Some corner of a foreign field...

Baston gravestoneIn a shady corner of Barnack churchyard lies my great-great grandfather George Baston buried with his wife Harriet. A little further in there is a headstone to the memory of Harriet’s mother, Mary Sells, wife of David Sells.

However it was another name on the memorial which caught our eye one summer’s evening when we visited this ancient church and this was William David Sells.

Baston Grave, BarnackWilliam was Harriet’s younger brother who according to the memorial died in Tennessee in 1863, intriguingly in the middle of the American Civil War.  So what was a young man from a sleepy Northamptonshire village doing in the Deep South in this most bitter of wars, whose side was he on and how did he die?  These questions nagged away in the background while I researched other more direct ancestors but recently I finally got back to William’s tale.

William Sells was born about 1834 in Barnack and baptised in May 1835. His father was David, a labourer and a gardener. William was living in Barnack in 1841 and 1851 with his parents and siblings two of whom, Louisa and George, died in childhood and are also remembered on the headstone. 

Interestingly William next appears in a census, not in England but in the US in 1860 and is now living in Avon, Lake County, Illinois. He married Mary Ann Bills in Michigen in 1854 and had three children of his own and one living with the family from Mary Ann’s previous marriage. In fact Mary Ann had never divorced her husband so this was bigamy. Oh dear! 

In 1861 the American Civil War broke out and the following year William enlisted in the 96th Illinois Infantry, on the side of the Union. The regiment fought in Ohio and Kentucky until early 1863 when they moved to Tennessee where they were involved in a series of actions around Nashville. Finally they marched to Wartrace through a heavy storm where they set up their headquarters. And that is where William’s story ends. He died on the 30th July 1863 in the regimental hospital, not of battle wounds but of chronic diarrhoea.  Of the regimental losses less than half died in battle, the remainder dying of disease including smallpox, consumption and, most commonly, diarrhoea.

Mary Ann went on to marry a third time and remained in Illinois where she died in 1888. Back in Barnack Harriet Baston gave birth to my great grandfather John who too became a soldier serving in the Royal Horse Artillery in the Boer War. His only son, Frank, my grandmother’s brother, wasn’t so lucky and was killed in action in France in 1917.  My own father survived National Service in the RAF and got no further than Boscombe Down.

Thankfully I have avoided military service altogether though I have a keen interest in  military history and sometimes wonder how I would have fared faced with the hardships of battle in some foreign field like my ancestors from Barnack.

William Sells Death