“My poor boy, Colonel!” The Story of Michael and Hezekiah Spessard

    There are few more heart-rendering stories from the Battle of Gettysburg than that of Captain Michael P. Spessard, a forty one year-old native of Craig County, Virginia, who commanded Company C, 28th Virginia Infantry in Garnett’s Brigade of Pickett’s Division, and his son Hezekiah Spessard, a private under his father’s command. Their lives would forever be changed on July 3, 1863, when, barely minutes into the charge against the Union center, Hezekiah fell from the ranks, seriously wounded. Eppa Hunton, Jr., son of the dynamic Colonel Eppa Hunton who commanded the 8th Virginia Infantry, first described the scene in his father’s 1933 autobiography: “My father has frequently told me that as he was going into the battle he saw Major (then captain) Spessard of the 28th Regiment sitting on the ground holding a youth’s head is his lap. As Father approached, Spessard looked up and said, ‘Look at my poor boy, Colonel.’ He must have been dead then, for in a short time Father saw him kiss him tenderly and gently lay his head on the ground. Then the Major rose to his feet, put his sword to his shoulder, and ordered, ‘Forward, boys!’ and continued in the charge.”

An 1882 William Tipton image taken from Cemetery Ridge looking over the ground the 28th Virginia crossed in their advance. NPS

    This story has been retold several times, most notably in Gettysburg Historian Kathy Harrison’s “Nothing But Glory”, Pickett’s Division at Gettysburg (Longstreet House, Hightstown, NJ, 1987) where she describes Spessard fighting like a man possessed in the point-blank combat at the Angle, and his subsequent escape from capture. Harrison then relates that, “Captain Spessard was one of those fortunate enough to…. escape back to Seminary Ridge, where he saw to it that his son Hezekiah was properly cared for in the field hospital.”
    Other authors have depended on this narrative for the details of the Spessard story. It can often be found verbatim on internet pages and published narratives. Yet, I was curious why no details had ever emerged of the time the captain must have spent with his son as he lay dying in a Confederate field hospital? There is no mention in the Official Records, Hunton’s memoir, or the post-war letter written by William Jesse, a former member of the 28th Virginia who described Captain Spessard that day. In the absence of evidence we have assumed that after Pickett’s Charge, the captain sought out his son.
    What did happen to the Spessards after the charge? Tim Mallick, of northern Virginia, investigated this story, initially seeking only to determine what Confederate field hospital treated the younger Spessard and where he is buried. He found Private Spessard’s military service records for at the National Archives, and they noted that he died on July 19, 1863. There were no details on the location or circumstances of his death, nor his final resting place. If he died after July 3, then it had to be in a field hospital, but where?
There are two possibilities where Hezekiah might have received medical treatment. If he was removed from the field by comrades or a Confederate stretcher team, they most likely would have taken him to the division hospital at Bream’s Mill and the Currens Farm on Marsh Creek, west of Gettysburg. This is where the majority of Pickett’s wounded were taken. Several years ago the park acquired a medical roster of the wounded of Pickett’s Division at Bream’s Mill compiled by surgeon Edward Rives of the 28th Virginia Infantry, from the holdings of the Highland County Historical Society in Hillsboro, Ohio. Hezekiah Spessard’s name is not listed in this journal, nor is a grave marker noted for him in the journal of Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal, who made a number of notations on the graves found at Bream’s Mill, the Currens Farm, and Black Horse Tavern. That Hezekiah was not treated at his division’s field hospital made it unlikley that his father or anyone from his division removed him from the field.
    If Hezekiah had fallen closer to Union lines and been removed by Union soldiers, he most likely would have been transported to the Second Corps hospital at the Schwartz Farm, but his name does not appear on any rosters of Confederate prisoners (or burials) at that site. Where he might have been taken remained a mystery.
    Tim Mallick continued to dig into the story and discovered a letter in the Spessard family papers at the Craig County Historical Society in New Castle, Virginia. It turned out that Hezekiah had been removed from the field by Union soldiers of the 3rd Corps and that he died at their corps field hospital on July 19. This hospital was located south of the Union 2nd Corps hospital on the Schwartz farm. Unfortunately, Hezekiah’s grave at the hospital was either not properly marked or the marker was lost by the time Dr. O’Neal visited the site to record the Confederate burials there. Hezekiah’s remains are most likely among the many unknowns shipped to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond in 1872-1873.

  Though he was never reunited with his dying son, Captain Michael P. Spessard remained with the 28th Virginia Infantry and was promoted to the rank of major in 1864, a role in which he served until surrendered and paroled at Appomattox Court House. Personal tragedy visited him again after Gettysburg when his second wife and their daughter both died in 1864. Upon his return home after the war he resumed farming in Craig County and married for a third time in 1868, fathering five more children. He served as county sheriff and in public office in New Castle until his death in 1889. He was buried alone on his farm in a small plot that was unfortunately neglected until ten or twelve years ago when a family member and volunteers from the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans cleaned up the plot, erected a fence and gate around the site, and installed a new headstone to replace the old stone that was broken.

Michael Spessard's original headstone. Courtesy Tim Mallick.

    After the charge, Spessard evidently searched for his son Hezekiah at the division hospital at Bream’s Mill and failing to find him, marched away from Gettysburg uncertain of his whereabouts. It was not until late July when he received a letter from his wife that he knew when and where his son had died, but never had the opportunity to attempt to retrieve his body. He never returned to Gettysburg. Eppa Hunton, the colonel of the 8th Virginia, once wrote that he never returned to Gettysburg after the war because the memories of the battle it would arouse were too painful to experience again. No doubt, the same was true for Michael Spessard. The personal tragedy he suffered there eclipsed all other events that July 3 afternoon.

John Heiser,
Historian

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