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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One Out of Thirty Thousand

By the opening campaign in the spring of 1864, twenty-one year old Benjamin A. Merrill was a veteran soldier and had reenlisted in one of Massachusetts’ four Veteran Infantry Regiments, the 59th. Merrill had previously served nine months with the 50th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, but saw relatively little action while on assignment in Louisiana.
After a six month rest, Merrill’s reenlistment fated he would be more heavily engaged in combat. The eastern theater was heating up as spring blossomed in the Virginia Wilderness, and after less than two weeks since leaving Massachusetts, the 59th was fighting in the thick of it on May 6.
Attached to the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of Burnside’s “Independent” IX Corps, the regiment reached the Spotsylvania Courthouse area on May 9th, but was initially not heavily engaged. Three days later, while the Army of the Potomac boldly attempted to penetrate and cripple the Confederate forces within the “Muleshoe Salient”, the IX Corps was tasked with a diversionary thrust at the Confederate right, north of the Courthouse Road.
Merrill did not emerge from that action on the 12th, and was reported killed, but the nature and region of his wound was not stated in the official army Certificate of Death. His body was either never recovered or he was buried as an unknown.
His photograph, from my private collection, was taken by the Lane studio in Haverhill, Massachusetts, seven miles northwest of Merrill’s hometown of Georgetown, both in Essex County. Sadly, the existing census and military records tell us very little of Benjamin A. Merrill’s life other than he was a shoe maker and had been living with his parents and siblings before entering the service. According to the Company Muster-in and Descriptive Roll, we learn that Benjamin stood five feet, eleven inches tall, had black eyes, dark hair and was of dark complexion. Even his photographer remains a mystery as of this writing. The photograph itself had been acquired, like so many others, from an internet auction, a small remnant of what was in all probability someone’s family album. Whether it was from Merrill’s immediate family or perhaps that of a friend, it bares his signature in period ink on the reverse. Annotated in pencil beneath the signature is the note, “Killed on battle field in Civil War”. Judging by the lack of a printed border around the pasted image, it could be surmised that this was taken in the summer of 1862 prior to Benjamin’s first term of service with the 50th Regiment, when he would have been around nineteen.

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