Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A 6th Corps Casualty at Marye's Heights: The 6th Corps' Chancellorsville Campaign, Part 1

These next three posts intend to examine the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Today, I offer a quick glimpse at the Battle of Marye’s Heights, May 3, 1863. After that battle, one officer’s corpse returned to Philadelphia. The city turned out to bid him good-bye in its most historic of locations, Independence Hall.

Let’s set the context: This battle,  Marye’s Heights (or Second Fredericksburg, if you prefer), occurred because the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, wrongly believed that the Army of Northern Virginia was in retreat toward Gordonsville. Thinking that he had driven Robert E. Lee from the field, on May 2, Hooker sent orders to Major General John Sedgwick, who commanded the 6thCorps, then 23,000 men strong. Hooker wanted Sedgwick’s men to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and proceed west down the Orange Plank Road. If all went smoothly, at Chancellorsville, the 6th Corps would unite with the rest of the Army of the Potomac and participate in the pursuit of the retreating Confederate host. Sadly, as Sedgwick and his men came to discover, the Confederates were not retreating. Indeed, they planned to defend the terrain west of Fredericksburg.

On a misty morning, May 3, Sedgwick’s bluecoats crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges or on pontoon boats. They entered Fredericksburg and deployed for battle. Despite Hooker’s optimistic orders, Sedgwick’s men anticipated a tough road ahead. They knew that two Confederate brigades still held Marye’s Heights, the impregnable hill west of town. Five months earlier, the Army of the Potomac had sent thirteen brigades in a head-long rush against these heights. None of them had broken through.

(This image from Harper's Weekly depicts one of the pontoon crossings over the Rappahannock. On May 3, the 6th Corps made its way over the river in preparation for the assault on Marye's Heights.)
Thus, it now fell to the 6th Corps soldiers to accomplish what the other Union troops had failed to do. As the mist cleared away, ten regiments formed into attacking three columns, one at William Street, another at Hanover Street, and the last at Frederick Street. At 10 A.M., the trumpets sounded and the three columns rolled forward. In a few short minutes, the columns penetrated the Confederate line, overwhelmed the defenders, and opened the way for corps’ advance along the Orange Plank Road. The short engagement cost the 6th Corps 1,100 men.

One of those casualties was Colonel George C. Spear, whose regiment, the 61st Pennsylvania, led the northern-most assaulting column, the one that emerged from William Street. Spear, a forty-one-year-old Philadelphian who had once been in the lime business, had been in service since April 12, 1861. He had led his regiment through the Peninsula Campaign and had been wounded at Fair Oaks. Here, in Fredericksburg, his regiment had a complex assignment. It was supposed to charge down William Street in column-of-fours, left in front. Then, when it reached a tannery on the opposite side of a millrace, it was supposed to move by files left, bringing its regimental front to bear on the Confederate line. (The regiment behind it, the 43rd New York, was supposed to move by files right, right in front, and thus join in the opening volley by extending the 61st’s line to the right.)

(Col. George C. Spear commanded the 61st Pennsylvania. Probably, he was the first officer to fall in the morning battle for Marye's Heights.)

The attack did not go as planned. The 61st Pennsylvania’s major missed the crucial turn and failed to halt his portion of the regiment, the left wing, which led the column. Sensing the mistake, Spear tried to turn the center of his regiment to the left, shouting at his men as they passed the tannery. The Mississippians who defended the stonewall at Marye’s Heights opened fire first. One bullet ripped through Spear’s body, killing him instantly. As the regimental historian remembered, “Col. Spear was a brave and efficient officer, whose death was sincerely mourned. He had commanded the regiment nearly a year, showing at all times the best soldierly qualities, joined to a considerate kindness and manly personality.”

(This map depicts the locations of the three assaulting columns as they emerged from the western side of Fredericksburg. The red line denotes the position of the Confederate defense. You can see the northern-most assaulting column at the left side. Spear's 61st Pennsylvania led that attack.)
The interesting thing about Spear’s death was his funeral. His body lay in state at Independence Hall. A reporter for the Philadelphia Press described the sight of the casket in the newspaper’s May 13, 1863, issue:

Yesterday morning the body of the late Colonel George C. Spear of the 61st Regiment P.V., was laid in state in Independence Hall. The bier upon which the coffin rests is in the center of the room. The coffin was covered with a large American flag, and a beautiful wreath of laurel was upon the top. The face of deceased was not exposed to view, but upon the coffin was a large photograph of the Colonel, dressed in full uniform. Immediately in rear of the bier were the torn flags of the 61st Regiment, and which have been carried through the various battles in which that brave corps have participated. One of the flags has been completely riddled with bullets. The guard of honor is composed of the Continental Guards, a company which Colonel Spear commanded previous to the breaking out of the war. Quite a large number of persons visited the hall yesterday morning, and the flag upon the building was displayed at half-mast in honor of the deceased. The funeral will take place this afternoon, at four o’clock, from the late residence of the Colonel , No. 1818 Hamilton Street.

An interesting funeral, no? Spear could not have guessed that his casket would occupy so much attention in his home town. Nor could he have known what his funeral proceedings would look like. That is the great conundrum of human existence, I guess. None of us can attend our own funeral—not in spirit anyway—so we can never know how grand (or humble) it might be. Spear never knew that his body would lie in one of the most revered structures of American history. He never knew that hundreds of Philadelphia mourners would come to pay their respects at his flag-draped casket. Indeed, he never knew that the 6th Corps’s attack—his last mission—had been successful.

Today, thousands of visitors pass through Independence Hall on a daily basis. Little do they realize that they are passing through a piece of history relating to the 6th Corps’ attack against Marye’s Heights.

Presently, Spear’s remains are at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, Section 36, Lot 19.

(This painting by Ferdinand Richardt depicts Independence Hall as it appeared during the period of the Civil War. The date of the work is uncertain. He painted it sometime between 1858 and 1863. Thus, it may look much like it did when Spear's body rested inside.)

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