Sunday, January 10, 2016

In Memory of Colonel Frisby’s Boots


In the last post, I profiled the death of Gorton Thomas, the commanding officer of a two-year regiment from New York, who was killed at Second Bull Run. In this post, I’m going to profile another commander from a two-year New York regiment, Colonel Edward Frisby. Unlike Thomas’s death—which cast a dark cloud over Keeseville, New York—Frisby’s death brought out tremendous positivity. Citizens of Albany and the survivors of the battered 30th New York may have grieved for him, but the death of a commander emboldened soldiers to new heights of courage. In fact, they recaptured Frisby’s boots, which became a source of pride.


What’s this about his boots? Read on and I’ll get to them. First thing’s first. Who was Colonel Frisby?


Edward Frisby was born on August 3, 1809, in Trenton, New York, a village north of Utica. At age seventeen, three years after his father died, Frisby moved to Albany and became an apprentice hatter, and after learning that trade, he began his own business, making and selling hats. At age twenty-four, he married, and eventually raised seven children (including one child adopted from his sister-in-law).


Undoubtedly, the most pronounced aspect of Frisby’s life was his attachment to the New York State Militia. For whatever reason, the thrill of militia service appealed to him. At age eighteen, he joined an Albany-based militia company and was elected corporal. He stayed in the militia for thirty-three years (!!), moving from regiment to regiment, eventually rising to the rank of colonel, commanding the 25th N.Y.S.M. (At one point, he even commanded the 11th Brigade.) In the autumn of 1860, at age fifty-one, after more than three decades of service, he finally resigned his commission.

 
Of course, when the Civil War broke out one year later, Frisby worried he had resigned too hastily. In April, when Abraham Lincoln called up New York’s militia regiments for ninety days, Frisby could not go with them; the colonelcy of  his former regiment had been given to another man. Nevertheless, Frisby offered his services to Governor Edwin Morgan, telling him that he was ready to take the field again. If Morgan should raise any new regiments, Frisby wanted to command one of them. When Morgan called up thirty-eight two-year regiments that summer, he offered Frisby a position. On June 20, 1861, Frisby accepted the colonelcy of the 30th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment raised in Lansingburgh, Troy, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Poughkeepsie, Hoosick Falls, Eagle Bridge, and Kinderhook.

 
As a regimental commander, Frisby loved to drill, much to the displeasure of his men. One of his soldiers, Private John G. Morrison of Company A, hated him for it. After Frisby drilled the men in a blinding rainstorm, Morrison noted in his diary, “The old colonel has sunk below zero in my estimation. I can bear as much as any man, but I don’t like to be bored to death with nonsensical drill. It only makes the men sullen and discontented.” In September 1861, Major General George McClellan issued an order, instructing his regimental commanders to do nothing on Sundays, except those tasks absolutely necessary to keep the army functional. Calling battalion drill a “necessity,” Colonel Frisby continued to train his regiment in defiance of the spirit of McClellan’s order. On the 15th, the corps commander, Major General Irvin McDowell, discovered this contraception and put a stop to it. Private Morrison wrote: “The old colonel was disappointed awfully. I could see it on his face. . . . Frisby does love to drill.”

 
If the soldiers hated Frisby’s mind-numbing drill, Frisby didn’t seem to notice. He loved his men and he hated to be away from them. In July 1862, while the 30th New York was encamped at Falmouth, Virginia, Frisby became deathly ill with fever. Knowing that he might perish, he wrote to his wife, Mary, asking her to come see him. She went to the front, and found her husband lying low in an army hospital. She nursed him at his bedside, hoping to recover his strength. While he was lying on his cot, General McDowell’s corps (to which the 30th New York belonged) received orders to join Major General John Pope’s army, which was embarking on a campaign in northern Virginia, and the men had to leave Colonel Frisby behind. According to a biographer, “never did a father feel worse at parting with his children than did Col. Frisby at parting with his officers and men. He would lie upon his bed, the tears streaming down his cheeks, and exclaim: ‘Oh, my poor boys! My poor boys!’”

 
Convinced by his wife that he must return to Albany, Frisby acquired a leave of absence. He and his wife boarded a boat and they traveled up the Potomac River, but upon reaching Washington, Frisby had second thoughts. Claiming that he felt better, he bid his wife goodbye and turned course for Culpeper, where General Pope had concentrated his army. Within two weeks, Frisby was back in command of the 30th New York and led it into the Battle at Bull Run.


The 30th New York fought on all three days of the battle, but it suffered its heaviest losses on the third day, August 30. A member of the regiment remembered, “The morning of the 30th broke clear and beautiful as if smiling on the harvest of death.” Operating under orders from Pope, the division commander, Brigadier General John Hatch, stacked up his fifteen regiments into a column. Hatch’s division (and another division under Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield) had orders to puncture the center of the Confederate line near an unfinished railroad cut. It took all morning to get the men in position, it being nearly noon when the generals declared the assaulting column ready to move out.

 
Colonel Frisby’s 30th New York occupied the first line of the column, and few soldiers were happy about the scene that stood before them. A wide, rocky plain called Dogan field—about 600 yards across—stretched out in front of the column. It ended atop a massive ridge where the unfinished railroad passed through a deep cut. Leroy Stafford’s Louisiana Brigade held the cut in force. “All enthusiasm was gone,” wrote Private John Bryson of Company A, “and it was with hopeless step that we advanced again upon the enemy’s works, the old railroad embankment, or hell-hole as it was called.” For two hours, the regiment hugged the ground behind a farmer’s fence near the Groveton-Sudley Road, as Confederate artillery pounded the earth around them. At one point, one of the shells nearly killed Colonel Frisby. He had just dismounted his horse, handing the reins to an African American clerk, when a shell struck the pommel of his horse’s saddle, bounced upward, and sliced off the head of the unfortunate man.


At 2:30, Pope could wait no longer, and he sent orders to get his men into the fray. The Union attack surged forward, with Butterfield’s division on the left and Hatch’s division on the right. The 30th New York formed the lynchpin of Hatch’s attack wave. General Hatch rode up to Colonel Frisby, announcing the assault by waving frantically: “Colonel Frisby! Take your men in there! The rebels are in there thicker than hell!” Frisby called out: “Attention, men! Forward! Charge!” Private Bryson recalled, “We sprang over a fence in front of us into the woods, and up the slope in face of death we went with a cheer.”


As the men passed over the deadly ground at the double-quick, a bullet struck Colonel Frisby in the lower jaw, passing through his face. Amazingly, he remained in the saddle. Noticing Frisby’s wound, Major Morgan H. Chrysler rushed to his side. Stating the obvious, he said, “Colonel, you are hit.” Blood streamed from Frisby’s shattered jaw, but he managed to say: “Major, to your post!” He brandished his sword and reared his horse. Then, as an Albany newspaper recounted: “Scarcely had he uttered the words of command, when he was struck on the top of the head with another ball, which passed through and came out on the opposite side, killing him instantly. He dropped from his horse, and the remnant of his regiment, which had been in the hottest of the fight, was forced to fall back, leaving the remains of their heroic commander on the field of battle.”

 
The attack of Hatch’s division was a costly failure. The 30th New York took 341 officers and men into the charge, losing sixty-six killed and mortally wounded. Many of the wounded and dead lay on the field, falling into Confederate hands when Pope’s army retreated. A captured surgeon who belonged to the 22nd New York buried Frisby’s corpse on the spot where it fell, marking the place with a wooden headboard. When that surgeon was released from Confederate custody, he informed Major Chrysler where he had buried the body. Together with Colonel John W. Harcourt (a member of Frisby’s old militia regiment), Chrysler passed through the lines and recovered the body on September 9. By September 11, Harcourt had returned the remains to Albany Rural Cemetery, where the corpse was laid to rest.

 
As happened with many cities and towns who lost popular officers, the populace of Albany broke into mourning, using the death of Colonel Frisby as a means of memorializing the war dead. One newspaper stated, “The citizens of Albany will deeply regret the loss of so gallant a soldier and so worthy a citizen, and will offer their warmest sympathy to his family in their bereavement.” Likewise, the Albany Evening Journal wrote:


No one of our citizens was better or more favorably known than Col. FRISBY. He has for more than twenty years, been identified with the military organizations of the city—having passed through every grade from Lieutenant to Brigadier General. He held this latter position when the war broke out, and surrendered it to take the Colonelcy of the 30th. He was a thorough disciplinarian, a kindhearted man and a brave soldier. His regiment is one of the very best in the service; and his death will be lamented by the men for whose welfare he labored, by his country, for which he gave his life, and by his family and friends who knew his patriotism and worth.

 

Poignantly, Mary Frisby received letter upon letter from fellow and former officers who lamented Frisby’s death. After all, Frisby had been a soldier for a long time. Perhaps she already knew this, but her husband left a lasting influence on New York’s infantry officers. One grieving mourner referred to himself as “one of his military family.” A deeply-saddened Lieutenant Colonel William M. Searing wrote to Frisby’s widow:


But, alas! my heart aches, my eyes become blinded, and my head is dizzy, when thinking of that awful field of carnage and death. O, God! that I could blot from my memory the scenes of that most unfortunate encounter. I cannot give you a detailed account of that battle, or of the part taken by any one. I can only say your husband, our beloved colonel, fought in the thickest of the fight, and died at his post of duty.

 
Another man, Charles Brintall, the 30th New York’s former lieutenant colonel, wrote to Mary Frisby, telling her that his men would always remember him:

 
I have said that Col. Frisby was my friend during all my association with him. I have found him to be such, and therefore I mourn his loss as a friend. Of course, I cannot mourn that loss as you do. But there is one thing that I can do. I can bear truthful and uncontradictory testimony to his moral worth as a man; to his honesty and usefulness as a citizen; to his devotion as a patriot, and his steadfastness as a friend. May the bright example, which he has so disinterestedly bequeathed to his posterity, never be forgotten by any of them.

 
Another officer, Major Richard Bentley, a friend in the 63rd New York, told Mary Frisby this:


None knew Col. Frisby, outside his family, as I knew him. Our military connection commenced when I was so young, and lasted so long, that I had come to look to him, as a son toward a father. I knew his inmost thoughts, so far as military matters were concerned, and could almost read in his face the thoughts passing through his mind. Amid the excitement of the battle field, and the tediousness of long marches, I have not fully appreciated that he is gone—that I shall never see him more; but during the past week, partially confined to my chamber by a wound, the fact has appeared to me in all its force, and I realize that I have lost a dear friend who loved me, and that the service has sustained an almost irreparable loss, in the sphere in which he moved.


Then came the honor bestowed to Frisby’s boots. Three days after his corpse was laid to rest, on September 14, the soldiers of the 30th New York found themselves about to charge up Turner’s Gap at South Mountain, Maryland. Apparently aware of which Confederate units defended the gap, Colonel William Searing announced, “Boys, the men who killed your Colonel at Manassas are now in front of you, let us charge and avenge his death!” After the battle, Lieutenant James M. Andrews, Jr. of Company D found a dead Virginia officer wearing top boots that once belonged to Colonel Frisby. The name, “Colonel Edward Frisby, 30th NYV” was written on both of them. The regiment sent the boots home to Frisby’s widow. Andrews announced that the regiment’s vengeance had been satisfied.


Colonel Frisby had been a militiaman for a long time. In a time of peace, he was a dedicated and vigilant officer. Having given the best years of his life to New York’s militia, he need not have challenged himself by facing the terrible challenges of war. He was in his early fifties when the rebellion broke out. Recently retired from militia service, he need not have gone to the front. In July 1862, when he was ill with fever and likely to be discharged, he need not have accompanied his regiment to the Bull Run battlefield. Why, then, did he go back? Why did he insist on being in the danger zone? If I had to guess, Edward Frisby knew of no other place he would rather be. He had been a soldier for so long, he could not imagine himself in any other role. He loved to drill, he loved to march, and he loved to be among his soldiers. After thirty-three years, peacetime militia service had yet to give him a chance to die like a soldier. When the Battle of Second Bull Run came along, tearing out a piece of his jaw, he made sure that he stayed on the field and died like one.

 
The story of the recovered boots makes me smile. Whether they loved Frisby or hated him, the soldiers of the 30th New York had to have taken solace in the fact that they extracted a sense of justice from an awful, bloody war. That’s how every story of a soldier’s death should end.


This is Colonel Edward Frisby. I can only assume he is wearing the top boots in question.

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