It’s often been said that the Civil War was fought between brother and brother. I had regarded that statement as more metaphor than fact until last fall, when I came across and photographed the two headstones here at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
This landmark is the final resting place for some of New York’s most illustrious citizens, but, with 4,800 veterans of the Civil War identified on its grounds, it is especially rich in the history of that transformative conflict.
The best place to start this post—and the reason why I’m talking about this ground now—is with the date on the headstone of Clifton Kennedy Prentiss: April 2, 1865, when he was mortally wounded at Petersburg, VA. It also happened to be the date that, after a summer and fall of slugging it out with Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant finally succeeded in smashing the Confederate lines, moving unimpeded toward Richmond, and bringing to an end a four-year war that, at its start, nobody dreamed could last so long.
But the death of Clifton Prentiss assumed even more tragic interest for me when I saw the name on the stone near him: William Scollay Prentiss. The surname and the year of birth on the headstone indicated that he was a younger brother. But three initials on the stone—CSA, or Confederate States of America—strongly implied a far more complicated relationship between the two.
A female guide at the cemetery, after I pressed her for details, related the following:
Though refusing a commission he could easily have gotten early on, 25-year-old Clifton had joined the Union army as a private among the New York volunteers. After it mustered out, he was able, as a Maryland native, to join an infantry unit in the state early in 1862.
In a war that offered remarkable opportunities for promotion, few had risen as high as Clifton from so low a start by the end of the war: brevet colonel. His rise owed in no small part to his conspicuous gallantry, evidenced by the six horses shot from under him.
Maryland, a slave border state, had barely stayed in the Union and was rife with secessionist sentiment, so it was no surprise that William chose an opposite course from his brother, joining the Second Maryland regiment of the Confederacy, where he rose to become a lieutenant. He was among the defenders when Grant, sensing victory finally in his hands, ordered an all-out assault on the rebel entrenchments at Petersburg.
Clifton's Maryland regiment was instrumental in breaking the months-long siege at Petersburg, but, as one of the first officers in the charge, his luck ran out when he was shot in the lung. While he was taken to the side, he was told that some subordinates had just received word that his brother had also been wounded, in the knee, and that he desired to see him.
At first, Clifton refused any contact with his brother with a curt, “I want to see no man who fired on my country’s flag.” Another colonel pleaded with him, but, even after William’s cot was laid beside his, Clifton initially just glared at him.
Williams’ smile finally battered down Clifton’s defenses. Before long, the brothers had reached out their hands to each other and were crying. For about a month, they were kept in the same field medical unit, a tent associated with the Fiftieth New York Engineer’s camp, and it appeared that they would both be on the road to recovery. But their condition began to deteriorate after a transfer a month later to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Besides the camp where the brothers struggled for life, there was another New York connection involving the brothers: their male nurse, Walt Whitman. Specimen Days, the poet’s fragmentary, quasi-autobiography, includes a late May 1865 diary entry describing William, “very intelligent and well bred—very affectionate—held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave.” Even copious amounts of morphine could not really ease the pain of the “young Baltimorean” (Whitman underestimated his age by five years). An amputation of William’s right leg had left him debilitated so that he “can’t sleep hardly at all.”
William died a little less than a month after Whitman’s diary entry and was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery. By summer’s end, Clifton joined him in death.
The Prentiss brothers ended their lives in poignant reconciliation. Not all American families were so fortunate. After the war, the Confederate sisters of the underrated, enormously brave Union general, the Virginian George H. Thomas, turned his portrait to the wall to indicate he was dead to them. The painful divisions extended all the way to the White House, where First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln faced constant embarrassment from the press over her relationship with her Confederate half-sisters.