Monday, December 21, 2015

Be Cautious When Buying Hats and Flags

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.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Mr. Woolsey Escapes the Guerrillas

In the previous post, I described the writings of one of the Woolsey sisters, a family of seven well-educated abolitionists who gave plenty of blood, sweat, and tears to the Union cause. If you’re one of those people who likes to study women’s social activism in the nineteenth century (and I know that you probably have a copy of Lori Ginzberg’s Women and the Work of Benevolence under your pillow), you’re already familiar with the story of Abby, Jane, Mary, Eliza, Georgeanna, Harriet, and Caroline, the dynamic sisters who performed countless hours relief work, hospital administration, and charity for the Union army.

But, did you know the Woolseys had a younger brother who served in the Army of the Potomac? Well, maybe you did, but I’ll bet Lori Ginzberg didn’t.

Anyway, there’s so much written on the Woolsey sisters, I thought that someone needed to talk about the lone Woolsey brother. So that’s the purpose of this post. I didn’t look too hard to find something about him, but let me say, I don’t know of any place the tale of Lieutenant Woolsey is told except in the one source I mention below.

So, quickly, who was the brother Woolsey?

On April 18, 1840, after twelve years and seven daughters, Jane Newton Woolsey gave birth to a boy, Charles William Woolsey, Jr. (By the way, this was the last child to which Jane Woolsey could give birth, because her husband, Charles, Sr., died on January 13, 1840, in a tragic steamboat accident, meaning Jane Woolsey was approximately six months pregnant with Charley, Jr. when he perished.) Like most twenty-two-year-olds, Charley Woolsey could not stay out of the Civil War. He avoided enlistment during the war’s first year, but when the summer 1862 call for “300,000 more” volunteers went out, he wrote to the Republican governor of New York, Edwin Morgan, asking for a commission. Morgan granted Woolsey his wish, and on October 24, 1862, he mustered in as second lieutenant in Company F, 164th New York Volunteer Infantry (or 3rd Regiment, Irish Legion). Naturally, as a scion of a wealthy family with considerable influence in the Republican Party, Lieutenant Woolsey did not remain long in the ranks of the infantry. In 1863, he transferred to the staff of Brigadier General Seth Williams, the assistant adjutant general for the Army of the Potomac.

Woolsey’s career as Williams’s aide is not terribly well-documented, but he appears in a colorful letter written amid the Siege of Petersburg. In an explosion of fury, Lieutenant Woolsey broke the nose of a Confederate cavalrymen in hand-to-hand combat.

Here’s what happened:

On October 27, 1864, the Army of the Potomac found itself in a bit of a pickle. By 3:30, Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s 2nd Corps discovered that it was surrounded at the William Burgess Mill along Hatcher’s Run. Confederate infantry encircled it to the north, and Confederate cavalry had cut the roads to the south. With no option but to attack, at 4:30 P.M., Brig. Gen. Thomas Egan’s brigade fixed bayonets and surged southward, routing a section of Confederate cavalry that had completed the encirclement of the Union corps along the Boydton Plank Road. This fight was confusing, to say the least, as soldiers from both sides bumped into each other in the woods south of the mill pond. Even the Army of the Potomac’s staff officers—who normally placed themselves far from such action—mixed it up with the Confederate horsemen.

Late in the evening, Lieutenant Woolsey collided with twelve Confederate cavalrymen and had a narrow escape. The day after the battle, Colonel Theodore Lyman, the loquacious aide to Maj. Gen. George Meade, decided to write down the encounter. Lyman’s description of Woolsey is quite memorable:

Lieutenant Woolsey, General Williams’s aide, . . . showed a valor little to be looked for in so mild a youth. He was going along a wood road and came directly upon twelve Rebel cavalry; all cried “Halt! surrender!” to him, and two fired their carbines at him; Woolsey snapped his pistol at them, when one seized him round the waist; whereat W[oolsey] hit him a back-handed blow on the bridge of his nose, put in the spurs, and actually broke away from the whole of them! When I asked him why he didn’t give up, he replied in a simple manner: “Why, I thought my mother would be much distressed if I was taken prisoner, so I thought it would perhaps be better not to surrender.” General Williams was in the greatest state of chuckle over his aide’s conduct, and kept asking unwary persons: “Do you know how Mr. Woolsey escaped from guerillas?” and, being answered, “No,” would say: “Why, thus!” at the same time giving the unwary one a punch in the stomach, with his elbow.

It humors me to picture General Williams punching inquirers in the stomach, much to the chagrin of his embarrassed aide. However, what intrigues me most is that Woolsey might have surrendered to the Confederates who accosted him. Indeed, Colonel Lyman implied that Woolsey might have surrendered with no dishonor. Instead, Woolsey risked his life to avoid capture. If he had been shot, he might have died in one of the last battles of the Army of the Potomac. His reason for taking such risk: fear that his mother would be distressed if he surrendered.

I cannot explain what it was that made Lieutenant Woolsey thirst for his mother’s approval,  but if I had to guess, Woolsey had six older sisters all feverishly engaged in waging war for the Union in non-combat ways (another, Mary, had died earlier that year after organizing New York City’s Sanitary Fair.) There was no way Charley Woolsey could surrender, not after knowing that his sisters had given so much for the same cause.

After the war, Charles Woolsey married a woman named Arixene “Zenie” Southgate Smith. He died on January 6, 1907.

This is Lt. Charles W. Woolsey, Jr., shown as staff officer for Brig. Gen. Seth Williams.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Rainy Day in Camp

The other day, one of my students left me a present in my campus mailbox. He gave me a first-edition copy of The Picket Line, an 1890 G.A.R.-published collection of Civil War-related short stories. The title page calls it a “collection of war anecdotes, both grave and gay.” Interestingly, it has a lengthy section consisting of un-confirmable Abraham Lincoln jokes, but that’s not the point of this post.

In perusing my new gift, I bumped into a poem entitled, “A Rainy Day in Camp.” It’s rather long, but I found it thought-provoking. It is written from the perspective of a Union soldier who is sitting in camp on a rainy day. As he relaxes amid the day’s dreariness, he contemplates his mortality. In reading the poem, you will notice how the soldier admits that he is not a brave man. Often, he declares, he skulks in the rear. But in contemplating his devotion to the cause, the unnamed soldier finds cheer in the fact that God will not forget him—or any of the other less-than-courageous men—when the day of reckoning comes. God, he surmises, will not get “impatient with a raw recruit like me,” and when the day of victory comes, God will share it with “all His Volunteers.” It’s a complex poem to be sure, heavily religious, but it captures some of the raw, multifaceted emotion that went through the minds of Union soldiers on the eve of battle. Here is the poem in full:

It’s a cheerless, lonesome evening,

 When the soaking, sodden ground

Will not echo to the footfall

 Of the sentinel’s dull round.


God’s blue star-spangled banner

  To-night is not unfurled ;

Surely He has not deserted

  This weary, warring world.


I peer into the darkness,

  And the crowding fancies come:

The night wind, blowing northward,

  Carries all my heart toward home.


For I ’listed in this army

  Not exactly to my mind;

But my country called for helpers,

 And I couldn't stay behind.


So, I’ve had a sight of drilling,

  And have roughed it many ways,

And death has nearly had me ;—

  Yet I think the service pays.


It’s a blessed sort of feeling-—

  Whether you live or die—

You helped your country in her need,

  And fought right loyally.


But I can’t help thinking sometimes,

 When a wet day’s leisure comes,

 And I hear the old home voices

 Talking louder than the drums,—


And the far, familiar faces

 Peep in at my tent door,

 And the little children’s footsteps

 Go pit-pat on the floor,—


I can’t help thinking, somehow,

 Of all the parson reads

 About that other soldier-life

 Which every true man leads.


 And wife, soft-hearted creature,

 Seems a-saying in my ear,

 ‘I’d rather have you in those ranks

 Than to see you brigadier.’


 I call myself a brave one,

 But in my heart I lie!

 For my country, and her honor,

 I am fiercely free to die;


 But when the Lord, who bought me,

 Asks for my service here

 To ‘fight the good fight’ faithfully,

 I’m skulking in the rear.


 And yet I know this Captain

 All love and care to be:

 He would never get impatient

 With a raw recruit like me.


 And I know He’d not forget me;

 When the day of peace appears,

 I should share with Him the victory

 Of all His volunteers.


And it’s kind of cheerful, thinking,

  Beside the dull tent fire,

About that big promotion,

 When He says, “Come up higher.”


And though it’s dismal—rainy—

  Even now, with thoughts of Him,

Camp life looks extra cheery,

  And death a deal less grim.


For I seem to see Him waiting,

  Where a gathered heaven greets

A great victorious army,

  Marching up the golden streets.


And I hear Him read the roll-call,

  And my heart is all a-flame,

When the dear, recording angel

  Writes down my happy name !


—But my fire is dead white ashes,

And the tent is chilling cold,

And I’m playing win the battle,

  When I’ve never been enrolled !


Naturally, I was curious about the author, who was not a soldier at all, but a well-educated New York woman. The Picket Line authors did not offer me much help. That is, they provided the name of the author’s husband, listing her as “Mrs. Robert Shaw Howland.” Thankfully, it didn’t take me much time to identify the author of “A Rainy Day in Camp” as Mary Elizabeth Woolsey Howland of Astoria, New York, the third-eldest daughter of Charles W. Woolsey, Sr. and Jane E. Newton Woolsey, a prominent sugar-refiner and his abolitionist wife. If you’re at all interested in Civil War women, the Woolsey family is probably well-known to you. The socially-active Woolseys consisted of mother, father, seven daughters, and one son. All seven daughters participated in the Civil War in some way, either as nurses, relief agents, or volunteers for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

It’s not entirely clear when Mary Woolsey Howland completed “A Rainy Day in Camp,” but she seems to have finished it sometime in the spring of 1862. She was friends with Charles Dana, an editor of the New York Tribune, and after the Woolsey family privately printed the nineteen-stanza poem as a leaflet, Howland sent it to the Tribune and to another newspaper, the Independent. Both papers published her poem in late-March, and it made the rounds in other newspapers throughout the month of April.

Most fascinatingly, in my opinion, Mary Woolsey Howland published “A Rainy Day in Camp” anonymously, and newspapers generally assumed that the poem had been written by a soldier, which gave a sense of authenticity to it. (It was not until after the war that the Woolsey family revealed her as the poem’s true author.)

As the Civil War transpired, only close friends of the family knew the truth. They communicated to Howland their opinion that the poem was popular in U.S. Army hospitals, and they repeatedly asked the Woolsey family for more leaflets. For instance, on April 5, 1862, Chaplain Henry H. Hopkins of the 120th New York, who was serving in an army hospital in Alexandria, wrote to Eliza Woolsey (one of Mary’s younger sisters), remarking on the helpfulness of the poem. “Be sure to read the Rainy Day in Camp,” he told her.  “Did I tell you I read it after each of my services last Sabbath? and I think that it did more good than all that went before it. The men listened in perfect quiet. I feel sure that if I could have looked up myself, I should have seen tears in the eyes of more than one who had been ‘skulking in the rear’.”

It is interesting, indeed, that a thirty-year-old woman could fashion such a poignant view of soldiers and death. Mary Woolsey Howland had no sons, only four daughters. She had a younger brother, Charles, who later served in the war, but as of spring 1862, he had not yet enlisted. Whatever experience she had with a soldier’s death remains unknown. She died suddenly on May 31, 1864, leaving no explanation for her inspiration.

Whatever motivated her to write, Howland captured the scene, a moment of soldierly introspection, and published without hope of reward.

Here, Mary Woolsey Howland cradles one of her daughters.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Shot in the Shoulder

Having recently endured shoulder surgery, I decided to find a tale from the Army of the Potomac that related to my experience.

Consequently, I want to share this anecdote. It involves a poor, wounded shoulder, one that waited and waited for its chance to get fixed.

The shoulder in question belonged to Lieutenant Charles Augustus Fuller, who served in the 61st New York. On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as his regiment made its way across the Rose wheat-field (part of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Fuller’s left shoulder took a hit from a Confederate rifle ball.  In his 1906 memoir, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, Fuller remembered the sensation caused by the Confederate projectile. He wrote, “It did not hurt and the blow simply caused me to step back. I found that I could not work my arm, but supposed that hurt was a flesh wound that had temporarily paralyzed it, and that it was not serious enough to justify my leaving the fighting line.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds, so it seems. Sometimes, they are considered so inconsequential that soldiers ignore them until something worse comes along.

In Fuller’s case, something worse did come along. As he kept fighting, another bullet struck him, this time in his right leg. The ball shattered the leg bone and he fell to the ground helpless, just as his regiment began to fall back. As panicked Union infantrymen galloped their way to the rear, Fuller called for help. Two well-meaning men from his regiment grabbed him by the arms and began to drag him across the trampled wheat-field. However, neither soldier paid any attention to the wounded shoulder. As Fuller wrote, “They started back with me between them, not on any funeral gait, but almost on a run. My right arm was sound, but the left one was broken at the shoulder joint, and on that side it was pulling the cords and meat. I wobbled as much as a cut of wood drawn by two cords would have.” Undoubtedly, in their haste to drag Fuller, they worsened his shoulder wound.

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Sometimes others think that, when jostled, they will cause the wounded man no pain.

Fuller did feel pain. Shrieking loudly, he implored his two would-be rescuers to drop him. They complied, apparently eager to get themselves to safety.

After midnight, a Union soldier named Phillip Comfort found Fuller and carried him to the rear. At the Jacob Schwartz farm, surgeons examined Fuller’s two wounds, and they determined that he needed an operation immediately. Fuller’s shattered leg required amputation, but a question arose concerning his left shoulder. Did it, too, need to be sawed open? On July 3, as the stewards administered chloroform, one of the surgeons determined that it was necessary to resect the shoulder wound—that is, to cut out the damaged bone and suture it up. As Fuller’s mind wandered under the effects of the anesthesia, he recalled, “At this stage I remember a doctor had his fingers in the wound in the shoulder and said to the others, ‘Here is a fine chance for a resection.’ I did not know what that meant but found out afterwards.”

Fuller fell into unconsciousness, and when he awoke, he discovered that surgeons had amputated his leg about eight inches below the hip. However, nothing had been done to his shoulder. He wrote, “My shoulder was bound up, but otherwise not operated on. Failure to resect may have been due to the great amount of work pressing on the surgeons.”

Such is the fate of shoulder wounds. Often, they are not given priority.

Fuller’s left shoulder remained untouched for over a week. Soon, the army transferred him to a new hospital, a civilian facility in Unadilla Forks, New York, near where he grew up. With his shoulder gradually growing worse, Fuller’s mother contacted her brother, a civilian physician, who performed the much-needed surgery. Fuller’s uncle, Dr. King, removed three inches of humerus bone. Fuller dubbed the operation “an excellent one,” and after his shoulder healed, he experienced no more trouble from that section.

I marvel that Fuller and his intrepid shoulder had to wait so long to get surgery. Such is the fate of the shoulder.

This is Lieutenant Charles A. Fuller, photographed in April 1863 while standing with the officer corps of the 61st New York at Falmouth, Virginia. Three months later, at Gettysburg, Fuller's left shoulder took a Confederate bullet. For awhile, it seemed like nobody cared.

Monday, November 9, 2015

“He Was Our Ideal”: The Letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, Part 2

In the last post, I profiled the letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, a private in the 83rd Pennsylvania. Norton’s name is well-known among Civil War buffs. In 1903, he published Army Letters, a collection of his wartime correspondence.

This image shows Lt. Oliver Willcox Norton photographed in December 1863.
Immediately below this paragraph, you will see a photograph of the copy that I’m using to write this post. It is an original 1903 edition of Norton’s book. It was once owned by a famous lumber dealer named Clifford Isaac Millard (1861-1940). Millard had a close connection to the Civil War. His son, Lyman C. Millard, married Virginia Kemper Lynch, the granddaughter of a Confederate general, James Lawson Kemper. Millard is presently buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in my hometown of Norfolk. 

Army Letters, Norton's book, is in the middle.

You might ask, what was Millard, father-in-law to a Confederate granddaughter, doing with a tome of Yankee letters? That question is hard to answer, but let me offer my best guess. Sometime when Millard was in Chicago, or so I believe, he befriended Strong Vincent Norton (1879-1959), the son of Oliver Willcox Norton. The reason I know this is because Strong Vincent Norton signed Millard’s book. Here is the signature.

Here's an image of the signature of Strong Vincent Norton, who signed his father's book in 1932.

It’s no surprise that Oliver Norton named his son, “Strong.” The name came from Colonel Strong Vincent, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Army Corps, who fell mortally wounded on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863. As the letters make clear, Norton idolized Vincent. In the spring of 1863, when Norton joined the brigade staff, he served as Colonel Vincent’s pennant-bearer. When Vincent died on the field at Gettysburg, the loss of his commander left Private Norton terribly despondent. Writing to his parents and sister on July 17, Norton explained:

Colonel Vincent died on the 7th, as brave and gallant a soldier as ever fell. His commission as Brigadier General was read to him on his death-bed. His loss is felt deeply by the brigade. There is no one to fill his place. No one here can march a brigade as he could. He had less straggling, less of everything evil and more of everything good than any other brigade in the division. Oh, how we loved him! But he is gone.

Norton never forgot about Colonel Vincent. In 1913, he published The Attack and Defense of Little Round Top, the first scholarly treatment of that part of Gettysburg battlefield. Although largely a collection of primary accounts, Norton unashamedly made Colonel Vincent the hero of his story. In offering up his own recollections, Norton had this to say about his deceased commander:

My first recollection of him is his appearance as adjutant in forming the line of the regiment [the Erie Regiment] for its first dress parade. As I stood, a private in the ranks, and heard his command on the right, “To the rear open order, March!” and saw the line officers step to the front in an irregular line and heard him correct their faults, then saw him march to the center, halt, turn on his heel, face the colonel, who stood like a statue at some distance with his arms folded, gauntlets reaching near to his elbows, salute with his sword and report, “Sir, the parade is formed,” I confess my first impression of him was not favorable. I thought him a dude and an upstart. I soon came to know that he wished to impress on that mob of green country boys, by example as well as precept, the proper way for a soldier to stand and to move. It was the beginning for that regiment of its military education. By the end of its three months’ service spent in continual drill and practice in all the duties of a soldier, that part of this regiment which re-enlisted for three years formed a trained nucleus for the Eighty-third Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, which placed it in the front rank of volunteers for the war, and kept it there. Vincent had demonstrated his fitness for a higher position.

Norton’s adoration of Colonel Vincent extended to the dedication of the 83rd Pennsylvania’s monument. When veterans gathered on the slopes of Little Round Top in 1889 to commemorate the events from Gettysburg, Norton delivered the main address. The state commissioners of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association had expressly forbid personal allusions on the veterans’ monuments, but due to Norton’s influence, the larger-than-life sculpture atop the 83rd Pennsylvania’s monument was made to resemble Vincent, even though it was listed as “bronze figure of a Union officer.” In his dedicatory remarks, Norton argued that the veterans of the 3rd Brigade naturally thought of Vincent as the appropriate symbol to commemorate the sacrifice it took to win the battle. “We honor ourselves in honoring him,” he declared. “He was our ideal.” Going on to describe the moment that Vincent was hit, Norton explained,

The line was held, but at what a cost! Throwing himself into the breach, he [Vincent] rallied his men but gave up his own life. Comrades and friends, that was not a bauble thrown away. In the very flower of his young manhood, full of the highest promise, with the love of a young wife filling his thought of the future with the fairest visions, proud, gentle, tender, true, he laid his gift on his country’s altar. It was done nobly, gladly. No knight of the days of chivalry was ever more knightly.

Undoubtedly, in 1863, Strong Vincent’s style of command left a lasting impression on young Norton, so much, in fact, that Norton’s son bore the legacy of that admiration.

On August 26, 1932, fifty-three-year-old Strong Vincent Norton happily signed a copy of this father’s book to a seventy-one-year-old Norfolk lumber dealer. In 2015, that book found its way to my office.

This is Clifford I. Millard, the former owner of the edition of Army Letters signed by Strong Vincent Norton.

This image depicts the 83rd Pennsylvania monument on Little Round Top shortly after its dedication. The figure on top is meant to be Strong Vincent.

This is "What Are Your Orders?," a limited-edition print by Gettysburg-based artist Dale Gallon. It depicts the moment at the Battle of Gettysburg when Colonel Strong Vincent led the 3rd Brigade to the summit of Little Round Top. Vincent can be seen atop his horse, Old Jim, in the center of the image. The man holding the flag at middle-distance is meant to be Norton.


Friday, November 6, 2015

“The Loss of My Comrades Maddened Me”: The Letters of Oliver Willcox Norton, Part 1

Many years ago, when I worked for the National Park Service, I performed a program called “Life of the Civil War Soldier.” Although I regularly changed my program over the years, I often utilized a quote from Private Oliver Willcox Norton, Company K, 83rd Pennsylvania. Here’s how it went:

My two tent mates were wounded, and after that . . . I acted like a madman. . . . I was stronger than I had been before in a month and a kind of desperation seized me. . . . . I snatched a gun from the hands of a man who was shot through the head, as he staggered and fell. At other times I would have been horror-struck and could not have moved, but then I jumped over dead men with as little feeling as I would over a log. The feeling that was uppermost in my mind was a desire to kill as many rebels as I could. The loss of comrades maddened me.

I read that quote to visitors more times than I can count; in fact, I believe I can still recite it from memory. The quote referred to Norton’s experience at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, June 27, 1862. When I trotted it out during my NPS program, I used it as a way of demonstrating the comradeship that motivated men in battle. After reciting it, I moved on, discussing another aspect of Civil War soldiery. Rarely did I consider the context of the quote, the man who wrote it, or the tent-mates he mentioned.

Since that time, I’ve been more interested in those questions. Recently, it occurred to me to revisit the letter. I had just re-read Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, a book about PTSD in U.S. veterans. Shay dedicated a chapter to what he called the “berserk state,” a rage-filled episode whereby a soldier attempts to rout the enemy single-handedly, with “social disconnection . . . [from] his memorable deeds.” (In the book, Shay emphasized berserking as a common element in both ancient warfare and in the Vietnam War, but he argued that a berserk state could arise at any time and in any conflict.) It occurred to me that Norton’s battle-rage was a classic case of “revenge as reviving the dead,” the belief that spilling the enemy’s blood will, in some way, bring back the dead or save the wounded from further harm. In short, Norton had achieved the beserk state. More to the point, so Shay reminded me, the berserk state was dangerous to all who achieved it. Shay wrote: “I conclude that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to lifelong psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.”

Those lines really opened my eyes. Oliver Norton’s seemingly simplistic letter of what he did at Gaines’s Mill was, in fact, admission of psychological damage sustained in the midst of combat. The loss of his two friends and thrown him into a berserker rage, one from which he likely never recovered.

So today, I want to talk a little bit more about what happened during this particular incident. My task is pretty simple. Norton’s letters paint a clear picture of the scene. All I need to do is provide the proper context. The Battle of Gaines’s Mill occurred at dusk. Major General James Longstreet’s Confederate division attacked the left end of the Union line, comprised of Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield’s brigade, which sat perched atop a low ridge overlooking a sluggish stream called Boatswain’s Creek. Eventually, Brig. Gen. Chase Whiting’s division joined in the assault, overrunning Butterfield’s infantrymen. The 83rd Pennsylvania occupied the center of Butterfield’s line, and during the three-hour battle, it lost 46 killed, 51 wounded, and 99 missing.

Norton’s letters can take it from here.

First, I should point out that the quote I used in my NPS program was actually pieces from two of his letters profitably melded together. One letter was written to Norton’s sister, Libby, dated July 26. Here is what he  wrote:

You ask me how I felt when the battle commenced, if I feared I should fall, etc. That is a very hard question to answer. In the fight at Gaines’ Mill I had lain in the woods almost all day waiting for them before I saw a rebel. They had been shelling us all the time, and occasionally a shell would burst within a few feet of me and startle me a little, but we had so strong a position and felt so certain of driving the rebels off that I was anxious to have them come on. The last words I heard Colonel McLane say were, ‘You’ll see enough of them before night, boys.’ His words proved too true. We had but little to do with repulsing them, for they did not come within range of our guns either time, but we could hear the firing, and, when the cheers of our men announced their victory, a feeling of exultation ran through our minds. ‘Come on,’ we thought, ‘we’ll show you how freemen fight,’ but when they attacked us so unexpectedly in the rear, my feelings changed. Surprise at first and a wonder how they could get there, and then, when the truth flashed through my mind that they had broken through our lines, a feeling of shame and indignation against the men who would retreat before the enemy. Then, when the colonel was killed and Henry and Denny wounded, I felt some excited. I was stronger than I had been before in a month and a kind of desperation seized me. Scenes that would have unnerved me at other times had no effect. I snatched a gun from the hands of a man who was shot through the head, as he staggered and fell. At other times I would have been horror-struck and could not have moved, but then I jumped over dead men with as little feeling as I would over a log. The feeling that was uppermost in my mind was a desire to kill as many rebels as I could. The loss of comrades maddened me, the balls flew past me hissing in the air, they knocked my guns to splinters, but the closer they came they seemed to make me more insensible to fear. I had no time to think of anything but my duty to do all I could to drive back the enemy, and it was not duty that kept me there either, but a feeling that I had a chance then to help put down secession and a determination to do my best. My heart was in the fight, and I couldn’t be anywhere else. I told you it was hard to describe one’s feeling in a battle, and it is. No one can ever know exactly till he has been through it.

The other letter was written to Norton’s cousin, dated July 5.

Our colonel fell dead at the first fire and the major immediately after. Our senior captain was shot and we were almost without officers. My two tent mates were wounded, and after that, they tell me, I acted like a madman. God only knows why or how I came out alive. I had three guns shot to pieces in my hands, a rammer shot in two, and I was struck in three places by balls. One that cut my gun in two lodged in my left shoulder, one went through my canteen and struck my left leg, and one just grazed my left eyebrow. The deepest was not over half an inch and is almost well now.

Norton wrote a third letter that described his feelings during the battle. This one was written to his family, dated July 4.

The Eighty-third was posted in a deep gully, wooded, and with the stream I mentioned running in front of us. We built a little breastwork of logs and had a good position. On the hill behind us the Forty-fourth and Twelfth New York and the Sixteenth Michigan were posted. When the rebels made the first attack, we could not fire a shot, the hill concealing them from us, and so we lay still while the bullets of two opposing lines whistled over our heads. They were repulsed, but only to pour in new troops with greater vigor than before. Suddenly I saw two men on the bank in front of us gesticulating violently and pointing to our rear, but the roar of battle drowned their voices. The order was given to face about. We did so and tried to form in line, but while the line was forming, a bullet laid low the head, the stay, the trust of our regiment—our brave colonel, and before we knew what had happened the major shared his fate. We were then without a field officer, but the boys bore up bravely. They rallied round the flag and we advanced up the hill to find ourselves alone. It appears that the enemy broke through our lines off on our right, and word was sent to us on the left to fall back. Those in the rear of us received the order but the aide sent to us was shot before he reached us and so we got no orders. Henry and Denison were shot about the same time as the colonel. I left them together under a tree. I returned to the fight, and our boys were dropping on all sides of me. I was blazing away at the rascals not ten rods off when a ball struck my gun just above the lower band as I was capping it, and cut it in two. The ball flew in pieces and part went by my head to the right and three pieces struck just below my left collar bone. The deepest one was not over half an inch, and stopping to open my coat I pulled them out and snatched a gun from [Private Fiscal M.] Ames in Company H as he fell dead. Before I had fired this at all a ball clipped off a piece of the stock, and an instant after, another struck the seam of my canteen and entered my left groin. I pulled it out, and, more maddened than ever, I rushed in again. A few minutes after, another ball took six inches off the muzzle of this gun. I snatched another from a wounded man under a tree, and, as I was loading kneeling by the side of the road, a ball cut my rammer in two as I was turning it over my head. Another gun was easier got than a rammer so I threw that away and picked up a fourth one. Here in the road a buckshot struck me in the left eyebrow, making the third slight scratch I received in the action. It exceeded all I ever dreamed of, it was almost a miracle.

Several common threads run through all three of Norton’s letters, not the least of which involved his mentioning of the wounding of his two friends, Henry and Denny, left behind under a tree when the 83rd Pennsylvania withdrew. Subsequent letters revealed Norton’s agony over not knowing their fate. On July 7, he wrote his sister, Libby, “I am very lonely now. My two most intimate friends, Henry and Denison, were both wounded on the bloody field of Gaines’ Mill on the 27th of June, and left on the field to the tender mercies of the rebels. Henry, I fear, I never shall see again. He was badly wounded, and everyone in the company except myself thinks he is dead, and I am hoping against hope. Denny was shot through the left hand, and I left them under a tree together.”

Later on, in September, Norton learned that Denny had been released from Confederate custody and discharged on account of his wound. “Dennison T. has got home discharged,” Norton wrote. “I wish I could have seen his mother’s greeting. I warrant you it was a joyful meeting. But Mrs. B. [Henry’s mother] writes her sorrow. She cannot forget that though he went from home with a companion, he returned alone. Henry, I am afraid, will never return to receive such a greeting. They have never heard a word from him since the news of his arrival in Richmond severely wounded. I think he must be dead. Still they have no direct intelligence of his death, nothing but dreadful uncertainty.”

Finally, in January 1863, word reached Norton that Henry had died in Richmond, and his friend’s watch was sent to him. When Norton tried to mail Henry’s watch back to Erie, it got lost in the mail. The loss of the watch, the last memento of his friend, broke his heart. Writing to his sister, Norton lamented, “I think some of my letters must have been lost. Did you never get the one that told of Henry’s watch being lost? I felt so bad about that. I would have bought a dozen rather than lost that. I kept it till we got to Antietam, waiting for a chance to send it by express, but finally after getting Mary’s permission, sent it by mail, and it was never heard from. I took all the precautions I could to make it safe, did it up in a little box like an ambrotype, but the last I heard it had not arrived, and if it had, they would have told me.”

Ever since my National Park Service days, I’ve always wondered about those two friends, Henry and Denny. Their wounding caused Norton to become a madman in battle. When I embarked upon this post, I thought I might want to focus exclusively upon Norton’s berserker rage. However, as I put the story together, I believed that part of what I should say should be about them. I ran into a problem: I had no idea who Henry and Denny were. Although Norton’s letters have been available to Civil War historians since their publication in 1903, no one had ever thought to identify these two men. Would you believe it? Indeed, I was even surprised to see that, last year, a Virginia-based opera company performed an show about Norton’s letters, entitled: “Norton: A Civil War Opera.” Henry and Denny were both characters in it, but the opera didn’t provide them last names.

Well, I’ve decided it’s high time to identify these two men. Who are Henry and Denny, you ask? Luckily, Norton gave me some clues. Both men were wounded at Gaines’s Mill. Henry’s last name began with “B.” Denny’s last name began with “T.” A quick survey of the roster of Company K, 83rd Pennsylvania, gave me the answers I needed.

“Henry” was Henry J. Bushnell, age 22. He enlisted on August 28, 1861, in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He died of wounds at Richmond, date unknown. “Denny” was Ebenezer Denison Tyler, age 24, enlisted August 28, 1861, also at Springfield. He was on discharged on September 1, 1862.

Beyond that, I know little else. I wish I had more information. Obviously, they must have been wonderful friends. Their wounding induced a berserker rage in Norton. Only great fondness can produce such terrible wrath.

Private Oliver Willcox Norton (1839-1920) served with the 83rd Pennsylvania. He is pictured here in late 1863 as lieutenant, 8th U.S.C.T.
This Alfred Waud sketch depicts the 5th Corps line at Gaines's Mill.

This is an image of me performing "Life of the Civil War Soldier," an interpretive program at Gettysburg NMP, circa 2004. I regularly quoted Oliver Norton. Perhaps I am doing it here.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Sin of Pride

This post is about fathers and sons. It involves one of the most interesting father-and-son teams in the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General John White Geary and his son, Lieutenant Edward Ratchford Geary. The elder Geary commanded a division (2nd Division, 12th Corps) in the Army of the Potomac and the younger Geary officered a battery (Battery E, Independent Pennsylvania Light) attached to that division. The Gearys served side by side for two years, until a battle in Tennessee claimed Edward Geary’s life. Interestingly, when the dust settled, General Geary blamed his son’s death on his foolish, fatherly pride. It was not an inaccurate explanation.

Brigadier General Geary was an ambitious man, and he wanted his son to be ambitious too. When the Civil War began, John Geary journeyed to Washington to seek a personal audience with President Lincoln, requesting a colonelcy for himself, which he subsequently received. Edward Geary enlisted in his father’s regiment shortly thereafter, becoming a musician in the band. However, Colonel Geary did not want his son to play an instrument. Using his political influence, John Geary asked the War Department if he could raise a battery of artillery and attach it to his regiment. When Colonel Geary got his wish, he told his son that he must apply for a lieutenancy in that battery and he must do so by going to Washington to stand before the Board of Artillery Examiners. Not wanting to let down his father, Edward Geary accomplished this, and he became a second lieutenant (at age sixteen, believe it or not), returning to the regimental bivouac in December 1861 with his commission in hand. The news caused Colonel Geary to explode with fatherly joy. He called out his regiment, the 28th Pennsylvania, for dress parade, and made his soldiers watch as his senior staff presented a sword to his newly-commissioned son. After that, Colonel Geary made his son address the men and deliver a speech. “Fellow soldiers,” said Colonel Geary, “I do not intend to make a speech for my son, for the Gearys are well expected to speak for themselves!” It is not known what Lieutenant Geary thought about all this, or if he was even ready for that speech. In any event, he did as his father asked, and his feelings on the subject remain unknown.

Evidence suggests, however, that Edward Geary did not possess the ambitious personality of his father, and instead, he appeared to have rendered his career decisions solely to satisfy his father’s vanity. Indeed, whenever Edward Geary demurred from seeking promotion, John Geary lashed out at him with a frightening temper. In October 1862, Lieutenant Geary acquiesced to another officer who advanced himself to an open first lieutenancy in the battery, refusing to ask for that position himself. Furious that his son had traded motivation for modesty, General Geary (who had been promoted in April) ordered his son into his tent, and in wrathful language, accused him of lacking drive. Although he later apologized for his foul temper, General Geary never changed his opinion about what his son ought to do. General Geary wanted his eldest child to advance quickly, never taking a backseat to others. When Edward Geary finally submitted to his father’s wishes and received his commission as first lieutenant, General Geary gushed with pride. Writing to his wife, Mary, on July 17, 1863, John Geary explained, “Edward received his commission and is now mustered as First Lieutenant of the Battery. I think he is tolerably proud of his promotion, and justly so too.”

It did not end there. A few months later, in October, after Geary’s division had been transferred to Tennessee, General Geary was still obsessed with getting his son another promotion. Now, General Geary had found a vacant captaincy in Battery F, Independent Pennsylvania Light Artillery, a unit still assigned to the main body of Army of the Potomac back in Virginia. Hopeful that he could employ his political connections with Governor Andrew Curtin to secure that captaincy for Edward, General Geary wrote to his wife, telling her that he would gladly accept his son’s transfer to see him rise in rank: “In that event he will be re-transferred to the Army of the Potomac, and although I dislike the idea of separation from him, still I will not let anything stand in the way of his promotion.”

Geary’s pride in his son’s promotion did not last long. Three days after he wrote to Mary, his division engaged in the confusing night action at Wauhatchie, Tennessee. During the battle, Eddie Geary was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. In the aftermath, General Geary explained Edward’s death only in the most self-absorbed way, as God’s personal chastisement. General Geary believed that God had punished him for committing the sin of pride. On November 2, he wrote this to his wife:

Poor dear boy, he is gone, cut down in the bud of his usefulness, but I trust in this chastisement, I may learn to love my dear Savior Jesus Christ, with unalloyed devotion, and that through our noble, sainted son’s example, I feel his chastisement for the pride I took in him, his rapid development, and general character and ability.

Four days later, General Geary’s guilt had only increased. Writing to Mary, he explained:

An impenetrable gloom hangs over my mind in consequence of the death of my beloved Eddie. His rapid development in every particular, his high attainments and manly deportment, had filled to the brim the cup of paternal pride, and perhaps he was my idol; I feel now that I almost worshipped him, and dwelt more upon the creature than upon the Creator.

In short, Geary blamed himself for his son’s death. He possessed blinding pride in his son’s talent, and thus, he accepted Eddie’s death with a sense of propriety derived by acknowledging it as God’s ruling, for, as Geary wrote, “He who rules the universe knows what is best for us all.”

At the risk of revealing my personal opinion about religion, let me say this: I don’t believe that God killed Edward Geary. The rebels killed him with a bullet to the forehead.

But of course, that’s not the point.

What is the point, you ask? General Geary was partially correct. Paternal pride had, indeed, killed Edward. General Geary cared about one thing above all else: securing his son’s advancement within the chain-of-command. As General Geary later admitted, he worshipped Eddie Geary’s accomplishments. Geary loved the idea of his son, rather than his son himself. Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that Edward Geary, in his heart of hearts, wanted all the promotions that his father heaped upon him. Perhaps Edward Geary possessed no sincere ambition at all. Instead, a primordial desire to satisfy his father’s ravenous vanity actuated him. That desire put Lieutenant Edward Geary into the danger zone at Wauhatchie. Like some seventy-eight other Union soldiers, Lieutenant Geary gave his last full measure of devotion there, but I suspect his motivations were not much like the others who died around him.

Nevertheless, General Geary got it right in the end. He realized, too late, he had committed the sin of paternal pride.


This is Brig. Gen. John White Geary, statesman and Union general. For the purposes of this post, he was a father obsessed with seeing his son promoted.

Here is 2nd Lt. Edward Ratchford Geary, as a member of Battery E, Pennsylvania Independent Light Artillery. Did he wish to be like his father? One wonders.
There are not many images connected with the Battle of Wauhatchie. But there is this one. You can see Atwell's Battery (to which Lt. Geary belonged) firing from a knoll in middle distance at the far right.