Saturday, June 28, 2014

A 6th Corps Casualty at Banks's Ford: The 6th Corps' Chancellorsville Campaign, Part 3


The past few posts have given us glimpses at the 6th Corps’ struggles during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Not until recently did I contemplate the plight of that corps’ prisoners of war. The battle ended on May 5, but for more than 1,400 6th Corps lads, their privations were just beginning.

Here’s how it happened:

On May 4, 1863, John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps held fast at Banks’s Ford. The previous day’s fighting had cost it about 4,600 men, such that only 18,000 soldiers were capable of continuing the fight. Sedgwick needed every last man, because the Army of Northern Virginia had him surrounded. The corps had taken up a position in the shape of a U, with its flanks anchored against the south bank of the Rappahannock River. Only one escape route remained open, the River Road, which led to Banks’s Ford and to another crossing, Scott’s Ford. By midday, Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had assembled 23,000 infantry and artillery, encircling the 6th Corps on its three sides: south, west, and east.

(This map by Hal Jeperson shows the position of 6th Corps near Banks's Ford.)
 
Throughout the afternoon of May 4, three Confederate divisions pummeled the Union line, bending it, but never quite breaking it. After dark, Sedgwick ordered his beleaguered men to pull back to the ford, to cross the river on pontoon bridges, and then regroup with the main body of the Army of the Potomac. By 4 A.M., May 5, the majority of the corps had escaped. However, it was not a clean break. The 6th Corps counted 1,454 men missing, most of them taken prisoner as the Corps retired to the Rappahannock. The rebels gobbled up the better part of two regiments—the 31st and 43rd New York; the staff officers had neglected to let the regimental officers know that it was time to retire.

Sergeant Henry I. Wilson of Company C, 43rd New York, was among those captured. He gets to tell this tale.

The night of their capture, the Confederates marched the 210 New York prisoners (seventy-seven from the 31st New York, and 133 from the 43rd New York) to the rear. The prisoners marched about two miles, reaching Salem Church, the scene of the battle of May 3. Wilson described the horrible tableau: “the sight that met my gaze was truly heart-sickening. Our dead were all of them nearly stripped, and the pockets of each turned inside out and robbed of all they contained.” Additionally, their captors showed off their trophies, items they had looted from the dead. Many rebels had collected greenbacks, knives, watches, and pocketbooks, making “brags that they got their money from our dead.”

On the afternoon of May 5, the captive 6th Corps soldiers fell into line and marched another eighteen miles “through one of the most terrible rain storms I ever witnessed,” lamented Sergeant Wilson. He claimed, “It literally poured in torrents, lasting the balance of the afternoon and a portion of the next day.” When crossing the rain-swollen Massaponax Creek, the blue-coated prisoners struggled to stay upright. Wilson remembered laughing when a clumsy lieutenant got dunked three times by the rushing water, but then he ceased his mirth when the rapids nearly carried the unfortunate officer downstream. Wilson cursed the imbecility (which he pleased to call cruelty) of the Confederate general in charge of the march, General Lafayette McLaws, pointing out that by going down a different road, the entire column could have crossed over a bridge. But instead, McLaws marched the prisoners through the deepest part of the stream, allowing his soldiers to mock their prisoners mercilessly.

Continuing his account, Wilson wrote:

But what made matters worse, before we started, Gen. McLaws, the brute, took our woolen and rubber blankets, also our canteens and pieces of tent from us, consequently that night we had to lie on the cold, damp ground, drenched to the skin. They would not even allow us fires to dry ourselves with. Every man was shaking as if with the ague. Very few of us slept any that night I can assure you. The next morning, at daylight, we were again in motion and went to Guinea’s Station, distance twelve miles, where we remained about three days. As yet we had not received anything from the Rebels in the shape of eatables, not until the next day, and then the miserable pittance of five crackers, one cup of flour, a small piece of salt junk, and a something that looked like salt; and even that had to last us two days longer. On the morning of the fourth day we again moved on to Richmond, (telling the folks on the way that we were the advance of Fighting Joe’s [Hooker’s] Grand Army)[.]  . . . After a great deal of grumbling by our men for something to eat, we at length arrived at Hanover Junction, and our eyes were gladdened with the sight of rations once more, which were soon after dealt to us, giving us a small piece of bacon and seven crackers, which had to last us four days; it was intended for two days, but we did not get anything more for four days, with the exception of what we managed to buy on the sly at fabulous prices.

On May 8, the prisoners marched another ten miles, reaching Bowling Green, a small village near the Mattaponi River. Here, as Wilson continued, the women of the village “paraded themselves in strong force,” making crude remarks at the hungry, water-logged prisoners. One cutting remark shocked the twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker. As Wilson passed through the town, a young lady with “a very pretty face” held up her hand. She had a ring made of human bone. It had been cut from the skeleton of a dead Union soldier. Eyeing Wilson, she boasted she would soon get a chance to get herself another Yankee bone ring, just as soon as one of them died from exhaustion.  

On May 10, the prisoners reached Richmond, but they found they could not purchase anything from the local shops. For several days, the stores closed their doors; the shopkeepers wanted to honor the memory of the late Stonewall Jackson. After two days’ respite at Belle Isle, the prisoners marched again. This time, they covered thirty-four miles in twenty-four hours. (The prisoners marched nineteen miles from 2 P.M. to 9 P.M., then slept, only to be awakened at daybreak and marched an addition fifteen miles, reaching City Point at 2 P.M.). The captain who in charge of the prisoners—described by Wilson as a “black-hearted, drunken villain”—killed two prisoners with his saber and left three more prisoners to die in the road. He told Wilson, “that he had orders to leave none alive behind.”

Thus, on May 16, twelve days after his capture, Wilson found himself paroled and heading back to Union lines. To be precise, he was heading to the parole camp at Annapolis, Maryland, on board a prisoner exchange ship, State of Maine. Writing to a friend, he exuberantly claimed that he had, “got out of the hands of the Philistines.”

Wilson expressed throbbing bitterness at his twelve-day incarceration. He complained, “the rascally Rebs tried to kill us off, by marching, rough usage, and starvation[.]  . . . I pity the poor secesh that falls into the hands of some of our boys, as they have sworn to have satisfaction, and get even with them.”

Wilson survived the war, but I wonder if he ever achieved that satisfaction he so craved in May 1863.

(This painting by Civil War veteran Julian Scott depicts the 6th Corps' Vermont Brigade fighting along Banks's Ford on the evening of May 4, 1863.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A 6th Corps Casualty at Salem Church: The 6th Corps' Chancellorsville Campaign, Part 2


In the previous post, I offered a glimpse of the 6th Corps’ dramatic breakthrough at Marye’s Heights. In this post, I am going to offer a similar glimpse at the second phase of the 6th Corps’ action at Chancellorsville (or Second Fredericksburg, if you prefer the term), the engagement at Salem Church. For this, I decided to let a soldier from the 121st New York tell this tale.

First, let’s establish the context.

Soon after the 6th Corps captured Marye’s Heights, General Sedgwick ordered his men to pursue the retreating Confederates down the Orange Plank Road. According to the information he had received from General Hooker, Sedgwick believed that most of the Confederate army was in retreat toward Gordonsville. He did not yet realize that the Army of the Potomac had been beaten that morning, and that a stiff Confederate defense awaited him atop Salem Heights, a gently-sloping, wooded ridge about three miles west of Fredericksburg.

General William T. H. Brooks’s 1st Division led the advance down the Orange Plank Road, as it was the only division that had not engaged at Marye’s Heights earlier that morning. At 4 P.M., the division reached the base of Salem Heights. The bluecoats could see a distinctive brick church atop the acclivity. To their frustration, they also beheld a Confederate line-of-battle. Sedgwick had expected only limited resistance—perhaps a brigade—but the Army of Northern Virginia had, in fact, assembled five brigades to defend the area.

(Here, you can see a photograph of Brooks's division taken by Andrew J. Russell on the morning of May 3. Brooks's men are near the pontoon crossing; the Rappahannock River is in the background near the houses on the horizon. In a few hours, some of the soldiers in this photograph found themselves killed or wounded at Salem Heights.)
 
Eleven of Brooks’s regiments made a valiant attempt to drive the rebels from their defensive position, but steady, accurate rifle fire cut them down. In about an hour, the 6th Corps counted another 4,611 losses.

 
(This sketch depicts the Battle of Salem Church from the perspective of the 6th Corps Artillery. The heights can be seen at distance. The smoke arising at the middle-left of the sketch is where the battle is raging.)
 
The long list of wounded included Private Fernando Wendell Wright of Company A, 121st New York, whose regiment reached the south side of the church grounds.

At the height of the action, Wright was struck in the arm and throat. Not hearing the order to retreat, Wright looked back, noticing that too few of his comrades held the position. When he looked to see where his comrades had gone, a musket ball struck him in the back of the neck. The ball exited just in front of Wright’s left ear. Wright wrote:

After I fell, as the force of the ball knocked me down, I suddenly recovered and found I was in a very dangerous place, as the balls and pieces of shell were falling all around me. I got up on my knees and, upon looking in front of me, I saw Lt. [Frederick E.] Ford. I looked at him a few moments, but from some cause could not speak; so I crawled on a little further and then got upon my feet. When looking around I saw several of our boys lying dead and dying upon the ground from where our Regiment had retreated.—I was going up to speak with some of them when a rebel came up and said I had better go with him, I told him, if he would give me some water and lead me I would go, for I had bled so much I was quite faint and the blood dried upon my face and I could scarcely see, so he unclasped my cartridge belt for me and relieved me of my knapsack.

Wright stayed at a Confederate field hospital for several days. On May 6, Confederate medical personnel moved him to Salem Church, the scene of the battle three days earlier. On May 8, after he recovered sufficient strength to move, Wright went onto the field to survey the carnage. As he wrote, “I went out to look after the dead as they had not yet been buried.” He recognized five men from his own company, as well as the body of Lieutenant Frederick Ford, the officer he had seen on the battlefield. Finally, he found the body of Captain Nelson O. Wendell, his uncle. “There were many others,” Wright explained, “but I did not know their names.” Wright set about the grim task of writing friends back in Herkimer and Montgomery Counties, letting them know where their loved ones had fallen, but it was a hard task. Not only was it a sad subject, but Wright’s wound had left his left arm paralyzed.

On May 21, the Confederates commenced burying the Union dead and paroling the wounded prisoners. With that, Wright began his long journey back to Union lines and his even longer journey to recovery. Wright offered his captors some praise for his treatment. He wrote, “Our treatment while over in the rebel lines was of the best—that is they did all they could for us, after we were in the Hospital.”

Wright returned to New York and regained his old profession, writing for his local newspaper, the Mohawk Valley Register. In 1866, he married a women named Ellen Boyer and raised two sons. He died in 1904.

The 6th Corps endured the worst of its punishment at Salem Church. Private Wright got to see and experience the battle’s carnage more than most. Not only was he wounded, but for more than a week, he was hospitalized at Salem Church, the scene of the fray. No doubt, he would have retreated had he heard the order, but he delayed. Just then, an unlucky musket ball struck him down. As a consequence, he remained on the battlefield longer than he wanted. Surely, he never forgot Salem Church.

(This is a modern image of Salem Church. During the battle, the 6th Corps surged across the foreground. In fact, F. W. Wright's regiment charged across the ground where I took this picture. After the battle, this scene was filled with dead and wounded.)


(This is an unidentified 6th Corps soldier. He is wearing the Greek Cross badge, the emblem of the corps.)

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.)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"How Sleep the Brave?"


It’s June 19, 2014. That means it is the 150th Anniversary of the death of First Sergeant Ambrose Henry Hayward, an Army of the Potomac veteran (one of many) who served with the Army of the Cumberland’s 20th Corps. Hayward’s story is important to me; he was the subject of my first book, Last to Leave the Field. I encountered his story some fourteen years ago. I was an undergraduate then, attending Gettysburg College. Musselman Library’s Special Collections Archive contained Hayward’s letters. Finding the collection worthy of publication, I set to the task of editing and transcribing the letters. A long, long time later, this project became a book. Naturally, my attachment to Hayward prevents me from letting the anniversary of his death pass by unnoticed.

Hayward received his death wound on June 15, 1864. At the Battle of Pine Knob, a Confederate musket ball struck him in the left thigh. The ball penetrated his flesh, glanced off his tailbone, and bounced upward into his stomach. His comrades removed him from the field and carried him to an ambulance that took him to Acworth. At that place, the Union army operated a railroad. The cars carried him and all the other wounded men to the general hospital at Chattanooga.

This image depicts Chattanooga in 1864. If you look to the far left, at middle distance, you will see the hospital structures. The Union army called it “General Hospital Number 1.”

 
Here is a close-up of the hospital. As you can see, it consisted of twelve poorly ventilated wooden buildings. I do not know which building was Hayward’s.

 
Here is another close-up of the Union hospital, this one taken from a slightly different angle. If you look closely, you can see Lookout Mountain looming in the background.

 
A union nurse, Harriet A. Dada, left a fascinating account of life at this hospital. She wrote, “Car-loads of the wounded were daily being brought in from the front[.] . . . [O]nly the most severely wounded were left there—such as were brought on stretchers. . . . Never was I in a hospital where there was so much suffering as at Chattanooga. . . . It would be impossible for me to write of all the heartrending scenes that were witnessed during this month of June[.] . . . It seemed as if the ‘Angel of Death’ was constantly hovering over the hospital.” During the month of June 1864, 261 patients died. This is Dada’s image below:
 

News of Hayward’s death sent his friends and family into throes of mourning. On June 25, Private William Roberts, a soldier in Hayward’s company (Co. D, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry), wrote a letter, lamenting the loss of his friend:

I regret to state that in the fight for the possession of Pine Bluff on the 15th of the month Harry Hayward was badly wounded in the leg. The ball could not be found, though it was ascertained that it had passed upward. I learned today to my unspeakable sorrow that the poor boy is dead. He died in Genl. Hospital at Chattanooga. The ball it was discovered had penetrated his stomach & mortification ensued. He was a noble, brave, & excellent young man & enlisted with as pure & patriotic a heart as any volunteer who ever swore to defend his Country’s flag. He has been in every battle with the Regiment & never shirked duty once. At the time of his death, he was Orderly Sergt of the Company, & would soon have been promoted to a Lieutenancy. He was, I have every reason to believe, a good & sincere Christian, & I know from conversations with him that he was a firm believer in the New Church Doctrine. His parents are members of the West Bridgewater Society. I hope some fitting obituary may be published in the Messenger regarding him.

‘How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country’s wishes blest.’

 

This last line comes from a short poem—“How Sleep the Brave” (1748)—by William Collins. When first written, this poem reminded readers (of the British Empire) that they owed a great debt to their soldiers’ courage.  Roberts believed that such sentiment easily fit the circumstances of the Union’s war against the rebellion.

So, let me pose this poem as a question: “How sleep the brave”? According to a Union soldier, they slept well. The Union troops in Chattanooga worked mightily to make the National Cemetery into a beautiful place, one worthy of honoring the sacrifice. In this case, a detachment from the 13th Ohio laid Hayward’s remains to rest. One member of that detachment described the earnest work that went on:

The National Soldiers’ Cemetery here is eighty to one hundred acres of beautiful rolling land situated high and commanding a beautiful view of Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, Chattanooga Valley, and all the magnificent scenery therewith. Chaplain Van Horne, of the 13th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, has the whole charge of laying out and beautifying this great and necessary work. He is indefatigable in pushing forward the work necessary for its completion, and when it is finished, the friends of the poor fallen soldiers may rest assured that their bodies lie in one of the most beautiful and magnificent spots to be seen in our country. Around the cemetery is being built a substantial stone wall, five feet high; also a hedge on the outside and inside. Shade trees will also ornament the outside, while the same attention will manifest on the inside that prevails in our best cemeteries in the North. The cemetery is beautifully laid out in sections, with fine, broad walks. In the centre a magnificent monument is to be erected, and in the centre of each section, one of smaller dimensions. At the entrance there will be a heavy, massive, Gothic structure, which will compare favorably with anything of the kind in the whole country.

There is a large force of detached men at work at the present time in pushing forward its early completion, and it is earnestly hoped that during the present season we can be able to show the people of the North a beautiful cemetery. Every pain and especial care is taken in the burial of the poor fallen soldier at this place. His grave is marked with his name, regiment, company, where killed, or when and where wounded or sickened, and died. And it should be a consolation to the relatives of the dead here to know that no trouble will be occasioned in finding the grave of the father, brother, son, or husband of those who have fallen and are buried on this spot. Chaplain Van Horne is preparing a book, giving a full account of this great work, and in this book the name of every soldier who is buried here. He will be ready to issue this book to the people at an early day. Among the four thousand now buried here are soldiers from every Northern state. It is truly a national cemetery.

Hayward’s remains went beneath the sod and underneath a marker, number 231. By mid-July, the cemetery contained 4,000 bodies. By the end of the war, that number tripled to 12,800. Here is a present-day image of the cemetery:

 
Hayward did not expect to die, but he was not na├»ve about his chances. He knew that the upcoming campaign would be deadly. In January, a few weeks after he re-enlisted, he wrote his father: “They tell me I am a Vetran for I have sworn to stand by the Old Flag for 3 years more which means untill the end of the War. I think I can hear you say ‘well done.’ if so, then I am satisfied.  I have not been hasty in takeing upon myself renewed trials and privations, but have thought long and delibritely upon it untill I am convinced that, come what will, I never will be sorry for it.” This image depicts him about one month after he wrote the above lines:

 
It comforts me that Hayward and the other brave bluecoats at Chattanooga continue to sleep well.
 
 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Battle of Pine Knob


As some of you know, I have a soft spot for the 20th Corps, Army of the Cumberland, which contained regiments formerly belonging to the Army of the Potomac. Today, June 15, is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Pine Knob, Georgia, one of the 20th Corps’ bloodier engagements. At 2:15 P.M., in an attempt to break the Confederate hold on Pine Mountain, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s 2nd Division launched a frontal assault over rough wooded ground. The Confederates blunted the 20th Corps’ offensive, but the indefatigable bluecoats dug in. Rather than retreat, they improvised entrenchments and continued shooting. Geary explained, “All of my brigades were handled very handsomely by their commanders, preserving their formation in two lines of battle while advancing, and fighting desperately over very rough and timbered ridges.” The next day, the Confederates quietly abandoned the position, retiring three miles closer to Atlanta. The battle cost Geary’s Division 519 men and it gained the Army of the Cumberland another three miles of territory. It was just one of the many engagements that determined the fate of Georgia’s Gate City.
Primary accounts describing the Battle of Pine Knob are hard to find, but I have inserted one here. It was written by John Hampton SeCheverell, a drummer boy attached to the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry:

This position of the enemy was found to be strongly fortified. Twenty embrazures, from which as many cannon bristled, covered all the approaches to it. General Hooker ordered General Geary to send two regiments in a sortie against the rebel position, and the Twenty-ninth Ohio and Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania regiments, the latter on our left, were at once forwarded to the assault. General Hooker, mounted on his famous gray charger, advanced with us, immediately in rear of our line. The general’s presence greatly encouraged the men in this desperate undertaking.
On the hill were the twenty cannon, which we knew would soon belch forth destruction to our ranks. The two regiments silently but rapidly cross a ravine where they encounter two rebel regiments. These proved to be the First and Twenty-ninth Georgia. We opened fire briskly and charging upon them soon drove them in disorder to the rear.
We pursued them so hotly that our standard-bearer was at one time within a few paces of the rebel Twenty-ninth Georgia colors, which we were making desperate efforts to capture. The rebel color-bearer was shot, but their flag was grasped again by another rebel who escaped with it into their fortification. But the regiment to which he belonged was nearly annihilated before it succeeded in regaining its main line. Our regiment had rushed upon them forcing them back step by step until they were under cover, and we had succeeded in killing, wounding, and taking prisoners all except the little handful who escaped with the flag. At the moment of their escape we made a dash to carry their fortifications, but were checked by abattis and a deep trench hidden by brush. At this point their artillery opened with murderous discharges of grape and canister, which produced terrible destruction in our ranks. Still the line stands firm. Another instant and our men are laying flat upon the ground and the deadly missles go hissing harmlessly through the air over our heads. We now open a fire upon their cannoniers, so deadly in its character that the guns are soon silenced.
Night was fast coming on when our line was ordered to fall back to a more secure position. The men now engage in the erection of earthworks within a few rods of the rebel fort on the knob, which placed the Twenty-ninth Ohio in the extreme front, our flanking regiments assuming a circular position on our right and left rear. We were under fire all night, the rebel infantry and artillery keeping up an almost continuous rattle in their endeavors to drive our men from their labors on the fortifications. Despite this, however, we held our position, though suffering a constant loss in our ranks.
Just at daybreak on the 16th instant the Sixty-sixth Ohio, of our brigade from the reserve, relieved us; we, however, left them well protected by the strong earthworks constructed during the night.
The Twenty-ninth Ohio regiment went into this action with two hundred members, of whom thirty-nine were killed and wounded. Among the killed was First Sergeant Joel E. Tanner, one of our bravest men. Soon after his death his commission reached us promoting him to a captaincy for bravery in action. God help that little wife of his in her far away northern home to bear his death bravely as the wife of a soldier should, even though all her hopes and bright anticipations seem shattered by the blow. Generals Joe Hooker and Geary announced in warm terms their admiration of the “gallant manner in which the Twenty-ninth Ohio and Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania regiments conducted themselves in the assault on Pine Knob.” The former remarked that taking into consideration the deadly fire we were exposed to, we had accomplished that which he never saw so small a force attempt before. As he was present in the assault his opinion is of value.

On June 16, Geary’s soldiers buried their dead and moved on. I don’t imagine they ever forgot the hellish gunfire of Pine Knob.

(There are few artistic renditions of the Battle of Pine Knob. This one shows Geary's men [foreground] making their charge.)
 
(Here is the tactical arrangement of the Battle of Pine Knob. Map by John Heiser, property of the author.)
 
(Some of the Union earthworks from the battle still exist--those that were dug hastily while the bluecoats were under fire. Here I am at a line of entrenchments once held by the 60th New York.)
 
 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

“Kiss My —!”


In the summer of 1863, Surgeon Carl Uterhard wrote home to his mother. In his letter, he described problems that arose from alcohol. In a shockingly frank manner, Uterhard admitted, “They [Americans] have a special way of celebrating days of significance, they drink liquor. From the generals down to the common soldiers, they all drink liquor to celebrate happy events or to suppress miserable memories. They don’t drink it out of glasses, but from the bottle, and get alarmingly intoxicated as a result.”

Uterhard’s frustration with his regiment’s alcoholism derived from the fact that drunkenness almost ruined the career of one of his friends, twenty-seven-year-old Second Lieutenant Frederick Brunner (Company E, 119th New York).  Although he was an officer, Brunner emerged from the enlisted ranks. (One year earlier, he had mustered in as corporal.) His commission arrived on June 29, 1863, just four days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, where the regiment lost 140 officers and men. Brunner fought gallantly at Gettysburg, but his officer’s commission did not last more than two months. Uterhard explained why:

Every day, dozens of officers are dishonorably discharged without pay because they drink themselves into oblivion. A few days ago our regiment lost an officer this way, a Bavarian named Brunner, who was otherwise a good and decent officer, but then he got drunk, and after he had insulted our brigadier general Chrysanowsky [Wladimir Krzyzanowski] he went to our division general Carl Schurz and said the classic words: Kiss my —. Brunner named me witness at his court-martial; he wanted me to testify that he often suffers from temporary insanity. He hoped this excuse would get him out of it. I naturally told the court that I couldn’t swear to it, but it was nevertheless possible.

On August 25, 1863, a court-martial found Brunner guilty of insulting a senior officer, and reduced him to the rank of private.  Uterhard disliked the decision. Brunner was a strong-hearted officer who had risen from the enlisted ranks, and now he had to rejoin those ranks in disgrace. Uterhard did not blame the officers for attempting to enforce  such strict decorum. Instead, he blamed America’s drinking culture. He wrote, “Many of the officers have to leave the army because they ruin their health by drinking liquor. . . . In the other regiments the situation is even worse than in ours, because the colonels usually set a bad example. . . . America is full of contradictions; it is undoubtedly the country where people drink the most, yet it also has the largest associations of people intent upon never letting a drop touch their lips.” According to Uterhard, many young German officers drank to excess because they could not adapt to America’s binging style of consumption. Lieutenant Brunner’s example fit that description.

Brunner did not remain in the enlisted ranks for long. On July 1, 1864, as his regiment battled its way to Atlanta along with the Army of the Cumberland, Brunner received a promotion to first lieutenant of Company I. (I have no idea what he did to win back the good graces of his superiors, but if anyone out there in internet-land knows it, please share.) Brunner held onto his rank permanently. He mustered out with his regiment on June 7, 1865. Truly, he was lucky to get a second chance.

I’m not sure what happened to Brunner in his later years, but in 1914, his name turned up on the roster of inmates living at the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Bath, New York. Brunner would have been seventy-eight-years-old.

I wonder if, in Brunner’s old age, he ever told the nurses at Bath to kiss his ass. Did he move on from the hot-headedness of his youth, or did he retain his foul mouth? I do wonder.
 
(Surgeon Carl Uterhard, 119th NYV,  had to testify on behalf of Lieutenant Brunner, a young officer who used intemperate language in front of a superior.)

(Most Civil War buffs recognize the stern visage of General Carl Schurz. Try to imagine his facial expression contorted in mortification; a junior officer had told him to kiss a certain part of his anatomy.)

(Here you can see N.Y. State's Soldiers and Sailors Home in Bath. This is where Brunner ended up.)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

“Keep Up Good Courage”


Any retelling of Gettysburg’s bloody wheat-field is incomplete without the tale of Captain Henry Van Aernam Fuller, the commander of Company F, 64th New York Volunteers. At approximately 6:30 P.M., Confederate infantry from Lafayette McLaws’s division slammed into the Union position near the Rose Woods, driving out Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell’s division. Outnumbered and short on ammunition, Caldwell’s 4th Brigade ran pell-mell into the wheat-field. One of the 4th Brigade’s five regiments—the 64th New York—lost ninety-eight of its 204 officers and men.

As the 64th New York made its retreat, a bullet struck Captain Fuller in the leg. One of his friends, Private George Whipple, dropped his gun and carried him to the rear. Bracing each other, Fuller and Whipple made their way off a craggy ledge. As they descended into Rose Woods, another ball struck Fuller in the back. Fuller could no longer stand, so Whipple laid him down near Rose Run, shielding him behind a rock. Not knowing what else to do, Whipple asked if he should stay or flee. Fuller asked his friend to remain by his side. Whipple clenched his captain’s hand. As Fuller lay there, his life’s blood ebbing, he looked his friend in the eye and said, “George, keep up good courage.”

In a minute, Confederate soldiers surrounded the two New Yorkers. With little ado, they pulled Whipple away at the point of their bayonets, taking him to the rear as a prisoner of war. Fuller died a few minutes later. Whipple, though, was not there to see it.

Years later, Whipple remembered the moment vividly. He wrote, “It was hard to leave my best friend and captain.” He continued, “[It was] the saddest moment that I have ever seen since I have been a soldier. It seemed as if I were leaving the last friend that I had, and to me he had always been.”

Today, a small monument marks the place where Fuller expired.

When I used to lead tours at Gettysburg National Military Park, I told visitors this story. (If I had an adventurous group, I led them to the Fuller marker so they could see the site for themselves.) I did not tell the story because I thought it was a uniquely Civil War tale. Quite the opposite, I thought that many of us could relate to it. I told it to emphasize the gut-wrenchingly human moment involved in Whipple’s leaving and the meaning of Fuller’s last directive: to “keep up good courage.”

Let me explain.

Whipple experienced a timeless moment, one that always tests the human character. We see our friend lying prostrate; we are wrenched away, unable to do anything further. We wish we could do more, but it is beyond our power. He is scared but he does not show it. He might reveal his true feelings to us as he stands upon the precipice of death, but instead, he tells us to keep up good courage. It is imperative that we listen to that command. It is not for our sake, but for his. He must see bravery in our eyes so that he can have it in his.

These are life’s dark moments. They will come to us eventually. When they do, we must follow Fuller’s instruction. We must keep up good courage.
 
(Capt. Henry V. Fuller was known by Gen. W. S. Hancock as "the fighting captain.")
 
(Here is Fuller marker along Rose Run. Although not often visited, on the autumn day pictured here, my wife and I decided to pay our respects.)