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America’s “Good Death”

Visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park invariably wind their way to the summit of Little Round Top. They walk the path above its rocky face, take in the view of the valley below, and study the memorials. Then, they divert to the tree-lined southern slope to see a small Hallowell granite monument dedicated to its famed regimental defenders, the 20th Maine Infantry.

Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Carved on the back of this monument are the names of the officers and enlisted men who fell on the second and third days of the battle. Topping the list is the highest-ranking officer of the regiment to lose his life at Gettysburg: Charles Wheeler Billings, the captain and commander of Company C.

The story of his suffering and death from a mortal wound was told within months of his passing in the great hall of the U.S. Capitol. An unpublished diary and several letters sent by Billings to his father reveal a man who cared deeply for country, God, his family and the soldiers he commanded. Quotes from these papers, excerpts from an address delivered beneath the unfinished dome of the Capitol, and personal artifacts come together here for the first time.

Billings was old enough to be the father of some of the men he commanded at Gettysburg in 1863. Born 38 years earlier, he grew up in Clinton, Maine, about 40 miles west of Bangor. His father, Abaijah, owned a prosperous mill that carded, or finished, wool, and served as the town’s postmaster. His mother, Rhoda, had her hands full raising eight children.

Billings. Carte de visite by C.G. Carleton of Waterville, Maine. Author’s collection.
Billings. Carte de visite by C.G. Carleton of Waterville, Maine. Author’s collection.

Young Billings seems to have kept a step ahead of his peers. In his teens, he attended private school. At 22, he purchased a half-interest in his father’s business. Two years later, in 1849, he married Ellen Libby Hunter, daughter of a prominent lumber and political family in town, and started a family that grew to include three daughters.

Over the next decade, Billings prospered. He followed his father and father-in-law into local government, serving as a selectman and as Clinton’s clerk.  

By the start of the Civil War, Billings ranked as a firmly established citizen—and a choice candidate for the Union Army’s volunteer officer corps. Though not a responder to the 1861 call to arms, he acted after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 request for 300,000 more volunteers.

Though Billings’ exact motivations for joining the army are not known, a passage in a letter written to his father indicates he understood the stakes were high: “Shall we subdue the Rebels and secure liberty to our country? Or shall we give up the contest and let the sword of despotism and ignorance sweep over our fair country?”  

August 1862 proved a whirlwind of activity as Citizen Billings transformed to 2nd Lt. Billings. He enlisted on August 9 and by September 5 embarked with the rest of the 20th for the nation’s capital.

The rapid mobilization and basic training experienced by Billings and his comrades were common in both armies during the war, differing only by dates and local circumstances. None of these Maine men could have imagined that their put-together group from all corners of the state, ultimately led by a college professor, was destined to be celebrated as one of the Union army’s most storied regiments.

On Sept. 7, 1862, the 20th arrived in Washington, D.C., and, after a brief stay, moved into Virginia as part of the Army of the Potomac. About this time, Billings started a diary that sheds light on the individuals and influences that shaped the regiment.

Adelbert Ames and Antietam

One of his earliest entries relates how the regiment’s first colonel, stern disciplinarian and West Pointer Adelbert Ames, molded the men into soldiers: “The day was hot and the road dusty, and some of the boys were very tired before we got into Camp, quite a number fell out from exhaustion and the Col. was very angry, he said if the Regt. could not do better, they had better all desert, and used other language not very flattering to the men generally.”

Billings and his comrades in the 20th were commanded by Adelbert Ames, left, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Library of Congress.
Billings and his comrades in the 20th were commanded by Adelbert Ames, left, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Library of Congress.

Within a matter of days, the 20th broke camp and marched into Maryland. Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had crossed into the Old Line State in a bold bid for peace and foreign intervention.

Though army commanders held the 20th and the rest of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps in reserve, the men glimpsed the immediate devastation of combat.

Billings recorded the scene at South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862, where a pitched battle bought Lee time to consolidate his forces at nearby Sharpsburg. “We passed during the day the battle field of Sunday and saw dead Rebels in considerable numbers by the side of the road, some of the boys who were behind went up on the hill where the fiercest of the fight was and saw them in piles. Several hundred prisoners past us on their way to Frederick, poorly clad & dirty they were too.”

Three days later, Billings described the action outside Sharpsburg in the fields and woods around Antietam Creek.

“Early in the morning the enemy, or our right, I do not know which, commenced firing and in an instant almost our whole line for three miles, that is on all eminences, was engaged in pouring shell & shot. Soon after Breakfast we were ordered to support a battery of 32 Lbers. Our division was drawn up in lines of battle, our Regiment in front. After remaining here an hour or so we were march[ed] to the right but not till the enemy in our front had skedadelled before the brave boys on the right. The large guns did good execution as they took the enemy as they fell back. I did not witness this part of the fight for we were not allowed to go on the hill for fear the enemy would shell us more.”

Billings continued, “I was on the hill and witnessed most of the fighting and it was desperate. At times the cannonading would almost cease and then some new position would be taken, or some charge would be made, and again it commenced with renewed violence. At 4 O’clock our brigade was ordered to the right and went almost double quick expecting to take our share [of] the Sanguinary Strife, but before we reached the ford of the Antietam we met Gen McClellan who was recd with loud cheers by all the troops, he ordered a halt and soon sent word that we were not needed and we marched back to our old ground behind the hills & batteries where we encamped for the night.”

Grim night at Fredericksburg

The 20th soon returned to Northern Virginia via Harpers Ferry. In December, the Union and Confederate armies clashed at Fredericksburg. This time, unlike Antietam, the regiment found itself in the thick of the action.

Two well-known post-war accounts by members of the 20th tell the story. Theodore Gerrish, in his book, Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, dedicated just a few paragraphs that contain a glowing endorsement of Col. Ames and stark details of the fight. Ames’ second-in-command, Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, painted a romantic, dramatic view in his essay, “My Story of Fredericksburg.”

Both Gerrish and Chamberlain referred to the night between the first and second day’s fight, during which they lay on bloody battleground amongst the dead and wounded. In Chamberlain’s words, “a bivouac with the dead.”

“We are all lying flat on the ground which is wet & muddy. The Captain & I have boards from a fence close to us on which we are dry. The men had an uncomfortable night, though it was not cold enough to freeze.”

Billings’ diary recorded his experience of that grim night. In it, he mentions his captain, Isaac Bangs, Jr. “We are all lying flat on the ground which is wet & muddy. The Captain & I have boards from a fence close to us on which we are dry. The men had an uncomfortable night, though it was not cold enough to freeze. We remained on the field until 9 or 10 Sunday evening and then were relieved.”

Later that day, the 20th left the scene. Billings recorded what happened next. “We marched to the City and stacked arms in the principal Street & found lodgings in an unfinished hotel,” (believed to be the Exchange Hotel, which exits today). He continued, “We occupied the dining hall, a room 30 x 50. We slept about 3 hours. We remained here until the next evening and then moved to the upper end of the city and into a garden, where we remained until 12 o’clock, when we were called up, fell in & marched to the battlefield on the right of the place occupied by us before. Here we were placed in rifle pits & a strong picket thrown out in advance some 5 rods to some small pits capable of holding 4 or 5 men. We put 4 men in each & one of them was sent forward 2 or 3 rods on his knees & there lay flat, keeping watch of the enemies’ movements. Here we remained until nearly 5 O’ clock and then withdrew leaving the ground to the enemy. We were in a very exposed position and wind & darkness alone saved us from destruction. We have reason to thank God for his providential care over us. We all escaped injury this night and marched across the river without anything occurring uncommon to such movements.”  

Billings added his observations of a city that became a casualty of war: “Fredericksburg is very much injured by shot & shell & nearly all the buildings were ransacked & pillaged of whatever was valuable that could be removed. I did not go into any house except those occupied by ourselves & some wounded soldiers. Those first in the city found many valuables. Great quantities of tobacco were obtained by the soldiers, some Regts getting all they could carry.”

Fredericksburg was the first large-scale combat the 20th faced as warriors, and Billings recorded that, with one exception, his men stood “square up to the mark.”

Season of change

The army’s humiliating loss at Fredericksburg ended active campaigning for the 20th and the rest of the army as winter set in—with the exception of a failed five-day Union offensive in January 1863 known as the “Mud March.”

For Billings, the winter encampment agreed with him. He enjoyed good health, put on a few pounds, and kept warm with a well-drafting brick fireplace in his quarters.

The same could not be said for all his comrades. One day in February 1863, Col. Ames demonstrated his reputation for toughness after a soldier from Company D returned from patrol in a very dirty condition. Ames ordered up an unusual punishment. Billings noted that, “The Regt was drawn up in [a] hollow square. There was six inches of snow on the ground, a tub & two pails of warm water were placed on the Snow & a board for him to stand on. He was stripped naked & washed by two men with soap & sponges” under the direction of the regiment’s surgeons. “The act seemed mad on such a day but its effect on the Regt may be good,” Billings added.

Winter also marked changes in command. Ambrose E. Burnside, the general who lead the Army of the Potomac into slaughter at Fredericksburg and suffering during the Mud March, was out. His replacement, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, set about restoring morale with his reputation as a fighter and novel corps badges.

Billings also received a promotion when, on February 7, he became a captain. The advancement came with a transfer from his original Company A to Company C.

The season, and Billing’s diary, ended on a sad note after Eri C. Goodwin, a private in his old company, died of disease on March 28. Billings recorded the funeral, wrote to the dead boy’s parents, and paid to have the body disinterred and sent home.

About this time, Billings made his way home after he obtained a 15-day furlough to visit his family and friends in Clinton.

The furlough turned out to be a final reunion.

A new colonel, and preparing for a “Sanguinary struggle”

Back with his command by May, Billings and the 20th did not take a direct part in the Chancellorsville Campaign. The Maine men missed the fight as a result of an improperly administered smallpox vaccine that resulted in their quarantine.

One member of the 20th who did participate in the culminating Battle of Chancellorsville was Col. Ames. He volunteered as an aide on the staff of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who commanded the army’s Fifth Corps. Two weeks after the loss at Chancellorsville, Ames received his brigadier’s star and brigade command.

Meanwhile, the 20th ended its quarantine and returned to active duty in mid-June with newly promoted Col. Chamberlain in charge.

On June 28, Maj. Gen. Meade learned that he had replaced “Fighting Joe” Hooker as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. That same day, Billings wrote to his father. The letter, datelined at an encampment near Frederick, Md., captured a moment in time following two days and 40 miles of hard marching, as elements of the Union army regrouped and hurried north to counter the second invasion by Gen. Lee and his Confederates.

“If my health is spared I am willing to endure much, if by so doing this wicked rebellion can be crushed.”

“We have had a rather hard time for the last 15 days, many a weary march we have had in the hot boiling sun and the last two days in rain & mud fording rivers & brooks, but we have come out all right at last, feeling as well as when we started,” Billings wrote. “I am about as tough as most men, and if I get tired at night, morning finds me rested almost always. … If my health is spared I am willing to endure much, if by so doing this wicked rebellion can be crushed. As you said in your letter of the 15th, we are soon to meet to [fight] for freedom again, and Lord grant us success. Though I fear his army exceeds ours, I believe we are gaining in strength daily, and if the North does half its duty, the bold invaders will never see Richmond again except as a broken disorganized rabble.”

He added, “Tomorrow or next day may witness a most Sanguinary struggle, we expect it. May the Lord of right smile upon our efforts and give us success. O! how many thousands are earnestly praying for our success, and will not God answer our prayers? We believe he will!”

“The good death”

The story of the 20th Maine’s defense of Little Round Top has been described many times in books, movies, documentaries and lectures. A battle line bent backwards, its flanks at right angles; close-in, desperate combat against Alabamians led by Col. William C. Oates; acts of individual heroism.

Little Round Top. Library of Congress.
Little Round Top. Library of Congress.

Billings and his Company C occupied part of the left half of the regiment that Chamberlain ordered extended and bent backwards to meet the enemy. Early in the action, when the deadly exchange of musketry began in earnest, a bullet struck Billings in the thigh, just above the knee.

The next few days proved chaotic as wounded poured into makeshift hospitals and the tide of battle turned in favor of federal arms. Billings was moved from a temporary aid station to the Jacob Weikert Farm and finally the farm of Michael Fiscel.

On July 6, Col. Chamberlain detailed the regiment’s defense of Little Round Top in his after-action report—his first of many tellings. “Captain Billings,” he noted, along with two other leaders, “are officers whose loss we deeply mourn—efficient soldiers, and pure and high-minded men.”

John P. Billings traveled 600 miles to visit his wounded older brother. Instead, he brought his brother’s remains home to Maine for burial. Author’s collection.
John P. Billings traveled 600 miles to visit his wounded older brother. Instead, he brought his brother’s remains home to Maine for burial. Author’s collection.

Word of Billings’ wounding reached his wife, Ellen, in Clinton a few days later. She and his younger brother, John Patten Billings, packed their bags and departed town for the 600-mile journey to Gettysburg.

In her acclaimed 2009 book This Republic of Suffering, historian Drew Gilpin-Faust outlined the critical role “the good death” played for families and loved ones confronting mortality on a scale never seen before or since in America. To achieve some level of closure, families needed to know that a loved one’s final moments on the battlefield or in a hospital reflected repentance, acceptance of God, and a desire to enter heaven. Of equal importance was the recovery of remains for burial at home.

The man who brought closure to the Billings family, Episcopal minister Robert J. Parvin, served as a chaplain with the Christian Commission. He documented Billings’ final days at a public ceremony held in Washington, D.C., to mark the second anniversary of the Commission. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin presided over the event, and Parvin was one of two field delegates who spoke. How Parvin came to receive an invitation is not known. However, by making Billings the subject of his address, Parvin was able to connect with the Vice President, as both hailed from Maine.

Hamlin, Parvin, and a large crowd gathered inside the main chamber of the House of Representatives on Feb. 2, 1864. A Maine magazine dedicated to original literature and military affairs, The Northern Monthly, published his address. In it, Parvin recounted how Billings lay in an old barn, one of 65 of the worst cases in the Fifth Corps. “O, they were all sadly wounded. The brave fellow had some of his own men laying on the floor not far from him. He loved them with a father’s love. As one after another died around him, it worked so upon his mind that he became a raving maniac, until it took four or five to hold him. With great difficulty we got him away from his men who were dying,—in a room by himself,—and he rallied, became a little better.”

The reverend continued, “The surgeon went in to see him. He came out and I passed in. The Surgeon had told me that he could not live. If he had had a primary amputation,—an amputation, that is, on the field, he might have recovered, but he could not now. I took him by the hand. His first words were,—‘Chaplain, (for such they call us,) what did the Surgeon say?’ ‘Why, Captain, you are a critical case.’ ‘I know that, Chaplain, but does the Surgeon think I can live?’ ‘He thinks it is hardly possible that you will live, Captain.’”

Billings’ coffin plate and shoulder straps. Author’s collection. 
Billings’ coffin plate and shoulder straps. Author’s collection. 

Billings turned his thoughts to his wife. He referred to a message that had been dispatched by Parvin a day earlier. The minister explained it was likely en route, expressed hope that she might soon arrive, and asked Billings if he might give him a message for her. Parvin recalled, “He asked me to give her his knapsack and sword, and other little things that he mentioned; and if she came, the message which he wished me to deliver, and then he seemed to dismiss all these things from his mind, as he lay there calm, peaceful, a dying man as well as a dying soldier, and above all else, a dying Christian.”

After a time, Billings stirred and told Parvin to go and minister to other soldiers, and to stop by from time to time to read scripture and pray. He made a further request, Parvin noted. “‘Could you have my body embalmed and sent home? I lost my money on the field.’ ‘Certainly, Captain, it shall be done; give yourself no further thought about that.’”

Billings died the next morning, July 15, at 11 a.m. Later that afternoon, at 5 o’clock, his remains went to the embalmer.

Five hours later, Parvin busied himself writing letters when someone knocked at his door. The man who entered asked for Billings. Parvin recalled the exchange that followed. “‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘I am his brother. I have his wife with me! I have buoyed her up this long way with the hope that we could find the Captain in good condition. Where is he, sir?’”

Parvin told him. Brother John Billings, shocked and overcome with emotion, turned his thoughts to Ellen, whom he had left behind in Gettysburg, about four miles distant. He persuaded Parvin to accompany him to Gettysburg.

“And so our sad duty was to see the wife and deliver the message and the tokens of the dying love of her husband, and speak to her words of comfort in the name of the Lord! His body was carried on to the State of Maine to repose with those of his kindred there,” Parvin noted.

The chaplain ended his address here. A brief addendum in The Northern Monthly noted that many gathered inside the great hall wept. “It was a people’s tribute to a dying Christian patriot.” In this statement, the address made the case for “the good death” not only to the Billings family, but to all Americans.

Epilogue

Billings’ remains rest below a substantial monument in Riverview Cemetery in Clinton. He joined his daughter, Alice, who had died in 1860. Another daughter, Elizabeth, joined them before the year’s end. His third daughter, Isadore, married and had a family of her own. She died in 1897. John Billings passed that same year.

Courtesy of the author.

Courtesy of the author.

Parvin barely outlived Capt. Billings. In 1868, he perished during a missionary trip to the West. The steamer aboard which he was a passenger, the United States, caught fire and burned on the Ohio River. His body was not recovered.

Ellen never remarried. She eventually moved to Lancaster, N.H., to live with daughter Isadore. She died in 1924. Her remains were brought home to Clinton and interred next to her husband.

The Billings name lived on as part of the Clinton post of the Grand Army of the Republic and a local chapter of the Woman’s Relief Corps. The story of Billings’ final days remains a poignant postscript to literature devoted to the Battle of Gettysburg and the 20th Maine Infantry.

Now we have his words and likeness to bring him more fully into focus.

References: Kingsburg and Deyo, eds., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine; The Northern Monthly, Vol. I (1864); Pullen, The Twentieth Maine; Desjardins, Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine; Pfanz, Gettysburg The Second Day; O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign; Gilpin-Faust, This Republic of Suffering; Charles Billing pension and military service files, National Archives; Gregory A. Coco Collection, Gettysburg National Military Park; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec, 18, 1868.

Paul Russinoff of Baltimore has been a passionate collector and researcher of photographs from the Civil War since elementary school. A subscriber to MI since its inception, representative images from his collection appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue. He is a Senior Editor of MI.

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