While studying the war from 5,000 feet, it can be easy to disconnect one’s self from the stories of the individuals who bled and died in the conflict. During the nation’s Covid-19 crisis, many historical venues and museums were taking to the internet to continue their education outreach. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine was no exception and provided heaps of wonderful content every week. The museum partners with the Clara Barton Missing Soldier’s Office (a must-visit on my list) and featured a livestream presentation about Clara Barton and her efforts to bring closure to families who had lost their loved ones during the war.
One such story caught my attention, mostly because the soldier happened to have been lost during the Battle of the Wilderness, my current study focus. Since many of Clara Barton’s letters have been digitally archived, it was easy for me (with the help of the museum) to pull up the transcribed letter and learn more about Wilber Hurlbut. What I found was far more than I expected.
Wilberforce Lovejoy Hurlbut was born July 20th, 1841 to Reverend Thaddeus Hurlbut and Abigail Paddock in Upper Alton, Illinois. He was named after William Wilberforce (a renown abolitionist from Britain) and Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper editor and abolitionist, whom Thaddeus admired and supported in their hometown. The Hurlbut home doesn’t stand today, but in its place is the Calvary Baptist Church on the corner of Washington Avenue and Brown Avenue. Wilber likely grew up listening to his father’s sermons and witnessing the dissention within his own community over the slavery question that was bound to tear the country apart. The values he was so praised for later in life would have been shaped over these formative years.
The war broke out while Wilber was still in college, but the call to arms came in February of 1862 and, against his parents’ wishes, Wilber answered the call. He dropped out in the middle of his junior year at Shurtleff College to enlist in Company I of the 5th Michigan Infantry. His education granted him the rank of First Lieutenant and he served as General Israel Richardson’s aide-de-camp. Hurlbut would get his first taste of battle at Fair Oaks and the Seven Days Battle during the Peninsula Campaign. General Richardson was wounded that September at Antietam while storming the Sunken Road with the rest of his division (also known as Bloody Lane). The 5th Michigan wasn’t present at the battle, but Hurlbut would have attended with the rest of Richardson’s staff. The wounded general was taken to General George McClellan’s headquarters at the Pry House (another partner with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine) to recover. It may be safe to assume that Hurlbut would have visited the general during his time there. Richardson would later succumb to infection and die that November.
In May of 1863, Hurlbut transferred to Company D of the 5th Michigan and was promoted to the rank of Captain just before the battle at Chancellorsville. Within General David Birney’s division, they engaged in some of the heated combat on the Union far right flank that was battered by Stonewall Jackson’s surprise flank attack and J.E.B. Stuart’s devastating follow-up charge the day after. At Gettysburg, Hurlbut was severely wounded in action during the intense fighting along the Emmitsburg Road within Dan Sickles’ III Corps. Though he was counted amongst the 105 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) from the infamous battle, and had laid wounded on the field for three days, that would not be enough to keep him out of the war. That winter, he would fight the Confederates again along the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, then again at Locust Grove and Mine Run. In December, the regiment was granted Veteran Furlough until February. This might have been the last time that Hurlbut’s family would see him before he returned to his regiment at Brandy Station.
That campaign season would look drastically different from the prior two years. Now under the command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the Army of the Potomac would burn a path to Richmond, “even if it takes all summer”. Hurlbut wouldn’t get to see it to the end. Major General David Birney’s division (of which the 5th Michigan was included) was now under the leadership of General Winfield Scott Hancock of the II Corps, as Sickles was officially put out of the game after losing a limb at Gettysburg. The II Corps would clash with the Confederate Second Corps under General A.P. Hill along the Orange Plank Road and the Brock Road intersection. This junction was vitally important to both sides, as it was one of the most direct routes toward the Confederate capital. If the II Corps controlled the intersection, they could block any interference with the Federal army’s efforts to get around Lee to head south. If the Confederates took it, they could push back the bluecoats toward the Rappahannock.
This is what an online history of the 5th Michigan stated about the regiment’s time during the battle: “The Fifth marched by way of Chancellorsville and was soon engaged in the death grapple in the Wilderness, where it sustained severe casualties in killed and wounded… The Regiment was constantly under fire with its numbers greatly depleted by losses.”
The more detailed story of Birney’s command involves the driving of Hill’s Confederates from their earthworks early on the morning of May 6th, 1864. Brigadier General Alexander Hays’ regiments led the Union charge for a while, and amongst them was Wilber Hurlbut of the 5th Michigan. The II Corps had gotten the jump on the unprepared Confederates, but with the sudden arrival of General James Longstreet from the west, the Federals were pushed out of Widow Tapp Field and back toward the Brock Road intersection. One account described the chaos, “It was like a charge through the wildest regions of Dante’s Inferno”. Fires had broken out in the dense, second growth forest, creating this horrific scene for the soldiers. “Over the swamps, between the saplings, through the bushes and briers the men forced themselves, firing as they went, clearing the human opposition away with the bayonet.”
Superior officers dropped like flies and the struggle to defend the ground they had gained stretched through the morning. A later testimony from another soldier confirmed that Hurlbut was leading his regiment when he was struck in the head by a bullet and killed in action. The testimony was likely from a soldier named Luke Stanton, mentioned in the letter below. He was a private of Company D with the 5th Michigan at the time of the battle.
The Army of the Potomac would maintain their hold on the Brock Road, despite the enormous challenges of resisting flank attacks by Longstreet and nature itself working against them. The battle itself was considered a stalemate, but Grant seized the initiative and maneuvered his army south toward Spotsylvania, entering the next phase of what would become the Overland Campaign.
For Hurlbut and the other dead and wounded in the Wilderness, his body might have succumbed to one of a few fates. The Confederates might have taken his body and buried it within a mass grave, which was usual practice if the opposing side were unable to regain any ground in the battle. He might have never been buried at all, as one account from a veteran stated that “15,000 of our men, and as many, or more, of Rebels lie here unburied”. In June of 1865, an effort was made to attend to the remains of the Union soldiers left on the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields, but it wasn’t uncommon for a tourist trekking across the hallowed ground to come across a few missed bodies even up to the 1880s. Also, he could have been burned by one of the many fires that consumed the corpses that weren’t claimed quickly enough. In either of these last cases, he might have been reinterred at the Fredericksburg National Military Cemetery and now rests amongst the other “Unknowns” above Maryes Heights.
His record states: “Lived in Upper Alton, at enlistment. Entered service in company I, Fifth Infantry, as First Lieutenant. Commissioned March 10, 1862. Wounded in action at Gettysburg, PA, July 2, 1863. Commissioned Captain, company D, May 5, 1863. Mustered Nov. 3, 1863. Was in the following battles: Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard, Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill, Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, Cedars, Chancellorsville, Auburn, Kelly’s Ford and Mine Run. Killed in action at Wilderness, VA, May 6, 1864.”
His family would never know for sure what became of their son, which was why they reached out to Miss Clara Barton. With Abraham Lincoln’s endorsement, she began her monumental efforts to hunt down missing soldiers and provide new information or closure to the grieving families of the north. Many thousands were left unsolved, including Wilber Hurlbut. She couldn’t provide solid evidence at the time to tell Thaddeus and Abigail what exactly had happened to their son. Her letter to Clara strikes me as interesting, that she would reach out to James Longstreet, the Confederate general who led the charge against Hancock’s corps on the day of the battle. It suggests that Mrs. Hurlbut was desperate for any news about her only son and hoped that he was amongst the captured and not the dead. Many soldiers who were labeled as “missing” could have turned up later at a field hospital or prison camp. Still others might be claimed as killed or wounded, but showed up completely unscathed. This was why Clara’s mission was so important to healing the wounds of a reunited, but crippled nation.
A eulogy for Wilber Hurlbut was printed in the “Alton Telegraph” on January 27, 1865. It describes Hurlbut as a talented scholar, beloved by instructors, friends, family, and his community. Though they never had a body to bury, a memorial was erected in Alton Cemetery, the very same cemetery where Elijah Lovejoy was also interred.
The newspaper article about Hurlbut sums up the general grief of those who were left without any clue as to what happened to their sons, husbands, and fathers during the war. “His lamented and uncertain fate must ever add double poignancy in the intense grief of those who were near and dear to him. To hope against hope and never to know when, where, and how he died, but always to feel the dread certainty that he has gone forever in this life. May time soften the affliction to the bereaved ones, until God in his providence shall call them together.”
Here’s Mrs. Hurlbut’s letter to Clara:
Ripper Alton, Illinois
Sept. 26th 1865
I approach you with my great sorrow, but hardly indulge the hope that you can do anything for me. My darling boy, my only son, was reported killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6th, 1864.
His body was not found, and the hope was entertained by his Regiment and clutched at by myself, that wounded he had fallen into the hands of the Enemy, a prisoner and not dead.
After various fruitless efforts to obtain information, General Longstreet courteously ordered an examination in the southern prisons, and we obtained a certificate from each that no such name had ever been received.
After all our investigations we are led to the conclusion that he died on the battle field, or mortally wounded, was conveyed to some farm house and may have there been buried.
He was Captain of company D. Fifth Michigan Infantry. His sword, a cavalry sabre, had his name engraved upon it. Wilber Hurlbut, Fifth Michigan Infantry. He was in Hancock’s Corps, Birney’s Division, Hay’s Brigade. He had command of the Regiment at the time he fell. Had charged the enemy through a wood and was in the vicinity of Spottsylvania.
Our men were heavily pressed and fell back. Captain Hurlbut was missing. A man, by the name of Luke Stanton, told an officer that he saw him fall.
We have been unable to find Luke Stanton & have never ascertained to what Regiment he belonged, but learned he was soon after mustered out of the service. Captain Miller, Aid to General Hancock, made such efforts as he could, and other of his comrades did all in their power to learn his fate but we elicit nothing. If he died on the battlefield, I would that I knew it and if he died at a farm house, how much I wish to know it. For his sword I would give a handsome reward. Anything that was his would be most precious to me and nothing to strangers. Some articles of toilet he had with him have his name. Whatever of money found on his person was of course the spoil of war.
My son was twenty-two years old. Wore no moustache or beard. Was about six feet in height. When in College he was rather spare, but the outdoor life of the army had given him a robust appearance. He entered the army as Aid to General Richardson. After that officer’s lamented death, he served in the Michigan Fifth. He had participated in more than twenty battles. Was severely wounded at Gettysburg, but from which he wholly recovered.
The enemy held the battle ground of the Wilderness and should anything ever be revealed in regard to my dear boy, it would probably come from some Rebel source, unless indeed some of our men captured at the time should know something. General Ewell held the field there for sometime.
It may be well to add my son’s name to the many missing ones, and could you by any means give to me any knowledge of the last resting place of my darling one you would confer such a favor as none less desolate than myself can appreciate.
May God bless you in your humane efforts and abundantly reward you.
Mrs. T. B. Hurlbut
Ripper Alton, Illinois.
P. S. I neglected to mention that my son had dark hazel eyes. Hair almost black.