Charles Henry Cary was born in 1839 in Brockport, Monroe County, New York, the son of Rhode Island native Alfred X. Cary (1811-1882) and New York native Sarah Musdirk (1813-1890).
Alfred and Sarah were married in 1833 and probably settled in New York. In 1840 Alfred X. was living in Painesville, Lake County, Ohio. He eventually moved his family west and by 1850 had settled in Kent County, Michigan. That same year Charles was living with his family in Grand Rapids where his father operated a hotel. Also living with them was Robert Collins, who would eventually become Alfred’s business partner as well as Charles’ brother-in-law and who would also join the 3rd Michigan infantry in 1861 as Regimental Quartermaster.
By 1859 Charles was living in Grand Rapids when he joined the Valley City Guards, a local militia company that would serve as the core of Company A, Third Michigan in the spring of 1861.
According to one contemporary observer, Cary was quite a marksman. On Monday, August 29, 1859, the VCG were out testing their newly acquired muskets. “They marched to a large field near the old slaughter house; where the target was erected 25 rods from the line. 25 men drew sight on the ‘bull's eye’, each being allowed three shots. 47 holes were made in the target. The best single shot was made by Fred. G. Dean; the best string shot by Alex[ander] McKenzie, being 24 and 1/4 inches. After trying at 25 rods, the guns were tested at a distance of 90 rods. At this distance Heman Moore made the best ‘string shot’, Charles Cary the best single.”
By 1860 Charles was working as a clerk, quite possibly in his father’s flour and feed store and living with his parents in Grand Rapids' Third Ward. Still living with the Cary family was Alfred’s business partner, Robert Collins and his wife Elizabeth (Cary).
In late April of 1861 Charles was reported as Fourth Corporal of the VCG.
He was 22 years old and probably still living with his family when he enlisted as either Fourth Sergeant (or perhaps Sergeant Major) of Company A on May 13, 1861. Either way, Charles was promoted to Second Lieutenant from Sergeant Major on October 28, 1861, and in late November of 1861 returned home on furlough. Although the records are unclear as to when exactly Cary was detached from the Third Michigan, Captain Stephen Lowing of Company I wrote home to Ottawa County on November 27, 1861, that he was sending “$160 in gold by Lt. Cary of Grand Rapids, who is on a visit here [to the Regiment] and returns tomorrow.”
Charles eventually returned to Virginia, but did not rejoin the Regiment. He apparently remained on detached service when Brigadier General A. S. Williams mentioned him in a dispatch dated June 22, 1862, for having exposed himself to fire in action on or about May 31, 1862, probably near Fair Oaks, Virginia. He was detached as a signal officer under Major Meyers from August of 1862 through February of 1863, and was again mentioned in dispatches.
Getting himself and his men under his command to his next post in August of 1862 had been something of an ordeal for Charles. On August 12, 1862, Charles, who was at 54 Dye Street in New York City, wrote to Captain Samuel F. Cushing, Acting Signal Officer, in charge of the Second United States infantry, relating his problems. He was detailed
on the 5th of May 1862 to report to Lt. De Forel Act. Signal Off. on board the gunboat Wachuset at West Point, Va. Soon after reporting to said officer I was ordered by him to gunboat Marblehall , Lieutenant Richardson commanding officer West Point Va. which I did on the 7th of May 1862. We were very soon ordered up the Pamunkey River where we remained until the position of the White House was abandoned by the federal troops when we returned to Yorktown where we remained until Monday July 21st 1862 when we were ordered to report at Fortress Monroe. Arrived at that place 8 o'clock a.m. July 22nd 1862. We were then ordered to leave for Port Royal S.C. [and] reached that place July 27th. As soon as possible I got orders from Com. DuPont to report to Gen. Hunter commanding and tried to get transportation for myself and two men to Fortress Monroe but could only obtain a pass to New York City where we arrived Aug. 4th. I applied immediately for transportation to Washington and ascertained that I should be obliged to have written orders such as I have never had and upon the impulse of the moment sent you the telegram of the 5th inst. not thinking for a moment but that you would understand the circumstances of the case but I now see that I should have written you full particulars. As I am anxious to return to duty immediately I shall be obliged if you will send me the necessary orders. I have no money cannot pay my own transportation neither can I obtain it without written orders. I will try and explain everything satisfactorily when I see you.
Charles eventually reached his destination, and on December 17, 1862, Lieutenant E. C. Pierce mentioned Cary in his report to Captain Cushing. And on December 21, 1862, Captain Samuel Cushing mentioned Cary in his report to Captain James Hall, commanding the signal detachment.
Soon afterwards Charles was transferred to Mississippi where he was reported on detached service with the Signal Corps when he was commissioned a First Lieutenant on February 5, 1863.
Charles died of disease at about 1:30 on the afternoon of July 17, 1863, in Jackson, Mississippi. Captain John A. Hebrew, an associate signal officer and a good friend of Cary’s, wrote to Cary’s father on July 18, 1863, explaining the details of Charles’ death.
It is with sincere and painful regret [Hebrew wrote] that I have to inform you of the decease of your son, Lt. Charles H. Cary, my associate officer and companion on signal duty, at these headquarters. It was very unexpected and sudden, even to me who has attended and waited on him since he has been sick. We did not dream even of anything serious being the matter with him until one hour before his death. He had been complaining of the usual fever appertaining to this climate almost from the day of our first landing in Mississippi, but was not even confined to his tent or bed, until 3 or 4 days ago when he was attacked with a severe diarrhea, which weakened him a great deal. Still, both his medical attendant -- Dr. McDonald, who is attached to Headquarters -- and myself could see nothing serious in his case. One-half of our troops were similarly affected. This diarrhea left him yesterday morning, and I thought he was getting better fast, until this forenoon, when his brain got affected but very slightly. About half past 12:00 I noticed him getting worse. I immediately sent for the doctor, who came and found him in strong convulsions. Every means in our power was resorted to in trying to recover him but all of no avail. The convulsions lasted about half an hour, when he peacefully and quietly passed away into that deep sleep that knows no waking, at 25 minutes past 1:00 p.m. today. So passed away into eternity my true friend and faithful soldier companion. He was completely insensible to everything after being attacked at the last; I know of nothing as regards his last wishes. I enclose a ring he has been wearing, and a small lock of his hair, cut off after his death, knowing how much they would be prized as a memento of a beloved son. His baggage, arms, clothing, money and equipment I will send by express to your address as soon as we reach a place of civilization once more. Meanwhile I will take all possible care of them. . . . I did my level best to get him sent home, to be buried there, but it was impossible to do so. He is interred in the cemetery belonging to the Insane Asylum of the State of Miss., about 2 miles from Jackson. The cem. is about of a quarter of a mile northeast of the asylum, on a slight rise of ground. The grave is carefully marked with a board, on which is painted his name, rank and regt. in full, and besides I had two large rebel shot (that were thrown at us from Jackson) put into his grave, about half way down, so as to make sure of it if any of his family desired to visit the spot in the future. We buried him in full uniform and with all the honors of war, followed by all the officers at headquarters and a great many belonging to Regiments in our neighborhood. The escort and band were furnished by the Twenty-fifth Mass Vols., and in that he was so much beloved by everybody brought into contact with him that they could not do enough to show their friendship for him. And now as to myself. I am completely lost as much so, almost, as if he had been my brother. We have been doing duty together ever since this corps left the Army of the Potomac, last February, and at different times before that, and I always dreaded being separated from him as we often are in the military service, never dreaming for an instant that he would be taken away from me by death. He was much stronger and healthier looking than any of us when we left Lexington, Kentucky, to come here, I have been more or less sick since we came here, and in fact all of us have been so. We are under orders today to march back to Vicksburg at once; will probably start tomorrow morning, and it is welcome news. I do hope you will be pleased with what I have done in this sorrowful matter. I have done everything in the best manner I could, under the circumstances. I have to refer to one of his men, who was detached from the Fifth Mich Regt. He was very attentive during his illness, and mourns for him almost as much as I do myself. His name is [Isaac] N. Wolf, and if you should ever meet him after the troubles of our distracted country are settled, you may look on him as a true friend to your son.
On July 30, the Grand Rapids Eagle wrote that “We are painfully shocked, today, by the receipt of news of the death of Lt. Charles H. Cary” at Jackson. “ Lt. Cary died of fever, followed by diarrhea, terminating in convulsions. He was a gallant soldier, and a young man of 24 years, universally beloved by his comrades and acquaintances. The letter conveying news of his death purported to contain a ring and a lock of hair -- mournful and sacred relics sent with his dying message to his family. The letter was taken from the post office here, and opened by a sister of the deceased, who, in her agitation, probably lost these relics from the envelope, between the post office and home. If any person should find them, they will confer a great favor and consolation by returning them to the afflicted family, or by leaving them at this office for them.”
Captain Henry S. Tafft of Washington, DC, Charles’ former superior officer, issued General Orders no. 12 on August 1, which said:
It is with profound sorrow and regret that the Col. commanding the Corps, is called upon to announce to the officers of his Department the decease of one of their comrades, Lt. Charles H. Cary. This brave and gallant young officer died at the Headquarters, Ninth Army Corps, near Jackson, Miss, July 18th, 1863. It will be seen, that his decease occurred while in the field, in front of the enemy, and undergoing the arduous labors of an active campaign. Detailed from the 3rd regt. Mich Vols., December 29, 1861, and assigned to signal duty with the Signal Corps of the army, this officer has ever sustained the true character of a patriot and a soldier, and has always nobly performed his duty. He was present and participated in the battles before Fredericksburg, Va., December 11 and December 16, inclusive, 1862 and was mentioned for gallant conduct in these actions by the Chief Signal Officer commanding that detachment. His gentlemanly and courteous deportment had endeared him to all with whom he came in contact, and the deep sorrow which all must feel who knew him, is a tribute to his high character as an officer and a friend. In respect to his memory, the officers of this Corps will wear the usual sign of military mourning for 30 days after the receipt of this order.
Cary’s funeral services were held at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday evening, August 9, at St. Mark's church in Grand Rapids. That evening, Rebecca Richmond, who knew Cary before the war, along with her father William and sister Mary attended the memorial services, which were “preached to a very large congregation by Dr. Tustin. It was prefaced by a condensed biography of the fallen hero. . . .” Another observer wrote afterwards that “After the reading of services usual in such cases in that church, accompanied with excellent music, adapted to the time and occasion, Rev. Dr. Tustin delivered an able and highly interesting sermon, prefaced with a condensed biography of the fallen hero.” Tustin said of Cary that “In the army, as in social life, ‘Charley’ won the esteem and love of all who made his acquaintance”, adding that Cary’s “death adds another victim from our midst to the great slaveholding and traitors' rebellion, fills another home with mourning, and makes loving hearts bleed.”
Charles had originally been interred in the cemetery of the Insane Asylum of Mississippi, some two miles outside of Jackson, and as of early August he remained buried in Mississippi. It is quite possible, however, that his father had the body brought home and interred in Fulton cemetery. In any case, there is a marker for him along with with his brother-in-law Robert Collins and his parents in block 7 lot 10, Fulton Cemetery.