His Grave is Marked by the Lid of a Cartridge Box: A Death at Vicksburg

Surgeon Henry Penniman of the 17th Illinois didn’t witness the death of Dr. John B. Stephenson of his regiment at Vicksburg, but he saw the effect Stephenson’s death had on the rest of the hospital detachment. “We had a fine young man killed out of our hospital mess and since that the balance, some nine or ten men, are more profane, more trifling, more reckless, and everything that indicates a worse condition of heart then before,” he noted in a letter to his wife. “To pass away the time, play cards, drink, eat, run around, or do anything that will hinder the serious thoughts of eternity, this is all.”

          Stephenson, serving as a sergeant in Co. F but detailed to the medical department of the regiment, had been up front observing the effect of Federal artillery fire on the afternoon of May 28, 1863, when the end came in the form of a sharpshooter’s bullet to the head. “He died instantly. He never spoke,” recalled his company commander Captain Josiah Moore. “We had a coffin made and I procured a bushel of salt to preserve the body so that I think he will be easily removed. We buried him on the field a short distance below where he fell and close alongside two others of our lamented comrades who were killed on the 22nd. The board that marks his grave is the lid of a cartridge box and marked “Dr. John B. Stephenson, Co. F, 17th Ill. Vol. Infantry. May 28, 1863.”

          Captain Moore’s description of Dr. Stephenson’s death at Vicksburg was originally published in the June 26, 1863, edition of the Sidney Weekly Journal published in Sidney, Ohio at the request of Dr. Stephenson’s father. During the Vicksburg campaign, the 17th Illinois was part of General John D. Stevenson’s Third Brigade of General John A. Logan’s Third Division of the 17th Army Corps.

 

John B. Stephenson of the 17th Illinois, a 32-year-old native of Ohio, was killed by Confederate sharpshooters while visiting the front at Vicksburg on May 28, 1863. "He was extremely obliging and ever attentive to duty," his company commander recalled. "To know him was to love him."


Vicksburg battlefield

May 29, 1863

 Samuel Stephenson, Esq.

Dear Friend,

          With feelings of the deepest sorrow, I now seat myself on the battlefield to make a sad record- the death of your most worthy son J. Bigger Stephenson. He was killed yesterday at 2:30 p.m. by a rifle ball passing through the head close behind the ears. He died instantly.

          Our regiment occupied the position of sharpshooters and was posted from within 150-200 yards from the Rebel fort. The doctor was the only regimental physician present, the others being absent, two on detail and the third sick. As at all other times, the doctor was close by where his duty called him. During the day, the Rebel gunners became very troublesome and several of our cannon opened on them. While this fire was progressing, the doctor and another man left the hospital station ten rods in the rear of the regiment and went to the front to see the effect of our guns on the Rebel works. After remaining here awhile he was about to leave but just as he turned around the death blow came. He never spoke. He was not with our company when killed; he was in the quarters of Co. C.

English-made Enfield Bullet

          The news came to me immediately and Mc. And I went and found him, then carried him back. We had a coffin made and I procured a bushel of salt to preserve the body so that I think he will be easily removed. We buried him on the field a short distance below where he fell and close alongside two others of our lamented comrades, William Alexander, and Thomas M. Nelson, who were killed on the 22nd. The board that marks his grave is the lid of a cartridge box and marked “Dr. John B. Stephenson, Co. F, 17th Ill. Vol. Infantry. May 28, 1863.”

          After the fall of Vicksburg, I think there will be no trouble in moving the body should you wish it, but at present it would be difficult to do anything. I think, however, that with the blessing of God on the means at our disposal, the fall of the infernal city is not far distant. Our army is in good spirits and though this is the eleventh day of the battle, yet the troops seem more buoyant than ever.

 

“We lay under the side of a sharp hill and our floor of clay is levelled by digging into the bank. All sleeping places are behind these ranges to be out of range of shot and shell from the Rebels who often kill and wound men beyond us, even a mile out, if they can see them. They use splendid rifles and the best English ammunition and fire with incredible accuracy. I have had three bullets scatter the dust near me in quick succession while walking over a part of one of our roads exposed to the view of these Rebels.” ~ Surgeon Henry H. Penniman, 17th Illinois

          The Rebels have only fired a few shots from their cannon in four or five days. I think they are afraid to bring their guns to bear on our line of artillery. Their forts, though formidable, are badly breached, but I think the Rebels will submit to a siege before surrendering. A most terrible cannonading has been kept up mostly all day by our guns. I do not as yet know of a single reply from the Rebel guns except sharpshooters who have killed Captain Henry A. Rogers, commander of McAllister’s battery [Battery D, 1st Illinois L.A.] and Samuel De Golyer, commander of a Michigan battery [Battery H, 1st Michigan L.A.].

Captain Samuel De Golyer of Battery H, 1st Michigan Light Artillery lived until August 8, 1863 when he succumbed to the wound described by Captain Moore in his letter. De Golyer of Adrian, Michigan had previously served with the 4th Michigan Infantry in the eastern theater before resigning his commission in January 1862 to lead Battery H. 

          But I need not detain you as the news is already too sad. May the God of Grace prepare you all for such a visitation of Providence from an All-Wise Jehovah. No news came to me so unexpected and when I say that none will be more missed from the company and the regiment than the Dr., I do not say half. To know him was to love him. He was extremely kind and obliging and ever attentive to duty and the regiment had the highest confidence in his professional ability. He is mourned by all yet we trust that our loss is his unspeakable gain.

          I have taken charge of some of his personal items and shall keep them subject to your request or until I get an opportunity to send them home. You have our highest sympathies. May a kind heavenly parent give us all grace to prepare to meet where all tears shall be wiped away.

 

Sources:

Letter from Captain Josiah Moore, Co. F, 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Sidney Weekly Journal (Ohio), June 26, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from Surgeon Henry H. Penniman, 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry; Post, Lydia Minturn, editor. Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battlefield, and Prison. New York: Bunce & Huntington, Publishers, 1865, pgs. 219 and 221


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