Corp. John Mentzer of Co. D and his relative by marriage, Cyrus Knepper of Co. E were serving together in the 2d Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery “Provisionals” in 1864. They had survived many a battlefield in the weeks just prior to the Battle of the Crater fought outside of Petersburg, Virginia, but after this engagement — a bloody and disastrous failure to breach the Confederate earthworks surrounding Petersburg — word drifted back to John that his relative had been wounded and taken to a field hospital. By the time John had an opportunity to go find his relative, it was too late. Cyrus died the following day of a gunshot wound in the abdomen received during the assault — a wound that was invariably fatal among Civil War soldiers.
John learned of his relative’s death from the surgeon who tried to save his life and from Rev. Alfred Henry Dashiell, Jr. (1824-1901) — the chaplain from the 57th Massachusetts who prayed for him in his dying hours and attended to his burial. Rev. Dashiel took John to the location where Cyrus had been buried that was marked with a wooden headboard and inscribed, “Cyrus Knepper, Private Battery E, 2d PA. Provisional Artillery.” John was also informed that the same words had been written on a slip of paper, rolled up, and inserted into a bottle placed next to Cyrus’ body as it was wrapped in his blanket and dropped into the shallow grave.
Two years later, John recalled these events in a sworn statement offered in support of a “Widow’s Pension” for Cyrus’ wife. At the same time, a former sergeant in Co. K, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry named John P. Study came forward to say that he also witnessed the gravesite and remembered that Cyrus had been buried in the burying ground of the IXth Corps Hospital near the grave of George Shaeffer, one of the fallen comrades from his own unit.
These statements were no doubt useful for Sarah Ann Knepper (1838-1914) to obtain the widow’s pension she sought for her husband’s service — a pension that would help her keep the family farm and help raise their three young children. From the accumulated materials in that pension record, we learn that Sarah Mentzer and Cyrus Knepper were united in marriage on 22 September 1855 by J. R. Smith, a Franklin County, Pennsylvania justice of the peace. By the time Cyrus joined the service in February 1864, the couple had three children: Alice Virginia Knepper, born 14 December 1855 (3 months after the marriage); Amanda Knepper, born 3 August 1858; and Benjamin F. Knepper, born 21 November 1861.
We also learn that after the death of her husband, Sarah purchased the 60-acre farm near Quincy that belonged to her parents, Jonathan Mentzer (1791-1858) and Francis Riddleserger (1810-1880).
A final resting place for soldiers who died near Petersburg
According to the National Park Service, “Union soldiers who were killed in battle were hastily buried near where the fighting took place, some in single shallow pits, others in mass graves. Identification was as simple as a name carved on a wooden headboard, if there was time to leave even that. Most of these soldiers were not given a proper burial, save what their comrades could provide by saying a few words over them. Some units, like the IX Corps, had small cemeteries near their field hospitals for soldiers who had died while in their care.”
In 1866, the Poplar Grove National Cemetery was established south of Petersburg to place the bodies previously laid to rest in hastily-dug, shallow graves over a nine county area of Virginia. The process took three years. “Many graves were marked with stakes, but some were to be discovered only by the disturbed appearance of the ground. Those bodies which had been buried in trenches were but little decomposed, while those buried singly in boxes, not much was left but bones and dust.” Remains were placed in a plain wooden coffin; if there was a headboard, it was attached to it. The burial corps worked for three years until 1869. In that time they reinterred 6,718 remains. Sadly, only 2,139 bodies were positively identified.”
Unfortunately the identifying wooden headboard, or the bottle containing Cyrus’ identifying information did not survive. Either he still lies in the shallow grave or his remains were taken to the Polar Grove National Cemetery is lies under one of the “Unidentified Union Soldier” stones.