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.


  1. GTThomas was an ancestor of mine (GGGGrandfather).I have visited his grave and am very interested in him and his family as well as this period of the war. This story is fascinating: could you share its source? Thanks.

  2. Sure. The lengthy description of his death comes from a eulogium published a few weeks after his death. It's easily accessible online:
    I hope it helps.