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.

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