In the last two posts, I offered accounts from the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps to describe the action at Rappahannock Station. For this one, I intend to rely on an account from an officer in the 5th Corps. It describes an interesting situation, a death threat gone unfulfilled.
Although historians often remember the Battle of Rappahannock Station as a fight between the 6th Corps and Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division, in fact, Union regiments from other corps supported the assault. As the 6th Corps’ two brigades prepared for their epic attack, the 1st Division, 5th Corps, formed on their left and stretched a line of skirmishers across their front. To the immediate left of Col. Peter Ellmaker’s brigade, on the other side of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, sat one of those 5th Corps regiments, the 118th Pennsylvania. Captain Francis A. Donaldson commanded Company H. The moments before the battle captivated Donaldson. Taking time to look to his right, he beheld the awesome sight of Ellmaker’s brigade as it poised for its assault. On November 9, Donaldson wrote about what he saw:
It was an indescribable spectacle, grand, stirring, impressive, and from my position in the centre of two corps, I gazed upon a pageant such as was never before seen by me, and a sight never to be forgotten by any one who beheld it. Upon our right was Colonel Ellmaker’s brigade, 6th Corps, in mass, and it appeared that the whole division was also heavily massed; certainly they were in several lines deep and close together. The burnished arms and every bit of metal on this splendid mass of men glistening in the nearly setting sunlight; the colors and lines so well dressed, and the faces of men aglow with excitement, the ceaseless riding back and forth of mounted officers giving final orders made the blood tingle in my veins with a sense of admiration at the picture. . . . Yet the glow [of the sun] was on them also, its golden rays sparkling on the mica dust covering their uniforms made them appear as though they were profusely powdered with gold dust. In fact the whole landscape was covered with a golden glory.
Although Donaldson briefly admired the golden grandeur of Union troops drawn for battle, his mind suddenly shifted to different sort of image, the memory of threat delivered by a violent, insubordinate soldier. The troublemaker was Private James Shields, age twenty-five, an Irish-born sailor, described by Donaldson as a “big brawny fellow.” Shields had a bad habit of drinking to excess. He often became drunk on Jamaica Ginger, his favorite liquor, drinking whole bottles of it in just a few minutes. Donaldson remembered that Shields, when sober, was “quiet and inoffensive, and being a handsome soldierly fellow would have made a name for himself.” But in liquor, he was “a veritable devil incarnate.” On October 17, 1863, just three weeks earlier, Shields had asked Donaldson if he could have permission to leave camp. Donaldson replied that he did not trust Shields, who had given him much trouble on account of his intemperance. When Shields walked away muttering that he would just leave camp anyhow, with or without permission, Donaldson rose from his seat and called back to Shields, warning him that if he did so, it would be his last offense, as Donaldson swore he would kill him.
Within an hour, a report arrived at Donaldson’s tent that Shields was roaring drunk, “disgracing the regt. by unseemly language and conduct.” Donaldson ordered Shields arrested and thrown in the guard house, but in the ensuing struggle, the Shields threw off his captors and grabbed a musket from the stack of arms. In haste, Donaldson arrived on the scene, grabbed a musket off the stack, and tried to club Shields with the butt. Donaldson wrote, “He was so very powerful that had he been sober he would have finished me in no time.” When he saw an opportunity, Donaldson swung the musket and clubbed Shields on the head, felling him with a sickening thump. Blood poured out of Shields’s motionless body and the regimental surgeon confirmed that Shields had suffered a skull fracture. For several hours, Donaldson endured the quiet abuse of his men, who accused him of being a black-hearted man-killer.
The next day, when passing the 5th Corps ambulance train, Donaldson noticed that Shields had survived his wound. In fact, Shields appeared to be on the way to a full recovery. “He was perfectly sober and sane,” Donaldson wrote in his diary, “and his head was tied up in bandages.” Donaldson spoke a few words to Shields, not expressing any remorse for what happened—not for hitting him on the noggin, anyway—but instead Donaldson told Shields that he would do his best in future days to quell Shields’s bad habits, his intemperance and insubordination. This conversation did not please Shields, who, according to Donaldson, “made but one reply and that to the point—in the next battle he would remember me, a threat that gave me clear insight into his character.” Donaldson’s expression grew stormy, and he replied that he would keep Shields’s threat in mind should he return to duty. The angry captain sauntered off, not expecting to see Private Shields ever again, but he remarked in his diary, “At all events, come what may, I am glad he is alive.” Donaldson was happy not to have a fellow soldier’s blood on his hands.
As it happened, only twenty days later, Shields returned to duty and both he and Donaldson found themselves in line-of-battle at Rappahannock Station, calmly waiting for the order to advance. As captain, Donaldson occupied the far fight of his company, and Shields being the tallest man in the company, stood next to Donaldson. As the Union artillery thundered and as the stretcher-bearers took out their implements, Donaldson’s mind suddenly drifted away from the golden glow of the sun to the thought of Shields’s threat. In his diary, he remembered how he dealt with it:
Whatever made me think of his threat just then I cannot say, but I did, and I turned and looked at the fellow. He was as calm as a May morning, perfectly cool and rigid, in fact a splendid looking soldier. He appeared not to notice my scrutiny, so I said to him, ‘Shields, do you remember threatening me when I visited you in the hospital?’ I had drawn my pistol at the thought of him, and was deliberating what to do. He said he did. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I think you will have enough to do in a few minutes to protect your own life without attempting mine. I could shoot you down like a dog if I chose to, and be justified in the act, but you are not worth the exertion. Let the enemy waste their ammunition in killing you, for I won’t!’ I then dismissed him from my thoughts as the word came to move forward.
Both Donaldson and Shields survived the fighting at Rappahannock Station, although their regiment was only lightly engaged. In December, Shields requested a transfer to another unit, and he went to the 5th Massachusetts Battery. The next time Donaldson saw Shields, he was being punished by the officers in his new unit, who had lashed him, spread-eagle, to the spare wheel of one of the cannon, a painful, humiliating retribution often used by artillery units to discipline incorrigible soldiers. Apparently, this convinced Shields that he did not have what it took to be a soldier. In January 1864, Shields deserted. Authorities eventually captured him, tried him for desertion, and saddled him with a dishonorable discharge.
It is interesting to consider the thoughts that flitted across a Civil War soldier’s mind when he prepared for battle. In this case, there was something in the beautiful golden sunlight at Rappahannock Station that triggered Donaldson’s mind to remember the death threat that awaited him. I do wonder what, precisely, in the unholy melding of war and beauty made Donaldson think of Shields at that precise moment. In any event, he dealt with Shields’s threat in his own bold way, and by so doing, lived to tell the tale.
|Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, Co. H, 118th Pennsylvania, fretted that one of his soldiers might kill him at Rappahannock Station.|