Thursday, January 30, 2014

Four Casualties at Pitzer’s Woods, Part 3: Charles McLean

The reconnaissance action at Pitzer’s Woods caused the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters to lose five killed and mortally wounded: Sergeant Abraham Cooper (Co. F), Lieutenant George W. Sheldon (Co. I), Private Smith Haight (Co. D), Private Charles Thatcher (Co. E), and Captain Charles D. McLean (Co. D).

Of these five, the Sharpshooters appeared to feel the loss of Captain McLean most acutely. Near the end of the action, McLean received a wound to his leg, shattering his bone. One of his men, Private Peter Kipp, turned around just in time to see him fall. Calling aloud, Kipp rallied four men—Kipp, Private Edwin Nelson, Lieutenant John Hetherington, and a sergeant named Marks—who grabbed a blanket and improvised a makeshift litter. They placed McLean on it and started to carry him off the field. Soon, Nelson fell wounded, and two other soldiers had to improvise a litter to carry him as well. Without a delay, a fifth man, Private Alexander Ferguson, took Nelson’s place carrying the captain. As Kipp remembered, “[We] had gone but a few steps when the captain told us to leave him and look out for ourselves or all would be shot.” The four Sharpshooters did as McLean bid them, lowering him to the ground, but after retreating a few paces more, Hetherington told Kipp to go back and stay with McLean, even if it meant surrendering to the Confederates.

Kipp turned around and did as ordered. When he reached McLean’s position, he discovered that the Confederate skirmish line had just passed his fallen commander. Dutifully, Kipp surrendered to three Alabamians—three men who had then stopped to see if McLean was alive or dead. At first, the three Confederates wanted to lead Kipp to the rear as their prisoner, but a helpful lieutenant soon arrived, telling Kipp that he could accompany McLean to the rear in an ambulance. Kipp hopped into a wagon loaded with wounded men, and at the field hospital, Kipp and McLean reunited with Private James H. Reed, another Sharpshooter from their company who had been wounded and captured.

Although McLean reached a field hospital (probably the Samuel Pitzer Farm) safely, he did not live much longer. A brigade surgeon amputated McLean’s leg, and according to Kipp—who continued to nurse him at the hospital—the operation went splendidly, for it resulted in little blood loss. However, for all the Confederate surgeons did to save him, McLean died on the operating table. He expired shortly before noon, July 4. The next day, when the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters returned to the scene of the action, they made an especial effort to find McLean. Lieutenant Hetherington, the officer who had ordered Peter Kipp to remain with the captain, found the field hospital. He wrote, “I entered the rebel hospitals as we came to them to look for our Captain, as it was near where he was wounded. Those were anxious moments for me. Just as we halted who should come forward but Kipp—and from him I learned the sad news (must I write it?) that he had his leg amputated and died on the morning of the 4th of July. . . . Kipp was with him part of the time. Reed did not leave him only to get water . . . ; he suffered very little pain.”

In later years, the veterans spoke highly of Captain McLean. When one reads their kind words, it is no wonder that they spent such a herculean effort to try to remove him from the field. Five men risked their lives to carry him to safety. In the process, two of those men became casualties themselves. Edwin Nelson fell wounded and Peter Kipp became a prisoner, albeit briefly. The value of a man might indeed be estimated by the risk of his friends to rescue him in his hour of need.

(This is a painting by the late Tom Lovell, entitled, "Berdan's Sharpshooters -- The Second Day at Gettysburg" (1990). It is meant to depict the reconnaissance action at Pitzer's Woods. It shows the Sharpshooters and the 3rd Maine fighting in overlapping skirmish lines, which is accurate. However, it depicts Wilcox's Alabamians crossing a stream with their wagons in tow. This is inaccurate.  In reality, the 1st USSS made first contact with the Alabamians at a cornfield west of Seminary Ridge. No supply wagons were present. This is the only known artistic depiction of the Pitzer's Woods engagement.)

(Lieutenant John Hetherington wore this cap the day he fought at Pitzer's Woods. You can see it has changed since July 2, 1863, in that the cap has lost its insignia. Hetherington took command of Company D after McLean fell wounded and on July 5, and he sought the remains of his former commander by returning to the scene of the action.)
(McLean fell wounded near the middle of the fight at Pitzer's Woods. No one identified the spot where he fell, but veterans later said it occurred near the present-day monument along Berdan Avenue.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Four Casualties at Pitzer’s Woods, Part 2: George W. Sheldon

The fire-fight at Pitzer’s Woods lasted only twenty minutes. Outnumbered, the four companies from the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters fell back, firing in retreat. In the process, they lost First Lieutenant George W. Sheldon. Unlike Smith Haight of Company D, who I featured in the previous post, no one carried off Sheldon’s body. He died almost instantly, and with Wilcox’s Alabamians pursuing vigorously, no one in his company had time to build him a litter.

News of Sheldon’s death distressed a friend of his—Lieutenant Edwin Wilson of Company C. Six Companies from the 1st U.S.S.S. did not participate in the reconnaissance, remaining in reserve along the Emmitsburg Road. When the winded survivors retreated past these six reserve companies, they told Wilson that Sheldon had died. On July 5, after the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated, Wilson asked to lead the burial party sent to scour Pitzer’s Woods for the dead and wounded. Four companies went on this grim task, but for Wilson, it proved to be a personal mission. He wanted to recover his friend’s corpse. It did not take long for Wilson and the burial party to find Sheldon’s badly rotting remains. They remained exactly where he had fallen. The Confederates had raided the corpse, but took no time to bury it. With haste, the Sharpshooters buried Sheldon under an oak tree and erected a head board to mark the spot. That evening, Wilson scratched out a letter to Sheldon’s father.

Head Quarters 1st U.S.S.S.

Battle Field of Gettysburg, Penn

July 5th 1863

Mr. Sheldon,


It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the loss of your son Lt. Geo. W. Sheldon. He was killed on Thursday July 2nd in the early part of the first day’s battle. Words fail me to give consolation for the loss of such a noble son. He was a gallant and brave soldier and he died like a brave champion of the cause of liberty. You can have the satisfaction of knowing that you will never have cause to blush for his name as a soldier. We all are called upon to mourn the loss of near and dear friend[s] in this our great struggle for human liberty. I had him buried decently as our circumstances would permit and placed a board at the head of his grave to mark the place where he now lies. Any information you may wish in regard to him you can have by addressing me as many letters as you wish. I haven’t time to write more but will do so if you wish. He was formerly a member of my company untill he was promoted to commissary sergeant. Therefore I have had every opertunity of knowing him well both as a soldier and a companion.

I am sir very

Respectfully Your

Most Obt Servt.


Lieut. E. A. Wilson

Co. C, 1st U.S.S.S.

This was not the only time that Wilson wrote about his friend, George W. Sheldon. In June 1886, thirty-three years later, Wilson submitted a letter to the National Tribune. It appeared on June 10. He wrote:

One of the officers . . . killed was an intimate friend of mine, Lieut. Geo. W. Sheldon; a more manly young fellow never wore shoulder-straps, and a promising young officer. For some trifling affair he had been placed under arrest, but was not deprived of his sword. All day of the 1st of July we marched together, and during that day’s march he declared his intention of joining his company (I) and taking part in the fight, which we knew would take place on the morrow. I tried to persuade him to stay behind with the Quartermaster; as he was under arrest he had no business in front. But the more I talked to him the more determined he became. I remember this well. We had halted for a few minutes’ rest, and when the bugle sounded to fall in he rose to his feet and stretched himself to his full height and said to me; “Ed, as you value my friendship, don’t say anything to persuade me to stay out of the battle that is sure to take place tomorrow. I will not shield myself under the flimsy pretext that I am under arrest, and will go into the fight.” He did. And was killed in the beginning of the engagement, and as the spot where he was killed was nearly a mile in advance of the main line of battle, of course our dead fell into the hands of the rebels. He had an entire new suit of clothes on, inside and out. They stripped him of his coat, pants and hat, and also his boots, and left nothing on him but his underclothes, and only by those was he recognized when we went to bury the dead on that part of the field after the battle. As I was with him when he purchased the under clothing, it was the only means by which I recognized him from the other dead on the field. We buried him at the foot of a live oak, just in the edge of the timber. As I had charge of the burial party, I know just where he was buried.

Sheldon’s body did not remain under that live oak. In the autumn of 1863, grave diggers moved his corpse to the National Cemetery. It remains there to this day.

In the previous post, I noted the incredible sacrifice that Smith Haight’s friends made to get his body off the field. No doubt, they would have done the same for Sheldon if they could have managed it. For three days, Sheldon’s friends worried that they had lost their friend’s earthly form forever. I cannot imagine how that anxiety must have eaten at them, nor can I fathom the sense of relief they felt when they finally found him.

(As Companies D, E, F, and I withdrew from the attacking Alabama regiments, George W. Sheldon fell with his death wound.)

(This is Lieutenant Edwin A. Wilson from Company C. On July 5, he helped recover Sheldon's remains.)
(George Sheldon's remains now lie in the Soldier's National Cemetery, US Regulars Section, D-23)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Four Casualties at Pitzer’s Woods, Part 1: Smith Haight

Students of the Battle of Gettysburg are familiar with the reconnaissance action at Pitzer’s Woods. At noon on July 2, 1863, 300 Union soldiers probed the Confederate position. Four companies from Col. Hiram Berdan’s 1st U.S. Sharpshooters—about 100 men—led the way. They formed into skirmish line in the woods near the Warfield and Flaherty farms and then pushed northward, moving along the crest of Seminary Ridge. When the four companies reached a position northwest of the Staub Farm, they made contact with three regiments from Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade, the 8th, 10th, and 11th Alabama. A twenty-minute fire-fight developed. After it was all over, the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters counted their losses. They had subtracted nineteen officers and men. Of this number, five had been killed in action.

The first Sharpshooter to fall was probably Private Smith Haight, a twenty-two-year-old farmer from New Berlin, New York. When Haight went down with his mortal wound, two comrades in Company D fashioned a makeshift stretcher for him, loaded him onto it, and carried him to the rear. Haight said nothing after receiving his wound and he died shortly after his litter-bearers reached the rear of the 3rd Corps. One of those who carried him off the field was Private Cyrus J. Hardaway. On July 5, Hardaway wrote to his mother. He said:

Dear Mother,

I have been through one more terrible battle and thank God I am still safe and sound. But not so with the rest of my companions. Smith Haight is dead and Edwin Nelson is I am afraid mortally wounded. . . . We brought Haight and Nelson off from the field more than a mile. Smith died before we got him to the hospital. We gave him a verry deacent burial and have a chaplain to read the burial service. That is a great deal better than I have seen done by thousands of other[s] for the last two days.

Smith Haight’s body did not remain buried on the field for long. Sometime in the autumn, his family arrived at Gettysburg to recover his remains. They now lie in a small cemetery in Haight’s hometown, New Berlin.

The trek from Pitzer’s woods to the Peach Orchard is no small distance, nor is it especially flat. (Back when I ran cross country for Gettysburg College, I ran the paved roads between Pitzer’s Woods and Sherfy’s Farm more times than I can count, so I know of what I speak.) I cannot imagine carrying a dying man over this terrain (and through farm fields no less) for such an incredible distance with an enemy hot on my heels.

If it was within their power, the men of Berdan’s 1st U.S. Sharpshooters made certain to leave no man behind—not even a corpse.
(This maps offers a rough depiction of Berdan's July 2 reconnaissance action, set against the modern-day roads of Gettysburg National Military Park. At the lower right, you can see the position of the six reserve companies from the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters. Their skirmish line extended up the Emmitsburg Road. At the top of the map, you can see Wilcox's Alabama regiments, and at the far left, you can see the 3rd Maine, which supported Berdan's Sharpshooters, losing 48 men in the process. The four companies from the 1st U.S.S.S--D, E, F, and I--are labeled near the top of the map. I've also outlined the approximate route taken by the men who carried Smith Haight to safety. The primary accounts suggest that they carried him more than a mile.)

(This image depicts Edwin Nelson, Company D, 1st U.S.S.S. Like Smith Haight, Nelson received a wound during the noon reconnaissance. The Sharpshooters carried him off the field too, probably along the same route taken by the men who bore Haight.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Price of Freedom

On July 2, 1863, the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry was overrun by Confederate forces at the Joseph Sherfy Peach Orchard. The unfortunate New Hampshire regiment lost 190 of its 354 officers and men. One bullet felled Second Lieutenant Edmund Dascomb, a twenty-five-year-old student from Tufts College. Dascomb had enlisted back in 1861--the war’s early days--leaving amid his sophomore year. Dascomb fought at his regiment's first two engagements, Bull Run and Williamsburg. At the latter action, he suffered wounds that forced him into convalescence. After recovery, he rejoined his unit and accompanied it during its three-month furlough in New Hampshire, where the members of the regiment expected to vote in the March 1863 state election. Being a political activist, Dascomb campaigned for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, delivering a speech in Manchester that “carried the audience by storm,” or so remembered the regimental historian.

(2nd Lt. Edmund Dascomb, Co. G, 2nd N. H. Vols., shown here as private.)

Dascomb’s recovery from his Williamsburg wound gave him a chance to reflect on the grim sacrifice necessary to win the war. On October 16, 1862, he penned a short poem entitled, “The Price of Freedom.” (Dascomb kept a booklet by his side that contained a collection of original poems.) The first stanza of “The Price of Freedom” depicted a horrible battlefield, one littered with groaning and dying men:

Lo, look on yonder battlefield, where mangled thousands lie,

A hundred forms of ghastly death, beneath a lurid sky—

And not alone the nerveless dead, but curse and groan and prayer,

Arise from wretches mad with pain, devoid of pitying care.

(A battlefield in aftermath.)

Dascomb’s poem presaged his own plight. Nine months after he wrote about the sights of this unnamed grisly carnage, he fell wounded himself, becoming another victim of the war's savage butchery. His regiment retreated, leaving him alone, piled among the “nerveless dead.” On July 5, three days after Dascomb received his Gettysburg wound, the survivors of the 2nd New Hampshire returned to the Peach Orchard, recovering him and any others who held on to life. Dutifully, the soldiers of the 2nd New Hampshire removed him to a field hospital, but he lasted only another eight days, succumbing to his wounds on July 13. His comrades buried him on the field, and later that autumn, grave diggers interred his body in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. To this day, his earthly remains lie under Grave 11, Section A, in the New Hampshire Plot. According to reports, his last words were: “I enjoy the sweet consciousness of always having striven to do my duty.”

(Dascomb's grave, GNMP, N. H. Plot, Section A, No. 11.)

News of Dascomb’s death shocked his friends. His professors at Tufts held a vigil for him. One friend later drafted a postmortem resolution that declared, “Dascomb was a young man of great promise, and his death is a severe loss to the community and the country. . . .  God shall grant that the fall of our lamented friend may be overruled to the furtherance of the glorious cause in which he bled and died; and hasten the day when the Stars and Stripes shall peacefully wave over our entire National Domain.” Of course, Dacomb knew that his death would cause immense grief, not unlike the deaths of many other boys in blue. There is no evidence that he naively believed that war was some glorious thing. His “Price of Freedom Poem” continued:

Yes, the soldier lives and dies, sometimes unwept; unknown,

For there be some (thank God, tis few) who travel this world alone,

The soldier’s friends in his far off home, how with fear they watch and wait,

When news of a bloody contest comes to learn of their soldier’s fate.


But what did it all mean? How did Dascomb consider death? As the title of his poem implies, he understood that Union soldiers had to sacrifice themselves to achieve the nation's greater purpose. That was the price the soldiers had to pay to purchase their country's freedom. Take note of Dascomb’s final stanza. Notice the way he talks about the liberation of slaves and the preservation of the Constitution. He wields subtle language to underscore the essential point: Free government can only come by having free men:

Gods ways are just, this much we know, His purpose we fulfill,

His Children are our Brethren all, deny it though we will,

Our brethren in the right to live, to labor and enjoy,

This Magna Charta of our hopes, none shall ‘ere destroy.


For a soldier, I imagine that Hell is a battlefield draped in aftermath. In 1862, Dascomb imagined himself as a victim of that grisly aftermath. In 1863, his vision came true. He paid the ultimate price—the price of freedom. Can bravery be distilled to its essence any more than this?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ambition and Joe Hooker

Sometimes, people tell me they are ambitious and proud of it. When people tell me this, my mind often drifts to the Civil War. (I confess: my mind drifts there easily.) I tend to ponder the words of Abraham Lincoln, a man who hated ambition. To him, ambition was a dangerous thing. As a young man, Lincoln made his opinion quite clear, when he spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838. In this speech, Lincoln used the word “ambition” five times, never in a positive way.  He said:

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it: their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Twenty five years later—almost to the day—Lincoln reiterated his concerns about ambition. He had just given command of the Army of the Potomac to Major General Joseph Hooker. On January 26, 1863, he welcomed Hooker to his new job, and what a welcome Hooker received! Lincoln wrote:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it. And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly A. Lincoln

Of course, this letter is quite famous. When Civil War nerds (like me) speak of Lincoln’s “Hooker letter,” we always refer to the January 26 missive. However, whenever we refer to it, we portray it as a humorous jab at Hooker’s ridiculous assertion to install a dictator. (For instance, this is how the  January 26 letter appears in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.) To focus on the humor misses the point, I think.  Lincoln did not take ambition lightly. When Hooker spoke openly of a military dictatorship, Lincoln took notice. Then, he gave Hooker a somber warning. The President believed that generals who take counsel of their ambition are dangerous men, the Alexanders, Caesars, and Napoleons about whom he foretold in 1838. Ambition, he believed, was ruining the Army of the Potomac from the inside.

This letter gets less and less funny each time I read it.

(As a young politician, Lincoln warned of American Caesars driven by ambition.)

("You have taken counsel of your ambition," Lincoln warned Joe Hooker in January 1863.)