The journey of a lifetime, more than a lifetime ago


Nearly a century ago, as World War I was entering its final stages, a couple from South Carolina made a journey north to perhaps put to rest a ghost of another bloody conflict, one that had ended more than five decades prior.

Mr. and Mrs. Wattie Gaillard Smith of Columbia traveled to Shepherdstown, WV, to visit sisters Annie Licklider and Bettie Licklider Rentch, and to pay their respects at the grave of Smith’s father, Capt. Henry Julius Smith, who had fallen at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.

Wounded during the bloodiest battle on American soil, Smith, a captain with South Carolina’s Hampton Legion, was evacuated with many other injured men, according to the June 6, 1918, edition of the Shepherdstown Register, in a story titled ‘A Reminder of the Battle of Antietam’.

“Shepherdstown … indeed, was one great hospital, where the churches, public buildings and private homes were thrown open for the care of the suffering soldiers,” according to the publication.

Smith was brought to the home of Grandison T. Licklider, Bettie and Annie’s father, and “he was tenderly cared for and given every attention, but he survived only a few days,” the Register reported.

Henry Julius SmithAfter Smith died, he was interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, which was still part of Virginia until the following year.

Grandison Licklider sent the captain’s sword, sash and other possessions to Smith’s widow and for some time the two exchanged letters, but with their deaths the connection between the families was lost.

Henry Smith was a 28-year-old attorney when he enlisted on June 15, 1861, as captain of Company D of the Hampton Legion, the unit put together by South Carolina planter and future Army of Northern Virginia cavalry commander Wade Hampton.

National Archives records appear to indicate that Smith, said to have been shot in the heart, died on Sept. 21, 1862, four days after the Battle of Antietam. Smith was one of nearly 23,000 men who were killed, wounded or left missing after the one-day clash.

Wattie Smith was just an infant when his father died, but had always desired to visit Shepherdstown and see his father’s grave, and to thank those who ministered to the soldiers, or the descendants of those who had cared for the fallen.

In the late spring of 1918 he got the opportunity to learn firsthand of his father’s final days.

Wattie G. Smith

Wattie G. Smith

Rentch (1850-1945) and Annie Licklider (1854-1941) were 12 and nearly 8 years old, respectively, when Capt. Smith was brought to their home following the battle, and remembered the Confederate officer very well. They were able to give his son “much acceptable information concerning his father,” according to the Shepherdstown publication.

The Smiths then “visited the grave in the cemetery, and the son expressed great appreciation of the kindness of those who had kept it green all these years,” the Register added.

Smith was a man of some significance in the Palmetto State, having been appointed State Warehouse Commissioner in 1917 by the General Assembly.

Reading this account one is struck by the limitations of travel a century ago. Automobiles were still in their relative infancy and there was no Interstate Highway System; traveling long distances was an iffy proposition given the state of roads. Train travel was more reliable, but it took considerable time to traverse any expanse.

The distance between Orangeburg, SC, and Shepherdstown, WV, was less than 600 miles – a single day’s drive today that requires little more than plugging a destination into a GPS and filling up with gas a couple of times at the innumerable fueling stations along the route – but then was a trek that required serious planning, a good deal of perseverance and no small amount of fortitude.

Near the end of the article, the Register opines that Smith and his wife “were profoundly pleased and impressed with their visit here and we are sure that they will want to come again when they can stay longer.”

It’s unlikely that occurred, though, as Smith died in early 1920, at age 58. Both of the sisters who had been on hand during his father’s final days in their Shepherdstown home outlived him by more than 20 years.

(Top: Grave of Henry J. Smith of South Carolina, among more than 100 wounded Confederate soldiers who were brought to Shepherdstown and later died, and then were buried in the town’s Elmwood Cemetery.)

12 thoughts on “The journey of a lifetime, more than a lifetime ago

  1. It always seems there is so much time between the Civil War and World War I but there is that moment of complete stillness when one thinks how many people could remember the Civil War when America entered WWI. At least it always freezes me for just a moment.

    • Yes, the same time as between now and the beginning, more or less, of major US involvement in Vietnam. I’m sure to Vietnam vets it does and doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago.

      I was born exactly 50 years after the beginning of World War I; there were plenty of World War I vets around when I was born, today there are none. Fifty years from now, odd as it seems, there will be no Vietnam War vets left.

  2. It brought home to me the sheer difficulties of travel in parts of the what was a relatively recent period.
    There were gentlemen who had been through the Great War when I was young…one of my grandfathers for one….now it seems that World War II veterans are getting thin on the ground…but while there are governments paying more attention to what other countries are doing rather than solving their domestic problems there is likely to be a new generation of veterans coming along all the time.

    • It’s difficult as someone who respects the past to watch the veterans of World War II slip into history. And, yes, given the propensity of elected officials to stick their noses in places that they shouldn’t, we will likely always have veterans among us.

  3. Beware predictions. If you believe we will have perpetual war, you contribute to the likelihood. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn a healthier way to resolve our differences? Isn’t that the key to intelligence?

    • Whether or not I believe in perpetual war is immaterial; I don’t have the power to send forces to the Middle East, nor am I a tyrannical third world dictator who mistreats his subjects. It would indeed be nice if we could find a healthier way to resolve differences and mankind has been moving toward a less violent climate, but I call it like I see it. While I appreciate your comment, with all due respect I think it’s somewhat naive to say that my belief that elected officials’ propensity to send others to risk their lives to do their dirty work contributes the likelihood it will continue. Greed is a powerful motivator and always has been. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

      • One day, maybe those commanded to go will wake up and realize they are being asked to fight other men’s battles. They can refuse to go, as the conscientious objectors did during the Vietnam era. Contrary to prevailing belief, the fittest for survival are those who stay home to take care of their own.

        I suspect the US involvement in war would wind down real quick-like if the Commander in Chief and Congress were required to lead the troops in battle.

  4. Re the travel aspect … in the 1970s I made many a drive to Charleston, W.VA. before I-77 was complete. It was a tough drive but nothing whatsoever like their journey. Took a ton of courage.

    • I can only imagine what the drive into the mountains of West Virginia would have been like before the Interstate, especially in inclement weather. You probably needed a bit of time to rest and recover.

  5. Thanks for this lovely piece, tho’ I’m just finding it all these years later 🙂 The Captain is one of “my guys” and I’m very glad to see more of his story and that of his family.

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