Monday, February 29, 2016

“I Came to the Scene of a Massacre”: The Career of Henry Prince, Part 1.

The other day, for a random reason, I had to concern myself with the life and times of Brig. Gen. Henry Prince, a Union officer who served for about six months with the Army of the Potomac. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the War Department appointed Prince to command of the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps. At the time, the army needed to replace Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, who was transferred to the Army of the Potomac’s headquarters staff. Prince led his division through the next few battles: Wapping Heights, Bristoe Station, and Mine Run. Civil War historians don’t think much of Prince. His indecision at Mine Run complicated George Meade’s bold plan to strike at Lee’s army south of the Rapidan, and over the winter, Prince topped a list of dismissals that ultimately spelled an end to the 3rd Corps as an official organization.

Hardly a luminary among his peers, Prince was, at the time, probably eager to leave the army. Ever since April 1863, he suffered from blinding headaches. Further, his health had been ruined by five months’ incarceration in Libby, a Confederate prison. (On August 9, 1862, Prince was captured at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, taken into custody by Confederates belonging to Stonewall Jackson’s corps.) In addition, Prince was also nursing a grim wound he had received at the Battle of Molino del Rey some sixteen years earlier. After the war, Prince carried on as an army paymaster, but he frequently complained of irritableness and headaches. Eventually, his medical complaints led to his retirement from the army on December 31, 1879, at age sixty-eight.

At first glance, it would seem that Prince had a miserable, uninteresting career. He was barely involved in the Civil War, and the few actions in which he participated garnered him little, if any, respect. For much of his life, he was grumpy and short-tempered, constantly complaining of physical ailments, real or imagined. Probably, I might have dismissed him as an inconsequential figure, until I discovered there was more to Prince’s story than I realized. His career dated as far back as 1831, when he entered West Point as a cadet, and his first military action took him into the midst of the Second Seminole War. Indeed, when he was only twenty-four-years-old, Lieutenant Prince was among the contingent that discovered the remains of the infamous Dade Massacre!

What was the Dade Massacre, you ask? Easily, the Dade Massacre was the defining event of the Second Seminole War. It was one of the most lopsided Indian-U.S. engagements in American military history, that is, until Custer’s debacle at the Little Bighorn in 1876 eclipsed it. Here’s what happened:

On December 23, 1835, Major Francis Langhorne Dade led a contingent of seven officers and 110 enlisted men—a mix of soldiers from the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Artillery and the 4th U.S. Infantry—from Fort Brooke, Florida, on mission to resupply nearby Fort King. Five days into the mission, Dade’s men encountered 180 Seminole warriors led by Osceola and Alligator in a pine grove east of the Withlacoochee River. The battle went poorly for the U.S. soldiers. In about four hours, the Seminoles surrounded Dade’s detachment, killing all but two of them. The lucky survivors were Private Ransome Clarke and Private Joseph Sprague. Clarke suffered five wounds, and lived long enough to flee to Fort Brooke; however, his wounds eventually killed him. The other soldier, Private Joseph Sprague, managed to return uninjured.

Although the two shocked survivors had a chance to tell their story, not everyone at the fort believed them, and rumors swirled concerning the fate of Dade’s command. Prince kept a diary that reported on the daily changing news about what happened. On January 15, 1836, he wrote, “Heard that Maj. Dade’s command was cut off attempting to march from Tampa to Ft. King.” The next day, he elaborated, “I learn that only part of Maj. Dade’s comp’y is lost. The greater portion having been left at Tampa Bay.”

For nearly a month, the U.S. Army remained in the dark. But not long after the disappearance of Dade’s command, the truth came out. On February 13, Lieutenant Prince accompanied an expedition led by General Edmund P. Gaines to reinforce Fort King with 1,100 men. Along the way, about one week into the expedition, the column came across the site of the massacre. Prince noted the moment in his diary: “Started about sunrise & at 8 ½ o’clock came to the scene of a massacre. A dreadful scene it was.”

Prince understated it, to be sure. The ground was littered with dead. For the past fifty-four days, the human remains had been decomposing in the warm Florida sun. Many of the corpses had already turned into skeletons, but more than few still had flesh clinging to bones and rotting garments swarmed by flies. The smell was horrible and the sight nightmarish. It formed a memory too difficult to forget. Lieutenant Prince described it in detail:

The scene can hardly be effaced from the memory of those who beheld it. The skeletons of the slain lay where they were shot. As the flesh was decayed it was difficult to decide whether they had been scalped. The ground was favorable to the troops being thickly timbered with pine trees without underbrush. The bodies of the officers were identified. Maj. Dade was found stripped between the adv. Gd. & hd. of the column. Capt. Frasers near him. From the position of the body and a rope near it, it was presumed that he was tied. It was recognized by a breastpin in his bosom containing a beautiful miniature of himself painted by a brother officer. Lt. Mudge lay by a tree, two soldiers near him. It was recognized by the figure 3 on his cap—a ring on his finger and his 5 gold pieces.

As an aside, Prince’s diary provided a detail that is worth explaining. He pointed out that Captain Upton S. Fraser’s corpse was found tied to a tree, which caused some of the officers from Gaines’s command to speculate that the Seminoles had ritualistically executed him after the battle had ended. Indeed, the sight of the dead was not the only thing that haunted the soldiers. They had to go to sleep envisioning the final moments of Major Dade and the other officers who might have been tied up and killed.

Prince and his companions did not have long to wait before they met the same Seminoles who butchered Dade’s command two months earlier. On February 28, the warriors emerged from their hideout in Withlacoochee Cove and engaged the U.S. troops in what has since been known as the Battle of Camp Izard. One of the most surprising aspects of this engagement involved the Seminoles’ pre-battle war calls.  For nearly an hour, the warriors intimidated the U.S. soldiers with their singing. Probably, the whooping had an effect because Prince spent time describing the unearthly sound. He wrote, “The first syllable was shrill long & glided down the octave. the second was a short bass guttural [noise] sounded simultaneously by the whole tribe as if struck by one prodigious instrument. The word appeared to be kirrr—wough! Kirrr—wough! Kirrr-wough! Wough! Wough! Wough!”

The battle went on for two days. On February 29, Prince was involved in three hours of combat during which time he was hit by two spent balls, one in the back and one in the hip. At one point, soldiers on both sides of Prince were hit by gunfire, one through the cheek and the other through the wrist. The Seminole attack failed to dislodge the U.S. troops from their position along the river, although they kept up desultory attacks for the next two weeks, forcing the soldiers to smell the unburied dead and eat roasted horse flesh for survival. Later on, in March, Prince and his regiment, the 4th U.S. Infantry, returned for Fort Brooke, and he lamented the failure of the campaign to pacify the Seminoles. He wrote, “Thus, backs out a baffled army. Baffled not through want of numbers or the true spirit or a good leader—but for want of means & by the seduction of a subtle enemy.”

Nowadays, when I look at General Prince, I don’t merely see an aging, dyspeptic, lackluster general. I also see a young lieutenant who, during his first campaign, saw piles of dead from his own regiment. I wonder if the nightmares from the Seminole War ever surfaced when Prince took his men into action in 1863.

This image depicts the soldiers of the 4th U.S. Infantry discovering the remains of the Dade Massacre.

This is a modern-day painting of what the Dade Massacre might have looked like.

This image comes from Lt. Prince's diary. He drew out the battlefield as he saw it.

This is Brig. Gen. Henry Prince, ca. 1863.