GRAY – On Memorial Day each year, Civil War re-enactors remember an unknown Confederate soldier buried in Gray.

GRAY – On Memorial Day, while many were remembering loved ones who fought and died in recent wars, a half-dozen men clad in gray woolen uniforms were at Gray Cemetery paying their respects to two soldiers who fought and died on opposite sides in the Civil War.

Every year for the past 16 years, Civil War re-enactors from the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, Company G, have marched to the grave of the Stranger, a Confederate soldier whose body was mistakenly shipped to Gray after he died in battle in 1862.

The Stranger’s grave is located under a cedar tree near the middle of the cemetery near downtown Gray. The story of the Stranger is a unique tale that Farmington resident Mike Pratt, Company G’s longtime captain, shared at this year’s annual Memorial Day ceremony.

Pratt said the soldier came to be interred in Gray Cemetery after being shipped mistakenly to the family of Amos and Sarah Colley, who resided on Colley Hill in Gray. Their son, Lt. Charles Colley, a member of the 10th Maine Regiment, died in the Battle of Cedar Mountain, in which the Maine soldiers were severely outgunned by Confederates. After the bloody battle, he said, the Stranger’s body was shipped to Maine. Upon receipt of the coffin, Lt. Colley’s mother asked for one last look at her son and discovered the mix-up.

“Now, quite upset that it wasn’t her son, she figured indeed that it was some mother’s son, and out of respect for that woman who gave her son to the cause, she and some other ladies of Gray had him buried,” Pratt said. “And later they gave him the stone.”

Pratt has helped to continue the tradition of honoring the Stranger and Lt. Colley for the last 11 years. Prior to his involvement, Joe Smyth, 77, of Cumberland Center, had been doing the same since the early 1990s.

A former captain of the 15th Alabama Regiment, which is made up of re-enactors from Maine, Smyth said the tradition began in the 1980s by another Confederate re-enactment group before it disbanded and the 15th Alabama took it over. He has no knowledge of any ceremony for the Stranger predating the 1980s.

Bloody battle

Smyth, who had two ancestors who moved from Maine to Florida prior to the Civil War and served in the Confederate Army, takes care of the six known Confederate graves in Maine, including the burial site of one of his ancestors. Smyth, who retired from re-enactment several years ago, tends to the Stranger’s grave in Gray once a year and knows the story well.

Quoting from a section devoted to the Stranger in the 2002 book, “It Happened in the Civil War,” by Michael R. Bradley, Smyth said the Battle of Cedar Mountain occurred Aug. 9, 1862, and was part of preliminary maneuvering for the Second Manassas Campaign.

The Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, was moving northward against the Army of Virginia led by Union Gen. John Pope. Involved in the battle was Lt. Colley of the 10th Maine Infantry, which had yet to see battle and was anxious to prove themselves against the veteran southern troops, Bradley wrote.

The weather was miserably hot in Virginia in early August, and the 10th Maine was ordered to hold back to support a battery of artillery on a small hill known as Cedar Mountain. However, the 10th found itself alone and for about 5-10 minutes was torn to pieces by gunfire, losing half of its men, Bradley wrote. In all, 24 men were killed and 175 wounded, including Colley.

A truce was arranged at dusk to allow for the collection of bodies. Colley was taken to a hospital in Alexandria, Va., but he died a few days later, Bradley wrote.

His parents, Amos and Sarah Colley, went to considerable effort and expense to have his body shipped home for burial. On the sad day when the coffin arrived, Sarah Colley gave a “shriek of horror in disbelief, the body was not that of her son,” Bradley wrote.

The derivation of the term “Stranger” is unknown, but Bradley writes that the Colley family decided they were now dependent on the kindness of strangers for the burial of their son; therefore, they should show kindness to the son of strangers. The body of the unknown Confederate was taken to Gray Cemetery and interred. Following the war, money was collected locally by Colley’s mother and a group of her friends known as the Ladies of Gray, and a small stone was erected. On the stone was inscribed, “Stranger. A soldier of the late war. Died 1862. Erected by the Ladies of Gray.”

A few weeks after the funeral for the Stranger, Colley’s body was found and returned to his parents, Bradley wrote. He was buried near the Stranger, “and to this day the two former enemies lie only a few feet apart, resting in eternal peace,” Bradley wrote.

Deeper meaning

Honoring Colley and the Stranger is an important tradition for the 15th Alabama. Each year, the small band takes part in the New Gloucester and Gray Memorial Day parades and then walks to the Gray Cemetery to fire a three-round volley in tribute to the Stranger. They then march single-file to Colley’s grave, located a few rows over, and repeat the volley salute. The ceremony takes less than 10 minutes and is usually performed with few witnesses since most parade-watchers have already left for their Memorial-Day plans.

“We always try to announce it at the Gray parade but it’s pretty lightly attended, but we always do it,” said Pratt, the regiment’s captain.

Pratt said it’s not just the 15th Alabama that remembers the Stranger.

“The Stranger has gotten enough publicity that people know him nationwide, if not internationally,” he said. “And when we show up you never can tell what might be sitting on that grave. One time there was an empty bottle of Dixie beer.

“People hear about it and will make a pilgrimage if they’re here in Maine and leave a little homage. It’s just one of those things.”

Crystal Harper of Windham and her daughter, Abby, a fifth-grader at Manchester Elementary School, visited the Stranger’s grave just before the 15th Alabama fired their tribute volley. Abby said she heard about the Stranger at a recent school concert and wanted to see the grave for herself.

“It sounded really interesting because I love history. I still don’t get why someone can mix up two people. Maybe they both had the same name or something?” Abby said.

Winthrop residents Ken and Sharon Patten, whose son, Ben Patten, is a member of the 15th Alabama, have attended the last 11 Memorial Day ceremonies accompanying their son.

“We’re here to honor all the dead. We usually think in terms of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but many people were lost in the Civil War,” Ken Patten said. “For many, many years now, not only our unit but others have honored both of these individuals, Lt. Colley and the Stranger, for the contributions that they have made.”

“They don’t have anyone else but us,” Sharon Patten said. “And hopefully someone will take over that torch when we’re gone.”

Chris Nulle, a high school teacher in Topsham and company surgeon in the 15th Alabama, said the two soldiers’ intertwining stories are “very interesting” and “that’s why we started taking it on 16 years ago.”

“We do it every Memorial Day to honor the Stranger and Colley because they have a connection that goes way back, and it’s just fitting for Memorial Day,” he said. “It’s amazing his mother wanted to have him buried even though it wasn’t her son.”

An old wrought-iron sign at Gray Cemetery points the way to the burial site of the Stranger, a Confederate soldier who died in battle and whose body was mistakenly shipped to Gray. Each Memorial Day, Civil War re-enactors pay tribute to the Stranger, as well as Lt. Charles Colley, a Gray native who also died in the war. Staff photos by John Balentine

Members of the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, Company G, fire a volley in honor of the Stranger, an unknown Confederate soldier buried in Gray Cemetery during the Civil War. 
The grave of Lt. Colley
Members of the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, Company G, file past the grave of Lt. Charles Colley, a Gray native who died in the Civil War. Staff photos by John Balentine

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