Historians to honor Civil War colonel

A few months ago, when John Crider opened a book filled with Col. William Gray Murray’s papers, he was likely the first person to do so in 90 years.

Flipping through the Civil War officer’s personal correspondence at Baker Mansion, he and a companion found an old envelope, the letter inside long gone. The writing on the envelope, and the other documents they found in the collection, would point to an 1862 battle in Virginia that had claimed the lives of many Blair County men.

“It was confirmed to be Stonewall Jackson’s handwriting,” Crider, commander of the Sons of Union Veterans Col. Crowther Post 89, said Thursday of the envelope. The Confederate general – one of the greatest in the Civil War – had sent it to the Union general and to Murray, a Hollidaysburg native, with a demand for surrender.

In the battle that raged weeks later, Murray would be cut down by an enemy bullet. And this Sunday, the Sons of Union Veterans and Civil War historians from two states are set to gather at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hollidaysburg to honor his memory, equipped with the new records they’ve found in Altoona.

Beginning 2 p.m. Sunday with doors opening at 1 p.m., the historians are set for the commemoration at the St. Michael’s Church basement hall, with Civil War author Rod Gainer and Gettysburg battlefield guide Dave Richards appearing as guest speakers.

They’ll discuss two regiments, recruited from Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, Centre and surrounding counties, who fought together in Virginia against one of the Confederacy’s most fearsome officers.

The 84th and 110th Pennsylvania regiments would both fight through the Battle of Kernstown, the 84th leaving with their commander dead on the field.

Murray was Hollidaysburg’s postmaster when he was commissioned to lead the regiment, leaving his family for the war after his wife’s death.

Marching alongside the 110th, a regiment split between rural Blair County men and Philadelphians, Murray’s troops crossed into Maryland in the war’s first winter. After weeks of back-and-forth maneuvering against Jackson’s rebel forces, they found themselves in battle at Kernstown, Va., along a rural ridge.

“Forming upon the high ground near the Kernstown Road, it moved gallantly forward,” a Pennsylvania regimental history would later say of the Blair County unit. “As it gained the crest, the rebel infantry rose up from behind rocks … and poured upon it withering volleys. The fire was returned with good effect; but standing without shelter, and at close range, it was fearfully decimated.”

Murray’s horse was shot out under him; he proceeded on foot, urging his men on toward the Confederate guns.

As he advanced, a bullet struck Murray’s forehead, killing him instantly.

His body would be sent back to Hollidaysburg and buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery, where it remains today. Two other central Pennsylvania officers who died at Kernstown lie at the Presbyterian Cemetery across town, Crider noted.

With the Civil War’s extended 150th anniversary, local historians had long planned to honor Murray and the Blair County regiments, Crider said. But with the discovery this year of Murray’s personal papers and military correspondence – gathered by his daughter after his death and nearly untouched since – the event takes on another historical dimension.

Some of the papers, worth thousands of dollars and kept in a bank vault, will be presented Sunday, he said. Period music, a wreath-laying ceremony and rifle salutes are set for the afternoon at St. Mary’s Cemetery.

“The 84th was pretty much Central Pennsylvania,” Crider said, including its Hollidaysburg commander – the first Pennsylvania colonel to be killed in the war.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.