Sunday, February 22, 2015

“So Quietly Laid on the Shelf.”

This tale is about some quarrelsome New York officers. It begins at Gettysburg.

On July 1, 1863, as the 147th New York Volunteers battled near Gettysburg’s Railroad Cut, a bullet struck its commander, Lt. Col. Francis Miller, hitting him on the top of the head. Miller’s horse bolted, carrying the injured rider to the rear. Subsequently, command of the 147th fell to Maj. George Harney, who did not immediately know that Miller’s wound had now made him the senior officer. As it happened, at that moment, Harney had to carry out a crucial order. His brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler, ordered the regiment to fall back to a new defensive position. With Lt. Col. Miller nowhere in sight, Harney delivered the orders, pulling the 147th New York out of its exposed position. Yet, because of the crucial delay caused by Miller’s wounding, the regiment incurred a high casualty rate. It had lost 296 men out of 380, a whopping 77% of those engaged.

Yet, even after July 1, the regiment’s turmoil did not end. The Battle of Gettysburg produced a lengthy dispute among the officer corps, a dispute arising from whispers, doubts about Lt. Col. Miller’s ability to command. To complicate matters, this rift stemmed from partisan politics. When the regiment had organized for service in the summer of 1862, New York State’s Republican governor, Edwin D. Morgan, had appointed all the officers to the regiment. Miller and a majority of the line officers had received their commissions based on political favoritism. Now, it was 1863 and New York possessed a Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour. A small faction of Democratic officers—which included Major Harney—wanted to use this opportunity to advance themselves in rank. As governor, Seymour was responsible for signing all new commissions sent to officers assigned to New York regiments. If the Democratic officers in the 147th could cast doubt upon Miller’s abilities—and his sudden disappearance during the Battle of Gettysburg provided the necessary suspicion—they might find a way to supplant him. The stage was set for a showdown, one that would determine who commanded the 147th in the next campaign.

Here’s what happened:

After Gettysburg, Miller received a furlough to recover from his wound. He received temporary duty, operating as commandant of a conscript rendezvous in Elmira. With Miller absent, Major Harney began the process of applying for the colonelcy (which was then vacant). He canvassed the regiment, asking his fellow Democrats for an endorsement. Next, he asked his division commander, Brig. General Cutler, for an endorsement. It would have been unusual for Cutler to recommend Harney over Miller—since Miller was the duly-appointed senior officer of the regiment—but Harney staged some theatrics, arranging a scene whereby the regimental adjutant, Dudley Farling, presented a sword to him on behalf of the regiment.  Indeed, the sword presentation served as a vehicle to run down Miller’s reputation, as one officer stated, “by [use of] . . . little words—‘when our leaders were all absent but yourself.’—About the same time, it began to be whispered about Oswego that Lieut. Col. Miller had improperly left the field at Gettysburgh.”  The sword presentation had its desired effect. To Cutler, it appeared as if the entire regiment preferred Harney to Miller.

Quite possibly, Harney might have succeeded in his quest for the colonelcy, but he overplayed his hand. He guessed that his promotion might cause some of the Republican officers to gripe. Thus, in October, Harney went to his new brigade commander, Brig. General James C. Rice, asking him if his adjutant could discharge ten officers at will. Of course, Harney did not say that he wished to cull the regiment of its most vocal Republicans. Instead, he asked if he might apply General Orders 100, which stated that any regimental officer could discharge a company-grade officer under his command if that officer had been absent for more than sixty days. Rice—who was also a Democrat and perhaps privy to the scheme—agreed to the request, and thus, on November 5, 1863, ten officers found themselves discharged: Capt. Patrick Slattery, Capt. Edward D. Parker, Capt. George Hugunin, Capt. Delos Gary, Capt. Nathaniel A. Wright, Capt. Patrick Regan, Asst. Surgeon Simon G. Place, 2nd Lt. John F. Box, 1st Lt. William R. Potts, and 1st Lt. Charles Robe. Most of these men were on furlough, recovering from wounds received at Gettysburg.

News of the mass dismissal stirred up anger from Republican newspapers in the 147th New York’s hometown, Oswego. So fumed a writer for the Commercial Herald:

We learn with astonishment that some ten of the very best officers of the 147th regiment have been dismissed from the service. . . . It is said that the dismissal has been accomplished by the intrigue of Adjutant Farling with a certain Brigadier General [Rice], and has for its object the control of the politics of the regiment, and also the appointment of Major Harney to the position of Colonel, over the head of Lieut.-Colonel Miller. The officers removed were supposed to be friendly to Col. Miller, whom Oswegonians know is one of the best and bravest officers in the regiment. It is presumed that with these officers removed, there will be plain sailing in jumping Major Harney over the head of Col. Miller. This act of gross injustice can and must be remedied. Proper representations must be made to the War Department to induce it to reverse its action founded upon perverted statements of the intriguers. The citizens of Oswego should not stand calmly by and see their best officers treated in this manner.

The outrage from the newspapers prompted a response from Adjutant Farling, who, it seems, had been complicit in the scheme. He replied to one of the newspapers, calling the accusation of his impropriety utterly groundless. “The statement you make and publish in your paper,” he declared, “is outrageously false and slanderous, in almost every particular.” He explained that the dismissal of the ten officers had been for their own benefit. He explained that General Order 100, “makes it the duty of the commanding officer of the Regiment, in case of the absence of an officer, sick or wounded, over sixty days, to ‘report’ him to the War Department for ‘discharge,’ in order that his place may be filled by others able to do ‘duty in the field’.” In short, Farling explained, Harney had to discharge his wounded officers, or else report them absent—which would subject them to punishment. Farling continued, “Major Harney declined to ‘report’ any of them, until he was peremptorily ordered so to do by the commanding General of the Brigade. Of course he obeyed orders. . . . Major Harney informed others, among them Capt. Slattery, who, in return, thanked Major Harney for thus informing him, by letter.”

In defending the decision to raise Major Harney to colonel, Farling stated somewhat defensively:

I will add one word more. You seem to intimate that it is akin to criminality for an officer to ask promotion, even after it is well earned. It is not so regarded in the Army. I believe Major Harney has asked from the Governor of New York, the appointment of Colonel of this Regiment. I do not know but Lieut. Col. Miller has done the same. Both have a right to ask for promotion. Gen. Cutler of this Division, and General Rice of this Brigade, both say, in their endorsement of Major Harney’s petition, that he has well and nobly earned promotion to the Colonelcy—that if ‘any officer in this Army has earned promotion Major Harney has done so.’

The Republican officers in the 147th New York called Farling’s explanation utter hogwash. Captain Delos Gary was one of the officers who lost his position. He rejoined the regiment on October 22, only to meet Adjutant Farling, who informed him that he need not have returned at all, as the paperwork had already been submitted to dismiss him. Captain Gary announced: “These [ten] . . . officers  . . .  were somewhat surprised to find themselves pronounced physically disabled by wounds received four months before. . . . I never knew a case, until this, where a wounded officer who had fair prospects of recovery within six months, was discharged within that time. . . . None of the ten discharged officers whom I have seen, not even the four who were present with the Regiment, were informed of the fact that a recommendation for their discharge had been sent in. Had the four officers present with the Regiment been informed of this fact, they could easily have prevented being discharged. But this knowledge was not for them.”

Gary believed that intrigue lay at the heart of the matter. For one thing, none of the other regiments in the brigade had discharged their wounded officers as the 147th New York had done. Gary asked, “But why was this order made for the 147th and not for the 95th N. Y., and the 56th Penn., or either of the other Regiments in Gen. Rice’s Brigade, all of which were similarly situated? Was there any intrigue here? Did any field or staff officer of the 147th say to Gen. Rice, ‘I think these absent officers had better be discharged,’ and was the order made on this suggestion?” When it came down to it, Gary believed that Harney and Farling were the source of the scheme. Gary never overtly accused them of fomenting a scheme based on politics, but he came close to it:

I have stated before that Major Harney was to be an applicant for the position of Colonel, subsequently it appeared that Adjutant Farling was to be an applicant for the Majority, to be made vacant by Maj. Harney’s promotion. Major Harney supported Adjutant Farling’s claims for the Majority, and Adjutant Farling supported Major Harney’s claims for the Colonelcy. It was also understood that Capt. Wright and myself would be applicants for the Majority, in case of a vacancy. Of the ten officers discharged, all, with perhaps one exception were in favor of Lieut. Col. Miller, for Colonel of the Regiment. These officers being discharged their wishes as to who should be Colonel were entitled to no more weight than those of any other private citizen, and Col. Miller’s strength was thereby to that extent weakened, and Major Harney was proportionately strengthened. . . . How fortunate, then, was it for the promotion of the plan of Major Harney and Adjutant Farling, that Gen. Rice ordered this recommendation made, that Major Harney made it without note or commend; that none of these officers learned that it was made until after they were discharged; and finally that these officers, who would have made it very lively for Major Harney and Adjutant Farling in their race for promotion, were so quietly laid on the shelf. It is so fortunate as to bear even a suspicious appearance.

Spurred by Gary’s message, the Republican newspapers in Oswego howled in protest, but it did no good. Nine of the ten officers accepted their dismissal. (Only one, Capt. George Hugunin, fought for his reappointment and won back his captaincy.) Governor Seymour chose to elevate Major Harney to the lieutenant colonelcy and Adjutant Farling to majority, but in the end, the scheme failed in one aspect. Lieutenant Colonel Miller stayed in the regiment, assuming the rank of colonel.

Miller, though, did not hold his new rank for long. On May 5, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness, he received a grievous wound to the left side and fell into the hands of the enemy. He spent the next year in a series of Confederate prisons, returning to his regiment just before the surrender at Appomattox. In the meantime, Harney commanded the 147th New York. For a second time, a rebel bullet had achieved what Harney’s ploy had failed to do—it had removed Miller from de facto command. It might be justice, then, that Miller got to command his regiment one last time at Appomattox, but certainly justice did not come to the nine line officers who faced dismissal in November 1863. Their fellow officers had quietly “laid them on the shelf,” never again to share in the glory of the Army of the Potomac.

It is a shame, I think, when the plotters of the world get their way.

Near as I can tell, there is only one artistic depiction of the 147th New York at Gettysburg--this image, Desperate Stand, by Mark Maritato. I presume the officer at the far right is meant to be Lt. Col. Francis Miller.

This is Lt. Col. Francis Miller, the Oswego carpenter who commanded the 147th New York at Gettysburg.
This is Maj. George Harney, the second-in-command of the 147th New York. In November 1863, using the help of his skillful adjutant, he plotted to take command of the regiment, dismissing ten line officers in the process.
This is Capt. George Hugunin, one of the ten officers who faced dismissal on November 5, 1863. He was the only one of the ten who managed to overturn his dismissal and win back his position.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy reading your articles, Tim. You are very good at researching details and making the story alive and ripe.