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.