William Garcelon Davis died protecting the American flag. His grave deserves a name
Breaking News: The Associated Press has picked up our story. It has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, ABC News, NBC, The Denver Post, Army Times, US News, and many more. You can read the article by following this link AP News.
Our relative, Color Sergeant William Garcelon Davis gave his life defending the American flag and his long lost grave may have been recently discovered but the Army refuses to perform DNA testing and give these remains a name. We therefore ask your help to request that a grateful nation finally put a name on the grave of a soldier who paid the ultimate price for his country.
Summary: William Garcelon Davis was a Color Sergeant in the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers, carrying the American flag into battle. He was killed in combat on August 28-29th, 1862, at the Battle of Brawner's Farm, which occurred the day before the Battle of Manassas/Second Bull Run. Our family never got to see Will’s face again. His final resting place remains unknown.
However, in October 2014 a field hospital burial pit was accidentally unearthed near Brawner’s Farm. It was excavated and extensively studied by the National Park Service and the Smithsonian and the findings reported in the summer of 2018. A first hand account sent in a letter to Will's parents said that Will was shot and loaded into an ambulance that took him to a nearby field hospital where he died. The letter also describes how he was buried at that hospital when the Confederate forces overran it. This is the only first hand account known to describe such a burial on the Manassas Battlefield. The excavated burial pit contained severed limbs from battlefield amputations as well as two skeletons determined to be Union soldiers. One of these skeletons could be the remains of William Garcelon Davis. This skeleton matches Will's wound, age, build, place of birth, and method of burial.
A request was made to the Army for DNA testing to confirm if these were the remains of our missing relative. The Secretary of the Army refused to conduct any test to identify the remains and they were buried at Arlington in a ceremony to open a new area of the cemetery in September, 2018. In a letter to an Associated Press Reporter, the Army said it would be "too costly" to conduct DNA testing. DNA testing is routinely done on remains of soldiers who died in battles from World War II to the present time. The family of William G. Davis believes a grateful nation should attempt to give Will back his name and identity. This website tells his story and asks for your support to identity the remains, and if possible, bring Will home.
The Covenant to bring our dead home and identify their remains
The United State military makes an incredible effort to bring home and identify the remains of our soldiers killed in action in our wars from World War II to the present. The agency charged with this task has the initials D.P.A.A. To learn more about their important work please read New York Times Article.
Please follow the link or watch this brief video to learn more about the D.P.A.A. Great effort and expense is given to return and identify our war dead from wars from WWII to the present. War dead from wars prior to WWII do not have the resources of D.P.A.A. to help with their recovery and identification. Unidentified remains from prior wars the Army considers themselves next of kin. This creates a catch 22 where families have no way to bring their family members home, if the Army does not wish to identify the individual. Why do we not return the names and identities to those who died in prior wars when it is possible and the family can be easily identified? When a soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice and dies for his country, why does it matter in which conflict he died?
"The Nation which forgets its defefenders will itself be forgotten" President Calvin Coolidge
Identification of Remains
"Carrying out the promise to military service personnel to find and bring them home only partially fufills our obligation. We must also identify the remains, for it is a name that transforms a casket full of bilogical material ad minerals into a son, brother, husband, father, or daughter, sister, wife and mother....even if the Soldier Dead had no family whatsoever to whom a name would be important, the members of the Armed Forces consider their comrades to be family and desire that they be brought home and buried with all due recognition." Soldier Dead by Michael Sledge
Would the Army fail to Identify remains in order to have "Unknowns" for a Ceremony?
This seems too cynical to be taken seriously, yet there is evidence from a Vietnam era soldier that the Army did just that. Please see Washington Post Article.
The Discovery of the Remains and Bone Pit
On June 20, 2018 the Park Service announced a historical discovery on the Manassas (Bull Run) Battlefield. A field hospital burial pit had been discovered and carefully excavated. In the pit were the amputated arms and legs of up to 11 individuals and two almost complete skeletons. The Park Service does not normally disturb remans found on the Battlefield but these remains were found where utility work was being done.
The remains were extensively studied by both the Park Service and experts at the Smithsonian Institute. Results and findings were included in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, on websites and in newsletters. The finding was unusual as there have been very few burial pits discovered. The remains helped scientists better understand how the surgeries were conducted. The report of the discovery was picked up by many news outlets.
Articles on the Bone Pit
Next: Contact with the Park Service/Army and discussion about the Remains
Contact with the Park Service/Army and discussion about the Remains
On June 25, 2018, Paul Davis contacted Brandon Bies, Superintendent of the Manassas Battlefield and one of the lead researchers in the excavation of the burial pit. Davis reached out to Bies to discover if there was any possibility that the remains of the soldier with the bullet in his femur could be his Great, Great, Uncle, William Garcelon Davis. Mr. Bies was helpful in answering his questions about details of the burial. The following letter was then sent on behalf of the Davis family.Dear Mr. Bies and Mr. Brown,
Our family, the descendants of William Garcelon Davis who fought with the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers and lost his life on the Gainesville-Manassas battlefield on 28 or 29 August 1862, whose remains have never been located, request DNA testing of one of the recently found remains. We respectfully request that you put us in contact with those at the Army mortuary service or Arlington Cemetery so that the analysis can be done before the remains are reinterred later this summer.
We have documentation that William Garcelon Davis was shot through the bowels or haunch matching the wound of the skeleton with the enfield slug in the femur. We have sent you a written account that he was buried on the battlefield at the field hospital. He was born in New Portland, Maine, which appears to match the Isotopic study. He was almost 24 when he died which is very close to the estimated age of 25 of the remains.
You have shown tremendous respect for those who died. We do not want to disrupt what will be a moving and fitting ceremony at Arlington. However, if we can spare our relative the fate of resting forever in an unmarked grave we believe that this further test is warranted.
On July 5, 2018 Davis received the following message from the Army
The Park Service has forwarded your email regarding your family member whom which you are a descendant, William Garcelon Davis, to the US Army. We are processing your request and will get back to you. Your case number is #296676.
Director, Accountability & Quality Assurance
The Secretary of the Army has directed the interment of the unknowns to ensure they are provided a dignified burial.
Director, Accountability & Quality Assurance
Arlington National Cemetery
The Burial of the Remains
The remains of the two "unknowns" were buried in a very dignified ceremony to open a major expansion of Arlington, Cemetary. The Park Service had made period type coffins out of an old tree from the Manassas Battlefield and the bones were put in replica US Army blankets.
To see the ceremony click here AP News
Reaction and Action
The family was stunned that the Army showed no interest in the possible identification of the remains. We reached out to family members on active duty in the Army to ascertain the best way to ask the Army to reconsider. We contacted the Park Service once again. We reached out to the Smithsonian as one of our family had been a Doctoral Fellow there. We contacted Matthew Barakat, an AP Reporter who had written a story on the Burial Pit.
No one from the Army or the Smithsonian would agree to an interview with Mr. Barakat. The army sent the following email to him.
“The Army was given disposition of remains this past June and fully reviewed and considered the details of the discovery of the remains as well as multiple requests for identification. The Army made the decision that the costs associated with obtaining, storing, and testing of the DNA from these two Unknown U.S. Soldiers was not justified due to the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely. The Army feels strongly that the dignified burial of these two sets of remains is in keeping with the over 2,000 Civil War Unknowns who were killed in action near the national capital region and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The Army is honored to care for these two unknown U.S. Solders at Arlington.”
Our discussion with the Park Service and our research has determined the following facts:
- The remains were from Union Soldiers from the time of the Battle of 2nd Manassas/Bull Run
- The Burial Pit (whose location has not been disclosed to the public) was close enough to the Brawner Farm battlefield that it would be possible for an ambulance of that time to reach it
- The skeleton was in good enough shape with several teeth found that could be used for DNA testing. [One of Will's relatives is a Paleontologist with expertise in recovery of ancient DNA]
- Isotopic testing of the bones revealed that the person had grown up in New England. [Will was originally from Maine]
- The skeleton's mortal wound was from a shot through the haunch. [Will's injury was described as through the bowels. Both could describe the fatal wound]
- Researchers were able to narrow down the identity of the other skeleton to one of three individuals, but DNA testing was not pursued
- The Army's reasons for not doing DNA testing have not been consistent or rational:
1) They said they did not test because they wanted, "to insure a dignified burial." -Secretary of the Army as quoted by J. Mercer
2) They said they did not test "due to the cost associated with obtaining, storing and testing of the DNA from the two unknowns." -Army email to Matthew Barakat [The skeletons had already gone through months of extensive study at the Smithsonian]
3) They said they did not test "due the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely." -Army email to Matthew Barakat [Our family self identified as potential relatives and would offer to provide DNA samples]
We believed a lot of pressure was put on the Park Service and Smithsonian to turn over the remains, and not to try to further identify them. The Army has in the past rushed to bury an "unknown" in order to have a ceremony. Were the unknowns needed to open a new section of Arlington?
Still we waited. We have the upmost respect for the Park Service. They have a very hard job, to preserve the ground, where many may still be buried. They work with limited resources. They did their scientific work on the remains and yet recognized that they were men and not just bones. We believe that in most cases the Army does what it can for those who have paid the ultimate price. D.P.A.A. routinely does the impossible to find, return and identify the remains of our soldiers killed in action.
We realize that our relative died a long time ago. We realize the "unknowns" have been given the honor of a distinguished burial. They are no longer unknowns in a shallow grave. They rest in Arlington.
However, just like the soldiers who have died in more recent wars, the ultimate respect is to have your own identity, to have your name, to have your wishes honored and not to rest forever as an "unknown." The ultimate respect is for a grateful nation to do what needs to be done to return our soldiers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice from the battlefield and to do what is necessary to identify their remains.
William Garcelon Davis was one of the first to respond to the call to save our Union. He endured hardships. He volunteered and was given one of the most dangerous and important assignments in the Army. He died carrying the flag and rallying his comrads-in-arms. He suffered from a horrible wound and died far from his home. He lies in an unmarked grave. He wanted to come home. He questioned if anyone remembered him. He can no longer speak for himself.
Please read his story, and if you feel he deserves his name, join us by signing our petition demanding that that the Army fulfill their duty to a soldier who did his duty.
Next: Death of a Lewiston Boy
Death of a Lewiston Boy
Forward Boys, your country needs--forward and God defend the right
The Post of Honor
Will volunteered and was selected for one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army. He was a Color Sergeant. Today it is difficult to understand how important the Flag was for a soldier fighting in the time of the Civil War. In the Civil War only men of great bravery and leadership ability were given the honor. In a time before radios, where clouds of smoke from the guns blanketed everything, flags were the way soldiers could communicate. Men were taught to “rally round the flag” and the flags established the lines of battle. To have your flag captured brought dishonor to your regiment. Flag carriers went into battle without a rifle, and were protected by a “color guard.” Even with this protection, many who carried flags died, as enemy troops targeted the flag and those who carried it. To learn more about Color Sergeants, and Color Guards, click here.
A Battle with Many Names
William Garcelon Davis was killed in a battle that had many different names. It has been called both the Battle of Groveton and the Battle of Gainesville, but today is most often called the Battle of Brawner's Farm. It occurred in the early evening of August 28th, 1862. It was a test of two legenday Civil War Brigades. For the South, Jackson's "Stonewall Brigade" and for the North what would later be called "The Iron Brigade." In the battle the two Brigades faced each other about 100 yards apart, with little cover, and fought until dark. About 2,000 men died in roughly two hours. [To give some perspective of the number of dead, in the Afghanistan War, which in the longest war in American history, we have lost about 2,300 soldiers.] Brawner's Farm was the begining of the greater battle of 2nd Manassas or 2nd Bull Run.
For many years, the Brawner Farm battlefield was privately owned. Through great effort It has been saved and added to the 2nd Manassas Park.
A 3 page letter from a brother-in-arms describing Will's wound, being loaded on an Ambulance, Death and Burial on the Battlefield
We have found no other letters describing a burial on the 2nd Manassas Battlefield at a field hospital during the battle.. This letter describes a very specific place and type of burial.
Camp Skear, Sharpsburg, MD
September the 23rd, 1862
I received your letter today and hasten to answer it. I have seen some of the hardships of war since I wrote to you. before. I have been in three battles since then but have been spard through them all.
Your son was not killed in the battle of bull run it was in the battle near gainesville one day before the battle of bull run. He was shot through the bowls & I put him in the Ambulance & he was taken to the hospital & died as soon as he got thare. He was buried by men that was left thare to take care of our men.
Thare was two months pay coming to him & it will be sent to you when such things are settled up with government & he sent $30 to you was lost on the road I do not know wither he has sent any money to Wis. or not but I will find out as soon as I can.
I have not got much time to write today but will write to you again soon.
We have had one of the greatest battles of the war here & drove the rebels thare loss is very heavy we only 150 men left in our Reg. thare is only 21 left in our Company out of 108.
I send you my best wishes & respects
From, your friend
E Company 2ndReg Wis Vol
Will Davis and the Color Guard gave their all at Brawner's Farm...
"The flag carried at Bull Run in 1861, had been kept aloft by the Color Bearer [Will Davis] until he was shot. The eight men of the color guard kept the Stars and Stripes flying until only one of them remained. The lone survivor, Color Corporal Joseph L. Minor, "though wounded in the leg, still bore them up until receiving a second wound in his other leg which lay him prostrate."
p.81 Brave Men's Tears: The Iron Brigade at Brawner Farm by Alan D. Gaff, Morningside 1988.
Next: Getting to know Will Davis, Letters home from a Soldier
Getting to know Will Davis, Letters home from a Soldier
Will wrote home often. He describes camp life. He describes visiting Arlington, and the White House. He describes the first batlle of Manassas (Bull Run). He moonlighted as a cook to earn extra money to send home to his parents. Some of his letters were included in Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Briugade CSA and the Iron Brigade, USA by Jeffery D. Wert, 1999, Simon & Schuster.
Will's older brother Henry and his younger brother John lived in Maine but were in the South when the Civil War started. Many letters expressed his concern about their safety. Eventually he discovered that they had enlisted to fight for the South. Like Will, John and Henry were color bearers. They chose to fight for Alabama. Henry was mortally wounded in a skirmish in Alabama about a week after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. John was wounded in the shoulder. After the war John returned home to Maine and married. It is our belief that Henry was one of the last to die carrying the Confederate Battle Flag into battle.
The letters have faded with time. Much of the original spelling has been kept. Below are selected excerpts from the letters and pdf files of all the letters.
Next: More on the Battle of Brawner's Farm: First Burial of the Dead
More on the Battle of Brawner's Farm: First Burial of the Dead
After it got too dark to see, the 2nd Wisconsin retreated back to the Warrenton Pike (road). Neither side granted a truce or pause to remove the wounded. Hundreds of dead and dying had to be left where they fell. The next day began the battle of 2nd Bull Run and the eventual retreat of the 2nd Wisconsin back to Washington. Survivors were not able to get back to Brawner's farm until November, 1863 to bury their dead. They found the skeletal remains of their comrades and friends where they had fallen. We know William Garcelon Davis was not among those who were buried at that time, as he had been taken by Ambulance to a field hospital and was buried there months earlier. The following poem was read at Iron Brigade reunions after the War describing what they found bringing tears to the eyes of the survivors.
They had lain for long months in that ghastly array!
They were keeping their lone vigil well;
As if guarding the pike from the low line in grey
Closely ranged o'er the opposite swell.
O, brave comrades and true, we remember you still,
Though war-weary, and worn since you fell;
Now, at last, we have come these sad rites to fulfill,
Ere we bid you, forever, farewell!
And we covered them over with cold, clammy clay;
But we left them still proudly in line, where they lay,
When the battle of Gainesville was done. *
*Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph, September 18, 1887
Next: Dear father and mother, I sit myself down to let you know that you have one son yet alive
Dear father and mother, I sit myself down to let you know that you have one son yet alive
The Civil War caused brother to fight against brother. In our case Henry (Harry) Davis and his younger brother John A. Davis chose to fight for Alabama even though they were from Maine. They were caught in the South at the begining of the war. We believe they may have had a lumber or quarry business that brought them south. From Will's letters we know their mother and father worried about their fate and did not hear from them for the longest time. Eventually the relatives in Maine learned of their enlistment in the Alabama 15th Cavalry. Will learned this shortly before his death.
Like, Will, Henry and John were color bearers. Henry (Harry) Davis was one of the last to die carrying the Confederate battle flag into battle. He was wounded on April 11, 1865, and died on April 13th. at the age of 31, leaving a wife and son. He died in a skirmish near Mount Pleasant, Alabama and lies in an unmarked grave. Robert E. Lee had surrendered on April 9, 1865, and the Alabama 15th disbanded on April 20th.
John was wounded in the same skirmish where he brother was killed. He managed to stay on his horse which brought him to a farmhouse where his wound was treated. His letter describing the final battle and his wound gave the sad news to his parents that "you have one son yet alive."
After the War John returned to Maine, married and had four children. We are the descendants of his line.
Mobile the 24 [of August] 1865
Dear father ,
After five long years I sit myself down to let you know that you have one son yet alive. I do not know what to say for myself after so many years And such years as I pray GodI may never see again, years that have made an old man out of your once happy boy. As far as my health is concerned it was never better. I have not been sick but two weeks since I left home. Home I say how strange that loved word goes to my heart. The news that Mr. Ester told you was too true. Poor Harry has gone to his long home, he was wounded on the 11th of Apr. and died on the 13th of the same month. He died in his right mind and his last words were about his wife and parants. I did not see him to speak to him after he was shot. He was struck just above the left hip and the Ball passed through his hounch. He was holding the flag at the time. I was sitting on my horse and we were talking and laughing only a few moments before he was struck. I was ordered with a dispatch and when I returned I saw him about 100 steps in advance of our line down sitting at the root of a tree and still waving the flag. I started to him and when about 20 steps from him the Federal force charged and I was obliged to retire but not before I was struck in the left shoulder. The Ball passed through my shoulder blade and left lung and lodged in my breast where is now and will remain there as long as I live. My left arm is helpless almost and I have not been without pain since the moment I was hit. When I was struck it did not dismount me. I had a very fine horse and as soon as I lost control of him he started with me at breakneck speed and someway I never can tell how I stayed on him until he ran 7 miles. That was why I did not see Harry again. Judge my feelings as my only kindred in this strange land was breathing his last only 3 miles from me and I too weak to lift a hand. I sit down to write a letter butbfear that you will think that I am writing a history of the war, I came to Mobile yesteday and until then I thought you all dead, but I thank my God that I have once more seen some of your writing. It has been my prayer that God would allow me to see you all once more and I have faith that he will. Dingley wrote to you as soon as he recieved your letter and it went to Washington and was sent back here. I would have written before this but I thought someone would write if you were not all dead.
God Bless you all and try and Forgive your undutiful son. Tell all my friends if I have any there to write to me Direct to Augustus J Davis, Mobile, Ala.
John's letter was corroborated years after the war by CH Driesbach, of Baldwin County who was in the skirmish. The account appeared in the Baldwin Times, February 8, 1928.
Special to the Register:
Bay Minette, Ala, Jan 27-?
With his form as erect as the day when he first donned the uniform of Gray to fight for a cause he believed was right, but with father time gradually lessening
the virile resistance that once characterized this Son of the South, CH Driesbach, of Baldwin County, and one of the few survivors that marked the closing of the
Civil War, graphically relates events leading up to what was said to be the last battle in this section. History relates to the generation that followed the war
descriptions of the decisive battles, but as Mr. Driesbach says, little is said about some of the closing combats that proved vital to the South and where many
Alabama Heroes "went west", whose names are cherished by those who survived, but whose identity has been lost in the cataclysm that followed.
It was on April 11, 1865, according to Mr. Driesbach that one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought near here and although strongly outnumbered by the
federal troops, a strong resistance was put up. It was in this battle he recalls, that Harry Davis, the flag bearer of the Confederate Soldiers, although
mortally wounded propped himself up against a tree and held his flag aloft and vainly tried to give the "Rebel Yell". The Battle occurred in Monroe County
when what was estimated 3000 federal troops under the command of Lucus clashed with the 15th Cavalry commanded by LT Col Myers and a company of Mounted Infantry, commanded by
Capt TC English. Captain English was a brother to General McClelland, It was English’ company Mr. Driesbach was a member of and one of the few survivors after the engagement.
“Our Company was guarding a bridge on Little River, between Baldwin and Monroe counties”, Mr.Driesbach says, “while the 15th Cavalry, or rather part of it was at Claiborne,
Monroe County. On the morning of April 11, 1865. General Lucus and his men were coming up the Highway from Stockton. The Confederate Troops came together at what is now known as
Eliska. The federals numbered about 3000 and the Confederates had something like 200. Arrangements had been made between Captain Barlow and Colonel Myers that
Capt Barlows company should make a detour and reach the rear of the enemy and advance in echelon formation. The strength of the enemy was not known at the time.
Colonel Myers decided to wait and attack the enemy in front. Shortly after Barlow left on his mission, Arrington’s company of the 15th Cav, used as an advance Guard
met the enemy and it was plainly seen they were outnumbered. Col Myers then gave the command to charge and at the same time the "rebel yell" went up.
We drove the advance guard back to about ¼ of a mile when we came in contact with the enemy consisting of about 3000 men. The fighting was fierce, continued for about 20 minutes, when we were forced to retireHarry[Henry] Davis the flag bearer was shot in about 20 feet of where I was at, and getting off his horse, sat down by a pine tree and was last seen holding the flag aloft”. Several were killed. “Besides several being killed about 50 of our men were captured. In the retreat William HH Greenwood and myself accompanied the few of the REGT, which was left to a rendezvous near Claiborne, Al.
About April 20 all troops in south Al were ordered to Gainesville to be paroled.Davis the Flag bearer was buried on what is now known as the home of Capt CA Marriot.
“My experience during the war, like many another rebel, has been sometimes dark and sometimes bright. I sometimes hear the boys who have gone before tapping on my chamber door calling ‘Come o’re, Come o’re’.
Will has been in an unknown and unmarked grave for over 150 years. Please take a moment and sign our petition to give him back his name and return him home.
Note on Will's Picture
* The picture we have of Will has passed down through our family since 1862. On the back of the picture is written the following...Father's brother William Davis fought in Civil war. Killed at that time. Willl looks much like our brother Mark E. Davis. The exact same picture is in the Oskosh Public Musem labeled William H. Boyd.
Note on Will's headstone in Lewiston, Maine
Will's parents lost their son James in 1855. He died at age 19 in Michigan. They put up a headstone for him in Lewiston, Maine. The family does not know what killed James or if his body is in the grave under the headstone. William's body was never recovered, nor was Henry's. We believe Will and Henry's names were added later. We belive the headstone records the names of the three, but it marks an empty grave.