Out of the Wilderness: Strafford Siblings, Lost for 150 Years, Remembered in Stone
Pastor Byron Breese of United Church of Strafford, Vt., greets relatives of Civil War Pvt. George Roberts and his sister Amelia Roberts, including Stella Butterfield of Canaan, N.H., and Michael Packard, left, of Meriden, N.H., after a memorial service for the Roberts siblings at Evergreen Cemetery in Strafford on May 3, 2014. Stones for George and Amelia Roberts were installed next to the graves of their relatives after Amelia's stone was discovered in a pawn shop and research showed that George was buried in a mass grave after the Battle of the Wilderness. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Amelia Roberts' stone rests near the graves of her relatives and the stone of her brother Pvt. George Roberts in Evergreen Cemetery in Strafford, Vt., on May 3, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Pvt. George Roberts' newly carved stone rests near the graves of his relatives in Evergreen Cemetery in Strafford, Vt., on May 3, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Joie Finley Morris of Strafford, Vt., speaks during a memorial service for Civil War soldier Pvt. George Roberts and his sister Amelia Roberts, whose tombstones were installed next to their siblings' graves in Evergreen Cemetery in Strafford on May 3, 2014. Living relatives of the Roberts family are seated behind Morris. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Eric Hector of Claremont, N.H., prays along with members of the Vermont Civil War Hemlocks during a memorial service for Civil War Pvt. George Roberts and his sister Amelia Roberts at Evergreen Cemetery in Strafford, Vt., on May 3, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
South Strafford — Military veterans and Civil War re-enactors, town officials and others, about 50 in all, turned out Saturday for a memorial service for a Strafford brother and sister who died about 150 years ago. Stella Butterfield, a great-great-niece of the Civil War veteran and his sister, didn’t expect to see such a crowd.
“I thought there would be family and someone presenting us with a flag,” said Butterfield, of Canaan, who attended the ceremony at Evergreen Cemetery with her cousins and aunt. “It’s just amazing, all these people.”
The service for Amelia Roberts and Pvt. George Roberts, hosted by the Strafford Cemetery Commission, came about through a curious series of events.
Amelia Roberts died of typhoid fever in 1859. A headstone was made for the girl, just 8 years old when she died, but at some point it disappeared. Eventually, the stone found its way to a New Hampshire pawn shop, whose owner traced it to Strafford and returned it to the town last year .
“It’s unbelievable,” said Dick Josler, cemetery commission chairman . “After all these years. Who knows how long it’s been missing?”
In an effort to find Amelia Roberts’ grave, the cemetery commission enlisted the help of Joie Finley Morris, a Strafford resident who is documenting gravestones in the town and is also part of an effort to photograph Civil War graves across Vermont. But the town holds no records of where people were buried in the 1800s, and Morris was unable to locate the burial site.
Little is known about the Roberts family, farmers who lived in the Upper Valley, according to information provided at the ceremony. But during her research, Morris learned of George Roberts, part of Company D, 3rd Regiment of the Vermont Infantry, who died in the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War and the deadliest for Vermont. Roberts was buried in a mass grave on the battlefield, but his name was omitted from any memorials.
Morris tracked down some of the Roberts’ descendants, including their great-great-niece Cindy Watson, of Orange, N.H., who gave the OK to allow the cemetery commission to petition the U.S. government for a stone in his honor.
That stone, along with Amelia’s, was installed near the site in Evergreen Cemetery where several of the Roberts’ siblings and siblings’ families are buried.
That it was possible to find the Roberts’ relatives living nearby is “a testament to the family’s strength,” Morris said during the ceremony. “I love that about this community.”
Her unexpected knock on Watson’s door last year came at a perfect time.
She had recently begun researching her genealogy but hadn’t gotten to that side of the family yet, said Watson, who is Butterfield’s cousin and an advertising sales representative at the Valley News. And while they knew that some of their ancestors had fought in the Civil War, her family was unaware of the connection to the Strafford family. Learning the siblings’ stories makes her research “a little more personal.”
Butterfield called the discovery ”exciting,” and said she was happy George Roberts was recognized for his service.
During the ceremony, the family received a plaque signed by President Obama, and, from Sen. Bernie Sanders, an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol. Morris also read a letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin marking the occasion.
“Vermont has a deep and proud tradition of military service, and we are eternally grateful for those who gave their lives to save this nation,” Shumlin said in the letter. Yesterday’s ceremony would finally recognize the “unfortunate oversight.”
The memorial came just days before the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was fought in Virginia on May 5 and 6, 1864. Vermont paid dearly in what is considered a turning point in the Civil War: of about 2,800 soldiers from the state, more than 1,200 lost their lives, including four from Strafford. Another Strafford man lost an arm in the fighting.
At yesterday’s service, Selectman John Freitag described the battle, fought in a thickly wooded area crowded with underbrush. Freitag read aloud from an account by Union soldier Warren Lee Goss, who called the fighting “a blind and bloody hunt to the death, in bewildering thickets, rather than a battle.”
The Rev. Byron Breese, a retired Air Force officer, offered a prayer for the Robertses and invited children to ring the bells at the nearby Unitarian Universalist Church after the memorial service. Church bells will toll again in the town and across the state Monday at 4 p.m., marking the 150th anniversary of the first day of the battle.
Yesterday’s gentle gathering honored the lives of Amelia and George Roberts, two of Alvira Fox and Stephen Roberts’ 10 children, with prayer, speeches and flowers. But while sprucing up Evergreen Cemetery for the event, organizers had discovered something disturbing. About 50 or 60 of the metal markers that denote veterans’ graves are missing, Morris said. “I was heartbroken.”
“Towns need to keep an eye on their cemeteries,” said Morris, who recommends towns consider replacing the markers with plastic versions and placing the originals in the historical society’s care.
Roderick Maclay, Strafford Selectboard chairman, was also distressed by the theft. “To me, as far as honoring our veterans, it’s a real disgrace,” he said. “It hits you.”
Following the ceremony, many people made their way down the street to a tea and cookie reception at Cafe 232. Among them was Karen Woodbury, who recently moved to Strafford.
“I connected with the little girl,” said Woodbury, who has three granddaughters. For her, the memorial was a “wonderful way” to connect with the community and to honor Pvt. Roberts, “who didn’t even make it to his 21st birthday.”
For Freitag, a former president of the Strafford Historical Society, the enthusiastic turnout says something about the town: Stafford residents “are people with roots, people with memories.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.