Saturday, August 31, 2013

“My Kingdom for a Horse!”

Union soldiers loved to play tricks on their officers, particularly the uptight ones. On January 6, 1862, Adjutant Lewis Clark Parmelee of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters was the victim of such a prank. No doubt, Parmelee’s social class played a part in his victimization. He was the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family; he had been educated at Edinburgh University, and he counted himself as a member of the 7th New York State Militia, the “Dandy Seventh.” (In fact, during the emergency call-up of April 1861, he accompanied the 7th N.Y.S.M. to Washington.) When Parmelee joined the 2nd U.S.S.S., he jabbered on about a new horse he had purchased, and as the weeks went by, he grew exceedingly anxious about its delivery; so much so, that the enlisted men tired of hearing about it.

Adjutant Lewis C. Parmelee (pictured) endured a bizarre prank that involved a dying horse.

One day, an opportunity for a joke against Parmelee presented itself. A near-dead white horse wandered into the Sharpshooters’ bivouac. A sergeant remembered, “He was a very docile beast, as a matter of necessity having neither eyes, ears, or a whole limb at his command. His color was very conspicuous, being white, and judging from appearance was about as unhappy as some of our homesick comrades.”

Devilishly, the soldiers of Company D believed that Parmelee needed this horse right away, for it would silence his gab about the expensive horse he had bought. Giggling merrily, several of them dragged the poor beast into Parmelee’s tent, just in time for Parmelee’s evening game of euchre with Captain Francis Peteler. (The whole scene strikes me as copied directly from the film Animal House. If you think the same thing, don’t feel bad.) Parmelee and Peteler strolled to the adjutant’s tent, and just as they got within sight of it, Parmelee began talking about his impending horse, even quoting Shakespeare: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a—.” At that moment, he threw open his tent flap and beheld the blind, deaf, lame pale horse standing despondently inside his tent. Parmelee leaped in anger, “much to the edification of the congregated crowd outside,” so wrote one of the pranksters.

I suspect the pranksters might have had these expressions when they shoved the horse into Parmelee's tent.
This joke must have been funny to the Sharpshooters who perpetrated it, but it was not at all funny to Parmelee (or to the horse, for that matter). The dying horse had to be put down; Parmelee himself ordered a member of the color guard to take an axe to it, killing it mercifully. Then, Parmelee ordered a detail to bury it, telling Lieutenant Silas Barker of Company D to select men for the task. Naturally, Barker selected the fourteen men who had pushed the horse into the tent. One of them wrote in his journal: “So, together with thirteen others,  . . . we were instructed to go outside the camp guard and deposit the carcass of the poor ‘old nag’ in mother earth. The pick which I commanded was a very thin one and the first blow made a division between iron and wood resulting in a half hours loss of time going to camp for another.”

Perhaps, then, the men disliked Parmelee because of his social class (or maybe just his attitude—it’s hard to pinpoint the source of the animosity), but no one ever said that he lacked courage. The Sharpshooters well remembered Parmelee’s heroism, particularly after Antietam, the battle that claimed his life. When the regimental color-bearer fell wounded passing through Miller’s cornfield, Parmelee raised the national flag and led his men forward. At the Hagerstown Pike, he saw a Confederate color-bearer fall dead. Parmelee ran across the pike and lifted the Confederate emblem up, attempting, so it seemed to an observer, to place the splintered staff on the edge of his sword. Then, five bullets struck Parmelee, killing him.

This is the field on Antietam battlefield where Adjutant Parmelee briefly captured the colors of the 1st Louisiana.

Quartermaster William P. Shreve found Parmelee’s corpse the day after the battle, September 18, 1862, burying it on the spot where he fell. Shreve wrote, “Parmalee was an especial favorite of mine. . .  On others I had looked without other emotion than of pity for those left to mourn for them, but now, for the first time, it is brought home to me. One with whom I have been in company for months, with whom I have broken bread day after day, who has been my companion in many a pleasant ride [on that expensive horse, no doubt], with whom my whole acquaintance was of the pleasantest character and whom I looked to associate with as a most agreeable friend in the future is gone.”

Parmelee’s body had a few visitors. A lady from New York arrived, coming on behalf of the woman to whom Parmelee was engaged. Captain Homer Stoughton directed her to the spot of Parmelee’s burial, even showing her bloodstains left in the ground. For whatever reason, the unnamed woman left the body on the field.

A few days later, Quartermaster Shreve rode out to the gravesite, spotting four gentlemen in a carriage bearing spades. One was Parmelee’s father, and recognizing Shreve’s green uniform, he asked him if he knew his son. Shreve dismounted “and had a long conversation with him,” giving all information that he had, turning over his son’s pocket diary and personal letters. With that, Parmelee’s body left Antietam, bound for eventual burial at New Haven. (I once heard that a dispute erupted between Parmelee’s father and his fiancée. The fiancée wanted Parmelee’s body returned to New York City, but his father did not. Fearing that she might steal the corpse under the cover of night, he hid the body in a pickle tub in his basement until she gave up pursuit. I still need evidence, though, to confirm this tale.)

In any event, in this tale, death did not merely ride a pale horse; he also engaged in a little public ridicule with it. Let us hope that, in the end, the pranksters of Company D regretted the act that made a mockery of their fearless adjutant and his first steed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

“His Feelings as a Man”

Colonel James Miller was the first commander of the 81st Pennsylvania, a regiment drawn from the Irish neighborhoods of Philadelphia and from the coal-mining region of Carbon County. Eastern Pennsylvanians knew him well as a hero from the Mexican-American War, one of the select few volunteer officers who marched with the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry during Scott’s Campaign against the Mexican capital. When the rebellion broke out in 1861, Miller did not hesitate to lead Pennsylvania’s Irish-American population against it. He did this, but died on June 1, 1862, at one of the Army of the Potomac’s first battles.

Here is Colonel James Miller, photographed in 1861. (The original image is with the G. J. Lynch collection at USAMHI.)

As the 81st Pennsylvania came together, some of Colonel Miller’s men wondered what kind of an officer he would make. One man noted a particularly distressing incident, shaking his confidence in Miller’s humanity. On October 2, 1861, the 81st Pennsylvania encamped at Easton, waiting for its ranks to fill. That day, a “poor old Irish woman” stopped by the camp intent on convincing Colonel Miller to release her son, a soldier in Company E. The young lad—only seventeen at the time—had enlisted without her permission. The unnamed mother had made repeated visits to the Easton bivouac, trying to find Miller, but the elusive commander always slipped through her grasp. Eventually, two men interceded on her behalf, a captain and a sergeant. They escorted her to Colonel Miller, who happened to be riding into camp on horseback. One of these men, Sergeant James H. Walker, described the interview in his journal:

the poor creature threw herself on her knees directly in his path and in a strain of most impassioned eloquence, implored for the release of her boy; vain were her pleadings; with a look and gesture of impatience the man before her bade her rise and give him no further trouble—as he trotted on she rose and with hands outstretched, implored and plead like one bereft of reason—at last finding herself left behind and the Col’s resolution unshaken, she uttered a shriek so heart rending that even the arch enemy of mankind might have been moved to pity[.] . . . [She] pursued her way homeward, wringing her hands, . . . [the] very picture of despair—I must confess the touching scene I had just witnessed, impressed me rather unfavorably with my commander—not of course with his abilities as a soldier but his feelings as a man. On my way to the station I could not help ruminating on the wonderful depth of love and hate so manifest in the Irish character.

I cannot find any additional information on the fate of the Irish mother and her young son, but from all appearances, it seems that her boy stayed in the ranks. This ought not to have happened. The letter of the law allowed parents to reclaim their children (under the age of eighteen) if they enlisted without permission. Thus, Colonel Miller should have released her son but did not.

After this incident, Miller did not have long to live. Seven months later, the 81st Pennsylvania engaged Confederate forces at Fair Oaks. Surging over a railroad embankment, the regiment struck a brigade of Virginians commanded by William Mahone. Unsure of their identity, Colonel Miller went forward to get a closer look. A volley rang out, striking Miller in the head, dropping him from his saddle. Some of Miller’s bluecoats fled the scene, earning them derision from the other regiments in their brigade. After the battle, the 81st Pennsylvania’s hospital steward received Miller’s body. In his journal, the steward wrote, “About 5 o’clock P.M. the body of Colonel James Miller was brought in. It was most horribly disfigured, nearly half of the left side of the head having been blown away. He could not have felt a moment’s pain. He was a true soldier, every inch of him. He fought through the Mexican war and was severely wounded at the storming of Chapultepec, and at last has fallen in battle, bravely fighting for the flag of the Union.”

One of the best renderings of the Battle of Fair Oaks is Fair Oaks, Sumner's Reinforcement by William Trego (1886).

The Battle of Fair Oaks cost the 81st Pennsylvania ninety-one officers and men killed and wounded. History remembers the death of Colonel Miller. I often wonder about the fate of the seventeen-year-old Irish soldier.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To Possess the Contented Spirit

On June 27, 1862, Confederate forces assaulted the Union line at Gaines’s Mill, Virginia. The Army of the Potomac suffered 6,800 losses in this engagement, among them, twenty-two-year-old First Sergeant Jacob Heffelfinger of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. During the battle, a musket ball penetrated Heffelfinger’s right thigh. Unable to retreat, he fell into Confederate hands. His captors carried Heffelfinger to the Sarah Watt house, and there, along with hundreds of other casualties, he suffered in intense heat, receiving little to eat or drink, and enduring the constant torments of rats and maggots. On June 29, Heffelfinger recorded the scene in his journal:

The floors of all the rooms in the house are occupied by the wounded. The porch, the cellar, the ground under the porch and all the out-houses are also occupied, while some are lying under the trees in the yard. The stench arising from the dead bodies in the adjacent fields is sickening. . . . A man was brought in this evening who had lain on the field since the day of the fight; he is in a most pitiable condition. One poor fellow, who lay close by my side last night, in his delirium was calling his mother and his wife Lizzie, to whom he was lately married. He died this morning. The horrors of war more than counterbalance the glory.

The next day, Heffelfinger wrote, “The house is very filthy—the blood on the floor causes a sickening stench. A man in the room next to me is shot through the lower jaw, the wound in itself is not serious, but it is so situated that he cannot take any food or drink whatever. The poor fellow will die of starvation.”

This is a reconstruction of the Watt House, the principal landmark of the Union left flank at Gaines's Mill.

By July 6, Heffelfinger began to grow delirious, but did not yet lose grip with reality. He wrote, “While lying here in this filthy hospital, I have visited my home, in imagination, sat in social intercourse with my nearest and dearest friends, who I know, are deeply anxious about my welfare. I have followed them to the house of God, where they now have the privilege of mingling their voices in prayer and praise. . . . It requires great effort to let one’s thoughts run in this vein, and yet possess a contented spirit. The man shot through the mouth, died last night of starvation. He lived more than eight days without a drop of nourishment.”

Heffelfinger’s journal continued with such awful stories for several weeks. Eventually, his captors sent him down the James River, returning him to Union lines, but he did not recover until the autumn. For him, the greatest depth of Hell was the unlikeliest place, the Sarah Watt farmyard. With no medical attention and other wounded men dying around him daily, Heffelfinger relied on keeping his mind away from the pain and misery. He possessed the “contented spirit,” the only hope for life when the body fails.

Jacob Heffelfinger of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, served as First Sergeant of Company H, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. This image depicts him a little later in the war, wearing the rank of second lieutenant.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Grand Army of Canines; Or, Let Slip the Dogs of War

Julian Scott, Union Vanguard (1889)

This image is called “Union Vanguard.” A veteran, Julian Scott (one of my favorite Civil War artists), painted it in 1889. I like it for several reasons, but for this post, I’d like to focus on a single element, the inclusion of the dog. Certainly, this hound is no stray. He appears to be a member of the Union skirmishers, following not his master, but his commanding officer (the captain mounted on the fence). Did Julian Scott make a conscious effort to include this dog to show that it, like the soldiers, served the Union banner?

Civil War history has not done a good job describing the role played by dogs (or, for that matter, the other important army animals: mules, oxen, and horses). When dogs appear in the literature, writers relate them as a kind of “human interest story,” and nothing more. I would argue that the story of Union dogs needs to be teased out to a greater degree, largely because they held such a prominent place in the minds of Union soldiers themselves. By all accounts, dogs followed the Union army wherever it went, enduring many of the same trials as their human brothers-in-arms. It would probably be impossible to determine, with accuracy, how many dogs accompanied the army between 1861 and 1865, but my guess is that the number reached the thousands. Photographs reveal that dogs were everywhere, sitting by the tents of prominent officers or lounging with the enlisted men in camp. Some of them even got into formal portraits. Some dogs became regimental mascots and they received lavish attention. Jack, a bull terrier with the 102nd Pennsylvania, for instance, received a silver collar worth $75, the equivalent of six months’ salary for an ordinary Union private.

Jack, the mascot of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry

Dogs also served as the especial emblems of their regiment. The 28th Pennsylvania, for instance, named its dog “28”—literally the numeric designation of the regiment—purchasing a collar with the name/number etched into it. When the 5th Connecticut published its unit history in 1889, it contained not a single image, with the exception of the frontispiece, which showed the regimental dog. The 23rd Pennsylvania brought along a small poodle named “Dash the Fire-Dog.” Dash ate so well that he became “too fat” to keep up with the regiment on the march. The soldiers of the 23rd Pennsylvania took turns carrying the overweight critter, just so it could keep up with the army during the Peninsula Campaign. After that ordeal, the regiment “discharged” Dash honorably, sending him back to his owners, a fire company in Philadelphia. (Sadly, Dash did not make it back; he went missing on the steamer that shipped him back to Philadelphia.)

Harvey, the mascot of the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, did not belong to the Army of the Potomac, but I inserted him here anyway. Harvey wore a silver collar that read, "I'm Lt. D.M. Stearn's Dog. Whose dog are you?"

Unknown Union soldier with his dog.

Undoubtedly, then, dogs occupied an important place in the Army of the Potomac, one equal to the regimental standards carried aloft by the color guard. Colors and dogs were almost the same thing in the 11th Pennsylvania. Famously, that regiment’s bull terrier, Sallie, always took a position with the color guard when the regiment formed line-of-battle. Did the well-known loyalty of dogs serve as an allegory of the bluecoats’ loyalty to the Union? If so, the meaning of the Union army’s dogs might be immense indeed!

George Custer was one of the Army of the Potomac's biggest dog lovers. Here he is with one of his dogs.

Here is Custer with one of his puppies.

This is Rufus Ingalls's Dalmatian.

Additionally, I often wonder about the absence of dogs in the Confederate army. It is easy to find mention of dogs in Union accounts, but they almost never appear in Confederate accounts. (The only reference I’ve ever encountered of a Confederate dog involved one attached to the 1st Maryland Battalion. Even so, Union accounts described this dog in greater detail than their Confederate counterparts. When the unnamed dog was killed in action at Gettysburg, Union troops buried it with greater care than the human bodies of the enemy.) Unlike Union dogs, Confederate canines never served under their riddled banners. By contrast, Confederate dogs served only two purposes: chasing down runaway slaves and sniffing out escaped prisoners of war. Confederate dogs rarely, if ever, accompanied their masters into battle. Confederate dogs served a functional purpose, not a symbolic one.

This child attached to the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry keeps his puppy close.
These thoughts are tentative at best, but they are interesting to me because of the profound conclusions they suggest. At first, I thought that studying the role of dogs in the Civil War might amount to a silly “puff piece,” but if I’m right—if the role of dogs varied from region to region, and if they served an exclusively patriotic role in the Union army only—then canine participation in the Civil War suggests deep significance. Let me put it this way: I believe you can tell plenty about a society by viewing the way it treats its pets. During a time of war, Union and Confederate dogs held markedly different roles.

Monday, August 12, 2013

One More Left of the Same Sort

How many of you know the Civil War tale of Henry Smith, the Razor Strop Man? I was quite ignorant of it until a friend of mine turned me in this direction.

Henry Smith was born in Waltham Abbey, England, on Christmas Eve 1815. (This made him forty-seven years old when he enlisted in the Civil War.) In 1842, Smith immigrated to New York, and for a while, wandered the streets of the Empire City, utterly jobless and barely able to live. With no other opportunities for social advancement, or so his memoir later claimed, Smith began hawking razor strops. Apparently, his humor and genial demeanor attracted throngs of interested clients. Usually, Smith attracted buyers by crafting ridiculous songs about his razor strops, regaling crowds with humorous tales of the misfortunes that befell men who purchased sub-par razor strops. (If you’re interested in these popular razor strop ballads, check out his book.) Known far and wide across Gotham, clients recognized Smith by his tagline, “One more left of the same sort,” a ploy to get gullible purchasers to believe that his razor strops were selling fast. Believe it or not, Smith’s success as a peddler earned him national acclaim. After netting fame in New York, he traveled the states, selling his razor strops in the major cities in New England, the South, and the Midwest. Few newspapers failed to mention the appearance of the Razor Strop Man. Eventually, Smith collected anecdotes of his travels, compiling them into a sort of happy-wanderer epic entitled, The Life and Adventures of Henry Smith, the Celebrated Razor Strop Man. Without question, Henry Smith became one of the few true humble-born celebrities of antebellum America.

 Like most celebrities, the Razor Strop Man could not refrain from speaking his political beliefs. Smith delivered addresses on behalf of the Temperance Movement, and by the 1850s, he joined the anti-slavery movement. The beginning of the Civil War found him in Rochester, and during the turbulent summer of 1862, he went on a speaking tour, encouraging locals to enlist in a local regiment, the 140th New York.

Smith joined Company D of that regiment, but fell ill on its first march. When he recovered, he became a nurse, treating sufferers from the Chancellorsville Campaign. But then, at Gettysburg, he followed his regiment too closely during its defense of Little Round Top. A ball struck his right leg below the knee, and two of his comrades carried him from the field. Several surgeons examined Smith, and all agreed that if they extracted the ball, he might keep his leg. Sadly, in the shuffle of wounded men, the surgeons ignored him, and after eleven days, infection set in, and soon, Smith had to lose his limb, or lose his life.

This news sent a spark of anger through Rochester. Their favorite celebrity had just lost his leg in the war, for no good reason, it seemed. Smith tried to allay concerns by writing the newspapers, telling readers that the war had not sapped his fighting spirit. He wrote:

I think I hear you saying, ‘Are you not sick of the war, Smith?’ I will tell you. I wish, with all my heart, the war was over, but I would not take my discharge if I could get it; and if I was Abraham Lincoln, I would not give them one pin’s point more than he has offered them. I love the country. I have always been well treated, and if I am not worth a cent, it isn’t the country’s fault.  . . . When the 140th left Rochester, we numbered 950 men—since that time we have taken 75 from the old 13th, and now as true as you live, we cannot muster for service more than 350 men. This is a high figure. About one year ago, if you spoke of negro soldiers, some white men would be almost ready to knock you down. But mark what I say—you ask a white man now about negroes fighting, and you find him on the side of letting them fight.

Naturally, Smith’s vote of confidence in Lincoln, the war, and the U.S.C.T. helped reinforce the Republican Party in New York. I guess when I think of this, I try to consider the way that public figures integrate themselves into America’s history. For lack of a better phrase, Smith put his money where his mouth was. As for the missing limb, he often told all inquirers, “I have one more left of the same sort.”

Henry Smith, The Razor Strop Man, from The Life and Adventures of Henry Smith

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What We Leave to Our Children

I’ve selected my first post carefully. It is a reflection written by Corporal George G. Walters, a member of Company K, 148th Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1862, at age nineteen, Walters enlisted in the Union army, leaving behind his friends and family at the small crossroads of Curllsville, Pennsylvania. He served three years with the Army of the Potomac, fighting with it at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Overland Campaign. Thirty-nine years after the Civil War, he contributed to Joseph Muffly’s history of the 148th Pennsylvania, The Story of Our Regiment. Here’s what Walters had to say:

We may not be able to leave to our children gold, jewels, precious stones or wealth, but there is something that money cannot buy,—honor. This is transmitted as an heirloom for which generations yet unborn will bless us and hold our memory in sacred reverence; while over the fireplace the old sword will be suspended, and many an evening whiled away in recounting the heroic deeds that reflect honor out from the dim ages of long ago. ‘My father went down in the great battle of Gettysburg. My father stood on the brink of starvation in the Andersonville prison. My father helped to carry the flag above the clouds of Lookout Mountain. My father stood beneath the leaden hail at Vicksburg. My father marched with Meade through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and heard the shouts of victory at the surrender of Appomattox in April, 1865.’ These are the priceless relics transmitted to posterity that no thief in the night can steal. This is the grand heritage bought with the blood and suffering of our fathers which no engraver can counterfeit.

If memories of service in the Army of the Potomac are priceless heirlooms, let us strive not to forget them. So it shall be; let the soldiers tell their stories.

Corporal G. G. Walters, ca. 1862 (Muffly, History of Our Regiment, 1904)