In the last two posts, I’ve regaled readers with tales of two of the Woolsey children, Mary and Charles, the offspring of a prominent abolitionist family from upstate New York. For this post, I’m going to discuss another Woolsey sister, Eliza, and her connection with the Army of the Potomac.
|This is Eliza Newton Woolsey Howland, philanthropist, social reformer, abolitionist, and purchaser of Union headgear.|
First: a little biography. Eliza Woolsey was born in 1835, the fifth daughter of Charles and Jane Woolsey. At age nineteen, she married Joseph Howland, the orphaned son of a prominent New York City merchant. In 1859, the young couple moved into a massive estate called Tioronda, which is south of Beacon, New York, where Fishkill Creek empties into the Hudson River. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Joseph Howland sought a commission as an officer, and after impressing the governor, he mustered in on May 15, 1861, as adjutant of the 16th New York Volunteer Infantry.
This is Joseph Howland, depicted as captain. He mustered in as the 16th New York's adjutant, rose to the rank of colonel, and retired as a brevet brigadier general.
Eliza Howland made herself instrumental in the mobilization of her husband’s regiment, purchasing items and apparel for the soldiers. In so doing, she wrote herself into the Army of the Potomac’s history in a rather unfortunate way. In May 1862, after her husband rose to the rank of colonel, Eliza Howland purchased several hundred white straw hats for the soldiers of the 16th New York, believing they would prefer them to the standard-issue forage caps during the summer months because straw hats would be cooler and provide more shade. On June 13, Colonel Howland and his field officers presented one straw hat to each man, and at first, the men received them exuberantly. Unfortunately, the introduction of the straw hats proved a dangerous element on the battlefield. At the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, June 27, 1862, while defending the McGehee farm, the 16th New York lost 231 officers and men killed and wounded. One soldier, Private Cyrus Stone, argued that the new straw hats led to the regiment’s devastating losses. The white hats were easy targets in the deep brush, he opined, and the Confederates “must have aimed at our hats.” Stone argued that he got down on one knee and did his fighting while crouched. He concluded, “I think it saved me from being shot.”
This painting by Don Troiani depicts a soldier from the 16th New York wearing one of the straw hats purchased by Eliza Howland.
Years after the war, the story of Eliza’s Howland’s death-hats became an old chestnut for historians. Stephen Sears put the story on the map with his epic tome about the Peninsula Campaign, To the Gates of Richmond, in which he repeated Stone’s story, blaming the straw headgear for the casualty figure in the 16th. Since then, books about Gaines’s Mill invariably mention the straw hats whenever they get to the 16th New York’s defense of the McGehee farm. For instance, Brian Burton’s recent book on the Seven Days’ Battles explained, “The men of the 16th New York went into the battle wearing white straw hats given them by Howland’s wife earlier in the month. They were pleasant, helping the men in the heat before the battle started. But the hats only drew extra attention from southern marksmen—perhaps making the rebels shoot high—and many were gone before the battle ended.”
So, here’s my point. It’s a common thing nowadays to see Eliza Howland indirectly blamed for the losses in the 16th New York. However, I’m not sure this is the way to go. It seems strange to me that historians never emphasize Eliza Howland’s more positive contribution to the regiment, her purchase of the regiment’s battle flags, under which the regiment lost many men on June 27, 1862. In the summer of 1861, when the 16th New York got the call to leave Albany and make haste for the front, it had no regimental emblems. Using family funds, Eliza Howland approached Tiffany’s (now the famous jewelry dealer) and asked them to design a state flag and national banner for her husband’s regiment. She planned to hand them over to the regiment when it stopped in New York City on its way to Washington.
Tellingly, for all the money she spent, Eliza Howland did not want her philanthropy to be heavily recognized. After going to Tiffany’s to purchase the flags, she wrote to Joseph, telling him that she did not want to appear in front of the regiment when the flags were presented. Instead, she arranged for a family friend, Robert S. Hone, to present the flags in her stead. On June 23, she wrote:
I write chiefly to remind you of the stand of colors which Tiffany is making and promises [to have ready] for Wednesday. You may want to have them presented to the regiment the day they pass through New York, and, if so, [I] will have to arrange the affair with the Colonel. I do not wish to appear in the matter, but you can present them in my name, or, if you like, perhaps Charley [her younger brother] will be willing to, but don’t have any fuss or parade about it, and don’t let the men tramp through the city a la McChesney till they are exhausted [a reference to another regiment that departed amid too much fanfare]. The colors will remain at Tiffany’s till the Colonel sends for them or notifies me.
The flag presentation ceremony went splendidly. On June 26, 1861, the 16th New York paraded through New York City. At 3:30 P.M., the regiment reached Washington Square, where it received its stand of colors, a blue state banner and a national flag. Despite Eliza Howland’s modest desire to keep her name out of the proceedings, her husband, Joseph, and her friend, Robert Hone, insisted that her name be mentioned.
When Robert S. Hone handed the colors over to Colonel Thomas A. Davies, he made it clear that she had been the one to donate the money to give the regiment such a proud emblem. Hone spoke:
It is my privilege to stand here this day as the representative of Mrs. Joseph Howland, to present, in her name, these beautiful colors to the gallant regiment under your command. She wishes me to make this presentation in as few words as possible. Her heart is, as you know, full of the tenderest emotions at this moment of the departure of the Sixteenth Regiment for the seat of war, to take its full share of the perils, and to reap its full share of the glories of the campaign, and I can vouch for it that she, as fully as any of you, is doing her duty, making her sacrifice at the altar of her country. Your mission is a sacred one. You go forth, representatives of this great State, battling for the nationality of your country, ready to lay down your lives, if need be, for the maintenance of law and order, on which rest all the foundations of society. The safety, happiness and well-being of yourselves, your families, your fellow-citizens, are dependent upon your success in this holy cause. Go forth, then, fearlessly and cheerfully, in the full assurance that the prayers of those you leave behind will daily ascend to the throne of Grace in your behalf, to nerve your arm, and to cheer your absent hours. I cannot more fittingly conclude than by quoting two lines from that beautiful hymn to the Flag of Our Country:—
“Then conquer you must, for our cause it is just,
And this be your motto,—In God is our trust.”
By the end of the ceremony, Eliza’s name was on the lips of every soldier. So remembered Private William Thompson of Company C, “Mrs. Joseph Howland, who from first to last, as mother and nurse, was ever the guardian angel of the Sixteenth. This noble lady . . . unostentatiously, contributed lavishly in money and time to the alleviation of the suffering of the sick and wounded and in every way did [her] full duty and made [her] ‘great sacrifice at the altar of [her] country’.”
As usually happened in such flag-presentation ceremonies, Colonel Davies thanked Eliza Howland (even though she was not physically present to hear it), and he vowed to protect the flags with his life. Then, Davies gave the State colors to one of his color-sergeants, who walked down the line, asking each company if they would defend the flag with their lives. According to Private Thompson, a “prolonged, ‘Yes’ rang from one end of the line to the other, followed by deafening cheers and waving of caps, with wild enthusiasm.” Captain N. Martin Curtis of Company G later reflected, “The response was in earnest of the valor and gallantry they afterwards displayed in making good their promise; during the service of the regiment more than a score of men in the color guard were killed or seriously wounded in holding the colors aloft, but never once were they lost, or touched by an enemy’s hand.”
It is worthy of note that a dozen men fell killed or wounded holding the flags at Gaines’s Mill, the same battle in which the straw hats supposedly played a deadly role. Indeed, one soldier bore aloft a flag so conspicuously that he won a Medal of Honor for it. Twenty-year-old Corporal James Henry Moffitt of Company C took up the flag until he was wounded. (Moffitt received his Medal of Honor on March 3, 1891.)
When the 16th New York returned home from the war, mustering out in the spring of 1863, the survivors took pride because they could deposit their two flags at the State House for posterity, pointing out how these—the original flags received in June 1861—had been torn to shreds by enemy bullets and shells, but they had never been touched by enemy hands.
My final point is this. Maybe it’s time to stop saying that the Gaines’s Mill casualties incurred by the 16th New York died because of Eliza Howland’s comfy straw hats. Maybe it’s more accurate to say they died for the flags she gave them on June 26, 1861.
This photograph depicts the colors of the 16th New York, after they had seen heavy use. The soldier are: Sergeant John Lyon (left, holding the National banner) and Corporal Melvin Tucker (right, holding the State flag.)