A Union Deserter Settles in Winchester
Photo courtesy of Krista Al Qirim Thompson
Thomas Wathey was born on February 2, 1841 in Londonderry, Ireland to Thomas and Mary Wathey. His mother was Irish and his father a Scot. In 1855, Mary, Thomas and his younger brother Will emigrated from Liverpool on the ship American Union. The family had a lower deck non-cabin berth. They arrived in New York City on June 16, 1855 en route to Rhode Island. According to the 1860 census, Thomas worked as a machinist in Providence, but by the following year the family moved to Northbridge, MA.
On May 25, 1861 Thomas was one of 64 men from Northbridge who enlisted in Company H, 15th Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment mustered into Federal service on July 12, 1861 and moved to Washington the following month. On October 21st the regiment saw its first action at Ball’s Bluff and suffered the heaviest losses of any of the Union regiments engaged. Thomas was wounded in the leg and sent home to recover from his wound. While he was home, he married Harriet Elizabeth Smith in Northbridge, MA on November 23, 1861. Minister William Merrill presided over the ceremony.
The following spring the 15th MA was assigned to the II Corps and accompanied the rest of the Army of the Potomac to the peninsula. The regiment fought at Seven Pines, Savage’s Station, and Glendale with modest losses. One of the last regiments to depart the peninsula in August, the 15th Massachusetts missed the battle of Second Bull Run. Military service agreed with Thomas, and he rapidly progressed through the enlisted ranks from private to first sergeant of Company H.
The regiment was brigaded with the 1st Minnesota, 34th and 82nd New York under Brigadier General Willis A. Gorman during the Maryland Campaign. In heavy fighting at the battle of Antietam it fought against the brigades of Semmes, Early and Barksdale and was savagely flanked by the Confederates not far from Dunkard Church. It suffered 52% casualties, losing 320 killed, wounded or missing of 606 engaged. Eleven men were killed in Wathey’s Company H alone. For the second time in less than a year the 15th Massachusetts suffered the heaviest losses by a Union regiment in a battle.
This was enough for Thomas. A month later he transferred to Company M, 6th U.S. Cavalry on October 24, 1862 in Knoxville, MD. His enlistment documents described him as 5’ 8 ½ ” tall, with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. When the regiment returned to Virginia the following month, he and the other volunteers were sent to a camp of instruction outside of Washington to be mounted and trained.
Private Wathey quickly completed the training and rejoined the regiment. He spent the winter rotating off and on picket duty along the Rappahannock River. Cavalry life evidently agreed with him, as he was promoted to corporal before spring campaigning started.
Corporal Wathey participated in Stoneman’s Raid and the regiment’s heavy engagement at Brandy Station without injury, as well as the long march and skirmishes on the way to Gettysburg. At Fairfield on July 3, 1863, he fought dismounted in Lt. Adna Chaffee’s squadron behind a fence in an apple orchard on the regiment’s left flank. Unable to reach their horse holders when the regiment was overrun, Wathey was one of the majority of his company captured by the Confederates. When his first sergeant conducted roll call the following day, only two privates in the company were present for duty.
Corporal Wathey marched on foot south with the rest of the prisoners to Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, then travelled by rail the rest of the way to Richmond. After being processed at Castle Thunder in Richmond, they were incarcerated on Belle Isle on the James River. Wathey was fortunate, as Company M’s were in the first group of prisoners paroled and sent north the following month. Wathey returned to duty with the regiment at the beginning of September.
Corporal Wathey was re-enlisted in Company M by Lt. Tullius Tupper on February 8, 1864. The documents say Brandy Station, but more than likely this happened at the Reserve Brigade’s encampment at nearby Mitchell’s Station. His fortunes in battle improved greatly, as he fought in all of the regiment’s major engagements of 1864 and 1865 without incident.
Thomas didn’t serve long after the end of the war. Following the Appomattox campaign, the regiment was sent to Pleasant Valley, MD to recruit and re-fit. As the regiment prepared to head west to the frontier, he deserted on July 23, 1866. He did not return home to Massachusetts, and his first wife Hattie remarried to Frank A. Cross in Northbridge, MA on August 6, 1868.
Oddly enough, the former Union cavalryman returned to the Shenandoah Valley. He settled in Winchester, VA and eventually joined the Masonic fraternity. He married Winchester native Marietta Clark, daughter of Willis B. and Emily Z. (nee’ Pierce) Clark. The couple’s first three children died in their first year, but the next three survived. Their final child also did not survive his first year in 1881.
Thomas remained in the Winchester area of Frederick County for the rest of his life. In 1880 he lived in Stonewall township, in 1890 Shawnee, and in 1900 on his son Thomas Norval Wathey’s farm as a laborer. He moved in with his son following his wife’s death on October 28, 1898.
On the 1890 veteran’s schedule, Thomas listed his service as a sergeant in Company H, 2nd U.S. Cavalry from 1858 to 1866. When he applied for a disability pension on July 25, 1892, he again cited service the wrong regiment and omitted his desertion. Understandably, the processing of his claim was greatly delayed by the inaccuracies of the filing.
Thomas Wathey died after a brief illness of pleurisy in Winchester on March 3, 1907. He had finally received a back payment for his pension of $1,100 just a month before. He was buried in the German Lutheran Church Cemetery next to his wife. His obituary in the Winchester Evening Star read:
“Obituary: Mr. Thomas Wathey, a well-known and highly-respected citizen of Winchester, who had made this city his home ever since the Civil War, passed away about 10 o’clock on Sunday morning at his home on North Kent street, near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad passenger station, after a brief illness of pleurisy, aged 66 years.”
Adjutant General of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, Volume VII. Boston: Norwood Press, 1931.
Caughey, Donald C. and Jimmy J. Jones. The 6th United States Cavalry in the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2013.
Clemens, Thomas G., ed. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862. Vol. II: Antietam. El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie LLC, 2012.
Ford, Andrew E. The Story of the Fifteenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War 1861-1864. Boston: W.J. Coulter Press, 1898.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Returns from Regular Army Non-infantry Regiments, 1821-1916: 6th U.S. Cavalry.
National Archives, Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, Pension record #67724.
“Thos. Wathey Dead; Just Got Pension.” Evening Star, Winchester, VA, March 4, 1907.
U.S. Federal Census, 1860, 1880 and 1890. Accessed on Ancestry.com, March 2020.