Friday, September 19, 2014

“Life was Not Given for us to Manage so as to Prolong it.”

Many years ago, I read an article in the New York World written in 1861. It quoted a Union soldier named Edmund Blunt. Private Blunt had written a letter to the newspaper, which the editors subsequently published. In it, Blunt explained his reasons for joining the Union army.

Blunt said, “You know one cannot live always, and that life was not given for us to manage so as to prolong it, but to do our duty, even if in so doing we lose it.”

I’ve always found this quote incredibly interesting. Here, a Civil War soldier tells his readers that life was not meant for living, but for dying. It shows us how differently the Civil War generation considered the stern realities of death. Compared to our own mortal goals, his vision appears extraordinarily selfless. We always say that we strive to live “a long and happy life.” Blunt tells us that his generation did not think that way; to him, a long life was a wasted life.

I’ve long thought about Blunt and what happened to him. My instinct was to assume that he must have fulfilled his promise to himself, to lose his life doing his duty to his country. However, I always knew that he could not have lost his life so early in the war. Blunt had joined a three-month militia regiment, one that did not see any action. I thought to myself: Perhaps he re-enlisted in a regiment that eventually saw combat? I wondered and wondered. Eventually, my curiosity gnawed at me. I decided to do a little sleuthing.

Here is what got. As it turned out, Edmund Blunt was Edmund March Blunt, Jr., age nineteen. He was the son of a famous hydrographer who lived in Brooklyn, New York, and he was the youngest of six brothers and sisters. In April 1861, he joined the 12th New York State Militia, Engineer Company. The 12th N.Y.S.M. was one of the first New York regiments to leave the city. On April 21, just six days after Abraham Lincoln called up the state militia, it headed for Washington D.C. Sometime in May, it established an encampment at Franklin Square called Camp Anderson and a photographer took this shot of the engineer company.

This group of soldiers belonged to the 12th N.Y. State Militia. This photograph was taken in May 1861.

Civil War buffs have probably seen this image many times before. In fact, it contains a few famous faces. Some of you might recognize Frederick T. Locke, who later became a staff officer in the 5th Corps. He can be seen holding an order book. James A. Scrymser, who later became the A.D.C. to Maj. General William F. Smith, is seated on a chair at right, wearing no hat. And finally, Lt. Francis Channing Barlow, who famously commanded divisions in the 11th and 2nd Corps, is seated at the far right. Undoubtedly, he is this photograph’s most famous subject.

But Edmund Blunt is here too. He’s the soldier seated on the box. Here is a close up:

This is Pvt. Edmund M. Blunt, Jr., the soldier who told readers that life was not given to humans so that they might prolong it.

So, what happened to him? Blunt stayed with the 12th New York throughout its three months of service. It saw no action; the regiment missed the affair at Bull Run. Eventually, it returned to New York City and mustered out on August 5. Blunt did not re-enlist in a new regiment, not right away. He tried to go back to school, but with the war going on, he could not sit still. In May 1862, Lincoln again called up the state militia and New York’s regiments responded. On May 25, 1862, Blunt went to the front a second time, but with the 7th N.Y.S.M.—the famous “Dandy Seventh”—and he helped his new regiment patrol the streets of Baltimore. Once again, he saw no action, but upon muster out three months later, he applied for a commission in a three-year volunteer regiment. The governor obliged him, and in October, Blunt became a second lieutenant in Company M, 5th New York Cavalry. He served with this regiment for the rest of the war, mustering out with it on July 19, 1865.

Understandably, I was a little shocked to learn that Blunt survived the fighting. But, his survival did not come for lack of trying. Admittedly, his first two assignments were easy, but Blunt saw heavy fighting with the 5th New York Cavalry. That regiment followed the Army of the Potomac through all of its bloody campaigns in the East. In the end, it was baffling to me to think that a young man so willing to live a shortened life for his country never could catch a bullet, not even in the lead-filled air of the Civil War.

After the war, Blunt returned home to Brooklyn and started a manufacturing company. He died at his home, 159 Front Street, on January 24, 1894. He was fifty-one-years-old.

I wonder if, in his middle-age, Blunt remembered that assertion he made in his youth, that life was not given to him to manage in order to prolong it. After all, the New York World had printed that bold pronouncement for all to read. Did he change his opinion about the meaning of life as he aged, or did he always regret missing his opportunity to offer his last full measure of devotion? Like all of my posts, I do wonder.

Monday, September 15, 2014

“He Fell in the Advance”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 4.

In the previous posts, we learned about the contested promotion of Gustavus W. Town. Here, we end the story by discussing his death.

In late July 1862, Gustavus W. Town received his promotion to colonel, backdated to June 28, 1862. This news brought instant cheer from Philadelphia’s Republican newspapers. The Press commented: “We are satisfied that Philadelphia can be content to leave its fame in the hands of the ‘Ninety-Fifth,’ if allowed to remain in charge of its present able commander.” 

No doubt, Colonel Town felt vindicated. His superiors had accused him of being too young to command. His soldiers, his fellow officers, and his city’s newspapers had come to his defense and won him his promotion. Now, he needed to prove that he was worthy of their trust.

He continued to lead the 95th Pennsylvania throughout the war, participating in the Battles of Crampton’s Gap, Antietam, and Second Fredericksburg. On May 3, 1863, during the Battle of Salem Heights, Colonel Town was killed at the head of his command, while 218 of his officers and men were killed, wounded, or captured all around him.

One soldier, G. Norton Galloway, described Town’s death:

Ammunition now running low, our men began to fall back; quickly our line of battle sprang to its feet to confront the swarms of rebels which now poured out of the woods line upon line, firing and yelling with demoniacal fury as they advanced. Bravely our two little regiments, under Col. Town, strove to resist the overwhelming torrent which now overlapped our right and threatened total annihilation. Finally, after a desperate struggle, which scarcely lasted ten minutes, we were forced to give way[.] . . . Almost 200 of the Ninety-Fifth were left weltering in their gore upon the bloody plain. Among the first to fall was our brave Col. (Town), shot through the head, killed almost instantly.

At every battle since Gaines’s Mill, Town set out to prove himself, and like many other Civil War officers who felt the same way, he led from the front and paid for it with his life. As Civil War veteran St. Clair Mulholland remarked in his book, Heroism of the American Volunteer, Town’s  “splendid Philadelphia regiment held an advanced position where the fighting was desperate and severe.”  Town’s new brigade commander, Brigadier General David A. Russell, lamented the loss of such a talented field officer, remarking in his after-action report, “The Ninety-Fifth Pennsylvania sustained a great calamity in the loss of its colonel, Gus. W. Town, a most efficient, meritorious, gallant, and daring officer. He fell in the advance, while urging on his men against the enemy.”

It is not much of a stretch to say that the conditions necessary for Town’s death had been set into motion ten months earlier. Generals Franklin, Newton, and McClellan had cast their doubts upon him. Although Town had won the colonelcy in spite of their misgivings, the prideful Philadelphian could not forget the meaning of their deception. They preferred a second lieutenant’s leadership to that of his own. How could Town not ruminate on that truth? As so often happens in life, the doubts of others led to self-doubt. Town felt uncertainty. He wondered if the Democratic generals were correct. Was he really too inexperienced? His men had faith in his capabilities, but after the contested colonelcy, Town was not sure what to think. It might be said that his death at Salem Heights was caused just as much by the Democratic generals in the 6th Corps as it was by the Confederates. Truly, the doubters of the world wield incredible power in shaping history.

Presently, Town is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Here is Col. Town wearing his eagles.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

“The Appointment of Any Other Person Would be Greatly Detrimental”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 3

In the last post, I described the conspiracy to prevent Lieutenant Colonel Town from receiving a promotion to colonel. Here’s how the situation resolved.

Although Town had spoken on his own behalf, pleading with Adjutant General Andrew Russell to consider his application, he was not the only member of the 95th Pennsylvania to do so. On July 18, 1862, all twenty-two remaining line officers signed a petition endorsing Town’s popular election as colonel of the 95th Pennsylvania. It read:

Camp near Harrison’s Landing, Va.
July 18, 1862

The undersigned officers of the 95th Regiment Penna Volunteers request the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus W. Town to the vacant colonelcy of the regiment. With but one exception, we have been associated with him since the organization of the regiment, and bear our willing testimony to valuable aid rendered by him to our late lamented Colonel in raising it to its present efficient state. Deprived of our Colonel & Major at the battle of ‘Gaines Mills’ June 27th 1862, the entire management of the regiment during the week of trials which succeeded that battle devolved upon its Lieutenant Colonel, and well did he acquit himself, proving that he possessed all the qualities of a true soldier. Devoted to his profession, at all times cool and self possessed, prompt and vigorous in all his movements, we regard him as the natural and fitting successor of that noble soldier the late Colonel John M. Gosline.


In addition, forty-two officers from the three New York regiments in Newton’s brigade (the 18th, 31st, and 32nd) signed a similar petition approving the 95th  Pennsylvania’s decision. The New York officers wrote:

The undersigned officers of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division 6th Prov. Army Corps, commanded by Brig. Genl. John Newton, to which Brigade the 95th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers is attached, desire to express our opinion as to the soldierly qualifications of Lieut Col. Gustavus W. Town now in command of that Regiment. We have been associated with him for eight months, have seen him in all the varying scenes of a soldier’s life, and bear willing tribute to the commendable manner in which he conducted himself in all of them. We desire expressly to bear testimony to his management of the regiment. . . . Well did he perform that duty throughout the memorable week of trials which succeeded the above mentioned battle. At all times cool and self possessed, exhibiting sleepless vigilance and untiring activity, he proved himself to be a fitting leader and fully worthy of being the successor of the lamented Colonel John M. Gosline.

A few soldiers from the 95th wrote to Republican politicians, insisting that they put pressure on Governor Curtin, forcing him to accept Town’s application. Private Abel C. Thomas of Company C wrote to Henry Dunning Moore, former U.S. Congressman and the Pennsylvania State Treasurer. Private Thomas wrote:

Philad. July 22, 1862

To Hon. H. D. Moore

My dear Sir:

Col. Gosline being killed, the Regiment, I learn has made choice of Lieut. Col. Towne as Colonel and Capt. Elisha Hall as Lieut. Colonel.

I have also learned that efforts are being made by certain politicians to set at nought the choice of the Regiment and put in an “outsider” as Colonel.

I am not a politician, and can only express my hope that you will use your influence with our worthy Governor to confirm the election of the Regt. Surely it is both wise and just to encourage regular promotions in the Army of the Republic, especially when approved by our brave soldiers.

Sincerely yours,

Abel C. Thomas


Another soldier, Private Thomas Noble of Company A, wrote to his friend, Jeremiah Nichols, a Republican state senator, arguing similarly:

July 15th 1862
Friend Jerry,

I suppose you will be surprised at receiving a communication from me, but knowing that you feel an interest in the welfare of our Regiment, I will inform you of an imposition which rumor says is about to be penetrated upon our worthy and efficient Lieut. Colonel. . . . [Lieutenant Colonel Town] conducted the Regiment with bravery and skill through the numerous engagements which followed on Gaines’ Hill, which has endeared him to the hearts of every officer and soldier in his command and it is the wish and expectation of them all that he will receive the reward justly due him, viz. a commission as colonel of the Regiment. Rumor says however that a certain Major General supposed to be Franklin is using his influence with Gov. Curtin to obtain the appointment of a favorite of his a 2nd Lieut. in the 5th Regular Cavalry who received his appointment to the position he now holds from civil life about one year ago and he has no more claim to the position of colonel of our Regiment than I have. All our officers say that they will not recognize him and should he receive the appointment it will cause a total disorganization of the Regiment, and knowing your influence with Gov. Curtin and at the request of many of your friends in that Regiment I have written this communication, hoping that you will give it your earliest attention.

Representative Nichols fashioned a quick response. A few days after receiving Private Noble’s letter, Nichols wrote to Curtin, expressing surprise that Curtin would dare be swayed by political pressures at the expense of Pennsylvania’s military meritocracy. Forwarding Noble’s letter, Nichols added, “Knowing the rule you have adopted in refference to promotions, it is, I am satisfied, only necessary to call your attention to the contents of this letter to insure Col. Town’s commission as colonel.”  If Curtin was at all shocked by Nichols’ letter, he did not have long to dwell on it because another soon followed, written on July 23 by Republican State Representative Joseph Moore, Jr. Apparently, another soldier in the 95th Pennsylvania prompted Moore to write, who, in turn, subtly chastised Curtin, stating, “I have heard from a number of my friends in the 95 Regt. that it is your intention to appoint a Lieut. of the 5th Regular Cavalry Col. of that (95) Regt., against the unanimous wish of the whole Regt. to have the gallant Lieut. Col. Town of the Regt. receive, as he ought, the command. I know you will not do such an act of injustice.”

Curtin’s response to these letters is unknown, but he did not have to assume the awkward position of rejecting either Town or McIntosh. On July 24, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a report sent from the 95th Pennsylvania’s camp at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, making it clear that the soldiers would not abide by the Governor’s choice should McIntosh be made colonel:

Considerable dissatisfaction exists among the officers of the Ninety-Fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (late Colonel Gosline’s), in consequence of a rumor that Governor Curtin intends appointing officers to the command not at present connected with the regiment. The entire management of the regiment after the battle of Gaines’ Mill devolved upon Lieutenant-Colonel Gustavus W. Town, and most nobly and calmly did he conduct it during the week of incessant toil that succeeded that memorable Friday’s fight. He is said to be possessed of just the qualities for the position to which he naturally ought to succeed; is well educated, active and energetic, of good constitution, cool and calm as a summer’s morn, and devoted to his duties. The appointment of any other person to the command of the regiment would be greatly detrimental to its interests.

Lieutenant McIntosh was in Philadelphia the day this article appeared in print. He read and then penned a brief letter to Governor Curtin:

Having seen by the papers that the officers of the 95th Penna. Regt. have gone into an election & elected their new officers, & seeing also in the papers that considerable dissatisfaction exists among the officers of that regiment at the word that you were about to commission an officer not connected with the regiment as its Col.,—I beg leave to withdrawal my name as an applicant for its Col.

This image depicts 2nd Lt. John B. McIntosh, the would-be colonel of the 95th Pennsylvania. Although he did not succeed in attaining the colonelcy, he survived the war and ended his career as a brevet major general. He is shown here in 1865.
With that, the colonelcy of the 95th Pennsylvania was no longer contested. Governor Curtin forwarded a commission to Town.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

Here is Lt. Col. Gustavus W. Town, still wearing his oak leaves.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

“I Do Not Know that Anyone is Attempting to Undermine Me, but it has the Appearance of Such”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 2

In the last post, I narrated the tale of Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus W. Town, the young officer who found himself in command of the 95th Pennsylvania during the hard-fought Battle at Gaines’s Mill. Philadelphians expected that his superiors would recommend him for a promotion to colonel, but that did not happen.

Why not?

The answer is this: Town was a Republican. All of the 6th Corps’ brigadier generals were Democrats. The 6th Corps’ commander, Major General William Buell Franklin, was a Democrat. If a colonelcy ever became vacant in his corps, as his secret policy, Franklin insisted that it go to a party stalwart. As it turned out, for the 95th Pennsylvania, he already had a candidate in mind.

On July 2, 1862, one of Franklin’s colleagues, thirty-three-year-old Second Lieutenant John Baillie McIntosh, distinguished himself on the south side of the James River. McIntosh formed part of an expedition led by Colonel William Woods Averell consisting of 300 men from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry and the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Averell’s expedition proceeded two and one-half miles south from the James River shore to Sycamore Church. McIntosh led the advance guard of this expedition, consisting of twenty-five men. Averell instructed him “to charge at once upon any force of the enemy that he could distinctly see, unless it should be too numerous and too well posted for our whole force to attack with discretion.” Amid a driving rain that opened at noon, McIntosh’s detachment encountered 150 Confederate soldiers near a bridge over a millrace. Without waiting for orders, McIntosh drew his saber and charged the enemy “boldly, putting him to flight, wounding some, killing a horse and taking 2 prisoners.” McIntosh barely escaped with his life, having his horse killed underneath him. Before the Confederate troops could rally, the rest of Averell’s force came up and secured the millrace bridge. In his post-battle report, Averell credited the success of the expedition to “the impetuous dash of Lieutenant McIntosh.” He wrote, “The conduct of Lieutenant McIntosh was a fine model for cavalry soldiers.”

A few days after McIntosh’s daring charge, at 6th Corps headquarters, General Franklin casually mentioned his desire to see McIntosh promoted. Brigadier General John Newton replied that one of his regiments, the 95th Pennsylvania, possessed an open colonelcy. Wouldn’t it be swell if McIntosh could have it?

Both Franklin and Newton realized that only one man had the authority to promote an officer to colonel of a Pennsylvania regiment: Andrew Curtin, governor of Pennsylvania. Knowing that time was of the essence, the two Democratic officers hastily sent their letters of recommendation to the Harrisburg state house, insisting that Lieutenant McIntosh receive the coveted colonelcy. The two officers did their best to avoid any hint of political partisanship. It is obvious that they wanted to promote a Democratic lieutenant over the head of a Republican lieutenant colonel, but they realized that their recommendations must not appear to stem from partisan influence. In writing to Governor Curtin, Franklin thus explained why Town, the logical choice to fill the colonelcy of the 95th Pennsylvania, was not an acceptable candidate. He wrote:

Army of the Potomac
Camp on James River
July 16th 1862

His Excellency
Andrew G. Curtin
Gov of Penn'a,

My Dear Sir,

The reputation of J. B. McIntosh as an officer is second to none in the service. I cordially recommend him for appointment of Colonel of the 95th Regt., and believe that the interests of the service will be promoted by such appointments. Col. Town is entirely too young and inexperienced to take care of the regiment under the difficult circumstances that now surround us.

Truly Yours,

W. B. Franklin
Major Genl.

Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin commanded the 6th Corps.
General Newton wrote a similar letter, blasting Town for his youth and inexperience, a bold move considering the fact that Newton had been present to witness Town’s gallant behavior under fire at Gaines’s Mill. Newton wrote:

Lieut J. B. McIntosh, 5th US Cavalry, . . . is recommended by me and others who know his military character for the colonelcy of the 95th P.V. I consider him capable of bringing the 95th to the standard required for the service we have yet to see. Lieut. Col. Town is not in my opinion, of sufficient force, experience, or age, to effect this most essential result; though he makes a good second in command. Nothing but the vital importance of securing a good colonel to a regiment would justify me in trespassing upon your valuable time.

Brig. Gen. John Newton was Town's brigade commander.
Even more shocking, General Franklin asked the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major General George Brinton McClellan, to endorse McIntosh. McClellan sent a short missive to Governor Curtin: “I most cordially concur with the above [statements by Franklin and Newton] & would regard it as my gift to the 95th to have McIntosh made its colonel.” 

It did not take long for Lieutenant Colonel Town to realize that the 6th Corps officers wanted to block his promotion. Somehow, rumors reached him that McIntosh was making his move and that General Franklin was aiding him. In a long letter written to Adjutant General Andrew L. Russell, Town aired his grievances:

Headquarters 95th Regt Penn’a Vols.
Near Harrison’s Landing, V.A.
July 14, 1862

A. L. Russell
Adjt. Genl. Penn’a
Dear Sir:

The Regiment of which I am now Lieutenant Colonel Commanding, participated in the recent battles and movements before Richmond, acting with credit to themselves and their state. At the Battle of Gaines Mills we were unfortunate in losing both our Colonel and Major—both having been mortally wounded, dying a short time after. During the ever memorable days and nights following the battle at Gaines Mills, until our arrival at our present position on James River; I was left to conduct the Regiment almost totally unaided; for in addition to having lost my Colonel and Major killed,—the adjutant is a prisoner and the Quarter-master was sent off sick. Desiring not to speak in my own praise, I will merely mention that the Regiment was properly and promptly conducted upon every occasion, fighting by day and marching by night,—yet not withstanding this strain upon it, its discipline was just as perfect upon its arrival at James River as it was the day before any fighting commenced. It is true that many of the officers and men were nearly used up, and we had lost in our various encounters about two hundred men killed, wounded, and missing. Having confidence in their officers they required rest only to make them as efficient as ever. My Regt. still numbers between 6 and 700 enlisted men present.

Being the only field officer of the Regiment, the duties necessarily weighed too heavily upon me, it being the general desire that the vacant positions be filled as soon as possible, and that the Governor of Penn’a be requested to commission me as Colonel of the Regiment. . . . I have been informed by some of my officers that they heard that some outside parties are endeavouring to have a stranger placed in command of the Regiment.—I hope for the credit of Penn’a. and ourselves that such is not the case, or at least, that it will not be allowed. Both men and officers from long association with myself, I always having shared more than an equal amount of danger with them. Having been engaged in most of the actions in the Peninsula from West Point on 7th of May to the present time,—have a confidence in myself that they would have in no stranger, come with what ├ęclat he might. More than that they consider that I have well earned the promotion I desire,—desire—not from its personal aggrandizement, but as a reward of merit.

I do not know that any one is attempting to undermine me, but it has every appearance of such. I will give you such information as I possess on the subject. My officers report to me that one of our Generals desiring to obtain a commission for a friend of his,—and knowing of the vacancy in the head of my Regiment, has requested Gov. Curtin to commission said friend colonel of this Regiment. The expectant Colonel is said to be Mr. McIntosh who is a 2nd Lieut. of [the] 5[th] Regular Cavalry. Mr. McIntosh was appointed from Civil Life, about a year since, a second lieutenant of cavalry, which position he now holds. It is but natural to suppose that his knowledge of Infantry tactics is very limited and fitness for that position may be totally wanting,—but aside from all this it would be unjust to the line officers of the Regiment, most of whom have seen service under good officers previously to having been connected with my regiment, and all having been selected with every possible care by the Colonel and myself,—to be compelled to serve under one such as I have described. I am proud of my officers for they are men of fine education and superior military attainments,—all being men controlling businesses and of influence, had no pecuniary motives in view in leaving their homes, but the justices of their cause and a desire to restore the Union was all that could have compelled them to leave lucrative callings to risk their lives for their country. Justice would ask that their wishes be complied with. I am sorry to be compelled to think that if the Governor should see proper to commission someone other than myself as Colonel, the dissatisfaction produced would tend to much disorganize what has been considered one of the finest and best disciplined Regiments from Penn’a, or in the service—as Genl. McClellan could certify to,—and the Governor once had an opportunity to see for himself and acknowledge the splendid condition of the Regiment I now command. . . . Hoping that these claims of merit may meet your approbation, and that commissions for the various positions asked for may be granted.

                I remain with much respect,

                Yours –
                Gust. W. Town
                Lt. Col. 95th P.V.

Town had stated his case. What would Governor Curtin decide?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“A Young But Gallant Officer”: The Promotion of Gustavus W. Town, Part 1

These next four posts will tell the tale of a Philadelphia officer who fought to win a promotion. We will follow the story of Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus Washington Town, executive officer of the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Town was a quiet, unassuming man, but full of pride, and it injured his fragile ego when, in 1862, he discovered that his superiors wanted to deny his application to become his regiment’s colonel by promoting a second lieutenant from another regiment ahead of him. Stung by this criticism of his capabilities, Town viewed the next year as a personal quest, a test to prove himself as a commander. That quest ended with his death in battle in 1863.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Who was Gustavus Town?

Town was born on August 28, 1839. (This made him twenty-two-years-old when the Civil War commenced.) He was quite tall, standing at six foot, three inches in height. He descended from three generations of printers, and naturally, he followed his ancestors’ footsteps by becoming a printer himself. However, Town had a fondness for all things military, and at age sixteen, he joined the 2nd Company, Washington Blues, a militia unit headquartered in Philadelphia. When the war broke out, the Washington Blues became the 18th Pennsylvania and his company became that regiment’s Company A. Town mustered in as first lieutenant. For three months, he and his comrades served in Maryland, occupying Baltimore City and keeping an eye out for secessionists and saboteurs. When his time expired, he returned to Philadelphia and along with his company commander, Captain John M. Gosline, he helped raise a three-year regiment. On August 21, 1861, Town commenced recruiting, using his brother’s clothing store as a headquarters. By October 11, the regiment (which was eventually designated the 95th Pennsylvania), reached completion, numbering 932 officers and men. Because Town and Gosline had been the most active recruiters, Governor Andrew Curtin elevated them to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel, respectively. Around the city, residents popularly knew the regiment as “Gosline’s Zouaves,” because each soldier wore a Chasseur-style uniform coat and trousers manufactured by the firm Rockhill and Wilson. After serving six months at its camp of instruction, the 95th Pennsylvania joined the Army of the Potomac and participated in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. There, the regiment received its sanguinary baptism of fire.

Here is Lt. Col. Gustavus W. Town.
That baptism of fire occurred in the midst of the chaotic Battle of Gaines’s Mill, June 27, 1862. At 6:00 P.M. ,the Army of the Potomac stood in a dire predicament. The right wing of the army—Major General Fitz-John Porter’s 5th Corps—was anchored on the north side of the Chickahominy River. All along Porter’s line, defenses began to crumble, especially near the center where a wooded ravine—a terrain feature created by a tributary of nearby Boatswain’s Creek—sliced through the middle of Porter’s defensive perimeter. Immediately, Porter began drawing reserve units from the 6th Corps, whose 1st Division had crossed the Chickahominy over Woodbury’s Bridge just three hours earlier. Brigadier General John Newton’s 3rd Brigade rushed to help. Porter personally led Newton’s brigade to the threatened position, a point of woods where the swampy ravine disrupted the 5th Corps line. Finding the woods full of the enemy, Newton attacked it from two sides. He directed two of his regiments, the 18th and 32nd New York Infantries, to assault the woods from the right, while his other two regiments, the 31st New York Infantry and the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, assaulted the woods from the left. 

This is a Civil War Trust map showing the Battle of Gaines's Mill. I've put a small blue box around the 95th Pennsylvania to mark its position.
Lieutenant Colonel Town recalled, “The regiment on entering the woods, encountered swamps and dense undergrowth through which they could not pass, and . . . [were] subject to a severe fire from the enemy without the ability to reply with effect.” Nevertheless, the undaunted soldiers pressed on, “cheering as they went, and driving the enemy before them.” They managed to clear the woods and held the position for about one hour until a second Confederate assault, consisting of men from Brigadier General William H. C. Whiting’s division, broke through the 5th Corps line on the 95th Pennsylvania’s immediate left. According to Town, Whiting’s Confederates “poured murderous volleys of musketry into our left and rear, forcing us from our position.” During this engagement, the 95th Pennsylvania lost 169 men, including Colonel Gosline and Major William B. Hubbs. Both officers fell mortally wounded and died on June 29. 

Col. John M. Gosline was the first commander of the 95th Pennsylvania. He died on June 29, 1862.
Command of the 95th Pennsylvania fell heavily upon the shoulders of twenty-three-year-old Town. Despite the poor position held by his regiment, he managed to lead his men off the field in orderly fashion. As the 95th approached the narrow crossing at Woodbury’s Bridge, the men saw the banks cluttered with thousands of panicked 5th Corps soldiers scrambling to safety. Sensing a looming disaster, Town detailed men from his regiment to carry wounded soldiers over the bridge, “this being rendered necessary,” he stated, “by an insufficiency of other means of conveyance.” Additionally, Town wrote, “I assumed the authority to post a guard on both sides of the road [at the bridge], and a battery which was about crossing having upon request willingly stopped, no one was allowed to proceed farther until all the wounded then appearing had been conveyed across [the Chickahominy].” In complete darkness, Town’s quick-thinking had saved the lives of many wounded men who might otherwise have been abandoned to the Confederate pursuit. The 95th Pennsylvania returned to 3rd Brigade headquarters shortly before midnight. Once there, Town discovered that he was the only surviving field officer in his regiment. Writing on July 5, Town remarked that he could not have accomplished the feats of the past eight days without the superb discipline of his men. He wrote, “Of the conduct of such officers as fell under my immediate observation I would say that all behaved in a commendable manner.”

As the Peninsula Campaign sputtered to a halt, the soldiers of the 95th Pennsylvania executed the solemn task of burying their dead. They recovered their dead and buried them on the field. (As an aside, Colonel Gosline’s body eventually was laid to rest in Gettysburg’s Soldier’s National Cemetery, Section 2, Number 706.)

A Philadelphia newspaper noted the Gosline’s death, remarking, “The charge of the regiment accordingly devolves upon Lieut. Col. Town, a young but gallant officer, who is in every way suited to the responsible post which it is now his melancholy duty to fill.”

Little did this newspaper reporter realize that the Town’s superiors did not find him suited to the post at all, not in the slightest.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Twenty-first Century Courage: Alonzo Cushing and the Medal of Honor

On September 14, 2014, President Obama will award Lt. Alonzo Hereford Cushing the Medal of Honor. This is a big deal. Cushing will go down in history as the Medal of Honor winner with the greatest delay between the heroic action (July 3, 1863) and the day he received the Medal. He will receive it 151 years, one month, and twelve days after the action for which he was recommended. More importantly, he will be the only Civil War Medal of Honor winner to have been killed in the action for which he was recommended.

Most students of the Battle of Gettysburg know what Cushing did.  On July 3, 1863, he commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Light Artillery, which defended the Angle during Pickett’s Charge. During the artillery bombardment that preceded the infantry attack, Cushing received two wounds, one in the shoulder and one in the groin. After the shelling disabled four of his guns, he pushed his two operational cannon up to the stone wall and continued to command them until he received his death wound (a shot through the mouth) just as Brig. Gen. L. A. Armistead’s Brigade made its forlorn rush for the wall.
It is pretty clear that Cushing exhibited bravery; however, his heroism is complicated by the fact that few historians know what happened, exactly. In 1893, one of Cushing’s men, Sergeant Frederick Fuger, applied for the Medal of Honor and won it, and in so doing, he perhaps exaggerated the tale of Cushing’s actions. (For instance, Fuger argued that Cushing could not speak above a whisper after receiving his wounds; other accounts from eyewitnesses disputed this.) Further, few of Cushing’s men offer a play-by-play account of the engagement. The well-known accounts of Private Christy Smith and Corporal Thomas Moon are littered with errors, and it is hard to tell what is truth and what is post-war fabrication.
However, we do know that every senior officer in the area noticed Cushing’s bravery and resilience. Even though artillery fire had wounded him, he stayed with his guns. He even pushed two of them into the most dangerous place on Cemetery Ridge. If any of these generals were alive today, I doubt they would openly question our decision to take Cushing’s  posthumous application for a Medal of Honor seriously.
But what does it say about us that we have decided to award a Medal of Honor 151 years after the fact? What kind of courage are we taking seriously?
First, I should explain how this long-deceased officer has even been given the opportunity to win the Medal. Cushing’s post-mortem quest to win it is a recent thing. The campaign began in the late-1980s when a Wisconsin resident, Margaret Zerwekh, began writing letters. (Zerwekh had no direct connection to Cushing, except for the fact that she lived on property once owned by Cushing’s father.) Recently, she reflected, “I didn’t think it would take this long. I thought it would go much faster because he was a real hero.”
Zerwekh wrote to Senator William Proxmire, who offered her a sympathetic ear. At the time, Zerwekh and Proxmire faced an insurmountable obstacle. After 1963, all Medal of Honor nominations had to be made within two years of the action in question, and Congress had to approve the award within five years of the application. (Of course, this was not the state of affairs when the Civil War ended. Most Civil War veterans won the Medal of Honor decades after their action had passed. More than 600 Union soldiers and sailors received the Medal of Honor in the 1890s, thirty years after they had completed acts of heroism.) Thus, Proxmire required special legislation to waive the time limitations.
Although Proxmire did not live to see the fruits of his quest, the Wisconsin delegation eventually succeeded in initiating an Army investigation in 2002. After eight years of research, in February 2010, the U.S. Army approved the nomination. Congress, though, still had to confirm the waiver legislation, and to do that, they had to append it to a national defense appropriation act. The Wisconsin representatives attached the amendment, but in late-2012, one Senator had second thoughts. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a former U.S. Marine and winner of the Navy Cross, was unwilling to hand out an award so long after it had occurred, and he consequently deleted the Cushing waiver.
Webb explained his decision this way: “It is impossible for Congress to go back to events of 150 years ago to make individual determinations in a consistent, equitable and well-informed manner. While one would never wish to demean any act of courage, I believe that the retroactive determination in one case could open up an endless series of claims. The better wisdom would be for Congress to leave history alone.”
Undeterred, Wisconsin’s delegation tried again, and nearly two years later, it succeeded.
So, here we are, on the cusp of an historic moment in American military history. I would like to ask, have we done the right thing?
Now,  this may seem like a strange question to ask, so I want readers to get this straight: If I were the sole judge of battlefield courage, I would have given Cushing the Medal of Honor a long, long time ago. I believe he committed actions worthy of the Medal. That is my personal opinion.
But that being said, I’d like to consider Webb’s objection, particularly his last sentence, the one where he warned Americans to leave history alone. Did he have a point? Is it really worth revisiting battles from so long ago to make a formal commendation—even one as ennobling and sacred as our nation’s Medal of Honor?
Much of this debate centers on our conception of courage. (Undoubtedly, courage in combat is the hardest of all emotions to judge, and I know that I am no expert in it.) However, the most shocking thing about this award is that, in awarding it, we are attempting to hold a 19th Century officer up to 21st Century standards of courage. None of the 1,522 other Civil War Medal of Honor winners had to meet these demands. Perhaps it sounds strange, but this thought irks me just a bit. As a professional historian, I know it is unwise to judge characters from our nation’s past based on our own standards of morality. The same principle might also be applied to courage. Are standards of courage from two different centuries even compatible? Are we really awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor as he would have understood it, or are we honoring him with a meaningless commendation based on a conception of courage that only we can truly appreciate?
Maybe it is a moot point. Modern criteria for winning the Medal of Honor are far harsher than they were in 1863. During the Civil War, soldiers received Medals of Honor for relatively unassuming activities. Consider the Battle of Gettysburg, the same action for which Cushing has been nominated. Sixty-three soldiers have, to this point, received Medals of Honor for action at that engagement. Twenty-four of them received medals for the capture of enemy battle flags. Certainly, I do not mean to say that capturing an enemy flag is an easy thing. Some of the Medal of Honor winners—Corporal Francis Waller, for instance—captured a flag by ripping it from the hands of its color bearer. Unquestioningly, that took guts. However, many other soldiers won the Medal without similar trouble. On July 2, Sergeant Thomas Horan of the 72nd New York captured the colors of the 8th Florida. Veterans from the 19th Maine asserted that they, not Horan, had been responsible for killing the Confederate color bearer. Horan simply picked up the flag because his regiment followed in their regiment’s wake. A sergeant from the 19th Maine explained:
Just as we were ordered back, our attention was attracted by loud cheering in the rear. It was a portion of the Excelsior Brigade which had followed us about one-third of the distance we had charged and had come up to the Eighth Florida flag, lying upon the ground. These New York men were waving that Rebel flag and cheering wildly. The other Rebel flag over which we had charged was also picked up and some of the cannon from which the Nineteenth had driven the Rebels were hauled back as trophies of the valor of the Third Corps. Our honors were rapidly disappearing. The trophies of our victory, so dearly earned, were borne away by the men following in our footsteps, far behind. The honor of capturing the Eighth Florida flag went to Sergeant Hogan [sic] of the Seventy-second New York, of the Excelsior Brigade. When Hogan picked up the flag in question there was not a live Rebel soldier within half a mile of him, unless such Rebel soldier was a prisoner of war.
In Horan’s case, he displayed no valor, not as modern Americans would conceive it. Instead, Horan had simply done what any ordinary soldier would do; he picked up an enemy battle flag when he saw it lying in his path. The U.S. Army never launched a thorough investigation. Once Horan provided proof of the capture in the form of sworn affidavits, the War Department issued him a Medal on April 5, 1898.
To say that Horan and others like him hoodwinked the War Department would be a stretch. At the time, the War Department did not consider the Medal to be an unblemished symbol of gallantry. Instead, it served simply as recognition of participation in a battlefield act, kind of like a merit badge. Indeed, of the Civil War’s 1,522 Medal of Honor winners, only twenty-three received it posthumously, and none of that group received the Medal for the action that killed them (although four of Andrews’s Raiders were later executed for the action for which they received the Medal). In essence, the typical Civil War Medal of Honor winner was not a war hero who had been killed by going above and beyond the call of duty; instead, he was a veteran who lived to tell his tale. In order to win the Medal, he had to tell it often. Civil War Medal of Honor winners agitated for recognition, persistently appealing to the War Department as they entered their declining years. A Civil War Medal of Honor winner’s action might have been truly heroic, but also it might have come from a desire to create a sense of artificial fame out of postwar embellishment.
So what happened? When did the Medal of Honor become a revered symbol of unselfish courage? Eventually, the War Department got tired of handing out Medals, and in 1897, it published more stringent guidelines for receiving the award. Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root, rigidly enforced these tighter qualifications, rejecting applications from aging veterans who reveled in their former glories. As an example, James W. King, a Michigan soldier who applied for the Medal in 1902 for actions performed at Missionary Ridge, snarled when Root rejected him. He wrote: “It is my opinion that if the present Assistant Secretary of War had been obliged to take that four-mile walk, under the same conditions that I did, to say nothing of the voluntary risk of life in battle, he would have though his conduct was of such a most distinguished character that it would have taken more than a bushel of medals to fully compensate him for his bodily sufferings, and mental anguish caused by the expectancy of losing his good right arm.” King never received his Medal.
As the years passed, the requirements for valor continued to change. By 1963, Congress standardized the criteria by arguing that the Medal could only go to those who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” As a result, the number of issued Medals of Honor decreased drastically. As a point of comparison, of the 3,464 Medals of Honor awarded to date, 1,522 (43%) went to veterans of the Civil War. To equal the number of Civil War winners, a person would have to combine all of the winners from World War 1, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian Wars!
In short, the Medal of Honor meant one thing in 1863. It means something vastly different today. Consider what it currently takes to win the Medal of Honor. This is the citation for LT Michael Murphy, the U.S. Navy SEAL who was awarded the Medal in 2007 for actions that occurred on June 28, 2005, in Afghanistan:
While leading a mission to locate a high-level anti-coalition militia leader, Lieutenant Murphy demonstrated extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger in the vicinity of Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy's team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four member team. Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Murphy won the Medal of Honor posthumously, as some of you may know. (As an aside, I wonder if LT Murphy had performed his actions in 1863, would he have won a Medal? Given that he would not have been alive to tell the story, I would guess probably not.)
 By comparison, note the scantiness of the citations from some Battle of Gettysburg winners:
·         Col. Joshua Chamberlain: “For daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.”

·         Captain James Clarke Postles: “Voluntarily delivered an order in the face of heavy fire of the enemy.”

·         Privates James Richmond: “Capture of flag.”

·         Sergeant James Wiley: “Capture of flag of a Georgia regiment.”

·         Corporal Munroe Reisinger: “Specially brave and meritorious conduct in the face of the enemy.”
You will see that Civil War citations tended to be terse and not terribly informative. Moreover, you will notice that some of the 1863 citations fail to meet the 1963 standard of risking “life above and beyond the call of duty.” Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s citation does not fit that standard. You will note that the citation honors him for defending Little Round Top, not for leading a bayonet charge. In essence, Chamberlain received an award for doing what he was supposed to be doing, carrying out orders that his superiors had given him. Many other regimental commanders at Gettysburg had a rightful claim to meeting that same standard of courage, even surpassing it. Yet, they received no Medals.
Okay, back the original premise. What about Cushing? Did his act of valor meet the standards of 1863 and does it meet the standards of 2014?
On the first point, did Cushing act heroically according to the standards of 1863? I think we can say, “yes,” he acted heroically and displayed bravery to such a degree that it would have entitled him to a Medal had he lived. However, one serious fact remains. He did not live, and that means he did not meet the same standards of his contemporaries.
Did Cushing meet the modern standard? Almost certainly, “yes.” Compare what Cushing did, line by line, to what LT Murphy did.
·         “Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force.” Cushing did this too. He commanded, at most, 126 men and squared them off against an enemy attack consisting of 12,500 infantry. Cushing had the aid of other nearby units, of course, but at most, they counted only 6,000 officers and men. 

·         “The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team.” Cushing’s unit, Battery A, 4th U.S. Light Artillery, lost thirty-eight men killed and wounded. This was nine times as many as Murphy lost, but of course, a much smaller percentage.

·         “Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men.” Cushing did this too. He received two ghastly wounds, one to the shoulder and another to the groin. In leading their men while wounded, both Murphy’s and Cushing’s examples demonstrated great similarity.

·         “When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire.” Cushing did not do this, not exactly, but he did perform a similar feat when he moved his only two serviceable guns closer to the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. Probably, Murphy’s heroism exceeded Cushing’s in terms of degree, but both officers deprived themselves of cover and exposed themselves to enemy fire.

·         “In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom.” There is similarity here too. Cushing continued to serve his battery, even though twice wounded. Indeed, he even took over tasks normally assigned to his enlisted men when they fell wounded. No one can doubt that both he and Murphy gave their lives for their country.
In short, Cushing’s final action at Gettysburg meets the modern standards of gallantry more than most Civil War soldiers. This leaves us with a curious answer: Cushing meets the more stringent requirements of the 21st Century, but he does not meet the more relaxed requirements of his own time. (Take a moment and let that thought sink in.)
What, then, have we done? By awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor, we have transformed him into a modern-day hero; we have not necessarily proven that he was a hero from his own time. As I said earlier, I support Cushing’s application for receiving the award, but I feel that all we have done is to make ourselves feel better about his death. If the U.S. Army had truly meant to honor him, it would have awarded him a Medal long, long ago, back when his mother, Mary, and his brothers, Howard and William Barker, would have been alive to feel a sense of pride about it. They could have felt that their nation remembered the sacrifice of poor Alonzo and believed that a grateful public mourned with them. That window of opportunity has long since closed.
Awarding Cushing the nation’s most important combat award is the right thing to do, undoubtedly, but let’s not forget this crucial fact: his receiving the award describes the ways that our generation venerates courage. It tells us nothing about what Cushing thought about it.
You might all say,  “Better late than never.” I am unconvinced that such a phrase can even apply here.
(Here is Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, photographed in 1862.)