Maj. Philemon Tracy was born in Macon 180 years ago on Monday -- June 27, 1831 -- when the city was in its infancy.
His father, Edward Door Tracy, was one of Macon’s leading citizens, serving as its second mayor from 1826-28. He also was a state legislator and judge. He offered a toast to Marquis de Lafayette during the renowned French general’s visit to Macon in 1825.
His brother, Gen. Edward Door Tracy Jr., was one of Macon’s most acclaimed Civil War officers. There is a state historical marker in Rose Hill Cemetery in his honor. He joined the Confederate Army at the start of the war in April 1861. He died leading a brigade of soldiers from Georgia and Alabama into battle at Port Gibson, Miss., in May 1863.
His sister Anne Clark Tracy married a wealthy banker and railroad man named William Butler Johnston. They had an extended honeymoon in Europe, then came back to Macon and built an amazing Italian Renaissance Revival mansion. It is sometimes called the “Palace of the South.” We know it as the Hay House.
Philemon Tracy is not as well-known as his famous father, sister and brother. But he can claim his own footnote in a city already rich in Civil War history. I feel a certain kinship with him. After all, he once served as editor of The Macon Telegraph.
But there is more to his fascinating story.
He was a major in the 6th Georgia Infantry and died in the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the first major battle to take place on Northern soil (Maryland) and a turning point in the war.
It was the bloodiest one-day battle in American military history. More than 23,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded.
But instead of being buried with the rest of his family at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Tracy’s final resting place was Batavia, N.Y., close to the shores of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
Local historians in Batavia have long claimed Tracy holds the distinction of being buried farther north of the Mason-Dixon line than any Confederate soldier killed during the war. He is also believed to be the only Confederate officer moved from a battlefield and buried on Northern soil.
For 128 years, his military service was never acknowledged on his headstone at the Bavaria Cemetery on Harvester Avenue. His grave carried only his name, the date of his death and his age at 31 years and three months. No mention that he was a Rebel with a cause, and a thousand miles from home.
Through the efforts of veterans groups and historians, a marker was placed at the grave site in 1990. More than 200 people attended the ceremony, and a Civil War re-enactment group played taps.
Every Memorial Day, a small, Confederate flag is placed between the marker and headstone. Yes, Philemon Tracy has become part of local lore in this town of about 15,000 in western New York.
In this sesquicentennial year, Tracy’s story is particularly interesting to me. I first learned about it from Jim Schmitt, who lives in Batavia. He introduced himself to me at the Cherry Blossom Festival a few years ago. I saw him again this past spring at the arts and crafts festival. His daughter, Gretchen Suk, lives in Macon with her husband and two children. Joe Suk, her husband, is a former hockey player with the Macon Whoopee.
As a young man, Tracy would often visit his uncle in Batavia during the summer to escape the oppressive Macon heat. (Sound familiar?) His uncle, Judge Phineus Tracy, was a prominent attorney in Batavia who later served in Congress.
Philemon went to Yale to study law, where he made friends who later would become his enemies on the battlefield. (Author Jacquelyn Cook’s 2008 historical novel, “Sunrise,” on the life of Anne Tracy Johnston, was based partly on the letters brother Philemon wrote to his family studying at Yale and during the war.)
He was a rather controversial editor of The Telegraph in the mid-1850s, before joining a local law firm. In 1959, he was elected to the state Senate. His wife, Carrie, and their baby died before the war began.
His age and his failing eyesight could have exempted him from military service. In the spring of 1862, he was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks in Virginia. He was shot in the face, and a bullet also struck him in the leg between his knee and hip.
He was furloughed until September, when Gen. Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac River into Maryland with 35,000 weary troops to fight against Gen. George McClellan’s rested and ready 70,000 Union soldiers.
Tracy was reportedly one of the first casualties at Antietam that morning. He died when a bullet struck him in the thigh and severed an artery. He was buried on the battlefield after Lee’s troops retreated.
When word of his nephew’s death reached Phineus Tracy, an emissary was sent to Sharpsburg to exhume the body and return it to Batavia to be buried in the family plot near the front of the cemetery. The body had to be secretly returned under the guise of a Union officer. Until two decades ago, the headstone made no mention of Tracy’s wartime allegiance.
There are about 90 Civil War soldiers buried in the Batavia Cemetery, but few more interesting than the life and death of Maj. Philemon Tracy.
His story needs to be shared with those who never knew it and re-told to those who do.