April 23, 2018
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Two flags honor Dedham’s lonely Confederate

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
American and Confederate national flags honor the headstone of Lt. Thomas W. Mitchell, a Confederate soldier who loved and married a Dedham woman, Mary Ester Dexter. Captured in late May 1864, Mitchell was released from prison in mid-May 1865 and shipped to Maine. He probably envisioned a happy reunion with Mary and their daughter, Anna, who had lived in Dedham since Mitchell sent them there from Virginia in 1861. Afflicted by congested lungs, Mitchell died in Bangor on May 16, 1865. Mary buried him at Central Cemetery in Dedham.
By Brian Swartz, Of The Weekly Staff

In his “From the Fields,” a tribute to soldiers who died on far-flung Civil War battlefields, folksinger Kyle Thompson claims that “from the fields I hear them calling, from the fields where they fell.” He mentions “Northern blood in Southern soil” and “Southern blood in Northern soil, and another unknown [soldier] for the years.”

With that last passage, Thompson could refer to Lt. Thomas W. Mitchell, a Confederate soldier who lies buried high atop a Dedham hill. Almost forgotten in Maine lore, Mitchell loved a Maine woman, and now he rests eternally in Maine soil.

Born in Virginia on Oct. 5, 1832, Mitchell was a 5-7, brown-eyed store clerk in Lovington, Va. when he met and married a schoolteacher, Mary Ester Dexter, in October 1857. She hailed from Dedham, where she was born in January 1833.

Maine women seldom traveled into Dixie in the 1850s; Mary likely took a teaching position to earn money and perhaps enjoy a warmer climate. She bore Thomas a daughter, Anna, in February 1860.

Mary and Anna might have remained in the Shenandoah Valley had Confederate troops not fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Virginia soon seceded from the United States, and Old Dominion troops fought Maine soldiers at Manassas that July.

Thomas Mitchell avoided military service until Sept. 15, when he joined Co. D, 49th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Worried that her Maine roots might bring his wife unwarranted attention, Mitchell shipped Mary and Anna to Dedham to live with Mary’s mother and stepfather.

An unidentified disease led to Mitchell’s discharge from the 49th Virginia that December, but he re-enlisted as a Co. F second lieutenant in early September 1862. Mitchell possibly fought at Antietam, definitely battled Yankees at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and remained with the regiment until Union troops captured him on May 30, 1864.

He might have lived longer had he evaded captivity. Sent to a Union prison camp at Fort Delaware, a wind-swept fortification on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, Mitchell endured the boredom, poor food, and wretched living conditions prevalent in most wartime prison camps.

Among the diseases afflicting the Confederate prisoners were dysentery, scurvy, and smallpox; by spring 1865 Mitchell contracted “congestion of the lungs” (possibly pneumonia). Mary Mitchell possibly visited him that spring; he definitely intended to travel to meet her and Anna in Maine, so to gain release from Fort Delaware, Mitchell pledged his allegiance to the United States in May.

The War Department shipped him to Maine. His health failing, he arrived in Bangor on May 15 and rented a hotel room.

Only 10-12 miles from Dedham, Thomas Mitchell died in Bangor the next day. Mary buried him in the Central Cemetery on the Allen Road in Dedham and ensured that his headstone identified him as “Lieut. Thomas W. Mitchell of the 49th Va. Regt.”

Today two national flags, American and Confederate, mark Mitchell’s lonely grave far from his Virginia home. If he had lived, would he have returned to the Shenandoah with his wife and daughter? We will never know, but Mary never remarried. Later in life she lived with her daughter, Anne Phillips (an old-time Dedham name), before dying on June 7, 1902.

George Sawyer of Orland contributed to this article.

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