Saturday, August 31, 2013

“My Kingdom for a Horse!”

Union soldiers loved to play tricks on their officers, particularly the uptight ones. On January 6, 1862, Adjutant Lewis Clark Parmelee of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters was the victim of such a prank. No doubt, Parmelee’s social class played a part in his victimization. He was the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family; he had been educated at Edinburgh University, and he counted himself as a member of the 7th New York State Militia, the “Dandy Seventh.” (In fact, during the emergency call-up of April 1861, he accompanied the 7th N.Y.S.M. to Washington.) When Parmelee joined the 2nd U.S.S.S., he jabbered on about a new horse he had purchased, and as the weeks went by, he grew exceedingly anxious about its delivery; so much so, that the enlisted men tired of hearing about it.

Adjutant Lewis C. Parmelee (pictured) endured a bizarre prank that involved a dying horse.

One day, an opportunity for a joke against Parmelee presented itself. A near-dead white horse wandered into the Sharpshooters’ bivouac. A sergeant remembered, “He was a very docile beast, as a matter of necessity having neither eyes, ears, or a whole limb at his command. His color was very conspicuous, being white, and judging from appearance was about as unhappy as some of our homesick comrades.”

Devilishly, the soldiers of Company D believed that Parmelee needed this horse right away, for it would silence his gab about the expensive horse he had bought. Giggling merrily, several of them dragged the poor beast into Parmelee’s tent, just in time for Parmelee’s evening game of euchre with Captain Francis Peteler. (The whole scene strikes me as copied directly from the film Animal House. If you think the same thing, don’t feel bad.) Parmelee and Peteler strolled to the adjutant’s tent, and just as they got within sight of it, Parmelee began talking about his impending horse, even quoting Shakespeare: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a—.” At that moment, he threw open his tent flap and beheld the blind, deaf, lame pale horse standing despondently inside his tent. Parmelee leaped in anger, “much to the edification of the congregated crowd outside,” so wrote one of the pranksters.

I suspect the pranksters might have had these expressions when they shoved the horse into Parmelee's tent.
This joke must have been funny to the Sharpshooters who perpetrated it, but it was not at all funny to Parmelee (or to the horse, for that matter). The dying horse had to be put down; Parmelee himself ordered a member of the color guard to take an axe to it, killing it mercifully. Then, Parmelee ordered a detail to bury it, telling Lieutenant Silas Barker of Company D to select men for the task. Naturally, Barker selected the fourteen men who had pushed the horse into the tent. One of them wrote in his journal: “So, together with thirteen others,  . . . we were instructed to go outside the camp guard and deposit the carcass of the poor ‘old nag’ in mother earth. The pick which I commanded was a very thin one and the first blow made a division between iron and wood resulting in a half hours loss of time going to camp for another.”

Perhaps, then, the men disliked Parmelee because of his social class (or maybe just his attitude—it’s hard to pinpoint the source of the animosity), but no one ever said that he lacked courage. The Sharpshooters well remembered Parmelee’s heroism, particularly after Antietam, the battle that claimed his life. When the regimental color-bearer fell wounded passing through Miller’s cornfield, Parmelee raised the national flag and led his men forward. At the Hagerstown Pike, he saw a Confederate color-bearer fall dead. Parmelee ran across the pike and lifted the Confederate emblem up, attempting, so it seemed to an observer, to place the splintered staff on the edge of his sword. Then, five bullets struck Parmelee, killing him.

This is the field on Antietam battlefield where Adjutant Parmelee briefly captured the colors of the 1st Louisiana.

Quartermaster William P. Shreve found Parmelee’s corpse the day after the battle, September 18, 1862, burying it on the spot where he fell. Shreve wrote, “Parmalee was an especial favorite of mine. . .  On others I had looked without other emotion than of pity for those left to mourn for them, but now, for the first time, it is brought home to me. One with whom I have been in company for months, with whom I have broken bread day after day, who has been my companion in many a pleasant ride [on that expensive horse, no doubt], with whom my whole acquaintance was of the pleasantest character and whom I looked to associate with as a most agreeable friend in the future is gone.”

Parmelee’s body had a few visitors. A lady from New York arrived, coming on behalf of the woman to whom Parmelee was engaged. Captain Homer Stoughton directed her to the spot of Parmelee’s burial, even showing her bloodstains left in the ground. For whatever reason, the unnamed woman left the body on the field.

A few days later, Quartermaster Shreve rode out to the gravesite, spotting four gentlemen in a carriage bearing spades. One was Parmelee’s father, and recognizing Shreve’s green uniform, he asked him if he knew his son. Shreve dismounted “and had a long conversation with him,” giving all information that he had, turning over his son’s pocket diary and personal letters. With that, Parmelee’s body left Antietam, bound for eventual burial at New Haven. (I once heard that a dispute erupted between Parmelee’s father and his fiancée. The fiancée wanted Parmelee’s body returned to New York City, but his father did not. Fearing that she might steal the corpse under the cover of night, he hid the body in a pickle tub in his basement until she gave up pursuit. I still need evidence, though, to confirm this tale.)

In any event, in this tale, death did not merely ride a pale horse; he also engaged in a little public ridicule with it. Let us hope that, in the end, the pranksters of Company D regretted the act that made a mockery of their fearless adjutant and his first steed.


  1. Tim, if asked for my source, I'll speedily "look it up," but during the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac in Culpeper County during 1863-64 (a topic in which I am acquainted), some soldiers on picket captured a screech owl, put it on a leash, and gave it a private observation spot above a company hut . They hand-fed mice to the little guy and soon named the grateful bird, "Lt. Howl," after a Lt. Howell in their company, in whom they were fond.

    Not a practical joke, but I've always like the story.

    Much enjoy your fine blog..

    Clark B. Hall

    1. Thanks for the comment, Clark. That name--Lt. Howl--is too clever! If you have a free moment, please let me know which regiment owned the owl. Best, TJO