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.

No comments:

Post a Comment