This post was originally posted on the Mrs Daffodil Digresses blog on 3 July 2015.
Mrs Daffodil is rarely au courant with the details of military history; she often wonders why illustrations of combatants from the American Civil War do not depict armour, buff-coats or lobster-tail helmets. So Mrs Daffodil is pleased to welcome as a guest poster that thoroughly American person from the Haunted Ohio blog Chris Woodyard, with a story from the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended on this day in 1863.
A Soldier Who Decorates His Own Grave.
“Do you see that man?” said a member of the Grand Army of the Republic on Decoration Day, pointing to a healthy looking person with a soldierly bearing entering the Grand Army headquarters at Twelfth and Chestnut streets. Several eyes turned in the direction of the man, who had on a G.A. R. uniform and looked every inch a veteran.
“Yes,” said one, “why is he specially worth notice?”
The speaker smiled. “Well,” said he, “that comrade is dead. He has no business walking around here like a real live survivor. He is buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, and any day you should go up there I could show you his grave.”
Such a paradox naturally excited the curiosity of the bystanders. The dead-alive man seemed to be in very excellent health, but the fact that his grave was to be decorated on that very day was found to be a hard although strange fact.
“Yes,” said he,” with a twinkle in his eye, “my grave is in the national Cemetery at Gettysburg, and I am officially dead. At least it is so stated on the records of that burial place, and I have often had the melancholy pleasure of decorating my own grave.”
“That seems strange,” said a listener. The veteran was as solemn as his tomb itself. “I don’t look dead, I know,” said he, “and I don’t believe that I am, but when, a few years after the close of the war I visited the Gettysburg Cemetery and found a grave marked with my name I was shocked, but am used to it now. My name is Stephen Kelly; I live at No. 942 South Ninth street, and am reasonably well and happy, notwithstanding that my comrades insist occasionally that I shall visit the historical burial ground and spread flowers over my own grave. It’s a mistake, of course; I ain’t dead, but can’t get the cemetery people to acknowledge that fact. I was mustered in on Aug. 21, 1861, and was mustered out, as this certificate will show you, in 1864, honourably discharged at the end of my service.”
The papers were duly examined and found to be correct. “’Bates’ History,’ continued he, “and the records show that I was killed and buried at Gettysburg. The only trouble is that some other poor fellow killed in that bloody battle was buried for me. How the mistake occurred or who the unfortunate soldier was I could never find out; but I suppose some of my personal belongings, lost during the heat of the fight and bearing my name, were found on the dead soldier, and he was buried as Stephen Kelly. I go up every year to decorate my own grave.”
Mr. Kelly was a member of Company E, Ninety-first Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, and served out his term of three years. He is now a member of G.A.R. Post No. 8, of this city.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 18 June 1886: p. 2
Talk about looking Death in the face…. It is an extraordinary story and the “Find-a-Grave” entry offers an even more extraordinary detail: That Pvt. Kelly was wounded 2 July 1863 and died in 1889 of his wounds. This is not impossible–some veterans lingered for years with war wounds–but I wonder if 1889 is the date that the monument was erected?
Another newspaper squib reported a possible reason for the misidentification of “Kelly’s” corpse.
It is said that there is a man who goes to Gettysburg every Memorial day and decorates his own grave. The story runs thus: “During the battle he was thought to be killed and another soldier took his papers from his pockets. The second soldier was buried as the first and No. 1, who recovered, goes to the place every year to keep green the grave which is marked with his own name.” Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 30 June 1891: p. 3
The dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery was the occasion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was also the site where Elizabeth Thorn, “The Angel of Gettysburg,” far gone in pregnancy, nearly single-handedly dug over one hundred graves to bury the battle’s dead. Her poignant story is one of Mrs Daffodil’s most-read posts.
Over at the Haunted Ohio blog you will also find a story telling of an extraordinary prophetic dream about a soldier’s death in that battle and his brother’s recovery of his corpse.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.