A Faithful Husband Goes to War The 24th Michigan during the Mud March in January 1863. Wikimedia Commons.
Before the American Civil War, soldiering seemed a world removed for John Pardington, of Trenton, Michigan. Having emigrated as a boy from Gloucestershire, England, Pardington had found a short but charming life for himself in America. On December 29th, 1860, Pardington enjoyed perhaps the most exciting day of his life to date: he married his sweetheart Sarah, and they set about the work of building a life together. For nearly four months after, they enjoyed happy lives of peace. They had no way of knowing that civil war was so very close.
When it came, they were reluctant to sacrifice their newfound happiness on the nation’s altar. By June of 1862, Pardington was still at home, just grateful that “We are liveing Happy and comfortably and I hope we always will be so.” They had recently moved “across the road in a larger house [with] about forty bearing frouit trees, Peach Plum and apples.” For fifty dollars a year, John and Sarah had found “a good accommodation in every way,” and happily set about making it their own. Their efforts were well rewarded—on June 11, 1862, they welcomed a little daughter, Maria, into the world and into their home.
But the good times would not last. As was the case for many communities, the war shouldered its way into the lives of Trenton’s residents in a very unexpected manner. That July, Henry Morrow, the mayor of Detroit—less than twenty miles from Trenton—held a town hall meeting in response to Lincoln’s latest call for volunteers. There he declared, “Let each man ask himself: ‘Will I go?’ I have already said I would. The government has done as much for me as for you and I am ready to assist in upholding it.”’ The speech’s ability to stir was overshadowed by what followed it: Southern sympathizers and pro-secessionists started a riot then and there, having crossed the border from Canada where they had long sought refuge. The fiasco embarrassed communities for miles around. The war, although fought far away, had suddenly become personal. Recruitment soared across the state.
By August 6th, Pardington’s mind was made up. He saw no sense in spending the war “clearking” in a local store. He enlisted in Company B of the Twenty-Fourth Michigan Volunteer Infantry, a motley band of over a thousand men who ranged from as old as seventy, to as young as just thirteen. By the 29th, the time for saying goodbye had come. Leading the regiment out of Detroit to the cheers of thronging well-wishers and the fluttering of flags was none other than Henry Morrow, the former-mayor-turned-colonel of the regiment.
That parting hour and the journey east bewildered Pardington just as much as it broke his and Sarah’s hearts. The separation took its toll on both. In their letters, they would struggle to find ways to beat back the anger and fearful anxiety of loneliness—with talk of coming home, with illustrated doodles, sketches, and maps, and with sometimes desperate reaffirmations of love and fidelity.
On the 21st of September, having made it to Washington, D.C. a seriously ill Pardington wrote home with his heart on his sleeve. Responding to Sarah’s letter, he barked, “you say you are lonesome. What do you think of me away from friends and one that is so near and dear to me? You have got friends around you.” But Pardington refused to let his frustrations get the better of him. He swore “if [I] was at home I think I should stay there for I now know how to appreciate your company and if ever I come [home] the Lord Willing I think I shall not give you cause again to [sit] up for me nights like you used to.“ Pardington swore he would “sacrifice [his] right hand,” if he could get back those nights spent apart. The best he could do was promise that “if I ever get back to you I will live a different life.”
Like most couples during the Civil War, Sarah and John were not oblivious to the vices and temptations soldiers found while campaigning. John strived to give Sarah a detailed account of his daily life, hoping his honesty would ease her worries. On the 24th of September, John wrote to Sarah, “you know the Parting which I shall never forget[:] the last kiss” before departing Detroit. He followed this with an admission: the ladies of Pittsburgh had mobbed the regiment’s train, giving out handkerchiefs to be remembered by, of which John “got six.” John reassured Sarah he only accepted them because “I thought they would be useful to me.” He also gave her a bit of hope. He reported that “The Rebels lost 20 thousand in their Battles in Maryland and they have retreated,” following their defeats at South Mountain and Antietam. The war might be in its last phase. But, sagely, he admitted one “Can’t tell the fortunes of war.” How right he was.
Their next few assignments baptized the regiment in some of the absolute worst fighting of the entire war. Pardington saw his first combat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of 1862. A storm of shell and canister fire left “19 or 20 killed and wounded,” from the regiment, and the Union army lost the battle. Rumors spoke of “20,000 Killed and Wounded.” Pardington felt low in the battle’s aftermath. He wrote home, “Sarah I am out of spirits. Retreat was the last thing we thought of.” However, the 24th withstood its test of fire and “got its name up,” earning its place amongst the other regiments of the famous “Iron Brigade” of First Corps veterans.
Another crushing defeat followed for the Army of the Potomac the next May, at Chancellorsville, Virginia. The winter had finally ended and the armies tore at each other once again. But the regiment’s next challenge—and John Pardington’s last—would come on July 1st, 1863, at Gettysburg.
The Last March of the Iron Brigade Reenactors portray the Iron Brigade at the 150th Gettysburg commemoration. Jonathan Park, Flickr.
"Shot the one who killed John Pardington" The annual luminaria at Gettysburg National Cemetery. Gettysburg College.
Pardington’s death in McPherson’s Woods forever changed the lives of his friends at the front, and his family back home. While the 24th would be forever immortalized for the daring of their charge and their dedication to their flag, for many Michiganders, the deaths of their friends made the courage of their convictions seem pale. Pardington’s death was no exception.
Private Edward Raymor, a man in Pardington’s company, collapsed emotionally as soon as he had a spare moment to think of the friends he lost during the battle. As the fighting wound down on July 3rd, Raymoor summed up the evolution of his waking nightmare in his diary:
Gettysburg terrible…. Lost Price and Cline. Lost my way in the confusion when I heard Carroll cry out. Heard he is dead now. I killed 14 rebs. Shot the one who killed John Pardington. Lieutenant Buell rebuked me for drinking after. Said I would not be promoted. I do not care.
Sarah and Mary’s lives were forever marred by John’s death. Both would go on to proud futures, and their communities would love them, but tragedy would haunt them all the same. In August, the family friend Chaplain William Way informed Sarah “Those I buried on the field were so changed that I should not have known his body had it been there.” She never knew where her husband’s grave lay. He likely rests in the “Unknown” section of the National Cemetery, but we too will never truly know.
Without John to support her, Sarah had no choice but to remarry. She wed Robert McDonald, a family friend, in October of 1864 and had more children with him. In 1911, she died at the age of seventy-one, having lived a long and respected life. We will never know when she recovered from John’s death, or if his ghost followed her down the years.
“Baby Mary” never knew her father. But despite this, she seems to have dedicated herself to making up the time he sacrificed at Gettysburg with her own life’s work. “Tough” does not begin to describe the immense character of Pardington’s daughter. Maria lost her husband, Frederick, and three of her five sons between the years of 1888 and 1905, all very unexpectedly and in terrible accidents. Maria simply refused to quit. Left with a toddler and a high school senior to care for, she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and opened a boarding house for male students at the University of Michigan. In this way, the family not only survived, but also flourished. She sent her sons to the university, and her youngest, Robert, eventually became a professor.
But perhaps most impressively, while still keeping the boarding house up, Maria became a truant officer, a Friend of the Court (she was issued a gun to accompany troubled youths to reform school) and an activist. Her accolades are many. She organized one of the first YMCA’s, was an early proponent of family planning, and was a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Group. She combatted the plight of American Indian children, was a Suffragette and a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. Her granddaughter, Coralou would write that Maria “made us proud to be women.”
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Compiled Service Records of Union Soldiers Who Served in the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Grimsley, Mark, and Books D. Simpson. Gettysburg: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Lassen, Coralou Peel, ed. Dear Sarah: Letters Home from a Soldier of the Iron Brigade. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Lloyd, Marshall. “Corp John Henry Pardington.” Find a Grave. Accessed May 23, 2017.
“No Man Can Take Those Colors and Live: The Epic Battle Between the 24th Michigan and 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg,” Civil War Trust. Last modified 2014. Accessed February 1, 2017.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Narrative written by Matthew LaRoche, Gettysburg College. Map by Kevin Lavery, Gettysburg College.