Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Portrait of McClellan: The Return of the 34th New York, Part 3.

This is the third and final installment in my series about the last days of the 34th New York, a two-year regiment that went home in June 1863. If I’ve determined anything about this regiment, it’s this: the 34th New York always had something to say. It was a regiment that preferred to be heard, and this often put it at odds with Union leadership. For instance, the regiment’s first brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman, hated the New Yorkers. He referred to them as “that New York mob.” Infamously, the officers of the 34th New York led a campaign to get a popular newspaper, the New York Herald, banned from the winter encampment of the Army of the Potomac. The New Yorkers also thought highly of themselves. When General Gorman was transferred to another assignment, the 34th New York’s commander, Colonel William Suiter, demanded a promotion to brigadier general in Gorman’s absence. When Suiter didn’t get it, he resigned. Finally, when a discrepancy arose concerning the 34th New York’s date of muster-out, six companies staged a mutiny, stacking arms and refusing to perform duty. Only after Brig. Gen. John Gibbon threatened them with bodily harm—the subject of an earlier post—did they obey orders.

It comes as no surprise that, even after the survivors left for home, the men of 34th New York still had something to say.

As they arrived in New York for their homecoming, the soldiers of the 34th New York chose to make a political statement—an unmistakable one.

They carried a portrait of George McClellan atop their battle flag.

Now, I should make it clear to readers that McClellan-related paraphernalia usually sparked controversy. At the risk of making a presentist comparison, I’d say that carrying a McClellan portrait was akin to wearing a MAGA hat. That is to say, it invited judgment (either applause or scorn). After McClellan’s ouster in November 1862—which followed on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation—the Army of the Potomac’s rank-and-file exhibited split opinions concerning the fate of their former commander. Some soldiers believed Lincoln had done the right thing in removing him. McClellan’s perpetual slowness and his unwillingness to accept the radicalization of the President’s war aims made McClellan’s removal wholly necessary. 

However, others believed the War Department had cheated him, that McClellan was the only leader who could achieve victory. “The enthusiasm of the soldiers has been all gone for a long time,” wrote a Democratic officer in December 1862. “They only fight from discipline & old associations. McClellan is the only man who can revive it.”

When McClellan took his departure on November 10, 1862, thousands of bluecoats expressed anger and grief when he took his leave. A soldier in a newly-raised Pennsylvania regiment stood in shock to see this outpouring of emotion. He remembered, “For the time, the general seemed to have complete possession of thousands of hearts before him.” Another young Pennsylvania officer—a Republican—considered the soldiers’ loyalty to Little Mac a tremendous threat to the war effort. He complained the army was “so attached” to McClellan than none of the succeeding commanders could enjoy any “hearty cooperation and confidence” which a new commander ought to enjoy. “Besides this,” wrote the Pennsylvanian, “that same attachment of the army to McClellan is dangerous to the liberties of the people.”

In short, thousands of soldiers in the Army of the Potomac wanted McClellan recalled at all costs. Apparently, the 34th New York stood among that group. Presuming he spoke for most men in his regiment, Sergeant Henry C. Lyon wrote his brother that, “You have no idea what confidence the Soldiers have in this man. When so worn and tired as to be hardly able to stand, they have always a hearty cheer for the Gen’l when ever he makes an appearance. —Oh! a man must have a fearful and awful responsibility resting upon him who is thus loved and trusted.”

When the 34th New York went home in June 1863, its members still had not gotten past McClellan’s ouster. As they mustered out, they wanted to make sure Little Mac still knew he was loved by Herkimer County.

Here’s how it played out.

After the debacle at Chancellorsville, the 34th New York returned to the north side of the Rappahannock River and made its encampment near the Lacy House. The regiment continued drilling for the next three weeks, and at the end of May, the three-year men—those whose terms of service had yet to expire—were transferred to the 82nd New York. For days, nothing else happened, and it even appeared as if the 34th New York would be ordered on yet another campaign—the one that took the Army of the Potomac to Gettysburg—but then, quite suddenly, on June 9 (the same day that Union cavalry became embroiled at Brandy Station), orders arrived instructing the two-year men—all 427 of them—to pack their things and make ready to march. At last, they were going home.

The soldiers of the 34th New York trudged to Aquia Creek and boarded a ship that took them to Washington. There, they boarded cattle cars and endured a multi-day rail trek through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. All along the way, the New Yorkers became terribly intoxicated, having brewed a slew of homemade gin cocktails and brandy smashes. Wrote Second Lieutenant Louis Chapin, “On the way up, several persons, who had doubtless been drinking too many glasses of ‘strawberry lemonade,’ fell asleep and accidentally rolled off upon the ground, injuring them quite severely, but none I believe mortally.”

On June 12, the veterans reached Albany, the scene of their muster-in two years earlier. The regiment de-trained at the depot and marched to the Delavan House, a temperance hotel located at the intersection of Montgomery Street and Steuben Street. (This intersection doesn’t exist anymore. A parking garage sits over top of it.) There, a fine breakfast awaited the veterans. But I imagine no one from the regiment remembered the breakfast. Instead, they remembered the crowds of well-wishers who turned out to welcome them. Cheering throngs greeted them at the depot, waving and hooting. Lieutenant Chapin wrote, “The men had of course expected that a cordial welcome would be extended to them on their return, but they had not anticipated a reception equal to that which greeted them upon their arrival here. . . . The memory of their kindness will ever be kept green in the hearts of the soldiers, blossoming afresh as each anniversary of the joyous day rolls around.” It must have felt exhilarating to be veteran that day.

As the regiment made its way to the Delavan House, the colors bore an unusual item, a portrait of General McClellan. According to a newspaper correspondent who watched the affair:

They carried with them a framed portrait of Major General McClellan, and this brought out from the people, all along the route, the heartiest cheers, which were responded to by the soldiers with great gusto. As with all the other returned regiments McClellan is their idol, and they avail themselves of every opportunity to testify their unbounded admiration of him.

I’m uncertain about the origins of this portrait, but it appears that the soldiers of Company I (from Cayuga County) procured it during their journey north and then affixed it to one of the 34th New York’s battle flags. Presumably, they had permission from their commander, Colonel Byron Laflin, but I cannot prove this.

Whatever the case, the 34th New York marched through Albany with McClellan’s portrait leading the way, a political statement if there ever was one. By so carrying it, the regiment affirmed their support of McClellan’s vision of the war. They were against radicalization, against confiscation, against territorial reorganization, against treason trials, and quite probably, against emancipation. The regiment marched to the capital where New York’s Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, greeted them. Lieutenant Chapin recalled that Seymour delivered a real “copperhead speech.” Apparently disgusted by Seymour’s greeting, after the regiment broke ranks, Chapin threw “aside the hated blue,” and remained the rest of the day in civilian clothes.

For the next two weeks, the 34th New York quartered at the Industrial School Barracks, and then, on the morning of June 27, it took a train to Little Falls, where the town’s committee had planned a grand reception. It doesn’t appear that Company I’s portrait made an appearance at this party, but dozens of other McClellans did. Everywhere along the line of march, the residents of Little Falls hung likenesses of Little Mac. 

Apparently, when news of the 34th New York’s McClellan-portrait became known, the Democrats of Herkimer County felt comfortable in sharing their political affiliations with the returning regiment. One of the newspapers at Little Falls cataloged the various decorations that lined the march. A number of residents brought out likenesses to show political solidarity. Here are a few examples:

·         “M. M. Abel had a portrait of McClellan and ‘Welcome 34th’ over gateway.”

·         “Rev. B. F. McLaughlin had flags waving from every window, with photographs of Washington and McClellan.”

·         “At the crossing of the streets was hung a large pencilled likeness of ‘Little Mac’ with the names of the regimental battlefields. Although the likeness was shabbily done, the design of the poles supporting it was very pretty. They were wound with cedar wreaths and stripes of red white and blue cambric.”

·         “Kibbe’s saloon was neatly decorated.—Portraits of Washington and McClellan were hung out and the words, ‘How are you, boys?’ ‘Happy to greet you.’”

·         “A. Zimmerman displayed likenesses of Washington and McClellan and wreaths very tastefully arranged.”

This McClellan love-fest did not end at Little Falls. It continued even after the companies went their separate ways. On June 30, the 34th New York returned to Albany for its muster out. After that, the companies departed, each one enjoying a third reception at their town of origin. For instance, on July 4, Company A reached West Troy and participated in the town’s Independence Day celebration. In front of the Exchange Hotel, the officers delivered a set of “farewell” speeches. Company A’s former commander, William Oswald, who had been dishonorably dismissed in May 1862, showed up and harangued his regiment’s former brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Willis Gorman, calling him a “tyrannical old scoundrel.” Afterward, Company A’s commander, Second Lieutenant John Oathout, delivered a panegyric for General McClellan.

Meanwhile, Company I—the unit that had procured the McClellan portrait—pulled it out again. The soldiers affixed it to their company emblem and paraded McClellan’s likeness when they arrived at Penn Yan and Hammondsport. As soon as Company I landed at Hammondsport (having come from Penn Yan via ferryboat), they gave two loud cheers for McClellan. As a newspaper correspondent wrote, the cheering soldiers showed “that they are no exception to the prevailing sentiment about the Army of the Potomac, of enthusiastic commitment to ‘Little Mac.’” Clearly, the McClellan-portrait had already gained some negative press, and the people of Hammondsport worried that local Republicans might spoil Company I’s homecoming by complaining about it. The correspondent opined:

Altogether, the reception was highly enthusiastic and successful. In one respect it was unlike the ovation here in honor of our Company ‘I,’ as nobody made a fool of himself about the McClellan portrait on the flag; and the company carried the same in the procession on the Fourth of July, immediately succeeding; without any loud murmurs from the anti-McClellan Radicals. Perhaps this harmony was due to the absence of any arrogant Abolition Congressman. It is fortunate for Hammondsport that she has no such characters in her midst!

In short, when the 34th New York returned home, the soldiers turned it into a public demonstration to vent their feelings about the removal of McClellan. Although the returning veterans made certain to reflect upon their services and upon the sacrifice of their fallen comrades, the McClellan pictures overshadowed all other matters. The soldiers—and the citizens who supported them—felt it necessary to complain long and loudly about the McClellan-less way the war had, so far, turned out.

However, at least one company didn’t experience any McClellan panegyrics, Company H. When that unit arrived at Crown Point, State Assemblyman Palmer E. Havens delivered a stirring address to the men, one that reminded them of the long-term good they had accomplished by participating in the war. Havens explained:

You have been engaged in no war of conquest incited by ambition and lust of power, but in the holy work of maintaining the only government on the face of the earth based upon the principles of equal rights and equal justice to all who seek its shelter and protection—the only government where freedom and constitutional liberty can have an untrammeled and luxuriant growth—a government which none but the corrupted and debased devotees of slavery would ever have incurred the awful guilt of attempting to destroy.

Havens warned his listeners—the men of Company H and the people of Crown Point—not to put any stock in the mutterings of rancorous Democrats who were too stubborn to accept the positive forces of abolition. The soldiers may not have enlisted for abolitionist reasons back in 1861, he declared, but as of 1863, they fought for an abolitionist cause, and that was nothing of which to be ashamed:

The cry that this is a needless war of abolition has lost all its power and political significance—is dying away with the gust of passion and political excitement that gave it birth, and is now heard only from lips accustomed to the dialect of treason and disloyalty. Nor can it be charged that this is a war of conquest and subjugation or a war to spread carnage and bloodshed over the states in revolt—but on the contrary, it is a war to stay the hand of violence which those states have raised against us,—it is bringing them back to their allegiance and to maintain the government of the country which they have wickedly conspired to overthrow, and thus to preserve the Constitution and the laws which we and they have sworn to support. I deny that this war has any other avowed or real object than this, but I hail with inexpressible delight the great truth that as an inevitable result of the conflict, the dark blot of human slavery is to be forever wiped out on this continent, and if there is a man who hears me today whose eyes are so blind to the endless train of evils which slavery has inflicted upon our nation and whose heart is so insensible to the cries of suffering, oppressed humanity, that he will not also rejoice with me, that the triumph of our arms, while it restores the nation to its integrity, removes forever the great cause of all our troubles, I will not say whether I have the more of pity or contempt for that poor benighted man. . . . We should not forget that this war is not for ourselves alone or our posterity, but for the world and for all time. The question of the possibility of maintaining free institutions is now on trial before the nations,—the problem of free government is now to be settled, and if we fail—if the grand experiment inaugurated by our fathers, and so long and so successfully carried on in our hands shall now fail and our country sink into a state of anarchy or be divided into separate sovereign states—contiguous, jealous and ever exposed to make war upon each other, for one I should feel that the sun of freedom had gone back on the dial plate of time for generations and for centuries, and might never rise again.

I do hope that Havens’s words resonated with the men of Company H. I’d prefer to believe that when the soldiers of the 34th New York dispersed for the final time, they pondered their role in the great crusade against slavery and didn’t mutter petty recriminations under their breath concerning the removal of McClellan. Approximately 160 soldiers from the 34th New York had given their “last full measure of devotion” during the Civil War. I hope that, in this last hour, when they were all ready to say farewell and go their separate ways, they contemplated the worth of ending the scourge of slavery.

But of course, the cynic in me remembers how the other companies all vented their frustrations by mindlessly cheering for Little Mac.

A thousand curses upon McClellan and his ego!

This portrait of George McClellan may have been similar to the one carried by the 34th New York during its homecoming to Albany.

This depicts the flag of Company I, 34th New York. (Baron Von Steuben is the man depicted in the wreath.) During the homecoming to Penn Yan and Hammondsport, the soldiers of Company I decorated this flag with their McClellan portrait.

This is the commander of Company A, 34th New York, 2nd Lt. John Oathout. He was one of the regiment's fervent McClellan supporters. When his company returned to West Troy, he delivered a long speech in favor of McClellan.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Forlorn Hope: The Return of the 34th New York, Part 2.

In the previous post, I told the story of the 34th New York, a two-year regiment that mutinied during the first day of the Battle Chancellorsville. Just as the Army of the Potomac began its long-anticipated spring campaign, three-quarters of this regiment complained that their time had expired. Under no circumstance, the mutineers declared, would they pick up their rifled-muskets and march with the column. Only after a four-hour parley and the intervention of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon (coupled with some unwise death threats) did the intractable New Yorkers finally choose to take up their weapons.

My loyal readers might be wondering, how did the 34th New York perform during the Battle of Chancellorsville? Some of you might assume the Herkimer Regiment, having been so mistreated and still operating under the impression that its time had elapsed, would not put much effort into its next engagement. Indeed, this seemed to be the assumption of at least one historian. While examining this case, I consulted Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps (2011) by Lawrence Kreiser, Jr., who believed the 34th New York deliberately hung back at Chancellorsville. Kreiser pointed out, “Judging from their subsequent casualty figures during the Chancellorsville Campaign they fought with little enthusiasm, losing two men wounded and one man missing.”

Initially, I thought Kreiser must be correct. The mutiny in the 34th New York probably soured the enlisted men’s willingness to fight hard. However, when I looked into the details, I found quite the opposite. Despite their bitter feelings against the government for being held in service for six additional weeks, the regiment proved eager for battle. Frankly, Kreiser’s sentence completely misconstrued the regiment’s performance at Chancellorsville.

What follows is the real story.

Let’s pick up where we left off.

On May 1, 1863—the day of the mutiny—Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s division (2nd Division, 2nd Corps) had intended to march, but the orders sending it on its way did not arrive. For the soldiers of the 34th New York, the immediate bitterness of the failed mutiny transformed into a sense of foreboding and quiet anxiety. As the afternoon droned on, the soldiers could hear the thundering of artillery echoing from across the river. All wondered if they should join the battle in progress. Eventually, night came and Gibbon’s division remained encamped on the fields outside of Falmouth, having advanced not an inch.

The next day, May 2, the dilatory orders finally arrived and bluecoats made haste, soundlessly forming on the road that hugged the shoreline of the Rappahannock River. Looking across the current, Gibbon’s men could see the wrecked vestiges of Fredericksburg, the scene of their army’s calamitous defeat five months earlier. Everyone knew what was about to happen. Engineers intended to rebuild the pontoon bridge and Gibbon’s division had to lead the way across. After dark, the 50th New York Engineers began assembling the bridge—exactly in the same spot where the 2nd Corps had crossed on December 11, 1862. Everything looked eerily familiar—to the men of the 34th New York, especially. On December 13, 1862, the Herkimer Regiment had crossed the Rappahannock under fire, losing thirty-three men at the foot of Marye’s Heights. Now, under the soft moonlight, it looked as if that bloody drama would be reenacted at the crack of the next dawn.

However, one last part of Gibbon’s plan had to be determined. He needed a storming party to cross the bridge and recon the town, a “Forlorn Hope,” as he called it. To those not versed in military lingo, the term “Forlorn Hope” goes back to the medieval period. It describes a unit of men who operated as a vanguard during a dangerous operation. Typically, it was a unit that carried axes to chop through abatis or ladders to scale castle walls. In this case, Gibbon wanted his Forlorn Hope to storm the bridge and occupy the town. It would be “Forlorn Hope” because, if it encountered any enemy soldiers, it could not expect reinforcement. If the Confederates occupied Fredericksburg in force, the Forlorn Hope would be sacrificed. The Engineers would cut the bridge loose and leave the men stranded. In essence, Gibbon’s Forlorn Hope was a suicide mission.

At 1:15 A.M., as the engineers completed the bridge, Gibbon put out a call for volunteers. He wanted each regiment in Colonel Byron Laflin’s brigade had to provide twenty-five men. When Laflin approached his old regiment, the 34th New York, he explained the mission, its danger, and the (unlikely) chance of success. Second Lieutenant Louis N. Chapin of Company K explained, “Now almost any man with an able-bodied imagination can understand what kind of duty is expected under such circumstances. Such a call means business.”

Col. Laflin called for volunteers to step forward. Although the 34th New York’s soldiers had no reason to love General Gibbon, nor trust his plan, it took a mere five minutes for the regiment to provide the requisite number of volunteers. First Lieutenant James H. McCormick of Company H led the detachment, and of the twenty-five volunteers, eighteen had participated in the mutiny on the previous day. Clearly, these men were not dispirited by what had transpired between their regiment and General Gibbon.

The sight of these men stepping forward, vowing to take Fredericksburg or die in the attempt, resonated with Lieutenant Chapin. A few days later, he wrote home to his local newspaper, exclaiming their bravery. He wrote, “Did time and space permit, I would willingly furnish a list of the names of those brave men, for the motive and the courage displayed, both voluntary as they were, deserve the highest of mortal encomiums.”

In fact, Chapin remembered this event for the rest of his life. In 1902, when he completed his regiment’s unit history, he repeated the story in introspective detail. He recalled:

We think it is thus clearly shown that the handful of men, who, only the day before, had raised an honest point of order in regard to the date of their service, were not cowards. Although they were soon to return home, they were ready for any service, however dangerous. Some people would be very much surprised at the quality and kind of men who would volunteer to face a danger of this kind. Who could, by sight, pick out the heroes in a regiment? Would you pick the men who look the finest, bear themselves the proudest, have the most distinguished relations at home? It is fair and true to say, that, if you figured it in that way, you would miss it. The men who volunteered on this occasion were, many of them, the very humblest in the regiment; men who were not after distinctions, commissions, or glory. They were just the common men. It did not seem to them that there was any special courage displayed in their action. They were wanted for some important duty, and out they stepped.

Nor was Chapin the only New York soldier to remember the incident. Another soldier wrote similarly. Having participated in the mutiny the day before, he was eager to tell newspaper readers that the 34th New York contained no shirkers. The eagerness of the Forlorn Hope’s volunteers proved this. He wrote, “We cannot speak too highly of the brave fellows who thus exposed their lives to danger. We would gladly make their names public would room permit. It should also be remembered that many of them had faithfully served out the time of their enlistment and, though, in their opinion, wrongfully held by the government, did not make this an excuse for hanging back.”

Although the Forlorn Hope looked like dangerous duty, no one from it was killed during the occupation of Fredericksburg. At first light, the Forlorn Hope charged across the pontoon bridge, but the soldiers discovered no Confederates to oppose them. Pushing through the town, the Forlorn Hope deployed as skirmishers and then captured the area around the Fredericksburg Canal. There, they encountered a few enemy skirmishers, routed them, and took a handful as prisoners, but otherwise the Forlorn Hope suffered no trouble. Everyone in the Forlorn Hope made it back in one piece, but most who had seen it organized recognized that when the volunteers had stepped forward, they had joined a suicide mission. So remembered one soldier, “Had there been a detachment of [Confederate] Cavalry on hand, the whole command could have been taken.”

Still, not everyone in the regiment survived unscathed. Later that morning, Gibbon ordered two brigades to cross the river and join the Forlorn Hope at the edge of town. As Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps assaulted Marye’s Heights, Gibbon’s men endured a half-hour artillery barrage. The barrage produced heavy casualties in some regiments. The regiment adjacent to the 34th New York suffered thirty men killed and wounded. Providentially, only a few rounds hit the New Yorkers. At the end of the day, the Herkimer Regiment counted up only two wounded: Private Warren Lamphere of Company K and Corporal Robert Bradbury of Company G. (Another soldier went missing. Unfortunately, I cannot determine this soldier’s identity.)

The light losses in the 34th New York came from the fact that, conveniently, only a few artillery rounds hit the regiment. Clearly, the 34th New York was just as exposed as any other regiment in the division. Further, the twenty-five men attached to the Forlorn Hope were willing to sacrifice themselves during the dawn assault across the bridge. When they volunteered, those men could not have known that no enemy soldiers would oppose them. Every one of them likely assumed they were going to their deaths. Kreiser’s line—that the 34th New York “fought with little enthusiasm”—is flatly incorrect.

The cynic in me might wonder why they did it. Why would the embittered soldiers of 34th New York, who believed their time had expired, be willing to throw away their lives during their war’s final hour? Of course, that question requires no convoluted answer on my part. I know enough about the Army of the Potomac to recognize that its soldiers could summon courage at any hour of any day—even in overtime.

It’s best to give the 34th New York the last word here. On May 8, one them wrote home to the Albany Evening Journal, reflecting on what had happened at the 34th New York’s last battle. Clearly, he felt pride in what the Herkimer Regiment had accomplished:

We are all well satisfied with the part we have taken, for we have done, and done well, all that we were asked to do.—When it is remembered that the majority of the Regiment, with much reason, regarded their time as out, its conduct is most praiseworthy, for in the most trying times every man stood up nobly and bravely and faithfully performed his duty.

What more need be said?

This is Colonel Byron Laflin (shown as lieutenant colonel), the commander of the 34th New York and the temporary commander of 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps.

Lieutenant Louis N. Chapin (shown in 1902 and 1862) never forgot the awe-inspiring sight of his regiment volunteering for John Gibbon's Forlorn Hope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

“A Fairly Good Case”: The Return of the 34th New York, Part 1.

For this next series of posts, I’m examining the muster-out of the 34th New York, the “Herkimer County Regiment.” This unit served in the 2nd Corps, it participated in the Peninsula Campaign, and then it fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville (or, rather, Second Fredericksburg). When the regiment went home on June 9, 1863, it returned to the Empire State amid considerable controversy.

This controversy existed on multiple levels. First, just as the regiment received orders to join in the Chancellorsville Campaign, its soldiers organized a mutiny, which had to be summarily quashed. Second, when the regiment reached the front, it didn’t participate in much combat, a fact which has since drawn the ire of at least one historian. Third, when it finally went home, the 34th New York used its homecoming parade as an opportunity to make a political statement, carrying aloft a portrait of General George McClellan as a not-so-subtle way of telling spectators how to align their political compass.

In today’s installment, I’m going to examine the first of these three controversies, the May 1, 1863, “mutiny” of the Herkimer Regiment, a nasty little affair that sowed bitter feelings among the New York veterans. Unwilling to serve beyond May 1, six companies of the 34th New York stacked their rifled-muskets on the fields around Falmouth, complaining that their time had elapsed and the government could no longer order them to perform duty. Only the threat of violence made these men march to the sound of the guns.

Surprisingly, this incident has rarely appeared in modern histories. (After doing a quick search, I found mention of it in Stephen Sears’s Chancellorsville and Lawrence Kreiser’s Defeating Lee, but nowhere else.) It seems strange that a Union regiment could stack arms amid the Battle of Chancellorsville, and it get no attention from military historians!

Clearly, the men of the 34th New York were an unhappy lot, and it’s illuminating to unravel the source of their displeasure.

Their beef with the federal government stemmed from a troublesome question concerning the 34th New York’s length of service. The 34th New York was a two-year regiment, one of thirty-eight raised by New York’s state government in the spring of 1861. Like many two-year regiments, the 34th New York counted up several weeks of state service before transferring to the federal government in the middle of the summer.

A timeline of the regiment’s mobilization will help explain the problem. When the war broke out in April 1861, the people of Herkimer County (and Steuben, Essex, and Clinton Counties and Albany City, which also contributed to the regiment) began raising companies with alacrity. When they mustered in, the soldiers swore an oath to serve the state for two years, dating from May 1, 1861. However, one month later, Governor Edwin Morgan convinced the War Department to accept his two-year regiments into federal service.

This transfer occurred only after acrimonious negotiation between the War Department and the State of New York. Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Governor Morgan that the War Department would not accept regiments for two years. All recruits had to swear for three years, and not fewer. In fact, Cameron initially turned away Morgan’s thirty-eight regiments, but after thinking on it, he changed his mind. He promised to honor the two-year enlistment contracts for all the men already sworn into state service; however, all future volunteers needed to enlist for three years. Accordingly, U.S. mustering officers began seeking out Morgan’s two-year regiments and swearing them into federal service. On June 15, one of them arrived at the 34th New York’s encampment in Albany, and had them swear into federal service. Accordingly, six companies swore to serve the federal government for two years, while the remaining four—those that had not yet sworn into state service—swore to serve the federal government for three years.

Foolishly, the federal mustering officer—whoever he was—failed to clarify an important point. When would the 34th New York’s two-year men muster out? Would they do it on May 1, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their initial muster), or would they do it on June 15, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their federal muster)?

That six-week gap made an important difference. As of late-April 1863, all signs indicated that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker intended to send the Army of the Potomac into another engagement. (And—as you know—he certainly did. On April 30, the army embarked upon the Chancellorsville Campaign, which resulted in 12,300 federal losses.)

As the weather warmed up around the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Falmouth, the two-year men of the 34th New York worried the federal government would hold them into service until June, thus squeezing one last campaign out of them.

To put it another way: would they have to fight in the third-bloodiest battle of the war, or would they get to go home one day before that battle began?

As the Army of the Potomac readied for the march, the soldiers in the 34th New York circulated a petition, reminding the army’s generals that their terms of enlistment would expire on May 1. Under no condition, they said, would they obey orders beyond that date. On April 30, when it appeared that no one had taken any preparations to send the regiment home, the soldiers forwarded their petition to their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, a West Point graduate famous for fighting the Sioux in the Dakota territories. The petition—which, by all accounts, employed tempered, inoffensive language—seemed to sway General Sully. After reading it, he agreed that the two-year men ought to be discharged the very next day. Sully endorsed the petition and sent it to the headquarters of his divisional commander, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, another West Pointer who became famous for fighting Plains Indians in the postwar era.

As Civil War buffs might expect, General Gibbon didn’t see the situation the same way as General Sully. Gibbon possessed a sterner reputation and he held a stricter interpretation of a soldier’s duty; he didn’t believe any soldier had the right to negotiate the terms of his muster-out with his commanders. Predictably, Gibbon returned the petition without endorsement, a clear indication that he wanted Sully to support the government’s preferred muster-out date, June 15.

Apparently, Sully didn’t expect Gibbon to respond this way and he certainly didn’t have a scheme for how to convince the men of the 34th New York to stick around for another six weeks. When the sun rose on May 1, Sully had not yet resolved the problem. At 8 A.M., the six companies that believed their time had expired stacked arms and refused to perform any additional duty. (It’s not entirely clear what the other four companies did, but they appear to have readied themselves for the march.)

Dutifully, the 34th New York’s commander, Colonel Byron Laflin, sent General Sully a note, stating that “some companies” of his regiment had “refused to do duty this morning.” The scene must have looked eerie. All along the regimental street, the regiment had stacked weapons, and some of the men had already broken open their personal liquor stores, celebrating the end of their service. Writing with considerable understatement, Second Lieutenant Louis N. Chapin of Company C reported that when he arrived at camp that morning, he found things “somewhat upset.”

Still unwilling to make a decision, Sully reported this news to Gibbon, who promptly told him to send another regiment to disarm the mutinous soldiers, place them under guard, and allow no further communication with them. Then, not long after, Gibbon sent a second message to Sully, instructing him to “use any and every means to quell the mutiny” and “bring the men back to their duty.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, Gibbon promised not to interfere with Sully’s authority, unless he publicly announced that he had lost his ability to “maintain his authority in his own command.”

Dutifully, Sully obeyed Gibbon’s first order. He directed the 15th Massachusetts to arrest sixty to seventy of the 34th New York’s mutinous ringleaders, a number of whom had already become visibly intoxicated. However, Sully proved reluctant to obey Gibbon’s second order, that is, to “use any and every means” to quell the mutiny. Believing he possessed no right to order the six companies of the 34th New York to take up their arms, Sully sent Gibbon a written reply, telling him that the majority of the mutineers were perfectly quiet and respectful and that it would be useless to threaten them. Perhaps sarcastically, Sully wrote that the only way to force them to return to their senses would require “shooting” a few of them on the spot. However, if that was what Gibbon wanted, Sully remarked, then Gibbon had to make that call.

At this point, Gibbon had grown tired of Sully’s handling of the situation. Several hours had passed and the 34th New York was nowhere closer to getting on the road than it had been at daybreak. Already, the sound of battle could be heard echoing from the vicinity of Zoan Church. Further, Sully had incautiously written that it was “not in his power to enforce discipline in his command.” Believing that Sully had just admitted to being too weak of spirit or too weak of mind to deal with this crisis, Gibbon approached the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts, ordering them to load their weapons and form line-of-battle facing the mutineers. Eyes agog, the Massachusetts soldiers did as Gibbon requested, wondering if he really intended to have them slaughter the unarmed New Yorkers. So remembered First Lieutenant David M. Earle of that regiment, “no one doubted he would do it.”

It was noon. So far, the mutiny had lasted four hours. Angrily, Gibbon addressed the mutineers, threatening to shoot their ringleaders if they did not perform duty right away. When none of the mutineers budged, Gibbon began insulting the whole regiment, telling them they were no better than the rebels on the other side of the river. If every member of the 34th New York did not return to duty immediately, he vowed to order the 15th Massachusetts to open fire and “kill every man it could.” Although Gibbon’s recollections claimed that his threats ultimately swayed the mutineers, in reality, he brought them to heel by relenting to one of their demands. Gibbon implored them to obey orders, promising that if they did so, he would endorse their petition—which he had earlier rejected—vowing to seek justice on their behalf.

This seemed to quell the “mutiny,” if one could call it that, and one by one, the soldiers of the 34th New York took up their arms and formed ranks. The regiment marched onward as if the incident had never happened. To his credit, Gibbon later admitted that he rode away from the scene trembling, apparently upset that he had come so close to ordering the 15th Massachusetts to open fire. Like many generals, he talked a big game, but his harsh words didn’t reflect his mood. He admitted that he shook “at the thought of what might have happened.”

The bad news might have ended there, but another ugly incident soon followed. Gibbon relieved Sully of his command. (Coincidentally enough, the 34th New York’s commander, Col. Laflin, assumed command of the brigade.) Eventually, General Sully stood before a board of inquiry, and he successfully defended his actions. That board restored him to rank; however, he did not return to the Army of the Potomac. Instead, he went to the Dakotas to face the Sioux.

No further insurrectionist sentiment troubled the 34th New York, but I doubt anyone attached to the regiment believed they had received justice at the hands of the government. Lieutenant Louis Chapin stated his opinion rather matter-of-factly:

It is but natural that these men should think that their time was out May 1, 1863, for they had served the full two years. . . . We think every candid mind must admit the men had a fairly good case. Some of these men had enlisted immediately after President Lincoln’s call was issued, April 15, 1861, and as the regiment was not mustered out until June 30, 1863, they were really in service two years, two and a half months.

No one can doubt the truth in Chapin’s statement. The volunteers of the 34th New York had served their time. Why did Gibbon feel it necessary to bully them? That answer is rather complex. Of course, no commander wants to admit he has lost his authority over his troops, but I don’t think that truth fully explains Gibbon’s reaction to the mutiny. In May 1863, the Army of the Potomac needed a big win. Its failure on the Peninsula, the removal of McClellan in November, the bloodshed at Fredericksburg, and the humiliation of the Mud March all weighed heavily on the minds of the generals. The army needed a victory at Chancellorsville lest its reputation deteriorate further. As of May 1863, no one was in the mood to listen when 430 two-year men chose to quibble about the date of their muster-out.

If the Army of the Potomac had been basking in the glow of victory, perhaps the 34th New York would have been treated differently. But instead, while carrying around the albatross of defeat, it exhibited no sympathy toward short-timers.

The officers of the 34th New York are photographed here on April 24, 1863, just one week before the mutiny. They are (l to r): Captain William H. Warford, Captain Emerson S. Northup, Major Wells Sponable, Captain John O. Scott, Lt. Col. John Beverly, Capt. Charles Riley, Col. Byron Laflin.

This shows the location of the 34th New York's 1863 mutiny. This 1902 photograph depicts the fields around Falmouth, the location of the regiment's winter encampment. The 34th New York encamped atop the hill at left-center.

Brig. General Alfred Sully commanded the 1st Brig., 2nd Div., 2nd Corps. When the mutiny occurred, he sympathized with it. However, for not quelling it, Sully's divisional commander relieved him of his command.

Here is a photograph of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon--the famous one seen in all those fancy Iron Brigade books. In May 1863, Gibbon commanded the 2nd Div., 2nd Corps. When the 34th New York broke out in mutiny, he moved quickly to quell it. According to his memoir, he threatened the New Yorkers with death. In reality, he may have merely placated them with empty promises.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Shot in the Mouth

Hey, Tales from the Army of the Potomac fans! “Shot in the [blank]!” is back! This is my recurring series about Army of the Potomac soldiers who received wounds to unusual parts of their anatomy. I present these chilling tales as a way to understand the lingering effects of combat wounds, as reminders that Civil War veterans suffered from the effects of their gunshot lacerations long after they initially received them. This latest installment—called, “Shot in the Mouth!”—is a case in point. This particular wound finished off its victim in horrifying fashion some twenty-eight years later.

Let’s get down to it.

At 8:30 A.M., June 25, 1862, Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover’s Brigade surged across a swampy thicket south of the Williamsburg Road, commencing what became known as the Battle of Oak Grove, the first engagement of the Seven Days’ Battles. (By the end of the day, more than 1,060 men had been killed, wounded, or captured.)

As General Grover’s bluecoats neared a line of Confederate-held earthworks, the 1st Massachusetts Infantry deployed its skirmishers. A soldier in the 2nd New Hampshire watched those skirmishers enter a thicket (which is now vanished due to the construction of the Richmond International Airport). Confident of success, the New Hampshire soldier thought the Massachusetts troops would do well “to wake up the enemy.” Hardly a minute had elapsed when a crash of musketry followed, and wounded soldiers came streaming out of the thicket. The Massachusetts skirmishers had stumbled into the Confederate line and caught hell from Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright’s Georgia brigade. The New Hampshire soldier remembered what he saw next: “Among these [retreating troops] was an officer, who had caught a bullet in the mouth. He attempted to tell General Hooker something, but his face was so badly lacerated that his words were utterly unintelligible; but his manner and gestures told plainer than words that the First [Massachusetts] was in a tight place.”

At the time, the observer from the 2nd New Hampshire, Private Martin Haynes, didn’t ponder the fate of the gravely-injured Massachusetts officer. With the 1st Massachusetts calling for help, the 2nd New Hampshire had to plunge into the thicket and go to its rescue, which it did, losing forty-two men in the process. But the sight of the wounded Massachusetts officer undoubtedly seared itself into Haynes’s memory. Thirty-four years later, as Haynes completed the 2nd New Hampshire’s regimental history, he recollected the disturbing scene: a man wounded in the mouth, uselessly spouting a bloody sentence to General Hooker. What a horrifying image!

So who was he? Which unfortunate officer suffered a mouth wound at Oak Grove? Did he survive his awful injury?

You know me; I don’t give up on these stories. I had to find the identity of this critical casualty.

It didn’t take long. Undoubtedly, the injured officer was Captain Abial G. Chamberlain of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Captain Chamberlain commanded Company K, 1st Massachusetts. His wound, graphically recorded by the attendant surgeon, was the only one from Oak Grove that matched Martin Haynes’s description. Specifically, the ball clipped Captain Chamberlain’s lower right lip, split the end of his tongue, and then crashed into his jaw, breaking it, but not shattering it. A few members of Chamberlain’s regiment briefly recorded the sight of the wounded officer. Private Charles C. Perkins, Company K’s bugler, jotted in his diary, “Saw Capt. C. brought in. Shot in the mouth. Jaw fractured.”

The wound wasn’t severe enough to terminate Captain Chamberlain’s army career. After several months of recuperation, he returned to his regiment, but he did not stay for long. In 1863, he was transferred to lighter duty, acting as provost marshal of Riker’s Island, New York. But, while there, he decided to return to combat. He passed examination by the Casey Board—the special tribunal that tested officers who wished to command African-American regiments—and on November 30, 1863, Chamberlain received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was put in command of the 37th USCT (also known as the 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteers). By February 1864, he was in Norfolk, Virginia, raising the regiment. Colonel Chamberlain’s regiment joined the unit known as “Wild’s African Brigade,” named for its abolitionist commander, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild. Chamberlain and his men joined the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and fought at the Battle of Fort Pocahontas, at the Siege of Petersburg, and in the Appomattox Campaign. Amazingly, Chamberlain served for the rest of the conflict, mustering out on June 16, 1865. After the war, he commanded Wilmington, North Carolina, as provost marshal attached to the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Upon hearing this, you might think that Colonel Chamberlain recovered from his mouth wound and went on to live a long, happy life, but if you thought that, you would be incorrect. Chamberlain’s ordeal grew worse. As he aged, he experienced degenerative paralysis. Apparently, the ball that wounded him at Oak Grove had passed through his trigeminal (or trifacial) nerve, the nerve that controls biting and chewing. Although the jaw itself healed in the aftermath of the 1862 battle, the trigeminal nerve slowly deteriorated as the years passed. As that crucial nerve decayed, it caused problems in other parts of his body. Chamberlain’s eyesight and hearing dimmed, his limbs became paralyzed, he experienced bowel and bladder leakage, and he even lost cognitive function. In essence, he became a complete invalid, unable to move, carry on conversation, or carry out simple bodily functions.

Initially, Chamberlain received $20 per month disability pension, but in 1888, that was increased to $45 per month. At the time, such a sizable increase required Congressional approval. So, strange as it may seem, several letters testifying to Colonel Chamberlain’s humiliating infirmities had to be read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is from these letters that we know how badly Chamberlain suffered during the last years of his life.

Dr. A. Elliot Paine, a former surgeon attached to the 104th USCT, testified that:

I find him [Col. Chamberlain] confined to his bed, very much emaciated, the left leg being flexed on thigh and very rigid, being nearly impossible to straighten it; the next arm being somewhat the same. He still has involuntary condition of the bowels and bladder. He requires an attendant all of the time, he being helpless.

Another examiner described Chamberlain’s condition even more graphically:

I find a scar on the right side of lower lip, extending to jaw, also on the end of tongue. The scar on the lip is about an inch long, not adherent. Another cicatrix [scar] about an inch below the lower jaw, which is adherent to the bone, with an indentation in the bone about one-quarter inch in depth and one-half  inch in width not tender to pressure. His walk is feeble and staggering. His intellect is dull; appears bewildered when questioned. The power of motion of the left arm and leg is greatly impaired, so as to require help in dressing. He has only partial control of his bladder; his urine runs away keeping his clothing wet. I think the paralysis is due to cerebral lesion, caused probably by injury of branches of the trifacial nerve, lying in the track of the ball.

Perhaps the most compelling account came from Chamberlain’s wife. She wrote:

I declare to you, and to all the world, that my husband, Col. A. G. Chamberlain, late captain First Massachusetts Volunteers, is wholly incapacitated from even feeding himself. He has lost his mind, and his mouth is stiff from paralysis caused from the effects of the wound in mouth. I fear lockjaw; he is paralyzed almost wholly. I have to lift him whenever he is moved in bed; he can not turn himself even. Please send his pension, or see that it is sent. It is one of the clearest cases on record of total disability. If you can not prove it send someone to see the dying man, and please send relief before it is too late. Yours, in trouble, Mrs. E. R. B. Chamberlain.

Moved by these accounts, Congress approved the request to increase Chamberlain’s pension, on account that the nerve damage was “extraordinary in character.”

Chamberlain did not live much longer. He died on May 9, 1890, at Brockton, Massachusetts. He was fifty-nine-years-old.

Before checking up on this story, I didn’t think that mouth wounds could be so horrifying, that is, so capable of causing prolonged suffering through progressive nerve decay, brain damage, and paralysis. Colonel Chamberlain suffered acutely in his final years, and to add insult to injury, physicians had to submit testimony about his urine-soaked bedclothes to Congress!

Such thorough misery! Sometimes it makes me wonder about the Georgia soldier who shot Captain Chamberlain. No matter how much hatred that unnamed Confederate soldier may have harbored against Yankees, could he really have wanted the person he shot to suffer so long and so acutely? Whoever he was, I highly I doubt that knowledge of Chamberlain’s suffering would have given him satisfaction. Luckily for that nameless Georgia sharpshooter, he never learned what his musket ball had done.

In any event, please take care of your mouths, folks. They are lifelines to our sanity.

Here is Col. Abial G. Chamberlain (1831-1890), shown in 1861 as captain, Co. K, 1st Massachusetts Infantry. This was before he suffered the horrifying mouth wound at Oak Grove.

This map by David Woodbury depicts the Union and Confederate positions at Oak Grove, June 25, 1862. Captain Chamberlain belonged to Grover's Brigade, the unit that attacked from east to west across the middle of the map.