Every heroic charge, every desperate defense, left human wreckage behind.
John L. Stetson was a successful Plattsburgh, New York, attorney before the war, carrying on in the footsteps of his father, Lemuel Stetson, an attorney, judge and lawmaker. John had also married well. He took Lucy Maria Platt as his bride in 1856. She was the great granddaughter of the founder of Plattsburgh. The Stetsons were poised for a fruitful life together. But then tragedy struck when Lucy died in 1860, and not long after came the tocsin of war.
John put his life on hold to help raise the 16th New York, and later transferred to the 59th New York, commissioned as its lieutenant colonel. On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, Stetson was in command of the regiment and led it in its first significant battle action, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s notorious advance into the West Woods at 9:30 a.m.
The 59th was on the far left of the Union advance, and Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s brigade flanked and devastated the New Yorkers. Stetson had led 321 officers and men into the woods, and an astonishing 224 of them became casualties in the Union debacle.
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The News Reaches Home
Back in Plattsburgh, Lemuel saw his son’s name on a Battle of Antietam casualty list printed in a local paper, and on the 19th, Lemuel set out for Sharpsburg, Maryland.
“It did not state whether killed or only wounded, and of course I went forward under anxious suspense,” he wrote in a letter to a friend that was later published in the local newspaper.
Upon arriving in town he learned that John had been struck by a bullet in his stomach while directing his men to rally on the colors. He was shot from his horse and fell on the field. Following the battle, he was buried where he fell.
“I found the burial rude and imperfect, like all soldiers’ graves upon the field,” Lemuel wrote. “On Tuesday morning I returned from Sharpsburg with a burial party, and had a wall twenty inches high built around the grave, close to the vault. This was filled with fresh earth and raised above the wall, and completed in the usual form …. The duty was ended; the burial was complete … and I stood among strangers — the rank and file of the army — to make my grateful heartfelt acknowledgments for their kind assistance.”
But that wasn’t all he found.
“The rebels had rifled his pockets and turned them inside out,” Lemuel Stetson wrote. “They had taken his hat and boots. But a Rebel Major returned his wallet, marked with his name and residence, to Lieut. Rosa, of the 59th regiment, lying wounded upon the same field, saying that it contained nothing of value which they wished to keep. They had emptied it of everything but Confederate notes, which had been procured near Richmond, and held as curiosities. Lieut. Rosa gave the wallet to Captain Lyne, and then died of his wound, and Captain Lyne placed the wallet in my possession.”
Remembering John Stetson
Lemuel returned home to grieve. He died in 1868.
A monument to Stetson was later erected at the site of his death by family members in 1919. Today, most visitors who see the monument near the West Woods know little or nothing about his father’s sad quest.
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