From the “Stories of our Dearly Departed” series from Kelly Grimaldi, Historian and Associate Director for Albany Diocesan Cemeteries.
A few years ago, Albany Diocesan Cemeteries launched “Stories of our Dearly Departed”, a series featuring stories and photographs of those who are buried within our 19 upstate NY cemeteries.
Our hope is that people will enjoy reading about the lives of our community members just as much as we enjoy learning about them from the families we serve and in the information we find throughout our archives. There are so many fascinating stories buried within these Sacred Grounds!
Kathy Prue researched, wrote and submitted the following story to share with us all.
“I’ve been keeping a secret. There’s a place I like to visit, more often than I care to admit. I don’t go alone, Mark is always with me. He has stood beside me and gazed out over the hillside at the beautiful view of St. Agnes Cemetery [Menands, NY]. Some days he wanders off as I pause at a special grave. I have trudged through many a cemetery over the years, but this past summer into fall has been an especially delightful time, with gorgeous weather and plenty of leaves crunching under our feet.
Perhaps being out in the open anywhere during a pandemic gives one a sense of freedom and peace during a time when so much has seemingly been taken away.
This fall was spectacular in its warmth and color. I treasured the days and find myself disappointed that as with all good things, it has come to an end. The leaves are now gone and our beautiful early evenings full of fall foliage and orange sunsets has given way to bare tree branches and cold winds that hint winter is on its way. The last of the leaves have fallen to the ground, been mulched and absorbed into the earth, almost as if they had never been there at all. It brings a sad and lonely feeling, but I’m grateful that I gathered up a few of those leaves under the tree that hovers above one very special resting place.
While taking photographs on one of our late summer into fall adventures, I stumbled upon the grave of a Civil War soldier. I was immediately captivated by the inscription on his stone.
Major Miles McDonald
Killed in Front of Petersburg VA,
June 17, 1864.
Aged 24 Years.
I could feel the sting of his age in my heart. As I scanned the length of the headstone, I noticed his brother, only 22 years of age, passed just two years later, his father had preceded him in death, and a baby brother aged 2 years had gone as well. I was struck by how long Mary, his mother, survived after losing her husband and beloved sons. I could imagine her pain and feel it. It resonated with me.
So I returned to his grave again and again. I returned so often that Mark teased he was becoming jealous. I researched Miles McDonald. I started a family tree so that I could search for possible decedents of his, although I didn’t anticipate finding any. One link brought me to the New York State Military Museum page where I discovered his photo, and suddenly there he was, staring back at me. I researched the battle he was wounded in, succumbing just hours later due to a grave injury. I looked through photos of soldiers in trenches, imagining how he must have spent his final days. I thought of his mother’s pain at learning of her son’s death. I visited his grave on Halloween day and wept especially hard. I wondered why this had such a profound effect on me. Was it his age, the exact age as one of my boys? Was it my love for my own sons and the knowledge of the depth of pain his mother Mary must have endured, being the same age I am now.
The sense of emptiness I feel at his loss is inexplicable to me. I have reflected on my thoughts and feelings and although I may never come to a full understanding of the connection I feel to this young man who lived and died so violently one hundred fifty seven years ago, it saddens me as I know he is only one of many. Perhaps his face symbolizes for me a generation of young men who senselessly died too young, as in all wars. I can’t bear to think of him there on that lonely hillside, knowing he died in a war that turned brother against brother. War is so painful. Take a walk through a cemetery and you will see and feel it all around you. Maybe this year with all of its division has this weighing on my mind. I’d will him back if I could. Life is unfair, and young life taken in the throes of war seems especially cruel.
I went back to place a wreath of evergreens on his grave for Christmas. I won’t let him be forgotten, and I won’t let his sacrifice go unnoticed. He may be just one young man among hundreds of thousands, but he is my hero.
I discussed my fascination with locating information on the life of this brave soldier with my dear cousin Christy in California who shares my love of history and research, and understands my need to see this through. I found excerpts from newspaper articles back in the day. My cousin shared my enthusiasm and was instrumental in helping me find more than I imagined was available, bringing home the reality of the loss for this young soldier’s friends, family & comrades.
Reading through the articles published in the long forgotten Albany Morning Express, his character and personality sprang to life. He was just as I’d imagined him to be. Hard working, charismatic, kind, bright eyed, full of happiness. This cut even deeper. I was driven to gather the details of his life.
Miles was born in Albany. He worked as a messenger for the New York, Buffalo and Albany Telegraph Company. When the rebellion broke out he enlisted as a private in the 63rd Regiment, the Irish Brigade, in October, 1861.
The Morning Express reports “There was no truer man in the ranks of that gallant regiment. His many noble trails of character soon made him a universal favorite”. Miles was “always found in the thickest of the fight, encouraging his brave and valiant troops on to victory”. For his bravery at the battle of Antietam, he received a commission as 2nd Lieutenant.
He was seriously wounded in the first Fredericksburg fight while leading his men and afterwards he was promoted, receiving a First Lieutenant’s commission. Soon after he was promoted again, to Adjutant of the regiment, and participated in every battle.
He was wounded again in the charge before Petersburg on June 16th and died in a nearby hospital a few hours later at age 24.
Just prior to his death he had been recommended to the post of Major by his commanding officer, and the commission was ordered to issue by the Governor, but by the time word of his promotion was able to reach him, he had passed away never knowing of this great honor bestowed on him. “He was a noble fellow, and as pure a patriot as ever offered up his life in defense of the liberties of the people” wrote the Morning Express.
“His last epistle to us was published by us on the 21st inst., and will be remembered by all our readers, as one of the most interesting communications ever appearing in our columns.
If then the brave are mourned so deeply by their comrades in battle, who can paint the feelings of anguish and woe experienced by their families and friends at home, when the dread news appear in the public print, with the short but fatal word “killed!” placed after the name of a husband, father, son or brother. No more will the light tread of the departed cross the thresh-hold, watching with bounding heart the delight of the fireside group, eager to welcome the returning: soldier. In place of joyous meetings we find nothing but lonely graves, in some sunny spot of this once beautiful State, where it is affecting to mark with what simple kindness the surviving soldier buries his fallen comrade, selecting with nice cure a favorite spot as if to allure the first bright light of the rising sun to kiss the grassy mounds before its pure rays should rest upon any other object. There is something beautiful in a soldier’s grave. From its simplicity alone it is more beautiful. The rustic head board, hastily penciled, speaks more of patriotism and love of country then all the monuments of cold marble chiseled into most majestic form by the skillful hands of the artist.
Those were the sentiments of Miles McDonald, the true-hearted soldier and noble patriot. He now fills a soldier’s grave, and may “the bright light of a rising sun ever kiss the grassy mound before its pure rays rest upon any other object” is the heartfelt wish of one who knew him from childhood, and has watched, with pride and pleasure, his advancement in life.
It was but yesterday morning his mother received a letter from him, and while a brother was perusing its welcome pages, the anxious mother carefully scrutinizing the columns of the EXPRESS discovered “that short but fatal word ‘killed,’ ” in connection with the name of her dearly beloved child. The agony of that discovery no tongue can call. Let us draw a veil over the sorrow stricken home of the dead hero, and pray God that the heart-broken mother and those now bowed down with grief may receive that consolation which He who afflicts can alone afford.”
There are many accounts written by soldiers in the regiment who mention Miles McDonald. All speak volumes to the decent young man he was.
Extract of a Letter from the 63rd Regiment, Irish Brigade:
“Adjutant Miles McDonald is an accomplished young officer; he acts with the experience of a veteran—cool and collected under the most terrible fire, and he is a gentleman and courteous to all. He got a slight touch on the 18th, but he is doing duty to-day. Gen. Grant has the confidence of the soldiers, and the sight of him and our beloved and heroic Hancock, is enough to excite the enthusiasm of their men, and it seems like old times under. Gen. McClellan.”
Reading the lines written by those who knew him best gave me a glimpse into the kind, caring and compassionate person he was. The Morning Express wrote: “Albany has lost many brave sons, who fell victims to this accursed rebellion, but none whose death will be more deely [sic] deplored than that of Adjutant Miles McDonald.”
The following is a profound poem written by the surgeon in the 63rd regiment on the death of Miles McDonald; as published in the Albany Morning Express, Tuesday, July 19, 1864.
On the Death of Adjutant Miles McDonald, 63rd Regt. N.Y.V. , by S. Reynolds, Surgeon of the Regiment
Toll the bell sadly, the young and the beautiful
Now lies a pale corpse, in the scenes he held dear,
Toll the bell sadly, the brave and the dutiful,
War’s victim, before us, is stretched on his bier.
The face that we looked on with pride and with pleasure,
From the eyes that admired it full soon will be gone;
And that form, late the shrine of the world’s best treasure,
A bold loyal spirit is lifeless and wan.
Toll the bell sadly, and toll the bell loudly!
The wallings to drown of the friends of the brave –
Who pictured his pathway to glory so proudly,
But who weep, that fame’s pathway led him to the grave.
Friends of his youth, and his manhood round standing,
On him through your tears come now look your last,
On that mouth once so smiling, that brow so commanding,
Ah! That eye by the signet of death is sealed fast.
Sad are your hearts – sad the sisters, the brothers,
The fond ones he lived for, he coated upon,
But what is their grief to the grief of his mother,
Who weeps o’er the corpse of her young gallant son!
Weep, he was worthy your pride and your mourning,
Weep, though your tears are as painful as vain,
Weep, for no more from war’s peril returning,
Will he rush to your arms and embrace you again.
McDonald, when life blood in torrent was flowing,
Was first in the charge of our loud cheering band;
On our lines when their shells the fierce foemen were throwing,
Impulsively brave, and unconsciously grand!
Yet was he gentle, and kind as a maiden,
Full of frolic and mirth, generous hearted and free,
And many a heart that with trouble was laden,
Grew bright in his sunshine, and glad in his glee.
There hang the green flags, he gaily marched under,
There is the cap – there his belt and his sash,
And there is the sword which, when bellowed war’s thunder,
In the hand that’s now lifeless, would quiver and flash.
Yes, scatter sweet flowers where valor repose,
They are trophies becoming the brave soldier’s bier,
And freshen you lilies, and brighten your roses,
With love’s liquid gem, with affection’s sad tear.
Well, he was worthy our praise and our sorrow,
His country’s remembrance and friendship’s sad sigh,
Only from this, some relief can we borrow,
The spirit survives, though the body must die.
He has stamped on our bosom, love’s unladen token,
And time will but make his remembrance more dear,
Whenever we meet, his loved name shall be spoken,
When alone, we shall think of his worth with a tear.
Yes, when marble shall crumble, and carved work be rotten,
That repels passers-by from the haughty man’s clay,
Good Miles McDonald shall not be forgotten, his name and his virtues,
Shall not pass away.
This country, when crushed shall be this sad rebellion,
His name shall enroll ‘mid her bravest and best,
And his soul in the bosom of God shall be dwelling,
Where sorrow is soothed and the weary have rest.
Toll the bell sadly, the crowd now is moving,
That bears to his last home the corpse of the brave,
Then let the pen of the poet, and the living,
Inscribe these true lines on the patriot’s grave.
“Here lies McDonald, a soldier true hearted
“As ever for freedom the battlefield trod,
“Here lies a Christian, who calmly departed,
“And unmurmuring gave his young spirit to God”
~In Camp, near Petersburg, Va., July 9, 1864
Let it be known that Major Miles McDonald was a true patriot who gave his life for his country and shall never be forgotten.
– Submitted by Kathy Prue
Do you have a story of an ancestor and/or loved one buried in one of our cemeteries that would be interesting to highlight in our “Stories of our Dearly Departed” series?
We are looking for stories of those buried within the following 19 cemeteries:
St. Agnes, Menands • Most Holy Redeemer, Niskayuna • St. Anthony’s, Glenville • Our Lady of Angels, Colonie • Immaculate Conception and St. Patrick’s in Watervliet • Our Lady Help of Christians and Calvary in Glenmont • St. Agnes, Cohoes • St. Patrick’s, Coeymans • St. Jean de Baptiste, St. John’s, and St. Mary’s in Troy • Sts. Cyril & Method and Holy Cross in Rotterdam • St. Joseph’s, Waterford • St. John the Baptist and St. Mary’s in Schenectady • St. Mary’s, Coxsackie
If you have a story for us, contact Kelly at 518-350-7679 or [email protected].