Tuesday, February 12, 2019

“A Fairly Good Case”: The Return of the 34th New York, Part 1.


For this next series of posts, I’m examining the muster-out of the 34th New York, the “Herkimer County Regiment.” This unit served in the 2nd Corps, it participated in the Peninsula Campaign, and then it fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville (or, rather, Second Fredericksburg). When the regiment went home on June 9, 1863, it returned to the Empire State amid considerable controversy.

This controversy existed on multiple levels. First, just as the regiment received orders to join in the Chancellorsville Campaign, its soldiers organized a mutiny, which had to be summarily quashed. Second, when the regiment reached the front, it didn’t participate in much combat, a fact which has since drawn the ire of at least one historian. Third, when it finally went home, the 34th New York used its homecoming parade as an opportunity to make a political statement, carrying aloft a portrait of General George McClellan as a not-so-subtle way of telling spectators how to align their political compass.

In today’s installment, I’m going to examine the first of these three controversies, the May 1, 1863, “mutiny” of the Herkimer Regiment, a nasty little affair that sowed bitter feelings among the New York veterans. Unwilling to serve beyond May 1, six companies of the 34th New York stacked their rifled-muskets on the fields around Falmouth, complaining that their time had elapsed and the government could no longer order them to perform duty. Only the threat of violence made these men march to the sound of the guns.

Surprisingly, this incident has rarely appeared in modern histories. (After doing a quick search, I found mention of it in Stephen Sears’s Chancellorsville and Lawrence Kreiser’s Defeating Lee, but nowhere else.) It seems strange that a Union regiment could stack arms amid the Battle of Chancellorsville, and it get no attention from military historians!

Clearly, the men of the 34th New York were an unhappy lot, and it’s illuminating to unravel the source of their displeasure.

Their beef with the federal government stemmed from a troublesome question concerning the 34th New York’s length of service. The 34th New York was a two-year regiment, one of thirty-eight raised by New York’s state government in the spring of 1861. Like many two-year regiments, the 34th New York counted up several weeks of state service before transferring to the federal government in the middle of the summer.

A timeline of the regiment’s mobilization will help explain the problem. When the war broke out in April 1861, the people of Herkimer County (and Steuben, Essex, and Clinton Counties and Albany City, which also contributed to the regiment) began raising companies with alacrity. When they mustered in, the soldiers swore an oath to serve the state for two years, dating from May 1, 1861. However, one month later, Governor Edwin Morgan convinced the War Department to accept his two-year regiments into federal service.

This transfer occurred only after acrimonious negotiation between the War Department and the State of New York. Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Governor Morgan that the War Department would not accept regiments for two years. All recruits had to swear for three years, and not fewer. In fact, Cameron initially turned away Morgan’s thirty-eight regiments, but after thinking on it, he changed his mind. He promised to honor the two-year enlistment contracts for all the men already sworn into state service; however, all future volunteers needed to enlist for three years. Accordingly, U.S. mustering officers began seeking out Morgan’s two-year regiments and swearing them into federal service. On June 15, a one of them arrived at the 34th New York’s encampment in Albany, and had them swear into federal service. Accordingly, six companies swore to serve the federal government for two years, while the remaining four—those that had not yet sworn into state service—swore to serve the federal government for three years.

Foolishly, the federal mustering officer—whoever he was—failed to clarify an important point. When would the 34th New York’s two-year men muster out? Would they do it on May 1, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their initial muster), or would they do it on June 15, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their federal muster)?

That six-week gap made an important difference. As of late-April 1863, all signs indicated that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker intended to send the Army of the Potomac into another engagement. (And—as you know—he certainly did. On April 30, the army embarked upon the Chancellorsville Campaign, which resulted in 12,300 federal losses.)

As the weather warmed up around the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Falmouth, the two-year men of the 34th New York worried the federal government would hold them into service until June, thus squeezing one last campaign out of them.

To put it another way: would they have to fight in the third-bloodiest battle of the war, or would they get to go home one day before that battle began?

As the Army of the Potomac readied for the march, the soldiers in the 34th New York circulated a petition, reminding the army’s generals that their terms of enlistment would expire on May 1. Under no condition, they said, would they obey orders beyond that date. On April 30, when it appeared that no one had taken any preparations to send the regiment home, the soldiers forwarded their petition to their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, a West Point graduate famous for fighting the Sioux in the Dakota territories. The petition—which, by all accounts, employed tempered, inoffensive language—seemed to sway General Sully. After reading it, he agreed that the two-year men ought to be discharged the very next day. Sully endorsed the petition and sent it to the headquarters of his divisional commander, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, another West Pointer who became famous for fighting Plains Indians in the postwar era.

As Civil War buffs might expect, General Gibbon didn’t see the situation the same way as General Sully. Gibbon possessed a sterner reputation and he held a stricter interpretation of a soldier’s duty; he didn’t believe any soldier had the right to negotiate the terms of his muster-out with his commanders. Predictably, Gibbon returned the petition without endorsement, a clear indication that he wanted Sully to support the government’s preferred muster-out date, June 15.

Apparently, Sully didn’t expect Gibbon to respond this way and he certainly didn’t have a scheme for how to convince the men of the 34th New York to stick around for another six weeks. When the sun rose on May 1, Sully had not yet resolved the problem. At 8 A.M., the six companies that believed their time had expired stacked arms and refused to perform any additional duty. (It’s not entirely clear what the other four companies did, but they appear to have readied themselves for the march.)

Dutifully, the 34th New York’s commander, Colonel Byron Laflin, sent General Sully a note, stating that “some companies” of his regiment had “refused to do duty this morning.” The scene must have looked eerie. All along the regimental street, the regiment had stacked weapons, and some of the men had already broken open their personal liquor stores, celebrating the end of their service. Writing with considerable understatement, Second Lieutenant Louis N. Chapin of Company C reported that when he arrived at camp that morning, he found things “somewhat upset.”

Still unwilling to make a decision, Sully reported this news to Gibbon, who promptly told him to send another regiment to disarm the mutinous soldiers, place them under guard, and allow no further communication with them. Then, not long after, Gibbon sent a second message to Sully, instructing him to “use any and every means to quell the mutiny” and “bring the men back to their duty.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, Gibbon promised not to interfere with Sully’s authority, unless he publicly announced that he had lost his ability to “maintain his authority in his own command.”

Dutifully, Sully obeyed Gibbon’s first order. He directed the 15th Massachusetts to arrest sixty to seventy of the 34th New York’s mutinous ringleaders, a number of whom had already become visibly intoxicated. However, Sully proved reluctant to obey Gibbon’s second order, that is, to “use any and every means” to quell the mutiny. Believing he possessed no right to order the six companies of the 34th New York to take up their arms, Sully sent Gibbon a written reply, telling him that the majority of the mutineers were perfectly quiet and respectful and that it would be useless to threaten them. Perhaps sarcastically, Sully wrote that the only way to force them to return to their senses would require “shooting” a few of them on the spot. However, if that was what Gibbon wanted, Sully remarked, then Gibbon had to make that call.

At this point, Gibbon had grown tired of Sully’s handling of the situation. Several hours had passed and the 34th New York was nowhere closer to getting on the road than it had been at daybreak. Already, the sound of battle could be heard echoing from the vicinity of Zoan Church. Further, Sully had incautiously written that it was “not in his power to enforce discipline in his command.” Believing that Sully had just admitted to being too weak of spirit or too weak of mind to deal with this crisis, Gibbon approached the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts, ordering them to load their weapons and form line-of-battle facing the mutineers. Eyes agog, the Massachusetts soldiers did as Gibbon requested, wondering if he really intended to have them slaughter the unarmed New Yorkers. So remembered First Lieutenant David M. Earle of that regiment, “no one doubted he would do it.”

It was noon. So far, the mutiny had lasted four hours. Angrily, Gibbon addressed the mutineers, threatening to shoot their ringleaders if they did not perform duty right away. When none of the mutineers budged, Gibbon began insulting the whole regiment, telling them they were no better than the rebels on the other side of the river. If every member of the 34th New York did not return to duty immediately, he vowed to order the 15th Massachusetts to open fire and “kill every man it could.” Although Gibbon’s recollections claimed that his threats ultimately swayed the mutineers, in reality, he brought them to heel by relenting to one of their demands. Gibbon implored them to obey orders, promising that if they did so, he would endorse their petition—which he had earlier rejected—vowing to seek justice on their behalf.

This seemed to quell the “mutiny,” if one could call it that, and one by one, the soldiers of the 34th New York took up their arms and formed ranks. The regiment marched onward as if the incident had never happened. To his credit, Gibbon later admitted that he rode away from the scene trembling, apparently upset that he had come so close to ordering the 15th Massachusetts to open fire. Like many generals, he talked a big game, but his harsh words didn’t reflect his mood. He admitted that he shook “at the thought of what might have happened.”

The bad news might have ended there, but another ugly incident soon followed. Gibbon relieved Sully of his command. (Coincidentally enough, the 34th New York’s commander, Col. Laflin, assumed command of the brigade.) Eventually, General Sully stood before a board of inquiry, and he successfully defended his actions. That board restored him to rank; however, he did not return to the Army of the Potomac. Instead, he went to the Dakotas to face the Sioux.

No further insurrectionist sentiment troubled the 34th New York, but I doubt anyone attached to the regiment believed they had received justice at the hands of the government. Lieutenant Louis Chapin stated his opinion rather matter-of-factly:

It is but natural that these men should think that their time was out May 1, 1863, for they had served the full two years. . . . We think every candid mind must admit the men had a fairly good case. Some of these men had enlisted immediately after President Lincoln’s call was issued, April 15, 1861, and as the regiment was not mustered out until June 30, 1863, they were really in service two years, two and a half months.

No one can doubt the truth in Chapin’s statement. The volunteers of the 34th New York had served their time. Why did Gibbon feel it necessary to bully them? That answer is rather complex. Of course, no commander wants to admit he has lost his authority over his troops, but I don’t think that truth fully explains Gibbon’s reaction to the mutiny. In May 1863, the Army of the Potomac needed a big win. Its failure on the Peninsula, the removal of McClellan in November, the bloodshed at Fredericksburg, and the humiliation of the Mud March all weighed heavily on the minds of the generals. The army needed a victory at Chancellorsville lest its reputation deteriorate further. As of May 1863, no one was in the mood to listen when 430 two-year men chose to quibble about the date of their muster-out.

If the Army of the Potomac had been basking in the glow of victory, perhaps the 34th New York would have been treated differently. But instead, while carrying around the albatross of defeat, it exhibited no sympathy toward short-timers.


The officers of the 34th New York are photographed here on April 24, 1863, just one week before the mutiny. They are (l to r): Captain William H. Warford, Captain Emerson S. Northup, Major Wells Sponable, Captain John O. Scott, Lt. Col. John Beverly, Capt. Charles Riley, Col. Byron Laflin.

This shows the location of the 34th New York's 1863 mutiny. This 1902 photograph depicts the fields around Falmouth, the location of the regiment's winder encampment. The 34th New York encamped atop the hill at left-center.

Brig. General Alfred Sully commanded the 1st Brig., 2nd Div., 2nd Corps. When the mutiny occurred, he sympathized with it. However, for not quelling it, Sully's divisional commander relieved him of his command.

Here is a photograph of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon--the famous one seen in all those fancy Iron Brigade books. In May 1863, Gibbon commanded the 2nd Div., 2nd Corps. When the 34th New York broke out in mutiny, he moved quickly to quell it. According to his memoir, he threatened the New Yorkers with death. In reality, he may have merely placated them with empty promises.



Friday, February 1, 2019

Shot in the Mouth


Hey, Tales from the Army of the Potomac fans! “Shot in the [blank]!” is back! This is my recurring series about Army of the Potomac soldiers who received wounds to unusual parts of their anatomy. I present these chilling tales as a way to understand the lingering effects of combat wounds, as reminders that Civil War veterans suffered from the effects of their gunshot lacerations long after they initially received them. This latest installment—called, “Shot in the Mouth!”—is a case in point. This particular wound finished off its victim in horrifying fashion some twenty-eight years later.

Let’s get down to it.

At 8:30 A.M., June 25, 1862, Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s Brigade surged across a swampy thicket south of the Williamsburg Road, commencing what became known as the Battle of Oak Grove, the first engagement of the Seven Days’ Battles. (By the end of the day, more than 1,060 men had been killed, wounded, or captured.)

As General Grover’s bluecoats neared a line of Confederate-held earthworks, the 1st Massachusetts Infantry deployed its skirmishers. A soldier in the 2nd New Hampshire watched those skirmishers enter a thicket (which is now vanished due to the construction of the Richmond International Airport). Confident of success, the New Hampshire soldier thought the Massachusetts troops would do well “to wake up the enemy.” Hardly a minute had elapsed when a crash of musketry followed, and wounded soldiers came streaming out of the thicket. The Massachusetts skirmishers had stumbled into the Confederate line and caught hell from Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright’s Georgia brigade. The New Hampshire soldier remembered what he saw next: “Among these [retreating troops] was an officer, who had caught a bullet in the mouth. He attempted to tell General Hooker something, but his face was so badly lacerated that his words were utterly unintelligible; but his manner and gestures told plainer than words that the First [Massachusetts] was in a tight place.”

At the time, the observer from the 2nd New Hampshire, Private Martin Haynes, didn’t ponder the fate of the gravely-injured Massachusetts officer. With the 1st Massachusetts calling for help, the 2nd New Hampshire had to plunge into the thicket and go to its rescue, which it did, losing forty-two men in the process. But the sight of the wounded Massachusetts officer undoubtedly seared itself into Haynes’s memory. Thirty-four years later, as Haynes completed the 2nd New Hampshire’s regimental history, he recollected the disturbing scene: a man wounded in the mouth, uselessly spouting a bloody sentence to General Hooker. What a horrifying image!

So who was he? Which unfortunate officer suffered a mouth wound at Oak Grove? Did he survive his awful injury?

You know me; I don’t give up on these stories. I had to find the identity of this critical casualty.

It didn’t take long. Undoubtedly, the injured officer was Captain Abial G. Chamberlain of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Captain Chamberlain commanded Company K, 1st Massachusetts. His wound, graphically recorded by the attendant surgeon, was the only one from Oak Grove that matched Martin Haynes’s description. Specifically, the ball clipped Captain Chamberlain’s lower right lip, split the end of his tongue, and then crashed into his jaw, breaking it, but not shattering it. A few members of Chamberlain’s regiment briefly recorded the sight of the wounded officer. Private Charles C. Perkins, Company K’s bugler, jotted in his diary, “Saw Capt. C. brought in. Shot in the mouth. Jaw fractured.”

The wound wasn’t severe enough to terminate Captain Chamberlain’s army career. After several months of recuperation, he returned to his regiment, but he did not stay for long. In 1863, he was transferred to lighter duty, acting as provost marshal of Riker’s Island, New York. But, while there, he decided to return to combat. He passed examination by the Casey Board—the special tribunal that tested officers who wished to command African-American regiments—and on November 30, 1863, Chamberlain received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was put in command of the 37th USCT (also known as the 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteers). By February 1864, he was in Norfolk, Virginia, raising the regiment. Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment joined the unit known as “Wild’s African Brigade,” named for its abolitionist commander, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild. Chamberlain and his men joined the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and fought at the Battle of Fort Pocahontas, at the Siege of Petersburg, and in the Appomattox Campaign. Amazingly, Chamberlain served for the rest of the conflict, mustering out on June 16, 1865. After the war, he commanded Wilmington, North Carolina, as provost marshal attached to the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Upon hearing this, you might think that Colonel Chamberlain recovered from his mouth wound and went on to live a long, happy life, but if you thought that, you would be incorrect. Chamberlain’s ordeal grew worse. As he aged, he experienced degenerative paralysis. Apparently, the ball that wounded him at Oak Grove had passed through his trigeminal (or trifacial) nerve, the nerve that controls biting and chewing. Although the jaw itself healed in the aftermath of the 1862 battle, the trigeminal nerve slowly deteriorated as the years passed. As that crucial nerve decayed, it caused problems in other parts of his body. Chamberlain’s eyesight and hearing dimmed, his limbs became paralyzed, he experienced bowel and bladder leakage, and he even lost cognitive function. In essence, he became a complete invalid, unable to move, carry on conversation, or carry out simple bodily functions.

Initially, Chamberlain received $20 per month disability pension, but in 1888, that was increased to $45 per month. At the time, such a sizable increase required Congressional approval. So, strange as it may seem, several letters testifying to Colonel Chamberlain’s humiliating infirmities had to be read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is from these letters that we know how badly Chamberlain suffered during the last years of his life.

Dr. A. Elliot Paine, a former surgeon attached to the 104th USCT, testified that:

I find him [Col. Chamberlain] confined to his bed, very much emaciated, the left leg being flexed on thigh and very rigid, being nearly impossible to straighten it; the next arm being somewhat the same. He still has involuntary condition of the bowels and bladder. He requires an attendant all of the time, he being helpless.

Another examiner described Chamberlain’s condition even more graphically:

I find a scar on the right side of lower lip, extending to jaw, also on the end of tongue. The scar on the lip is about an inch long, not adherent. Another cicatrix [scar] about an inch below the lower jaw, which is adherent to the bone, with an indentation in the bone about one-quarter inch in depth and one-half  inch in width not tender to pressure. His walk is feeble and staggering. His intellect is dull; appears bewildered when questioned. The power of motion of the left arm and leg is greatly impaired, so as to require help in dressing. He has only partial control of his bladder; his urine runs away keeping his clothing wet. I think the paralysis is due to cerebral lesion, caused probably by injury of branches of the trifacial nerve, lying in the track of the ball.

Perhaps the most compelling account came from Chamberlain’s wife. She wrote:

I declare to you, and to all the world, that my husband, Col. A. G. Chamberlain, late captain First Massachusetts Volunteers, is wholly incapacitated from even feeding himself. He has lost his mind, and his mouth is stiff from paralysis caused from the effects of the wound in mouth. I fear lockjaw; he is paralyzed almost wholly. I have to lift him whenever he is moved in bed; he can not turn himself even. Please send his pension, or see that it is sent. It is one of the clearest cases on record of total disability. If you can not prove it send someone to see the dying man, and please send relief before it is too late. Yours, in trouble, Mrs. E. R. B. Chamberlain.

Moved by these accounts, Congress approved the request to increase Chamberlain’s pension, on account that the nerve damage was “extraordinary in character.”

Chamberlain did not live much longer. He died on May 9, 1890, at Brockton, Massachusetts. He was fifty-nine-years-old.

Before checking up on this story, I didn’t think that mouth wounds could be so horrifying, that is, so capable of causing prolonged suffering through progressive nerve decay, brain damage, and paralysis. Colonel Chamberlain suffered acutely in his final years, and to add insult to injury, physicians had to submit testimony about his urine-soaked bedclothes to Congress!

Such thorough misery! Sometimes it makes me wonder about the Georgia soldier who shot Captain Chamberlain. No matter how much hatred that unnamed Confederate soldier may have harbored against Yankees, could he really have wanted the person he shot to suffer so long and so acutely? Whoever he was, I highly I doubt that knowledge of Chamberlain’s suffering would have given him satisfaction. Luckily for that nameless Georgia sharpshooter, he never learned what his musket ball had done.

In any event, please take care of your mouths, folks. They are lifelines to our sanity.



Here is Col. Abial G. Chamberlain (1831-1890), shown in 1861 as captain, Co. K, 1st Massachusetts Infantry. This was before he suffered the horrifying mouth wound at Oak Grove.

This map by David Woodbury depicts the Union and Confederate positions at Oak Grove, June 25, 1862. Captain Chamberlain belonged to Grover's Brigade, the unit that attacked from east to west across the middle of the map.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Surrendering at Gettysburg: The Vindication of Major Thomas B. Rodgers, Part 2.


In my last post, I narrated the tale of Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, a Union officer captured at Gettysburg. After his release from prison, Union authorities arrested him, accusing him of “allowing himself” to be captured by the enemy. For a year, Rodgers (who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel in the meantime) readied his defense. He collected witnesses who could attest to his character. He had to prove he acted bravely and that when we surrendered, he had not gone quietly. The very boundaries of courage and cowardice were at stake.

So what happened? How did Rodgers come to face these charges? (Unfortunately, for the historian’s sake, Rodgers was the only person to explain how the charges came into being. His account seems fairly plausible, but of course, I must acknowledge that he spoke from a position of personal bias. Perhaps, then, his explanation is either incorrect or exaggerated. But this is all I have, so I’ll have to accept it at face value.) As Rodgers explained it, another officer in the 140th Pennsylvania wanted Rodgers to resign so he could take the lieutenant colonelcy in his place. The best way to get Rodgers to leave the service was to threaten him with a court-martial on charges of cowardice.

Rodgers’s theory made sense. The charges were filed on April 15, 1864, just ten days after his promotion to lieutenant colonel, which was probably the first day when the men in the 140th Pennsylvania learned of it. As Rodgers explained, “While I was yet a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy, an effort was made to promote a junior Captain of the Reg’t over me to Lt. Col. To effect this object, a letter was used, insinuating that I had behaved in a cowardly manner at the Battle of Gettysburg.”

So who orchestrated these charges? They were signed by the regiment’s commander, Captain John Fulton McCullough, who forwarded them to the judge advocate for consideration. Unfortunately, McCullough never left behind any material to explain why he wanted to prosecute Rodgers. As it happened, McCullough was later killed at the Battle of Totopotomy Creek; however, Rodgers did not believe that McCullough was the true author of the charges. Rodgers wrote, “He [McCullough] was urged by others, one of whom was higher in rank than he, but at the time absent from the Reg’t.” Who were these others? Rodgers never said, but I can make an educated guess. Most likely, the head of the conspiracy was Captain (later bvt. Brig. Gen.) Henry Harrison Bingham, a member Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s staff. An ambitious man (and a member from another political party), Bingham was eager to take Rodgers’s place. Having heard about Rodgers’s scuttling behind a rock at Gettysburg from a Democratic friend, Colonel Byrnes (who himself was later killed in action at Cold Harbor), Bingham told McCullough to prefer charges against him.

Even though McCullough (the initiator of the charges) and Byrnes (the key witness) were no longer alive, the court martial convened on March 2, 1865, at the headquarters of the 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Eight officers constituted the court, with Brig. Gen. Henry J. Madill acting as president. Captain James H. Hamlin served as the prosecuting judge advocate. Rodgers elected to defend himself. He pleaded “Not Guilty” to all three charges. The court testimony went on for two days. The prosecution called four witnesses. The defense called six.

After reading the court transcript, it becomes clear that the prosecution had the weaker case. Hamlin’s witnesses could establish that Rodgers crouched behind a rock, but nothing more. Consider this line of questioning put to Corporal James S. Rankin:

Hamlin: Was the accused there behind the rock when you stopped?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Hamlin: How long after you stopped was it before he was captured?

Rankin: Not more than two minutes.

Hamlin: Was the accused sitting down?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Similar questions were put to the prosecution’s other witnesses. However, none of them could describe Rodgers’s behavior in a negative way. When Rodgers had a chance to redirect, all of the prosecution’s witnesses defended their former commander. Below, see how Rodgers got praise from Corporal Rankin:

Rodgers: Were you captured at the same time and place with me?

Rankin: Yes, sir.

Rodgers: What was my general reputation as an officer in the 140th Pa. Vols. previous to the preferment of these charges?

Rankin: It was good.

Rodgers: What has it been since?

Rankin: It has been good since.

When Rodgers presented his own witnesses, they claimed that Rodgers had done well throughout the battle. They saw him at various points, encouraging the men. When Rodgers asked Corporal William Griggs if he had seen him during the battle, Griggs replied:

Sir, you were right in the rear of the regiment. You had your sword drawn, and was [sic] telling the boys to go ahead and to keep cool and fire low: that we were driving them like hell! The regiment was firing at the time. You went up as far as we went. It was about five minutes before the regiment fell back.

Corporal George Rose delivered similar testimony:

You had your sword drawn, and said, “Keep cool, boys, and fire low.” You had first come along the line and was [sic] standing in the rear of our company. The company was firing at the time.

Further, Rodgers made it clear that when he crouched behind a rock, it had not been for long. He argued that the prosecution had erroneously concluded that he had been hiding behind the rock for the better part of an hour. When calling his witnesses, Captain Hamlin stumbled upon a problem, learning too late that Rodgers had ducked down twice during two unrelated incidents. During the opening of the fight, the 140th Pennsylvania had captured three Confederate prisoners. Rodgers had stopped to write down their names before sending them to the rear. To do this, he crouched beside a rock so he could write their names legibly. Captain John Auld Burns remembered seeing Rodgers “sitting on his knee with some two or three rebel prisoners. He was writing as if in a memorandum book.” Rodgers seized upon this testimony, making it clear that he had not been hiding the entire time, but he had simply sat down at the beginning of the engagement so he could write in his memoranda book. After sending the prisoners to the rear with a sergeant, he rejoined the fight. When he was seen again, surrendering, he had taken cover behind a different rock. In their inexpert assemblage of witnesses, the prosecution had conflated the two incidents.

Finally, Rodgers made it clear he had not surrendered from some idle fancy. He surrendered to Confederate forces only after he knew he could not escape and only after he quarreled with his captors. One of Rodgers’s witnesses, Private Hugh Shaw, described the scene this way:

Shaw: You were kneeling down on your knees when a rebel Serg’t. came up and ordered you to throw down your saber. You replied, you would not surrender your saber to a private. The Serg’t. said he would run you through with his bayonet if you did not surrender. You replied, you did not care a damn! But you would not give your sword to any man but an officer. The Serg’t. placed a guard over you and marched you to the rear, when you gave your sword to an officer on horse-back. There are the particulars of your capture as far as I can remember.

Rodgers: Did you see any person pass further to the rear than us when we were captured?

Shaw: No, sir.

Rodgers: Did you arrive at the place where we were captured at the same time as I did?

Shaw: Yes, sir.

Rodgers: How long had we been there before the rebels captured us?

Shaw: About fifteen seconds.

Rodgers: What were the chances of escape when we arrived at the ledge of rocks where we were captured?

Shaw: From anything that I could see, we were entirely cut off; the enemy was in our front and on our flank. —I mean, —they were between us and the rear.

In his final argument, Rodgers asserted, “The evidence of those who were captured with me is to the effect that escape was impossible.” Firm in his tone, Rodgers could not understand how anyone could imagine that he’d surrendered to the enemy in a fit of cowardice. Every witness had made it clear that he had surrendered at the end of the fight. How could anyone go through the hellish combat of Gettysburg, gaining glory along the way, only to throw it all away in the last few seconds of the engagement? It made no sense; so argued Rodgers: “It is not possible that I, after going through the whole of that battle, the hottest in which my Regt was ever engaged (& it has been in many) with credit to myself, would afterwards in a cowardly or disgraceful manner allow myself to be captured by the enemy.”

After two days of testimony, the court gathered at 10 A.M., March 4, to hear the verdict. The court found Rodgers “not guilty” on all charges.

I prefer to believe that justice was served here. Rodgers’s honor was vindicated and he promptly resigned from the service, which was what he wanted all along. But now, he could leave without the shameful accusation of cowardice hanging over his head.

However, it seems to me that some form of injustice occurred anyway. When Rodgers surrendered, he sacrificed his freedom and his health, not unlike some 5,000 other Union prisoners, some of whom died in captivity. From 1861 to 1865, Union soldiers surrendered all the time, but none of them were prosecuted for it. Unluckily for Rodgers, someone decided to challenge him. I cannot see how anyone could believe the insinuation that he surrendered too quickly. His regiment had fought for hours in one of the most hellish areas of the battlefield. How could anyone single out his surrender as being an exemplar of what not to do? In my opinion, the charges ought to have been dropped long before his case went to court-martial.

For whatever reason, in this instance, the Army of the Potomac felt the need to officiate over the unclear distinction of courage and cowardice. Rodgers was nearly the victim of that impulse.

After the war, Rodgers returned to Mercer County, Pennsylvania. In the autumn, he married a woman named Marion E. Long, eventually raising four sons with her. The family moved to Missouri where Rodgers got into politics. He died on October 18, 1908, at age 73.



All right, Gettysburg trampers, here is your challenge. Can you find the rock where Major Rodgers and eight soldiers from the 140th Pennsylvania surrendered? If you do, you'll get to call it, "Rodgers Rock" and you'll be the envy of all the LBGs! Go out and wander the fields, select the most likely boulder, and get your photograph with it. (Be sure to surrender to an imaginary Confederate while you're at it.) Do I have advice where to look? Try this area here. Rodgers said the rock was in the belt of woods in rear of where his regiment encountered prone soldiers from the 5th Corps. That means the triangular-shaped Trostle woods just south of Plum Run and immediately north of the Wheatfield Road. Good luck seekers! Don't hurt yourselves.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surrendering at Gettysburg: The Vindication of Major Thomas B. Rodgers, Part 1.


This is a two-part series that discusses the court-martial of a Union officer, Major Thomas B. Rodgers, who surrendered to Confederate forces at the Battle Gettysburg. In 1865, after he was paroled and exchanged, the U.S. Army brought charges against him, accusing him of surrendering too easily. Interesting, no? More than 5,000 Union soldiers surrendered at Gettysburg. Apparently, Rodgers was the only one to be brought up on charges for “allowing himself” to be taken prisoner. Since the beginnings of U.S. military history, the army had always allowed its soldiers the option of surrendering to the enemy. No one expected a soldier to throw his life away when the enemy had him surrounded. Many believed a soldier better served his country—not by dying fruitlessly—but by becoming a burden to the enemy, who had to show him the usual “rights of prisoners,” taking care of him until properly exchanged. Indeed, even the war’s first battle—Fort Sumter—involved the surrender of the entire Union garrison. While a few incidents during the war depicted  the moment of surrender as a cowardly act—such as the surrender of the Harpers Ferry Garrison in 1862—generally, Americans held to a less-judgy assumption. When done on a battlefield, surrendering was a rational act. Rarely did Americans call it cowardly. If the enemy was close enough to threaten a soldier with their bayonets, there was no dishonor in giving in.

Major Rodgers’s court-martial shattered that illusion. Although it came late in the war, it made clear that surrendering wasn’t as simple as being “out” in a game of tag. A surrendering soldier had to make the enemy work for it. To get himself vindicated, Rodgers had to prove his surrender had not been done indolently. He had to show he had fought hard, and then, when confronted by the enemy, he had to prove he had no other choice than to thrown in the towel. He didn’t just “let” the enemy take him prisoner, he argued. The Confederates had to work hard to capture him. In essence, Rodgers’s court-martial charted out the boundaries of courage and cowardice, two of the slipperiest—yet most important—concepts that explain the struggles and the eventually success of the Army of the Potomac.

But we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about Gettysburg.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, 28-year-old Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers found himself in a bit of a pickle. Rodgers’s regiment, the 140th Pennsylvania, was in full retreat. Confederate forces had broken his brigade’s line near the Rose Wheatfield and it was every man for himself. Already, the 140th Pennsylvania had lost more than fifty killed and more than 150 wounded. Pushed by the pursuing Confederates, Rodgers scampered north through a belt of woods, closing in on Plum Run. As bullets whizzed past his ears, he took shelter behind a large boulder. He crouched down to get a look at the smoke-covered field. Within a few seconds, eight enlisted men joined him at the boulder. At the same moment, Colonel Richard Byrnes of the Irish brigade came running past, warning Rodgers that if he stayed any longer, he’d be captured. Rodgers pondered his next move, but within seconds, his fate was decided for him. As he later wrote, “three Confederate battle flags flashed by us, and we were in the hands of the enemy.”

A Confederate sergeant accosted Major Rodgers, demanding his sword, which he refused to give up, saying he would relinquish his sword only to another officer. After a protracted argument, the Confederate sergeant allowed Rodgers to carry his sword to the rear. Near the Samuel Pitzer Farm, a mounted officer—a member of James Longstreet’s staff, apparently—arrived, asking the sergeant why a Union prisoner had been allowed to keep his sword. The sergeant explained how Rodgers insisted on proper etiquette, refusing to surrender to anyone but an officer. Nodding in agreement, the unnamed staff officer replied, “Very well, I am an officer and he can give it to me.” Later that evening, Rodgers saw the staff officer exhibit his sword to General Longstreet, saying that he had captured it from a “Yankee officer.” Rodgers remarked, “Of course, I remained discreetly silent.”

Rodgers’s disagreeable experience was only beginning. Along with 5,000 other Union prisoners of war, Rodgers marched south over 200 miles with the defeated remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia. In mid-July, he arrived in Richmond where Confederate authorities confined him to Libby Prison, an awful rat-infested tobacco warehouse along the James River. After nine months of hellish incarceration, the Confederates finally paroled him. He returned to the North in the spring of 1864, staying several weeks at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. While quartered there, Rodgers received word that the governor of Pennsylvania had seen fit to promote him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. (The promotion was signed on April 5, 1864, a few days prior to his release.) The promotion mattered little to him; having been mistreated by his captors, Rodgers’s health was broken and he was eager to leave the service.

However, ugly news reached him not long after he transferred to a new post in Washington, D.C. While in prison, members of his regiment had preferred charges against him, accusing him of cowardice at Gettysburg. Specifically, they accused Rodgers of: 1) “Misbehavior in the presence of the enemy,” 2) “Allowing himself to be taken prisoner by the enemy,” and 3) “Neglect of duty.” The charges stemmed from the fact that several retreating soldiers—including Colonel Byrnes of the Irish Brigade—had seen Rodgers hunker down behind a boulder at Gettysburg. Specifically, the charges argued that “the said Thomas B. Rodgers  . . . did shelter himself behind a large rock and did remain there until captured by the enemy,” and while there “ . . . did not assist in encouraging the men by words and acting to do good service against the enemy.”

This news caught Rodgers off guard and it changed his mind about asking for a medical discharge. He decided to stay in the army, if for no other reason than to contest the charges and vindicate his character. As Rodgers explained:

I was broken down by disease induced by the hardship of my captivity. I was unfit for service & was likely to be for an indefinite period. At that time I would have resigned & fully intended to do—but when I heard of these charges, involving as they did, all I held dearest in life, I determined that I would never leave the service until I had met & disposed of them. As an honorable man, I could do not otherwise. When I first entered the service in April 1861 as a 1st Sgt. In the 10th Pa. Reserves, I came with a good reputation & an honorable name, & when I leave the service, I want to leave it honorably.

Rodgers wanted to fight this in court. A year later, he finally had his day. He remained under arrest until March 1865 when his division—1st Division, 2nd Corps—finally held his court-martial under direction of Special Orders  Number 11.

Did he vindicate himself? Check the next installment for the answer.


This is Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, shown here as a lieutenant in the 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry.
 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 6


So, for the past five posts, I’ve been telling tales about the Biddle family, the ultra-wealthy Philadelphia brood that served in all four corners of the Army of the Potomac. We learned about Copperhead dissident Charles, quiet warrior Chapman, sentry-spooking Alexander, battle-scarred warhorse Transportation, and precocious cigar-thief James. You may have noticed that all of my choices survived the war. Did any Biddles give their last full measure of devotion?

Yes. At least one did. Captain Henry Jonathan Biddle.

Captain Biddle was born on May 16, 1817. He was the older brother of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Williams Biddle, who appeared in several previous posts. I know precious little about him. Henry Biddle attended West Point, and after graduation, he became a member in his father’s firm. When the war broke out in 1861, Biddle asked for a position in the Pennsylvania Reserve Division, the same unit where his distant cousin, Charles, served. When Curtin appointed Major General George A. McCall as commander of that division, McCall selected Biddle for his staff. Biddle operated as assistant adjutant general.

Generally, Biddle’s service was exemplary. He excelled at his job and contemporaries considered him an asset to the divisional staff. He served with the Pennsylvania Reserve Division until his death. He fought at Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, and Glendale Cross Roads. At the latter battle, June 30, 1862, McCall gave Biddle orders to redirect the fire of two nearby artillery batteries. After carrying out the order, he collided with a group of soldiers belonging to the 47th Virginia. They fired on him. Biddle was hit twice—once in the shoulder and again through the left arm. He fell from his horse and was captured. The Confederates took him to a nearby field hospital and then to Richmond (to Chimborazo Hospital Number 3).

In Philadelphia, newspapers reported that Biddle had died, for he had not been seen by friendly faces since being shot. But soon, Biddle managed to get information through the lines, telling loved ones that he had, in fact, survived. He made it clear that his accommodations were not great. On the battlefield, he watched another captured Union officer—Colonel Seneca Simmons—die of his wounds, while lying right next to him. He wrote, “I laid out in a field, mudhole, house and woods, till dusk on [the] 2d, and reached here [Richmond] at midnight.” Biddle told readers that the Confederate surgeon who examined him pronounced his wound non-mortal. General McCall, who had also been captured, likewise sent an optimistic message through the lines to Biddle’s brother, Thomas, telling him not to worry. He wrote, “Do be pleased to express to Mrs. Biddle my sincere and deep sympathy; but at the same time, my sincere and deep conviction that it will not be long until her husband joins her, with all his honors.”

None of these predictions held true. Biddle died in captivity, July 20, 1862. The Confederates returned his body to Union lines and it was eventually interred in Philadelphia.

Biddle’s death is a reminder that the Civil War culled from illustrious families just as well as it did from those of more modest means.

 
 
Captain Henry Jonathan Biddle
 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 5


In the past four posts, I’ve been profiling members of the Biddle family, the clan of Philadelphia bluebloods who had their meaty paws all over the Army of the Potomac. You’re probably getting tired of them. Well, guess what? I’m not. We have two more to go! Today, we are going to discuss one of the sillier Biddles, probably the least impressive, nay, the biggest bumbler of the whole brood. Where did he serve? You guessed it! He was on the staff of Major General George Meade!

James Cornell Biddle was born on October 3, 1835. He was among the first Philadelphians to go to war. On April 25, 1861, Biddle mustered in as a private in the 17th Pennsylvania Infantry, the first Philadelphia regiment to reach the front. Biddle’s first campaign wasn’t terribly interesting. The 17th Pennsylvania arrived in in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 1861, and for a time, it encamped in the Senate building. In fact, Biddle actually used the Vice President’s desk as a place to store his personal items! (Yeah, weird.) Later on, the 17th Pennsylvania—and Biddle with it—moved to a position along the upper Potomac where the soldiers served as sentries at important crossing points. On June 17, two companies had a small skirmish with Confederates at Edward’s Ferry. That was the regiment’s only engagement. After three months of service, the 17th Pennsylvania mustered out on August 2.

As the scion of a prominent family, Biddle decided he couldn’t go back to the army without officer’s bars. Using his family’s influence, he acquired a first lieutenancy from Governor Andrew Curtin, who appointed him to Company A, 27th Pennsylvania, a troubled unit that had been cursed with several resignations from disenchanted officers. The 27th Pennsylvania participated in the spring offensive in the Shenandoah Valley, but on July 8, 1862, Biddle left his regiment to assume a position as aide-de-camp for Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Williams. (If any of you have ever read The Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan, then you know that Biddle—while acting on General Williams’s orders—made a few appearances at Sarah Morgan’s house.) On November 5, 1863,  Biddle was raised to the rank of major and served as an aide for Major General George Meade. Biddle stayed with Meade throughout his army career, rising to the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. Meade’s wartime letters frequently referred to him as “Major Jim Biddle,” and the two men seem to have been close—or as close as the cantankerous General Meade would allow.

However, you shouldn’t judge Biddle by Meade’s letters. They ignored the fact that Biddle was a hard man to like. He possessed something of a clownish arrogance that put off many associates. Biddle was easily flustered, self-absorbed, and even a little dimwitted. Meade’s precocious aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman, vividly described the peculiarities of Biddle’s personality in his private letters. Rarely did Lyman have anything nice to say. He called Biddle a “bettyish sort of man, with no fragment of tact.” If Lyman’s stories are to be believed, Biddle was often the author of his own troubles. “Poor Biddle!” Lyman exclaimed, “I always begin his name with ‘poor.’ . . . If there is a wrong road he’s sure to take it.”

Sure enough, Biddle took plenty of wrong roads. His intuition tended to fail him. For instance, in early October 1864, when the Army of the Potomac was laying siege to Petersburg, Biddle received instructions to inspect the earthworks of the 2nd Corps and check the placement of the pickets. Because of the intensity of enemy fire in that sector, most officers went on foot and ducked their way to the picket line, but Biddle, lacking the clairvoyance of the other staff officers, decided to inspect the works on horseback. His decision nearly cost him his life. Lyman wrote, “in consequence, the whole [Confederate] skirmish line opened on him, and he returned, after his inspection, quite gasping with excitement. As he was not hit, it was very funny.”

Other encounters involving Biddle involved less life-threatening situations. Biddle seemed to have no sense of how to judge the intentions of his commander, General Meade. One day, Biddle tried to stop the headquarters staff from encamping in a sandy area, not realizing that Meade had selected the area for a tactical purpose. Not wanting to have sand blown in his face all day, Biddle tried to convince Meade to camp elsewhere. A timid man, Biddle interjected, “Ah, aw, hem, aw General, they are going to pitch camp in a very sandy, bad place, sir; you will not be at all comfortable, and there is a nice grassy—” General Meade couldn’t stand hearing an aide countermand his order. He interrupted, shrieking, “Major Biddle!!!” and followed with a volley of oaths and imprecations, chastising Biddle for his unbidden advice.

Instead of adapting to Meade’s non-specific (and exceedingly dyspeptic) personality, Biddle merely increased his complaining. For instance, when Meade mounted up and left headquarters one morning, few of the staff were ready for it. They had to cease their camp activities and follow their chief down the road, like it or not. Biddle whined the entire way. He came trotting along, “like a spinster who had lost her lap dog,” as Lyman eloquently described it, complaining that he had not had any breakfast. Biddle lamented, “Well, I do think it is too bad! The General never tells anyone when he is going out, and here I am with no breakfast—no breakfast at all!” To emphasize the point, Biddle held up a boiled egg, the only food he had managed to grab from the table before mounting his horse. Lyman laughed. It seemed ludicrous to imagine a general’s aide galloping across the Virginia countryside with egg in one hand and reins in the other.

Easily, Biddle’s most awkward moment came when he lost a pack of expensive cigars. On October 17, 1864, an entourage of politicians—including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—came to visit General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at City Point. As you might expect, Grant had purchased a box of exceptional Cuban cigars for the occasion, and entrusted them to Meade for safe-keeping. (As it happened, Stanton decided to leave early and never smoked the cigars, prompted by Grant’s offer to take him to Fort Wadsworth, which was close to the enemy line.) Meade, in turn, gave the cigars to Biddle, telling him to “take charge of the cigars, for the present.”

For whatever reason, Biddle thought Meade had given the cigars as a gift. (I’m not sure how anyone would assume that Grant—who adored cigars—would just want them given to a staff officer, but I guess that was the mystery of Biddle.) Theodore Lyman explained it this way: “Now B[iddle] has few equals in the power of turning things end for end; and so he at once clearly understood that he [was] made a sort of almoner of tobacco, and proceeded to distribute the cigars in the most liberal manner, to everybody who would either smoke them or pocket them! The staff and bystanders asked no questions but puffed away at Grant’s prime Havanas.”

Naturally, this set the stage for a comical misunderstanding. Later that evening, General Grant returned to City Point, most of the politicians having left the area by then. He turned to the senior Union naval commander, Admiral David Dixon Porter, saying, “I think now is the moment to enjoy those good cigars!” Grant dispatched his servant, Shaw, to head back to Meade and claim the box. Shaw knew that Meade had entrusted the cigars to Major Biddle, so he politely asked the befuddled major where he might find them. Biddle turned white. They were all gone! Biddle had given them away and none were left. Lyman, the officer who narrated the event, never explained the outcome, but ended the story as if it were a play. “And the curtain dropped, . . .” he wrote. Naturally, we are left to imagine Biddle hemming and hawing his explanation to General Grant: “Aw, hem, ah, yes, yes, General, the cigars! Where are those cigars? Aw, yes, that’s a good question. . . .”

Biddle died November 2, 1898. So Grant didn’t kill him, if that’s what you were wondering.

At left is the cigar-thief, Major James C. Biddle. At right is his foil, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman.
 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bunch of Biddles, Part 4


For the past three posts, I’ve been profiling members of the Biddle family, the illustrious Philadelphia tribe that held high-ranking positions in the Army of the Potomac. So far, we’ve seen the political machinations of Charles, the never-to-be-forgotten bravery of Chapman, and the sentry-scaring antics of Alexander. Today, we get to see the workhorse of the Biddle family (quite literally)—the forgotten four-legged war Biddle—Transportation.

That’s right. I’m talking about a horse.

Before heading to the front with the 121st Pennsylvania, Major Alexander Biddle purchased a horse named Transportation. Biddle’s letters to his wife frequently mentioned him—or “Trans” as he was called—and indeed, Biddle loved his steed so much that he considered him family.

Transportation possessed a personality similar to his master; he took awhile to get used to the violence of war. Also, rider and mount were deeply devoted to each other. Biddle looked to Transportation’s devotion to inspire his own courage. Fortuitously for us historians, Alexander Biddle left behind a story about his hirse, one describing his separation from him during the first day at Gettysburg and his (presumably) heartfelt reunion with him on Cemetery Hill.

What happened to horse and rider? Let’s find out.

On July 1, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Biddle rode Transportation atop McPherson’s Ridge. Along with their regiment, they went into battle at 2 P.M., the hour when Confederates from Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew’s and Brig. Gen. Abner Perrin’s brigades attacked the outnumbered men of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 1st Corps. Lt. Col. Biddle described the moment when the Confederate assault began. As the rebels came forward, their line started to envelop the Union position. Biddle wrote: “[I] Saw the fighting on our extreme right–Saw at this point two lines of rebels come down to attack our troops one supporting the other, this attack was so far successful that it extended at last over to Wadsworth’s division, which we changed front to the right to support –here shell flew thickly round us.”

Just as the first volleys came whizzing in, a MiniĆ© ball struck Transportation in the leg. Gamely, the horse shrugged off the pain and continued to carry his master along the line of battle. In the heat of the moment, Alexander’s cousin, Colonel Chapman Biddle, ordered two regiments to move by companies to the left, directing Alexander Biddle’s regiment to lead the way. Although wounded, Transportation stayed upright as Biddle executed the maneuver. Dutifully, the blue-clad Pennsylvanians unrolled their line, desperately trying to block the Confederate advance. Lieutenant Colonel Biddle narrated: “they [the Confederates] came on beautifully in perfect order until just as their heads showed over the grain on top of the hill—we poured in a volley receiving a severe fire in return—outnumbered by a double line we fought hard [and] gave them fire for fire but found them coming up on our left. The[y] were not more than 30 yds off firing on us briskly.”

As the opposing lines blazed away, two more bullets struck Transportation, including one in the shoulder. “I thought he was done for,” wrote Biddle. Fearing for his horse’s safety—and for his own, as he worried Transportation might collapse under his weight and crush him—Biddle dismounted and began leading Trans by the reins. Suddenly, a rider-less horse came careening toward them. It was none other than his cousin’s wounded horse, a fiery black. Having been struck by a musket ball, Chapman Biddle’s horse had thrown its rider and bolted. Now on foot, Alexander Biddle caught Chapman’s horse by the reins, but Transportation became frightened by the other horse’s erratic behavior. He pulled free from Alexander Biddle’s grip and galloped to the rear. Unable to hold two horses at once, Biddle looked on helplessly as his animal-friend disappeared into the smoke of battle. Immediately, he dispatched a soldier to find his cousin. After a few minutes, the soldier reported that Colonel Biddle had gone to a field hospital at the Lutheran Theological Seminary to have his head bandaged. With few options, Alexander Biddle mounted his cousin’s horse and rode for the Seminary to find him.

As it happened, as the afternoon wore on, the Union line fell back and rallied at that Seminary. Casualties mounted as the Yankees made a last-ditch effort to hold back the Confederate onslaught. Biddle wrote, “Bullets were striking everywhere and men [were] falling.” Biddle found his cousin on the steps of the Seminary. Although wounded, Chapman Biddle still had every intention of continuing to command his troops in the field. Chapman asked to have his horse returned. Alexander Biddle dismounted and helped his cousin back into the saddle. Everywhere, the battle swirled around them. Alexander Biddle wrote, “A man receiv[ed] a wound almost every moment and the noise of Artillery shots in the houses and the smack of a ball against wood work [were] occurring every moment.”

As the brigade gave way, falling back over Seminary Ridge and into the town, Biddle resigned himself to capture. On foot, he didn’t believe he’d have any chance at outrunning the pursuing Confederates. Following the rush of retreating bluecoats, Biddle ambled through the streets of Gettysburg, winding his way to the rallying point at Cemetery Hill. He had all but given up hope, and for about an hour, he believed the 1st Corps was doomed to capture. Suddenly, as Biddle turned up the Baltimore Pike, a familiar whinny emanated from a cloud of smoke ahead of him. It was Transportation! His horse had survived!

Transportation was standing proudly in front of the Cemetery Hill gate house carrying an orderly who belonged to Brigadier General John Buford. After his unceremonious retreat, Transportation had presented himself to one of Buford’s cavalry regiments. One selfish cavalryman had robbed Transportation of his blanket, but in turn, he presented the horse to Buford’s dismounted orderly.

Biddle’s gloom evaporated. His beloved mount was there to greet him! Pushing his way past Major General James Wadsworth, who happened to be standing in the way, Biddle reunited with his horse. He didn’t say anything specific about the reunion, but I can only imagine he was as happy as a child who found his lost puppy. The unnamed orderly gave the reins to Biddle, who remounted. Somehow, Transportation ’s fright had evaporated and his strength to carry a rider had returned. Even though he bled from three wounds, he happily let Biddle take his seat atop him.

Through the smoke, Biddle soon saw the divisional flag and sixty-six survivors of his decimated regiment huddled underneath their tattered banner. You might think this sorry sight, the broken ranks of the 1st Corps, would have filled Biddle with despair, but it didn’t. Being reunited with his horse had filled him with hope. Transportation was still bleeding, but eager to carry out his duty. Like the other Union soldiers, he seemed to have shaken off the shock of the retreat. All around them were 1st Corps soldiers resolutely preparing their defenses. That evening, before “lights out,” Biddle wrote this: “I have reason to thank God for my merciful preservation and I trust the obstinacy of the fight will be emulated by the other Corps. . . . [T]here is no doubt of success. As we marched up the hill in the Evening a beautiful rainbow spanned the Eastern sky. I hailed it as a sign of promise for I believe if ever men fought under a sense of duty, all do so now. May God guide us and be merciful to us.”

There is no doubt of success? Yikes! Somehow, on the night of July 1, Biddle believed the Army of the Potomac was destined for victory at Gettysburg. How was that kind of optimism possible? I’m sure several factors can help us answer that question, but I prefer to believe that Biddle’s incredible reunion with Transportation had something to do with it.

Transportation survived Gettysburg and he survived the war. Near as I can tell, he continued to carry his master. In December 1863, as Lieutenant Colonel Biddle prepared to resign from the army, he wrote his wife about making arrangements to send Transportation back home to Philadelphia. He wrote, “I will send Trans back on the first opportunity, he is perfectly well.” After this, no other mention of Transportation appears in Biddle’s letters. We are left to wonder whether Transportation made it back to Philadelphia for a well-earned retirement from military life.

I like this story, and not just because it involves an animal-soldier. Transportation’s tale epitomized the story of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. Like so many other bluecoats, Trans recovered from his initial shock and held the line. Gettysburg could have been a loss if the 1st and 11th Corps had failed to rally. All honor to the bluecoats who found the courage to stand and fight after that awful first day, be they two-legged or four-legged.




Transportation, the thrice-wounded veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg.