It was like most any morning, at least like those mornings he had experienced over the last two years. The only difference for Judge George A. Woodruff, from the morning before and invariably from mornings to come, was that it was his birthday – July 4, 1863.
Judge Woodruff was a yankee doodle dandee – honored to share his birthday with the country he loved, but on this day a certain melancholy muted the celebration. And no measure of distraction would likely restore the joy which usually accompanies such occasions.
Judge Woodruff had three sons – his namesake, George, William and Montgomery. All three were serving the Grand Army of the Republic, gone from home to distant states. George, a 1861 West Point graduate, was serving the Army of the Potomac, Second Corps, as a lieutenant in Battery I of the 1st U.S. Artillery. William, George’s older brother, left a relative life of peace serving an Episcopal Diocese in the deep South to return home and serve as an officer with the 1st Michigan Infantry, Company D. Montgomery, then serving the Episcopal church in Missouri, enlisted as a sergeant with Merrill’s Horse and was eventually promoted to 1st Lt on Merrill’s field staff. Cousin Frank Woodruff, whom Judge Woodruff has raised as his own and who was then enrolled at the University of Michigan, soon enlisted as a sergeant with a colored regiment at the Union encampment near New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Woodruff commitment to the Union cause, to the American cause could not be questioned.
In the early years of the war, George and William had each written to their father as often as time would permit, accounting for their movements with their respective units. By contrast, Montgomery was not as prolific a writer.
In recent weeks, both George and William had indicated that they were on the march, taking a parallel path with the enemy northward. However, the letters had stopped and Judge Woodruff had not received a letter from either in more than a week. There was no comfort in the silence. He had never spent his birthday – a July 4th – occupied with so much prayer.
Days later, word reached Michigan that the battle which had been fought on the fields of Pennsylvania was the most significant yet in the continuing national struggle. It was not known at that time that the thousands of men, dressed in blue or gray, who were killed, wounded or missing on this the greatest of American battlefields would soon be eulogized in one of the most memorable speeches in human history. No word, however, had been heard from either of his sons and so Judge Woodruff waited.
Less than a week later, in a tattered envelope, postmarked July 7, 1863 from York, Pennsylvania and simply addressed in soft pencil to “George Woodruff, Marshall, Michigan,” Judge Woodruff read the words he dreaded would some day greet his eyes.
July 5, 1863
Dear Mr. Woodruff,
With a sad heart I avail of just an instant to communicate alas bad news. Your son Geo. A. Woodruff was mortally wounded at the battle of this place on the 3rd. He died yesterday, and I have just buried him. I would have sent him home if I could but it was impossible for me to do so. Every thing that man could do was done for him. May God console you and your family. We are moving after the enemy – and as soon as possible I will write you all the particulars.
Should you wish to take the body to your home, Go to Gettysburgh, take the Baltimore and Gettysburgh pike and keep it for a mile and a half till you come to a road turning at right angles to it (the pike) Go up this road about a quarter of a mile and on the right hand side of the road you will find a school house called the Granite School House. On the north side of the it, beneath a large oak tree you will find your noble, noble son’s grave . . . My dear, dear sir, please accept my sympathy. Heaven knows I loved him as a brother and should my brother have fallen as he did at my side I could not feel keener agony . . .
Your Son’s Friend,
2nd Lt 1st US Arty
Company “I” Arty Brigade
2d Corps Army Potomac”
The word of his son’s death hit him like no other news ever received; nor was it lost on Judge Woodruff that his son, George, had died on his 56th birthday. Compounding this grief was the worry that accompanied news that George’s brother, William, had also been wounded at Gettysburg.
Indeed, Judge Woodruff made arrangements to go to Gettysburg to retrieve George’s remains. And, before President Lincoln had consecrated this field with the Gettysburg Address in November, 1863, George was laid to rest, again – this time in the small family plot in Marshall. Befitting the humility which characterized his life, George’s grave was marked by a simple stone, with George A. engraved across the top and no hint of the valor he displayed at Ziegler’s Grove defending against Pickett’s Charge. All that need be known was that he was home.
By war’s end, Judge Woodruff would suffer loss again and again. As his birthday approached on July 4, 1864, Judge Woodruff received post from 1st Division Hospital, 5th Corps, Near Petersburg, Va, giving word as to his son, William, as follows:
By the request of your son, I take this opportunity of informing you that he is seriously wounded in the side, the probibility is he will not recover, he leaves to night for City Point and from thence to Washington, should he arrive at that place he will telegraph you . . .
Hoping for the best I remain
Your obed’t Servant,
Chap 1st Mich Inftry”
The best, however, was not to come. On June 28, 1864, at an army hospital in Washington, D.C., William Woodruff died. His death was announced to Judge Woodruff by another letter from Chaplain Rowden, arriving shortly after the first. Within days a third letter came and Pastor Rowden described his last conversation with William,
“. . . I consequently acquainted him of the true state of affairs as gently as I could, and asked him in the event of his death how he felt, his reply was I have tried to live so as to be prepared for this hour, he states his trust was in Jesus. His greatest anxiety seemed to be to reach Washington before he died, so that he might be able to telegraph to you. . .”
The confusion of the moment prevented Judge Woodruff from promptly retrieving his son’s remains. This delay resulted in William later being one of the first men buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Set along the southern side of the rose garden next to Lee’s beloved Arlington House, his gravestone faces what would in the time and distance become America’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In the midst of his heartbreak over losing his oldest son, Judge Woodruff’s grief was multiplied by further tragedy. Word came from New Orleans that Captain Francis G. Woodruff, of the United States Colored Troops at Port Hudson, Louisiana, had died one week after William on July 5, 1864. In a highly unusual move, to honor those he served with, Frank Woodruff, a white officer from Michigan, was buried in the “colored section” at the Port Hudson cemetery.
From that moment on there was little doubt that Judge Woodruff’s birthday would be less associated with American independence than the loss of three of his four “sons.” And for the better part of the remainder of his life, Judge Woodruff dedicated all idle time to preserving the memory of his sons and those with whom they served on behalf of the United States of America.
Judge Woodruff was a man whom had endured so much, whose family had sacrificed so much, yet his character was ensconced in a deep patriotism and love of country, a private and public morality, and a charity for others – all values he instilled in his sons from the moment they were old enough to observe and learn.
When he died in 1887, his tombstone was inscribed with a Latin recitation of the 1st Psalm, translated:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked . . .”
Judge Woodruff never walked in the counsel of the wicked, and he sacrificed a lifetime with his sons to advance the noble cause that America should end its walk with the counsel of the wicked, end the immoral practice of slavery. As he once explained to a young Felix Robertson, his son’s West Point classmate and later Confederate General, America’s promise lay not in preserving “a way of life” for southern states, but in advancing the cause of human rights, of individual freedom for all Americans, irrespective of the color of their skin. Every American, in his eyes, must enjoy the opportunity to experience the American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And he knew that America’s obligation to advance the cause of human dignity didn’t end at our shores, but extended to all corners of God’s creation. America should become that beacon of light to all inhabitants of the Earth who, in time, could and would look to our nascent democracy as the temporal hope of the free world. This meant that wherever human indignity might occur, America must assume the mantle of leadership among all nations to ensure that such condition not persist.
Knowing that his sons gave their lives to the preservation of an American nation re-dedicated to these ideals provided a measure of solace to Judge Woodruff – the same measure of solace that millions of American families, over the course of the last two hundred plus years, have undoubtedly felt when one of their own has given the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the greatest human experiment in world history – American democracy.
Today when we celebrate the birth of our nation – please stop to remember the sacrifice of these American families, which have lost so much for the sake and cause of American liberty. Take time to thank a service member for his or her service, shake the hand of a veteran and shed a tear for the millions of souls who have given their lives for you and me.
Then, look forward – commit yourself to making the American ideals of human dignity, liberty and freedom realities for your family, your neighbors and your world. Get involved in political life, empower and hold your representatives and your president responsible to strengthen the America we love – the same incredible America loved by Judge Woodruff. In so doing, this great American experiment and the genius of our Founding Fathers will endure long after we are gone.
As for me, I will also remember Judge Woodruff. I have and will always marvel at his strength and clarity of character. And, as his great, great, great grandson, George, . . I proudly and simply say “Happy Birthday.”