Sgt. Charles H. Saunders of Adams thought what he found after a Civil War battle in 1865 in Virginia was something to write home about.
Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered the evacuation of the Howlett Line at the second Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Seven days later, Gen. Lee would surrender to U.S. general and commander Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va.
Although wounded, Sgt. Saunders was among the curious soldiers who went to the Howlett Line after it was abandoned by the rebels. It was a critical Confederate earthworks dug during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. That campaign was a series of battles fought at the town of Bermuda Hundred, outside Richmond, Va.
The “line,” which stretched across the Bermuda peninsula, was named for Dr. Howlett’s House that overlooked the James River at the north end and south bank of the line.
Sgt. Saunders, who died 103 years ago today, came across some items in an abandoned bunker. But one item, a bound collection of magazines, particularly caught his attention. It may have been owned by a highly educated rebel, perhaps with ties to England.
Waiting in Adams was his wife, the former Clara Moon, who he married in 1862. Sgt. Saunders gathered what he found in the former rebel lines, carefully packaged it and wrote home:
“This book I found in the rebel battery on James River, April 3, 1865. This battery is called the Howlett house. I sent it with two blankets, 1 blouse, 1 overcoat and a leather case with some things I found in the gunnery ... on the same ground where we made the charge yesterday with 300 men and were repulsed and where of the 100 of the number killed or wounded, I being of the latter but only slightly.”
The book Sgt. Saunders described, and his letter home, is now in the hands of a hobbyist from Duxbury, Mass., who collects relics from Civil War battlefields and investigates their backgrounds.
“There are almost no relics like this that exist,” said Paul Mellen, the hobbyist. “It’s one in a million.”
The left-behind “book” that Sgt. Saunders found were bound copies of an illustrated periodical called The Penny Magazine, all dated from 1833. The lavishly illustrated magazine was created by British publisher Charles Knight for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, in operation from 1826 to 1848. The Penny Magazine was published from 1832 to 1835.
Mr. Mellen purchased the bound copies, which he’s calling a book, on eBay from a seller in Coulterville, Calif., in September.
“I spent a large amount of money for it because I just knew in my heart that this would be something that I could investigate — who wrote this note, where he came from and what his service was,” Mr. Mellen said.
Articles in the book explored topics ranging from cathedrals, exotic animals, Greek gods and the history of printing. Several articles were accompanied by elaborate woodcuts, a relief printing technique.
Mr. Mellen was able to trace Sgt. Saunders’s military unit to the 10th New York Artillery, also known as the Black River Artillery. He contacted the Historical Association of South Jefferson, which was able to find Sgt. Saunders’s obituary and shared it with Mr. Mellen.
Deborah A. Quick, recording secretary for the Historical Association of South Jefferson’s board of directors, said the request was one of several it regularly receives each week.
“It’s exciting trying to help people put the pieces together from the past,” Mrs. Quick said.
Mr. Mellen also discovered that Sgt. Saunders’s regimental record mistakenly reported that he had died.
Mr. Mellen, who has been relic hunting since 2012, is retired from a marketing company he owned.
“I look for things that were picked up on the battlefield,” he said.
He said the seller of the book didn’t know any history behind it. Also unknown is what happened to the other items Sgt. Saunders had sent home. Somebody, between the 1860s and more recent decades, had the collection of magazines rebound to help preserve them.
“My interest in history is to look at source documents and investigate the events around the documents, in this case, a battle I never heard of,” Mr. Mellen said. “Now that I have this artifact, I learn about the Howlett house. I’m also learning about The Penny Magazines, the actual relic, which is fascinating.”
Mr. Mellen discovered a regimental record that indicated Sgt. Saunders was mistakenly listed as killed in an April 2, 1865 battle.
“We know that this is a historical error and Saunders survived,” Mr. Mellen said. “Not only did he survive, but he obtained a relic he considered important and valuable enough to send home to Adams along with a few other items.”
Mrs. Quick said the Historical Association of South Jefferson keeps military records on all soldiers from its area at its 29 E. Church St. headquarters.
“We have files on all our veterans that we know about, regardless if they stayed in this area or not,” she said. “In a couple of cases, we have guys who were born here, moved before the war and served, but because they’re natives of this area, we keep records of them.”
Mrs. Quick said the association doesn’t have any of the items that Sgt. Saunders sent home to Adams.
“The Saunders name was quite well known in this area. But nothing was ever given to us that had come from him,” she said.
Sgt. Saunders’s obituary was published Nov. 15, 1916, in the Jefferson County Journal.
“I’m hoping someone in the Saunders family reads this and reaches out to me,” Mr. Mellen said.
According to Sgt. Saunders’s obituary, he was born in Troy, Rensselaer County, in 1838. His family moved to Adams in 1844. Their farm was near the village.
In August of 1862, Sgt. Saunders enlisted in Co. B. 10th Regiment N.Y. Heavy Artillery and served with the unit until the end of the war. The regiment was mustered at Sackets Harbor in 1862. In 1865, it was mustered out at Petersburg, Va. According to the National Parks Service, recruits were transferred to 6th New York Heavy Artillery.
In 1865, Sgt. Saunders moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he had a long career in the police force. Upon retirement, he operated a grocery business. His wife, Clara, died in 1913. The only north country relative listed as a survivor in his obituary was a brother, A.F. Saunders, Adams.