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.

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