Friday, January 29, 2016

Shot in the Lung

I have an on-going series entitled, “Shot in the [blank].” It profiles soldiers from the Army of the Potomac who received gunshot wounds to sundry pieces of their anatomy. In these tales, some of the soldiers died from their gunshot wounds, while others lived. In this particular tale, the soldier in question survived his wound—a direct hit to the right lung—but it never healed properly. In fact, his wound caused him to suffer painfully for another forty-six years.

The soldier who endured this life of perpetual misery was named Samuel Brackett Wing. He was born in the village of Phillips, Maine, on March 8, 1832. Devoutly Christian and always sober, he lived a modest existence as a farmer in Franklin County, northwest of the state capital of Augusta. On August 2, 1857, Wing married Mary Ann Lufkin, and they moved to a farm along the Aroostook River. Their first three children—Vesta, Silas, and Mary—were born in 1858, 1859, and 1862. In the summer of 1863, the Civil War called Wing’s name, literally. In August, the first federal draft went into effect, and Wing was one of the unlucky men whose name was pulled from the draft wheel. Too poor to purchase a substitute or to pay commutation, Wing had only two options: flee to Canada or serve in the Union army. Unwilling to be labelled a coward, he went to nearby Maysville and reported for duty. By August 15, he was duly mustered into service. After taking a steamer from Boston to Alexandria, he and the other drafted men from Maysville joined a veteran regiment, the 3rd Maine Volunteers, at Manassas Junction. Wing was assigned to Company H.

After wintering at Brandy Station, Private Wing and the rest of the 3rd Maine accompanied the Army of the Potomac in its Overland Campaign across Spotsylvania County. Wing survived the grim fighting that befell the 3rd Maine at the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, but he was hit during the May 12 attack against the Mule Shoe Salient.  His regiment had been involved in the initial pre-dawn assault, and like many Union soldiers, Wing found himself stuck behind the muddy Confederate entrenchments when that attack stalemated in the afternoon. Wing received his wound at 2 o’clock. It happened when several Union officers shouted for the men to cease firing so that a group of Confederate soldiers could surrender and pass through the lines as prisoners. For a few minutes, the 3rd Maine’s sector of the battlefield fell silent, and Wing got up, trying to move to a different place on the line. Before he could find a better spot to hunker down, the battle erupted again. Bullets whistled past his head, and one caught him in the right arm near the shoulder, just above his armpit. Although he did not know it, the bullet angled downward, zipped into his body cavity between his eighth and ninth ribs, and came to a stop four inches from his spine, two inches beneath his skin.

Initially, Wing felt no pain, as the bullet’s impact caused numbness in his right arm. He did not ask for assistance, but tried to crawl off the field on his hands and knees. However, after creeping for five or ten rods, he began to feel discomfort. Once out of range of enemy small arms, he stood up and began walking. Eventually, two men in the rear decided to assist him to a Union field hospital, quite possibly the Harris, Peyton, or Alsop farms, a half mile distant.

There, at the farm, whichever one it was, the operating surgeons examined Wing’s wound, picking out a few stray pieces of cloth that had been driven into it by the bullet. Worried that the bullet had penetrated him deeply, Wing asked where the projectile had stopped, and they replied, “In the shoulder.” Wing asked them if they intended to extract the ball. One surgeon replied, “No; you have suffered enough for one day.”

This answer satisfied Wing, but only slightly. He had a nagging feeling that the surgeon had misdiagnosed him. Wing worried the bullet had entered his torso, not his arm. As he later explained:

I told him my shoulder felt all right, but that I felt very badly in my chest and lungs. He thought that that must be a sympathetic pain, caused by the nerves running from the shoulder to the side, and that it would be all right in a few days. I have always doubted whether he said what he really thought or said these things in order to keep me from being alarmed.

Whatever the surgeon really thought, he assigned Wing to a tent occupied by a few other wounded men, and there he got some sleep on the straw. The next morning, May 13, 1864, Wing jotted a few notes in his journal: “At the hospital about two miles from the fight. Had a hard night of it. (Rainy.) Had a hard day to-day. Hard for me to breathe.” His shortness of breath alerted him to the impending danger of his wound. Perhaps it was worse than what the surgeon had claimed.

The next day, May 14, Union medical staff packed the wounded onto ambulances for the twelve-mile trek to the general hospital in Fredericksburg. When Wing was asked if he would walk or ride, Wing chose to walk. Later, he believed he had made a wise choice.

Just think of the poor men who had been severely wounded; . . . these poor wounded soldiers were loaded into ambulances and carried from five to fifty miles over just such rough and racking roads, as I have described. It was awful. I was on a piece of corduroy road when an ambulance passed me. It was enough to make one's blood run cold to hear those poor fellows shriek and moan, as they were jolted up and down over those logs. And when the wagon left the corduroy, it would often drop into a mud slough that would almost overturn it. Those were sounds that I will never forget. I could truly say that I thanked the Lord that he had spared me from such a fate and had given me strength enough to creep or crawl, instead of having to ride.

Wing did not remain long at Fredericksburg. He soon boarded a steamship with dozens of other sufferers to be shipped to Mount Pleasant Hospital in Washington, DC, arriving there on May 17. The trip up the Potomac River was anything but pleasant. Wing slept fitfully, and when he awoke one night, “I could hardly tell whether I was dead or alive. My lungs being so inflamed, the heat from the boiler had seemed to strike all through me and stuff me up.” Wing struggled to breathe and he needed a place to stretch out fully. The only place he could find was a section of floor near where the physicians kept their implements. Wing prostrated himself there, and although he heard a number of physicians ask, “What is this man here for?” Wing refused to move.

Bedside manner did not improve at Mount Pleasant, apparently. As Wing’s wound worsened, he began moaning deep into the night. He recalled, “The first night or two the hospital steward awakened me several times telling me that I must not make so much noise as I was disturbing the others. I told him that I would try not to make any noise, but as soon as I fell asleep again I would break my promise.” Finally, during the third week of May, Wing began coughing up bloody mucous. At last, the physicians determined what Wing had already suspected: the bullet had penetrated his lung.

At the end of June, shortly after Wing lost the resolve to keep writing in his diary, the army discharged him and sent him home to recuperate. On July 4, he returned to his hometown of Phillips; however, once there, his misery only deepened. Pieces of clothing and bone worked their way into his lungs and he began coughing them up through his windpipe. In September, he coughed up a sharp piece of bone. One month later, he coughed up a piece of blouse, which had apparently been driven into the lung by the bullet. In March 1865, he coughed up a piece of shirt. In January 1866, he coughed up two more pieces of clothing and a piece of bone nearly one inch long, the largest of the various objects to come out of him. More awfully, Wing suffered from continuous coughing spells, painful spasms that caused his lungs to bleed. Between the summer of 1864 and the winter of 1866 he endured four severe hemorrhages. The last of these left him bed-ridden for a year. Accordingly, he bled about two or three times a day, coughing out blood clots, spitting the gory vomit into a nearby spittoon. He wrote, “In about three weeks I had bled more than it seemed possible for one person to bleed and live.”

The rest of Wing’s working career droned by miserably. He could work only a few months out of any given year. His family sold his farm and they moved to a place near the North Turner Bridge Toll House, where he worked as the postmaster. Eventually, in 1875, Wing had another severe coughing fit which left him bed-ridden for the next six years. Every spell happened the same way. He gained in strength for two or three weeks, but then suffered another coughing attack that set him back to square one.  His lack of progress gave him a uniquely cynical perspective on life. He opined, “Some said they did not see why I did not get better, but for my part I could not see why I did not die.”

Amazingly, Wing outlived his wife, Mary, who died of whooping cough in 1892. After another set of hemorrhages kept him bed-ridden for the next two years, Wing sought professional help. He contacted Professor W. C. Strong of Bates College, and on April 16, 1897, Strong performed an X-ray scan on his chest. At the time, X-ray radiology was a fairly new invention—physicians had been using it for only two years—but Wing’s X-ray shocked even the most unflappable practitioners. When Strong and the other observers looked at the image, they saw the shadow of a full-sized Enfield Rifle Ball! Knowing that he might be the only physician to use an X-ray on a Civil War wound, Strong wrote, “That a bullet of such size and weight could be carried for thirty-four years in the delicate tissues of the lungs has been thought by some impossible. Of the fact, however, there can be no longer any doubt. Similar cases must be extremely rare.”

For Wing, this news was more redemptive than joyous. It confirmed what he had long known. He would literally carry a piece of the Civil War with him for the rest of his life. He wrote, “For over thirty-two years of my life I did not know what a sick day was; and now for more than thirty-four years I have not known a fully well day.”

It’s amazing to think that, after being wounded, Wing had to live another thirty-four years just so the proper medical technology could be developed to have his wound properly diagnosed. Even then, nothing could be done to retrieve the bullet. Wing’s wound presented him with just one choice: live miserably or die. He chose the former. Wing lived another thirteen years. He died on November 2, 1910. He was seventy-eight-years-old. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in his hometown of Phillips.

This image of Private Samuel B. Wing, Co. H, 3rd Maine Volunteers, was taken sometime in the winter of 1863-1864.

Between 1864 and 1866, Wing coughed up these pieces of cloth and bone.
On April 16, 1897, a Bates College professor took this X-ray of Samuel Wing's chest. The Confederate bullet can be seen clearly.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Three Incidents in the Life of an Iron Brigade Officer

At 2:30 P.M., August 30, 1862, Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch’s division made its assault against the Deep Cut, the unfinished railroad embankment defended by Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates. The Iron Brigade led the way. (Of course, this was the real Iron Brigade, the five regiments belonging to Colonel Timothy Sullivan’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, McDowell’s Corps, not the collection of black-hatted western regiments who stole the nickname later.) The 24th New York Volunteers, which hailed from Oswego and Jefferson Counties, formed the Iron Brigade’s first line. When it reached the edge of the cut, it engaged the enemy. After some forty-five minutes of heavy combat, the regiment streamed to the rear with the rest of the retreating division. In that short time, the regiment lost sixty-seven officers and men killed or mortally wounded. One piece of the regiment, Company K, brought forty-five officers and men into the battle, and it lost all but nine of them. The other thirty-six were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Even Company K’s commander, Captain John Pawling Buckley of Belleville, age twenty-six, lay among the piles of dead.

Not much is known about Captain Buckley, except for a few simple facts: he graduated from Union College in 1859. He had a younger brother, Corporal Americus Vesp Buckley, age twenty-two, who died from disease on May 5, 1862, in a U.S. military hospital in Alexandria. Presently, I cannot offer any particulars about Buckley’s death, nor can I find a photograph of him. I presume he died on the field and was buried in an unmarked grave.

However, I know this about about Captain Buckley: he wrote often to a local newspaper, the Utica Morning Herald, with some regularity. He never signed his name, but closed with these four letters: “JEAN.” He had an active, discerning mind and loved to give his readers a window into his innermost musings. Three incidents from the autumn of 1861 stand out to me. They tell us aplenty about John P. Buckley, the man. I may not know much about how he died, but I know how he lived.


Incident, the First:

On September 16, 1861, while the 24th New York was encamped at Upton’s Hill, Major Jonathan Tarbell ordered Lieutenant Buckley (he did not receive his promotion to captain until December 19) to take three volunteers and patrol the far reaches of the regimental picket line. It was night, and his soldiers had jittery nerves as they moved into the dangerous area between the hostile lines. The men’s anxiety was almost palpable. Buckley wrote, “During all this time scarcely a word had been spoken, and nothing above a whisper. Whispers! How they fall on one’s ears on such an occasion! As though the soul were loaded with some dark secret that it does not utter audibly.” By this, you can see how Buckley loved to set the stage with colorful, emotional language.

Throughout the night, nearby pickets kept delivering alarms, reporting nearby skirmishing at Munson’s Hill. Every hour, Buckley had to wake up and stand at his post, getting little sleep. Prior to dawn, after Buckley had been asleep for nearly an hour, when one of his men, Private George W. Durffee, touched him softly, and beckoned him to listen. Buckley heard footsteps approaching. He awakened the other men and he later wrote, “We four were soon wide awake; the trampling sounded nearer; a body of the enemy were coming; this we marked as certain. Our rifles looked through the bushes in that direction, and come what might, we resolved to count their number if we could.” When the figures grew more distinct, one of his men, Private Myron Whitney, said his gun was “getting mighty anxious.” Buckley gave orders for each of his soldiers to select a target. At his command, they would volley and drop four of the intruders in the first blow.

But something didn’t seem right. For an unexplained reason, Buckley withheld the order to fire. As the figures got closer, they stepped into a beam of moonlight. What Buckley saw shocked him. He beheld a band of escaped slaves, all seeking asylum within Union lines. He wrote:

And what was our chagrin when a sudden flame of moonlight revealed a dozen dark faces, of all ages, sizes and sexes. They each had bundles on their backs and under their arms, and the velocity with which they were moving inclined them forward at an angle of about forty degrees. The first knowledge they had of our presence was such a grim ‘halt’ from one of the boys, as seemed to straighten their forms and turn their hair white. The foremost one was a tall, bony woman, who reached one hand down to hurry along a little girl, while the other embraced a bundle. She stood speechless, while the other women and men cried out—‘Lord, massas, don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’

Buckley and his soldiers listened to their story and let them pass. He breathed a sigh of relief, elated that he had not acted rashly. Had he ordered his men to fire, they might have killed four innocent freed-people. In recollecting the incident, Buckley remembered the face of the tall, bony woman. He wrote, “But were I a sculptor or a painter and could reproduce in marble or on canvass that tall, dark woman, I’d call her the Giant Goddess of Sorrow.”

An air of gentleness surrounded Buckley; it guided him through this tense incident.


Incident, the Second:

Ten days later, on September 26, 1861, Lieutenant Buckley sat down to write to the Utica Morning Herald. It was lovely day, so he reflected, and he saw no sign of combat on the horizon. Commenting with a characteristically reflective pen, Buckley described how the calm morning made him feel: “The tide of war seems lulled to a deep repose. Not a rumor of advancing foes or of midnight hurryings forth to battle, any longer disturbs our dreams, or ruffles the surface of our thoughts.”

More importantly, at least to him, September 26 was a national day of fasting and prayer, and it gave Buckley a chance to reflect upon his commitment to the cause. Although he had seen the scourge of slavery first-hand just ten days earlier, his letter focused on the necessity of preserving the Union. Glad that the President had declared a national day of prayer, Buckley reflected, “When the loyal States began this War, they had no serious thoughts beyond a few dollars and a few men. They expected in a few days the rebellion would be among the things that were, and the Union would be the stronger for the effort.” However, the defeat at Bull Run had killed off that naïveté. “The Union is a costlier ornament than [we] thought,” he wrote. “It is to be purchased by a war which will touch every man and every interest of the Nation. The whole people must feel that we are actually at war—that there is a tide of battle rolling to and fro over the land, the bloodiest, perhaps, the world has ever seen.” Getting to the heart of the matter, Buckley reminded readers of the apocalyptic consequences for the nation if the Confederacy achieved independence, and further, he pointed out how the sacrifice of a million lives would be a small price to pay to restore the Union. Defending his belief in the righteousness of the cause, Buckley wrote:

In a few days more the army of the Potomac must try its strength again. . . . It may be defeated—what would be the consequences? Let every one ask himself ‘what would be the consequences?’ It is a serious question, and one that concerns all. Would the people rally again to the standard, or would they let the Union drift asunder to become countless petty States, and spread civil war broad cast along the line of centuries? Who can tell where dissolution would stop? Who can tell what endless misery awaits those who live to see one State go out of this Union, and become free and independent? It may be that God is going to ask countless sacrifices for the restoration of the Union to its former prosperity and greatness. Are the people ready? A million lives were a small price, could the Union be firmly established by that sacrifice, and handed down to our posterity as our fathers gave it to us. It would strengthen the heart and hand of every soldier now in the field, to have the people say that, come what may, ‘the Union must and shall be preserved!’

No gentleness surrounded Buckley here. He harbored a stoic, even bloodthirsty dedication to the Union’s cause. If he’d been in charge, he would have sacrificed a million people to save it.


Incident, the Third:

On October 23, Lieutenant Buckley and a friend, Captain William D. Ferguson, procured passes from General Erasmus Keyes and visited the nearby village of Falls Church. The town did not impress him. He called the village “particularly uninteresting.” He wrote, “One could scarce imagine a spot where there would be less for the poet’s imagination or the historian’s pen.” Buckley was about ready to turn back when he and Ferguson spotted a small farm house. For whatever reason, the two officers elected to visit it. They contrived an excuse—to get a drink of water—and knocked at the door. A woman and her two “rather interesting looking daughters” answered. Unexpectedly, they invited the officers inside and politely asked them to take seats in the parlor. The two daughters—ages sixteen and twenty—decided to entertain the officers with some music, which greatly delighted Lieutenant Buckley. Apparently excited by the novelty of it all, Buckley later wrote:

It was the first time I had indulged in the luxury of sitting in a private parlor, imbued with the magic of woman’s presence, since we came this side of the river, the 22d of July. The field and staff officers, and rank and file of our regiment, left home prepared for every hardship and every privation, and no ladies in ‘the latest’ are met sweeping majestic the spacious avenues of our camp. In our promenades in the evening moonlight, we are forced to link arms with some burly whiskered companion, and talk of tactics and military evolutions, and the most improved mode of field fortification. The old themes—love and moonlight and authors—come only in dreams out of the chambers memory or hope. Imagine us two, then, yesterday, after this rugged, masculine companionship, brought in contact with ladies who boast of an education in the society of Washington!

Buckley tried to make friends with Mattie Shiere, the twenty-year-old. Overly concerned with the propriety of the scene, he tried to devise an icebreaker, but for some reason, his wits failed him. He went over to the table where she was sitting, leafing through an album. He stared at her for a while and said nothing. Naturally, it got awkward. He wrote, “I looked at her and she looked at me, (or at least I thought so), but nothing was said.” Buckley and Shiere stood there in silence. “I couldn’t endure this,” he continued, “Something must be said, but what? I thought of war, but it wouldn’t do. There was no way of beginning it. I thought of the rebels, but they wouldn’t answer, for she might have a brother, or a father, or a lover, in the rebel army. O, Doesticks! O, Dickens, why didn’t you come to my relief?” Eventually, as Mattie turned the pages of the album, Buckley recognized a name within it, which broke loose his tongue. Pointing out that they a common acquaintance, he managed to get the conversation going. “This was a huge beginning,” he wrote. “My voice faltered, and I almost broke down in the middle of the sentence. But the ice was broken  . . . and Mattie . . . and I were no longer at a loss for words and themes for conversation.”

The two officers stayed at the Shiere’s house all afternoon and eventually, the women invited them to stay for dinner. Quite possibly, it was an awkward dinner, since the two officers learned that the women had relatives in the Confederate army; however, for Buckley the whole experience was more pleasant than uncomfortable, and he appeared to have won over Mattie’s affections, if only slightly. After dark, the two officers returned to camp. Buckley wrote, “It was late at night before we brought up at camp, well satisfied with the quiet adventures of the day.”

Interesting, no? Buckley was erudite, confident, and resolute, but even he got tongue-tied. When confronted with a pretty face, he nearly lost his nerve.

Captain Buckley concerned himself with the complexities of life. He didn’t mind describing his innermost feelings about such monumental issues as preserving the Union, or even narrating such inconsequential issues as his trivial flirtations with women. Quite literally, he didn’t shoot first and ask questions later; he patiently observed. To him, life was a beautiful bouquet of introspection and conversation. He once wrote, “One’s mind is [often] called away from war and tumult, to the times, and places, and friends which bind the heart and win the recollection.” Having surveyed these three incidents, I’m still not entirely sure what Buckley was looking for in life, but I hope he found it before everything ended for him at Dogan Field, August 30, 1862.

This painting depicts the Union assault against the Deep Cut, August 30, 1862.

Captain John Pawling Buckley's grave is probably unmarked; however, his family memorialized him on this monument in Freeport Cemetery, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

In Memory of Colonel Frisby’s Boots

In the last post, I profiled the death of Gorton Thomas, the commanding officer of a two-year regiment from New York, who was killed at Second Bull Run. In this post, I’m going to profile another commander from a two-year New York regiment, Colonel Edward Frisby. Unlike Thomas’s death—which cast a dark cloud over Keeseville, New York—Frisby’s death brought out tremendous positivity. Citizens of Albany and the survivors of the battered 30th New York may have grieved for him, but the death of a commander emboldened soldiers to new heights of courage. In fact, they recaptured Frisby’s boots, which became a source of pride.

What’s this about his boots? Read on and I’ll get to them. First thing’s first. Who was Colonel Frisby?

Edward Frisby was born on August 3, 1809, in Trenton, New York, a village north of Utica. At age seventeen, three years after his father died, Frisby moved to Albany and became an apprentice hatter, and after learning that trade, he began his own business, making and selling hats. At age twenty-four, he married, and eventually raised seven children (including one child adopted from his sister-in-law).

Undoubtedly, the most pronounced aspect of Frisby’s life was his attachment to the New York State Militia. For whatever reason, the thrill of militia service appealed to him. At age eighteen, he joined an Albany-based militia company and was elected corporal. He stayed in the militia for thirty-three years (!!), moving from regiment to regiment, eventually rising to the rank of colonel, commanding the 25th N.Y.S.M. (At one point, he even commanded the 11th Brigade.) In the autumn of 1860, at age fifty-one, after more than three decades of service, he finally resigned his commission.

Of course, when the Civil War broke out one year later, Frisby worried he had resigned too hastily. In April, when Abraham Lincoln called up New York’s militia regiments for ninety days, Frisby could not go with them; the colonelcy of  his former regiment had been given to another man. Nevertheless, Frisby offered his services to Governor Edwin Morgan, telling him that he was ready to take the field again. If Morgan should raise any new regiments, Frisby wanted to command one of them. When Morgan called up thirty-eight two-year regiments that summer, he offered Frisby a position. On June 20, 1861, Frisby accepted the colonelcy of the 30th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment raised in Lansingburgh, Troy, Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Poughkeepsie, Hoosick Falls, Eagle Bridge, and Kinderhook.

As a regimental commander, Frisby loved to drill, much to the displeasure of his men. One of his soldiers, Private John G. Morrison of Company A, hated him for it. After Frisby drilled the men in a blinding rainstorm, Morrison noted in his diary, “The old colonel has sunk below zero in my estimation. I can bear as much as any man, but I don’t like to be bored to death with nonsensical drill. It only makes the men sullen and discontented.” In September 1861, Major General George McClellan issued an order, instructing his regimental commanders to do nothing on Sundays, except those tasks absolutely necessary to keep the army functional. Calling battalion drill a “necessity,” Colonel Frisby continued to train his regiment in defiance of the spirit of McClellan’s order. On the 15th, the corps commander, Major General Irvin McDowell, discovered this contraception and put a stop to it. Private Morrison wrote: “The old colonel was disappointed awfully. I could see it on his face. . . . Frisby does love to drill.”

If the soldiers hated Frisby’s mind-numbing drill, Frisby didn’t seem to notice. He loved his men and he hated to be away from them. In July 1862, while the 30th New York was encamped at Falmouth, Virginia, Frisby became deathly ill with fever. Knowing that he might perish, he wrote to his wife, Mary, asking her to come see him. She went to the front, and found her husband lying low in an army hospital. She nursed him at his bedside, hoping to recover his strength. While he was lying on his cot, General McDowell’s corps (to which the 30th New York belonged) received orders to join Major General John Pope’s army, which was embarking on a campaign in northern Virginia, and the men had to leave Colonel Frisby behind. According to a biographer, “never did a father feel worse at parting with his children than did Col. Frisby at parting with his officers and men. He would lie upon his bed, the tears streaming down his cheeks, and exclaim: ‘Oh, my poor boys! My poor boys!’”

Convinced by his wife that he must return to Albany, Frisby acquired a leave of absence. He and his wife boarded a boat and they traveled up the Potomac River, but upon reaching Washington, Frisby had second thoughts. Claiming that he felt better, he bid his wife goodbye and turned course for Culpeper, where General Pope had concentrated his army. Within two weeks, Frisby was back in command of the 30th New York and led it into the Battle at Bull Run.

The 30th New York fought on all three days of the battle, but it suffered its heaviest losses on the third day, August 30. A member of the regiment remembered, “The morning of the 30th broke clear and beautiful as if smiling on the harvest of death.” Operating under orders from Pope, the division commander, Brigadier General John Hatch, stacked up his fifteen regiments into a column. Hatch’s division (and another division under Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield) had orders to puncture the center of the Confederate line near an unfinished railroad cut. It took all morning to get the men in position, it being nearly noon when the generals declared the assaulting column ready to move out.

Colonel Frisby’s 30th New York occupied the first line of the column, and few soldiers were happy about the scene that stood before them. A wide, rocky plain called Dogan field—about 600 yards across—stretched out in front of the column. It ended atop a massive ridge where the unfinished railroad passed through a deep cut. Leroy Stafford’s Louisiana Brigade held the cut in force. “All enthusiasm was gone,” wrote Private John Bryson of Company A, “and it was with hopeless step that we advanced again upon the enemy’s works, the old railroad embankment, or hell-hole as it was called.” For two hours, the regiment hugged the ground behind a farmer’s fence near the Groveton-Sudley Road, as Confederate artillery pounded the earth around them. At one point, one of the shells nearly killed Colonel Frisby. He had just dismounted his horse, handing the reins to an African American clerk, when a shell struck the pommel of his horse’s saddle, bounced upward, and sliced off the head of the unfortunate man.

At 2:30, Pope could wait no longer, and he sent orders to get his men into the fray. The Union attack surged forward, with Butterfield’s division on the left and Hatch’s division on the right. The 30th New York formed the lynchpin of Hatch’s attack wave. General Hatch rode up to Colonel Frisby, announcing the assault by waving frantically: “Colonel Frisby! Take your men in there! The rebels are in there thicker than hell!” Frisby called out: “Attention, men! Forward! Charge!” Private Bryson recalled, “We sprang over a fence in front of us into the woods, and up the slope in face of death we went with a cheer.”

As the men passed over the deadly ground at the double-quick, a bullet struck Colonel Frisby in the lower jaw, passing through his face. Amazingly, he remained in the saddle. Noticing Frisby’s wound, Major Morgan H. Chrysler rushed to his side. Stating the obvious, he said, “Colonel, you are hit.” Blood streamed from Frisby’s shattered jaw, but he managed to say: “Major, to your post!” He brandished his sword and reared his horse. Then, as an Albany newspaper recounted: “Scarcely had he uttered the words of command, when he was struck on the top of the head with another ball, which passed through and came out on the opposite side, killing him instantly. He dropped from his horse, and the remnant of his regiment, which had been in the hottest of the fight, was forced to fall back, leaving the remains of their heroic commander on the field of battle.”

The attack of Hatch’s division was a costly failure. The 30th New York took 341 officers and men into the charge, losing sixty-six killed and mortally wounded. Many of the wounded and dead lay on the field, falling into Confederate hands when Pope’s army retreated. A captured surgeon who belonged to the 22nd New York buried Frisby’s corpse on the spot where it fell, marking the place with a wooden headboard. When that surgeon was released from Confederate custody, he informed Major Chrysler where he had buried the body. Together with Colonel John W. Harcourt (a member of Frisby’s old militia regiment), Chrysler passed through the lines and recovered the body on September 9. By September 11, Harcourt had returned the remains to Albany Rural Cemetery, where the corpse was laid to rest.

As happened with many cities and towns who lost popular officers, the populace of Albany broke into mourning, using the death of Colonel Frisby as a means of memorializing the war dead. One newspaper stated, “The citizens of Albany will deeply regret the loss of so gallant a soldier and so worthy a citizen, and will offer their warmest sympathy to his family in their bereavement.” Likewise, the Albany Evening Journal wrote:

No one of our citizens was better or more favorably known than Col. FRISBY. He has for more than twenty years, been identified with the military organizations of the city—having passed through every grade from Lieutenant to Brigadier General. He held this latter position when the war broke out, and surrendered it to take the Colonelcy of the 30th. He was a thorough disciplinarian, a kindhearted man and a brave soldier. His regiment is one of the very best in the service; and his death will be lamented by the men for whose welfare he labored, by his country, for which he gave his life, and by his family and friends who knew his patriotism and worth.


Poignantly, Mary Frisby received letter upon letter from fellow and former officers who lamented Frisby’s death. After all, Frisby had been a soldier for a long time. Perhaps she already knew this, but her husband left a lasting influence on New York’s infantry officers. One grieving mourner referred to himself as “one of his military family.” A deeply-saddened Lieutenant Colonel William M. Searing wrote to Frisby’s widow:

But, alas! my heart aches, my eyes become blinded, and my head is dizzy, when thinking of that awful field of carnage and death. O, God! that I could blot from my memory the scenes of that most unfortunate encounter. I cannot give you a detailed account of that battle, or of the part taken by any one. I can only say your husband, our beloved colonel, fought in the thickest of the fight, and died at his post of duty.

Another man, Charles Brintall, the 30th New York’s former lieutenant colonel, wrote to Mary Frisby, telling her that his men would always remember him:

I have said that Col. Frisby was my friend during all my association with him. I have found him to be such, and therefore I mourn his loss as a friend. Of course, I cannot mourn that loss as you do. But there is one thing that I can do. I can bear truthful and uncontradictory testimony to his moral worth as a man; to his honesty and usefulness as a citizen; to his devotion as a patriot, and his steadfastness as a friend. May the bright example, which he has so disinterestedly bequeathed to his posterity, never be forgotten by any of them.

Another officer, Major Richard Bentley, a friend in the 63rd New York, told Mary Frisby this:

None knew Col. Frisby, outside his family, as I knew him. Our military connection commenced when I was so young, and lasted so long, that I had come to look to him, as a son toward a father. I knew his inmost thoughts, so far as military matters were concerned, and could almost read in his face the thoughts passing through his mind. Amid the excitement of the battle field, and the tediousness of long marches, I have not fully appreciated that he is gone—that I shall never see him more; but during the past week, partially confined to my chamber by a wound, the fact has appeared to me in all its force, and I realize that I have lost a dear friend who loved me, and that the service has sustained an almost irreparable loss, in the sphere in which he moved.

Then came the honor bestowed to Frisby’s boots. Three days after his corpse was laid to rest, on September 14, the soldiers of the 30th New York found themselves about to charge up Turner’s Gap at South Mountain, Maryland. Apparently aware of which Confederate units defended the gap, Colonel William Searing announced, “Boys, the men who killed your Colonel at Manassas are now in front of you, let us charge and avenge his death!” After the battle, Lieutenant James M. Andrews, Jr. of Company D found a dead Virginia officer wearing top boots that once belonged to Colonel Frisby. The name, “Colonel Edward Frisby, 30th NYV” was written on both of them. The regiment sent the boots home to Frisby’s widow. Andrews announced that the regiment’s vengeance had been satisfied.

Colonel Frisby had been a militiaman for a long time. In a time of peace, he was a dedicated and vigilant officer. Having given the best years of his life to New York’s militia, he need not have challenged himself by facing the terrible challenges of war. He was in his early fifties when the rebellion broke out. Recently retired from militia service, he need not have gone to the front. In July 1862, when he was ill with fever and likely to be discharged, he need not have accompanied his regiment to the Bull Run battlefield. Why, then, did he go back? Why did he insist on being in the danger zone? If I had to guess, Edward Frisby knew of no other place he would rather be. He had been a soldier for so long, he could not imagine himself in any other role. He loved to drill, he loved to march, and he loved to be among his soldiers. After thirty-three years, peacetime militia service had yet to give him a chance to die like a soldier. When the Battle of Second Bull Run came along, tearing out a piece of his jaw, he made sure that he stayed on the field and died like one.

The story of the recovered boots makes me smile. Whether they loved Frisby or hated him, the soldiers of the 30th New York had to have taken solace in the fact that they extracted a sense of justice from an awful, bloody war. That’s how every story of a soldier’s death should end.

This is Colonel Edward Frisby. I can only assume he is wearing the top boots in question.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Politicization of Death

This post is about the politicization of death, something that happened often in the Civil War. Today, when we say farewell to someone who was killed in battle, we often try to contextualize their sacrifice in terms of the cause for which they fought; however, rarely do we emphasize their partisan allegiance—whether they are Republicans or Democrats—and what that meant to the cause. That is to say, at their funeral, we never say anything like, “Lieutenant So-and-so was a Democrat and he hated this unjust war.” A scene like that would be hard to fathom. But in the Civil War, political allegiance meant a great deal to the traditional rites of death. In this tale, we’ll see how a New York officer’s death became sentimentalized in Democratic lore, and how it bore terrible consequences for a Republican officer in the same regiment.


Our story begins with death, with an officer killed in battle. It happened at Second Bull Run, on the afternoon of August 30, 1862, when Confederate forces blunted an attack delivered Brigadier General John P. Hatch’s division. One of Hatch’s regiments, the 22nd New York Volunteers, lost forty-five officers and men killed and mortally wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Gorton Tallman Thomas, Sr., was the highest-ranking of that regiment’s losses.


Here’s how he died. At 2:30 P.M., Thomas led the 22nd New York forward against the unfinished railroad cut defended by Stonewall Jackson’s corps. As the regiment closed upon the enemy line, a Confederate officer called for the regiment to halt, hoping to trick the New Yorkers into surrendering. Mounted behind the regimental colors, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas called for a halt, and soon realized that his regiment was among the Confederates. A Confederate officer demanded his regiment’s identity, and Thomas called back, “22nd New York!” A stern mandate arrived from the smoky railroad cut in front of the line: “Surrender, 22nd New York!” Thomas called back, “No! Never!” and with that, the fight was on.


Thomas received a wound in the first volley. A Confederate musket ball ripped through his arm and then pierced his ribs, cracking one of them. Thomas attempted to remain on the field, but his wound prevented him from controlling his horse. After twenty minutes, he retired from the field, leaving command of the regiment to his senior captain. His panicked horse galloped into the ranks of a nearby regiment, the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. Two men from that regiment caught Thomas as he fell from his mount and carried him to a log hut along the Warrenton Turnpike, where Thomas told them to leave him behind. Eventually, a few soldiers from his regiment, now swept up in the massive retreat, found their beleaguered commander. Sergeant Gorton T. Thomas, Jr., of Company C, the lieutenant colonel’s son, was among them. They watched as the life of their commander slowly ebbed away. Luckily, one of the New Yorkers stopped an ambulance, and they loaded Lieutenant Colonel Thomas onto it. He endured a rough ride, his wound bleeding along the way. Amazingly, Thomas remained optimistic, telling the other occupants that he was okay; he had stout ribs. In fact, the wound was worse than he believed. The ball had coursed through his lungs and was still lodged inside him.


At a Washington hospital, Thomas slipped into a coma. At 2 o’clock in the morning, September 3, his eyes closed and he never woke up. He remained comatose until 8 o’clock when surgeons pronounced him dead. He left behind a wife and nine children.


Three days after that, September 10, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas’s casket arrived in Keeseville, New York, his hometown, where a large assortment of mourners gathered to say farewell. A local politician, W. C. Watson, delivered the eulogy. Typically sentimental, Watson spoke of the sacrifices of Thomas and the community’s need to honor him by continuing the war to a victorious conclusion:


While we contemplate these spectacles of blood and anguish shall our hearts tremble? Shall we in craven spirit, shrink from a glorious cause sanctified by sacrifices like these? Let this scene rather inspire our enthusiasm and nerve our arms. Let us here, as at a holy shrine, upon the blood of this martyred patriot, slaughtered by this fell Rebellion, renew our vows of patriotism, and afresh dedicate our blood and treasures, to the claims of the Union and Constitution.


But more than that, Watson helped politicize Thomas’s death. It was September, just two months before the pivotal elections in New York. The Democratic Party was mounting a comeback with its gubernatorial candidate, Horatio Seymour, and Watson wanted to make it known that Thomas was a member of Seymour’s party. Watson pointed out, “In his political relations, Colonel Thomas was attached to that party, which has been upbraided (with what justice I may not now discuss) for its extreme and jealous devotion to the constitutional rights of the South.” Providing evidence in the form of personal letters that Thomas had written to him, Watson went on to confirm that Thomas was a War Democrat, and although he had defended the South before the war, he was eager to destroy the Confederate rebellion, which he saw as a threat to the U.S. Constitution. Watson went on at great length to explain how Thomas exemplified the best spirit of the War Democrats. Thomas defended southern Democrats in peace, but he stopped short when they proposed secession. Watson explained:


However just and magnanimous it might have been in a northern politician to assert and defend the immunities of our brethren of the south from our laws and government, neither that act or any other obligation required or justified him in the following them in their career of madness, out of the Constitution, or to aid or sanction their insane assaults upon our national existence. Every instinct of patriotism revolts at a conception so unconstitutional and mistaken. The influence of early party sympathies veil from the keen mental vision of Thomas the hideous features of the hydra monster, that sprung from the stagnant fens of Southern oligarchy and from the polluting machinations of a pestilent school of southern politicians. He cherished a name of attachment to his former political associates, but he loved far more his country, and above all earthly hopes and affections he loved, I believe, the union of our land. A States-rights man from principle and on conviction, he could discern no semblance to the lineaments or proportions of those opinions in the perverted and distorted doctrines of secession. His clear judgment could not be deceived by the sophistical subtleties, which attempted to impose a ruthless and detestable heresy, as the legitimate offspring of a just principle; and much less could his vigorous understanding and vigilant patriotism be beguiled by the transparent and frivolous fallacy, which was shamelessly announced, that although secession was unconstitutional, the government of the Union possessed no power to reclaim by coercion a rebellious member. Thomas could detect in this rebellion, no redeeming element of truth or justice, no sanctity of honor or right, and no sanction from earth or Heaven. He could only recognize in it, the culmination of a dark and traitorous scheme, which had been maturing and festering for more than a quarter of a century, and which now unfolded itself, shrouded in the blackest guilt, the most debasing frauds and the deepest treason. Traitors to their country, these men had been equally treacherous to the party which had confided in them; which for long years had been their defender and supporter and had sacrificed political ascendancy by the maintenance of southern pretensions.


It’s odd to see a eulogizer go on so for so long about the political allegiance of an officer killed in the line of duty, but there is no doubt that Democratic operatives in New York considered it a high stakes game, one that Watson needed to play. They had to use every means at their disposal to win the election, and to them, Thomas’s funeral was fair game.


Neither was this rhetoric entirely harmless. In fact, it had immediate consequences for a Republican officer in Thomas’s regiment, Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr., the 22nd New York’s senior officer. Phelps had gone on authorized leave in late August and as a consequence, he missed the Battle of Second Bull Run. Probably, he should have been present, but fate intervened. He left his hometown of Glen Falls, New York, on August 25, and expected to reach the front on August 29, three days before his leave was set to expire. Phelps reached Washington on August 28, but he discovered that all transportation into Fairfax County had been halted by an order from Brigadier General James Wadsworth (who was, coincidentally, the Republican candidate for New York’s gubernatorial election). While in Washington, Phelps received a note from Maj. Gen. Rufus King, telling him that Lieutenant Colonel Thomas had died and that he should make arrangements to send the body home. Phelps did not do any favors to Thomas’s friends by ignoring King’s suggestion. Phelps wrote, “Lt. Col. Thomas had several relations and many friends in town, [so] I left the matter in their hands, and started for the regiment Wednesday morning.”


The news of Phelps’s absence at the battle where Thomas died soon made its way back home to upstate New York, and the Democratic newspapers began railing on Phelps, calling him a shirker. His wife, Eliza, wrote to tell him about it, and when Phelps received the news, he expressed himself deeply shocked that anyone would consider him a coward. “I will not attempt to tell you how unpleasantly your letter made me feel,” he wrote back to Eliza, “it has embittered [my] every moment since its receipt. . . . I have done my duty and that I used every exertion to join my regiment.” Furious that he was getting censured by the Democratic Press who sought to make Thomas into a hero at his expense, Phelps began collecting all available documents to prove that he had not overstayed his leave, that his delay in reaching the front came from a general’s order. Colonel Phelps wrote to Eliza:


The full explanation I have given above will satisfy my friends. I rely upon the other documents to satisfy my enemies. It is unfortunate that I went home at all, although it has proved of great benefit to me; but I am very sensitive on some points, and when my courage is called in question and my motives and actions misrepresented, particularly in this cause in which I have experienced so much pride, and in which I have always possessed a fixed determination to distinguish myself, I am affected more unpleasantly than one not as intimately acquainted with me as you are, would suppose.


The rumors that circulated among the Democratic press hurt Colonel Phelps deeply. Most tellingly, he wished that he was in Thomas’s place, that he was the martyred hero. He hated being a living officer, one falsely accused of cowardice. He explained:


I think I would let my bones rot rather than leave the regiment again and go among those I have considered my friends, under any circumstances whatever. . . . I have been terribly, wrongly abused. I have given my life to the cause; and I have been so proud of my regiment, its reputation was as dear to me as my own life, and an insinuation that I would desert it is more than I can bear. I tell you, Eliza, I will never forgive to my dying day those who have whispered ought against my name in connection with my regiment. Their foul aspersions rankle deeply in my breast. I would ten thousand times rather be in Lt. Col. Thomas’ place than be suspected of cowardice or dishonarable intentions towards my regiment.


Eliza Phelps tried to rectify her husband’s dilemma by submitting his letter and copies of the documents he sent home to a sympathetic newspaper, the Glen Falls Republican. However, I doubt it helped. Colonel Phelps knew that the politicization of Thomas’s death had dealt him an unfair hand. Only through battle (which was just one week away) could he prove his courage to doubters.

Ultimately, the burial of Lieutenant Colonel Gorton T. Thomas was a case of death casting a vicious shadow over the living.


This is Colonel Walter Phelps, Jr., age 30, commander of the 22nd New York.