Zilpah Antoinette Knowles Tileston: Duxbury’s First Civil War Widow

by Erin McGough, Collections Manager

Zilpah Antoinette Knowles Tileston (1837-1899), c. 1862

The Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) on August 28-30, 1862 would prove to be among the top 10 deadliest battles of the Civil War. It was a demoralizing defeat for the Union Army, and in general, marked a point in the war at which casualty rates would start to increase dramatically. The Battle of Antietam, for example, would come less than a month later, the bloodiest single day in American history with approximately 23,000 total casualties.

One fifth of the Duxbury soldiers serving in the field at that time were casualties at the Second Battle of Bull Run. 150 years ago this month, in September 1862, those at home in Duxbury were likely still trying to comprehend that news.[1] But Duxbury’s losses were not limited to those born and raised in Duxbury; indeed the town’s losses also included friends and family members who enlisted in nearby towns. When one takes this into account, the magnitude of the losses must have had a resonating and magnifying effect for those at home as people came to realize that they had lost sons, brothers, fathers, friends and husbands.

One dress in the collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society helps to illustrate these stories. It was owned in the 1850s by Zilpah Antoinette Knowles (known as Antoinette). She married George Frederick Tileston, who was born in 1828 to a wealthy family in Boston, and had been a newspaper reporter before the war. Antoinette was a local girl, the daughter of Samuel and Lucia Ann (Sampson) Knowles of Duxbury. Antoinette was born in town on January 20, 1837, and grew up near the north end of Washington Street.

George Frederick Tileston (1828-1862), c. 1862

George Frederick Tileston (1828-1862), c. 1862

George received his commission as major in 1861 and by 1862 was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 11th Massachusetts Infantry. He and Antoinette married on January 30, 1862, and one can surmise that he may have been home on leave at the time. But George was soon to return to action, and on August 29, the 11th Massachusetts was part of Brigadier General Cuvier Grover’s brigade stationed at Groveton, Virginia (part of Second Bull Run). They were there to meet Jackson’s Confederate Corps which was entrenched at the now-famous unfinished railroad grade.

George Tileston and the 11th Massachusetts Infantry led a bayonet charge and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Jackson’s forces, climbing up and over the railroad embankment and managing to break through the Confederate position. Their effort that day would later be cited for bravery, but despite their individual victory, the overall attack was still unsuccessful; Grover’s brigade was surrounded and forced to retreat back, the whole brigade suffering severe casualties. 40% of the 11th Massachusetts were killed, wounded or captured in a mere 20 minutes.[2] Those killed included Antoinette’s husband, Lieutenant Colonel George F. Tileston.

House dress owned by Z. Antoinette Knowles of Duxbury. Cotton,c. 1850. Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, 2003.410.001

At the time of his death, Antoinette and George had been married only seven months, with a very short time together before he left to return to the war. Indeed, their time together was so brief that it appears Antoinette never left town after she married. Antoinette was still at her parents’ house in Duxbury when she received the news that she was a widow at the age of 25. There is a tombstone erected in Mayflower Cemetery in Duxbury with George’s name on it, however, the dead from the 11th Massachusetts were left behind on the battle field when the regiment fell back, and it is unlikely that his body was ever returned to his young widow.[3] Antoinette suffered as did many widows all over the country, facing uncertainty when it came to the location of their husbands’ remains, or the circumstances under which they were laid to rest.

Nine months after their wedding, and two months after George’s death, Antoinette gave birth to her son, George, Jr. (called “Georgie”).  The widowed Antoinette and her son continued to live with her parents, and would live out their lives in Duxbury.  She never married again. Unfortunately, Antoinette would also outlive her son; George, Jr. died of typhoid malaria at the young age of 20, in 1882. Antoinette herself died of pneumonia in Duxbury on February 11, 1899. She and her son Georgie are buried in Duxbury, under the same tombstone in the Mayflower Cemetery that bears the name of George F. Tileston.

Did you Know?

Civil War Widows Lived into the 21st century

The last-known Union widow was Gertrude Janeway, who married John Janeway in 1927, when Gertrude was 18 and John was 81. John joined the Union army in 1864 and was briefly a POW at Andersonville. Gertrude died in Tennessee in 2003.

The person thought to be the last-known Confederate widow, Alberta Martin, was born in 1906 and in 1927 married William Jasper Martin, who was then 81. Martin joined the Confederate army in May 1864. Alberta died at age 97 on May 31, 2004. However, the publicity surrounding Alberta Martin’s death prompted relatives of Maudie Celia Hopkins of Arkansas to reveal that the 89-year-old was in fact the last living Confederate Civil War widow. Hopkins married 86-year-old William Cantrell on February 2, 1934, when she was 19. Hopkins died at age 93 in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas on August 17, 2008. [4]

[1] See blog by Patrick Browne, https://duxburyinthecivilwar.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/second-battle-of-bull-run-duxburys-first-and-most-severe-casualties/ (Accessed 9/24/2012)
[2] Bowen, James L. (1889). Massachusetts in the War, 1861–1865. Springfield, Massachusetts: Clark W. Bryan & Co. (p. 211). Available at http://archive.org/stream/massachusettsin00bowegoog#page/n234/mode/2up (Accessed 9/24/2012)
[3] Bowen, p. 211. “Most of the wounded and all of the killed were left behind when the regiment fell back…”
[4] Read more: Last Civil War Widows — Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0908934.html#ixzz26jo2PObB; see also http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-05-31-war-widow_x.htm; and http://suvcw.org/kids/CWkids.pdf (Accessed September 17, 2012)