How A Father Learned of His Son’s Death, By the Enemy That Killed Him
On June 27, 1862, twenty-two-year-old Captain Theodore C. Rogers rallied what was left of his sweat-soaked and battle-fatigued company. As commander of Company H of the 18th New York Infantry, his men were already weakened by lack of sleep, hard marches, and an afternoon full of fighting on the front lines at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, near Richmond. Casualties mounted and ammunition ran low as they held their ground, shoring up the lines of the V Corps.
By 7:30 p.m., the Union line was in danger of collapse. The V Corps had already started their exit, along with the orange sky that ushered dusk. Through the soundtrack of combat it was clear that the Confederates gained fresh reinforcements, and were steered to roll right through the 18th New York. The famed Rebel Yell emerged first, followed quickly by the appearance of their overwhelming foe trudging up a wooded slope. The odds were against the 18th New York in every vantage, yet something overtook Rogers who either ignored the odds, or knowingly sealed his fate. With the Confederates just 150 yards away, Rogers ran out in front of his company and urged his men to make a stand. He waved his unsheathed sword wildly and pointed directions of where his men should shoot, and for a moment they started to reassemble a few paces behind him. For the barreling rush of Rebels, the sight of a Union officer alone between the two lines was too good a target, but even for some, it struck awe with them. What followed was expected, and rifle aims were turned on Rogers. He fell with a grievous wound to his groin, but yet he still tried to encourage his men to rally. Life passed within moments as blood rushed out of his wound. Rogers’ body was gathered by his men just before their own line was overrun by Rebels. Facing an inevitable capture by being slowed carrying the body of their captain, his men were forced to drop his body, and they did so by propping him against a tree before continuing the rout. One considerate soldier grabbed Rogers’ sword, which eventually found its way to the family.
Before the war, Theodore Caldwell Rogers had everything going for him. As the eldest child of a Presbyterian minister who moved often to preach to different congregations, Rogers lived at times in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and lastly New York. He was college educated, athletic, and an impeccable orator. He became a civil engineer, and just before the war broke he secured a partnership with the most prominent commercial house in Albany. But he walked away from it all – having felt God wanted him to do his duty as a Christian and patriot. In January 1862, Rogers used his first and only furlough to marry his fiancé. When he was killed in battle, he knew through correspondence that his wife was six-months pregnant with their first and only child that he would never meet.
Tormented by his loss, Rogers’ family heard next to nothing regarding his death, and the whereabouts of his body that fell into enemy hands was never made known (and his burial is still unknown today). Nearly a year would pass before the story of how Rogers died would be told to his family, explained by the very enemy that killed him.
During the winter of 1863, an old female friend of Rogers was vacationing on the island of Nassau (Bahamas). During her stay she became acquainted with a fellow vacationer, Confederate Colonel Duncan McRae, 5th North Carolina, who commanded a portion of Confederate General Garland’s brigade during the Battle of Gaines’s Mill. Putting aside their allegiances, the two engaged in a talk about the war which naturally gravitated to the battle in which they both had something – someone – in common. He told her many things about a particular brave Yankee captain that captivated his attention on the battlefield, and the more he revealed he eventually got to the part on how he learned who he was after the battle. Two letters on his body revealed his name to be Captain Theodore C. Rogers, and the old friend instantly felt how small the world was. The two bonded over this slain young man, and the friend begged McRae to write to Rogers’ father who still searched for closure over the death of his son. Addresses were exchanged and eventually in May of 1863, a letter from New York reached McRae while he was in London, written by Reverend Ebenezer P. Rogers, begging to communicate directly with him. McRae obliged, sat down, and penned the following letter:
London, May 9th, 1863
Rev. Dr. Rogers:
Sir – Your letter of February 25th, addressed to me at Nassau, has just reached me at this place. I know of no prohibition of duty to prevent my responding to the inquiries you address to me, relating to the death of your son, Capt. Theodore C. Rogers, who fell at the battle of Gaines’ Mill, on the 27th of June last. And, although your son was engaged, at the time of his death, in that invasion which has brought desolation to our homes and affliction to all our families, I am not unmindful of the legitimate claims of the widow and mother, and my heart does not refuse its sympathy to a fallen foe, whose conduct was brave and heroic. Late in the afternoon of the 27th of June, on the extreme left of our line, in front of the extreme right of the Federal forces, and in the last charge of our lines, I was in command of a portion of Gen. Garland’s Brigade. The Federal Force had already commenced to retire, and our advance was rapid and impetuous. At a point about one or two hundred yards in our front, a young man, who was recognized to be the Captain of a company, made an effort to rally his command, which was retiring. He had his sword drawn, and could be distinctly seen by us to appeal to his mean to make a stand. He partially succeeded, and when his company halted, and faced to our lines, he was in the front some ten or twenty paces, and was thus thrown between the two fires. Our firing was very heavy, and it was plain to us that his fate was inevitable, and in a moment he fell. We were rapidly pursuing, but, as we passed by, I caused this young officer, whose gallantry had attracted my attention, to be borne a few paces, and laid under a small tree, supposing him to be wounded. I learned afterwards, from the two men who carried him, that he died before reaching the spot I had indicated.
Capt. Young, who resides at Henderson, Granville county, N.C., was commanding the regiment in front of which he fell, and he assumed the task of examining the body, to ascertain such articles of value as might be saved from the seizure of the soldiery. I can not be precise as to all the articles found, as so many like events have occurred since, but I remember a watch was among them, and three letters, one from yourself, one from his mother, and one from his wife. Those letters were read by Gen. Garland and myself, with a view to ascertain to whom his valuables might be sent, and all the articles, with the letters, were entrusted to Capt. Young, who charged himself with their transmission to the relatives of the deceased. About daybreak the body of your son was buried, under my supervision, in the same manner in which our own officers were interred. I did not examine the body, which was covered when I saw it, and am therefore not able to inform you of the nature and locality of his wound. Nor do I know whether he ever spoke after receiving it. I have endeavored, sir, to respond to your inquiries, and if there be any consolation derived by you from the testimony of those who, by his position, were made his enemies, this testimony to the brave and gallant conduct of your son is readily accorded by,
Yours, sir, very respectfully,
D. K. McRae
The child Rogers would never meet, was a daughter born in November 1863. She grew up with his portrait, his sword, and hearing this and other stories as the only connection to her father, but it was enough to name her third child after the father she never knew.