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.)