Friday, March 28, 2014

“Shot to Death With Musketry.”

On April 29, 1864, at Williamsburg, Virginia, Brigadier General Isaac J. Wistar’s brigade lined up to witness the execution of two deserters, Private Owen McDonald and Private James Scott. McDonald, who was twenty-nine-years-old, had been born in England, and had enlisted at Concord, New Hampshire, on November 11, 1863. Scott, who was twenty-two, had been born in Scotland, and had enlisted on November 30, 1863, at Nashua, New Hampshire.  Both men had gone to the front as substitutes, called up after Lincoln’s October 17 requisition for 300,000 volunteers. Within weeks of their muster, McDonald and Scott arrived at Point Lookout, Maryland, and there, they found themselves assigned to the 12th New Hampshire, a regiment performing guard duty over Confederate prisoners of war.

In early April, the weather warmed up and orders arrived, transferring the 12th New Hampshire and its sister regiment, the 2nd New Hampshire, to a new post. For McDonald and Scott, the possibility of wasting away the war as prison guards suddenly evaporated. They knew that if they stayed with their companies—G and K—they would surely see combat. Apparently, other recently-added substitutes possessed the same feeling of foreboding. Over the course of the next week, 100 men deserted from the 2nd and 12th New Hampshire regiments. McDonald deserted on April 9, and Scott joined the exodus on April 10. Somehow, after bolting, McDonald and Scott met up, and they, in turn, joined with another deserter, Private Henry Holt of Company F, 2nd New Hampshire. Together, these three men stole a boat from a St. Mary’s County waterman and used it to row up the Chesapeake Bay—a reckless plan, in my humble opinion. On April 12, several hours into their bid for freedom, a ship heading south from Baltimore, USS Mystic, stopped and overhauled them. After questioning them, the captain determined them to be deserters. As it happened, USS Mystic had charted course for Whittaker’s Landing, a wharf on the James River just south of Williamsburg.

(Here, you can see a sketch of USS Mystic, the gunboat that caught the three New Hampshire deserters.)
On April 11, while the three deserters were still searching for a boat in which to make their escape, the soldiers of the 12th New Hampshire piled into a steamship, the Thomas Morgan, and sailed down the Chesapeake Bay, landing at Yorktown in the afternoon. The next day, the regiment marched to Williamsburg. The regiment had barely paused when USS Mystic arrived at the dock. Thus, within three days of their escape, James Scott and Owen McDonald returned to their regiment in chains.

The New Hampshiremen’s new brigade commander, General Wistar, hated bounty jumpers, and he believed that these three deserters represented the worst of the bunch. Wistar ordered two joint courts-martial to punish them. In order to test the mettle of his two New Hampshire regiments, Wistar selected officers from the 2nd and 12th New Hampshire to render judgment. If the New Hampshire officers elected to punish their own, it would send a clear message to all others who contemplated desertion.

(Brig. Gen. Isaac Jones Wistar demanded courts-martial for the three deserters, and for a fourth deserter caught during the same week.)

Within hours, the court convened and issued its first verdict, finding Private Holt guilty of desertion. At the same time, tt also found another soldier guilty of desertion, Private John Egan of Company A, 2nd New Hampshire. (At Yorktown, Egan procured a Confederate uniform and attempted to make his way to enemy lines. A scout stopped him and returned him to his regiment.)

On April 15, 1864, both Egan and Holt faced death by firing squad . The execution took place on a bluff overlooking the York River, just one mile east of Yorktown. According to the 2nd New Hampshire’s regimental historian, Martin Haynes, General Wistar ordered a battery of artillery to point its loaded cannon at the regiment to prevent the men from mutinying. As Haynes remembered, “No words can tell how keenly the proud old men of the proud old Second felt the disgrace of the position.” He continued:

The provost marshal read the findings of the court and the sentence, when the firing party of twelve men advanced and took position a few feet in front of the coffins. The prisoners removed their coats, and knelt upon the grass while the priest performed the holy offices of the church. Arising, they shook hands with the provost marshal and the priest. Their eyes were bandaged and their wrists tied with white handkerchiefs. Then they were led to and seated upon their coffins, facing the executioners. The marshal raised his hand, and his men brought their pieces to a ‘ready;’ again, and the guns sprang to the shoulder; a third time, and the volley rang out. Two or three bullets were heard singing out over the river, and Egin [sic] and Holt fell back across their coffins. After a short time the bodies were examined by surgeons, who declared life extinct, when all the troops were filed past the bodies and back to their camps.

One of the officers who had sentenced the two men, Captain George W. Gordon, noted in his journal, “We marched back to camp blue as whetstones and not a little mad for such measures are necessary to keep men with the commands to which they belong. It is rather hard but fair.”

(Capt. George W. Gordon, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, served on the court. His journal revealed a strong opinion. In his mind, the deserters needed to die.)

After the execution of Holt and Egan, McDonald and Scott stood trial before the exact same court. Predictably, it found both men guilty and sentenced them to die. On April 25, General Wistar signed the death warrant:

General Order No. 4

The proceedings, findings, and sentences of the Court having been approved by Brigadier General I. J. Wistar, the officer convening the court, and forwarded to the Major General Commanding Department, have been by him confirmed and ordered to be executed.

The prisoners having been turned over by the Brigadier General Commanding to the Colonel Commanding this Brigade for execution: Private Owen McDonough [sic] Co. “K” Second [sic] New Hampshire Volunteers and Private James Scott Co. “G” Second [sic] New Hampshire Volunteers, will be shot to death with musketry, on the plain, below Fort Magruder, between the hours of 4 and 5 P.M. tomorrow 29th instant, in the presence of the Brigade.

The Brigade line will be formed at the place mentioned at a quarter before 4 o’clock P.M. at which time Commanders of the regiments will have their commands promptly on the ground.

Once again, Wistar’s brigade formed to witness a double-execution. This time, it stood at Fort Magruder, near Williamsburg. Adjutant Asa Bartlett, the judge advocate, later described this execution:

This was the first time that the Twelfth had ever witnessed an execution of the extreme penalty of military law, and the scene is still quite vivid in the minds of some who saw it. The spot having been selected and two graves dug, the regiments of the brigade are marched out at the hour appointed and formed into three sides of a hollow square, facing inward, with the newly-dug graves in the middle of the open side. Soon the “mark time” beat of the muffled drum is heard, and the condemned men, riding on their rough-made coffins, and guarded by twelve soldiers, selected from the Second Regiment, as executioners, slowly approach the square, and entering at one end of the open side, are driven round the whole distance of the other three sides, close in front of the lines. As they pass along, their countenances are closely scanned by every soldier, eager to read therefrom the emotions of the soul within. One of them, with downcast, sorrowful gaze, looks as if he realizes his situation, and that the woeful sorrow for the past, that has brought him here, is nearly equal to the dread of the terrible present that is now before him. The other acts more like one riding to a circus than [to] his own grave. A brutish grin is on his face, accompanied with an indifference of demeanor that seems half real and half affected. The teams are halted in front of the graves, beside which the coffins are placed, and the victims, dismounting from the cart, remain standing while the provost martial reads the death warrant and a prayer is made by the chaplain. They are next seated upon their coffins, their caps removed (the heedless one, bound to die game, taking his off himself and throwing it for some distance), their eyes bandaged with handkerchiefs, and now the dreadful moment of death-waiting suspense has arrived. The provost steps to one side a few paces, raises his hand, and twelve muskets instantly come to a “ready”; a little higher the hand, and the muskets are aimed and waiting; his hand drops, and Owen McDonald and James Scott fall over their coffins into eternity.

Captain Gordon, a member of the court who had asked for the death sentence, again remarked in his journal:  “We are getting a pretty hard name for a court. Well we have got four of them shot and more are deserving of being shot if I am judge.”

Five weeks after the deaths of McDonald and Scott, the 2nd and 12th New Hampshire joined the Army of the Potomac and engaged in the terrible battle at Cold Harbor. The 2nd New Hampshire lost sixteen officers and men killed. Meanwhile, the 12th New Hampshire lost sixty-three. The battle even claimed the lives of some of the officers who had served on the courts-martial, including Captain George Gordon and Captain William H. Smith.

Sometime that summer, a Union officer, Captain John McMurray, visited Fort Monroe. There, he encountered a friend of his, a lieutenant from the 2nd New Hampshire who had served on the courts-martial of the four deserters and who had survived the Battle of Cold Harbor. McMurray asked the lieutenant what had happened to Gordon and Smith. The lieutenant replied, “Both were shot to death with musketry,” a derisive reply meant to make the June 3 attack at Cold Harbor appear equivalent to a death sentence. McMurray later recalled, “A pang of genuine sorrow for their death pierced my heart. Often since, when I have thought of them, and reflected upon their death, these two sentences have come into my mind: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,’ and ‘Vengeance is mine, I will pay saith the Lord.’”

(Capt. John McMurray, 6th U.S.C.I., believed the merciless members of the court received their own style of justice at Cold Harbor.)

I think this tale is powerful enough as it is; I need not say much more about it. But let me conclude with this: the Civil War was, at its simplest, just an interlocking web of death sentences. I think the soldiers of 2nd and 12th New Hampshire understood this too well.

(There are no known images that depict the executions of Holt, Egan, Scott, and McDonald. Probably, they looked something like this Harper's Weekly sketch.)



Monday, March 24, 2014

The Outcome of a Maimed Consciousness

On July 1, 1863, Sarah Garland Emery of Canterbury, New Hampshire, had a morbid dream. Her husband, Charles, was off at the front, serving with the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. Although she did not know it, the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin and that battle was about to claim the life of one of her husband’s closest friends, Lieutenant Henry French. Sarah Emery remembered,

It was the night before the battle of Gettysburg, a night never to be forgotten by me, that I had the strange dream, or vision, for it did not seem like a dream, that told me plainer than tongue or pen, and as unmistakably as my own eyes, the fate that awaited my husband and his brother comrade, Lieutenant French. They were . . . schoolmates together, and enlisted from the same neighborhood. I was then stopping here in London [N. H.] with my own folks, and though expecting from newspaper reports that a battle would be fought in a few days, did not know that the two great armies were rapidly concentrating at Gettysburg, and that advanced forces were already engaged on that historic field. I therefore retired that night with nothing more than usual to worry or excite me.

Sometime during the night I heard, as I thought, three or four plain and distinct raps on the outside of the front door. Changing my first impulse to arouse the other inmates of the house, I decided not to disturb them, as they gave no sound of being awake, but to answer the summons myself. Hastily dressing, I took the lamp I had lighted in my hand, and descending the front stairs unlocked and opened the door.

There, sad, solemn, and silent, but in perfect lifelike form, countenance, and attitude, and in full dress uniform, stood Lieut. Henry French!

I spoke and extended my hand, but without heeding either, he passed in by me through the hallway into the sitting-room, the door of which he opened and closed after him. For the first time a feeling of dread chilled through my veins, and I hesitated to follow. But something stronger than my fears impelled me forward, and opening the door just closed, I entered the room after him.

Here, in the middle of the room, I saw two coffins, both open and empty, as I first thought, but upon approaching nearer I noticed that only one was empty, while the other held what now seemed the pale face and lifeless form of him who but a minute before stood and moved in life and strength before me. As I gazed upon the empty coffin, a small stream of blood ran out of the foot of it, and fell upon the floor, and something seemed to say: ‘This is for Charles who, too, must give his life’s blood for his country, but his time has not come yet.’

When Sarah Emery awoke the next morning, she confessed, “I lay for a long time, scarcely daring to believe that I was once more on the conscious side of the dividing line.” A few days later, as news of the Battle of Gettysburg spread through town, elements of her unusual dream came true. A neighbor came by and informed her that Lieutenant French had indeed been killed. Although Sarah Emery worried about the second coffin she had seen in her dream, she “thought [that] my husband was all right, because his name was not in the list of killed or wounded. A day or two later and a letter from his own hand left no longer room for doubt that he had passed through the terrible carnage unscathed.”

Naturally, the dream continued to trouble her. Every day, Mrs. Emery fretted over the vision of the second coffin, and as the days of July passed, her family wondered why she continued to appear sad and remote. Emery remembered, “My husband was alive and well, but the empty coffin was constantly before me, and there was but little more doubt in my mind for whom it remained open, than there was whom I saw in the other one.”

After Gettysburg, the 12th New Hampshire received a transfer to Point Lookout, Maryland, where, for several months, Lieutenant Charles Emery and his comrades guarded Confederate prisoners. In April 1864, the 12th New Hampshire joined the 18th Corps and soon it participated in Benjamin Butler’s Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Then, in late May, it rejoined the Army of the Potomac just in time for the Battle of Cold Harbor. In the infamous frontal assault on June 3, 1864, the 12th New Hampshire lost 177 officers and men. As the news of the regiment’s redeployment reached friends and family back home, Sarah Emery worried that the prophesy was about to come true. She continued:

I now seemed to anticipate afresh that the sad end, so long delayed, was soon to come; and a nervous feeling of impending danger too plainly told me that the worst was about to be realized. A few days later and I received another and the last letter ever written by him for whose safe return I had so long waited and prayed in vain. It was written on the night and in the early morning before the terrible charge of Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864.

He had commenced the letter on the evening of the second, and wrote that the morrow would again bring carnage and death into the ranks of the Twelfth, and that he felt that he should not again be among the lucky few who would escape unharmed. About midnight he wrote again, saying he was sure he should fall, but whether he should be killed on the field or receive his mortal wound he could not tell. Toward morning, and but a short time before the charge, he finished the letter, stating that in answer to his prayers he had then the assurance that although the bitter cup must be drunk for the redemption of his country, as his great Captain had drunk his for the redemption of the world, yet he should not be killed outright, but should live to see me once more at least before he died.

This was enough, for I knew his presentiment must prove true, and with a hasty preparation I immediately started for Washington and found my husband there in one of the large hospitals, prostrate and weak from the nervous shock and loss of blood from two severe wounds, one in his left arm and the other in his right thigh.

Now followed days and nights of watching and praying, while life and death seemed balancing in the scales, until at last the physicians spoke encouragingly, and thought the danger well nigh passed. His arm had been taken off, and the stump was healing so well that he, too, was beginning to entertain strong hopes of final recovery and the enjoyment of many happy days with me in our pleasant cottage home.

We had talked over our trials in the past and our hopes for the future; he had told me of the battles he had been in, and of his narrow escapes; and several times spoke of the great battle of Gettysburg, and the death of Lieutenant French, and of how he had saved the national colors of his regiment from capture in that battle. When told that I had never before heard anything about his saving the flag, he seemed surprised, and wondered that Adjutant Heath, who went, you know, from the same town, had never written home about it.

He then related to me briefly the circumstances, and said: ‘If I should not live to get home, Heath, I have no doubt, will make known the facts about it and see that full justice is done me.’

He also talked to me freely all about the strange premonition he had the night before he was wounded, how deeply it impressed him, and how glad and thankful he was and ought to be that he was not killed, like so many of the brave boys around him, but was still alive with the chances daily increasing of his seeing his native hills once more, and there living to enjoy the blessings of peace which he had given his own blood and limbs to secure.

During all this time, nearly two months, I said nothing of my own warning more than a year before, and, although it was almost constantly in my mind, I carefully avoided saying or doing anything to awaken in his mind a suspicion that I did not share with him his often expressed and most sanguine hopes of his final recovery.

And, to tell the fact, he had lived so long and improved so much, that, at times, the desire to have it so was so strong, I thought I could see a silver lining to the dark cloud of fear and doubt that had for many months hung over me; but it would soon disappear and leave a still deeper shade of gloom, that no ray of hope could penetrate or dispel. But the days and nights of anxious waiting and watching were at last nearly numbered, and the final, fatal hour was fast approaching. As well and hopeful as usual, my husband had closed his eyes in peaceful, quiet rest; but something of the same dread feeling of impending danger that I had felt once or twice before, as you will remember, came over me, and I could not sleep.

Soon I was summoned to his bedside, and I knew, even before I could get there, that the dread messenger had come. I found him, slowly but surely, bleeding to death! Secondary hemorrhage from his wound in the groin, caused by the sloughing open of one of the femoral arteries, had broken out, and there was no power in medical skill to stop it.

Just as he breathed his last, a stream of blood ran from off the foot of his bed upon the floor, just as I had seen it run out the foot of the empty coffin, and the realization of my vision was then and there sadly and solemnly consummated.

A shrewd historian might dismiss this account as sanctimonious rubbish, but I’m not so skeptical of it. Psychologist James Sully once explained dreams as revelations, or as he put it, “the outcome of a maimed consciousness.” Oddly enough, Sully explained dreams as an attachment to humankind’s primordial past—which really doesn’t fit here—but he made it clear that dreams are revelations of truths that the conscious mind refuses to accept. In Sarah Emery’s case, she refused to accept the possibility that her husband could die in the war. Thus, her 1863 dream was the response of her subconscious mind; it prepared her for the possibility of his death. Her dream did not predict the future so much as it revealed it, exactly as Sully explained. In any case, her dream happened. It was a real event and we should not doubt the veracity of her account.
More to the point: what a wild window into the human mind! To me, Sarah Emery’s story suggests that, in war, dreams are far more illuminating—and far more didactic—than in times of peace. This dream maimed her consciousness in such a way that she never forgot it.

(Lt. Charles Sargent Emery, Co. F, 12th N.H.V.)

(Charles and Sarah Emery are buried here, in Merrimack County, N. H.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

“Instruments of Their Partisan Malice”

During the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1863, a letter from the Army of the Potomac made a splash in the local newspapers. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel George Abisha Woodward, the son of Judge George Washington Woodward, the Democratic candidate for governor.

Judge Woodward faced a tough campaign. He was a Copperhead—meaning he opposed the war—and he had earned notoriety a few months earlier for striking down Pennsylvania’s soldier voting law of 1839, a decision that did not earn him friends in the army. Further, Woodward had to challenge the Republican incumbent, Andrew Curtin, who presented himself as “the soldiers’ friend,” a moniker he received for his tireless efforts to provide aid to returning veterans and to the families of soldiers who were fighting at the front. Throughout the campaign, Republican newspapers made especial effort to paint the election as a simple contest. Voters, they said, had to choose between a candidate who diligently supported the troops (Curtin) and another who did his best to discourage the bluecoats by taking away their constitutional rights (Woodward).

Yet, the Republicans had to deal with one troublesome fact. Two of Woodward’s sons served in the Union army. One had gone out with the Emergency Militia and the other, George Abisha Woodward, had served for two years with the hard-fighting Pennsylvania Reserve Division. The Republicans could not simply brush this fact under the rug. Instead, one of them chose to tackle it head-on. On September 16, 1863, one Republican newspaper editor, Thomas J. Bigham, concocted a story at a Pittsburgh rally. Bigham noted that George Abisha Woodward had been wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. He claimed that when Judge Woodward learned this news, he declared that his son should have “been wounded in the heart for fighting in such a cause.” To Bigham, this seemed like a plausible way to slander the Democratic candidate. No one would doubt that a soldier-hating judge could be estranged from his uniform-wearing son.

Bigham, it seems, did not expect Lieutenant Colonel Woodward to reply. In that, he miscalculated. When George A. Woodward read the statement that appeared at the Pittsburgh rally, he seized on it as an opportunity to prove that his father loved and supported Union soldiers. Woodward was then serving with the Invalid Corps, his Gettysburg wound having recently prevented him from commanding his former regiment, the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves. Writing from Meridian Hill, outside of Washington DC, Woodward addressed his letter to Bigham, but sent it to the Philadelphia Age, the only Democratic newspaper in Philadelphia. Here is what Woodward said:

Sir: I have noticed in the newspapers a report of a mass Convention held at Pittsburg on the 16th instant, in which you are represented to have said in response of one Mathew; as to where Woodward (meaning Judge Woodward, the Democratic nominee for Governor) was when Curtin was attending to the soldiers’ wants; “that when Judge Woodward’s son came home from Gettysburg, wounded in both legs, his father might be thankful he got off so well—that he ought to have been wounded in the heart for fighting in such a cause.”

As my only brother capable of bearing arms, who has made two campaigns with the State Militia, has never been wounded, I presume that I am the son of Judge Woodward alluded to in the foregoing statement—which statement I desire to brand, as you knew it to be when you made it, a wicked and deliberate falsehood. A cause so weak as to need such assistance must be weak indeed. A man so lost to honor and decency as to use means for partisan ends deserves to be drummed out of respectable society.

As the Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 2d Pennsylvania Reserves, I participated in the battle of Gettysburg, but was fortunate enough to escape unharmed, except a slight injury to my right foot, in which I had been wounded during the Peninsular campaign.

Just after the fall of Fort Sumter, in the spring of 1861, finding the war between the two sections of our common country was inevitable, under the call of the President for three years’ volunteers, I raised a company in Philadelphia, which afterwards became incorporated with the 2d Regiment Pennsylvania Reserves. Anyone familiar with the business of raising volunteer organizations knows it to be an expensive undertaking. Every cent that my company cost, with the exception of the small amount that my limited means enabled me to devote to the purpose, came from my father, Judge Woodward. During all the time that elapsed before my company was mustered into service, I lived in his house, and had, so far as I needed it, his co-operation in my enterprise.

As Major of the 2d Pennsylvania Reserves, I participated in the Peninsular campaign, and was wounded at Charles City Cross Roads, in the right foot and left leg—by which wounds I am crippled for life—was taken prisoner, confined in the Libby Prison in Richmond, and, after being parolled, was taken to my father’s house in Philadelphia where, for four weary months I was confined to my bed, suffering intensely, but with that suffering alleviated and finally relieved, not only by the best medical skill, but also by the constant, kind, unwearying attention of my father, mother and sisters. During all that time, as indeed during my whole life, no father could be more kind, more solicitous for a son’s welfare, than was mine. Almost daily conversations occurred between us, in which the war, and the future of our country were discussed; and although he freely criticised, and often condemned, the manner in which the war was managed by the Administration, never did he utter a sentiment in sympathy with the doctrine of secession, nor a syllable of approval of the course taken by the people of the South; and never did he say ought which was not calculated to encourage me in the performance of my duty as a soldier.

I have been thus full, sir, in the refutation of your slander, not because you need or deserve this kind of attention at my hands, but because this refutation must be made as public as was the calumny, and I desire the public have the exact truth in regard to the matter.

In conclusion, sir, I will remark that it is poor encouragement in our soldiers in the field to find that while they are toiling and fighting for their country, lying politicians at home are using them as the instruments of their partisan malice, and such an instrument of this is a fair illustration of the pretended love for soldiers which certain parties parade so constantly. That love must be sincere indeed which, while it overlays the soldier with fulsome adulation, stabs to the quick all that he holds near and dear.

It did not take long for other Democratic newspapers to pick up on the story. They reprinted Lieutenant Colonel Woodward’s letter over and over again, and by the first week of October (and just one week before Election Day), the Democrats had a useful story, one they used to tear down their political opponents. Most headlines began with, “Nailed to the Counter” or, “Another Abolitionist Lie Exposed.” However, these last-minute jabs at the Republicans did not change the outcome of the election, although it was a close call. When all ballots were tallied, fewer than 16,000 votes separated Curtin from Woodward.

From this incident, it is interesting to see the relationship between the Army of the Potomac and the press. When one newspaper attempted to use a soldier’s opinions for political gain, that soldier stood the issue on its head, using it for his own political purposes. Say what you will about the Army of the Potomac’s officer corps. They were a clever bunch.

(Here is Lt. Col. George Abisha Woodward, author of the letter to Thomas J. Bigham.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Drink of Water

Here’s a curious tale from the Army of the Potomac. For me, it began three years ago, back when I discovered an unusual little document nestled away in the Delaware Public Archives. It told the tale of a Civil War romance, yet it had no proper nouns at all. At first, it seemed as if I might never know who it involved, but after some sleuthing, I put the story together. I found the names of the characters, I uncovered some context, and most importantly, I found some meaning in this document.

This tale is all about the consequences that resulted when a Union soldier drank some water.

On July 2, 1863, the Union 6th Corps trudged through Westminster, Maryland, on its way to join the Army of the Potomac near Gettysburg. It was a hot day, but some of the soldiers managed to enjoy themselves because pretty girls lined the streets of the city. The ladies were busy handing out water, not unlike spectators at a marathon. For many of the sweaty soldiers, it was the first time they had seen a friendly female face since 1861.

One of those handing out water that day was twenty-six-year-old Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shriver, the eldest daughter of Francis Shriver, the former mayor of Westminster. (For those interested, Francis Shriver later earned fame for having grabbed a gun and fought at the Battle of Westminster alongside the 1st Delaware Cavalry on June 29, 1863. He became known as the “John Burns” of Westminster. I’m sure my GNMP friends will like that one.) Lizzie Shriver handed a cup of water to a soldier in the 6th Maine, Sergeant William Sheahen. It’s not clear what happened, exactly, but it seems that Sheahen paused to talk to her. The two youngsters hit it off and before Sheahen fell back in line, the young bluecoat had her address. As he marched off, he promised to write to her.

For the next four months, William and Lizzie wrote letters as if they were sweethearts. Sadly, the war ended their budding romance. On November 7, 1863, the 6th Maine led an attack against the Confederate-held position at Rappahannock Station. At the end of the battle, the 6th Maine counted thirty-eight dead, among them, Sergeant Sheahen.

What happened next is not clear either. It seems that Lizzie’s letters—the ones that William carried in his knapsack—got sent to his younger brother, John Parris Sheahen, who was then serving in Company K, 1st Maine Cavalry. When the letters arrived, John Sheahen discovered that his brother had been writing to a girl, apparently keeping her existence a secret. John decided to write to her to let her know that William had been killed. Then, in February 1864, while his regiment was encamped at Warrenton, John Sheahen took leave to visit Lizzie Shriver at Westminster, presumably to console her. While there, he and Lizzie fell in love, and when he returned to his regimental encampment, he wrote to his parents to inform them he was now engaged to “that girl I told you about.” However, John vowed not to marry her until he had finished school, which meant waiting at least four years. Of course, this required the war to end that year, and as events transpired, the war refused to cooperate.

In March 1864, John P. Sheahen received a commission to the rank of first lieutenant, Company E, 31st Maine. He joined his new regiment and fought with it—and with the rest of the Army of the Potomac—throughout the Overland Campaign. On July 30, 1864, Confederate forces captured him at the Battle of the Crater. Sheahen spent the next few months incarcerated at Richland Jail in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1865, with the help of slaves, he and another officer (one from the 145th Pennsylvania) escaped Richland and after a harrowing flight through swamps, they made it to Union lines at Newbern, North Carolina.

Sheahan mustered out of service in July 1865. Immediately, he went to Westminster to marry Lizzie, which he accomplished on August 16, 1865. The newlyweds traveled north, where Sheahan enrolled at Maine Medical College. He graduated in 1867 and then he and Lizzie returned to her home state, where he practiced medicine. Eventually, John Sheahan switched professions, taking up a position that I now hold dear. (That is, he became professor of military history.) John and Lizzie had two sons. They named one of them William in honor of William Sheahen, who had been killed at Rappahannock Station.

Lizzie died in 1892 and her husband laid her to rest in Boston. John Sheahen traveled to Cuba, trying to forget his wife and move on, but apparently, it was no use. He returned to the U.S. in 1894, and he had barely put his feet upon American soil when he himself died.

As I said, years ago, I found an account that described this unusual courtship. It had no author, but I have since presumed that a member of the Shriver family wrote it (probably one of Lizzie’s brothers). It read:

As the years rolled by and he [John P. Sheahen] was engaged in building air castles, suddenly and unexpectedly the hand of death swept away from his hearth stone the handsome devoted companion of his early manhood and mature years. The shock was more than he could bear. Buried there away from his sight he sought in another clime a change of scene. It was all in vain, upon reaching Cuba he found that his heart was breaking and that he found that the end was near. He hurried to return [to the United States] but scarcely an hour had elapsed after reaching Boston when he was no more. Her body was disinterred and with his were brought to Westminster and side by side buried in the same grave in Old Union Cemetery [now Westminster Cemetery]. Recently near them were laid all that was mortal of the old father—the John Burns of Westminster.

I don’t quite know what to say about this tale. It’s complex, to be sure. But, I find it interesting that some twenty-seven years of marriage, life, love, and loss all came about because a friendly girl gave a tired Union soldier a drink of water. It’s amazing to think that something so intricate can come from something so simple.

(Here is Lt. John Parris Sheahen, 31st Maine. Probably, this photograph was taken in the spring of 1864.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Stepping into the Square

At 4 P.M., March 8, 1863, at Stafford Court House, Virginia, Lieutenant Colonel William Burr Wooster called out his regiment, the 20th Connecticut Volunteers, without arms, ordering his men to form into a hollow square. Wooster, a New Haven lawyer, had plenty on his mind. In a few weeks, Connecticut expected to hold its election for governor. If the Democratic Party unseated the Republican incumbent, William Buckingham, Wooster might lose his chance at receiving a promotion to colonel. As regulations prescribed, all officers’ commissions from second lieutenant to colonel had to come from the governor’s office at Hartford. Thus, if a Democrat won the election, Wooster—who was a Republican—might find his path to promotion blocked.

To further complicate the picture, Connecticut's Democrats had nominated a Copperhead, Thomas Seymour, as the party's frontrunner. As a matter of policy, Seymour disliked Emancipation and hated the fact that the U.S. Army enforced it. If he won the election, Seymour might respond by promoting Democrats over the heads of the Republicans, thus using his office to alter U.S. military policy.

A solution to Wooster’s problem came from the mind of Captain Oliver R. Post of Company C. Prior to the war, Captain Post had worked as a type-setter for the Hartford Press, a Republican newspaper. Eager to chastise Connecticut's Democrats, Post drafted a set of resolutions that condemned Seymour’s candidacy as a treasonous act. After crafting this overtly political document, Post took it to Wooster and suggested that he submit these resolutions to his men. If they passed unanimously, Post promised to send them home to be reprinted in the columns of the Hartford Press and various other Republican papers. That way, the voters of Connecticut could learn a cold, hard fact: the soldiers wanted the voters to re-elect Buckingham. Not a single vote should be cast for Seymour. (At the time, Connecticut’s constitution disallowed absentee voting. The soldiers of the 20th Connecticut—and all Connecticut regiments for that matter—could not vote for themselves, not if they encamped outside of the state.)

When Lieutenant Colonel Wooster formed his men into the square, he stepped forward and read the resolutions aloud. He reminded his soldiers that if the people of Connecticut voted for Seymour, their regiment would suffer, for Seymour would surely replace all of the experienced officers with Democratic placeholders. As one soldier described it, “We were told by the Lieut. Colonel . . . that if the Democrats should elect Seymour, and if any vacancies should occur in our regiment, officers would be sent from Connecticut to fill their places!—that no matter how fit a man might be, or how well or how bravely he had won his promotion, he would be crowded out, and that men who had never seen danger or shared the penalty and hardship of a soldier’s life, would be put in.”

Captain Post followed by delivering a short, political speech. After this, Lieutenant Colonel Wooster invited any soldier who objected to the resolutions to step into the square and let his protests be heard. Naturally, this move angered the 20th Connecticut's Democratic soldiers. One of them wrote:

Lieut. Col. Wooster then said he wanted his address to be sent home, endorsed by every member of the regiment. And the way he had us vote was this: We were formed into a military square. Col. Wooster said, any one who is opposed to the address, will step into the square! There were plenty of such present; but who do you suppose was fool enough ‘to step out’ there? What should we have gained by doing so? I will tell you. We should have gained the ill-will of our officers—and soldiers know the suffering that they must endure when they displease their officers. So we thought it best for us to keep still, and let them have it all their own way. But I can safely say that if the address had been voted upon, by secret ballot, by the entire regiment, it would never have been sent to Connecticut.

Another soldier claimed that Wooster even indulged in threats to get his men to endorse the resolutions. He declared, “The Colonel prefaced with a few remarks, in which he desired all who were opposed to their adoption to step four paces to the front, that they might at the next action be placed in the front ranks, AND OTHERWISE BE PUNISHED IF THEY SURVIVED.  With this understanding none marched to the front, and some fifteen or twenty of the regiment voted for the resolutions, and thereupon they were declared unanimously adopted.”

The resolutions of the 20th Connecticut went home to the newspapers and they claimed that the soldiers had endorsed them without a dissenting voice. That assertion was true, but it stretched the truth. Some men from the 20th later claimed that they had disapproved of the anti-Seymour resolutions, but kept silent to avoid punishment. After the anti-Seymour resolutions appeared in print, one Democratic soldier from the 20th Connecticut wrote, “I would like to be at home at the April election. T. H. Seymour would, at least, get one more vote[.] . . . If he is elected the air will resound with the cheers of the soldiers.” Another soldier from the 20th wrote similarly, stating, “Had three cheers been proposed for Thomas H. Seymour, the woods would have rung—for the men ached to spit it out.”

Probably, the Democratic soldiers in the 20th Connecticut overestimated Seymour’s popularity. All evidence suggests that the majority of Connecticut’s soldiers favored Buckingham over the controversial Copperhead. Still, a minority of the 20th Connecticut’s soldiers had their political opinions stamped out by two ambitious Republican officers and the threats they unleashed against them. Wooster and Post invited political debate by allowing the Democrats to step into the square, but they knew that none would dare to do it.

The 20th Connecticut was just one example of a Union regiment that endured internal strife during the gubernatorial elections of 1863. Many other regiments faced similar circumstances. That year, the Army of the Potomac was alive with debate. Sadly, those with power wielded it to drown out dissent.

(In March 1863, Lt. Col. William B. Wooster forced his men to endorse anti-Democratic resolutions. Some soldiers claimed that he threatened those who might not support them.)