June 1862: "...I have ascertained the following particulars of your brother's death..."By Elaine Grublin
Letter from Julius M. Lathrop to [James] Baxter, 27 June 1862
In this three-page letter, dated 27 June 1862, Corporal Julius M. Lathrop describes the death of Private George H. Baxter in a skirmish at Tranter’s Creek, near Washington, North Carolina. Lathrop, a friend and fellow soldier in the Twenty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, did not witness Baxter’s death, but prompted by a request from Baxter’s brother, Lathrop “ascertained the following particulars” from Sergeant George W. Nichols, who was fighting beside Baxter when he received his mortal wound.
George H. Baxter was one of seven children born to Thompson and Beulah Baxter in Boston, Massachusetts. Little is known about his early life. Born in 1824, he was an unmarried, 37-year-old clerk living in Newton, Massachusetts, when he enlisted in the Twenty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in October 1861.
In September 1861, Governor John A. Andrew commissioned Thomas G. Stevenson as a colonel and charged him with forming a new three-year regiment. Under Stevenson’s leadership, the Twenty-Fourth was recruited and trained at Camp Massasoit in Readville, Massachusetts. The regiment departed in December for Annapolis, Maryland, where it was assigned to join General Ambrose Burnside’s expedition to secure the coast of North Carolina. In the winter of 1862, the Twenty-Fourth engaged in action at both Roanoke Island and Newbern, North Carolina, losing men in both events. The securing of Newbern in March of 1862 brought a break in military action until the regiment was ordered to aid in the defense of Washington, North Carolina, in June of 1862.
On 5 June 1862, the Twenty-Fourth Massachusetts, along with a small number of cavalry from New York, engaged in a short skirmish with the Forty-Fourth North Carolina under Colonel George Singletary at Tranter’s Creek. The Union leadership at Washington, North Carolina, feared that Singletary was planning an attack on their men and decided to take the offensive. The resulting action left five men from the Twenty-Fourth, including Baxter, dead and several more seriously wounded. Colonel Singletary, leading the North Carolinians, also died in the battle.
It was common for nurses, surgeons, chaplains, and surviving soldiers to send letters to family members describing the events surrounding a particular soldier’s death in battle. Evidence in the George H. Baxter papers suggests that the Baxter family received three such letters. The MHS holds two of these letters. In this letter Corporal Lathrop makes it clear to the family that Baxter’s wounds were serious, that his fellow soldiers did all that they could to bring him to the proper medical treatment, and that his death came quickly. Lathrop also indicates that Baxter did not utter any final words – having been shot in the throat, perhaps words were not possible for Baxter – and describes for the family the conditions under which Baxter was laid to rest, assuring them that all those killed in the skirmish had been “placed in coffins … and there [Newbern, North Carolina] interred in the burying ground, each grave being properly marked… so that the remains can be removed at some future time” (page 2). It would likely have brought great solace to Baxter’s family to know that George had not died alone and had been properly laid to rest.
Julius M. Lathrop of Dedham, Massachusetts, remained with the Twenty-Fourth until August 1862, when he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and transferred to the Thirty-Eighth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He died on 26 April 1864 of wounds received during the Battle of Cane River in Louisiana during the Red River Campaign.
Sources for Further Reading
This letter from Julius M. Lathrop is contained in the George H. Baxter Papers. This collection contains approximately a dozen letters from George H. Baxter to his brother James and two letters to his sister Mary describing his experiences with the Twenty-Fourth during the Civil War. The collection also contains two letters describing Baxter’s death and two letters written by John H.B. Kent of Boston, Massachusetts to an unidentified member of the Baxter family describing his experiences with the Forty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1863 and 1864.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Roe, Alfred. The Twenty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1866. Worcester, Mass: Twenty-Fourth Veteran Association, 1907.