Located deep towards the back of Woodland Cemetery, in one of the ground’s oldest sections, lies a memorial to one John Parkinson Jr. A tall obelisk that dwarfs the graves of his parents buried beside him sheds light on the circumstances of his death. It reads “John, son of John and Bridget Parkinson, died at Atlanta, GA, October 15th 1864, aged 17 y’rs.”
Immediately, this inspires curiosity in the observer. Why is there a memorial to a 17 year old at Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario, when he died in Georgia? Although it was becoming more and more common for people from all walks of life to move about in the world, such an inscription still indicates interesting circumstances surrounding his death. At this point, anyone proficient in United States’ history will tell you that this was around the time of the Battle of Atlanta in the American Civil War.
Curious as to the possibility that John Parkinson may have served in the American Civil War I checked military records for anyone bearing his name. Immediately, I found a internment certificate that matched his name and age. As “John Parkinson” is a common name, the date of death was significant as it matched the date on his tombstone, confirming that this certificate did in fact belong to the Parkinson memorialized at Woodland. The document indicated that Parkinson had been buried in the Marietta National Cemetery, Georgia, and that he had a separate stone marking his actual burial location.
The document also sheds light on his experience during the Civil War. It indicates that John served as a private in the Union Army, a member of the 10th Michigan Infantry. Curiously, the 10th Michigan Infantry, which operated from 1862-1865, was a volunteer battalion. This suggests that John Parkinson willingly traveled south to fight in the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Parkinson’s cause of death is listed in Union Army records as well, indicating that he succumbed to typhoid fever at a general hospital near Atlanta rather than being killed in combat. At the time, disease could be a far greater killer in war than combat itself, the inevitable result of thousands of humans packed close together, with poor hygiene practices and inadequate medical care. In fact, of the 20 deaths listed on the same page as John Parkinson, only one of them was killed in action.
However, there are still several questions about John Parkinson’s story that are more difficult to answer, such as his motivations for volunteering for the Union Army in the first place. An agricultural census taken in 1861 indicates that John Parkinson Sr. was a farmer in the region at the time, holding 30 acres of land. As such, we can assume that John Parkinson Jr. came from humble origins, and may have seen military service as a way to earn a decent wage.
In a further step to uncover John Parkinson Jr.’s story, I accessed microfilm copies of the London Free Press from the Civil War Period, courtesy of Western University. While I did not track down any article describing a Londoner dying while serving the Union Army in the Civil War, there were several articles describing recruiting agents operating in the area. The Free Press alleged that recruiters were enticing young men from the area by painting an extremely enticing picture of life in the army, promising good wages and a dignified career. The article warned that such recruiters were not to be trusted, as some were not even representatives of the Union Army, but con artists seeking to steal the fee men paid for their uniforms and travel.
Based on such information it is entirely likely that John Parkinson Jr. was not content with his life as a farmer’s son for one reason or another, and instead traveled south to fight for the Union as a way of escaping from it. A recruiter may have played a prominent role in this decision, but that is uncertain. His parents, distraught as losing their son in a faraway land, chose to erect a monument at Woodland Cemetery so they could find a place to mourn and remember John. When the time came, they chose to be buried next to his monument.
I reached out to the 10th Michigan Re-enactment group, who still hold some files on the division, to see if any more details about his service could be revealed, however they could not provide me with anything new. Perhaps further research can uncover more details of what John experienced during his time serving in the army, as the story of a Londoner serving in the Union Army is certainly a unique one.