Monday, December 16, 2013

Who is Braxton Flannel?

A few years ago, I was doing archival research and I came across an interesting letter. The author was Lieutenant Mathias Edgar Richards, a staff officer for Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett. He wrote this letter to his sister, Sophie, who lived in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Here it is:

Hd. Qrs. 2nd Brigade

June 24, 1862

Dear Sophie,

I send enclosed another photograph picked up—

Description of Characters commencing left side of picture, where lager keg is— front row—

J. J. Bartlett—Col. 27th N. Y. Vols—Col Comdg 2d Brigade—

Genl. H. W. Slocum—Comd’g Division—

Genl. Wm. B. Franklin—Comd’g 6th Prov. Army Corps—

Genl. Barry—

Gen. Newton—Comd’g 3rd Brig of our Division

Second or back row—

Col. Jos. Howland—16th N. Y. Vols—

Capt. E. Sparrow Purdy Asst. Adjt. Genl.

“ Arnold—Inspec. Genl. & Chief of Staff

“ Phillips—aid

Lt. Baker—“

“ Jackson—“

“ Hoff—Ordnance officer—

The picture was taken at White House. The little nigger is front of Genl. Franklin is a slave of Mrs. Lee and his name is Braxton Flannel—the keg had lager beer in it—&c &c.

 . . . Your affect bro, Mat

When I read Lieutenant Richards’s description, I immediately recognized the photograph to which he referred. It is this photograph:

This is a fairly well-known image. A copy of it is kept in the Library of Congress (Call number: LC-B815- 382) and through the LOC website, it is easily accessible. The image is usually attributed to photographer James Gibson. The LOC’s description says that Gibson took it on May 14, 1862, at Cumberland Landing.
Meanwhile, here is an image of the author of the letter, Lt. Richards:

Richards offered us historians a great resource, labeling all of the officers in the photograph. He identified the general officers, although it must be said, that historians have long known their identities. They are, left to right, Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett, a brigade commander; Brigadier General Henry Warner Slocum, a division commander, later renowned for commanding an army during Sherman’s March to the Sea; Major General William Buell Franklin, commander of the 6th Corps; Brigadier General William Farquhar Barry, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery; and Brigadier General John Newton, a corps commander at Gettysburg. Here are close-ups of the characters in the front row:
(Bartlett, front row, far left)

(Slocum, front row, second from left)

(Franklin, front row, center)

(Barry, front row, second from right)

(Newton, front row, far right)

The men in the back of the photograph have never been identified by historians. Richards thankfully provides names with faces. They are (with a few accompanying photographs):
Colonel Joseph Howland was the husband of nurse Eliza Newton Woolsey. One month after this photograph Howland received a wound at the Battle of Gaines Mill. After the war, he served as New York’s state treasurer)
(Howland, back row, far left)
Captain Erastus Sparrow Purdy was Franklin’s adjutant general. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Captain Richard Arnold was the 6th Corps’ inspector general. Later on, he rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as chief of artillery for the Army of the Gulf.
Lieutenants W. H. Philip, J. P. Baker, J. C. Jackson, were all aides-de-camp for General Franklin.
Lieutenant John Hoff was the most enigmatic man, and honestly, I have no real clue about who he was. My friend, Garry Adelman, tells me that Hoff is one of the top ten most photographed people of the Civil War. Apparently, Hoff can be found in dozens of other photographs.
(Hoff, back row, far right.)

More to the point, Lieutenant Richards's letter makes it clear that this photograph has been mislabeled by the LOC and subsequently by historians. Gibson took the image at White House Landing, not Cumberland Landing. The usual date ascribed to the photograph is possibly correct, since the 6th Corps arrived at White House Landing on May 12, 1862. However, a Union cavalryman wrote that General Slocum (one of the generals in the photograph) did not arrive at White House until May 15. Consequently, the LOC date may be off by a few days.

The story of White House Landing is well-known. White House was once the home of Martha Custis, the wife of George Washington. The property passed to Martha’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Custis, who eventually became the wife of Robert E. Lee.  Before the war, Mary Anna Lee turned the property over to her son, Rooney Lee.  In 1861, Mrs. Lee departed from her husband’s home in Arlington and moved into Rooney’s home, which was her former home. Before the 6th Corps arrived at White House’s doorstep, Mary Anna Lee fled. She pinned a note to the door, imploring the bluecoats to respect her property, reminding them that it had once been the home of George Washington’s wife.

This photograph, then, shows the Union officers partaking of Mrs. Lee’s unoffered hospitality. They sit in the yard. Presumably, they are drinking the Lee-family beer, and the little slave child—now free—was once the property of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. (The slave, Braxton Flannel, might have been the property of Rooney Lee, and the “Mrs. Lee” mentioned by Lieutenant Richards could have been Rooney’s wife, Charlotte. However, given the context, it seems certain that he meant Mary Anna Lee.)

Well, this leads to a series of questions: who was Braxton Flannel? Was he a slave of Mrs. Lee? If so, how old was he? Why did this bevy of illustrious Union officers want him in their picture?

Whenever I have trouble with Civil War photographs, I turn things over to Garry Adelman, who has an eye for seeing things that I cannot. In trying to figure out a little bit more about Braxton Flannel, Garry remembered something. He had seen the slave-child once before. Check out this photograph:
This photograph depicts a cluster of freed slaves. Take a look at the center of the crowd. There is Braxton Flannel, apparently wearing the same outfit. Presumably, this photograph was taken on the same day, and the building in the background is the same slave cabin at the right of the photograph depicting the 6th Corps officers. Were these men, women, and children all once owned by the Lee family? I offer yet another unanswered question.

Needless to say, this tale has yet to reach completion.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

William Pencak: Vampire Hunter

More years ago than I care to admit, I entered graduate school at the Penn State University. In my first semester there, I took a colonial history seminar with Dr. Bill Pencak, an experience I shall not soon forget. Bill was an accomplished author. He completed eight books on his own, thirty-nine peer-reviewed articles, and he co-authored or edited about twenty additional books. Moreover, he sat on the committees of at least thirty graduate students. Many of them have since graduated Penn State and have gone on to become pillars in their respective fields. Civil War buffs will best remember him for his wonderful book, Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War, co-edited with William Blair. Bill lived an active, illustrious career, leaving this earth too soon on December 9, 2013.

Bill Pencak’s litany of accomplishments represented only one side of his colorful life. His happy, out-going personality will be remembered by all who knew him. He was gregarious, upbeat, and always generous when it came to his friends. Unlike many in his profession, he did not take life too seriously. To his students, he offered precious words of wisdom for getting through the absurdities of existence, cherished acumen that ought to have been collected and published for all to read. In short, he was an enjoyable person and a prolific historian, all in one.

And he hunted vampires! When I first arrived at Penn State, sometime in mid-September, he invited me to the debut of a student-film in which he played a minor role. Sadly, I cannot remember the title of this film—it was written, directed, filmed, and cast by undergraduates—but it involved a secret society of vampire-hunters called “The Watchers.” In this movie, Bill played the sage-leader of The Watchers. For several plot-related reasons that would take too long to narrate, Bill’s cabal of undead-hunters endured internal turmoil. One of the Watchers had turned traitor, foolishly allying himself with the vampires, the villains of the film. Bill had to star in a pivotal scene where he pontificated in anguish over the brewing division. (Bill later told me that he studied Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now for his inspiration.) In the end, Bill’s character died in a shoot-out when the traitorous Watcher burst into the inner sanctum, gunning down his former colleagues. Here, Bill had to perform his own stunts, at one point, leaping from a chair, hitting the floor with his “death wound.” (The Penn State students who filmed this scene shot it on the 4th Floor of the Weaver Building, the headquarters of the University’s Department of History.)

It brings a smile to my face to think of my friend, Bill Pencak, as captain of the vampire slayers. It proves his generosity and light-heartedness better than any example of which I can think. I cannot imagine many tenured professors taking such a role, but Bill was no humorless academic. He loved to help his students. He loved to have fun and he never felt shame when he did it.

Bill left us Civil War historians with two priceless lessons: 1) write often and 2) indulge your students’ creativity. Let us strive to honor him by so doing.

(Making and Remaking Pennsylvania's Civil War, 2001.)
(The unforgettable Bill Pencak.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Rooster Riddle

A few days ago, I posted a tale from the Battle of Taylor’s Ridge (or Ringgold Gap). Colonel William R. Creighton commanded the Union brigade that got savaged there. His brigade included the regiment he once commanded, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. At Ringgold, no regiment suffered as badly as the 7th. It took 220 officers and men into the fight and it came out with only forty-five.

Anyway, most buffs know about the 7th Ohio’s nickname. The officers and men called themselves the “Roosters.” In fact, before most battles, Colonel Creighton crowed like a rooster. (Apparently, this got his men fired up.) Even more unusual, the officers and men of the 7th Ohio wore rooster pins on their uniforms. These pins are among the rarest of Civil War insignia. It is not exactly clear when the 7th Ohio adopted them, but they certainly predated the Battle of Taylor’s Ridge. Photographs of some of the officers who were later killed on November 27, 1863, show them wearing their roosters. Finally, the 7th Ohio’s postwar monument at Gettysburg contains a large bronze seal with a rooster in the center.

(Here is a photograph of Col. Creighton--the same one I showed in the previous post. You can see the Rooster pin on his jacket.)

(This image shows Lt. Col. Orrin J. Crane, who, like Creighton, was also killed in action on November 27, 1863. Note the Rooster pin at his third row of buttons.)
(Here is a close-up of Lt. Col. Crane's Rooster badge.)
(This photograph shows an enlisted man from the 7th Ohio. Again, you can see the Rooster pin on this soldier's chest, right above his corps badge.)
(I get kind of thorough when it comes to wielding evidence. Here's yet another example. This enlisted man from the 7th Ohio has a Rooster badge, a corps badge, and his regimental number on his chest.)
(This officer from the 7th Ohio also has a Rooster badge. It is hard to see. It is just above his sword belt's shoulder strap.)
(Here is a close-up of an original Rooster badge.)
(This is the seal on the 7th Ohio's monument at Gettysburg. Again, the rooster features prominently. You can find this monument on Culp's Hill.)
(Here is the front page of the 7th Ohio's unit history. Again, you can see the Rooster badge. Clearly, the rooster meant something to the soldiers of this regiment. Would you believe that the regimental history never says why?)

All right, why a rooster?  Is there something I’m not getting? If a story existed behind the nickname, the members of the 7th Ohio never left anything behind for the historians to find. Even Lawrence Wilson’s postwar regimental history says nothing about the origins of the nickname. (Wilson was a veteran of the regiment.)

Yet another complicating factor emerges. The 7th Ohio was brigaded with three other Ohio regiments: the 5th, 29th, and 66th Ohio Volunteers. One of these regiments also sported an elusive nickname. The members of the 5th Ohio called themselves the “Owls.” Now, I have never found a photograph of a soldier from the 5th Ohio wearing an owl pin, but the 5th Ohio’s two monuments at Gettysburg both sport owls. Further, the Ohio brigade monument at Antietam lists the 5th and 7th Ohio regiments side by side on the front plaque. Carved in granite below each plaque are an owl and a rooster.

(Here's the 5th Ohio's monument at Gettysburg. Can you see the owl underneath the knapsacks?)
(The 5th Ohio has a small plaque on a boulder about thirty paces behind the principal monument. Again, there is an owl on it and an enigmatic quote, "Boys, keep the colors up." There is no primary source for this quote.)
UPDATE, 12-2-13: One of my readers shared his knowledge on the origins of the quote. "Boys, keep the colors up" were the last words of Captain George B. Whitcom of Cincinnati, who died during the Battle of Kernstown, March 23, 1862. Four color-bearers had been shot while holding aloft the 5th Ohio's banner, and then Whitcom took the standard, holding it for a time, until he too fell. A bullet struck him just above the eye, killing him instantly. My reader's information led me to an 1886 article in the Marion Star which discussed the origins of the quote. The article discussed the construction of the 5th Ohio monument, also mentioning the inclusion of the owl. Yet again, it did not discuss the reason for the owl.)
(Finally, here is the Ohio brigade monument at Antietam. It lists the three regiments engaged at the battle: the 5th, 7th, and 66th Ohio. Note the owl at the lower left and the rooster at the lower right.)

Again, I’m baffled. Did one regiment fight better at night and the other better in the morning? Nothing left behind by the veterans of the 5th Ohio indicates the source of their unit’s nickname.

Some years after I first became interested in this conundrum, I read a modern-day unit history written by David Thackery entitled, A Light and Uncertain Hold (1999). This regimental profiled the 66th Ohio, one of the other regiments in the brigade. Thackery briefly mentioned the 7th Ohio’s rooster nickname this way. He said, “The two organizations [the 66th and 7th] had fought side by side since Port Republic. ([Colonel Charles] Candy had referred to them in command code as ‘bulldog’ and ‘rooster’ respectively.)”

All right, so I had an answer here—well, sort of. The members of the 66th Ohio were the “Bulldogs.” The members of the 7th Ohio were the roosters, and their brigade commander concocted the nicknames. Unfortunately, Thackery’s footnote did not take me to a source that shed any light on this weird riddle. But, if we are to believe the author, then Colonel Charles Candy, the brigade commander, named all of his Ohio regiments as animals. The 5th and 7th Ohio put their nicknames on their monuments. In addition, the 7th Ohio adopted badges for their uniforms.

But again, I ask, why? Why did Candy choose these particular animals? Why did he insist on using a code to refer to the regiments? When did he design these codes? Why did the 66th Ohio never refer to their nickname, “the bulldogs,” on their monuments? What about the final Ohio regiment in the brigade, the 29th Ohio? Did it have a nickname too? If so, why does no one seem to know it? I find myself asking more questions now than ever.

(Here is an image taken sometime during the last week of May 1864. This is all that remains of the 7th Ohio. The regiment came off the front lines after the Battle of New Hope Church. A small contingent--those who had re-enlisted for three additional years--joined the 5th Ohio. This contingent represents those who did not re-enlist. Presumably, this is the regiment's final parade, held somewhere in northwest Georgia. The survivors now awaited a train to take them home to Cleveland. All of these men knew the meaning of the Rooster. I'll bet they are all wearing rooster badges in this photograph. None of them, it seems, left anything behind to let us know what those roosters meant.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

“Fear & Dread” at Taylor’s Ridge

At 8 A.M., November 27, 1863, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s 2nd Division, 12th Corps, deployed for battle. That morning, Geary’s “White Star” division formed just east of the town of Ringgold, Georgia. A half-mile away, 4,200 Confederate infantry under Patrick Cleburne blocked the Union advance. Cleburne’s men held a lofty acclivity called Taylor’s Ridge. From it, they controlled the gap through which the Western and Atlantic Railroad passed.

(This image shows the battlefield of Taylor's Ridge--or Ringgold Gap, as it is sometimes known. The photograph is looking east toward the ridge. The town sits at middle distance. The gap is at the right and the position held by Cleburne's division is at the left, on the horizon.)

(This sketch depicts the November 27, 1863, battle, taken from the same perspective as the previous photograph. At middle distance, you can see the Ringgold train station. Just above it, Col. Creighton's brigade made its attack.)

(This map--courtesy of Military Graphics, 2005--depicts the battle. Note the position of Creighton's brigade at the north end of the line.)

(This photograph--courtesy of the author--depicts the modern-day battlefield. Creighton's brigade formed for battle in the left foreground.)
Fresh from his successful assault against Lookout Mountain only three days earlier, Geary anticipated an easy victory. He ordered his 1st Brigade under Colonel William Creighton to storm the Confederate-held heights. Giddy with delight, Creighton eagerly carried out his superior's instructions. He formed his brigade behind a railroad embankment just east of the town, giving his men a rousing pep talk as he did so. He barked, “We are ordered to take those heights, and I expect to see you . . . walk right over them!” With that, Creighton’s regiments surged over the embankment, advanced to the foot of the ridge, scaled a rail fence, passed over a brigade of Iowans lying prone at the foot of the ridge, and began ascending the steep mountain.

(Colonel William R. Creighton from Cleveland, Ohio, commanded Geary's 1st Brigade. He was mortally wounded during the battle.)

In the ranks of the 28th Pennsylvania, Sergeant Henry Hayward, a young needle-maker from Philadelphia, remembered hearing the order to attack. He wrote:

the first Brigade were orderd to the left to form line of Battle and to Charge the Ridge. [It was a] terrible order but we must obey. Brave Creighton of the 7th [Ohio] (Commanding [the] Brigade) came along the line (which was now under fire) and said boys, remember, you are the 1st Brigade, go right up that hill, never stop. we Advance! coming to a rail fence, each man pushes against it and we are over it. a number of men have already been wounded. we reach the base of the Mt and with Rifel in one hand (and the other to assist in Climbing) we rush with a Yell up the mountain passing through the broken line of one of Osterhauses Brigade that had been repulsed.  on we went fearless of Death.

(Sergeant A. Henry Hayward, Co. D, 28th Pennsylvania, left behind a vivid account of the Battle of Taylor's Ridge. Image courtesy of MOLLUS-USAMHI.)

Creighton’s regiments stalled short of the crest. Gamely, they tried to return fire, but they could inflict only minimal damage on Cleburne’s well-entrenched defenders. Hayward continued is narrative, describing the outcome of the dreadful engagement:

we fought the Rebels in this position for 2 hours. how unequal the Conflict. we could scarcely see the enemy who were concealed behind Breast Works while we stood exposed to their murderous fire. the 7th Ohio next on our left began to fall back. I knew we must go soon for we could keep up but a feeble fire against the enemy. I remember the feeling of dread when we were orderd to fall back slowly for I knew they would rise up out of their works and pour the bullets into us. down we went, half Slideing, catching the trees and holding on to the bushes, frequently passing men wounded or dead that had lodged against a rock or tree. we reformed again near the spot where we first advanced to the Charge. the Rolls were called and many who were present in the morning never would answer again.

(This Harper's Weekly sketch depicted Creighton's Brigade making its ill-considered assault. You can barely make out the Confederates, firing from the crest.)
(I took this photograph from the modern-day position of Cleburne's defenders. It is taken looking northwest. 150 years ago, at middle distance, you would have seen Creighton's brigade ascending from left to right.)

Colonel J. A. Williamson, who commanded the Iowa brigade at the foot of the ridge, remembered well the moment when Creighton’s Pennsylvanians and Ohioans came stampeding down the slope. He wrote, “when they gave way . . . [they] came down like an avalanche, carrying everything before them, and to some extent propagating the panic among my regiments.” In the end, the two-hour slugfest cost Geary’s men 432 casualties, nearly all from Creighton’s brigade. Creighton, too, died, shot in the chest at the end of the engagement.

Sergeant Hayward survived the assault, but the battle left him scarred on the inside. On December 2, Hayward wrote his father, describing how he felt about surviving the grisly encounter. He wrote, “I saw more of my Comrades shot down at Taylors ridge than in any other battle of the War. when I am rested and feel [like] myself again I will try to give you some Idea of my experience[.]” Somewhat bitter, he closed,

go to Taylors ridge and you will not wonder that the White Starr Division were repulsed trying to gain the summit. but you will call them brave men for leaving their dead so near the top. I am told that it was a mistake in ordering us to storm the ridge, but it is to[o] late. now the bravest men in our Brigade are gone. Col Creighton & Crane of the 7th Ohio were sacrificed.  they were Idolized by their men and familliar with all in the Brigade. . . . I am not unmindfull of the particular care with which I am allowed to live through such dreadfull sceans as those of last week.

The worst emotions came later. Twenty-two days after the battle, Hayward tried to narrate the story of Taylor’s Ridge a second time and he experienced trouble coming to grips with the loss of one of his friends, Corporal Henry C. Fithian. Hayward wrote:

many a good fellow in the first Brigade had fallen not to lay where they fell, but wounded and dead rolled togeather down the steep rocky soil of the mountain. I saw poor Fithian when he was struck. he had just spoke to me about his gun. it would not go off. the ball struck him in his side. he droped his Rifle. I saw that I could not reach him. I turned away dreading to see him roll down the mountain. I could tell you more of such tales but it is as unpleasent for me to bring them back to my memories as it is for you to read them.

Finally, Hayward wrote a line that always makes me do a double-take whenever I read it. He informed his father, “I experienced more fear & dread at Taylors Ridge than at either Chancellorsville, Antietam, or Gettysburgh.”

Hayward's letters reminds us that a battle need not leave piles of dead in order to be truly frightening. The Battle of Taylor’s Ridge may have cost the bluecoats only 432 physical casualties, but the terrifying conditions of combat left behind hundreds of psychologically wounded men. Hayward was one of them.

(Corporal Henry C. Fithian, Co. D, 28th Pennsylvania, was killed at Taylor's Ridge. Image courtesy of MOLLUS-USAMHI.)

(Here is Fithian's final resting place, Chattanooga National Cemetery. All of the Taylor's Ridge casualties are lumped together in a section at the center of the cemetery near the present-day flag-staff.)


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

“Sabered By Some of Our Own Men”

This tale focuses on the wounding of Private John A. Nugent, alias John Thompson, a member of the 3rd U.S. Light Artillery. Nugent suffered the ignominy of getting sabered by his own men. Here’s how it happened.

On the afternoon of May 4, 1862, Major General George Stoneman sent a reconnaissance force along the Yorktown-Williamsburg Road. The Army of Northern Virginia had just abandoned its earthworks on the Warwick River. Without wasting a moment, the bluecoats mounted a swift pursuit. After traveling ten miles, Stoneman’s reconnaissance force came in sight of Fort Magruder, the principal earthwork protecting Williamsburg’s southern approaches. From the fort, Confederate artillerists opened fire. Immediately, Captain Horatio Gibson ordered his unit, Battery C, 3rd U.S. Artillery, to unlimber its guns and return the gesture. Gibson’s men got the worst of it. The short barrage cost the Horse Artillery six men wounded (one of whom later died) and seventeen horses killed. In addition, Gibson’s men had to abandon one gun and one caisson, both of which fell into the hands of the Confederates.

After retiring from the field, a party of men from Battery C returned to the scene of the battle, intent on rescuing a corporal who had broken his leg. When they got back to the battlefield, they discovered that a squad of Virginia cavalry had arrived ahead of them. In fact, the Virginia horsemen had loaded the wounded corporal onto a wagon. Drawing their revolvers, the Union artillerymen gave a shout and charged into the fray. One of them, Private John A. Nugent, recalled what happened. He said, “I wrenched from the hands of the rebel standard bearer his Guidon. I raised it aloft in my left hand, feeling, I must confess, a little proud of my action.”

Nugent and his comrades rescued the wounded corporal and drove off the Confederate cavalry. As the rebels gave way, a section of Company I, 1st U.S. Cavalry, led by Captain B. F. “Grimes” Davis thundered onto the field, whooping madly and swinging their sabers. Spying Nugent with the captured Confederate guidon, they charged upon him. Nugent explained what happened next:

I made my way down the road when I was set upon by a party of the 1st Cavalry who had not been in the fight, and who mistook me, as they said afterwards, for a rebel. They demanded the Flag, which I refused to give up and they attacked me, and in trying to defend myself and the Flag, received four sabre cuts. It was taken from me and I was dragged to the rear as a rebel prisoner by a Cavalryman, but on our way to the Provost Marshall this man found out his mistake. He put spurs to his horse and left me alone on the road to pursue my way as best I could. The man that took the flag from me was a Sergeant and he represented to General McClellan that he took the flag from a rebel and killed said rebel. . . . I admire an honest man, but detest a Liar and a Coward. This man is Botts. He now occupies the position of Ordnance Sergeant[.]  . . . If this man had acted honorably by me—even had I been, as he suspected, a rebel—it is not any part of a brave man, especially when backed by others, to cut down a single man. It seems to me more the act of a Coward than a soldier. If he had protected me (as I should have done him under similar circumstances) taken me prisoner, taken me to the Provost Marshall, then everything would have been settled and I should now be enjoying the reward which he now enjoys unmeritedly.

The official reports bear out the testimony. Lieutenant Colonel William Grier, commander of the 1st Cavalry, credited Captain Davis and his men with capturing “a regimental standard, with the coat of arms of Virginia.” Grier also stated that Davis’s troopers returned with “a [rebel] captain taken prisoner.” Meanwhile, Captain Gibson told Nugent’s side of the story. He wrote, “Private John Thompson [Nugent’s fake name] captured a guidon from the enemy, and was sabered by some of our own men in the melee, receiving four wounds.”

Nugent’s tale speaks for itself. Men will do shocking things to win a trophy.

(This image depicts the officers, men, and horses of Battery C, 3rd U.S. Light Artillery. Captain Horatio Gibson sits atop his horse, which is just behind the limber chest in the foreground. Somewhere in this image--I do not know where--is Private John Nugent, the victim of the sabering.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“A Crushing Trial on My Maternal Pride.”

Some of you are probably fans of the TriStar Pictures film called Glory, the dramatic retelling of the recruitment of the 54th Massachusetts and its attack on Battery Wagner. It is a great film, in my humble opinion, but it suffers from a few key errors. Notably, the film does not accurately depict the manner in which Captain Robert G. Shaw accepted colonelcy of the 54th Massachusetts. Simply put, Shaw’s mother, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, guilt-tripped him into it. The exclusion of this point from the film—and indeed from some of the books about the regiment—obscures the reluctance with which Shaw accepted command and the initial reservations he had about leading a black regiment into battle.

(Robert Gould Shaw, shown here as lieutenant in the 2nd Massachusetts.)

The process of raising the 54th Massachusetts began on January 26, 1863, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent a letter granting authority to Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts to raise black volunteers for federal service. Andrew had long desired to mobilize a black regiment in Massachusetts, and even before Stanton’s letter arrived, he had several candidates in mind to command it. On January 30, Andrew drafted a letter to Rob Shaw’s father, Francis George Shaw, explaining his desire to commission his son as colonel. Andrew wrote, “I am desirous to have for its [the 54th Massachusetts] officers—particularly for its field officers—young men of military experience, of firm antislavery principles, ambitious, superior to a vulgar contempt for color, and having faith in the capacity of colored men for military service.” Then, Andrew explained what drew him to Rob Shaw. He wrote, “I am sure he would attract the support, sympathy, and active cooperation of many among his immediate family relatives. The more ardent, faithful, and true Republicans and friends of liberty would recognize in him a scion of from a tree whose fruit and leaves have always contributed to the strength and healing of our generation.”

(Governor John Albion Andrew, Massachusetts' Republican governor, insisted on raising a black regiment, even before many white people in his state were ready for it.)

The regimental history of the 54th Massachusetts explained what happened next: “Francis G. Shaw himself took the formal proffer to his son, then in Virginia. After due deliberation, Captain Shaw, on February 6, telegraphed his acceptance.”

That sentence does not tell the whole story. In fact, Shaw’s mother had to intervene to get her son to say, "yes."

Here’s what really happened. On February 3, 1863, Shaw’s father arrived at Stafford Court House, the encampment of the 2nd Massachusetts, bringing with him the January 30 letter from Governor Andrew. Shaw read the letter in front of his father and quickly declined the offer. The next day, Francis Shaw left for Boston, apparently thinking that his son’s rejection would conclude the issue. Before leaving the encampment, Francis Shaw telegraphed his wife, informing her of their son’s decision. This way, Francis Shaw supposed, Governor Andrew could offer the colonelcy to another candidate without delay. Back at Stafford Court House, Rob Shaw wrote to his fiancée, Annie Haggerty, stating why he flatly refused the job:

Father has just left here. He came down yesterday, and brought me an offer from Governor Andrew of the Colonelcy of his new black regiment. The governor considers it a most important command; and I could not help feeling from the tone of his letter, that he did me a great honour in offering it to me. My Father will tell you some of the reasons why I thought I ought not to accept it. If I had taken it, it would only have been from a sense of duty; for it would have been anything but an agreeable task. Please tell me, without reserve, what you think about it; for I am very anxious to know. I should have decided much sooner than I did, if I had known before. I am afraid Mother will think I am shirking my duty; but I had some good practical reasons for it, besides the desire to be at liberty to decide what to do when my three years have expired.

(Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, Rob Shaw's mother, shamed her son into accepting Andrew's commission as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts.)

Robert Shaw was right. His mother refused to accept her son’s refusal. The same day that Rob Shaw wrote to Annie, Sarah Shaw wrote to the governor. Her letter conveyed her terrible disappointment in her son’s decision. Here’s what she said:

New York

4th Feb’y /63

Governor Andrew,

My dear Sir,

I have just received a telegram from Mr. Shaw saying ‘Rob declines—I think rightly’—this decision has caused me the bitterest disappointment I have ever experienced. I cannot help writing to thank you from my heart for the honor you did my son in that offer you made him. In your description of what you desired in the officers for the regiment, flattering as it was, I recognized the portrait of my son—you said you should wish him to have the ‘assent, support, and sympathy of his family.’ He had it entirely & their earnest prayer for his consent. It would have been the proudest moment of my life & I could have died satisfied that I had not tried in vain. This being the truth, you will believe that I have shed bitter tears over his refusal—I do not understand it unless from a habit inherited by his father of self-distrust in his own capabilities—His father says ‘I think rightly’—When he left me Saturday it was to advise him most earnestly to accept it—I am sure it is from no base worldly nature—that is my sole consolation.

Excuse my troubling you with my griefs but I wished you to know what a crushing trial it has been on my maternal pride. I have also to thank you with sincere respect & esteem.

Sarah Shaw made haste to change her son’s mind. She went to Annie Haggerty’s house, convincing her that becoming colonel of Massachusetts’ first black regiment was the right thing for Rob to do. No doubt, it took some convincing, for if Rob accepted the position, he would have to tack on an additional three years of service. (As colonel of the 54th Massachusetts he could not muster out sooner than 1866. If he stayed with his current regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteers, he could muster out in 1864.) Once Sarah Shaw secured the support of Annie, she telegraphed her son, no doubt laying down her maternal guilt trip as best as she could. By February 6, Rob Shaw had changed his mind. Two days later, he wrote to Annie, explaining, “Mother has telegraphed me that you would not disapprove of it, and that makes me feel much more easy about having taken it.” Going on, Shaw continued, “And at any rate I feel convinced I shall never regret having taken this step, as far as I myself am concerned; for while I was undecided I felt ashamed of myself, as if I were cowardly.”

(Annie Haggerty, Shaw's fiancée, received all of his confidential letters, including the one that expressed concern about accepting a commission as colonel of the 54th Massachusetts.)

Shaw would not have felt any shame at all had his mother not felt bitter disappointment in him. At any rate, as we all know, Shaw became colonel and died leading his men. Truly, the mothers of the world hold tremendous sway.

(Captain Shaw. Soon, thanks to his mother's prodding, he left the Army of the Potomac to become colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers.)

(The Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument in Boston. Because of a mother's pride, Shaw is now remembered forever.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Obliterated Battlefield

On December 19, 1864, the U.S. War Department called up 300,000 volunteers, the Union’s last call for troops during the Civil War. In response, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recruited about 9,000 one-year volunteers. Most of these recruits joined Brigadier General John F. Hartranft’s division, which included the 200th, 205th, 207th, 208th, 209th, and 211th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Twenty-one-year-old Israel Lauffer, the son of a Westmoreland County deacon, answered the call, joining Company K, 211th Pennsylvania. Lauffer—who is my wife’s ancestor—fought in only two engagements: the Battle of Fort Stedman and the Battle of Fort Mahone.

The April 2, 1865, Battle of Fort Mahone helped dislodge the Confederate hold on Petersburg and it remains one of the most significant battles in Civil War history. Combined with the 6th Corps “Breakthrough” assault, it was the battle that spelled doom for the Army of Northern Virginia. Victory in the East began with this moment. By all accounts, Fort Mahone was a dramatic battle. At 4:30 A.M., just as the sun began to peak over the horizon, Hartranft’s division and another division from the 9th Corps (Robert Potter's) formed en masse outside the Union earthworks at Fort Sedgwick. At the sound of a signal cannon, the bluecoats charged across a barren, mud-spattered no-man’s-land, bearing down on the mammoth Confederate-held earthwork. If the Civil War ever resembled the Great War of the next century, this was it. Samuel P. Bates’s postwar history of the 211th Pennsylvania explained:

When all was in readiness, the word to advance was given. . . . The work of destruction was scarcely begun, when a fearful discharge of grape and canister was brought to bear upon them, before which the stoutest might well quail. But closing up where their ranks were swept away, they soon broke the obstructions, . . . With a rush, the ground in front of the rebel works was cleared, and pushing up the steep and slippery sides of the forts, the troops were soon in complete possession, the enemy either captives or in full retreat, and the rebel main line of works . . . was triumphantly carried and held by the division.

(This Harper's Weekly sketch depicts the 9th Corps attack against Fort Mahone. The scene is looking North. Fort Mahone is the large lump on the horizon.)

(This is one of the many photographs taken of Confederate dead after the battle. This Confederate soldier died in one of the connecting trenches adjacent to the Confederate fort.)

The daring attack of April 2 cost the Union 9th Corps 1,500 men. Of that number, Hartranft’s division counted 594. Israel Lauffer was among the dead. After twelve weeks of soldiering, with only seven days left until the surrender at Appomattox, the war claimed his life. Lauffer left behind two bereaved parents and six brothers and sisters. His comrades buried his remains on the battlefield.

(Private Israel Lauffer, Company K, 211th Pennsylvania, died in the April 2, 1865, attack against Fort Mahone.)

The battlefield of Fort Mahone is a hard place to visit. A visitor can see nothing of it. Urban expansion in the 1970s and 1980s completely consumed Fort Sedgwick, Fort Mahone, the connecting earthworks, and the ground upon which the 9th Corps crossed. Presumably, even Lauffer’s early grave is now demolished, replaced by concrete. The city of Petersburg destroyed everything long before my wife was born. When she and I visit the site, we can see only the monument commemorating the six regiments of Hartranft’s division. But even visiting this monument is a hard thing. Although it is a stoic representation of the Union soldiers who fought, this monument experienced a terrible unveiling. In May 1909, President William H. Taft delivered the dedicatory remarks. He offered up a slanted reconciliationist address, one that paid more attention to the Confederates who killed the Pennsylvanians than to the Pennsylvanians themselves.

Taft said:

We could not dedicate this beautiful and enduring memorial to the volunteer soldiers of Pennsylvania with such a sense of its justice and appropriateness, had they not been confronted by an enemy capable of resisting their assaults with equal valor and fortitude. Pennsylvania’s pride must be in the victory achieved by her men against so brave, resolute and resourceful an enemy. That we can come here to-day and in the presence of thousands and tens of thousands of the survivors of the gallant army of Northern Virginia and of their descendants, and establish such an enduring monument by their hospitable welcome and acclaim, is conclusive proof of the uniting of the sections and a universal confession that all that was done was well done, that the battle had to be fought, that the sections had to be tried, but that in the end, the result has inured to the common benefit of all. The men of the Army of Northern Virginia fought for a principle which they believed to be right and for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, their homes — all, indeed, which men hold most dear.

Of course, it is unfair of me to chastise Taft, since this kind of rhetoric was common among national politicians at the time. When it came to Civil War memory, the president only did what others had already done many times over.

However, we are now more than 100 years removed from 1909. We are approaching “year four” of the sesquicentennial. It is time to do something about this obliterated battlefield. It would be foolish of me to hope that anything about the physical landscape could be restored, but the men of Hartranft’s division (and Robert Potter’s division) deserve their time in the sun. Their monument’s dedication rang hollow; their hallowed ground has been effaced. Truly, now is the time for our generation to do them honor.

(This map shows the positions of the 9th Corps overlaying the modern cityscape. The two most important earthworks--Fort Mahone and Fort Sedgwick--no longer exist. The battleground between the two forts is also gone. Only a segment of Fort Davis--at the bottom of the map--still exists.)
(Here's a modern satellite view of the battlefield. Can you see the Pennsylvania Monument in the lower right corner?)
(This photograph depicts the Pennsylvania monument. On May 19, 1909, President Taft delivered an uninspiring address, dedicating this monument.) 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“I Wish to Know Whether My Brother is Dead or Alive.”

Today, in the digital age, information can be relayed speedily and with astonishing accuracy. We tend to take for granted the fact that we can contact our loved ones instantaneously. Even members of America’s military might not expect to be out of touch for very long. This was not so during the Civil War. As many of us know, families and friends relied upon letters. But what happened when the letters stopped coming? How did friends and family members discover the fate of their loved ones on the battlefield? If they were lucky, another soldier might write to them to let them know. They might receive word through casualty lists published in local newspapers, but those could be wildly inaccurate. Barring those options, families turned to the offices of the adjutants-general for information.
The adjutants-general constituted the governor-appointed military officers of each state. They kept the vital military statistics for each regiment of U.S. Volunteers. If a family member wished to know the location of a loved one, they could write to one of these adjutants-general and pray for a reply. In my travels, I’ve seen many of these letters.
Consider the State of New York. During the war, it fielded 194 infantry regiments, twenty-seven cavalry and mounted rifle regiments, sixteen heavy artillery regiments, and sixty light artillery batteries. Just imagine the number of concerned letters that floated across the adjutant general’s desk in Albany! In 1864, the responsibility for answering these myriad requests fell to John T. Sprague and his twelve assistants.  In particular, Sprague and his clerks received voluminous correspondence from Irish-Americans living in Boston. Back in 1861 and 1862, about 4,000 Irish volunteers had left Boston, seeking enlistment in New York City. Boston’s regiments possessed too few Democratic officers, and thus, the city’s Irishmen fled south rather than enlist under a Republican commander. Boston’s newspapers rarely printed the casualties from New York regiments, so loved ones found themselves utterly clueless to the happenings of their friends on the battlefield.
Here is an example of one such letter of inquiry:
September 5th 1864
I beg to be excused for sending you this note. I would not trespass on your valuable time could I find out the information I want elsewhere. I wish to know, Sir, whether my Brother is dead or alive. He enlisted in the 170th Regt N.Y.S.V., Corcoran’s Irish Legion. He enlisted about one year and a half ago in the city of New York. There is a rumour afloat that he is dead. I wish to know something certain about it. His name is Robert Skelly. I would feel for ever grateful if you would ascertain for me some positive information on the matter. I am his brother and, of course, I feel troubled about him. Perhaps it may be necessary to tell you his rank in the Army. He was an Orderly Sergt.
Hoping that you will comply with my wishes. I am,
Sir, Yours truly,
Cornelius Scully
P.S. My address is 14 Avery St.
Boston, Mass.
I do not know if Sprague sent a reply, but there is a happy ending to this story. The brother turned up alive and well. Two months after this letter was written, Sergeant Robert Skelly received a promotion to second lieutenant. He survived the war, mustering out with his regiment in July 1865.
Here’s another letter, this one written a by a concerned girlfriend:
September the 8th [1864]
Honorable Sir,
I take the liberty of Troubling you with these few lines hoping you will be so kind as to let me know about a friend I have got in the 66[th] Reg’t N.Y. Vols. he was a sergeant and belonged to Company D[.] his name was John Monahan and if you would please to let me know what has happened to him or if he is still alive as I have not heard from him this four months[.] I request an answer as soon as possible and by doing so you will relieve an unhappy friend of his from much trouble.
Yours, respectfully,
Catherine Moutray
137 Tyler St.
Boston, Mass.
Again, I do not know if and how Sprague replied. This tale did not end happily. Back in May 1864, Sergeant John Monahan had been captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. His Confederate captors shipped him to Andersonville and he died there, in captivity, on August 15, 1864. He was twenty-one-years-old.