Wit, Mirth and Spleen, Colonial Williamsburg, Winter 1995-96
Updated May 24, 2019
In July 1930 the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin invited some noteworthy Williamsburg citizens to his Wythe House offices and asked them to make audio recordings of their recollections of the city's past. Among his guests was lawyer Ashton Dovell.
A former speaker of Virginia's House of Delegates, Dovell could tell a story, and among the stories he told the machine was the story of Billy GILLIAM's funeral. Preserved in Colonial Williamsburg's oral history archives, it is a tale still celebrated in some quarters.
"Shortly after the end of the War Between the States," Dovell began, "there was organized here in the City of Williamsburg what was known as Wise's Light Infantry. Captain Richard A Wise, familiarly known as Captain Dick, was the commanding officer of the company. This company was recruited largely from the official personnel of James City County and of the City of Williamsburg."
Properly called Wise's Light Infantry Blues, the organization was part militia and part fraternity. Its men kept their rifles and uniforms in an armory at Duke of Gloucester Street's east end.
"After the company had been organized for several years, one of its number, Billy GILLIAM, had died," Dovell said. "Billy GILLIAM was a bachelor. His mother was there with him for some time before the end came." They lived on Waller Street beyond the old Capitol grounds.
"When Captain Dick was advised that Billy GILLIAM was dead, he called his company together at the armory and proceeded to furnish to the deceased member a military funeral. The hearse consisted of a one- horse wagon; not a horse, but a mule. This proceeded down Duke of Gloucester Street with Captain Dick and the company following in order.
"Reaching the first bar, just outside the armory, the order was given to stack arms, and the company repaired to the bar and was furnished with drink by the commanding officer. The order was then given to fall in, and the company proceeded east on Duke of Gloucester Street to the second bar."
That bar was on Market Square, and there the company repeated the libation maneuver—as it did again at the Colonial Hotel bar, where Chowning's now stands, and once more at Dickerson's Bar, apparently today's Wetherburn's. Having four times raised a glass to Billy, the company made its way directly to the GILLIAM house.
"During those days," Dovell continued, "when funds were, to say the least, meager, coffins were made by local cabinetmakers and carpenters, and they consisted largely of bullpine boards nailed together hurriedly, and a lid formed to make a coffin. Such a coffin had been provided on this occasion. Needless to say, it was very heavy.
"When the company arrived a detail was directed to go in to bring out the remains." By another account, the detail found GILLIAM reposed in his militia uniform—an extravagant waste of the company's slender resources. The detail took him out of the box, banged the lid on his coffin, and carried him upstairs to remove the outfit and save it from the grave. Soon after, a second detail came in and carried the coffin to the hearse. Both versions agree on what happened next.
"The company proceeded back westward on Duke of Gloucester Street. When the head of the company had reached virtually the point where the last drink was taken, and as Captain Wise was about to give an order that the company fall out for refreshments, a Negro boy was heard yelling in the street." The lad was saying that Billy's mother had noticed her boy's corpse in the house, and that the coffin might be consequently empty. Raising the lid and finding that was so, Captain Dick about-faced his men, trooped back to the house, had Billy carried out and laid in his coffin, and resumed the parade to Dickerson's bar.
Refreshed again, Captain Dick reassembled the company and called on its musicians for a dirge. The drummer was young Archie Brooks, the fifer a patient from the Public Hospital, America's first mental institution. Between them they knew one tune: "Hop, Hop, Light Ladies," an upbeat melody that seems to correspond to "Goodnight Ladies." Captain Dick commanded them to play it very slow. The company, however, had not reached the Colonial's bar before he said, "That's too damn slow; can't you play it a little faster?" and they resumed the melody's step-lively cadence.
After a sixth round on Captain Dick, the men made their way to Cedar Grove Cemetery, the city-owned graveyard adjoining the Public Hospital compound. Dovell described what happened next.
"In their eagerness to put on a brilliant spectacle at this their first military funeral as a military organization, they overlooked the fact that they had no blank cartridges, so the rifles were loaded with the usual ammunition.
"As the casket had been lowered into the grave, and the earth rolled in, they were ordered to sound taps, and a firing squad was ordered to fire a salute across the grave. A number of patients who were permitted the use of the grounds had come out to the cemetery and were sitting on the brick wall. There were a number of cattle in the hospital pasture just beyond this wall. They raised their rifles about to a horizontal plane and fired this salute.
"As they fired the salute, the patients were seen to fall backwards off of the brick wall surrounding the cemetery and several head of cattle to drop in the hospital pasture. The story is told that patients had been wounded and several beeves had been killed by the firing the salute."
In the alternate account, the patients were merely brushed from the wall by a branch the bullets cut from an overhanging tree.
The brick wall still stands, but Billy GILLIAM's headstone, if he had a headstone, is gone. His grave is unrecorded; lost. Nevertheless, his memory, at least of his funeral, soldiers on.
[Billy GILLIAM and family may be found in the 1850 and 1860 Elizabeth City County Census. He is the son of James and Ann GILLIAM of York County. Widowed mother, Ann, is found alone in 1880, apparently Billy died in the intervening years. Capt. Richard A. Wise is Richard Alsop Wise of the 4th Calvary Regiment.]
- The Military Funeral of Billy GILLIAM, Wit, Mirth and Spleen, Colonial Williamsburg, Winter 1995-96