Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Protesting the McClellan Testimonial: Photographing the 119th Pennsylvania, Part 3.

In this latest series of posts, I’ve been busy profiling Union soldiers pictured in an incredible image. It shows the field and staff of the 119th Pennsylvania encamped at Wellford’s Ford. In the previous posts, I introduced you to the tale of the valiant Major Henry Truefitt, who fell at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, and the tale of the disgraced Lt. Col. Gideon Clark, who reclaimed his honor thanks to a timely interview with Abraham Lincoln.

Now it’s time to profile this fellow with the beard.

Here is Captain William C. Gray, the commander of Company E, 119th Pennsylvania.

This is Captain William C. Gray of Company E. Captain Gray mustered in on August 10, 1862. On June 29, 1864, long after this photograph was struck, he acquired the rank of major, replacing Major Truefitt, who was killed in action. And during the final days of the war, Gray took command of the 119th Pennsylvania, relieving Lt. Col. Clark who fell wounded at the Battle of the Petersburg Breakthrough, April 2, 1865.

So what about Captain Gray? What story do I have to tell? I don’t have much information on him, except that he participated in a little-known protest that reverberated through the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. Gray led a campaign to object to the circulation of the “McClellan Testimonial.”

For those of you who have never heard of it, the McClellan Testimonial was an effort by Democratic officers within the Army of the Potomac to amass a massive fund to purchase a “mark of respect”—a presentation sword, most likely—to honor Major General George B. McClellan. The idea originated from an officer attached to Major General George Meade’s headquarters staff, and in September 1863, the Democratic officers began circulating a document asking the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to donate a portion of their monthly salaries to fund the gift. (Specifically, it asked privates to donate 10 cents, non-commissioned officers to donate 25 cents, lieutenants to donate $1, captains to donate $1.50, colonels to donate $5, brigadier generals to donate $10, and major generals to donate $20.) The circular predicted the reward would reach $50,000.

A few regiments objected to his obnoxious request, claiming that it wasn’t intended to be a charitable gift to McClellan for all his years of service, but instead, it had been hatched as a political scheme to boost his chances at becoming the next Democratic front-runner in the election of 1864. Several regiments published objections to the circular, arguing that army officers had no right to ask soldiers to participate in such an overtly political act. The 60th New York stood out as the most famous of these regiments. But, the 119th Pennsylvania joined in as well. Captain Gray and another officer, Captain James Dykes, organized the anti-testimonial resolutions. When completed, the other officers endorsed them and sent them to their local newspapers as proof the army was not uniformly in favor of the Democratic Party’s aggrandizement of McClellan. Here’s what Gray’s resolutions stated:

Resolved, That we consider the movement as an ingenious political scheme, designed for some other object than as a mark of respect to General McClellan; or if not so designed, it will be used by political demagogues as a weapon for the accomplishment of their unholy purposes.
Resolved, That while making this declaration, we are unwilling to believe that General McClellan has any knowledge of its object or purposes.

Beyond this, I have little else to say about Captain Gray. But his resolutions tell us quite a bit about his character. Few regiments in the Army of the Potomac had the courage to stand up to the McClellan Testimonial, but thanks to Gray’s leadership, the 119th Pennsylvania did. Right or wrong, Gray let future generations know where he stood.

Here's the image of the 119th Pennsylvania's field and staff. Captain Gray, the author of the anti-McClellan Testimonial resolutions, can be seen standing at left.

This photograph, likely taken the same day as the one above, Captain Gray and his unit, Company E, 119th Pennsylvania, stand at attention. Captain Gray can be seen standing third from the left with his sword drawn. Company E is the unit standing at left-center. The other unit--the one standing at right-center--is a different company. Sadly, I do not know which one it is.


  1. Tim, Great work again. Is it possible that in the photo of Co. E that they are in two platoons since I don't see a captain on the right of the other unit?

    1. I thought that exact thing at first, but I dismissed it when I looked carefully. I don't think it is two platoons because there are two first sergeants. It's a little hard to see in this photograph, but there is one first (or orderly) sergeant at the end of each company. Further, I'm going to post another image a little later on, that is from this same series. In that one, you will see both first sergeants sitting together. (And you can match them up to the men in this photograph.) The uniform insignia--with three chevrons and a diamond--is clear.