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A father's love knows no depths - even on a battlefield

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Orlistus Powell, a New Castle man who enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War after his brother was injured, died at the battle of Chickamauga, Ga., Sunday, Sept.20, 1863. Casualties on both sides in the battle were high. The Federal army had 1,657 fatal casualties, 9,756 wounded and a further 4,757 missing or taken prisoner. On the Confederate side, there were 2,312 fatalities, 14,674 wounded, and 1,464 missing or taken prisoner. The number of casualties was the second highest in the entire Civil War, exceeded only by casualties at Gettysburg. Photo courtesy Doug Magers
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Simon Powell, a well-known teacher, banker, politician and public servant, went on a seemingly impossible journey to Chickamauga, Ga. in 1864 to search a mass Civil War battlefield grave for his son’s body. He found it and brought his boy back to New Castle for proper burial in South Mound Cemetery.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

This is a Father’s Day story. A true story that has nothing to do with children celebrating their dad and everything to do with the power of a father’s love for his son. A true story that began in New Castle, traveled to the Tennessee-Georgia border – not once, but twice – and came to a victorious end in South Mound Cemetery.

Historians now agree that 750,000 people died in the Civil War. Despite the fact it was in a state where few Civil War bullets flew, Henry County soldiers contributed to the valor, sending more than 2,000 into battle. The late Tim Morris wrote that New Castle and Knightstown soldiers carried their rifles and bedrolls six times across Tennessee and three times across Kentucky.

Five hundred of them never made it home. One of those men was Orlistus Powell.

The story begins on July 11, 1861, when Henry Powell, son of local teacher, banker and politician Simon T. Powell, was injured in the battle of Rich Mountain. He had received a severe wound to his right ankle, breaking the bone and disabling him for life. Early Henry County historian George Hazzard said Henry Powell was the first citizen of New Castle to suffer an injury in a Civil War battle.

Henry Powell had dropped everything to serve his country and even after the debilitating injury, joined his father in encouraging enlistments, soliciting and forwarding supplies and caring for women and children of soldiers.

The Powells were so dedicated to the cause, according to Hazzard, that after Henry’s injury, his younger brother, Orlistus volunteered to serve in what became Company C of the 36th Indiana Infantry. He was a dedicated soldier, rising in rank to Commissary Sergeant and then Sergeant Major.

In a letter found within the archives of the Henry County Historical Society, Simon T. Powell had this to say about Orlistus’ actions to take up the Union cause for his injured brother.

“I was so proud of you; how you enlisted in the 36th after your brother came home from that early battle at Rich Mountain in West Virginia; the first Henry County boy wounded in this War of the Rebellion,” Simon Powell wrote. “Henry was hurt too badly to return, but you didn’t hesitate. Your mother Elizabeth was proud, too, but I know she had a mother’s qualms, especially for you, Orlistus; her youngest son – a man at 25 but still a boy to her – off to face the unknown terror of war.

“And the battles you fought: Perryville, Ky.; Corinth, Miss.; Shiloh, Stone’s River and Tullahoma in Tennessee,” Simon Powell continued. “Places we’d never heard of before and now will never forget. And the final one – this place with an Indian name – Chickamauga. Even the Redmen called it a ‘river of death’ – such pathetic irony!”

On Sept. 20, 1863, Orlistus Powell was killed in the bloody battle of Chickamauga, Ga., a battle that produced the second-highest number of casualties, trailing only Gettysburg.

Hazzard’s History of Henry County said that Powell’s remains fell into the hands of Confederate troops and he was buried on the battlefield. But the grieving father could not stand the thought of his son’s final resting place being in a mass grave.

So Simon T. Powell left New Castle en route to Chickamauga to search for his son’s body and bring him home.

“Nearly four months afterwards, his remains, identified under as curious a circumstance as ever came to the attention of the author, were recovered, brought home and re-interred Feb. 3, 1864, in South Mound Cemetery, New Castle,” Hazzard wrote. “After the battle of Missionary Ridge, when the Federal army again occupied the old battlefield at Chickamauga, Simon T. Powell appeared on the scene to recover the body of his son, Orlistus.”

“Never in my wildest imagining did I think it would come to this. That I, Simon Powell, merchant, farmer, successful in life, would be making this journey,” the grieving father wrote. “After all, a father’s not supposed to outlive his children, is he? God give me strength to make it through this day.

“I thought Indiana winters were cold, but this damp Southern air chills my very soul. I pray the weather at least, was better for you last September here, at the place of your death. Your Captain wrote how valiant you were, but we knew that, your mother and I.”

But how do you find someone in mass grave?

“He was buried in a trench containing more than a dozen other bodies, thrown in promiscuously, as was the custom in both armies when burying the enemy’s dead on the battlefield,” Hazzard wrote of Orlistus Powell. “When young Powell was thrown in, his arm became extended horizontally at full length, with another deceased soldier’s body covering it.”

But on Orlistus Powell’s arm was something special, something that originally irritated his father but now became a Godsend.

“Do you know what my son did?” Simon T. Powell wrote. “The crazy things boys will do! He had initials tattooed – yes, tattooed – in India ink on his arm! My father would have whooped me good if I had done such a thing! Another irony – that’s how we found you, son. When the Rebels laid you in this mass grave, a comrade’s body fell over that arm. Do you know, we could still read those initials O.W.P?”

“And in the first trench opened, in taking out the bodies, mangled and decomposed beyond recognition, it was found that the body resting on the arm of Orlistus had preserved, as clear and distinct as in life, the name ‘O.W. Powell,’ thus the identification was complete and his mortal remains restored to the care of the family whose sacrifice he had been to the cause,” Hazzard wrote.

Today, because of a father’s love, the remains of Orlistus Powell are buried here in New Castle, nearly 500 miles from where he died in battle – with those of his family beside him.

“I’ve come to take you home now, son,” Simon T. Powell wrote. “To lay you to rest where you grew up. I know you’ll miss your comrades here, but we need you close to us. Your mother, especially. A man’s strong, after all, but women grieve differently, don’t they? You’ll be in that fine cemetery at South Mound. Remember that peaceful place not far from your own home? We used to go there for picnics. We’ll put up a fine POWELL marker there and all be together for our last, peaceful rest.”

Paintings of both Simon T. Powell and his son, Orlistus, hang in the Henry County Historical Society museum today. In fact, the elder Powell’s painting was one of the first given to the museum.

Simon T. Powell was many things to New Castle in the early days of Henry County. Teacher. Banker. Politician. Advisor to Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton. But, as his writing showed and his actions proved, he was first and foremost a dad.

“Well, it’s time to board the train back home,” Simon Powell’s letter concluded. “I wish you were sitting here beside me. I wish I could have taken your place. I wish… But wishes are pointless, aren’t they? All we can do is what we have to do and live with our memories. You’ll live with us forever, son, but how we will miss you!”