The History of the 2d Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery Provisionals, published in 1904, makes scant mention of Pvt. Robert McElrath. In the book’s roster of “unassigned men,” next to McElrath’s name appears these few words, “wounded 29 June 1864.”
Unfortunately one has to dig much deeper to learn more about this soldier — a miner before his enlistment — who lost his life in the final year of the American Civil War. A great place to dig, I have learned, is in the Pension Records. Here can often be found not only personal information such as birth, death, and marriage records, but personal eye-witness accounts from the battlefield filed under oath by survivors of the conflict.
Fortunately for 38 year-old Robert McElrath, a private in Co. “C” of the “Provisionals” who was mortally wounded in June 1864, two eye-witness accounts survive of the events surrounding his death which were recorded for the benefit of Robert’s 30 year-old widow, Louisa McElrath, and his two young children, George (age 14) and Anna (age 6).
The first eye-witness account was provided, under oath, by William Kuhns in January 1867. It reads:
I, William Kuhns…do swear that I was a member of Co. “C” 112th Pennsylvania Vols: 2d Pennsylvania Artillery [and] that I was present within six feet of Robert McElrath when he was wounded by a shell. It was to the best of my recollection four or five days after the battle of Cold Harber at a place called Shady Grove or White Oak Flats. The Rebels got in our rear and shelled us. A piece of shell struck McElrath in the right side in the ribs. He was taken to a field hospital and from there he was taken to some U. S. General Hospital and it was afterwards announced in the company that McElrath was dead from the effects of the above wound… — Wm. Kuhns
Also providing an affidavit under oath was William Crawford, a resident of Washingtonville, Montour County, Pennsylvania:
…says he was a member of Co. “C” 112th Regt. Pennsylvania Volunteers (2nd PA H. A. Provisionals), that he was present when Robert McElrath of said company was wounded. That it was at Cold Harbor, Virginia. Sometime about the first of June 1864, McElrath received a shell wound in the side while he was with the company, was marching in line, that he did not see the wound itself but saw and talked to McElrath immediately after as he was lying on the ground. He said his whole side was torn out. He was immediately taken to the field hospital together with another soldier who was wounded and afterwards was sent to York, Pennsylvania Hospital where I learned he died. He further swears that there is no other member of said company in Montour County who was at this time a member of the company… — William Crawford
As further evidence of Pvt. McElrath’s death, a letter was submitted to the Pension Bureau written by Chaplain James Allen Brown † who served with the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteers from York. It is undoubtedly a copy as it carries the date of July 1st 1866 — probably when it was copied — rather than the date the original was written on July 1, 1864. It reads:
U. S. A. General Hospital, York, Pennsylvania
July 1st 186
I wrote to you on Monday morning that your husband was extremely ill and not likely to live. This I did that if practicable you might see him before he died. He lived until Wednesday morning between 1 and 2 o’clock, when he died. We deferred his funeral until last evening still thinking you might arrive. Last evening he was buried with every mark of respect in our beautiful “Prospect Hill Cemetery” where his grave will be carefully marked. He sleeps with many of his brave comrades in this quiet spot. I can only commend you to our gracious God and Father who alone can comfort you in your bereavement.
I send you receipts for his effects which you will please sign in duplicate, and accompany it by an affidavit that you are his wife and the only person authorized to receive them. They will be forwarded as you may direct.
Truly yours, — J. A. Brown, Chaplain
Pvt. McElrath died 29 June 1864 and he is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. York, Pennsylvania. Section A, Row 689, Site 20. Doff your hat and pay tribute to his service if you ever pass through York.
† At the outbreak of war, James Allen Brown was serving as the acting president and professor of ancient languages at a seminary in Newberry, South Carolina. When pressed by the faculty and students as to his loyalties, Brown reportedly boldly proclaimed from the pulpit that he was born and raised in the Union and wanted to die there. Needless to say, his resignation was demanded and Brown fled from the state leaving most of his possessions.
“Brown served as the chaplain of the military hospital for most of the war, serving from 1862 until 1864. His was a massive chore, as the facilities housed more than 14,000 different patients during the war, with the majority there during Brown’s tenure as chaplain. Perhaps as many as 200 patients died; Reverend Brown officiated at many of the funerals for those fatalities who were buried in York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.” [Source: Armychaplaincy.com]