Who was William G. Ray?

Copyright (C) 2013 by Frederick Walton

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As we begin the Labor day weekend, the Sesequntinial anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg has already been relegated to the far recesses of our minds. Only two short months ago the climax of years of planning and anticipation exploded in, not one, but two reenactments that received national attention for two weeks around the July 1-3 anniversary. But that is ancient history now.  And yet, 150 years ago, the battle was far from over in late August and early September. It wasn’t until July 22, 1863 that the first casualty reports for the 6th North Carolina were published in the “Raleigh State Journal”(1). Can you imagine being a worried parent, spouse or sibling, waiting to hear if your loved one was killed or wounded, or worse yet, captured, during the horrible battles that took place in far off Pennsylvania?

Among the 178 names listed (k-20, W-128, M-30) for the 6th North Carolina regiment we find the following: “Company B. Killed–Sergt W G Ray”. Perhaps this was how his mother first received this sad news. Perhaps a friend or relative read it and conveyed it to her while offering sympathy. Perhaps a comrade of her son sent a letter home. However she heard about it, it must have been heartbreaking news.

Of the 20 names listed as killed, you may wonder why I singled out Serg’t Ray? Simple, I found his obituary in the August 26, 1863 edition of the “Hillsboro Recorder”. Having searched through hundreds of newspapers and seeing thousands of North Carolina casualties listed on page after page, it is very unusual to find an obituary for a specific soldier. Sometimes tributes are written for famous officers, but rarely is one written for an “ordinary soldier”. Here is what his said:

Obituary.

Was killed in battle at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863,

Sergeant WILLIAM G. RAY, of Company B, 6th N. C. 

Troops. Aged about 23 years. Thus has a noble 

youth fallen in defense of his country. At the com-

mencement of hostilities he volunteered his service 

and soon earned distinction as a brave and generous 

hearted soldier. At the first Manassas battle, com-

manded by and at the fall of the lamented fighter, he 

was slightly wounded (2). This wound detained him 

from service but a short time. At the battles before 

Richmond he was again wounded on a [xx xxx] from a

charge from the enemy’s breastworks (3) . from the ef-

fects of this wound he lingered at home some months,

 but inspired by patriotism and a love for his comrades 

in arms, he returned to his command before he was 

entirely recovered. He was in all the battles up to 

the time of his fall, fought by the memorable Sixth 

N. C. Regiment. He fought with firmness, bravery 

and determination, never faltering from duty, in camp, 

on a march or the battle field ever ready to bear his 

portion of the burdens of warfare. He was a gentle-

man, a good soldier, and a devoted Christian. Always 

modest and unassuming, he seldom passed for his true 

worth only with those with whom he was intimately 

acquainted. He was a consistent member of the Pres-

byterian church at Little River. The church has lost 

a devoted member, the army a good soldier, and his 

mother a humble and submissive son.He leaves 

an aged and afflicted mother (4), five brothers (three of 

whom are in Illinois and two in Confederate ser-

vice) and five sisters (two of whom are in Illinois 

and three in North Carolina) (5) too mourn their irre-

placeable loss but they mourn not as those that have no 

hope, for their loss is his eternal game.

                                                                                J. W. M.

My curiosity aroused, I searched out William G. Rays record in the roster of both the “Bloody Sixth”, the regimental history, and “North Carolina Troops 1861-1865 a Roster”. In both cases the soldiers record were somewhat less detailed than I would normally expect to see:

 RAY, WILLIAM G., Sergeant

Resided in Orange County where he enlisted at age 19, May 25, 1861, for the war. Mustered in as Private and promoted to Corporal on September 28, 1861. Promoted to Sergeant on January 1, 1863. Killed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863. (6)

 This led me to research his slim compiled service record, which contained a few muster roll records, his roll of honor commemoration and his mother’s name, Emily, on a register of claims made after he was deceased.

So, who was William G. Ray? Turning back to the obituary raised more questions than it answered. It mentioned he was twice wounded, yet neither wound is mentioned in his Compiled service record or his roster entry. Searching a little further I found his name mentioned in newspaper casualty records and was able to confirm those wounds. This tells me that you can’t always trust Compiled service records to be complete records.

Going further back, I looked him up in the 1850 Census. He was a member of a large family. His parents were farmers, yet he lists his occupation in the 1860 census as laborer. His father was deceased by 1860 but his mother is still listed as farmer. Could this mean he is working elsewhere, perhaps for Charles Frederick Fisher’s North Carolina Railroad? If so, this may explain how he came to be a member of the 6th North Carolina.

I wondered who was the author of the obituary? It wasn’t his mother Emily or any of his siblings because their names do not match the initials. It’s probably not a comrade either, since there is no J.W.M. in Company B or in officer roles in the 6th NCST. The author would appear to be someone close to him, with intimate knowledge of his siblings and church membership. Perhaps a cousin or member of his church, although no obvious name popped out during my brief investigation 150 years after it was written.

Whoever J. W. M. was, he thought enough of Sergeant Ray to have a nicely written obituary written and placed in a widely read public newspaper. If we know nothing else about Ray, we have been assured by J. W. M. that he was a brave and committed soldier (his record confirms that) and that he was a devoted Christian and loving son. I don’t doubt the later, but have no way to confirm it.  Wouldn’t J. W. M. be amazed to know his tribute has now been immortalized on the world wide web!

My last bit of research was to identify William G, Ray’s grave. I have a list of places he is Not buried, but in the end I was unable to locate where his remains lie. If he was buried on the battlefield he may never be found. In 1871 the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association arranged for the remains of North Carolina’s Gettysburg dead to be returned and buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. 137 remains were returned (7). Sergeant Ray was not listed among them, although 14 are unknown. He may rest close by, but wherever he is buried, may he rest in Peace.

Notes:

1 C. Mebane, Adj’t 6th N. C. Regiment, “Sixth Regiment”, Raleigh State Journal, Raleigh, N. C., July 22, 1863, RaSTJw-1 microfilm at the North Carolina State Archives researched on June 14, 2008 by Rick Walton.

2 “Lamented Fighter” refers to Colonel Frederick Charles Fisher who fell leading the 6th NC troops in their first battle, Ray is listed in the August 1, 1861 “Richmond Daily Dispatch” list of casualties in “Col. Fisher’s regiment” (6th NCST) as “slightly wounded”. Not mentioned in his Compiled Service records.

3 Listed in June 18, 1862 North Carolina Standard as “Slight” wound under 6th NCT casualties from the May 31st battle of Seven Pines. Not mentioned in his Compiled Service records.

4 The name “Emily Ray, Mo” [mother] appears in his compiled service record on a register of claims of deceased soldiers from NC which were filed for settlement in the office of the Confederate states auditor for the war department.

5 1850 census (11/22/1850) for first district in the county of Orange, NC list the following: William D Ray, 53, farmer, Emily 48, Eliza 23, Peter 21, Isaac 19, George 16, Hugh 14, Margaret 11, William 9, Henry 7, Emily 4. All born in NC. William SR., Peter, Isaac and George list their occupation as Farmer. Isaac and everyone younger except emily is listed as having attended school in the last year.

The 1860 (8/26/1860) census lists the following: Emily Ray 57 farmer with personal estate worth $1300, Eliza 25 (should be 33), Margaret 21, William 18 laborer, Emily 13. They live in the Veasey Household

6 Jordon Jr., Weymouth T., “North Carolina Troops 1861-1865 A Roster”, Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC, 1973, Pg 290, second column.

7 Purser, Charles E., “A Story Behind Every Stone”, Scuppernog Press, Wake Forest, NC 27588, 2005, Pg 19-21.

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