Corporal William Birt
Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry
Precisely how William Birt came to enlist in the Fifth Iowa Cavalry is a bit of a mystery. He cited his residence as Franklin, New Jersey when he enlisted as a Fifth Corporal in Company A. Originally from England, Birt was twenty-seven when he signed up to preserve the Union on August 29, 1861.
Birt was promoted twice during the subsequent year, becoming a Fourth Corporal on February 4, 1862, and Third Corporal of his company on April 16, 1862.
More mysterious than the circumstances of Birt's enlistment are the details of his death. The Official Roster simply records "accidentally drowned in Tennessee River, Fort Henry, Tennessee, July 9, 1862." The recorded facts are that prior to leaping overboard from the railing of the Anglo Saxon, Corporal Birt placed his billfold in his hat and turned to his fellow troopers to say "goodbye, boys." This does not sound like the typical accidental drowning.
On the contrary, in his diary entry for July 9th, Lieutenant Taylor of Company A wrote "Corp. Birt committed suicide by drowning in the Tennessee River." The diary of Eugene Marshall elaborates on the suicide, attributing it to a broken heart, in his words, a failed "amour with some young woman."
It is sad to lose one's life in combat, defending a just cause. It is sadder still to waste away due to disease, perishing in a hospital bed away from the front. To despair so much due to unrequited love that one would be willing to take their own life, is truly tragic. And this, unfortunately, appears to have been the fate of poor Corporal Birt.