Billy Had No Enemies: The Death of Captain William D. Neal
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. And when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" ~ It's a Wonderful Life
In the 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, a suicidal small town banker named George Bailey is given a sneak peek into how life in his hometown of Bedford Falls would be changed for the worse without him. Guided through a dystopian nightmare by his guardian angel Clarence, George learns how impactful and meaningful his life has been, and how "each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole."
This idea for our 19th century ancestors was no mere fantasy, but a harsh reality as during the course of the Civil War, more than 620,000 Americans died, each of them leaving an "awful hole" in the lives of not only their family and friends, but within their broader communities at home and in the hearts of their comrades who were left behind to carry on the struggle. The scale of the loss touched nearly every American of that era, leaving emotional and social scars that resonate even today within the fabric of American society.
Today's post features three letters written to John Neal of Sidney, Ohio in the aftermath of his son's death during the Atlanta campaign, each of which touch on the void left in the correspondent's own life by Will's death. William D. Neal was a young man of great promise who went to war with the 20th Ohio in 1861, rising to the rank of captain and serving for a time on the staff of another Ohioan, General Mortimer D. Leggett. His death occurred on the morning of June 26, 1864 during an inspection of the divisional lines near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. "Will had formed his company and presented arms to the General and his staff who passed on," Captain Harry Wilson of Co. I recalled. "Lieutenant Stewart of the staff halted to give instructions. Will saluted him with his sword and was approaching him when he was struck down by a bullet from the rifle of a Rebel sharpshooter who had seen the general pass and who aimed at Lieutenant Stewart. The ball took effect in the back, passing through his body and coming out through the right breast. Will fell exclaiming, “Oh boys!” and instantly expired, not conscious for a moment of what had befallen him. "
"This sad occurrence has cast a gloom over the entire regiment, particularly in his own command of Co. K who had learned to love and obey him as their trusty leader and kind commander," Captain Wilson continued. General Leggett likened the loss of Will to that of losing a family member and comforted Will's father with the statement that Will "was widely known and universally popular. All who knew him loved him. Billy had no enemies."
All three letters saw publication in July 15, 1864 edition of the Sidney Journal.
|Federal staff officer's button|
Base of Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia
June 26, 1864
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your esteemed son Captain Will D. Neal.
On last evening, he with his command was dispatched to do picket duty on what is called Bushy Ridge, a position near the left of our line. This morning between the hours of 9 and 10 o’clock, General Mortimer Leggett passed him, making a detour of the line. Will had formed his company and presented arms to the General and his staff who passed on. Lieutenant Stewart of the staff halted to give instructions. Will saluted him with his sword and was approaching him when he was struck down by a bullet from the rifle of a Rebel sharpshooter who had seen the general pass and who aimed at Lieutenant Stewart. The ball took effect in the back, passing through his body and coming out through the right breast. Will fell exclaiming, “Oh boys!” and instantly expired, not conscious for a moment of what had befallen him. The ball passed on and killed Lieutenant Stewart’s horse.
Bram is on duty in the division hospital at Big Shanty station four miles to the rear. He has been sent for and is momentarily expected. It is designed to send him home with Will with all possible dispatch. Application had been made that George Eddy be permitted to accompany him to take charge of the corpse. There is no doubt but that such leave will be granted.
This sad occurrence has cast a gloom over the entire regiment, particularly in his own command of Co. K who had learned to love and obey him as their trusty leader and kind commander, and among the officers with whom he had been so long and so pleasantly associated, and who knew well how to appreciate him as a friend and a comrade. In this your very sad bereavement, believe us that you and your family have our deepest sympathy. With the earnest hope that you may with us find some consolation upon reflection that your dear son and brother, and our very dear friend has fallen nobly fighting in his country’s cause and that his death was the patriot’s death. His grave will be the patriot’s grave, ever to be green in the memory of his countrymen who in time to come will delight in doing honor to the fallen brave who gave their lives in defense of the Union.
Harry Wilson, Captain, Co. I, 20th O.V.V.I.
|Captain Neal's gravestone in Sidney, Ohio|
Before Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia
July 1, 1864
I suppose before this the remains of your son have reached you. He was my intimate friend and companion for Will and I have been almost constant associates from childhood up to the time of his death.
Will was killed by a Rebel sharpshooter on the picket line. He fell at the head of his company, which he had just turned out to salute Generals Frank Blair and Mortimer Leggett who were then passing around the line. I was at a creek nearby when one of his men came running to me and exclaimed, “Oh, our captain is killed!” I instantly went to the spot. His entire company had gathered around him and were weeping for the loss of one they loved so well. True it was, Will was dead.
They said he died instantly. His company deeply mourns his loss and so do all who knew him, and to me it is like losing a brother. I deeply sympathize with you and your family in this your great loss, and should it be my fortune to fall during this rebellion, I desire to fall like Will at the head of my command and at my post of duty.
Truly your friend,
John C. Cox
|General Mortimer D. Leggett|
Headquarters, Third Division, 17th Army Corps
Near Marietta, Georgia, June 30, 1864
Mr. John Neal, Sidney, Ohio
You have already learned of the death of your son, Captain William D. Neal. He fell close by my side on the 26th instant, pierced with a bullet from the gun of a Rebel sharpshooter. From your letters to your son, portions of which he has frequently shown me, I know yourself and family will deeply mourn his loss.
Captain Neal became one of my aides de camp early in February 1863 and during the time he so acted, he belonged to my mess and was one of my military family. By his uniformly kind and gentle manner, his intelligence and eminent social qualities, he became greatly endeared to myself and every member of my staff. As an officer and a soldier, he was intelligent, energetic, quick to execute orders, and brave almost to a fault. As a staff officer, he was widely known and universally popular. All who knew him loved him. Billy had no enemies.
He fell, another victim to this unholy rebellion, another sacrifice upon the altar of our beloved country, but he fell as all true men would desire to fall at his post of duty. In this great bereavement, be assured that yourself and family have the heart-felt sympathy of myself and staff. May the Good Father who doeth all things well give you strength to beat this severe affliction
Your obedient servant,
M.D. Leggett, Brig-Gen.
Letters and article on the death of Captain William D. Neal, Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), July 15, 1864, pg. 2
Correspondents include Brigadier General Mortimer D. Leggett, Private John C. Fox of Co. G, and Captain Harrison “Harry” Wilson of Co. I of the 20th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry
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