and his records of Confederate graves as early as 1865, when she wrote informing him that her husband had fallen with a head wound in an attack (so she thought) on Little Round Top and had been buried beneath a cherry tree on the Snyder Farm. She asked if he knew the location of the grave. Weaver went out to the Snyder place, located at the northern edge of Warfield Ridge, west of the Emmitsburg Road, and looked around, but he could find no cherry tree with a grave nearby.
On a hunch, he next went to the John Slyder Farm, east of the Emmitsburg Road, down in the valley at the base of Big Round Top, and discovered a cherry tree with two graves beneath it. “I opened them both,” Weaver told another Southern woman searching for a relative’s grave, “and in the one I found the remains of a soldier to answer the description Mrs. Jones sent me, wounded in the left side of his head and the left lower jaw broken.” Weaver sent Mary his account of finding her husband’s grave, which must have given her and the children some relief.
In February 1866, a Columbus newspaper announced that Weaver had recovered the body of Colonel Jack Jones from under a cherry tree in Gettysburg, adding that Weaver was offering to anyone, not just the Joneses, “his services in disinterring the bodies of Southern soldiers who fell in that memorable engagement.”
It took Mary several months to arrange the means by which her husband’s remains might be shipped back to Georgia for permanent burial. The family sent Leonard, then 21, to retrieve his father’s remains. He left Columbus in early November and arrived in Pennsylvania a few days later. Obtaining his father’s remains from Weaver, he traveled with them by train to Baltimore, then booked passage on a freighter bound for Charleston, S.C.
But tragedy and heartache were on the horizon. After the ship set sail, it either sprang a leak or was caught in a storm off Cape Hatteras and began to sink. The captain, named Harris, gave the order to abandon ship. Yet as newspaper accounts attested, he “was not un mindful of the mission of one of his passengers, or of the memory of the dead Confederate soldier whose remains lay in the cabin of his ship…”; he offered to let Leonard put the coffin into the captain’s own lifeboat “and to bear it to any goal or safety, that he himself might reach.”
Jones gratefully accepted the captain’s offer and led several men back to the cabin. But fate was not smiling on Jones or his shipmates. High water prevented them from getting the casket into the captain’s lifeboat, and Jones was forced to leave his father’s remains to the will of the sea. He found his way to a lifeboat, where he and fellow survivors (20 men and one woman) watched the ship go down.
It is not clear how long the survivors drifted in their lifeboats, although Leonard later said they struggled “for days and nights against a storm of unparalleled violence.” After the rough weather finally passed, the lost ship’s crew and passengers eagerly watched for any sign of other vessels. Finally they were rescued by the American frigate USS Susquehannah, en route to Vera Cruz.
Two luminaries were aboard that ship, Lt. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and minister to Mexico Lewis D. Campbell, on a diplomatic mission to establish official relations with the newly elected president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, and to work out the withdrawal of French troops that had invaded the country in 1864. Sherman praised Susquehannah’s captain for his “personal skill and supervision” of the rescue, which resulted in “every soul” reaching the deck safely. But Jones and the other shipwreck survivors were less than pleased with the captain and crew. Jones later told newspaper reporters that “he and his ship-wrecked companions were treated with little kindness or consideration.” Although Jones and the others were grateful for their rescue, he complained that Susquehannah’s captain and crew had provided them with “no remedies and food suitable to their exhausted condition.” Jones claimed that the survivors were simply given a blanket and a sail and told to sleep on deck.
After a stay in Havana of four days, Jones and the others left Cuba aboard USS Liberty, which transported them back to Baltimore rather than Charleston. There is no record of how he made his return from Baltimore to Columbus. Leonard Jones had been through a terrible ordeal and had suffered a horrible loss, as had the entire Jones family. But at least Leonard returned home safe and sound.
Mary Jones was never quite the same. She had lost Jack not once but twice—first at Gettysburg, then at sea. She arranged to have a tombstone erected for her husband in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus; there was, of course, no body beneath the soil, but at least it was a spot that she could visit and place flowers on from time to time.
By 1870 a cenotaph had been erected in the cemetery; one of the six names engraved on it was J.A. Jones. Five years later Mary, who spent her final days with Henry L. Benning and his family, succumbed at the age of 51. Surely she died of a broken heart.
Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. For a bibliography of Gettysburg titles by LaFantasie, see “Resources,” P. 71.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.