Thursday, November 17, 2016

Capture the Flag

People who know me probably know I’m a something of a cynic when it comes to Civil War “flag captures.” (Yes, I know, it’s kind of a weird thing to be cynical about.) You see, most Civil War soldiers believed that losing a regimental standard was a great dishonor. To them, any capture of an enemy banner was a cause for celebration. In reality, in my humble opinion, the captures of enemy flags were hardly spectacular things. (For those interested, I explored this in greater detail in a previous post about the Medal of Honor and the Civil War.) Generally, capturing a flag was an easy thing. After a battle, scattered colors littered the field. The instant the fighting stopped, the soldiers who held the field went looking for these trophies and many of them received medals for it. Any skulker with two hands and a bit of determination could snag a fallen standard from the death-grip of its deceased bearer. Keep in mind, I speak as a person who has never seen combat, but I can’t imagine there is much glory in taking an enemy flag from a dead corpse right after the fighting has ended.

That being said, I freely admit that some flag-captures required a tremendous amount of daring. Occasionally, soldiers seized flags from living color-bearers. As you might imagine, when that happened, epic violence accompanied the confrontation. In my opinion, there was a particular moment when the Army of the Potomac experienced more heroic flag captures than any other time, with each moment justifiably glorious in its own right. That time was early-morning, May 12, 1864. The place was the Mule Shoe Salient.

If humankind’s collective nightmares ever decided to manifest into the shape of the Civil War, it would look like the Mule Shoe, a crush of 20,000 men grappling hand-to-hand in mud and rain for fourteen hours. Horrors of all kinds—some of which I’ve already profiled on this blog—played out left and right. Yet in the midst of this inhuman carnage, fifteen soldiers from the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps rose out of the fog and grasped at enemy standards, pulling them from the Confederates’ grip. Few events during the war were more worthy of praise and acclamation. For this post, I’d like to profile one of these incidents.

This story comes from an officer who witnessed a spectacular flag-capture at the Mule Shoe. His recollection emphasized a key point. The sight of a blue-clad soldier wrenching away a Confederate flag was an unforgettable thing. The account comes from First Lieutenant Robert Stoddart Robertson, a staff officer attached to Colonel Nelson Miles’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps. The flag-capture he witnessed proved so amazing that he mentioned it twice. He mentioned it first in a short narrative about the Overland Campaign written in 1883. It was called, “From the Wilderness to Spottsylvania,” a paper read before the Ohio Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. It was later published in collection of essays in 1888. Robertson repeated the same story in his personal memoir of the war published in 1896.

Robertson was part of the first wave of Union soldiers to strike the Confederate salient on May 12. Despite the horrors of the battle, he stayed with his brigade even as the number of bluecoats swelled, cramming men against the earthworks like sardines. In places, Union troops held one side of the trenches, while the Confederates desperately clung to the opposite rampart. From a distance, it was hard for the corps commanders to tell what was happening. Both sides were hugging the ground, occasionally rising up to fire, which created a massive cloud of white smoke that hung over the Mule Shoe. Only the shadowy battle-flags could be seen whipping back and forth, an indication that the fighting had stalemated, even though the opposing troops were within spitting distance of each other.  Needless to say, anyone who attempted to capture a flag risked death. A potential captor had to leap atop the earthworks, expose himself to pointblank gunfire, and then wrest the trophy from the hands of a determined foe.

Believe it or not, one Union soldier attempted that very act. When he grabbed a Confederate flag, he and the bearer began choking each other! Here’s what Robertson saw:

Once, the rebel colors floated out of the wind, until it could be grasped by one of our boys. The brave color-bearer rose to his feet clinging to the staff. Our brave boy rises clinging to the flag, and with disengaged hands they seek to grasp each other’s throats, in a deadly struggle for the flag. Thus they stand over the very rampart, both determined to win the flag. By common consent the firing ceases at that point, and both sides eagerly watch and encourage the fray. Finally, the flag is torn from its staff, and its proud captor, with shattered arm, is hailed with shouts of applause.

Yikes! What a scene! Robertson considered it the bravest act he had ever witnessed. Of the captor, he wrote, “I wish I knew his name, that I might hand it down to the future, to be honored in history.”

Although Robertson never had a chance to know the identity of the courageous captor, as a modern historian, I get that luxury. The captor’s identity is fairly simple to deduce. In October 1864, the Army of the Potomac’s headquarters asked its regimental commanders to identify all soldiers who individually captured Confederate flags at Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. The 2nd Corps listed a slew of names, fifteen of whom had captured flags at the Mule Shoe Salient.

The soldier who Robertson so admired was 17-year-old Corporal Archibald Freeman, Company E, 124th New York Volunteers (who had enlisted underage in 1862), and the flag he captured belonged to the 15th Louisiana. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Weygant, the regimental commander, remembered hearing about the incident from a wounded man who belonged to Company E. You will notice the similarity in the way Weygant’s informant described the incident:

“The Rebs,” said he, “had charged almost up to the works twice before, but this time they came clear up and planted their stars and bars on the other side of the works right opposite the Union flags. The Louisianans were facing our regiment and had thrust their standard in the earth directly opposite and were not more than three feet from ours. But it did not float there more than a minute when Arch. Freeman, of my company, sprang on the works and quick as a flash jerked up the traitor rag and was back in his place without getting a scratch—and, well now, you ought to have just heard our boys yell.”

The tale told by the wounded man from Company E made a slight error. Freeman did not get away “without getting a scratch.” Although he was not wounded during his confrontation with the Confederate color-bearer, a bullet struck Freeman in the face a few minutes later. The ball caused only a slight wound. Of course, it was also contrary to what Robertson said. Freeman’s arm was not “shattered.”

Freeman was one of a handful of Army of the Potomac soldiers who received a Medal of Honor during the war. (Most Medal of Honor recipients won their awards years later.) On November 28, 1864, after considering Freeman’s case, the War Department decided to issue him the highest award it could bestow. Army of the Potomac headquarters circulated Special Order No. 309, ordering Freeman’s brigade (1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps, under Brig. Gen. Regis de Trobriand) to form up on December 15, 1864, and present Freeman his award in front of his entire command. Colonel Weygant remembered, “The presentation was duly made and Sergeant Archibald Freeman became, for the time being, the envied hero of de Trobriand’s command.” Freeman stayed with his regiment until its muster-out in 1865. He died in 1918.

I hope Lieutenant Robertson eventually learned Freeman’s identity; however, I worry he didn’t. I am in agreement with what he wrote. Freeman’s name needed be handed down to the future, “to be honored in history.” Freeman (and others like him who also captured flags at the Mule Shoe) accomplished an act that few people will ever duplicate.
This is 1st Lt. Robert Stoddart Roberston, shown here in August 1863 as an officer assigned to Co. K, 93rd New York Volunteers. During the Overland Campaign, he served on the staff of Colonel Nelson Miles, and on May 12, 1864, he witnessed an incredible flag capture, the seizure of the colors of the 15th Louisiana by Corporal Archibald Freeman.
I'm a sucker for panoramic Civil War art. Here is an illustration by Richard Schlecht showing the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Imagine Freeman's amazing flag capture happening right in the middle of the image, at the breastworks, where the smoke is thickest.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Listen to the Wise Sergeant

So,  . . . there is a Presidential Election here in the United States, and as we count down the hours to Election Day, naturally, our anxiety and animosity increases. To help readers through this restless period, I thought I’d share a short story about the one Presidential Election witnessed by the Army of the Potomac. We must remember, of course, that the soldiers from that army had to consider carefully the two controversial candidates who ran in the pivotal Election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan.

How did the soldiers weigh the candidates’ abilities?

Well, one soldier wrote a letter describing a political debate in the field. In early October 1864, while the 6th Corps was encamped at Front Royal, Virginia, a cluster of Yankees gathered around a spring, initially to collect water for their canteens. While there, a debate arose concerning the two Presidential candidates. One of the participants in that conversation, Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, wrote home that he “never enjoyed a better discussion.” As they filled their canteens, the bluecoats voiced their opinions. Although Lincoln had the most supporters, “The McClellan men were noisy and defiant, and their arguments were of the old, stereotyped order, the sum and substance of which usually is, ‘Damn the niggers’.” Fisk wrote that it wasn’t worth his time to record what the McClellan men said, but he attempted to describe the loudest of them, saying, “One of them would vote for McClellan because he was the best General the world had ever produced, and had been so shamefully abused. The President, his General in Chief, his Secretary of War, and the greater portion of Congress, he said, had been ‘down’ on him, because they were afraid of him, and it would do his soul good to see him raised to the supreme control of our affairs.” Frighteningly, the McClellan man suggested prosecutorial retributions as soon as McClellan came into office. Fisk related, “The first thing he wanted to see him do then, was to put old Abe and Stanton and Horace Greeley, and a few other abolition criminals into Fort Lafayette. A long list of other grievances were enumerated, which he hoped McClellan’s statesmanship would discover some way to punish, and he wanted he should do it with a vengeance.”

After two McClellan supporters had railed against Lincoln and the abolitionists for a few minutes more, a “well dressed, fine looking” orderly sergeant belonging to the 139th Pennsylvania stepped into the cluster of soldiers and started speaking on behalf of Lincoln. Particularly, the unnamed sergeant hated the Democratic Party’s “peace plank,” its plans to call for armistice talks to force a reunion of the states under negotiated conditions. Fisk recorded what the sergeant said. Here’s what he wrote. (Keep in mind that Fisk switches between his own voice and that of the sergeant’s):

If we are willing to stop the war for the sake of talking this matter over with the South, we recognize them at once. If we are willing to negotiate with Jeff Davis, England will claim the same privilege, and so will France, and what can suit the rebel President better than that[?] His government will then be fully recognized, and we can’t help ourselves. . . . A convention of all the States now, he thought, was the greatest absurdity of the age. He believed the South, unless their case was entirely hopeless, would scorn to have anything to do with it. At best, it would only be a scene of crimination and recrimination, of jargon and confusion, and end in a grand fizzle, leaving our ship of state without chart, or compass, or principle, or purpose to guide her. South Carolina would want redress of Massachusetts for the indignity she suffered when black men stormed her forts on Morris Island, and Jefferson Davis would probably ask to have ‘Beast Butler’ hung as a guaranty of our good faith in calling a convention. All the results that could be obtained now might have been obtained four years ago. Now, after we have lost 500,000 men slain by this rebellion, he would not call it a joke and come back to that, and nobody but a coward would think of it.

After ridiculing the peace plank thoroughly, the Pennsylvania sergeant cut to the heart of the matter. He explained why an armistice would allow the dangerous principles of secession to stand:

No sir, said he, there is no use in talking of armistices and conventions. We have got to fight this thing out. There is no other way. The North and South must find out who is master. . . . The South had rebelled against our common Government, and the Government must compel them to cry Enough, or it would be no Government at all. A Government that couldn’t vindicate itself, wasn’t worth having, and he didn’t believe the people of the North was [sic] quite ready yet to vote for any such.

At this point, the sergeant pointed out that his family had already sacrificed blood in the war, telling listeners that he had already lost two brothers. He hated to think that the Democratic Party would dishonor their memory by refusing to see the war through to its conclusion. Fisk explained, “It made him provoked, he said, that men of the North, who ought to know better, should encourage the South to hold out by talking of propositions for peace. It was only prolonging the war, and killing so many more of our men.” He said that every man who would vote for the Chicago platform “ought to be made to go in front of the whole length of our army drawn up in line, with a board strapped to his back marked COWARD in big letters, and every soldier ought to hiss at him as he passed.”

The debate at the Front Royal spring went on for a few more minutes, but the Pennsylvania sergeant closed the discussion. Fisk argued that he was the most impressive speaker at the unplanned deliberation. “His ideas appeared to be well digested,” he wrote, “and being the ranking man, his opinions had greater weight with us than those of any other one in the crowd.” Happy with the way the dialogue turned out, Fisk wrote home to his local newspaper, concluding, “What I have written is a true index of ‘what the soldiers think’ of the great political contest now pending.”

Who was the eloquent sergeant? Fisk never caught his name, but he gave us a few clues which helped me pin him down. Most likely, he was First Sergeant Samuel B. Thompson, age twenty-four, from Company G, 139th Pennsylvania. Thompson’s two brothers were Cyrus and William. Cyrus died of disease at Downsville, Maryland, on October 18, 1863, and William was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5, 1864. Although wounded at the Wilderness, Sergeant Thompson survived the war and mustered out with his regiment in 1865.

When it came to the election, Fisk and his comrades made the right choice. They went to the polls on November 8 and re-elected Abraham Lincoln and history applauds them for it. As Fisk would have us believe, Lincoln’s victory among the 6th Corps soldiers came from the words of the wise sergeant. Perhaps we should take that advice. To those caught up in the throes of this 2016 contest, to those who are noisy and defiant, to those who are eager to see vengeance meted out after electoral victory arrives: perhaps you should reconsider your choice and heed the wisdom of the Sergeant Thompsons of the world.

This is Pvt. Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont, who recorded the persuasive language of Sergeant Samuel B. Thompson, a grizzled veteran who chose to stump for Abraham Lincoln in 1864.