A Vermonter First and Foremost The Voice of Freedom, a newspaper that originated within the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 and ran until 1848, represented the rising support in Vermont for the abolition of slavery, publishing scathing condemnations of slavery in its editorials and other articles. (The Voice of Freedom. [volume] (Montpelier, Vt.), 19 Jan. 1839. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Image courtesy Library of Congress).
Octave Marcell (also known as “Octavius Marcille”) was born in Canada to Canadian parents, yet his exact date of birth is unknown. It is estimated that he was born in 1844, assuming that he really was 18 at the time of his enlistment in the 13th Vermont on August 18, 1862, as noted on his compiled service record. However, Sergeant Henry O. Clark, a fellow member of Company D of the 13th Vermont, recalled Marcell being only 17 at the time of his enlistment, which moves his year of birth to 1845. Marcell may have lied about his age in his impatience to enlist and earn desperately needed money for his impoverished family, as well as to fight for the Union that he held dear. Brown-eyed with light brown hair, Marcell stood at only 5’3¼”, considered short even for the time, when the average soldier stood at 5’8”. His parents were likely French Catholics, as 1845 baptism records for St. Thomas Parish in Joliette, Québec, list an “Octave Marcille” or “Octave Marcelle,” although it cannot be confirmed that this was the same Octave Marcell.
Eventually, Marcell’s parents moved to Milton, Vermont, where Marcell grew up working as a hired laborer on neighboring farms and received a basic education (although, according to the 1860 census, both he and his father were considered officially “illiterate.”) Octave’s mother, Margaret Marcell, had died in 1853 when Octave was still a young child. His father, Richard Marcell, 59 years old at the time of Octave’s enlistment in 1862, had been almost completely blind since 1855, rendering him unable to do any kind of work. According to the 1860 census, Richard had only $50.00 to his name in personal property. Since the young age of twelve, Octave worked relentlessly to support his father, using all of his earnings to buy food and basic supplies. At the time of Octave’s enlistment, his younger brother, Francis, was 13 years old, and was the only other family member living with Octave’s father, as Octave’s three sisters resided in Canada. However, Francis Marcell ran away when he was old enough to support his father, somehow joining the army as an underaged substitute. When Francis received a severe wound in battle, he deserted and fled to Canada where his father would not hear from him again. This would render Richard Marcell completely dependent upon Octave to support him in his aged years.
Because Octave came of age in Vermont, Octave saw himself as a Vermonter first and foremost rather than a Canadian, and was likely motivated to serve by a strong sense of patriotism for the Union and his adopted country that many Vermonters shared. However, Octave Marcell also surely embraced military service as an opportunity to earn higher wages with which he could support his infirm father and young brother. As the sole breadwinner for his family, he constantly worried over his family’s welfare and hoped to bring them out of poverty, or at least help alleviate his father and brother’s suffering. As recruitment ads were put up throughout town, he likely saw enlistment as his best opportunity to help both his family and his nation, thus inextricably pairing duty and service to country with his personal duties to the home front in ways that likely reinforced his perseverance and commitment to the army during even the most trying days of the war.
Most of the soldiers in Marcell’s company had been born in Vermont, but if anyone criticized Marcell for being of Canadian birth, and not American, he proved his dedication to his adopted country with steadfast devotion to the Union cause. In fact, he was one of the earliest and youngest in his area to enlist, was always present at roll call, and his fellow Vermonters observed that at all times he was eager to do whatever was asked of him and beyond, if necessary. Marcell’s unwavering displays of grit and determination likely stemmed from years of spartan living, hard manual labor, and staunch commitment to his family’s survival. Marcell had worked long hours on nearby farms, resolving never to waver in his responsibility to support his father and brother. However, such commitment to family took on an even higher meaning during Marcell’s military service when he knew fully that his actions on the front also were benefiting the patriotic ideals of Union and abolition in which his childhood education in both Canada and Vermont had been long steeped.
The British had abolished slavery in Canada with the Emancipation Act of 1834 and since then, Canada had become a much sought-after destination for fugitive slaves looking for permanent escape from the grip of their masters. In fact, southern newspapers and magazines tended to lump northern and Canadian political culture together. The southern magazine, De Bow’s Review, criticized abolitionists as belonging to the “vile, sensuous, animal, brutal, infidel, superstitious Democracy of Canada and the Yankees,” contemptuously linking the two regions as one and the same. Because southerners perceived Canadians as inferior, radical abolitionists, they unsurprisingly garnered little support from Canadians when the war began.
Influenced by antislavery opinion in both Vermont and Canada, Marcell’s father likely shared an antislavery stance and raised his son to believe that slavery was morally wrong. Vermont had long been opposed to slavery, and was, in fact, the first state to abolish slavery in its constitution. With its cold winters, Vermont’s small farms did not produce labor-intensive crops like the southern states so there was no need for slavery. Furthermore, many Christian sects in Vermont and its adjoining states saw slavery as an immoral, unjust system– a view that was propagated by local newspapers throughout the state. Another series of issues that turned Vermonters against the South were the “gag rules,” enacted between 1836 and 1844 to delay possible debate and action against slavery. These “gag rules” prohibited Congress from reviewing petitions against the “peculiar institution.” Vermonters interpreted these rules as an attack on free speech and their right to petition government. They resented that southerners had tried to sabotage their First Amendment rights in order to protect slavery.
Vermonters vocalized staunch opposition to southern interests again in 1845, when the state’s governor and legislature disapproved the annexation of Texas, as such action would mean the expansion of slavery. In the election of 1860, Lincoln received about 76% of Vermont’s popular vote. Clearly, most Vermonters agreed with Lincoln’s ideology and believed Lincoln was the strongest candidate to preserve the Union and what many believed was the last best hope for democracy on earth. They likely hoped that with Lincoln’s election, he and the Republican party would abolish slavery, or at least put an end to its expansion. Although Marcell would have been too young to cast a ballot in 1860, he may have attended one of the many local rallies held throughout Vermont in support of the upcoming war. Marcell’s sense of patriotism likely was stirred by that widespread fervor of antislavery rhetoric and activity in Vermont, though he surely felt frustrated that he could not enlist right away, as he was too young when war broke out in April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter. However, like many of his fellow Vermonters, Marcell surely followed the drama unfolding in the political chambers of Washington, D. C. and on the southern battlefields that summer and fall with great interest. In all, 34,238 of Vermont’s total population of 315,000 residents–roughly eleven percent of the state’s population–would take up arms for the Union army from 1861-1865. Octave Marcell’s own enlistment would still be an agonizingly slow sixteen months distant, as he looked with impatience to the time when he could finally fulfill both his familial and national duties through honorable military service.
Anticipating Battle "The Original Sergeants of Company D, 13th Vermont, 1862." Marcell's friend, Sgt. Henry O. Clark, is pictured in the middle. (Image courtesy Dennis Segelquist, http://civilwarthosesurnames.blogspot.com/2012_08_05_archive.html)
On August 18, 1862, Octave Marcell finally got his turn to serve his adopted country, enlisting for a nine-month term in Company D of the 13th Vermont at Colchester, Vermont. His company was mainly comprised of young farmers like Marcell, most of whom were under 22 years old. Sergeant Henry O. Clark proudly described the soldiers of Company D as “young, resolute, fearless, in perfect health and filled with patriotic ardor.” John Nay Harmon, 20 years old at the time of his enlistment, who also served in Company D and hailed from Marcell’s home town of Milton, remembered his own impatience to join the ranks, recalling, “My anxiety became so strong in wanting to enlist in the summer of 1862, that I was talking about it all the time.” Such impatience to serve was clearly demonstrated through Marcell’s own enlistment as one of the very first members of Company D. Poignantly, Harmon would ultimately be one of the three soldiers to carry the severely wounded, unconscious Marcell to a field hospital at Gettysburg on July 3, where he would meet his demise.
At the end of September 1862, Marcell was sent to train with the rest of his regiment at Camp Lincoln, in Brattleboro, and was later mustered out of camp on October 8th. The formation of the Second Vermont Brigade, comprised of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th Vermont regiments, was met with enthusiasm by the Vermonters. A solely Vermont brigade strengthened their sense of unity and state pride. They were excited to fight side by side as “Green Mountain Boys”, a reference to the Vermont militia under Ethan Allen that stopped New Yorkers with land grants from settling west of the Green Mountains in 1770, and which also fought in the American Revolution. Even though the Vermonters would fight hundreds of miles from home, they could talk more comfortably with each other about their homesickness and reminisce about their lives back home, including their anxieties over the welfare of their families and farms, whom they hoped would help look after each other in the absence of their patriarchs. They also had to acknowledge the awful possibility, however, that if they suffered a high number of casualties in battle, their communities would be devastated. Marcell especially would have worried over his father, helpless at home without him.
The 13th Vermont left camp on October 11th, headed for Washington, D. C. Marcell’s regiment commenced their nine-month enlistment term when the regiment arrived to set up camp alongside the rest of the brigade in northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington, D. C. There, they found life dull and disease widespread, especially during the winter months of 1862. They mainly spent their time on picket duty guarding the camp, drilling, washing clothes, writing home, and playing card games. The monotony of camp life was hardly the exciting quest for patriotic glory that had prompted so many Vermonters to enlist. Furthermore, although the Vermonters were accustomed to cold weather and snow back home, it proved a challenge to endure the frigid weather in army quarters and on the training fields. When the brigade settled in at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, in December, they eventually built more weather-resistant structures similar to log cabins, with a tent extending over each one, providing them at least some protection from the cold and snow. Nevertheless, according to Sergeant Henry O. Clark, 53 men died from disease that winter alone in the 13th Vermont–a sobering reality for the optimistic youth of the regiment. Seeing their fellow Vermonters suffer and wilt away from illness certainly unsettled those who survived the winter and who suddenly became aware of their own mortality. One soldier in the regiment, Samuel Dana, complained, “We have lice big enough to carry a man off on their backs,” which surely drove down the regiment’s morale. Despite the poor conditions facing the soldiers, Marcell himself was always present at roll call, and Sergeant Clark further confirmed that Marcell never missed a day of service with his regiment for any reason. For this dedication and resilience, Marcell was admired and well-liked by others in his company, with Sergeant Clark praising him as “an honest, fearless and thoroughly good-natured boy.”
A brief encounter with Confederate General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry in late December of 1862 near Fairfax Court House generated some excitement among the Second Vermont Brigade, which longed to finally see battle action. Hearing of Stuart’s presence nearby, the brigade had been prepared for a fight with the Confederate cavalry, but Stuart withdrew soon after the 12th Vermont fired their rifles and artillery a few times, cutting their conflict short. Unlike their more fortunate comrades in the 12th, the battle-hungry 13th Vermont did not get to fire a shot, which must have disappointed the young and zealous Marcell. However, further excitement arrived in camp on March 8, 1863, when the commander of the Second Vermont Brigade, General Stoughton, was captured by the famed Confederate raider John Mosby, the “Grey Ghost,” which significantly raised the brigade’s guard and reminded them of the high stakes of their service. Stoughton was not well-liked for a variety of reasons, from his opinionated personality to his excessive discipline of his soldiers. Still, Marcell may have hoped that his regiment would, in turn, get a chance to capture Mosby or at least see some follow-up skirmishing in the wake of the great capture, but he would again be disappointed.
Finally, on June 23, 1863, the Second Vermont brigade received orders to move north to Pennsylvania to unite with the Union First Corps. Although the prospect of leaving the enemy territory of Virginia was probably welcomed, and the idea of finally getting the chance to participate in live combat on northern soil was thrilling, the regiment must have dreaded the march ahead of them. The long march through the mud, rain, and heat would take a toll on the soldiers, especially those whose shoes began to fall apart or those with no shoes at all. To eliminate stops that would slow their march, the new commander of the Second Vermont brigade, General Stannard, banned all soldiers from stepping out of their lines to get water. This order further wore on Marcell and his fatigued fellow soldiers, as the temperatures were in the 90s and they were allowed only one brief stop each day for lunch. Concerned by the soldiers’ weary, wilted bodies and spirits, Lieutenant Stephen F. Brown in the 13th Vermont disobeyed the order and set off to collect water for them. He was arrested and later released when they reached Gettysburg. Brown realized the consequences of disobeying the order were small in comparison to if he had upheld the order and let his men suffer and collapse from dehydration, and his gumption earned him the respect of his subordinates. Interestingly, after that incident, the soldiers were not hassled again about stepping out of the lines to collect water.
As the brigade neared Gettysburg around noon on July 1, they began to catch wind of the unfolding battle on the western outskirts of town. The anxious brigade marched even more quickly than they had before, and when the soldiers reached Gettysburg in the late afternoon, they heard, firsthand, the boom of the cannons as the thick, black smoke drifted towards them. Such shocking sights and sounds must have simultaneously frightened and excited Marcell. By the time of their arrival, he and his fellow soldiers were exhausted from the long march. When the brigade reached Cemetery Ridge, the Vermonters received orders to prepare for a Confederate attack that never came. In the confusion of the first day of the battle, various, panicked corps commanders sought to commandeer the brigade for their own purposes. Each commander ordered the brigade to march to a different position that the respective commander felt was at greatest risk of attack, bewildering the weary soldiers and prolonging their suffering. When the confusing fog of battle finally lifted and tensions eased, the contesting commanders finally agreed to relinquish control over the brigade, and Marcell and his fellow soldiers wearily bunked down on Cemetery Ridge near the now infamous “copse of trees.” Seeing that the regiment’s nine-month enlistment period was almost over, Marcell must have felt more than ready to finally do his part in the great conflict. He was young and inexperienced, but he resolved not to let himself, his fellow comrades, or his country down in the fight that loomed on the horizon.
At Gettysburg: Marcell’s First and Last Battle Paul Philippoteaux, the “Battle of Gettysburg” Cyclorama, depicting the Union defense of Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge on July 3. Marcell’s regiment fought on the southern end of the line, in the background of this painting, where the white puffs of smoke are most prominent. (Image courtesy of the National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/gettysburg-cyclorama.htm).
Whether or not Marcell actually was able to sleep with all the pre-battle anxieties rising around him, he rose on the morning of July 2, restless and eager to prove his mettle under fire. However, the 13th Vermont, along with the 14th and 16th, did not engage in battle until about mid-afternoon when Confederate artillery commenced firing upon them. Even though they had listened to the thundering of cannon from a distance the previous day, the exploding shells that now rained down directly over their heads proved to be an entirely different experience, especially for green soldiers in their first battle.
When the shelling first began, Marcell was ordered, along with the rest of Company D, to move close to the base of Cemetery Hill along with Companies E, F, H, and K (all led by Lieut. Col. William D. Munson) to support the Union artillery there. The Union army was being attacked, en echelon, at multiple points along the battlefield–Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Cemetery Ridge, and late in the day, Culp’s Hill, just to their rear. The persistence of the Confederate attackers undoubtedly intimidated the Vermonters, yet they certainly felt the heavy weight of responsibility resting upon them to support their battle-tested comrades in arms who were receiving the brunt of these attacks; as such, the 13th was determined not to be the sole unit to fail the Union line of defense. They knew that every soldier was crucial to the battle’s outcome, a lesson that regiments like the 1st Minnesota learned firsthand in their costly defense of Cemetery Ridge late that afternoon. The 13th could see the bloody aftermath of the fierce combat along Cemetery Ridge as Union soldiers there struggled to hold their lines against the unrelenting waves of enemy attacks. They watched in shock as the wounded soldiers pouring in from Cemetery Ridge passed them en route to various field hospitals, some looking more dead than alive.
The heavy small-arms and artillery damage which the Confederates inflicted on the Union line atop Cemetery Ridge thinned the ranks and more than once, desperate calls for reinforcements reached the soldiers stationed on Cemetery Hill. Companies D, E, F, H, and K of the 13th Vermont remained on Cemetery Hill while the other companies, along with the 14th and 16th Vermont, were deployed to help defend Cemetery Ridge against the assaults of Brigadier General Ambrose Wright’s Georgians. Ralph Sturtevant, who remained on Cemetery Hill, openly admired the poignant picture of his comrades marching stoically towards Cemetery Ridge, observing, “It was a pretty sight, flags fluttering in the breeze, bayonets glistening in the setting sun as they passed.” Likewise observing the scene, Marcell would have cheered on his Vermonters and may have shared Sturtevant’s romantic interpretation of his comrades going off to battle, finally receiving their long-sought chance to gain glory for their regiments and their country. However, he also may have felt disappointed to be left out of the action once more, or perhaps felt helpless to assist his comrades in such a desperate situation, and prayed that most of his comrades would come back unscathed. Whatever his conflicting emotions may have been, he likely felt the sickening shock of the reality of combat at a far more intimate level than before.
The Vermonters who were deployed to Cemetery Ridge under Colonel Francis Randall’s command successfully counter-attacked their Georgian and Floridian foes. The Vermonters pushed the Confederates back to the Rogers House on Emmitsburg Road, driving the enemy from the field, recovering several Union artillery cannons, and taking 83 prisoners who had retreated inside the Rogers House and the wooded area behind it. Marcell, along with the rest of Company D, would sit out the rest of the July 2 battle at their observation post atop Cemetery Hill, watching the dramatic encounter between their comrades and the foe with baited breath, and wondering if they, too, would be called to the front that evening. Following the Union’s final repulse of the Confederate attack, Marcell joined the rest of the 13th atop Cemetery Ridge to rest for the night, close to where the 13th Vermont monument now stands. Sounds of renewed fighting atop Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill surely made for a poor night’s sleep, however, and the echoes of the wounded crying out for help and for water likely weighed on his nerves as he wondered whether tomorrow would finally bring his own baptism of fire.
Seeing the Elephant: Marcell’s Final Moments
After being forced to sit by and watch his comrades claim an active role in defense of Cemetery Ridge, Marcell must have felt an overwhelming eagerness to do his own part in battle and finally prove his own manhood and duty to cause and country on the front lines of battle. He would only have to wait one evening more for this long-anticipated moment. On July 3, the 13th Vermont would be in the thick of the action during “Pickett’s Charge,” the infamous Confederate attack upon Cemetery Ridge that took place mid-afternoon. At about five in the morning, Confederate cannons opened fire upon the Vermonters in an hour-long bombardment, which sought to distract from the renewed Confederate attack on Culp’s Hill. The unexpected barrage provided a rude awakening for Marcell and his comrades.
During the long lull that followed, tension continued to build as the Vermonters braced for another Confederate infantry attack to begin. During this lull, 100 men from the regiment were sent forward to seize a rail fence line, manipulating it into a breastwork in preparation for their imminent advance to the front. Several other Vermonters, physically drained from the heat and yearning for water, desperately dodged a hailstorm of sharpshooters’ bullets to fill their canteens from a nearby spring to their left. The intrepid Lieutenant Brown was one of the few who ventured to the spring and filled several canteens for his comrades, once again earning further admiration for his fearlessness. One of these soldiers in the 13th Vermont, moved by simple human pity for a small handful of wounded Confederate sharpshooters lying in his path, initially gave water to his moaning foe. However, keenly aware of his own comrades’ suffering and of the deadly risk he was taking each time he advanced to the spring, the soldier only chanced a few more trips, forcing himself to ignore the pleas of desperate Confederates along his path, and instead, handing over the precious canteens to his fellow Vermonters. The lull came to a close around one in the afternoon when Confederate artillery once again opened fire upon Cemetery Ridge with sudden forcefulness, to which Union artillery immediately responded with equal ferocity. Luckily, much of the Confederates’ cannon fire passed over the Vermonters, who lay with their heads down, waiting for the shelling to end as they sheltered themselves behind rocks and breastworks. Exhausted and sleep-deprived, some Vermonters actually fell asleep as shells flew over their heads while others clung stiffly to the ground, fearing dismemberment or death from the terrible cannon fire.
During the bombardment, Marcell’s friend, William March, was struck by cannon fire below his knees and died about one hour later in a nearby field hospital. Like Marcell, March had been born in Canada and felt a deep loyalty to his resident state of Vermont and to his adopted country. His peers had long admired him for his positive attitude and bravery. Marcell likely witnessed his friend’s horrific wounding and surely grew sick with worry for his friend’s fate. Torn between a deep desire to aid his suffering comrade and stick out the bombardment at the side of his peers, Marcell would have to come to grips with this conflicting sense of duty. Acknowledging his limited ability to save his friend and facing the reality of his own mortality, Marcell gripped the ground tightly, unwavering in his decision to execute his long-awaited duties to home and country on the front line, all the while praying he would live to see his father and brother once more.
When the artillery bombardment stopped, two long lines of approximately 15,000 Confederates emerged from Seminary Ridge to begin their charge across nearly one mile of open ground. Like many of his peers, Marcell must have felt both fear and awe at the sight of so many enemy soldiers striding towards them with such determination. Thinking back to the previous day, he must have recalled how the Confederates had nearly broken the Union line along Cemetery Ridge and must have prayed that the line would again stand strong. With no guarantee of victory, Marcell surely looked to his comrades for support. The Vermonters felt a keen responsibility to hold their ground upon Cemetery Ridge, knowing that troops in reserve were now watching them with the same wide-eyed anxiousness as they had watched their own comrades during the previous day’s fight. Around 2:30, as James Kemper’s Virginia brigade began surging across the Emmitsburg Road at the double-quick, the 13th Vermont received the order to advance towards the oncoming enemy. They moved deliberately toward the hastily made rail fence breastwork that lay 45 yards ahead of them. Ralph Sturtevant, recalled, “the soldiers crawled carefully along the ground to the rail fence line…a helter, skelter zig-zag crouching crawl and run.” As they crawled towards the rail fence line for cover, the inexperienced soldiers took precautions with their every movement, feeling the terror of battle, yet urgency of the moment.
The 14th and 13th Vermont regiments unleashed a withering fire upon Kemper’s brigade. The 13th and 16th Vermont, reinforced later by the 14th, then charged the right flank of Kemper’s brigade to try to weaken the Virginians’ forward momentum. The 13th was the first to obey the order, swinging at an angle toward Kemper’s right flank. Marcell knew that this was the moment he had yearned for since April of 1861. It was finally his turn to fulfill his patriotic duty and win the pride of his family, friends, and fellow soldiers. Now was the opportunity to prove himself, as a man and as a soldier– even at the young age of 18–as his enlistment term was drawing to a close. This was what he had signed up for, after all; all of those months spent preparing and drilling near Washington, combating boredom and hearing of others’ glorious accomplishments in battle, and wishing he too could have played a role in those engagements, led to this very moment in defense of the Union. Fighting back the uncertainty and fear that gnawed at his insides, Marcell likely gained courage and confidence from the mere presence of his friends and comrades advancing dutifully by his side. To turn and run now would surely label him a coward, not only by his fellow soldiers, but also by his community back home. This was a moniker all Civil War soldiers dreaded nearly as much as death itself. He would not run. Rather, he would stand his ground with stoic composure and defend the reputation he had worked so hard to build as a brave and honorable soldier.
As the 13th Vermont charged across the fields from Cemetery Ridge toward the Codori farm, Marcell took a bullet to the left side of his head. One soldier in his company, Mark Day, remembered that he and John Nay Harmon eventually carried Marcell to a field hospital “some distance to the rear.” According to Sergeant Henry O. Clark, he and two other soldiers were forced to wait to transport the dying Marcell until “after the charge and resulting confusion had subsided.” All three soldiers were committed to carrying their wounded comrade to safety, as Clark had earlier observed that the tight-knit company was staunchly committed to the protection of their fellow Green Mountain Boys. Mark Day noted that by the time he and John Nay Harmon left Marcell at the hospital, it was growing dark, making it difficult to locate their company, which they rejoined the following morning. It is likely that Marcell was carried to either the Peter Conover Farm or the Jonathan Young Farm. The Conover farm was located a few hundred yards west of the Baltimore Pike, while the Young farm lay about a mile northeast of the Conover farm. Historian Gregory A. Coco notes that both farms were used for the Second Vermont brigade and were located several miles from Cemetery Ridge, fitting Day’s account that they had to carry Marcell to a hospital “some distance to the rear.” According to Clark, Marcell “lingered for a few hours, though never regaining consciousness.” A grieving Clark commended Marcell’s service to the Union for fighting honorably for his country unto death.
“He Died in the Discharge of His Duty”: The Loss and Legacy of Octave Marcell Milton, Vermont’s monument to her Civil War dead. Originally erected in 1909, the monument now stands next to the town’s historical society. (Image courtesy Vermont in the Civil War https://vermontcivilwar.org/pw/monu/milton.php)
Octave Marcell was originally buried adjacent to the field hospital where he died, but was later exhumed that Fall and reburied in the Vermont section of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg as an unknown soldier. Although Marcell was not granted the peace and comfort of spending his final moments surrounded by family and friends in the traditional manner of the Good Death expected by most Christian Victorians, the nature of Marcell’s wounding, the immediacy of his death, and his comrades’ attention to his care spared him the suffering that accompanied many Civil War soldiers’ deaths. However, even Marcell, who was likely initially laid in a mass grave by overwhelmed hospital staff alongside a hodgepodge of other men, could not escape the terrible anonymity that defined so many other soldiers’ fate in death. Even so, his burial, and later reinternment as simply another unknown soldier, infuses his death with a symbolically higher meaning: He had lost his identity, as well as his life in battle, sacrificing everything he had to the war and the ideals of Union, but in doing so, he had joined the eternal ranks of countless other soldiers who, despite their individual differences and life stories, had become one through their ultimate sacrifice to a singular cause.
In his first and last battle, Marcell showed unfaltering bravery when confronting the enemy. Several comrades remembered his death at Gettysburg, but Sergeant Henry O. Clark was the one who saw fit to memorialize him in the 1906 Pictorial History Thirteenth Regiment Vermont Volunteers. Clark lauded Marcell as “honest,” “fearless,” and noted that because he was “always willing, and never finding fault, he was deservedly popular” in his company. Clark’s praise for Marcell decades after the war shows how highly Marcell’s comrades regarded the young private, and how deeply affected Clark was by Marcell’s death. Clark paid Marcell one of the highest compliments he could have given, concluding, “he sleeps the sleep of those of whom it can truly be said: He died in the discharge of his duty.” Clark, alongside Mark Day and John Nay Harmon, had regarded their comrade with such affection and respect that they personally ensured that the wounded Marcell reached the safety and comfort of a field hospital to live out his final moments. Clark, born in 1844, was about the same age as Marcell and was from his same town of Milton. They likely had known each other for years, so Marcell’s death inflicted a heavy emotional blow upon Clark especially. As a beloved comrade and dear friend in a closely knit unit, Marcell’s death proved a grievous loss to his regiment. Out of 480 men in the 13th at Gettysburg, 22 were killed or mortally wounded. Another 80 were wounded. From the Second Vermont Brigade, 71 men were killed or mortally wounded and another 236 were wounded out of the 3,504 men General Stannard recorded as present on June 20.
However grievous Marcell’s loss may have been to his comrades, his death surely was most deeply felt at home. When casualty reports from Gettysburg finally made their way up to Milton, Marcell’s father surely was distraught to hear the news of his son’s death, but he likely took comfort in the fact that Marcell had not suffered long before he died. Richard would take pride knowing that he had died in the line of duty and had been one of many who had sacrificed their lives in a successful repulse of the enemy, and in one of the most famous assaults of the entire war, no less. In his grief, Richard may have turned to God for strength and sorrowfully accepted his son’s death. However, even so, he may have struggled to come to terms with God’s plan for his bleak future and his son who had died as merely a boy.
Marcell’s father also would have felt aggrieved that he they could not have been by his son’s side to provide comfort and prayers at the moment of his death. The bullet that had lodged in Octave Marcell’s head had rendered him unconscious, so his father would not have been able to speak with him, but his father would have been grateful to spend his final moments with Octave, nonetheless. His father also likely longed to retrieve Octave’s body, buried as an unknown hundreds of miles away in Gettysburg, a place he had never heard of before July of 1863, let alone could even visualize. Furthermore, unlike with some battlefield deaths, there is no record of Octave’s father receiving any of his son’s personal possessions from friends or comrades, which would have provided at least some comfort to the grieving Richard. Perhaps most painfully, Richard knew that Octave never would have the chance to enjoy the fruits of the Union’s ultimate victory that he had paid so dearly to help achieve; never would he feel the pride and independence of building his own household, working the land and raising a family who might in turn enjoy the benefits of a free labor society and democratic self-government that his service had helped ensure.
On a more pragmatic level, Richard was left floundering for mere survival in the wake of Marcell’s death. Perhaps he and Octave had thought that Octave’s younger brother, Francis, would take it upon himself to care for their father in the event of his death. But Francis’s flight sometime between Octave’s death and 1867 forced Richard Marcell to look elsewhere for income. On August 24, 1867, Octave’s father appointed a lawyer to file for a pension from his son’s death. Richard was 64 years old and too weak to do any kind of work, as his blindness was a primary factor in his infirmity. Henry Harmon, the father of John Nay Harmon, one of the soldiers who carried Octave Marcell, testified that he knew well the depth of poverty in which Richard Marcell had been forced to live. He affirmed that Octave’s father could not perform any work and was utterly disabled by his blindness. (Interestingly, in his testimony, Harmon referred to Richard and Octave’s last name as “Marcellus,” as did another fellow neighbor; as a result, Octave’s official pension record became officially filed under the name “Octave Marcellus”). Another resident of Milton and member of Octave’s company, Leon H. Drake, described Octave’s father as rendered utterly destitute by his son’s death, writing that Octave’s father was “forced to go bare foot and nearly naked.” Drake testified that there was no one for Richard to reach out to in his family for support Octave’s except three daughters who lived in Canada and who could not financially support him. Drake wrote that Octave’s father had to rely entirely on the charity of his neighbors to get by. Thus, inadvertently, Octave’s military service ultimately only exacerbated his father’s woes, forcing him into an emasculating dependence upon fellow townspeople for mere survival. In an era where dependency on the federal government was almost unheard of, Octave’s father ultimately filed for a pension as a desperate last resort. Richard Marcell was finally approved in December of 1867 to receive an $8 per month pension for Octave’s service, which provided some financial relief, but was still an insufficient income to live off of. When Octave was in the army, he had sent his father his pay of merely $7 a month, but also part of his bounty upon his enlistment. Richard Marcell’s tragic story clearly evoked sympathy from his neighbors who tried to help him as best as they could. In the wake of Gettysburg, the tight-knit community in Milton understood loss and suffering on a much more personal level. The grieving community united through their shared suffering, turning to each other for help and comfort, and helping to alleviate the sting of the war’s devastating impacts.
After Gettysburg, the 13th Vermont had followed the Army of Northern Virginia down to Middletown, Maryland before being sent back to Brattleboro, Vermont on July 8th. The regiment was mustered out on July 21, 1863. Upon reaching Winooski, Vermont, Marcell’s company was met with ecstatic fanfare and served dinner by the overjoyed and grateful community. On July 23, the company finally disbanded, heading home where their proud families and friends anxiously awaited them. Most of those who served in the Second Vermont Brigade did not reenlist, since they were satisfied that they completed their service in one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the war. Shaken by the gory sights of suffering and death at Gettysburg, they returned to the comforts of home with relief that they had survived. Some of the men in the Second Vermont Brigade did choose to reenlist in the newly formed 17th Vermont, which was comprised of only 313 men by the time of the regiment’s first battle at the Wilderness in April of 1864– evidence of a reluctance among the battle-scarred veterans to reenlist. These small, tightly knit communities of the Green Mountain State, having recently sacrificed so many of their men on the battlefield, likely pressured the returning veterans to stay home as families comforted their grieving fellow residents over the losses of their sons, husbands, and brothers at Gettysburg. 36 other men in Marcell’s company had enlisted from Milton, another 47 men from nearby Colchester, and 10 more men in the surrounding towns. Like Milton, these small towns suffered greatly as they read the casualty reports from Gettysburg and witnessed the return of the battle-hardened veterans, some of whom bore horrifying physical scars of their service, while others struggled to cope mentally in the battle’s aftermath. Those soldiers close to Marcell likely visited his grieving father to offer words of comfort or support to him. Because Marcell had been so admired and well-liked by his comrades, many of his surviving peers likely felt it their duty to offer personal condolences or anecdotes of their comrade’s service at Gettysburg to his grieving family, thus allowing Marcell’s father and brother to partake in at least a small, if indirect, token of the rituals surrounding the “Good Death.”
The Vermonters Look Back on Gettysburg with Pride “13th Vermont Infantry at Gettysburg, PA. Dedicated October 19, 1899.” Image courtesy of Men to Match the Mountains, Photographs from the Vermont Civil War Collection of Francis Guber (blog). https://francisguber.wordpress.com/category/13th-vermont-infantry/.
Like many other regiments, the 13th Vermont sought to memorialize those like Marcell who had died at Gettysburg and distinguish their regiment’s unique contribution to the battle. The 13th Vermont’s monument on the Gettysburg battlefield features Lieutenant Stephen F. Brown atop a 10-foot granite stone. Brown had been the officer arrested on the march to Gettysburg for leaving the lines to collect water for his dehydrated, exhausted men. Brown’s sword had been taken away at his arrest. When the regiment reached Gettysburg, he was released from arrest, but his sword was still missing. Having no other option, he went into battle with a hatchet, which can be seen by his statue’s foot. Brown was unafraid to use the hatchet in compelling Confederates to surrender. When he raised it to strike one Confederate officer, the officer saw that Brown meant to fulfill his threat, and he quickly surrendered his sword. Brown’s grit and dedication to his men and the Union cause perfectly embodied the fighting spirit of the regiment, thus winning him a statue of his likeness atop the monument.
As they gathered for the official dedication of the 13th Vermont’s monument on October 19, 1899, veterans likely re-lived those bittersweet moments of July 2 and July 3, simultaneously struck by how long ago their unit’s most defining hour was and yet also how deeply the men still felt the thrills and losses of those moments. The once more, deceptively tranquil landscape surely echoed with memories of the roar of cannon fire and cries of wounded comrades whose absence in their ranks was still deeply felt. Yet, the landscape also evoked a sense of personal and national pride for the men’s contributions to achieving sectional reunion and emancipation. As they walked through the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and paused at the graves of their fellow comrades, they must have longed for an end to war and its cruelties while simultaneously feeling ever more assured of the righteousness and moral necessity of the cause for which they had fought. For the sake of the newly restored Union, they likely desired a lasting peace with their former foe on the grounds of a mutual respect for each side’s valiant displays of martial masculinity but were careful to remind themselves and their former enemy that the Union cause, not the Confederates’ cause, was just. Even as Union veterans shook hands with their former enemies at the much-celebrated Blue-Gray reunions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they still harbored varying degrees of animosity towards the men whom they considered traitors and who had slain so many of their friends and comrades.
Though, for many of the Vermonters, their combat experiences had ended in July of 1863, they could not shake the memories of their service, and found themselves drawn back to their war-time stomping grounds on more than one occasion. In 1902, the 13th Vermont visited Virginia, having decided to host their regimental association meeting at Fairfax Court House, the site of the campground on which they had lived and trained in anticipation of their first fight, forty years earlier. The men poignantly reflected on all that had transpired since those innocent and monotonous early-war days. In 1909, the veterans of the 13th Vermont were drawn to the Gettysburg battlefield once more for a tour. Continuing onto Washington, D. C., they met President Theodore Roosevelt, who praised them for their service at Gettysburg. Also in 1909, in Marcell’s own town of Milton, the surviving veterans erected a monument to memorialize all from Milton who served. As the number of those who remembered the war gradually dwindled, the veterans surely were struck by an urgency to erect a physical reminder of their comrades’ sacrifice. They wanted future generations to remember the Green Mountain State’s brave sons, the cause for which they fought, and just how many had been proud to serve their country, even if it meant paying the ultimate price. The monument also served as a sort of shrine for those who could not travel to Gettysburg and other battlefields to pay their respects, in person, on the very ground they had consecrated with their blood.
In 1910, the 13th Vermont’s regimental association, with Sergeant Henry O. Clark as president, released a complete regimental history of over 800 pages. Each veteran wrote a short descriptive narrative of another member in their regiment. Despite only seeing combat at Gettysburg, the veterans clearly wanted the stories and accounts of the 13th to be recorded for posterity, and felt extremely proud of their accomplishments. For the fiftieth commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, the state legislature offered to compensate Vermont Civil War veterans who wanted to attend the reunion. Over 500 Vermont veterans came to the reunion, feeling the tug of memories from their youth and a longing to reminisce over their shared experiences with their comrades on the historic landscape that defined their war-time service. Like other Union veterans, the Vermonters were in close contact with Confederate veterans at this reunion. The Vermonters respected the bravery of their former Confederate foe and conversed amicably with them, but even as reconciled old men, the Vermonters still did not forget the moral superiority of their cause and those who fell at the hands of the enemy. The Vermonters, drawn by the unique bonds forged in war and in camp, returned to Gettysburg many more times to relive the defining moments of their wartime experience that had shaped them as young men, and to pay tribute to the fallen. Though by 1913 Octave Marcell himself had already been gone for nearly three times the number of years that he actually spent on earth, the insistence of his surviving peers to preserve and promote the collective memory of the fallen Green Mountain Boys at Gettysburg at home, and in the historical records, has helped to ensure that, though he forever lies in an unknown grave at Gettysburg, his individual life story and the legacy of his sacrifice may still be known by generations present and future.
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Narrative and map by Erica Uszak, Gettysburg College