Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Captain of the Coehorn Battery


On June 17, 1864, Confederate sharpshooters killed the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s first Coehorn mortar battery. At the time, the Confederates considered it a minor victory over a treacherous new adversary, one that threatened to make life in the trenches around Petersburg a veritable hell. For the Army of the Potomac, the death of the Coehorn battery commander signaled a terrible first sacrifice, but one that resulted from the addition of a powerful new tool—a weapon with immeasurable importance that ultimately helped the Army of the Potomac dislocate the rebels from their underground burrows.

This is tale is about the death of Captain D. K. Smith Jones, Captain of the Coehorn mortars.

This is the captain of the Coehorn mortars, Capt. D. K. S. Jones.

But first: what was a Coehorn mortar?

In short, a Coehorn was a lightweight, portable artillery tube. We might rightly consider it as the predecessor to the 60-mm mortar used by soldiers in modern times. The Coehorn made its first appearance back in 1673. A Dutch engineer, Menno van Coehorn, developed the concept as a means of dealing with prolonged siege operations—a troublesome problem for most European commanders. High walls and Vaubanian bastions made it difficult for besieging armies to capture towns quickly. Menno Coehorn believed that vertical trajectory weapons might offer an answer. Thus, he developed the mortar that bore his name. The Coehorn mortar’s first combat occurred during the Siege of Kaiserswerth in 1702, and following that, Coehorns became a mainstay of European siege operations for the next 100 years. In the nineteenth century, Coehorns existed in various sizes. For U.S. forces during the Civil War, they generally operated at twelve or twenty-four pounds. The twenty-four pound version could fire a 17-inch shell up to 1,200 yards. When fully loaded, a Coehorn mortar mounted on its carriage weighed 313 pounds.

Typically, a four-man squad carried a single Coehorn into its firing position. Then, a team of gunners loaded the shell into the tube, which was fixed at a 45-degree angle. The size of the powder charge determined the range and height of the round. When the shell was fired, it shot high into the air, nearly vertical, moving in a slow arc, and witnesses marveled at how the naked eye could see the fuse fizzing away as the shell careened toward its target. When the shell finally landed and exploded, it produced a monstrous fireball, an explosion much larger than standard light artillery rounds. Coehorn batteries possessed a major advantage in that the gunners did not need to reposition each gun after firing it. The Coehorns sat on flat wooden carriages. The concussion caused the Coehorns to buck, but they didn’t roll backwards because they did not possess any wheels.

This is a rare image of Model 1841 Coehorn mortars, the kind used by Battery D, 4th New York Heavy Artillery. They are seen in park with tompions affixed.

From 1861 to 1864, the Army of the Potomac had no use for Coehorns because they army did not normally engage in prolonged siege operations. (The one exception was Yorktown; there, the army employed 13-inch seacoast mortars, but the smaller Coehorns remained back at the arsenal.) The flat trajectory of light artillery batteries—and their easy evacuation through the limbering up process—made wheel-mounted guns preferable for combat situations.

However, all that changed in 1864 when the Army of the Potomac found itself embroiled in the Overland Campaign, which created a sprawling web of earthworks across Spotsylvania and Hanover Counties.

The first Coehorns—eight of them—joined the Army of the Potomac at the commencement of the Overland Campaign. They were attached to Battery F, 15th New York Heavy Artillery. During the Battle of the Mule Shoe Salient, the 15th New York fired its Coehorns at the rebel-occupied Bloody Angle. Sadly, it was not a marvelous debut. Many of the rounds overshot their targets and some shells even landed among the lines of prone Union infantry on the west side of the Angle. Apparently, Coehorn mortars required very exacting sighting methods. With such a high-angle trajectory, any miscalculation could send an errant mortar shell spiraling far away from its intended target.

This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the Coehorn mortars in action during the Overland Campaign.

Despite the weapon’s lackluster first appearance, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, admired the premise. Coehorns were portable and if placed in the right hands, they might weaken impressive defenses built by Lee’s army. Even after the failure of the Coehorns at Spotsylvania, Hunt ordered twenty-two additional Coehorns shipped to the army. By the end of the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac had forty on hand.

The first battery of Coehorns remained attached to the 15th New York Heavy Artillery until May 30. Many of the Army of the Potomac’s professionally-trained artillery officers did not want the 15th handling these unique weapons. The 15th New York Heavy Artillery was a German-speaking regiment and it lacked a sufficient number officers who understood English, which displeased the xenophobic West Pointers. Also, some of the infantry officers believed the 15th New York would be better suited if the entire regiment were armed as infantry. As a consequence, the commander of the 2nd Corps artillery brigade, Colonel John C. Tidball, insisted that the Coehorns go to an English-speaking unit with extensive garrison experience. General Hunt agreed. Thus, he transferred the Coehorns to Battery D, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, a regiment that had been in service since December 1861.

This photograph depicts the officers of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in garrison at Fort Corcoran. Captain Jones is hard to spot. He's thirteenth from the left.

Here's a close-up of Captain Jones. Only a portion of his face is visible.

On May 30, the 4th New York received its new weapons and deployed them against the Army of the Potomac’s immediate threat, the Confederate positions near Totopotomoy Creek. Specifically, Battery D was stationed near Edwin Shelton’s brick mansion, “Rural Plains.” (This house is still in existence, part of Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield Park.) A sixteen-year-old soldier in the 11th New York Light Artillery, Private Frank Wilkeson, recalled the scene. Wilkeson marveled at the sight of the Coehorn battery’s commander, Captain Jones. Wilkeson spoke to him, and Jones gladly offered his time to instruct the youngster on mortar tactics. Wilkeson later wrote:


One day during this protracted Cold Harbor fight, a battery of Cohorn mortars was placed in position in the ravine behind us. The captain of this battery was a tall, handsome, sweet-voiced man. He spent a large portion of his time in our earthworks, watching the fire of his mortars. He would jump on a gun and look over the works, or he would look out through the embrasures. Boy-like, I talked to him. I would have talked to a field-marshal if I had met one. He told me many things relative to mortar practice, and I, in turn, showed him how to get a fair look at the Confederate lines without exposing himself to the fire of the sharpshooters, most of whom we had “marked down.” He playfully accused me of being afraid, and insisted that at six hundred yards a sharpshooter could not hit a man. But I had seen too many men killed in our battery to believe that. So he continued to jump on guns and to poke his head into embrasures.


This image depicts Pvt. Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Light Artillery. (This is how he looked later in the war, after he received a commission as second lieutenant.) Wilkeson's father served as a war correspondent for the New York Times. Also, his aunt was feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Private Wilkeson concluded that the Coehorn mortars were an innovative weapon, and he gladly watched as the shells eviscerated the Confederates in front of the Shelton mansion. Those Confederates belonged to Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division. One of them, Captain T. C. Morton of the 26th Virginia Battalion, recalled the harm the Coehorn mortars did to his command. He wrote:

Before this shelling of our position commenced, [Private] John Ford had been placed on the advanced picket line and his position happened to be in a sandy bottom near the creek, where he had sheltered himself behind an uprooted tree. He could be plainly seen by many of the men, crouching low in the sand. In the midst of the cannonading a large mortar shell without exploding, fell in the sand a few feet from him, the fuse still smoking and spitting and an explosion momentarily imminent. John took in the situation at a glance, and doubtless arguing that if he jumped up to run, the shell might explode before he got out of reach and tear him to pieces, and that the safest thing for him to do was to get down into the ground, commenced at once to work down into the sand with hands, legs and head. My attention was attracted by the men hollering, “Scratch [Run!] John! Scratch! She’s a-going off!” and looking in the direction where I had last seen him, I witnessed an amusing spectacle. Never was a man more dead in earnest. The sand all around him was in commotion, and in the few seconds that the fizzing fuse gave him, he burrowed like a great gopher till nothing but the top of his hump could be seen as the loose sand settled around it. I held my breath expecting the next second to see the poor fellow blown to atoms. Then the explosion came with a tremendous jar that shook the ground and sent a hundred pieces of iron singing through the air. We all kept our eyes fixed upon the spot as the smoke and dust slowly lifted, when the first sight that came to view was the head of Ford, happily, still on his shoulders, and as he realized that he was all right, he looked back at us and sang out “Who-eeh” as cheerily as if he had treed a coon instead of been face to face with death a second before. An answering cheer and a laugh went up from the boys on the line, and the incident was the next minute forgotten.

But not all incidents were so comical. Captain Morton also remembered a more gruesome incident from his regiment’s first encounter with the Coehorns:

I do not know what our loss was in this artillery fight, [I] only recollect that two men in my own company were killed. One of them while lying down was struck on the back by a large piece of descending shell and cut in two, poor fellow. The other had gone to the rear a mile with a detail to cook and was on his way back to the line with a camp-kettle full of corn-bread and beef on his arm when the cannonading commenced. He ran towards the breastworks for protection, while the hungry men in the trenches watched his race through the ploughing shot and shell, almost as solicitous for the safety of their breakfast, perhaps, as for that of their comrade. Just before the poor fellow reached us, however, a shell exploded directly in front of him, and when the smoke cleared away the bloody fragments of the man and the scattered contents of the camp-kettle lay mingled together on the ground before our eyes. It is said that from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh, but on this occasion speech came from the emptiness of one poor soldier’s stomach, when looking upon the ghastly wreck before us, he exclaimed: “Lor’, boys, just look, Joe Flint is all mixed up with our breakfast, and it ain’t fit for nothing!” Such want of sentiment, or feeling if you like, sounds strange and heartless to us now, but in those times of courage and every-day suffering, the hungry soldier’s remark, finding an echo in the empty stomachs of his fellows, did not seem so much out of place.

In their second encounter with the Coehorns, the Confederates did not like what they saw.

After leaving the battlefield at Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac drifted south. It crossed the James River and moved against Petersburg from the east. As soon as the Army of the Potomac’s infantry made contact with the Dimmock Line—the long string of redans that encircled Petersburg—Battery D was again called to the front. On June 17, it was posted north of the William Shands house in support of two divisions of 2nd Corps and 9th Corps that attempted (unsuccessfully) to penetrate Confederate earthworks at Hare House Hill. The mortars plied their work of death, weakening the rebel position. Eventually, word got passed to a Confederate brigade commander, Colonel Matt Ransom, whose unit was directly opposite the Coehorns. Ransom had to silence the battery. Ransom selected his ten best marksmen and sent them to the parapet with specific instructions to kill the Coehorn gunners.

This illustration depicts the Coehorn Battery at work. Likely, it is based upon the Waud sketch shown above. Note that it depicts Captain Jones standing at right.

During the assault, Captain Jones noticed the increased volume of enemy sharpshooter fire and gave orders declaring that no one in Battery D could show his head above the breastworks. Apparently, Jones had taken young Wilkeson’s advice to heart—at least so far as his gunners were concerned.

Sadly, Jones did not apply the same orders to himself; he routinely peeked his head over the parapet to get a good look at where the mortar rounds fell. (Later on, one of Jones’s lieutenants surmised that Jones had poor eyesight. He lingered too long at the parapet because he needed to wait until the slow-burning fuse triggered the explosion of the shell in order to see where the shell had hit.)

As the sharpshooter fire increased, Jones took a seat atop an ammunition box and began conversing with his chief of ammunition, Corporal H. Page Burnell. Suddenly, a brigade from the 9th Corps—Col. Jacob P. Gould’s—came running back in retreat over the works in front of the Coehorn battery, its attack having failed. In haste, Captain Jones arose from his seat and said, “Corporal, hand me a fifteen and a half second fuse, I am going to give them a shell!”

Over in the Confederate works, Colonel Ransom cautioned his men. He noticed how the Union captain of the Coehorns always poked his head above the works right after he issued a command. Ransom told his sharpshooters that as soon as they heard the Union commander shout, they must fire on that spot!

Colonel Matthew W. Ransom commanded the North Carolina brigade that took credit for killing Captain Jones. After the war, he was elected as a U.S. Senator and became President Pro Tempore of the Senate for three days in 1895.

Apparently, the words, “I am going to give them a shell!” sounded like orders to Ransom’s sharpshooters, because all of them fired. One of those ten bullets found its mark.

As Corporal Burnell recollected, “As he [Jones] uttered the words a bullet struck him in the left temple and came out by his right ear. He dropped, quivered a minute, perhaps, and all was over.”

As Burnell grasped his dead commander, Private John H. Mead arrived on the scene. Mead had gone to the rear along with another man in search of ammunition, and together, they found Captain Jones dead near the ammunition box. Soon, First Lieutenant Abram G. Bradt arrived and took charge. He ordered four men to gather up Captain Jones’s remains and bury them. One of the men that Bradt selected was Private Sylvester Simpson. (Presumably, Burnell, Mead, and the unnamed man with Mead were the other three.) Together, they unrolled a blanket and placed Jones’s body onto it. With that, they carried the corpse to the rear.

As it happened, the four-man detail passed by Private Wilkeson of the 11th New York battery, the young soldier who had shadowed Captain Jones eighteen days earlier. Wilkeson remembered the scene:

One day I went to the spring after water. While walking back I met four men carrying a body in a blanket. “Who is that?” I asked. “The captain of the mortars,” was the reply. Stopping, they uncovered his head for me. I saw where the ball had struck him in the eye, and saw the great hole in the back of his head where it had passed out.

Private Simpson and his four companions buried Captain Jones in a garden, probably somewhere on the Shands property. A few days later, Lieutenant Bradt made arrangements to have Jones’s body exhumed and shipped back to Saratoga, New York, to its permanent burial site.

In the larger story of the Civil War, Captain Jones’s death is a minor footnote. However, we might pause and reflect upon the legacy that he and the men of Battery D left upon the larger arc of U.S. military history. The shelling of May 30 and June 17 were not the last time that the U.S. Army used Coehorn mortars. Mortars of all sizes saw extensive use in the Eastern Theater after the Coehorns arrived in 1864. Famously, the Army of the Potomac deployed a giant, 13-inch mortar known as the Dictator. Beyond that, mortars stayed in the army for the next 150 years. Infantry mortars have been an integral part of the Great War, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. (Rare is the day I see a book about the War in Afghanistan that does not mention them.) 

“Stovepipe Boys” of the modern era might do well to remember the name of Captain D. K. Smith Jones, their Civil War counterpart.

This image depicts the Dictator, the Army of the Potomac's famous siege mortar near Petersburg. Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt and Col. John C. Tidball--two of the biggest champions of the Coehorn mortars--can be seen standing closest to the camera.

Too often we remember the weapon and not the soldiers who pioneered them. Weapons are, after all, only what humans make them. Jones, the captain of the Coehorn mortars, made them something to be feared.

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan aim their M224 60-mm mortar at the enemy. In a way, the Army of the Potomac's Coehorn battery has left a lasting legacy upon U.S. Army.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, a Seven-Part Series.

The officers of the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry are pictured here, photographed in 1865.

Hey there, fans of Tales from the Army of the Potomac!

I have another series coming your way.

Being a Marylander, I thought it was high time to seek out some tales that originated from my home state. Here is a seven-part series that resulted from my quest.


Part 1. When Maryland veterans tried to identify their state’s Unionist heroes, at which name did they first arrive? They told us to remember Col. Nathan T. Dushane. Come learn his story here.

Part 2. Col. Jacob Eugene Duryée gets plenty of love from historians, especially those who study the Battle of Antietam. Turns out, he wasn’t such a swell guy. Come find out why.

Part 3. When Maryland began recruiting U.S.C.I. regiments, local slave-holders tried to stand in the way. They didn’t stand a chance. Click here to learn the incredible story about the Union raid on Upper Marlboro’s slave jail.

Part 4. On November 1, 1864, slavery came to an end in Maryland. That pivotal event happened when the state’s new constitution went into effect. As it turns out, we ought to credit the Army of the Potomac’s Marylanders for casting the deciding vote. Part 4 tells this interesting tale.

Part 5. On April 1 and 2, 1865, the Army of the Potomac broke the back of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Would it surprise you to learn that Marylanders were leading the charge? Two of them received the Medal of Honor for their heroism. Come learn their stories here.

Part 6. Rising from private to colonel, Benjamin F. Taylor may have had the most exciting story of any Marylander in the Army of the Potomac. He left behind tons of written material about his life and his well-traveled regiment. And yet, no one has ever published it.

Part 7. How often did brothers actually confront each other in the Civil War? Well, in the case of Maryland, it happened at least once. And Walt Whitman was there too! Check out the unbelievable story of the Prentiss brothers.

Friday, May 1, 2020

“Each Died For His Cause”: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 7.

For this last post about Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, I want to discuss the story of the Prentiss brothers, two Baltimoreans who served in opposing armies. The Union brother, Lt. Col. Clifton Prentiss, was part of the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps. He was mortally wounded in one of the last battles, the April 2, 1865, assault against the Petersburg earthworks. His younger brother, Pvt. William Prentiss, was mortally wounded at the same battle. Amazingly, after having been separated for four years, the two brothers ended up at the same field hospital! It’s a story that has been told a few times before by other historians, so I cannot say that I’m going to add much that hasn’t been said before. However, I’d like to profile it largely because it is a quintessentially Maryland story. Quite often, we Civil War buffs erroneously call the Civil War a “brothers’ war.” Of course, in reality, Civil War families rarely divided because of political allegiance. More often, brothers fought alongside each other, not against each other.

But Maryland was an exception. Truly, it was a state divided by political fidelity and these differences of opinion ripped families asunder. Maryland’s 1860 population numbered about 687,000. Most estimates suggest that 4,000 Marylanders fought for the Confederacy and up to 60,000 Marylanders—black and white—fought for the Union. The Prentiss brothers were just two of those 64,000, and they were among the very last Marylanders to perish in the conflict. Nothing represented the story of Maryland better than their tragic demise.

Here’s what happened.

On December 22, 1825, Massachusetts-born educator John Prentiss married Amelia F. Kennedy of Baltimore. Together, they had nine children. Five of these children died young. (Marcia, born September 1, 1831, died on June 30, 1832; William, born on July 10, 1833, died on January 25, 1836; Aurelia, born May 2, 1838, died five days later; Mary Amelia, born August 26, 1841, died on December 11, 1845; and Marcia Gray, born August 25, 1844, died on December 4, 1850.) Then, the two parents died within five years of each other. Amelia Prentiss died in February 1857, and John died on August 31, 1861. He died when his carriage—which was crossing a railroad track in downtown Baltimore—was struck by a train. This accident occurred at the intersection of Cathedral and Biddle Streets, right where the Northern Central Railway crossed the road. (Today, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra building occupies this area.) Prentiss was thrown from his carriage and instantly killed.

Thus, only four Prentiss children lived to adulthood. They were:

·         John H. Prentiss, Jr., born November 26, 1826. He became a physician.

·         Thomas Melville Prentiss was born on October 29, 1829. He moved to Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York, and became an elder Presbyterian minister.

·         Clifton Kennedy Prentiss—the one who served in the Union army—was born on June 16, 1835.

·         William Scollay Prentiss—the Confederate soldier—was born on May 29, 1839.

Not much is known about the two youngest Prentiss brothers, other than that they lived in Baltimore most of their lives, and that they benefited from their father’s wealth and his connections in higher education. (William Scollay Prentiss, for instance, graduated from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy.) Both brothers were propelled into military service in the summer of 1861, right when the war’s turbulence led to several high-profile political arrests in Baltimore. Clifton Prentiss joined a Unionist militia company, entering as a private. Meanwhile, William Prentiss fled Maryland and slipped across the Potomac River. In Virginia, he joined the unit being organized by Colonel Bradley Tyler Johnson, which became known as the 1st Maryland Infantry (C.S.A.). It’s tempting to wonder how their father’s death in August influenced their decisions, but so far, I’ve discovered no information to connect John Prentiss’s violent death with the decisions made by his sons.

In any event, the war carried the two brothers along its treacherous track. Assuming that Private William Scollay Prentiss remained with his regiment at every engagement, he participated in Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, the Second Battle of Winchester, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg. Prentiss appears to have been a private the whole time, staying in Company A, 1st Maryland Battalion, and then with Company A, 2nd Maryland Infantry (C.S.A.), when his regiment was re-designated by the Confederate War Department in January 1864.

Meanwhile, Clifton Prentiss joined a new regiment in the summer of 1862. In June, the War Department began raising a brigade of Unionist Marylanders called the “Maryland Brigade.” Prentiss helped recruit one of the companies. When it mustered-in, it became known as Company F, 6th Maryland. On July 31, Governor Augustus Bradford commissioned Prentiss as second lieutenant, and then as captain, on August 27. Rushed to the front in September 1862, the 6th Maryland eventually joined the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy. In June 1863, it participated in the Battle of Star Fort, part of the Second Battle of Winchester. (Although William Prentiss’s regiment was nearby, there is no indication that the two brothers met, or were even aware of the other’s proximity.) After Gettysburg, the whole division—and the 6th Maryland with it—became part of the Army of the Potomac. It became 3rd Division, 6th Corps. The 6th Maryland had an active final year, fighting in the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Captain Prentiss appears to have been with his regiment the whole time, except during the summer and fall of 1864, when he served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Truman Seymour. On November 17, 1864, Governor Bradford promoted him to major, and he returned to his regiment, serving as its second-in-command.

On the morning of April 2, 1865, fate compelled the two brothers to meet.

That day, the 6th Corps prepared for its massive 14,000-man assault to be delivered against the Confederate earthworks southwest of Petersburg. During the predawn hours, near a winding rivulet called Arthur’s Swamp, Col. Joseph Warren Keifer lined up his brigade. Knowing that the battle might very well deliver the coup de grace to the Confederacy, Keifer made certain his men would break through the enemy line. The 6th Maryland occupied the front and center of Keifer’s line-of-battle. Because of its position, the 6th Maryland stood the best chance of being the first Union regiment to breach the enemy earthworks. Keifer later explained:

A narrow opening, just wide enough for a wagon to pass through, was known to exist in the enemy’s line in front of my brigade, though it was skilfully covered by a shoulder around it. The existence of this opening was discovered from the observation tower, and deserters told of it. I determined to take advantage of it, and therefore instructed Colonel Clifton K. Prentiss of the 6th Maryland, when the time for the attack came, to move his regiment by the flank rapidly through this opening without halting or firing, and when within, open on the Confederates behind the works, taking them in flank, and, if possible, drive them out and thus leave for our other troops little resistance in gaining an entrance over the ramparts.

At 4:40 A.M., signal guns near Union Fort Fisher fired a salvo, indicating that the time had come to commence the attack. With a mad cheer, the 6th Corps troops charged forward, and Major Prentiss, true to his word, was among the first to leap atop the Confederate earthworks. Col. Keifer, who was mounted and riding up toward the concealed gap in the earthworks, recalled:

The time occupied in the assault was short. Colonel Prentiss with his Marylanders penetrated the fortifications at the opening mentioned. They surprised the enemy by their presence and a flank fire, and, as anticipated, caused him to fall back. The storming bodies swarmed over the works, and the enemy immediately in their front were soon killed, wounded, captured, or dispersed. Ten pieces of artillery, three battle-flags, and General Heath’s headquarters flag were trophies of my command.

Major Prentiss paid for his heroics. As he mounted the parapet, a musket ball struck him in the chest, ripping through his lungs. Keifer, who was near enough to get a decent view of the scene, explained, “The brave Colonel Prentiss as he led a storming column over the parapet of the fort, was struck by a ball which carried away a part of his breast-bone immediately over his heart, exposing its action to view. He fell within the fort.”

As the 6th Corps infantry widened the breakthrough, soldiers from the 6th Maryland carried Maj. Prentiss to a nearby field hospital, quite possibly the Hart Farm, which was immediately behind Confederate lines. Meanwhile, other soldiers from the division—those who survived the initial morning clash along the parapet—turned south and began rolling up the Confederate line, widening the gap. Near an artillery bastion called Fort Davis, Brig. Gen. William McComb’s brigade tried to stem the tide of Yankees. In the heated fighting, Private William S. Prentiss of the 2nd Maryland Battalion fell wounded with a shattered right leg.

As it happened, soldiers from the 6th Maryland began passing over the battlefield, chasing McComb’s routed men. Some of the Marylanders stopped to assist the wounded Confederate soldiers who were now trapped behind Union lines. As fate would have it, some of the 6th Maryland soldiers found Private William Prentiss and gave him water from their canteens. Curious about the fate of his brother, Prentiss asked if the 6th Maryland was nearby.

The soldiers replied, “We belong to that regiment! Why do you ask?”

Prentiss replied, “I have a brother in that regiment.”


“Capt. Clifton K. Prentiss.”

No doubt shocked by this wounded man’s identity, the 6th Maryland soldiers pointed, “Yes, he is our Major now and is lying over yonder, wounded.”

William Prentiss said, “I would like to see him.”

Here’s where the story gets murky. According to John Rigdon King, an officer in 6th Maryland, the soldiers sent word to Maj. Prentiss that his brother, William, was lying nearby. When he heard the news, Clifton refused to see him. He snarled, “I want to see no man who fired on my country’s flag.” But then, the commander of the 6th Maryland, Col. Joseph C. Hill, apparently hearing the news, ordered the stretcher-bearers to carry William Prentiss to the improvised field hospital and lay him beside his brother, whether he liked it or not. As King described it, “Our Major glared at him. The Confederate brother smiled: that was the one touch of nature; out went both hands and with tears streaming down their cheeks, these two brothers, who had met on many bloody fields opposite for three years, were once more brought together.”

Hospital Steward William Howell Reed, who was also in a position to know what happened, told a slightly different story. He claimed that the two brothers were laid side by side, but entirely by accident. He explained:

In one of our wards we had an officer, Colonel Clifton J. Prentiss, of Baltimore, whose case was of such peculiar and touching interest that it ought not to be passed by. In one of the closing battles of the war he was wounded through the lungs. When I first saw him, he was brought into the hospital from the field, as we thought, fatally hurt. At the same time a lad, a rebel soldier, was lifted from the stretcher upon an adjoining bed, with a thigh amputation, having been struck by a fragment of a shell above the knee. This Union officer and this rebel soldier lay side by side, not knowing that they were indeed brothers, and unconscious, in all that bloody strife which had set its fatal seal upon them both, that they had been striking the one against the other, and falling but ten feet apart. And so, by some blessed providence, they were brought together at last,—the glance of an eye, or some well-known tone of voice, making their recognition complete, which it only needed the hand-grasp to confirm.

I’d speculate that King’s recollections were more accurate. (Human agency, not luck, probably explained how the two brothers came to share the same field hospital.) But, whichever version was the truth, both brothers did indeed meet inside the field hospital and they clasped hands when they saw each other. Another member of the 3rd Division, 6th Corps, John Newton Terrill of 14th New Jersey, recollected simply, “A rebel lieutenant was picked up wounded, who gave his name as Lieut. Prentiss, of the 2nd Maryland regiment; he was the younger brother of the major [of the 6th Maryland], whom he had not seen since the rebellion broke out; they were both placed in the hospital together, and their wounds dressed. The meeting between the brothers was very affecting, causing many to shed tears.”

Both Keifer and Reed also agreed that at least one, perhaps both, of the older brothers came down to visit the two wounded Prentiss brothers at the field hospital. Reed, in fact, seemed to know a great deal about the final hours of the two wounded men, and apparently he served in the same facility after both of them were transported from the battlefields in Virginia. Both brothers went to a general hospital in Washington, D.C.—most likely Armory Square Hospital. After that, they were moved a second time, arriving at an unknown hospital in Brooklyn in either May or June. William Scollay Prentiss died first. He endured an amputation at the upper thigh, but expired on June 23, 1865. Whether derived from firsthand knowledge or not, Reed explained:

Day after day we used to visit him in the quiet ward where he seemed to be so much alone, for he had but little sympathy until he was converted over to the old flag which he had forsaken. And when the memories of his home and his early companionships came over him, and he felt that even this renewal of old ties was still but a fraternal estrangement, his boy’s heart quite gave way, and he begged for the kindly smile of this elder brother, for I the love and generous sympathy of their boyhood. In a few weeks the exhaustion of his system was so complete that he sank rapidly away and died.

Like his younger brother, Maj. Clifton Prentiss was held at the Armory Square hospital for several weeks—at least until May—and was later transferred to a hospital in Brooklyn. On April 25, while at Armory Square, he received promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, a reward for his leadership during the April 2 assault. He lingered on into the summer, but death eventually came for him as well. He breathed his last on August 20, 1865. Because he was also assigned to the Brooklyn hospital, Reed knew about the final moments of Lt. Col. Prentiss. He explained:

The brave and all-enduring colonel lived on,—every breath a stab, and every movement of the poor frail body like the tension and snapping of some cord of life. Through many weary months he waited and suffered. Life had much in store for him. He longed to be again amid its peaceful activity; yet he was always submissive, and only looked to see what was the loving Father’s will. And that will was revealed at last, giving him but time to say, “It is well; I am ready to go.”

Both Prentiss boys were laid to rest, side by side, in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Presumably, the two eldest brothers, James and Thomas, made the funeral arrangements.

Before their death, the Prentiss brothers caught the attention of one of the nineteenth-century’s most famous authors, Walt Whitman. During the last week of May, Whitman—who often visited Civil War hospitals—met both of them. He jotted down his thoughts and eventually published them in his 1882 book, Specimen Days. Whitman mentioned the encounter under the title, “Two Brothers, One South, One North.”

May 28-9.—I staid to-night a long time by the bedside of a new patient, a young Baltimorean, aged about 19 years, W.S.P., (2d Maryland, southern,) very feeble, right leg amputated, can’t sleep hardly at all—has taken a great deal of morphine, which, as usual, is costing more than it comes to. Evidently very intelligent and well bred—very affectionate—held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave. As I was lingering, soothing him in his pain, he says to me suddenly, “I hardly think you know who I am—I don’t wish to impose upon you—I am a rebel soldier.” I said I did not know that, but it made no difference. Visiting him daily for about two weeks after that, while he lived, (death had mark’d him, and he was quite alone,) I loved him much, always kiss’d him, and he did me. In an adjoining ward I found his brother, an officer of rank, a Union soldier, a brave and religious man, (Col. Clifton K. Prentiss, Sixth Maryland infantry, Sixth corps, wounded in one of the engagements at Petersburgh, April 2—linger’d, suffer’d much, died in Brooklyn, Aug. 20, ‘65.) It was in the same battle both were hit. One was a strong Unionist, the other Secesh; both fought on their respective sides, both badly wounded, and both brought together here after a separation of four years. Each died for his cause.

“Each died for his cause.” This was classic Whitman, saying what something was rather than what it meant. Undoubtedly, he wanted readers to contemplate the war’s tragedy, that a nation had been torn asunder by two oppositional causes. I wish he had paused to consider how the death of the Prentiss brothers had been a uniquely Maryland problem. The Old Line State had been split in twain by the same national confrontation. It was the hotly-contested middle ground of the Civil War. Indeed, the chasm created by the war had cleaved the Prentiss family. No incident from the war better explained the richness of the war’s consequences upon Maryland as the death of Lt. Col. Clifton Prentiss and his Confederate brother, William.

This photograph depicts Major Clifton Kennedy Prentiss in early 1865. There are no known photographs of his younger (Confederate) brother, William.

This is the approximate location of Major Prentiss's mortal wounding. On April 2, 1865, he led a contingent of men from the 6th Maryland over the parapet in the background. These entrenchments are located on the grounds of Pamplin Park. The area is identified by the presence of the "shoulder" mentioned by Col. J. Warren Keifer. The wayside depicts the shoulder and sally-port. 

In May 1865, Walt Whitman met both Prentiss brothers as they lay dying in a Washington, D.C. hospital. Whitman wrote an account of his meeting in his book, Specimen Days.

Although some controversy exists as to the final location of the Prentiss brothers, both appear to have been buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. These markers commemorate their deaths. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Private to Colonel: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 6.

Which Marylander was the Army of the Potomac’s brightest star? The answer to this question is a matter of opinion, but I have a candidate for it. There were only two Marylanders who began the war as privates and who rose to the rank of colonel before the war ended. One of these was Col. Stephen W. Downey of the 3rd Maryland Potomac Home Brigade. The other was Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor of the 2nd Maryland.

Colonel Taylor is the subject of this post. He’s a remarkable character for several reasons. First, in addition to going from private to colonel, he was wounded three times during the war: at Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Fort Mahone. He recovered from all three wounds and led his regiment back to Baltimore in 1865 amid great fanfare. Second, Taylor’s story involved disappointment and redemption. In 1865, his brigade commander almost cashiered him, but Taylor redeemed himself by leading his regiment in a gallant charge on April 2, 1865. (Like so many Marylanders, he was in at the war’s close in a rather profound way.) Third, and by no means least, as a veteran, Taylor did not shy away from the war’s memory. He spent years writing tales of his wartime experiences and he even completed a regimental history for his well-traveled regiment, the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. And yet, almost nothing from his personal papers or correspondence has ever been published. His excellent regimental history lies languishing unseen inside the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

If Maryland was the Army of the Potomac’s most unsung state, then Col. Taylor might be the state’s most unsung hero.

If Marylanders want to honor a valiant officer from the Army of the Potomac, they need not look any further than him.

This is Taylor’s story. I regret that it is incomplete.

Benjamin Franklin Taylor was born in Baltimore, November 13, 1840. He was the son of a War of 1812 veteran. Based on some circumstantial evidence, Taylor appeared to grow up in comparatively wealthy circumstances. During his teenage years, he entered St. Timothy’s Hall, a military academy located in Catonsville, Maryland. In fact, the Booth boys—Edwin and John Wilkes—were among his classmates. There is no indication that he was friends with them, nor was he influenced by their pro-Southern politics. Taylor seems to have been a lifelong Republican. In 1859, at age 19, Taylor graduated St. Timothy’s and he entered the Maryland Agricultural College, staying there for one year.

Like many young men, in 1861, when the war’s trumpet sounded, he felt called to action. Promptly, he enlisted in one of the first companies forming in Baltimore City, Captain Andrew Brunner’s. On June 30, 1861, Taylor mustered into the service of the United States, starting out as a private in Company B, 2nd Maryland Infantry. Readers will recognize this regiment as the one that was troubled by the questionable leadership of Lt. Col. Jacob E. Duryée, the subject of a previous post.

Taylor rose through the ranks quickly. On October 8, 1861, regimental leadership promoted him to sergeant-major, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the regiment. On July 12, 1862, he received an officer’s commission, becoming second lieutenant of Company B. As an officer, he fought at Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Antietam. On September 23, 1862, a few days after the bloody fight at Burnside’s Bridge, Taylor received a promotion to captain of Company B. A few months later, he fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and there he received a wound, a shell fragment to the left thigh, from which he recovered.

In 1863, the division to which Taylor (and the 2nd Maryland) belonged transferred to the Department of Ohio. For two months, the Marylanders operated in Kentucky, and at the end of the year, they went to Eastern Tennessee, fighting at the Battles of Blue Springs, Campbell Station, and Knoxville. In November, Captain Taylor left his regiment to serve as an aide-de-camp on the staff of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. He held that position throughout December, and then in January 1864, became acting inspector general for the staff of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. In January 1864, his regiment went home on veteran furlough and it returned to the front in February. When it went back, the 2nd Maryland went to Virginia, rejoining the Army of the Potomac.

The 2nd Maryland participated in the Overland Campaign, skirmishing with Confederate forces near Spotsylvania. After that, the Marylanders participated in the combat actions at Totopotomy Creek, Cold Harbor, and in the opening assaults on Petersburg. On June 25, 1864, Captain Taylor received a gunshot wound to the left shoulder. As with his previous wound, he recovered from this one as well.

I’m not sure how long his shoulder wound sidelined him, but apparently, he managed to return to his regiment sometime in the autumn of 1864. While he was recuperating, several Marylanders organized a campaign to have him promoted to command of the 2nd Maryland. At the time, the 2nd Maryland’s colonel was recovering from a wound received at the Battle of the Crater and it did not appear that he would return. The signers included a quarryman, Ebenezer Dickey McClenahan; an educator, Jacob Tome; and two Know-Nothing newspapermen, William J. Jones and Charles H. Haines. Here is the letter they wrote to the governor:

Sept. 15, 1864
To His Excellency, A. W. Bradford,
Governor of Maryland
Dear Sir,

We learn that an application has been forwarded to your Excellency from the Second Maryland Regiment asking for a Commission for Capt. B. F. Taylor as Lieut. Colonel in that Regiment. We beg leave most respectfully but earnestly to join in that recommendation.

Capt. Taylor entered the 2nd Maryland when the Regiment was first formed at a very early period in the War, as a private, and by his bravery and good conduct in all the battles in which the regiment has been engaged has won his way to his present position. He has, we learn, been several times wounded, last in front of Petersburg some three months ago. He is now with and in command of his Regiment.

Capt. Taylor was educated at a Military School and is regarded in Military circles as a most efficient and worthy officer.

We know that he left a comfortable home surrounded by luxury and against the wishes of all his family purely from his love of his country and entered the army as a private. We respectfully submit to your Excellency that such services deserve recognition. We sincerely hope that you will forward to Capt. Taylor this commission and we are sure that his future conduct will accord with his past services and fully justify the confidence thus placed in him.

We are, respectfully,
Your Obt. Servants,
J. Tome
W. J. Jones
Chas. H. Haines
Wm. Parker
E. D. McClenahan

Governor Bradford sent Taylor his commission, and as lieutenant colonel, he led his regiment at the Battles of Hatcher’s Run and Nottoway River. At age 24, he was, at the time, one of the youngest regimental commanders in the Army of the Potomac.

Sometime in February 1865, Taylor angered his brigade and divisional commanders. Currently, I’m not sure what kind of unspeakable act he committed. His personal papers—which are held at the Maryland Historical Society—contain several angry letters written by his no-nonsense divisional and brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Robert Potter and Brig. Gen. Simon Griffin. In high fury, Potter and Griffin expressed disappointment in Taylor’s comportment, blaming him for some unnamed incident. I don’t know why they were displeased. If I had to guess, I’d say it was drunkenness, a common problem among the officer corps. For some unexplained reason, neither general wished to bring charges against Lt. Col. Taylor. Instead, their letters merely admonished him, warning him to learn from his mistake and strive to restore his good name.

As if on cue, Taylor’s moment of redemption came a few weeks later. On the morning of April 2, 1865, the 9th Corps attacked the Confederate earthworks at Fort Mahone. Lt. Col. Taylor’s regiment, the 2nd Maryland, was part of this attack. During the charge, Taylor fell wounded, struck in the left ankle by an enemy shell. This exciting attack stuck fast in Taylor’s memory for a long time. In 1909, 44 year later, he wrote a lengthy account of the Battle of Fort Mahone and sent it to the National Tribune, a newspaper that paid its bills by publishing stories from Union veterans. The editors of the Tribune loved Taylor’s account. They considered it so good they decided to publish it in their short-lived magazine, the National Tribune Repository. Despite some sleuthing, I’ve been unable to find any existing copy of Taylor’s account. Along with the other stories from the National Tribune Repository, it appears to have disappeared.

Although taken off the front line, Taylor continued to serve the Army of the Potomac. During the final days of the war in the Eastern Theater, he helped command the army’s provost guard. On April 8—two days after the Battle of Sailor’s Creek—he took charge of 7,500 Confederate prisoners, including Richard S. Ewell, Joseph B. Kershaw, G. W. Custis Lee, Eppa Hunton, Dudley DuBose, Montgomery Corse, John R. Tucker, Raphael Semmes, and James Howard. No doubt, it must have been therapeutic to become temporary jailor to these leaders of the rebellion.

Taylor’s superiors were astonished by his heroics at Fort Mahone and they sought to reward him with one final promotion. On July 10, 1865, he advanced to the rank of colonel. Seven days later, Taylor led his regiment back to Baltimore for its muster-out. Easily, the 2nd Maryland was the state’s elite regiment. It had been in service since the beginning of the war and it had reenlisted a majority of its veterans. It had been with the Army of the Potomac during its campaigns in Maryland, along the Rappahannock, through the Overland Campaign, and through the Siege of Petersburg. In addition, the regiment had also served in during the East Carolina Campaign, in Pope’s Second Manassas Campaign, in the 1863 Kentucky Campaign, and in the Siege of Knoxville. It was Maryland’s most well-traveled regiment. As one historian later explained, “During its service in the United States Army, the Second Maryland Infantry marched 1,847 miles, was transported by rail 1,575 miles, and by water 2,131 miles, a total of 5,553 miles.”

Like many veterans, Taylor made the most of his postwar career and readjusted to peacetime. On February 3, 1869, he married Mary J. Cator of Harford County and raised three children with her. He became a member of the Baltimore County Grange and the Superintendent of Loudon Park National Cemetery. For the remainder of his life, he lived at a place called Mount Peru Farm in Bradshaw, Maryland.

As he got older, Taylor’s thoughts returned to the war, and he used his time to remember the men with whom he served. In his final years, he wrote a history of his regiment, but currently, no one has ever published it.

Although Taylor did not shine with the same luster as some of the Army of the Potomac’s more famous officers, Marylanders recognized him as one of their state’s success stories. A biographer wrote, “As a soldier, he was unusually brave and energetic, possessing great courage, as well as those other qualities that won for him the confidence of his fellow officers.”

Taylor died on February 25, 1919, at age 78.  He was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kingsville, Maryland. (Many years ago, I was Best Man in a wedding at this church.)

It’s a shame that the Army of the Potomac’s brightest Maryland star is not better known. His personal papers are unpublished. His account of the Battle of Fort Mahone is missing. His regimental history remains unseen.

One day, perhaps, an enterprising student will attempt to tell the tale of Benjamin Franklin Taylor. He started at the bottom of the Army of the Potomac’s hierarchy and rose to the top. For that, he is worthy of the state’s recognition.

This image depicts Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor in the summer of 1865. 

This image depicts the officers of the 2nd Maryland Infantry in early 1865. Lt. Col. Taylor can be seen sitting in the front row, center, with legs crossed.

This is Benjamin F. Taylor, postwar.