The Strangest Casualty of the Civil War

Union troops at the Siege of Petersburg.

By most estimates, between 750,000 to 850,000 soldiers lost their lives during the American Civil War. Most died on the battlefield, some died in hospitals and still others died in prison camps. Some died heroically, others died as cowards. But none of them died quite like Sergeant Major George F. Polley.

According to history books, the Second Battle of Petersburg took place in Virginia between June 15 and June 18 of 1864. George Polley, of the 10th Massachusetts Regiment, would survive the battle, only to die in the most bizarre and morbid fashion two days later.

After the battle, in which the Union suffered a loss of nearly 1,700 men (compared to just 200 for the Confederacy), Sergeant Polley was assigned to a Second Division hospital on June 19, where he was tasked with the job of writing the names of his regiment's dead on wooden headboards. The headboards, inscribed with the names and dates of death of the soldiers, would serve as temporary grave markers until the end of the war. Until that time, the dead of Petersburg would be buried in shallow pits on the field of battle.

When Polley completed the morbid task, he noticed that there was one headboard too many. Many soldiers developed a dark sense of humor during the war, and George Polley was no exception; Polley decided to write his own name onto the leftover headboard, listing his date of demise as the 20th of June. With his term of service having expired and the 10th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment about to be mustered out of service, Polley and his regiment were ordered to return home.

The following morning, Polley bid farewell to his friends in other regiments near the scene of battle, when he was struck directly in the chest by a twenty-pound Parrott shell fired about 4,000 yards away- a distance of more than two miles- from across the Appomattox. Although the Second Battle of Petersburg had officially ended two days earlier, George Polley became its last casualty, albeit with the luxury of having his own ready-made grave marker.

Did Polley have a premonition of his own death? Or did he simply tempt fate with his morbid sense of humor?

An anecdote from a history of the 10th Massachusetts Regiment, published shortly after the war, seems to suggest the latter; on the morning of his death, Polley had used his own headboard as a coffee tray during breakfast.

The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864 by Alfred S. Roe
The Highland Weekly News, November 24, 1864

Marlin Bressi is a freelance writer, creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities blog, and author of the book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits.