Friday, February 13, 2015

"No One Can Die Too Young."

On May 10, 1864, Brigadier General James Clay Rice’s brigade (2nd Brigade, 4th Division, 5th Corps) made a probing attack against Confederate earthworks along the Po River. After failing to find a weak point, Rice and his men fell back to their own entrenchments. Shortly after noon, another brigade came to the relief of Rice’s men, but it arrived too far to the left. Thinking that he might be able to call the errant brigade over to the correct position by shouting at it loudly, Rice mounted the earthworks in front of his command. In a minute, he fell back down, struck in the left thigh by a Confederate musket ball. The projectile had nicked the general’s femoral artery and he bled copiously. It took an exceedingly long time for nearby soldiers to apply a tourniquet, but eventually, they stopped the general’s blood loss. Eventually, four men carried him to the rear on a blanket and to a field hospital. Immediately, surgeons performed an amputation, but they worried that Rice had lost too much blood for it to do any good.

Rice’s aide, Lieutenant Archibald McClure Bush, held the general’s hand throughout the surgery, and soon after, he was joined by none other than Major General George G. Meade, who dismounted and came to Rice’s side. According to an account, Rice told General Meade, “I am badly hurt, General, they do all they can for me. I had tried to do my duty but am ready to die for my country.” Meade stayed awhile, giving Rice some hearty encouragement, but soon, he had to move on. Lieutenant Bush stayed with Rice until the end. At one point, Rice stated emphatically: “No one can die too young if, loving Christ, he dies for his country.”

Next, Rice transmitted a goodbye message, one that he wanted Bush to deliver to his wife, Josephine, and finally he asked that Bush roll him over. When Bush asked why, Rice replied, “Turn me toward the enemy, I wish to die with my face to the foe.” Rice said only one more thing, “Pray for me, lieutenant.” Then, he expired.

Rice’s lifeless corpse experienced a lengthy post-mortem tour. After medical personnel boxed it up for transit to Belle Plain, it traveled by ship, first to New York City, under military escort, where it lay at Madison Square Presbyterian Church, and next to his hometown of Albany for a second procession, until finally, mourners committed it to the earth at Albany Rural Cemetery. New York’s governor, Horatio Seymour, even declared May 16 a day of mourning in honor of Rice, requiring all the flags on the capitol grounds to be carried at half-mast.

One particular thing interests me about Rice’s final words. One of his last lines to Lieutenant Bush emphasized: “No one can die too young if, loving Christ, he dies for his country.” This was not the first time Rice had said these lines. In fact, ten days before dying, Rice wrote to his mother, articulating the same sentiment. While his brigade was at Brandy station, Rice penned these words:

We are about to commence the campaign, the greatest in magnitude, strength and importance since the beginning of the war. God grant that victory may crown our arms; that this wicked rebellion may be crushed, our Union preserved, and peace and prosperity again be restored to our beloved country. My faith and hope and confidence are in God alone, and I know that you feel the same. I trust that God may again graciously spare my life, as He has in the past, and yet one cannot fall too early if, loving Christ, he dies for his country.

In modern times, we consider dying too young a tragedy. Probably, a great many people in 1864 thought the same way. Yet, soldiers had to accept the sad fact that men died young all the time. Clearly, that thought weighed heavily on the mind of General Rice as he lived out his final days. Yet, he made peace with the fact that he might die young. His letter to his mother indicated this, and he repeated the same phrase to his aide, Lieutenant Bush.

In pondering Rice’s fascination with the idea of dying young, I conclude that he had only recently come to terms with it. However, the seeds of his acceptance had been planted about two years earlier. It had happened when he watched a young New York Zouave bleed out on the floor of a Washington, D.C. hospital. As Rice marched his brigade into the bloody Overland Campaign of 1864, I’ll bet the memory of the final hours of Sergeant William Hogeboom was not far from his mind.
1st Lt. Archibald McClure Bush, 95th New York Volunteers, stood at General Rice's side as he expired.
Brig. Gen. James Clay Rice, shown as commander of the 2nd Brig., 4th Div., 5th Army Corps.


  1. Tim, very nice work on this and your other pets on the Army of the Potomac. You have a great eye for interesting material. I did my senior undergrad paper on Company E of the 44th NY (WAY back when), and got to know Rice well, and continue to accumulate material on him. He was bright, personable, ambitious, tolerably modest, determined, and--as you point out--humane. We just put the uniform he was wearing when he fell at Spotsylvania CH on display at at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center--a powerful artifact.

    Thanks for all your work here and elsewhere. It's excellent.

    John Hennessy

  2. Thanks, John! Next time I'm at Chancellorsville, my wife and I will make it our business to see Rice's uniform. It sounds like a must-see item!