Sunday, February 8, 2015

Marched to Death

On June 17, 1863, the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps trudged along a dusty road that connected Centreville to a small village called Gum Springs (modern-day Arcola).  It was a tough march, one that lasted twelve hours. That day, the 5th Corps started out in Manassas Junction. Thus, it covered seventeen miles. Balmy weather slowed the pace of the march and the soldiers suffered intensely under the penetrating rays of the sun. One of the participants, Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, wrote, “We suffered dreadfully on the march to this place for water and the intense heat. We have lost a dozen men or more in the brigade from sun stroke, and yesterday Lt. Col. Gleason of the 25th New York was overcome and died from the sun’s effect, and as soon as we halted, was buried in a little church yard hard by.”

Donaldson’s account is typical. Without fail, the 5th Corps soldiers who wrote about the June 17 hike mentioned the corps’ most famous sunstroke casualty, Lieutenant Colonel Shepard Gleason, age twenty-five. No doubt, it was shocking for them to learn that a regimental commander might die from heat exhaustion. Unlike the enlisted men, Gleason rode his horse and did not have to burden himself with a rifle or tenting equipment. Yet, even that did not save him from death—testament to the intensity of the heat endured on that awful day.

Even more amazing is the fact that Gleason was only nine days short of mustering out. The 25th New York was a two-year regiment. It had left New York City in the summer of 1861 under the promise that it would muster out on June 26, 1863. Recently, the regiment had been lightly engaged at Chancellorsville, but that proved to be its last battle. Probably, the New Yorkers expected to wait out the remainder of their service while in bivouac, but Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia during the second week of June roused the defeated bluecoats from their encampments along the Rappahannock River. The entire army—all 90,000 of them—went ahead with a series of exhausting marches during one of the hottest weeks of the year. That urgency—the need to move quickly after the fall of the Union garrison at Winchester—killed Gleason, and it did so as his enlistment was about to expire.

What baffles me most is the fact that no one made any effort to transport Gleason’s remains back to his home in Rochester. Logic dictated that the regiment could have easily boxed up his corpse and shipped it north. Members of the regiment knew that the army did not intend for the 25th New York to participate in the remainder of the grueling campaign, chasing the Confederates into Pennsylvania. In fact, the order detaching the 25th New York arrived on June 20, three days after Gleason perished. At first, the officers in his brigade considered packaging Gleason’s body, but then decided against it. Writing to the New York Herald, one soldier explained: “In my last letter I mentioned the death of Lieut. Col. Gleason from sunstroke. It had then been arranged to send his remains home; but subsequently it was decided to bury him in this place, and his remains now lie in the graveyard of the old church here.”

The day after the corps arrived at Gum Springs, Maj. Gen. George Sykes issued orders to halt and not resume the march until June 19, when the weather cooled. Amid a terrible rainstorm, the soldiers of the 25th New York formed up to say goodbye to their fallen commander. So continued the soldier who wrote to the Herald, “His burial was an impressive scene: for no more gallant, efficient and popular officer was ever in this corps. Although raining violently, there was a large attendance of officers, besides the entire regiment, attended by the Second United States infantry band. . . . The deceased,  . . . by his talents, which were of a high and brilliant order, and his gallantry, shown in every action, rose to the position he held at the time of his decease. Excepting at Shepherdstown, he took part in every battle in which this army has participated. His name and services, high accomplishments and courtesy will ever remain green in the memory of his old comrades in arms.”

Eulogistic words from the nineteenth-century often brushed over the complexity of a person’s personality, but it is safe to say that Gleason was a popular officer. Few others could boast so meteoric a rise. Back in 1861, Gleason enlisted as a private in the 13th New York Infantry. In October, he transferred to the 25th New York, mustering in as a second lieutenant in Company K. His promotion to lieutenant colonel came on May 9, a few days after his regiment returned from the Chancellorsville battlefield. Thus, he rose from private to lieutenant colonel in less than two years. On June 26, an alumnus from Rochester Collegiate Institute, Robert Wilson, wrote to his favorite professor, informing him of Gleason’s death:

My dear professor:

You will, of course, remember Mr. Gleason who was a member of your class in 1856, when we were reading Cicero. Yesterday’s paper has the announcement of his death from exhaustion or from sun stroke during the late march of his regiment, the 25th N. Y. V. His death was sudden and quite unexpected by his fellow soldiers. He was found dead on the morning of last Thursday. I saw the Colonel under whom he served (Johnson) and he seemed much affected by the death of one for whom his fellow officers and men entertained so much respect and esteem. I have spoken to several of the officers and men of his regiment, and they all, without exception, speak in terms of unbounded praise, not only of the brilliancy and efficiency as an officer, but speak of him also as a true man and courteous gentleman. One of them said to me to-day, that had Mr. Gleason lived, he must certainly have risen to a position of eminence; for in him were displayed those rare qualities of mind, temper and manner, which go to make up the chivalrous soldier and the able officer.

When I learned two years ago that he had enlisted as a private in the old 13th Regiment of Rochester, I could not but feel sad, while I volunteered the prediction that he would not be long in the ranks. I was not disappointed. His talents raised him through all the grades of Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, till, at his death he held the responsible and honorable position of Lieut. Colonel. I am told also that only his modesty forbid him from going another step higher, having refused the position of Colonel but a few weeks since.

I like to remember and keep track of the old members of the Collegiate, and I always consider it a treat when I see one. Among them all there is not one for whom my respect and affection is more profoundly sincere than for Shepherd Gleason [sic]. During our acquaintance in Rochester as fellow students I loved to admire the many noble qualities of his nature, and have always felt proud in being a sharer in his courteous and generous friendship. I feel that in his decease the United States army has lost one of its best officers and the community one of its best citizens.

Sed ne longum sit [Latin for, “Indeed, let me speak briefly.”]: You will pardon me if I have taken too much of your attention with this scribble, for I could not withhold my tribute of respect to the memory of one for whom my affection is equaled only by the exalted opinion I have ever held for his manly excellence and various genius.

Currently, a small gravestone sits in Riga Cemetery, Monroe County, New York, honoring Gleason’s death. If his earthly remains are buried there, then, at some point, friends from Rochester journeyed to Gum Springs to claim them.

The whole story leaves behind some unanswered questions. First, why did the officers of the 5th Corps choose to leave Gleason’s body, leaving it buried in the graveyard of an old Virginia church? Second, which church was it? (None of the accounts say.) Third, how did Gleason’s family manage to recover the remains? I do wonder about the answers.

Regardless, I grimace whenever I contemplate the grueling seventeen-mile march of June 17, 1863, a trek that killed seventeen men in the 5th Corps. One of them, Gleason, had only to survive nine more days in order to go home. Rather than accept the fact that his regiment would be of no practical use in the upcoming campaign, the army chose to march him to death.

Lt. Col. Shepard Gleason


  1. Wonderful tribute?

    Were you able to obtain a picture of Col. Gleason;'s burial site?

  2. I live very near the village of Arcola (wartime Gum Spring) and drove by it today. The church yard where Gleason was buried is almost certainly the Arcola Methodist Church, which was built in 1853 -- the only church in the tiny village at the time. The chapel has had some additions over the years, but one can still make out the original wartime structure that is so typical of Virginia churches built in the 1850s -- either of brick or clapboard. There is no graveyard associated with the church today so I am assuming his men buried him somewhere near the structure. The wartime Gum Springs Road still traverses through the little village--the same road that the Army of the Potomac took on its march toward Edwards Ferry in late June 1863--although the current path north of Arcola is not the original route.

    Much is changing in tiny Arcola. New McMansions are built every month it seems--including dozens of new houses lining the road into the village--and a new massive shopping center is being built a mile down the road, built by the infamous Til Hazel. Some may remember Hazel from the Manassas mall controversy of the late 1980s.

  3. Todd, John Hennessey sent me an image of the church. Thanks for going out there to take a picture of it! . . . I am familiar with Til Hazel's name and reputation. You need not say anything more to conjure up an image of what is happening to Arcola.