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Following the Union defeat in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863), Colonel William R. Brewster wrote to the family of the late Colonel William O. Stevens: “To the afflicted family in their bereavement, words of condolence and sympathy are all that we can offer. Our loss has been great, theirs has been greater. A parent now mourns the offering of a second son on the altar of his country, while a devoted wife with her fatherless children, deplores the loss of a loving and generous protector.” In this letter dated May 18th, 1863, Colonel Brewster was writing on behalf of the officers of the Excelsior Brigade, which included the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment of which Colonel William O. Stevens was commander. Orrin L. Gatchell, a private in the 72nd Regiment, also expressed his esteem for Colonel Stevens in two letters to his family. In a letter to his sister Sarah and her husband Ebenezer, he wrote: “Our regiment lost our Col., as gallant an officer as ever drew his sword in defense of his country. He fell in the front rank while leading us on. In a subsequent letter to his sister Sarah, Orrin wrote: “I will also enclose a likeness of the late Col. Wm. O. Stevens … He was the commandant of our regiment and fell bravely cheering us on. The rebels marked his bravery, and when he died, they buried him with military honors.” Colonel Brewster and Orrin were writing in praise of Colonel Stevens several days after a humiliating Union defeat by the Confederate forces commanded by General Robert E. Lee, during which the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment lost a total of 11 killed including Colonel Stevens and four other officers, 31 wounded, and 59 missing.

During the Civil War, the Stevens family gave three lives to the Union cause:  Colonel William O. Stevens (1828 – 1863) at the Battle of Chancellorsville; his half-brother First Lieutenant Gorham Phillips Stevens (1841 – 1862) following the Battle of Williamsburg; and a cousin Major General Isaac I. Stevens (1818 – 1862) at the Battle of Chantilly. Isaac Stevens’ son, Brevet Brigadier General and Assistant Adjutant General Hazard Stevens (1842 – 1918), who was severely wounded at the Battle of Chantilly, recovered and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism” for the capture of the Confederate installation at Fort Huger, Virginia on April 19, 1863.

For William Oliver Stevens (February 3, 1828 – May 5, 1863), patriotism and public service were instilled as family values early in his life while growing up in Belfast, Maine. His paternal grandfather fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War. His father, William Stevens, was an attorney in Andover, Massachusetts prior to his appointment as a Judge of the Police Court in nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts. His mother, Eliza Leach Watson Stevens, and step-mother, Elizabeth Barnard Phillips Stevens, were from prominent eastern Massachusetts families.

William attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts followed by Harvard College, graduating in 1848. Although both half-brother Gorham and first cousin once removed Hazard enrolled in Harvard College, both left shortly after the start of Civil War to enlist in the Army. Both William and Gorham were officers in the elite Excelsior Brigade, with William commissioned in the 72nd and Gorham commissioned in the 70th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments. Isaac I. Stevens, who was the first Governor of the Territory of Washington, and his son Hazard were commissioned in the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Following his graduation from Harvard College, William O. Stevens studied law for eighteen months with his father Judge William Stevens and for twelve months with the Honorable Thomas Wright from Lawrence, Massachusetts. Judge Wright characterized the studious Colonel Stevens in this way:  “The responsibilities of life opened to him, and he devoted himself diligently to his studies. Resolute and determined,...whatever he undertook he accomplished. He felt he had a duty to perform. He entered upon the practice of his profession determined to succeed, with confidence in himself which afterwards proved not to have been unfoundedBut it was a self-confidence without taint of arrogance…In all the vicissitudes of war, he wore a steady, hopeful front – a support to the wavering, a strength and encouragement to all.”

After his studies with his father and Judge Wright, William O. Stevens moved to Dunkirk, Chautauqua County in far western New York State in 1852, established his practice as a lawyer, and on May 23, 1855 married Virginia T. Grosvenor (October 18, 1835 - February 7, 1917) from nearby Geneva, New York whose father, the Honorable Godfrey Grosvenor, was also an attorney. As his stature in the community grew, William was elected to a 3 year term as District Attorney in 1859. He and his wife had 3 children:  George Watson Stevens (April 16, 1856 – February 23, 1912), William “Willie” Grosvenor Stevens (October 14, 1861 – November 25, 1872), and a daughter, “Little Jenny,” who died during infancy.

Following the start of the Civil War and in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops, William O. Stevens organized a company in Dunkirk that was transported to Staten Island, New York where the Excelsior Brigade was being formed by Major General Daniel E. Sickles and Colonel Nelson Taylor to include the 70th through 74th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments. Stevens was elected a Major in the 72nd and his brother Gorham mustered in as a Second Lieutenant in the 70th. During the Peninsula Campaign (March – July, 1862), whose aim was to defeat the Confederate Army and take the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia from the south, the Excelsior Brigade, commanded by Colonel Nelson Taylor in General Joseph Hooker’s Division, bore the brunt of the battle at Williamsburg on May 14, 1862. Among the many killed and wounded, William O. Stevens was slightly wounded and Gorham Stevens was more severely wounded, leading to his death at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia on August 12, 1862. Ever modest, William O. Stevens reported:  “I was hit three times - first by a ball which ricocheted and bruised the calf of my right leg; next, by a ball which grazed my face just under the right side of my mouth; and again one that grazed a shoulder blade.” Major Stevens was commissioned Colonel of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also known as the Third Excelsior Regiment, on October 10, 1862.

As Commander of the Union Army, Major General Joseph Hooker’s strategic plan was to attack the Confederates from the north, defeat the Confederate Army and capture Richmond, Virginia. One consequence of Major General Hooker’s failure to vigorously attack the Confederates at Chancellorsville was a resounding counterattack by the Confederates at daylight on Sunday, May 3rd, resulting in retreat by the Union Army. The Excelsior Brigade, including the 72nd New York Regiment, was ordered to stay the retreat. After his horse was shot out from under him, Colonel Stevens led the counter-charge on foot and, while doing so, gave the order:Change front to rear on first Company. Boys, Follow Me,” turned partly around to head his men, when a ball struck him in the left breast and passed through his body.” After unclasping his sword, giving it to a Regiment soldier and uttering a few words including “Carry it to my wife, - remember me to my boy,” he fell unconscious. Two soldiers and Captain Harmon J. Bliss from the 72nd NY Regiment attempted to carry Colonel Stevens from the battlefield but were overwhelmed and captured by the Confederates, with Captain Bliss being severely wounded. Dr. Butler and the Rev. George Patterson both ministered to Colonel Stevens during his last hours at a Confederate field hospital and command center at Dowdall’s Tavern to ease his final passage to eternity on Tuesday, May 5, 1863. His body “dressed in uniform, was wrapped in a blanket, and laid in the ground near the old Wilderness Church.” On Wednesday, May 13th, under a flag of truce, Dr. Charles K. Irwin, M.D. and others learned where Colonel Stevens was buried, disinterred his body and brought it to Union lines. Dr. Irwin transported the body to the United States Ford, which was a nearby Rappahannock River crossing, where it was received by Colonel Stevens’ father and transported to his grieving family, friends and community members in Dunkirk, New York.

Immediately following Colonel Stevens’ burial on Wednesday, May 20, 1863, his wife, Virginia T. Grosvenor Stevens, who was now a 26-year-old widow with 2 young sons, initiated the process to obtain a pension to sustain her after her husband’s death in service to his country. The following documentation is representative, but by no means exhaustive, of that required to obtain pension payments from the United States Pension Office.

a.      17 June 1863:  Virginia T. Stevens gave testimony that she was the wife by marriage to Colonel William O. Stevens and that they had two living children.

b.     15 July 1863:  George Tate, who was a Sargent in the 72nd NY Regiment, gave testimony that he was acquainted with Colonel Stevens and that on May 3, 1863 Colonel Stevens was in command of the 72nd NY Regiment, and that he “…received a wound in the breast from a ball…he was unable to escape from the field of battle and was taken prisoner by the enemy…”

c.      18 April 1864:  The Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C. confirmed that Colonel Stevens “…died on May 5, 1863of a gunshot wound in the lung.”

d.     24 Sept. 1864:  Dr. Charles K. Irwin, M.D., who was the Surgeon for the 72nd New York Regiment gave testimony that “…William O. Stevens diedat Chancellorsvillefrom the effects of wounds received while in battle…”

e.      12 October 1864:  United States Pension Office Pension Certificate to Virginia T. Stevens providing “$30/month Commencing 5 May 1863.”

f.      15 Dec. 1916: Virginia T. Stevens, now 81 years old and without a means of support following the deaths of her two sons, requested an increase in her pension of $30 per month.

g.     6 January 1917:  United States Bureau of Pensions, Department of Interior. Increased Pension Request Denied.

h.     7 February 1917:  Virginia T. Stevens died in Boston, Massachusetts while living with the Stevens family after having living with Grosvenor family in Chicago, Illinois for many years.

i.       21 February 1917:  United States Bureau of Pensions, Department of Interior. Virginia T. Stevens, Pensioner Dropped.

Within 12 months, the Stevens family sacrificed 3 loved ones for the patriotic cause to preserve the Constitution and Union of the United States. The Stevens families mourned, but their sacrifice and service to the country are not forgotten.

Colonel William Oliver Stevens together his wife Virginia T. Grosvenor Stevens and their infant daughter “Little Jenny”, William Grosvenor Stevens, and George Watson Stevens are now reunited as a family in Forest Hills Cemetery, Fredonia, New York. Colonel Stevens’ tombstone reads in part “He gave his life for his country.” There is a memorial to Colonel Stevens in St. John the Baptist’s Episcopal Church in Dunkirk, New York.

Lieutenant Gorham Phillips Stevens together with his parents Judge William Stevens (1799 – 1879) and Elizabeth Barnard Phillips Stevens (1805 – 1887) as well as his brothers and sisters are now reunited as a family in the Second Burying Ground, North Andover, Massachusetts.

Major General Isaac Ingalls Stevens together with his wife Margaret Lyman Hazard Stevens (1817 – 1913) and their son Brevet Brigadier General Hazard Stevens are now reunited as a family in the Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island. Major General Stevens’ tombstone reads in part “…and who fell while rallying his command with the Flag of the Republic in his dying grasp…” Brigadier General Stevens’ tombstone reads in part “…True Patriot…The Righteous Live Forever.

The death of Colonel William O. Stevens not only left a great void in the lives of his family, but also in the command leadership of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. How did the ranking officer Colonel William R. Brewster and the other officers respond? This will be the topic of our blog on May 26, 2013.


Related Images

  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.
  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.
  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.
  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.
  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.
  • Chancellorsville: The Stevens family mourns. Two sons gave their lives for their country.

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