Wednesday, April 23, 2014

“What Will I Do With My Gun?”

This tale is really gross. (Also, it is a little bit of a stretch for my blog’s theme. It involves the 5th Connecticut, a regiment that once belonged to the Army of the Potomac, but served with the 20th Corps during the Atlanta Campaign. But of course, this my blog; I do what I want.)
On May 15, 1864, the 5th Connecticut found itself occupying the front lines at the Battle of Resaca. In the afternoon, it endured an artillery bombardment and an infantry assault delivered by A. P. Stewart’s division. Years later, a soldier remembered a singular incident from that battle:

After our boys had captured the open ridge and driven the rebels back into the woods, as a preparation for another charge upon the ridge, the Confederates turned all their artillery within range upon our boys along that ridge, making it an extremely hot and uncomfortable place, and our boys were ordered to lie down and hug the ground as close as they could. They lay down flat, the rear rank men lying between the legs of the front rank men, about as close as it was possible to put men; the rear rank men firing between the heads of the front rank men.
At first the artillery firing at this line was extremely high and wild, and served only to amuse the men, but-by degrees they depressed their guns more and more and their shells came nearer, till finally, just as the rebel line came out of the woods to make the second charge, a shell came and struck the line in Company I, taking off the top of the head of James E. Richards in the front rank, and passing along down his back passed under the rear rank man, John Bates, bursting when it was about under the center of his body. Bates and Richards were of course killed outright by it, and four others were wounded by the pieces of the shell and pieces of the skull from Richards. Corporal Wm. H. Kerr had several pieces of the skull driven into his face, also Private James Tuttle’s face was filled, and Tommy Graham, from fragments of the shell or skull, had both eyes cut out of his head and then left hanging on his cheek. Lieutenant Stewart, commanding Company I, sprang up and helped to pull the dead men, Richards and Bates, to the rear from their places in the line in order to fill the gap with living fighting men, for the rebel column was coming on again charging and yelling. He saw that Tommy Graham could not see at all, and that while Corporal Kerr’s face was badly cut up, still that he had his eyesight remaining. He asked the corporal if he could see well enough to take himself to the rear and lead Tommy, totally blinded as he was. He said he thought he could, and thereupon the Lieutenant told Graham to go to the rear with Kerr and started them off; but Tommy had not moved two steps to the rear before he stopped and cried out, “Lieutenant, Lieutenant, what will I do with my gun?” and the brave man did not stir a step further until his officer had come to him and taken his gun and relieved him from this final responsibility.
If this picture could be imagined as it was, and as the comrades of poor Tommy saw it, then something of the true stuff of the man could be conceived, artillery roaring from all directions,—shells screeching past, and now coming so low that every one of them ricocheted along the ground and raked the earth from front to rear; a yelling line of rebels fast coming towards him, his eyes just closed forever to all the beauties of this earth and the glories of the skies, never to behold wife or children again, and still, when ordered to the rear in care of another, standing there with those sightless eyes dangling at his cheeks, and calling upon his officer to relieve him of his trusty gun, the last obligation remaining upon him, as he understood his duty to his country as a soldier; and then whoever can imagine this scene as it was, can begin to understand something of the truth and faithfulness of the nature of such private soldiers as Thomas Graham.

Today, I am fairly convinced that Civil War historians have trouble painting a clear picture of Civil War combat. For instance, academics love to remind readers of the graphic bloodshed—the bloated corpses, the severed limbs, and the unearthly smell of death. By contrast, amateur historians (and limited edition artists, especially) prefer to focus on the glory of battle—the fluttering flags, the stentorian shouts of commanders, the rampaging lines of troops, and the famous last lines of the war’s heroes. Thus, after many years of trying, we have fashioned two images of war, one supremely gruesome, the other imperiously glorious, and rarely do the two images meet.
This account from the 5th Connecticut suggests that these two pictures of battle might, in fact, encounter each other on common ground. Here, we see graphic violence and celebrated valor going hand-in-hand. In this incident, it all revolved around one simple question: “What will I do with my gun?”

(Pvt. Thomas Graham, the soldier who lost his eyes to a piece of flying skull, had his name etched on this monument, the Soldiers' Monument in New Hartford, Connecticut. Image by

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Photograph from the James River Earthworks


Over the past few weeks, I have been posting some stories from the 12th New Hampshire Infantry. Occasionally, I’ve posted images of its officers. Some of these images are cropped from a larger photograph taken in December 1864 at Chaffin’s Farm, near Fort Harrison, Virginia.

The whole image depicts fifteen officers from the 12th New Hampshire standing in front of their regimental headquarters.

They are, from left to right:

1st Lieut. Alonzo W. Jewett
Capt. Ephraim W. Ricker
1st Lieut. George E. Worthen
1st Lieut. John P. Lane
Capt. James W. Saunders
Capt. Arthur S. Smith
Capt. Jeremiah L. Sanborn (who enlisted under a fake name)
1st Lieut. Rufus E. Gale
Lt. Col. Thomas E. Barker
Maj. Nathaniel Shackford
Capt. Hosea Q. Sargent
Capt. Andrew M. Heath
Capt. John H. Prescott
Capt. Daniel W. Bohonon
1st Lieut. Mayhew C. Batchelder


Some of you might recognize Smith, Barker, and Shackford from the previous posts. You might also make note of Captain Sargent (a confusing Civil War name, to be sure). He was one of several officers who, after the war, laid claim to leading the first organized Union troops into Richmond, April 3, 1865.

Anyway, there’s no moral or lesson here. I just wanted to marvel at the faces of these men as they prepared for the last winter of the war.

Friday, April 4, 2014

“. . . Even if Jesus Christ Himself Should Order It.”

One of my favorite quotes from the Civil War comes from Captain Thomas Barker, who, in heated fury after the Battle of Cold Harbor, vowed never to lead his regiment into another such charge, even if Jesus Christ ordered him to do it. I think this outburst speaks to a universal truth among battlefield commanders, that it hurts them immeasurably to carry out orders they believe will lead to the massacre of their men. I think that dilemma was faced by Barker, the youthful commander of the 12th New Hampshire.

Who was Thomas Erskine Barker? Quickly: he was the youngest child born to the wife of a poor Canterbury farmer. Lacking funds, his family could not send him to private school, so he learned his letters with only a common school education. On May 13, 1861, as war fever spread across the North, Barker enlisted in the “Goodwin Rifles,” a unit that eventually became Company B, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. The 2nd New Hampshire engaged Confederate forces at Bull Run, July 21, 1861, and during the bewildering Union retreat, it helped cover the army’s withdrawal. Several men ended up prisoners, including Corporal Barker. For the next ten months, the Confederates held him as a prisoner of war. During five of those months, he was confined at Old Parish Prison in New Orleans, and for several weeks, the Confederate officers threatened to execute him and seventeen others as retribution for alleged criminalities perpetrated by Union troops. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and Union authorities negotiated his safe release. This rough prison experience lingered with him, and when he returned to Concord in May 1862, he brought with him a renewed interest in punishing the leaders of the rebellion. He recruited a new company, which became Company B, 12th New Hampshire, and he led it into action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He was wounded at the latter engagement, struck in the leg by a ball. He returned home to recuperate, and while there, he married Florence Whittredge, the President of the Women’s Relief Corps. By the summer of 1864, Captain Barker had risen to command the 12th New Hampshire.

(This image depicts Captain Thomas E. Barker in the summer of 1862, shortly after his return from Confederate prison.)
On the morning of June 3, 1864, Barker’s 12th New Hampshire led the attack of Colonel Griffin Stedman’s brigade, 1,800 men strong. According to Stedman’s orders, the brigade had to form in “closed column of division,” essentially, a column, forty ranks deep and two companies wide. (In Civil War terminology, when two companies joined together, it formed a “division.”) Barker protested the formation. Although it had worked splendidly for the Army of the Potomac two weeks earlier at Spotsylvania Court House, Barker complained that the shape of the Confederate earthworks in front of Stedman’s column would create a deadly crossfire, savaging the men in the rear divisions.

The following image—taken from the 12th New Hampshire’s regimental history—illustrated the tactical problem.

(The regimental historian remembered the attack this way. Note the horseshoe-shaped Confederate line and the "closed column by division" formation of the 12th New Hampshire.)
The horseshoe shape of the enemy earthworks created an interlocking field of fire into which Barker’s regiment had to advance. Asa Bartlett, the 12th New Hampshire’s adjutant, later explained:

To advance a massed column of troops into such a semi-circle of destruction as here portrayed, with front and back flanks entirely exposed to the converging fire of eight or ten pieces of artillery and more than half a mile sweep of battle-lined musketry, was something fearful to even contemplate, but how much more so to actually experience none can tell save those who were there. No wonder that Captain Barker who had a heart to feel as well as courage to act, when he saw the field covered with his own brave men and heard the cries of the wounded, some of whom were less fortunate than the dead, stood up before his superiors in rank while the enemy’s shot was still flying around him, and wounding some of his listeners as he spoke, and denounced in righteous wrath the general, high or low, who was guilty of ordering such a murderous charge as that. He was so highly wrought up by his anger and the excitement of the occasion, that he declared with an oath that he would not take his regiment into another such charge, [even] if Jesus Christ himself should order it.

Captain Barker, as hereafter seen, was decidedly opposed to making the charge, massed in column, and so expressed his opinion. Adjutant-General Reynolds referred to Napoleon, as making all his charges in solid column, and thought it the most effectual way. “The most effectual way of murdering men, I agree, and there is the evidence of it,” sharply replied the captain, as he pointed to the field in front, thickly spotted with the dead and wounded. The next moment General Reynolds was wounded in the shoulder, from the effects of which he afterwards died.

It is well to remember where Barker stood in relation to this column of divisions. He stood front and center of the whole thing. Private George Place, a soldier in Company B—one of the companies at the front of the column—remembered, “Colonel [sic] Barker was standing near me, and I heard him remark, that he thought he had experienced some heavy artillery firing at the battle of Bull Run, but none equaled the closeness of that fire, yet strange as it may appear, as far as I could learn, not a man of the regiment was hurt while in that position.”

Place also remembered Barker giving the order to charge:

Finally, the Colonel [sic] drew his sword,— “Forward, march,” and the regiment started. We had not gone ten feet, when a rebel battery on our left flank opened fire. . . .The guns were so arranged that the iron storm swept past us about two rods in front. How it crashed and howled through those pine trees! For a moment, the regiment quailed and halted. As it did so, I turned and looked at Colonel Barker. I shall never forget the expression that came into his face as he beheld that halting. His eyes dilated, and it seemed as if I could almost see the fire flash from them. He flung his sword above his head and shouted with a voice that seemed as if the rebels must have heard,—“Forward!” Instantly the regiment started again, yelling as it went. There was no more halting after that, until, swept down in killed and wounded, it lost all semblance of order, and could do no otherwise than fall back.

Somehow, Barker managed to live through the destructive attack at Cold Harbor—truly a charmed life, if such a thing existed. He remained the 12th New Hampshire’s commander throughout the remainder of the war, rising to the rank of colonel. When his regiment mustered out in July 1865, he wrote a touching farewell address. An excerpt of it is reprinted here:

Farewell Address.

Head Quarters 12th N. H. Vols.,

Concord, N. H., July 3, 1865.

Soldiers, — The day to which we have all looked forward so long and anxiously has at last arrived. The great work in which we engaged almost three years ago is accomplished, and with the knowledge that we have done an honorable part toward crushing the rebellion, saving the union, and restoring peace, we have been permitted to return to our dear old native State, and are about to resume our peaceful avocations.

You have served your country long and nobly. By your deeds you have won a name that shall live forever. From the bloody fields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Front Royal, Swift Creek, Drury’s Bluff, Port Walthal, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Cemetery Hill, Bermuda Front, and your triumphant entry into Richmond, ages hence will view your deeds, and the generations of centuries to come will honor and bless you for the legacy gained by your valor and bequeathed to them.

Since my connection with you as your commanding officer your conduct everywhere has been a source of pride to me. For bravery in battle you are second to no regiment that New Hampshire has ever sent to the field, and there is no State that can boast of braver troops than our own rock-bound Granite State.

For discipline and drill you have ever excited the admiration of military men. . . . By your ever ready, willing, and cheerful obedience to all orders you have rendered the duties of your commanding officer pleasant, and words are inadequate to express my appreciation of your services.

We have delivered up to the state authorities our old war-worn and bloodstained colors, which have been made dear to us through toil, danger, and sacrifice for their preservation. Nobler blood never coursed in the veins of man, or was sacrificed on a country’s altar, than has been poured out on many a crimsoned field for them. God bless the noble dead—our comrades still—who have fallen in their defense! Our last duties as a military organization have been performed, and as we arc about to separate, perhaps for time, we must say farewell.

As you have been faithful, brave, and true soldiers, I feel assured that you will be good and worthy citizens, and of your duties as such I will not venture a word, except an admonition that you will ever greet the bereaved friends of our comrades that we have buried in a distant land, or sent home to rest beneath their native sod, with kind words and helping hands.

Soldiers, I am proud of your record, and the highest honor that I ask is that, when the history of the Rebellion is written, my name may be recorded as the commander of the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers.

With kindest wishes for you in all your relations of life, and that Heaven's richest blessings may be shed upon you all, I bid you a kind and affectionate farewell.

Thomas E. Barker,

Col., 12th N. H. Vols.

I often wonder if, when Barker wrote out his farewell address, he thought of the men he had lost at Cold Harbor and the vow he made, never to lead men into such a charge, even if “Jesus Christ himself should order it.”

After Barker died, a veteran remembered: “[Barker always] appeared on the higher plane of moral excellence[.] . . . But [he never]  . . . had a thought that he was any better, or even quite as good as many of the men whom he had the honor to command. And in nothing more than this did he show his real worth as a soldier and a man.” Responsibility, it seemed, humbled Barker, but that humbleness made it difficult for him to order the death of that which he loved the most: his regiment.
(Here, you can see Lt. Col. Thomas Barker on the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula. You can see Maj. Nathaniel Shackford, from the previous post, standing behind him.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

“I Shall Never Forget My Ambulance Ride.”

The Battle of Cold Harbor subtracted 177 men from the ranks of the 12th New Hampshire. Of those, sixty-three were killed or mortally wounded. The remaining 114 were wounded. Infamously, some of those wounded men were caught between the hostile lines for four days. Not until June 7 did Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant seek a truce so that his men could reclaim the dead and wounded.

Even before the truce became official, Union soldiers traipsed into the hostile no-man’s-land; they knew that time was of the essence. The wounded could not remain untreated for long. The weary New Hampshire bluecoats attempted their forays in the dead of night. Although the fighting had ended, the crunching of leaves always invited fire from Confederate sharpshooters. Asa Bartlett, the regimental historian, remembered:

Here then is such a picture of war as does not often present itself even to the veteran of a hundred battles. Two armies so closely confronting each other that their main lines in some places are scarcely a rifle shot apart, and the exposure of a hand or head, upon either side, is pretty sure to result in a furlough for thirty days or eternity; while upon the narrow space between, in plain sight of both friend and foe, are lying thousands of the dead, wounded, and dying, all stricken down from the ranks of one of the opposing armies, and all unprotected and uncared for. That the wounded were thus allowed to remain in suffering helplessness upon the field day after day, unless sooner rescued by their pitying comrades, was because of such a shameful and criminal negligence as no common words can fully and justly characterize. . . . Thus in silent darkness, for none but whispered words could be spoken, they crept around among the still more silent dead listening, for they could make no call, for some deep sigh or low moan that would tell them where amid the surrounding gloom of night and death they might find one in whose veins the vital fluid still continued to circulate. And when by some such sound or mere accident a comrade at last was found, with whispered caution to make if possible no cry of distress or groan of agony, he was carefully lifted up, a blanket or stretcher put under him, and borne away with noiseless steps to where they would receive all the comfort and care that kind hearts and willing hands could render. And thus the noble work of rescuing suffering humanity went on, not only for that night, but the next and even the third, until all of the living and most of the dead were removed, leaving but comparatively few to be buried, on the field where they fell, under a flag of truce, which was not until just before dark on the 7th, or five days after the battle.

During these nighttime excursions, the survivors of the 12th New Hampshire found two men barely clinging to life, Captain Nathaniel Shackford of Company E and Captain Arthur St. Clair Smith of Company G. Shackford, age thirty-seven, had been wounded three times: a grape shot had clipped three inches of bone out from his elbow, a piece of shell had passed completely through his back, and a bullet had bruised his right hip. Smith, age twenty-three, had been hit five times: three bullets had bruised him and two bullets had penetrated his flesh. And, by the way, these wounds were not the first wounds that either officer had suffered. Shackford had received four wounds in 1863—one at Chancellorsville and three at Gettysburg. Likewise, Smith had received a wound to the arm at Chancellorsville.

(Capt. Nathaniel Shackford, Co. E, 12th N.H. Vols., who was thrice wounded at Cold Harbor.)
(Capt. Arthur St. Clair Smith, Co. G, 12th N.H. Vols., who was wounded five times at Cold Harbor.)
In the middle of the night, the unwounded survivors bore Shackford and Smith off the field by carrying them on stretchers. Near Beulah Church, they loaded the two grievously wounded officers onto an ambulance bound for White House Landing, the location of the nearest field hospital, about ten miles distant. Smith remembered, “I shall never forget my ambulance ride with Captain Shackford.”

(Litter bearers and an ambulance bore Shackford and Smith from the field.)
This remembrance by Smith sounds like a simple line, but I think the words, “never forget” challenge us to consider what this ambulance ride was like. Their horse-drawn wagon bounced over bumpy, dirt-filled roads in the black of night. It could not have been a pleasant experience for a either soldier; both of them nursed multiple wounds. As Smith remembered it, he expected Shackford to die during the journey. Perhaps, then, no words exist to describe the suffering.

(This image by Mathew Brady depicts White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. This image shows what the landing looked like in June 1864.)
The horse-drawn ambulance was not their only conveyance. Shackford’s wounds required his immediate transfer to a general hospital near Washington. On June 10, medical personnel loaded him onto the steamer Connecticut, along with 674 other wounded men. It took twenty-eight hours for the steamer to sail down the Pamunkey, then down the York River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay before finally ascending the Potomac. As a newspaper reporter wrote, “The wounded brought up in the Connecticut were all very severe cases, and it was found necessary to move the boat along at moderate speed, as  the working of the engine went at full speed affected them unfavorably.” Even so, fifteen men died as the ship sailed to its destination: Washington, D.C.

(Here is USS Connecticut, the steamship that transported Capt. Shackford to Washington.)
As for Smith, he remained a few days longer at White House Landing, with 2,000 other wounded men.  He experienced the same awful trip, but later. 

Amazingly, the two men survived their wounds. In fact, both returned to duty that autumn and mustered out with their regiment in 1865. Shackford served as a state prison appraiser, and later, he supervised a hosiery mill.  He died on October 20, 1920. Arthur Smith became a lawyer and served as justice of the peace at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Later, he became a judge, city council member, alderman, and state legislator. He died on December 19, 1895.

Even though they lived long lives, it is safe to say that they never forgot their ride in an “ambulance,” whether it was by stretcher, horse-cart, or steamship.
(Here, you can see Capt. A. St. Clair Smith in December 1864. You can see that he has recovered from his wound and rejoined his regiment.)
(Here is newly-promoted Major Shackford, from the same photograph as the one above.)