Letter on Cpt. Murray Restoration Project

Letter written by, Chris Benedetto, Corporal and former Executive Board Chairman.

“The most recent preservation endeavour of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry focused on the headstones of Captain John Murray, his wife Phila and their daughter Nella, who are buried side by side at the Riverside Cemetery overlooking the Piscataqua River in New Castle, New Hampshire—next to Portsmouth.  Captain John Murray was a member of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers who would sacrifice his life on the battlefield—his remarkable story is worthy of our remembrance.

In 1846 at the age of twenty-two, John Murray enlisted as a private in the Third U.S. Artillery at Fort Moultrie in Salisbury, North Carolina. Within a short time, he fought in the major battles of the Mexican War and for his valor during the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847 President Millard Fillmore presented Murray with a Certificate of Merit.  Following the end of this conflict, Murray’s artillery unit deployed to the coast of New England, and stationed at Fort Constitution in New Castle, New Hampshire.  While there, he married eighteen year-old Philadelphia Yeaton in 1850. Murray obtained his discharge as a sergeant in 1853.  During the next several years he celebrated the birth of three daughters, Margaret, Caroline, and Lavinia. He also became a well-known figure in New Castle as the commander of the local militia company.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Murray accepted a commission in October 1861 to command Company D of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. He quickly earned the respect and admiration of Colonel Edward Cross.  The Colonel thought so highly of Murray he wrote in November 1862 that Murray had “no superior in the service for bravery & capacity to command” and sought to have the Mexican War veteran promoted to the rank of major at the appropriate time.  By December, the Fifth New Hampshire, along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, were encamped on the banks of the Rapahannock River across from the town of Fredericksburg and held by the Army of Northern Virginia. While Captain Murray must have been excited about the prospect of advancement  in the 5th New Hampshire,  his mind probably drifted homeward.  A few weeks earlier, tragedy had struck his young family when his infant daughter Nella, less than two years old, passed away on November 11.  He must have contemplated the burden and sorrow weighing on his wife Phila, his young daughters Margaret, Caroline, and Lavinia back in New Hampshire. And, like countless soldiers who risk their lives today, and throughout our nation’s history, Captain Murray could only have hoped that he would eventually return home to embrace his family once again.

As midday arrived on December 13th, Colonel Cross informed his regiment of 249 soldiers and 18 officers that the imminent battle “was to be a bloody strife; to stand firm and fire low; to close on [the] colors and be steady.” The prospects of victory for the New Hampshire soldiers and the rest of Union Army on that winter day were not promising. After crossing the Rappahannock River the previous day, they faced the daunting task of dislodging the Confederate army from strong defensive positions located on Marye’s Heights behind the town of Fredericksburg. In order to reach the Confederates, who were massed in a country lane behind a formidable stone wall, they had to cross a seven-hundred yard swath of open ground where there would be virtually no cover from the enemy’s withering musket and artillery fire. After the Irish Brigade was savagely beaten back, it was now the turn of the Fifth New Hampshire, as well as the rest of Caldwell’s brigade, to make their courageous but suicidal attempt to take the Confederate lines. Almost immediately after rushing into the open forming a line of battle, Colonel Cross was severely wounded and knocked to the ground when an enemy shell burst close to him. Virtually at the same time, a confederate shell struck the rear of the regiment obliterating Major Edward Sturtevant of Concord. Command of the Fifth New Hampshire passed to Captain John Murray, who continued to lead the regiment through the maelstrom of hot lead and shrieking iron.

It was at this point that a soldier of 118th Pennsylvania, who was looking on from a distance, wrote of seeing a regiment that “maintained a most excellent alignment” through the deadly advance.  He later learned that the “organization whose splendid line attracted such universal admiration was the Fifth New Hampshire.”  The men reached the Stratton house, a lone brick residence that stood only one hundred yards from the Confederate lines. As wounded soldiers used the house for a haven from the deadly fire, Captain Murray steadfastly led the remainder of the regiment towards a high board fence that continued to stand in spite of the enemy’s murderous volleys.  By this time, every member of the Fifth New Hampshire’s color guard had been killed or wounded.  Comrades raced to keep the state and national colors aloft and carry them with honor and distinction towards the Confederate line.

According to a letter by regimental chaplain Milo Ransom, when the bearer of the national colors fell near this fence, Captain Murray picked up the battered staff and shredded silk flag, shouting “These colors never have and never shall be disgraced.”  Seconds later, Captain Murray’s brave life ended when a bullet struck him in the head killing him instantly. With the death of Captain Murray, the Fifth New Hampshire had advanced as far it possibly could in the face of unimaginable odds. The bloodied and tattered state colors of the regiment were ultimately rescued by Corporal John McCrillis and Lieutenant Graves who brought the battle scarred national colors of the regiment to safety following Captain James Perry’s fatal attempt at carrying them.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was a devastating blow for the Fifth New Hampshire; in all some fifty-seven men including officers, many of whom were seasoned veterans, were killed or mortally wounded. One can only imagine the emotions of Captain Murray’s wife as well as his children in late December 1862 when they received the following letter from Colonel Cross describing their beloved husband and father:

“Certainly he had no superior in my regiment. Captain Murray was one of my best friends. I loved him for his sterling honesty, his frankness, and the dependence, which could always be placed in him; for his brave and soldierly character. He fell in the front rank of battle-killed instantly-probably suffering no pain. Accept madam, for yourself and children, my kindest sympathy, and if I can ever be of service to the family of my beloved comrade, do not fail to call on me.”

Shortly after his death, the Portsmouth Journal described Murray as a:

“generous, unpretending man, of a higher real merit than he ever claimed for himself. His loss will be deeply felt, not only by his widow and three little children, but by many in Portsmouth who appreciated his character. “

A unique rectangular marble tablet was placed at Captain Murray’s gravesite with the following inscription:  

Capt. John Murray,
born in the city of New York 1825,
served in the Mexican war in 1847
on recommendation of
Lieut. Col. Belton
received a certificate of merit from
President Fillmore,
commissioned Captain of Co. D. 5th N.H.Volunteers
 Oct. 12, 1861
He fell early in the battle of Fredericksburg
Dec. 13, 1862, while leading a gallant band
of the Defenders of the Country.
A kind Father and Husband, a patriotic
Citizen, a brave and faithful Soldier and
Officer. His last words were
“That Flag never was and never shall be disgraced!”
Erected by his Portsmouth friends

In late 2007, we proposed to the town of New Castle the possibility of cleaning and preserving Captain Murray’s stone for future generations to appreciate and honor. We were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm for this project by cemetery trustee Tom Boisvert, who also embraced the idea of the Fifth New Hampshire organizing a living-history event, parade, and rededication ceremony at Captain Murray’s gravesite. As project coordinator, I was fortunate enough to meet Carol and Steve White, descendants of John Murray, who were more than willing to share their family’s rich history with me. Thanks to the generosity of Tom Boisvert, and the other New Castle cemetery trustees, as well as Roger Syphers of the Syphers Monument Company of Hampton, New Hampshire, who expertly cleaned and judiciously sealed the headstones of Captain Murray and his family, the marker stones should gleam for years to come.

Since Captain Murray died carrying the national colors, it was especially fitting to hold the event on June 14, 2008.  Members of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers, Company A; descendants of Captain Murray; Steve Wood as President Abraham Lincoln; and numerous residents of the town of New Castle, proudly marched through the historic streets to Riverside Cemetery. Standing in front of Captain Murray’s final resting-place, a moving dedication and wreath laying ceremony occurred.  Afterwards, the Fifth New Hampshire marched back to its camp in the park adjacent to the town hall, where we interpreted Civil War camp life to the public. Captain Murray’s descendants generously displayed artifacts once owned by him including the Mexican War Certificate of Merit.

I would like to acknowledge Tom Boisvert, Roger Syphers, the New Castle Fire and Police Departments, the White Family, and my comrades of the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers and members of the Third Vermont for making this a wonderful event and a fitting tribute to Captain John Murray.

The Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers actively supports and participates in historic preservation projects ranging from headstone and monument restoration to the acquisition of battlefield acreage in peril of development.”

Back to Cpt. Murray Gravestone Restoration page.