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  • Writer's pictureKristin Wenger

When Johnny (Doesn't) Come Marching Home

John P. Rock (1845-1864) [i]

This handsome young man set off to fight for the Union in the Civil War when he was just a teenager. How his mother (my 5th great grandmother) must have worried about her youngest child. You see, that baby boy held a very special place in her heart because of the circumstances of his birth. John had been born within two weeks of his father’s death, leaving Mary a 37-year-old widow with ten children. As the older children were apprenticed or farmed out for their survival, newborn John must have been one bright spot of comfort and joy to grieving Mary.

That’s why it breaks my heart to imagine Mary weeping over this photograph of her son. John would never come home again.

Here are just a few excerpts from the personal letters found in John’s pension file. [ii] (If you are interested in reading all 31 pages, you can find them here).

Fold3 is offering free access until Tuesday in honor of Memorial Day. I encourage you to discover some of the amazing documents that tell the stories of those who served in the military.

John Rock wrote this letter to his brother Allen in November 1863. Notice his obvious concern for his mother. [iii]

"As I re-enlisted to-day I will have to stay but one year and nine months longer than if I had not re-enlisted. So tell mother not to be uneasy about me as I will try and be a good boy. My time will be but three years from to-day."

" fight for the love of their country. I am well and hearty. My love to you all. Good-bye."
From Your Brother, John P. Rock

Less than a year later, Allen would receive this letter from John's commander. [iv]

"It is with a sad heart and a trembling hand I take my pen in hand for the purpose of writing you a few lines to let you know the misfortune of your dear brother John, he is one among the missing. Whether he is killed or wounded and taken prisoner or captured unhurt I can't say but he was missing in the second charge on the 29th of Sept."

It was later determined through the testimony of several men in John's company that he had died in battle. Their detailed accounts of the battle and John's death can be read here. [v]

[From previous page: "Words can't] express my feelings when I look around through the Regiment and see how many of our brave fellows are missing. Where are they now, why they are numbered with the dead. But there can be said of them, brave heroes, what can't be said of a great many, we can say that they bled and died for their country and their sweet liberty."

Had this young man, who perished while still in his teens, survived the war, we can only imagine his adult life.

  • Would he have married and fathered children?

  • Would he have been a comfort and support to his widowed mother in her old age?

  • Would he have become successful like his older brother Miles?

  • Would he have assisted his sister Caroline (my 4th great grandmother) when her husband died in a freak carriage accident?

We will never know.

This Memorial Day weekend, take a few moments to honor the all-too-brief lives of individuals in your family’s history like John P. Rock. Tell their stories so that they are “gone, but not forgotten."


[i] Photograph from Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed 25 May 2019), memorial page for John P Rock (14 May 1845–29 Sep 1864), Find A Grave memorial no. 55503591, citing Lancaster Cemetery, Lancaster, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA ; maintained by Dan Gwinn (contributor 47066752) .

[ii] “Civil War ‘Widows’ Pensions’,” database with images, Fold3 ( : accessed 25 May 2019), file of John P. Rock (WC136173), path: Pennsylvania > Infantry > Regiment 97 > Company B > Rock, John P.; citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.


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