Yesterday my daughter and I ended up in Frankfort Springs, Pa., in Beaver County, a mostly rural and working-class county in western Pennsylvania that voted for McCain in 2008. In the nineteenth century Frankfort Springs was a thriving resort town known for its mineral waters and its prep school. Today it’s a mostly forgotten place, its grand old architecture faded but still surviving.

On the side of the road was a small but immensely moving Union monument, erected in 1888 in the town’s heyday.  Just a short stone obelisk, marked with sixteen names and an inscription that reads, IN MEMORY OF OUR HEROIC DEAD WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES. The obelisk, it turns out, had been moved from its original location on the grounds of the school (now defunct), its base cut down from the original seven-foot pile, and the names re-chiseled. But like the rest of the town, it has hung on.

A Memorial Day document from 1911 explains that one of the local townsmen wanted particularly to erect “a suitable memorial to those patriots whose bodies lie far away from loved ones.” One of the most common, and poignant, tragedies of the Civil War was the disappearance of so many soldiers’ bodies.  Many of the soldier monuments erected in the first quarter century after the war served as markers for the dead in the absence of graves that family could visit.

Most of the men listed on this little shaft had volunteered in the 140th Pennsylvania, a famous regiment that saw action at Gettysburg and almost every major battle in Virginia. They fought Lee’s army countless times, sometimes more than once over the same ground.  Six of the men on the monument died in one battle, on May 12, 1864, near Spottsylvania Courthouse in the horrific Battle of the Wilderness.  First-hand accounts of the carnage there still shock.  The men had to march into position in the middle of the night, in “thick darkness and pelting rain,” and then at 4:30AM, a little before daybreak, they launched a surprise attack against the dug-in Confederates, who were just waking up behind their fortifications of earthworks and wooden spikes.  The 140th Pennsylvania, along with several thousand other men on the front line of the charge, were ordered not to stop and shoot but instead to fix their bayonets and charge right through the Confederate entrenchments.  To get there they had to survive three volleys each of rifle and artillery fire which “took effect in the heads and shoulders of the advancing men.” Those who made it through the fire and the wooden spikes found themselves face to face with the enemy. The commanding officer who personally led the charge wrote that “it was the first time during the war that I had actually seen bayonets crossed in mortal combat; it was a crash and a terrible scene…” He went on:

“The ground was fought over by the troops charging back and forth for ten hours of that day, and presented a spectacle of horror without a parallel. Probably on no other one field of like area of the great Civil War did as desperate fighting and heavy loss occur. During that time the infantry fire was so terrific that standing trees were cut down by musket balls alone, and one solid oak, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down entirely by the infantry fire during the engagement… [Artillery] Batteries attempting to go into action were completely disabled and thrown into a disordered mass by the drivers and horses being killed, and the bodies of men who fell, killed or wounded on the ramparts were riddled by scores of bullets. It was the only ground that I ever saw during the war that was so completely covered with dead and wounded that it was impossible to walk over it without stepping on dead bodies.”

One of the dead was William Purdy, who grew up on a farm outside Frankfort Springs. He was ill with measles at the time, being nursed by his brother John, but was ordered into the charge anyway. After the battle “no word was had of him.”  All that was left of him was “his Bible, knife, fork, and spoon,” which were found on the battlefield and returned to his family.

William Purdy. His name is the fifth listed on the front face of the obelisk. Without that simple inscription in stone, William Purdy’s name along with his remains would probably have been lost to us by now.  What does the name tell us? We don’t know how he died, or what happened to his body, or what he believed about the Union cause, if anything. If the measles story is true, we can guess that in his weakened state he must have fallen early in the battle, his body probably subjected to repeated depredations by both friend and foe as they battled back and forth over the same small stretch of ground. I wonder how long his parents on their farm back home held onto the dream that he might one day reappear.  How long after the Bible and the utensils came back to them did they give up the last remnants of hope?

Nothing on this modest monument explains his death, or glorifies it, or minimizes it. William Purdy was sick, but the nation needed his body anyway and he gave it, and then that body disappeared forever. All that remains of him is a simple cut stone, a profound testament to the irreducibility of each human tragedy that war exacts.