Civil War Mysteries: The Strange Disappearance of Harvey B. Wentworth

Capitol construction during Lincoln's presidency

The strangest casualty of the Civil War occurred not on the battlefield, but beneath the U.S. Capitol Building, and involved a young soldier from New Hampshire who never got the chance to confront the enemy. This is the story of Harvey B. Wentworth, who vanished from the face of the earth in the summer of 1862.

Wentworth enlisted in Company D of the 19th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in May of 1862. He was 20 years old, and the son of a farmer from the town of of Suncook. During the war, all troops from the Union states passed through Washington and, as a result, the nation's capital was filled with throngs of soldiers.

Every morning in Washington, the sergeant of each company made out a report showing that the troops under his command were present and accounted for. On the morning of July 22, the sergeant of Company D had reported that one private was unaccounted for-- Harvey B. Wentworth. Wentworth's name remained on the rolls for the duration of the war, along with the entry: "Mysteriously disappeared".

Within a year of the private's disappearance his mother died, and his father passed away the following year. They were both buried in a tiny graveyard in Suncook, where a third gravemarker pays tribute to their lost son: Erected to the memory of Harvey B. Wentworth, a private in Company D, Nineteenth New Hampshire volunteers, who mysteriously disappeared from the knowledge of men at Washington, D.C., in July 1862.

The possibility of desertion was never even entertained; those who knew Wentworth vouched for his hinor and character. In fact, the court of inquiry concluded, after the federal investigation into the young private's disappearance, that: Harvey B. Wentworth, of the Nineteenth New Hampshire volunteers, did, on or about the 21st day of July, 1862, disappear from mortal ken; but in view of his character and antecedents we clear him from the charge of desertion, and recommend that his military record be regarded as without stain.

An investigator for the U.S. Navy, identified as H. Webster, was tasked with the job of finding out what happened to the missing soldier. According to Webster, on the day Harvey Wentworth was last seen alive, the 19th New Hampshire volunteers marched up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Baltimore & Ohio depot after their arrival from the Granite State. At approximately 4:30 in the afternoon they arrived at the Aqueduct Bridge, and encamped on the hills between Fort Corcoran and the Potomac River. The regiment would remain at camp until August, when they would be assigned to the corps under the command of Brig. Gen. Rosecrans.

Webster learned that, on the day of his disappearance, Wentworth applied for a furlough so that he could explore Capitol Hill. Wentworth's cousin was the sergeant in charge of the company, so Wentworth obtained his leave with little difficulty. The private was a bit of a history buff, and his comrades said that Harvey was excited to see the Capitol Building, which was under construction at the time.

The building itself had been completed and occupied for some time, but the Senate and House wings were being built when Company D arrived. Not long before, President Lincoln had stated that "the capitol should be completed at once, giving the whole world the spectacle of a nation fighting a successful fight with rebellion and at the same time setting the seal on its success by fixing the emblem of liberty on the pinnacle of the capitol." The construction would not be complete until 1864.

At the time of Wentworth's disappearance, it was illegal for soldiers to be seen in the streets of the city out of uniform, and the official investigation revealed that sentries did report stopping a soldier of Wentworth's description as he attempted to cross the Georgetown Bridge. As a matter of fact, every approach to Capitol Hill was guarded by sentries, and they all had seen Wentworth's furlough pass. He was identified by the patrol crossing at Rock Creek, and it was known that Wentworth had walked down Pennsylvania Avenue as far as the Capitol. He was last seen on the brow of Capitol Hill, leisurely viewing the construction site. And that's where the trail ended-- what happened to the private after that moment is still a mystery, though Webster was able to formulate a theory that just might solve the mystery of the soldier's disappearance.

At that time, the construction site would have been swarming with masons and artisans, busily chipping away at huge slabs of marble. It was a sweltering summer day and the Navy investigator believed that Wentworth, to escape the heat and satisfy his curiosity, had descended the narrow sandstone steps beneath the center of the rotunda in order to explore the cool, shady subterranean passageways that were in various stages of completion. On the day of his disappearance workmen were rearing the dome of the Capitol and a large crowd was on hand, thereby drawing attention away from Wentworth's activities. All eyes were on the dome, so the young man could have entered the miles of passageways undetected.

Webster theorized that Harvey Wentworth had lost his way in the dark and either became asphyxiated or injured. As a result, the unconscious soldier had been walled in by construction workers.

Coffeyville (KS) Daily Journal, June 1, 1897
Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 24, 1921

UPDATE: A few readers have informed us that this story might be nothing more than a legend, as there appears to be no record of the "19th New Hampshire Volunteers". Online record searches show that there were a few Harvey Wentworths alive at the time-- in Maine, not New Hampshire. Since this rather well-known story has appeared in newspapers from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, it's possible that facts may have gotten altered due to repeated re-tellings. Or, as some readers have suggested, it's just a myth. True or not, it's still a pretty darn good story.