Friday, September 27, 2019

“I Could Not Restrain My Tears”: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 6.

On April 16, 1865, 1st Lt. Frederick E. Lockley found himself inside his headquarters at Fort McHenry, Maryland. He commenced writing a sad letter to his wife. On February 27, his worn-out regiment had come off the front lines, and since that day, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery had lost no additional men to the rebels.

But then, a single death caused this usually steady officer to collapse in grief. Lockley had learned of the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Lt. Lockley called Lincoln’s assassination a “fearful tragedy.” He confided to his wife, Elizabeth: 

I could not have believed that the death of a public character could have afflicted the individual mind with so poignant a feeling of grief as ‘this sudden taking off’ of our national chief has produced. Men grieve for him as for the loss of a parent. He has carried us through the maelstrom of civil war with so undaunted and skilful a hand; he has shown such an impassibility to any human infirmity of temper, rising like a demigod above all the angry and senseless invective with which his name and character have been assailed.

In the wake of Lincoln’s death, Lockley was wrote as if all human history was coming to an end: “[Lincoln’s] death creates such a gap in all our plans for our political future. For four years of political convulsion his name has been upon our lips so constantly that he has become identified with the age and the events which are to grow out of it. We cannot dissociate his name from our purview; with him away it seems as if our history had come to a sudden collapse.

That morning, Lockley had tried to soothe his feelings by attending church. (He did not say where, but it was surely in Baltimore.) It was Easter Sunday, but the festive attitude of that religious holiday did nothing to brush aside the gloom that could be seen everywhere. The church’s minister—“Dr. Johnson”—tried to assuage the grief of his listeners by suggesting that sorrow over a “public figure” did not resonate as deeply as the loss of a personal friend. However, Lockley wasn’t buying it. Lincoln’s death hurt as badly as the death of any comrade on the battlefield. He explained:

The exercises were painful. Sitting there with Meditation for your counsellor, as I listened to the preacher’s powerful contrast between the exuberant feeling which brightened every face as we gathered together at our last Sabbath worship to render God thanks for our signal victories, and to sing poeans at our delivery from the dark wilderness of desolation, and our feelings now. A great nation humbled in the dust, a great man fallen this day in Israel. Dr. Johnson says that the talk of the public heart being afflicted at the death of a public character, is mere exaggeration—people grieve but for their own friends. Until today I would have sworn by that scripture. But this event disproves the doctors saying. I could not keep my countenance composed—I could not restrain my tears—and I noticed there were but few dry eyes in church. The president does not seem a stranger to us. Common danger and common affliction have knitted the people’s heart to his—he has been with us in every moment of reverse and humiliation—the destiny of the country was in his handand every man knew that if human wisdom and a patriot’s integrity could preserve our honor unsullied—the foresight and the truth were in that leaders brain and heart to go through triumphantly with us. Particularly was he the soldier’s friend. During this fearful carnival of blood when the enraged passions of man were lashed into a tempest—and statesmanship was thrust aside until in the shock of encountering armies one side or other was borne to the ground, we all knew and felt that in the President we possessed a friend who was ready to every appeal—who watched the struggle in silent awe, and whose hand was extended to avert the strife the moment it could be done without compromising our national honor.

When Lockley departed the church, his thoughts returned to the dead from the Civil War; or rather, Lockley considered the fate of war dead, generally. He recalled a story about Lord Byron who visited the battlefield of Waterloo in May 1816. While there, a tour guide had pointed out the grave of a friend he had known. Inspired by the visit, Byron incorporated the experience into several stanzas of his poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” At this point, Lockley (who had been born in London)—a veteran of a vastly different warrecalled those same lines:

There have been tears and breaking hearts for thee
And mine were nothing—had I such to give;
But when I stood beneath the fresh green tree
Which living waves where thou didst cease to live,
And saw around me the wide field revive
With fruits and fertile promise, and the Spring
Come forth her work of gladness to contrive,
With all her reckless birds upon the wing
I turned from all she brought to those she could not bring.

Lincoln’s death made Lockley recollect the fate of his unfortunate regiment, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He remembered the confused attack at Alsop’s farm, where 76 men had been killed or wounded. He remembered the brief moment of triumph at Cold Harbor where his regiment had pierced the Confederate line, even when all the nearby veteran regiments refused to go forward. He remembered the death of Colonel Morris, felled by a rebel sharpshooter while passing between two rifle pits. He remembered the calamitous assault on June 16, 1864, when 301 members of his regiment were captured. He remembered the rout at Reams Station, when his regiment retreated, leaving behind its young commander, Major Edward Springsteed. He remembered it all, and now the tears began to flow.

Sometimes, one death can symbolize the death of a generation. 

At the end of his letter, Lockley tried to push these dour thoughts from his mind. In a few short weeks, he was going home to his wife. He had to focus on the positive. “What are national troubles to you?” he concluded. “Love to the babes—a rapturous kiss—ah—nice!”

In 1905, Frederick Lockley died a few days shy of his eighty-first birthday. He is buried in Oregon. His gravestone reads: “First Lieut. Co. F. 7th  N.Y. Vol. Heavy Artillery. A Brave Soldier. A Good Citizen. A True Friend. His life was gentle and the elements So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up And sing to all the world, ‘This was a man’.” (A line from Shakespeare.)

Here, Baltimoreans await the arrival of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train. I assume Lt. Lockley is in the crowd.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Last Ditch: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 5.

The 7th New York Heavy Artillery had five commanders. The third one died in a ditch. His name was Edward Springsteed. Unlike most soldiers attached to the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, he was an old hand at war.

This tale belongs to him.

Edward Augustus Springsteed was born on January 31, 1840, the son of an Albany physician. During the war’s first summer, he received a commission as first lieutenant, Company D, 43rd New York Infantry. He served during the Peninsula Campaign, fighting at Lee’s Mill, Williamsburg, Goulding’s Farm, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp Bridge, and Malvern Hill. During the summer of 1862, Lieutenant Springsteed resigned his commission and returned to Albany to help raise the 113th New York, a story that I described in my earlier post. Although he was only twenty-two-years old, Springsteed’s extensive combat experience made him a shoe-in for field command. He mustered in as major and took command of one of the regiment’s three battalions. After the 113th was sent to Tennallytown and converted into heavy artillery, Springsteed assumed command of Fort DeRussy.

When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant called forth the heavy artillery regiments in mid-May 1864, Major Springsteed accompanied the 7th New York Heavy Artillery to the front and participated in its first battles. He survived the blood-letting at Alsop’s Farm, Milford’s Station, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor. He participated in the disastrous attack against the Harrison’s Creek earthworks on June 16, 1864.

My readers might recall Major Springsteed from the previous post. That tale—narrated by Battery L’s fishing-loving commander, Lt. Fred Mather—mentioned Major Springsteed in several instances. Most notably, when Battery L found itself surrounded, Major Springsteed ran by frantically, neglecting to tell Mather that his men were almost caught by the rebels.

Unsurprisingly, Springsteed told a different story. This is what he had to say.

During that attack, Major Springsteed led the right-most battalion of the 7th New York, the one that was supposed to connect with the Irish Brigade. When the Irish Brigade fled the field in disorder, Major Springsteed was compelled to halt his battalion in a gulch on the opposite side of Harrison’s Creek. The heavy artillerymen tried to weaken the Confederate position with their firepower, but with the Irish Brigade in full retreat, the regiment’s decision to halt just made it a tempting target for Colonel John Fulton’s Tennessee brigade, which eventually left its earthworks to encircle the stranded heavy artillerymen. As Major Springsteed recalled it, his troops had not halted for long when he was struck by a Confederate musket ball. As he wrote to his father, “I supposed at first that it was one of our own men in the rear trying to fire over us, but I soon found out that the enemy had got around our right flank, and were firing at us from the rear.”

The ball hurt Springsteed, but it did not disable him. The unfriendly projectile struck him in the small of his back. Coming from the right side, it clipped his belt, cutting off his pistol and holster, and then dug into his flesh before bouncing off into the gulch. Still, Springsteed realized he had escaped death through a little bit of luck. A narrow inch of metal had saved his life. The hostile bullet had glanced off a small brass ring attached to Springsteed’s sword belt—where the scabbard’s straps hooked into the belt—preventing the ball from ripping into his spine, “in which case,” Springsteed wrote to his father, “I should probably not have been writing this letter now.”

From the darkness, Springsteed heard chilling sounds. The rebel yell resounded from three sides and the Tennesseans demanded the heavy artillerymen’s surrender. At that point, it was clear the enemy had got around the right flank and into the 7th New York’s rear.

Springsteed’s response was swift and decisive. He ordered his men to keep firing. As he recalled it, “I was senior officer then, but did not want to give up.”

Undoubtedly, it had to have been a profound moment for the young officer. Springsteed had selected his last ditch. It wasn’t pretty, but Springsteed was willing to defend this ugly hole to the death.

For the next hour, the heavy artillerymen held on, firing into the darkness. Eventually, the Confederates stopped firing, and again, they called upon the New Yorkers to surrender.

For a second time, Springsteed advised his men to keep firing. He assumed if they kept the battle going, another regiment or two would come to their rescue. (Probably, this was unlikely. Nearly all of Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow’s division had routed, and were a mile away beyond Redoubt 13.) 

Unfortunately for Springsteed, his men had other ideas. As he recalled it, “I ordered the men to stay where they were, but some of them threw down their arms and went in, and the rest soon followed.” In utter amazement, he watched as the bulk of his battalion surrendered.

If he was going to defend his “last ditch,” he would defend it alone.

At that moment, Springsteed began turning over the consequences in his head. Should he surrender with them? Should he run for it? Should he keep fighting? In the end, he considered it wisest to run for the rear and risk being shot in the back. Like many Union soldiers, he believed that going to a Confederate prison amounted to a death sentence. He narrated the next few minutes:

I stayed there until nearly all the men were gone; when I thought it better to risk the enemy’s bullets than a prison. So I made a dash through a space which the rebel line did not cover, and succeeded in getting away under a heavy fire. I am very thankful that I did get away, and that I am wounded no more.

Presumably, as he ran to the rear, making his bid for freedom, he passed by Lt. Fred Mather and Battery L, the incident mentioned in the previous post.

When the remnant of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery assembled near the Dunn House that evening, the surviving officers counted up what was left of their regiment. Only 150 men and ten officers reported for duty. One of the battalion commanders, Major Francis Pruyn, was missing and presumed captured. The regimental commander, Lt. Col. Hastings, now commanded the brigade. One member of the regimental staff wrote, “So murderous and exhausting a campaign is not recorded in military annals. . . . I am going to spend today in collecting a list of casualties incurred in our last engagement—a melancholy duty.” Likewise, Springsteed wrote his father, “It was a terrible day for our regiment. We lost very heavily in crossing the field, but the men behaved splendidly. I have no doubt but that we should have taken the works if it had not been for stopping where we did, in consequence of some of the lines giving away.”

The next day, Major Springsteed left for an army hospital in Washington to have his wound treated. He did not require a long hospitalization, so he requested (and received) a thirty-day furlough, traveling back to Albany to recuperate with his family. While there, he received news that Lt. Col. John Hastings, the regimental commander, had resigned his commission. Eager to return to his unit and assume command of the regiment, he cut his furlough short and journeyed back to Virginia several days early. While en route, his train was held up in Washington, D.C., which was then under attack by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates. Under the direction of Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur, Maj. Springsteed assumed command of a brigade of Emergency Militia and took them to some of the very earthworks he and his men from the 7th New York had manned the year before. Early’s men retired without making a major assault, and Springsteed continued on his way to the front.

When he reached the regiment at Petersburg, Springsteed sought endorsements from his superior officers. He wanted a promotion to fill the regiment’s vacant colonelcy. Col. James A. Beaver, Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock all wrote letters of recommendation on his behalf. In his request to Governor Horatio Seymour, Springsteed explained, “Being the senior officer of the regiment, I naturally feel very desirous for the promotion. Believing that the appointment would give general satisfaction to the officers and men of the regiment, I respectfully urge that my request be granted.”

As Governor Seymour considered Springsteed’s case, the young major led his regiment in its next battles. In late-July and early-August, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery participated in the First and Second Battles of Deep Bottom, losing another thirty men. And then came the Battle of Reams Station. On August 21, the 2nd Corps—about 9,000 strong—reached this whistle-stop along the Weldon Railroad, eight miles south of the city of Petersburg, and the next day, the bluecoats began tearing up the track. Two days’ worth of destruction accomplished the mission of cutting off one of the vital supply lines into Petersburg, but rather than withdraw from the area immediately, Maj. Gen. Hancock unwisely ordered his troops to dig a U-shaped line of earthworks around nearby Oak Grove Church. Had Hancock withdrawn his troops overnight, he might have avoided the disastrous battle that followed, but instead, the very next day, Hancock’s troops came face-to-face with two Confederate divisions that had come down from Petersburg to push them off the railroad.

The battle began at 10 A.M., August 25. Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. William Mahone formed up inside a thick woods off to the west of the Union earthworks, while cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton circled around to the south. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery helped open the engagement. Early in the morning, Brig. Gen. Miles ordered Major Springsteed to take his regiment—which then contained about 200 men—along with the 145th Pennsylvania to the far left flank to support a line of Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. David Gregg. Arriving at the point designated, the New Yorkers opened a “lively skirmish” with Wade Hampton’s cavalry, losing one man killed and three wounded. When Mahone’s infantry made its first attempt to break through the Union earthworks, Springsteed ordered his men to fall back and resume their place inside the works alongside the rest of Miles’s 1st Division.

The Confederates attacked three times. The first two assaults—both probing actions—struck the Union line, but each time, the rebels fell back in disorder. One member of the 7th New York recalled, “The men stood and received the desperate charges of the rebels with the coolness of veterans, decimating and demolishing their ranks with the murderous discharges they poured into them as they advanced.”

But then, at 5 P.M., the Confederates came forward a third time, aiming for a salient occupied by the “consolidated brigade,” a unit of conscripts, substitutes, and veterans from several defunct regiments. The consolidated brigade broke, and when the hole opened up in the 2nd Corps line, the edges peeled back rapidly. Within minutes, the 2nd Corps line had been rent asunder. The massive gap could not be plugged.

Inevitably, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery became a part of the rout. As a member of the regiment recalled, “The bullets whistled, the shells hummed, and with the wildest yells the rebs charged and the line gave way in utter confusion.” Another man, Sergeant-Major Frederick E. Lockley, wrote, “The rebels gained so immensely in force during the day that on the last charge they seemed to swarm everywhere. A perfect hellfire was directed upon us, and it is feared that most of our missing men were wounded in their efforts to escape to the rear.”

Major Edward Springsteed fell during the last enemy charge. I have yet to stumble onto an account that describes his final moments, but apparently, a bullet felled him just as his line gave way, and the last that anyone saw of him, he was lying in a pit, mortally wounded. The 7th New York’s second-in-command, Major Joseph Murphy, directed Quartermaster-Sergeant William O’Brien to stay with Springsteed. As the rebels surged over the line, both men were captured. Springsteed died before the end of the day. O’Brien was sent to the prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina. Eventually, he died there on January 18, 1865.

In the end, Major Springsteed had, indeed, died in his last ditch.

The survivors of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery were frustrated with the defeat. The Battle at Reams Station had cost the regiment another 96 men and six officers killed, wounded, or missing. Sergeant-Major Lockley argued that this “was the most desperate battle we have yet fought.” But the losses didn’t seem at all necessary. The whole corps could have left the scene before the Confederate attack. After all, the Union troops had already destroyed the tracks. There was no logical reason to stay an additional day. One disgruntled veteran later remembered, “The position we lost was worth nothing; we had done our work, and I do not see why we were not withdrawn in the night, as we might have been.”

The news of Springsteed’s death saddened the survivors, particularly since none of them (except Sergeant O’Brien) were there to watch him breathe his last. However, if there was a silver lining, the 2nd Corps veterans now considered the heavy artillerymen as one of them. Sergeant-Major Lockley explained:

We are at our old work ‘campaigning,’ and you have had experience enough in the 2d corps to receive that expression in its full acceptation. Fighting, digging and marching are our only alternations of employment, only we now have the addition of bad weather. Lying on the wet grass with a rubber blanket over you—if you are fortunate enough to own one—and the rain peppering you all night, having now lost its novelty, may be received as agreeable or not, just as a man’s taste leads him. Our boys are healthy, though, stand the tug well, and have now become tough, well tried soldiers.

As the 7th New York marched away from Reams Station, Major Springsteed moved to one more ditch. The New Yorkers recovered his remains and sent them for burial in Albany Rural Cemetery, the same graveyard where Col. Morris was laid to rest two months earlier.

On September 15, 1864, Springsteed’s commission arrived at the 7th New York’s encampment at Fort Morton outside of Petersburg. Governor Seymour had approved his promotion to colonel.

So, yeah. In the end, most of us get to lie in a ditch for a really long time. Let us hope it is well-chosen.

This is Major Edward Augustus Springsteed, the commander of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He died in a ditch at the Battle of Reams Station.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Fishing Buddies: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 4.

One a summer day in 1863, near Fort DeRussy, in Tennallytown, Lt. Fred Mather of Battery L, 7th New York Heavy Artillery, met with an old school chum, Captain George Seward Dawson of Battery F, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery. They went fishing.

My loyal readers who have been following the saga of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery will remember Lt. Mather’s name. In my previous post about the Battle of Cold Harbor, I used his 1896 narrative from the National Tribune as my primary source to narrate the experiences of the regiment at that awful engagement.

Mather loved to fish. More than anything in the world, he found solace in it. As Mather claimed later on in life, as a boy, he had no further desire “than to be in the woods or on the waters,” and he had “no taste for anything like the harness of civilization.” His friend, Captain Dawson, also loved to fish, and for whatever reason, on this day in 1863, they found peace fishing together. “That day’s fishing was firmly fixed in my mind,” Mather later wrote. Sadly, he continued, “I never fished with him again.” The two fishing buddies parted ways forever a year later when they engaged at the Battle of Petersburg, June 16, 1864. 

Those two memories—a fond afternoon of fishing and a final farewell before a forlorn attack—form the centerpiece of this post.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First of all, what happened to the 7th New York Heavy Artillery after the Battle of Cold Harbor?

At the end of that battle, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery looked like a shadow of its former self. It had arrived at Spotsylvania on May 18 as a “band box” regiment, glistening with spit and polish. But for the past eighteen days, the men had endured a veritable hell on earth. More than two weeks of marching and fighting had taken a heavy toll on the survivors. One of them wrote, “Assigning some limit to human endurance, I think I speak truth in saying that rarely have the energies of fellow mortals been more severely taxed than have those of this regiment since we issued from the fortifications in defence of Washington. Our experience has been one succession of forced marches, severe fighting or rapid entrenching.” 

In short, few of the heavy artillerymen realized that war could be like this.

Moreover, eighteen days of hard fighting had subtracted many good men from the regiment. Already, nine officers and 201 enlisted men had been killed or mortally wounded. Meanwhile, dozens of others were wounded or missing. The once magnificently-sized regiment had dwindled down to half strength. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery had left Fort Reno with 1,850 officers and men. As of June 5, 1864, it counted only 932 officers and men remaining. It took incredible inner fortitude for the survivors to weigh this horrible loss of life against the object to be gained. One of the regimental correspondents explained, “There is no doubt that the price of human blood and treasure, at which the accomplishment of this national object is estimated, is of a most unstinted liberality. Therefore, appearing as we do, as actors in this bloody drama, at this, its approaching catastrophe, we must summon up all our fortitude and patriotic endurance to reconcile us to the unspeakable sacrifices that are daily demanded of us.”

The week following the Battle of Cold Harbor offered a much-needed respite to the daily “unspeakable sacrifices,” but the Army of the Potomac’s campaigning did not cease. After eight days on the battlefield, on June 12, 1864, the Army of the Potomac marched south, crossing the Chickahominy River. Two days later, it reached the massive pontoon bridge constructed at Weyanoke, where it crossed to the south side of the James River. From there, the bluecoats turned west, bearing down on Petersburg, hoping to reach that crucial city before Robert E. Lee’s legions could occupy the massive ring of earthworks that surrounded it. For a moment, it looked as if the Army of the Potomac would get its chance to bring the “bloody drama” to its climactic end.

It was not to be.

Catastrophe followed. The 7th New York wandered into another hellish fight on June 16, 1864, one that culled the regiment by another 50%.

This engagement, known as the Battle of Petersburg, happened because the 7th New York Heavy Artillery spearheaded another desperate frontal assault against a well-defended line of Confederate earthworks. Only this time, the soldiers of the 7th New York were not so fortunate as to break the enemy position and occupy the entrenchments. Instead, they stopped short of their goal, and one-third of them were captured. Easily, June 16 was that regiment’s darkest day of the war.

It happened this way.

The Battle of Petersburg began on June 15, when the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac—Maj. Gen. Baldy Smith’s 18th Corps—reached the outskirts of the “Dimmock Line,” the ring of earthworks that surrounded the city. At the time, only five Confederate regiments remained attached to the Petersburg garrison, leaving the Dimmock Line all but undefended. Unfortunately, the Union 18th Corps fumbled its opportunity to take the important earthworks on June 15, leaving it to the 2nd and 9th Corps to execute a general assault along the enemy line the next day.

At daylight, June 16, Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow’s division (to which the 7th New York Heavy Artillery belonged) formed just east of Redoubt Number 13, one of the forts abandoned by the Petersburg garrison. In fact, the Union troops now controlled the first fourteen of the Dimmock Line’s redoubts. But a new obstruction confronted Barlow’s men. To the west, across Harrison’s Creek, the Petersburg garrison had constructed a second line, which now offered the only obstacle between the bluecoats and Petersburg. For hours, the officers from the 7th New York Heavy Artillery peered through their field glasses, watching the near-empty works with anticipation. If the army moved quickly, they could take the Harrison’s Creek line without losing heavily. But hour after hour passed, and no orders came. The regiment—and the entire corps for that matter—stayed put.

The sun rose high, but still nothing. But then, at 4 P.M., an ear-piercing train whistle shrieked from the vicinity of Petersburg, signaling the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. Lee’s army had arrived from Richmond! With characteristic alacrity, they de-trained and began taking possession of the Harrison’s Creek field-works. The soldiers of the 7th New York watched in horror as their moment of opportunity vanished. Lt. Fred Mather of Battery L recalled, “Within half an hour we saw the enemy file into the works on the double-quick, and then the men saw that serious work was at hand.” It was clear to everyone. The Army of the Potomac’s unaccountable delay had botched their golden opportunity to march into Petersburg unopposed.

For awhile, none of the heavy artillerymen expected their division would receive orders to attack. As Lt. Mather recollected, at that moment, his friend, Captain Dawson, arrived, seeking him out. Dawson’s regiment—the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery—also belonged to Barlow’s division. (Specifically, it was assigned to a brigade in the second line.) Also, Dawson’s regiment had, likewise, suffered heavily at Cold Harbor. At the time, neither Mather nor Dawson yet knew if the other had survived. But at this moment, Dawson found Mather, and a happy reunion occurred. Using a few free minutes available to them, Mather and Dawson talked over old schoolyard days and reminisced their last time fishing, the glorious day outside Fort DeRussy.

Suddenly, a bugle blared, calling Dawson back to his command. But he did not think it meant the army would attack. He said, “I think we will entrench here and besiege Petersburg, and then we can visit often!” Dawson called out “Goodbye!” and ran off.

Then came the order to attack.

At 5:00, the sluggish Union high command finally issued orders to Barlow’s men, instructing them to go forward with bayonets fixed. Sadly, everyone could see the situation had changed from what it had been an hour earlier. A bayonet assault would likely cause the division to suffer heavy casualties. However, there was no time to argue. The attack had to occur at dusk, which was about one hour away. One of the 7th New York’s battalion commanders, Maj. Edward A. Springsteed, called his four battery commanders over to him, briefing them on the mission. Lt. Mather, who had assumed command of Battery L after the engagement at Cold Harbor, joined the discussion. Springsteed said, “There will be a general charge all along our line at sundown; have your men in readiness.”

Mather was disgusted by the news. Four weeks of fighting had soured his opinion on bayonet charges. As he rushed to his company to inform them of the planned assault, Mather passed by the new commander of the 7th New York, Lt. Col. John Hastings. Calling to him, Mather sneered, “Colonel, it looks like another Cold Harbor to charge now; we could have walked over [those earthworks] an hour ago!” If Hastings made any reply, Mather did not record it. Most likely, Hastings agreed. The situation looked identical to the setting from thirteen days earlier.

At 6:00 P.M., as planned, Union artillery began pummeling the Confederate earthworks and then Barlow’s division made its forlorn advance. Lt. Mather recalled, “The hissing, screeching shells went over us with a most terrific racket; the musketry opened on us as we crossed the rail fence in the cornfield, and the combined noises almost drowned out our cheers.” 

Men fell at every step, or so it seemed. A shell tore out the eye and cheekbone of Lt. Morton Havens. A bullet struck Lt. Charles L. Yearsley in the stomach as he tried to climb a fence. A shell landed atop the color guard, killing or wounding nearly everyone who surrounded the flag. Another shell wounded the brigade commander, Col. James A. Beaver, forcing Lt. Col. Hastings to assume command of the brigade in the midst of the advance. All along the track of its advance, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery left a wake of dead and dying men.

As had happened at Cold Harbor, the veteran regiments of Barlow’s command broke first. Part of Barlow’s first line, consisting of the vaunted Irish Brigade, turned and ran for the rear. Then, most of Col. Beaver’s brigade followed suit. To the rear, the other brigades—under Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles and Col. Clinton MacDougall—suffered heavily, falling apart before reaching Harrison’s Creek. Only the 7th New York surged on, heedless of disaster, along with a small cluster of dedicated men from the 145th Pennsylvania.

However, unlike Cold Harbor, the 7th New York did not breach the rebel works. This time, the heavy artillerymen came within fifty yards of the enemy line and halted, throwing themselves upon the ground. From their prone position, the New Yorkers fired indiscriminately into the Confederates. Incorrectly, they assumed the Irish Brigade was still on their right and that Barlow’s second line—Miles’s and MacDougall’s brigades—were coming to their rescue. But neither assumption held true. In the growing darkness, few in the 7th New York realized the danger of their exposed position. They were all alone.

It didn’t take long for the Confederates to capitalize upon the situation. Colonel John Fulton’s Tennessee brigade left the earthworks and began creeping around the right flank and rear of the 7th New York. In just a few minutes, the heavy artillerymen were surrounded. The battalions on the left flank panicked and ran as soon as they took fire from the rear. Those on the right realized the Confederate presence too late and surrendered. As Lt. Mather recalled, “I was busy getting the broken line in shape . . . when shots from the rear showed that the right of our line was surrounded.” The situation in Mather’s Battery looked grim. Mather called for his two second lieutenants. Neither of them answered. 

Suddenly, the battalion commander, Major Springsteed, came running by, terrified, asking Mather if he had seen Lt. Col. Hastings. Mather replied in the negative. Without losing a step, Springsteed kept running, disappearing into the night. Somehow, Springsteed made it back to Union lines.

Mather and the men from Battery L were not so lucky. Every one of them was captured. When Mather realized there was no chance for escape, he rushed to the colors (apparently a different flag from the one lost at Cold Harbor) and helped a sergeant to bury them in the sand. Next, he tried to bury his sword. Before he could complete this task, a threatening voice came from the rear: “Yank! Drop that and get over the works!” A dozen bayonets emerged from the darkness, and Mather realized the horrible truth. He’d been caught.

The attack of June 16, 1864, cost the 7th New York a total of 501 officers and men. Only 36 had been killed; 301 were taken prisoner and the rest were wounded. Mather’s Battery L had taken 32 enlisted men into the action. Along with Mather, all of them were taken prisoner. That proved to be a death sentence. In 1896, as he looked back on his wartime experience, Mather recalled, “of the 32 men of my command that day only three came out of prison alive. That is a terrible story, and someday I hope to tell it to you.”

Mather never saw his friend, Captain Dawson, ever again. When he returned from Libby Prison, he discovered that Captain Dawson had been mortally wounded in the same engagement. During the June 16 attack, a musket ball shattered Dawson’s left knee. Surgeons amputated his leg and initially gave Dawson an optimistic prognosis, but apparently during the cutting, the operating surgeon had accidentally damaged more of the bone. Gangrene set in and Dawson died of his wound on December 6, 1864. He was 26-years-old.

After Dawson’s death, the State of New York promoted him by brevet to the rank of lieutenant colonel. As his fishing buddy, Lt. Mather, remembered him, Dawson was a “young soldier, whose life of promised usefulness was, like so many others, brought to a sudden end, but cannot be considered wasted.”

Incidentally, Lt. Mather never did tell the story of his Civil War prison experience. He dedicated the rest of his life to studying fish. After the war, he started a fish hatchery at Honeoye Falls. When the federal government established the United States Fish Commission in 1872, Mather received an appointment as an assistant commissioner. In 1880, he managed an exhibit at the Fisheries Exhibition in Berlin. In 1883, he was appointed superintendent of the New York Fish Commission station at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and for years, he authored books on fish culture, including Men I Have Fished With (1897), Modern Fish Culture (1900) and Ichthyology of the Adirondacks (1885). He died on February 14, 1900. He is buried in Duluth, Minnesota.

I wonder if, after every fish he caught, Mather thought of his friend, Captain Dawson, and the horrible day that killed him, June 16, 1864.

This is 1st Lieutenant Fred Mather, Battery L, 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He was captured at the Battle of Petersburg, June 16, 1864. Throughout his life, he searched for fishing buddies. During the Civil War, his best fishing buddy was mortally wounded at the same battle.

This is Captain George Seward Dawson, Battery F, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery. Dawson was Mather's fishing buddy. He was mortally wounded during the June 16, 1864, assault on the Petersburg entrenchments.

The scene of the 7th New York's capture on June 16, 1864, is on wooded ground south of Siege Road on land owned by Petersburg National Battlefield. A trail traverses the ground where Barlow's division formed up, but not where the surrender took place. Hopefully, one day, there will be a new walking trail to this important site.

Friday, September 20, 2019

“You Have Brought Us to the Standard of a Disciplined Regiment”: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 3.

For the past two posts, I’ve been profiling the story of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, a regiment rushed out of the defenses of Washington D.C. in May 1864 to bolster the depleted ranks of the Army of the Potomac. In just two weeks, the 7th New York lost half its complement. Already, I’ve mentioned two engagements where the regiment lost heavily: the counterattack at the Alsop Farm and the June 3 charge at Cold Harbor.

According to some authors, the Union’s heavy artillery regiments conformed to a higher standard of discipline than the rest of the army. For that reason, so the story goes, they suffered acutely when they joined the Army of the Potomac in the field. That is to say, when the heavy artillery’s fierce attention to discipline was combined with the brutal no-holds-barred style of fighting of the Overland Campaign, shockingly high casualties were the likely outcome. Or, to put it another way, the heavy artillery regiments were so well-trained they didn’t know how to take cover.

I’m not sure if I buy that theory completely, but it does lead me to a compelling question. If it’s true that the heavy artillery regiments were drilled to the point of perfection, then someone must have made them that way. Someone must have disciplined them to the point of perfection. So who was it? Well, in the 7th New York’s case, that person had to have been its commander, Colonel Lewis O. Morris.

This is his story.

Lewis Owen Morris was born in Albany, New York, on August 14, 1824. He came from a line of famous Americans. His great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather had served during the Revolutionary War. His father had attended West Point and served in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars, and in the Mexican-American War. In the latter conflict, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Monterrey. After Morris’s father fell, the people of Albany raised money to purchase an expensive presentation sword, intending to hand it to Major Morris upon his recovery. But when Major Morris died, the city of Albany presented the completed sword to his son, Lewis Owen Morris, instead.

The news of his father’s death sent the twenty-one-year-old Morris into paroxysms of grief. Immediately, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Still aching from sorrow, he wrote a letter to one of his father’s friends, William Learned Marcy, the former governor of New York and then the Secretary of War under President James K. Polk. Morris asked for a chance to join the U.S. Army in Mexico, and from there, complete his father’s mission. Taking pity on the young man, Secretary Marcy promptly commissioned him as second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery. And just like that, Morris was off to war.

Lt. Morris never saw combat in Mexico. While en route, his transport foundered off the coast of Florida. Morris managed to escape into a boat, landing on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. When he finally made it to Veracruz, he was put in charge of Mexican prisoners. At the prisoner of war camp, he caught yellow fever and had to be transported back to Florida. Thus, he spent the rest of the war convalescing. Despite his best efforts, he had missed his chance to see battle in Mexico.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Morris found himself in command of Fort Brown, Texas, and refused to surrender it to Confederate forces that came to occupy the property. After leaving Texas, he fought in eastern North Carolina, earning praise for his performance at the siege of Fort Macon (a relatively bloodless siege outside of Beaufort).

In the summer of 1862, Morris returned to New York and helped raise the 113th New York, eventually receiving a commission as colonel from the governor. After his regiment filled, Morris departed with it and found himself in command of one of Washington D.C.’s many forts, Fort Reno, where the War Department re-classified his regiment as heavy artillery. It didn’t take long for Morris to express annoyance at the prospect of long-term garrison duty. As one newspaper argued, “He chafed under his inaction, when his brother officers were periling their lives in the field, and made repeated requests to be sent into the field.”

Morris gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian—and he certainly earned a few enemies for acting the part of a martinet—but it appears that the majority of his soldiers admired him. On July 4, 1863, just as the soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery were learning of the Army of the Potomac’s stunning success at Gettysburg, they held a ceremony honoring Colonel Morris with an expensive presentation sword. 

The soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery spared no expense. They made the scabbard out of solid silver and conscripted an impressive hilt adornment. The hilt contained a female Iroquois, armed with bow and arrow, surmounted with the American eagle, with wings extended, and holding in its beak a solid gold, green-enameled wreath of laurels. Each of the scabbards mountings contained an etching. The upper band represented the Battle of Fort Macon, where Morris had distinguished himself in April 1862. Between the mountings, the scabbard bore the inscription: “PRESENTED TO COL. LEWIS O. MORRIS, Commanding Seventh N. Y. V. Artillery, By the non-commissioned officers and privates of his regiment.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Private George Cameron of Battery C delivered the formal presentation address:

We know and feel, that in you we have a commander every way capable of leading us on to do our share in this great battle for Union and Right. When you assumed command of this regiment, you were to most of us a comparative stranger; but your name and reputation had preceded you. We knew that in you were all the elements of an officer and soldier. We have read with pleasure of your long and honorable connection with our army—the part you have already taken in this great Rebellion—your bravery at Fort Macon—its capture, and your subsequent command of it; and, since you assumed command over us, most nobly have you sustained your reputation. We have been in the service less than a year, yet, in that short time, you have endeared yourself to us all. We knew little, if anything, of the duties of a soldier; but, by your military skill, patience and kindness, you have brought us to the standard of a disciplined regiment. You have also been untiring in your efforts to make us comfortable and happy. I, therefore, as a token of our high appreciation and regard for you as our Colonel, and for your many noble qualities as a man, tender you this Sword, Sash and Belt; and may God, in His infinite mercy, lead you, and the members of our regiment, safely through the vicissitudes and uncertainties of this unhappy war. May our now distracted country soon be happily restored, and may we long live to remember our happy relations with you.

The news of the ceremony had to have struck Morris with shock. His own troops had decided to bestow upon him an honor that the city of Albany had once been bestowed upon his father. I cannot imagine what it felt like. Probably, it brought back the memory of his father’s sacrifice and that emotional moment, when, as a young man, Morris had to step forward and accept a sword meant for his dad. 

In any event, Morris was beside himself with pride. “You have taken me completely by surprise,” he began, “more completely by surprise than I ever expected the enemy to do—by this beautiful gift.” Apparently moved by the token, he poured out his heart:  “I know nothing of speech making; and I feel that I would rather lead a forlorn hope than make a speech. Yet, in a few simple words, I may be permitted to express to you, that this is one of the proudest moments of my life.” Speaking to his men, Morris continued:

Yours is a glorious profession. Soldiers strong by discipline—obedient to authority—firm and collected in danger—able to endure privations and weary marches without murmur and without complaint—strong and courageous in battle, and merciful in the hour of victory—are soldiers on whom our common country can lean in her hour of trial, and find she is not leaning on a broken reed. Soldiers of the 7th New York Artillery, proud am I to testify this day that our labors have not been thrown away; for I confidently believe that your ranks will be as firm and steady in the face of the enemy as they have been this day on parade. I accept this beautiful sword with feelings of pleasure and pride, as a proof of your affection and of your confidence. I accept this beautiful sword as a proof, and as a pledge, that your strong arms, and your willing hearts, will uphold it in the day of battle, and that you will follow where it shall lead. But most proudly do I accept it as a proof of your devotion to the cause in which it is drawn—the cause of our beloved country and its free institutions—the cause of Human Freedom and Human Progress—to bequeath which, unimpaired, a sacred legacy to your children, you each and all of you will pledge your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor.

That day, Morris made a promise, one he upheld for the rest his life. He promised to be as strict with himself as he had been with his men at Fort Reno, even if that strict adherence to soldiery posture led to his death. In short, Morris would not duck or dodge. He would be as firm and steady in the face of the enemy as they have been this day on parade. As I mentioned in previous posts, Morris led his regiment at Alsop Farm, Milford’s Station, North Anna, Totopotomy Creek, and Cold Harbor. The day after his regiment lost so heavily at Cold Harbor, an unlucky Confederate musket ball claimed his life.

It happened on the morning of June 4, 1864, when Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow requested Morris to accompany him to the forward line “for the purpose of fixing upon the ground for some new trenches.” The section of the Union earthworks that Barlow wished to examine came within fifty yards of the enemy line, and Barlow contemplated ordering Morris’s men to build a tunnel that might be used to explode the nearby enemy works. (In essence, Barlow suggested an operation that foreshadowed the infamous Battle of the Crater.) 

Barlow and Morris weren’t there long when a Confederate sharpshooter tried to pick them off. “No one dared show himself on either side,” recalled Dr. Frederick Brown of the U.S. Christian Commission. “The sharpshooters fired quickly at sight of cap or head.” The soldiers in the Union trench warned Barlow and Morris to take care as they walked along the parallel. The two officers started out, Barlow leading. He took a cautious approach, dodging from rifle pit to rifle pit. Predictably, Colonel Morris took no effort to shelter himself. Firm in his promise to be steady as if on parade, he followed behind Barlow, walking upright. As Morris passed between the pits, a musket ball struck him in the left shoulder. It ranged downward across his body, clipping his spine and entering his right lung. With that, he fell insensible.

When they learned of Morris’s wounding, Dr. Brown of the Christian Commission and Surgeon James Pomfret ordered him brought to a field hospital. Several soldiers carried him there, and according to Brown, he arrived at around 10 A.M. Dr. Pomfret applied stimulants, which awakened Morris, but according to Brown, “his system did not rally. His body below the wound was paralyzed. He had no pain, but suffered much from nervous distress and difficulty in breathing.”

Morris didn’t live much longer. As he expired, he began begging for mercy. Dr. Brown tried to console him in a typically Christian fashion. Brown had reason for it, of course. During the months when the 7th New York Heavy Artillery quartered at Fort Reno, Morris attended the Presbyterian Church in Georgetown, where Brown served as pastor. As Morris lay dying, Brown asked if Morris believed in Jesus Christ and considered him his savior. Apparently panicking due to his shortness of breath, Morris, began repeating, “I do. I do. I do!” Brown wanted to find a way to confirm the sincerity of Morris’s declaration, but admitted, “I was weeping so I could scarcely speak.” At 1 P.M., three hours later, Morris breathed his last, repeating a final farewell message to be relayed to friends and family, entreating them to meet him in heaven. “I feel his loss deeply,” wrote Dr. Brown to Morris’s wife, Catharine. “He was as a brother to me.” Adding further, Brown wrote, “I loved him and I think he loved me. I need not assure you then of my sympathy in your second great sorrow.”

Morris’s funeral took place on June 11, 1864. The Morris family held services at North Dutch Church (currently called the First Reformed Church) in Albany, New York. The church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Rufus W. Clark, conducted services, which, according to a newspaper correspondent for the Albany Evening Journal, were “solemn and impressive.” Noticeably, several veterans from the 7th New York who had been wounded in Virginia and returned home, bore themselves into the church upon crutches. At the conclusion of services, the pallbearers brought the casket (which was covered with an American flag and a bouquet of white roses) to a funeral car which was pulled by six grey horses, fully plumed. The local militia regiment—the 25th N.Y.S.M.—provided an escort. Morris’s horse—who had survived the fighting in Virginia—trailed behind the funeral car. The cortege marched north for 4.5 miles to Albany Rural Cemetery, where caretakers laid the body to rest. So claimed the reporter who watched the proceedings, “The streets through which the funeral cortege passed were crowded with spectators, and grief was depicted in almost every countenance.” 

The editor of the Evening Journal continued:

Col. Morris was no ordinary man. His mind naturally vigorous was strengthened by hard study and enriched by liberal culture. Strong in will, yet winning in manners, he at once commanded the respect and affection of those under his command. Although a strict disciplinarian, he was idolized by his men. Cool in the hour of danger, self-possessed when the storm of battle raged fiercest, he inspired, by his example, the courageous, encouraged the timid and rebuked the cowardly. He was a stranger to fear, and died gloriously in the field and in the face of the Rebel foe. He was an ardent patriot, loved the old Flag more than he did life, and went into the war for its defence with his whole heart. In the bright roll of martyr-heroes which History will exhibit to the admiration of coming ages, few names will shine out with a serener splendor than that of Col. Morris.

It was a fitting eulogy, but I prefer to return to the sword presentation ceremony of July 4, 1863: “You have brought us to the standard of a disciplined regiment.”

That’s what Private Cameron said when he handed Colonel Morris his presentation sword on Independence Day 1863. In my previous posts, I’ve stressed the fact that the heavy artillery regiments were different animals when compared to the rest of the Army of the Potomac. Ignorant of fear, disciplined to the point of being automatons, they went into battle, carrying earthworks that veteran regiments could not carry and dying in numbers that veteran regiments could never hope to duplicate.  

Who was primarily responsible for inculcating that level of discipline? If the soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery did not know the answer in 1864, then we surely know it today. For better or for worse, Colonel Lewis Owen Morris directed the form of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery’s life and death.

Colonel Lewis Morris promised his men he would be as steady before the enemy as if on parade. He was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter on June 4, 1864.