Saturday, May 5, 2018

Graves at Merchant's Hope Episcopal Church - Lt. William H. Harris, 46th Virginia Infantry


Merchant's Hope Episcopal Church is located in rural Prince George County, near Hopewell, Virginia. The congregation was founded in 1657, and their current church building (shown above) was constructed about thirty years before the start of the Revolutionary War. The building is simple, yet elegant, with its Flemish bond brick walls, arched doors and windows and is a testament to its ancient age. Sometime during the Union army's occupation of the area in the spring of 1864 through the following year, the building's interior and many of the church's records were destroyed.


Behind the church are two small fenced in cemetery plots. On my first visit to the church, I noticed from afar that one of the stones was pointed, as are many Confederate veteran's stones. Another tombstone in the adjacent plot was rounded. However, both had small flags beside them. 

The rounded stone marks the grave of William Henry Harris, who apparently died in 1918 at the age of 77. The grave marker states that Harris served as 1st Lieutenant of Company B, 46th Virginia Infantry ,"Mahone's Brigade, War of 1861-5." 

Curious to learn more about his soldier, I searched for Harris's service records on Fold3, and any for any personal information that I could find in census records. William Henry Harris apparently was not a Prince George County native, as I found him in the 1860 census in Albemarle County in the household of his mother and father. His father, Lively Harris, is shown as 40 years old and is noted as an overseer. Lively has personal property worth $50. His mother, Mary, is listed as 33 years old. William is given as an 18 year old "laborer." Also in the household was sister Sarah (15), and brothers Bernard (12), John (6), and Alfred (4). 

William H. Harris enlisted in Company D of the 46th Virginia Infantry on June 15, 1861, in Charlottesville, originally for 12 months. He was apparently captured at Roanoke Island, North Carolina in February 1862. It seems he was paroled and then exchanged, as he received promotions to corporal, sergeant, and then 2nd Lieutenant during the war. He surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse with the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Harris's service records include his commission to 2nd Lt. It gives a better description of his features than his other service records. It lists him as being 22 years old (in 1864), 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with a light complexion, grey eyes, and light hair. 

I did not know much about the 46th Virginia, but I was pretty sure that Mahone's Brigade did not include them. So I did some internet searching and found that the 46th was actually in Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise's Brigade. Wise, as you may know, was the pre-war governor of Virginia and the man who saw John Brown hanged for his Harper's Ferry raid. The 46th Virginia and Wise's Brigade fought in the Seven Days Battles around Richmond after their parole from Roanoke Island and then were sent to the Department of the South and participated in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina. They were then transferred back to Virginia, where they fought in the Bermuda Hundred, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns.

I am not sure why Harris's gravestone is mislabeled. His service records do not indicate that he was ever promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and he does not appear to have ever served in Company B, but was rather in Company D. Also, the engraving mistakes Mahone's Brigade, instead of actually being in Wise's Brigade. Perhaps Harris's wife or estate executor mistakenly remembered his rank, company, and brigade.

Attempting to soundly confirm the soldier buried at Merchant's Hope was the William Henry Harris from Charlottesville, I tried to search later census records. I found him in the 1910 census for Prince George County as 69 years old, and it seems the research gods were with me, as in Harris's household, it lists his wife, Pelorina. But, to corroborate his identity, it lists as well his brother Bernard, now 63 years old, who had also been listed in the 1860 census as a 12 year old. What prompted Harris to locate to Prince George County sometime after the war? I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps he saw the area during his Civil War service and liked what he saw and later became a farmer there. Regardless of his reasons, he now rests under a mis-identified grave, but hopefully, at peace.

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