Freeze frame: Aristarchus Jenkins

text and photograph by John Rosenthal

Last summer, on a hot August afternoon, I drove around the grounds of Dorothea Dix Hospital and came upon the old asylum cemetery. Most of the grave markers – hundreds of them – were not visible; they were small granite stones, with name and death date, over which grass had grown. There were, however, four or five graves marked with standing tombstones, and one in particular caught my eye: The tombstone of Aristarchus Jenkins, a private in the Confederate Army, Company E of the North Carolina’s 15th Regiment, who died in 1891.

Why, I wondered, was Aristarchus Jenkins, a humble private in the Confederate Army, honored by an individual headstone?

I didn’t assume it was a question that could be answered, but that afternoon I typed the name “Aristarchus Jenkins” into Google and immediately found an article published in the Local/State section of The News & Observer in 2009 entitled “At Dix Grave, A Soldier’s Story Is Unearthed.”

The richly detailed and haunting story was written by Michael Biesecker (then a staff writer for the N&O, now with the Associated Press) who, among other things, interviewed Aristarchus’s great-great niece, Gracie Jenkins, a Raleigh resident and “amateur genealogist.” Ms. Jenkins, in the course of researching her family history, had discovered that her uncle grew up in a family of 14 brothers on a farm in Granville County. Delving into Civil War, Confederate, Census, and Dix Hospital records, Ms. Jenkins pieced together the tragic life of a young man during the Civil War – a life which, frankly, is almost unbearable even to imagine.

These are the recorded facts as told to Biesecker. In 1861, at the age of 22, Aristarchus enlisted in the Confederate Army, attached to the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. In August 1862, as his regiment crossed the Rapidan River en route to invade Maryland, his brother, Pulaski, drowned. Less than a month later, Aristarchus fought at the Battle of Antietam, known as the bloodiest single day in American military history.

In October 1863, at the battle of Bristoe Station, he was shot in the head; he recovered, but in May 1864 he was shot in the shoulder and hospitalized in Richmond. He returned to his unit during the relentless siege at Petersburg, Va., and, on Feb. 17, 1865, low on ammunition and starving, Aristarchus deserted, crossing to the Union lines. Two months later, Aristarchus’s 15th Regiment surrendered with Lee’s army. Of the original 800 men who made up the regiment, 138 were left.

When Aristarchus (one of seven brothers who’d fought for the Confederacy) returned home, his father refused to speak to him and his family shunned him. He disappeared, seemingly, forever, until Gracie Jenkins, 140 years later, found him listed in the 1870 Census as a 32-year-old resident at the N.C. Insane Asylum. He had been admitted in 1868, having suffered for more than a year from “mania.” Hospital records indicate he died at Dix of consumption, 23 years later, and was buried in Row E, plot No. 30.

Digging with her hands in the grass of the Dix cemetery, Gracie Jenkins eventually found the marker with Aristarchus’ name. “Later,” Biesecker tells us, “she successfully petitioned the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a new 400-pound headstone, which was erected in 2006 with the help of a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”

In Gracie Jenkins’ words, “I didn’t think he should be forgotten.”

People say that a photograph is worth a thousand words, but to convey the sadness of this story, the words of Jenkins and Biesecker are necessary.

From a photographic point of view, Aristarchus Jenkins’ fairly new tombstone had not yet undergone any visually compelling erosions of time; its engraved words didn’t illuminate. I tried to photograph it in sunlight, but even as I clicked the shutter I thought: This adds nothing.

Then one Saturday morning in October, I woke to a stormy day of drifting mist. Low angry clouds chased each other across a leaden sky. Skies carry the weight of metaphor – and I thought of Aristarchus Jenkins under that distressed sky. Twenty-three years in the asylum. Mania, it was called. They had to call it something.

I drove to the Dorothea Dix cemetery and took the photograph.