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.

Friday, October 4, 2013

750,000 Dead?

On April 20, 1861, only days after the news of Fort Sumter had reached the North, New York City hosted the “Monster Rally,” an effort to churn up support for the war effort. The exact number of spectators is unknown. Reports indicated that at least 100,000 people showed up to Union Square to hear a list of cunning orators speak their minds about the present crisis. Among the speakers was Edward Dickinson Baker, Oregon’s U.S. Senator and soon-to-be-commissioned colonel of the 71st Pennsylvania (1st California). Baker delivered an address that boggles the mind. He said,

Glory will not return until Sumter is avenged!  . . . I propose that the people of this Union dictate to these rebels the terms of peace. It may take thirty millions [of dollars]; it may take three hundred millions. What then? We will have it. . . . It may cost us seven thousand men; it may cost us seventy-five thousand men in battle; it may cost us seven hundred and fifty thousand men. What then? We have them.


At this point, so claimed the New York Herald, Baker received applause.


(This image from Harpers Weekly depicts the April 20, 1861, Union Square Rally.)

Let me say: what a speech!
750,000 dead? Applause?  What?
Certainly, Baker meant what he said. After all, on October 21, 1861, (exactly six months and one day later) Baker died in combat atop Ball’s Bluff, Virginia. Of the 1,700 men in his brigade, more than 220 accompanied him to the grave.
Still, at the beginning of the war, Baker confirmed that he was willing to expend three-quarters of a million additional northern lives to restore the Union. In actuality, the war cost the Union 360,000 lives—less than half that number. In studying the war, we often say that Americans—North and South—naively assumed the war would be short and bloodless. Clearly, not everyone believed that.
I do wonder if everyone in that crowd really heard what Baker said and let the sobering reality of his words sink in.

(Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker was willing to lose 750,000 soldiers fighting against the Confederacy.)