Friday, June 7, 2019

Rebel Barbarities: The Battle of West Point, Part 3.

“Rebel Barbarities!”

In the month of May 1862, northern newspapers were filled with headlines describing atrocities committed by the Confederate forces. The Battle of West Point—May 7, 1862—had produced a depressing butcher’s bill. Union forces took the worst beating. After the battle, Major General William B. Franklin’s division counted up 50 killed, 113 wounded, and 28 missing (for a total of 191). By contrast, the Confederates commanded by Chase Whiting had lost only 8 killed and 40 wounded.

However, the news surrounding one particular casualty provoked white-hot outrage from the people of the North. His name was Private Francis Mummery. He belonged to Company G, 16th New York. Mummery had enlisted in Potsdam, New York, at age 20. When the fighting began at 9 A.M., Mummery was wounded and left behind by his retreating comrades. Confederates belonging to John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade occupied the ground, and sometime around mid-afternoon, they killed him. After the Confederates retreated to Barhamsville, Mummery’s regiment reoccupied the position. There, they recovered Mummery’s remains, and what they saw shocked them.

Mummery had been executed. Using a Bowie knife, the Confederates who captured him had slit his throat. Not only that, but to hide the crime, they took his body and tossed it into a marsh. (Most likely, they tossed it into the swampy ground at the edge of Davis Pond near where it meets present-day state route 273, or Farmer’s Drive.)

The New Yorkers reported this war crime to their commander, Colonel Joseph Howland, who, in turn, reported it to his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. John Newton. Newton’s report summarized Mummery’s murder this way: “The enemy committed inhuman barbarities upon some of the wounded. One was found with his throat cut, and another bore the marks of eight bayonet stabs in his body.” Years later, the 16th New York’s unit history repeated the same story almost verbatim: “One of the Sixteenth had his throat cut and another had not less than seven bayonet stabs on his body; neither of these had otherwise fatal wounds, and all of the dead and wounded were stripped of their valuables and clothing. Comment is unnecessary.”

The story of Mummery’s throat-cutting took off like wildfire. Members of the 16th New York wrote to local newspapers, making it clear that a crime had been committed. For instance, Major Joel J. Seaver wrote to a local newspaper, saying, “Many of the dead and wounded left on the field were stripped of portions of their clothing, their pockets rifled of valuables, and, in one case, the most horrid barbarities perpetrated on that person, as that of Mummery, whose throat was cut and body thrown into a marsh. Our men behaved well and all are eager to avenge the death of their comrades.”

Newspapers across the nation picked up the story, and as per their usual style, embellished it. For instance, take this account from the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette and Commercial Journal. It read:

The murdering of our wounded men by the rebels has infuriated our regiments. Several of them held meetings this morning and furiously resolved never to take prisoners. General Franklin discussed the propriety of exposing the mutilated bodies of our murdered men to the whole army, but the order has not been issued. I am informed that the Texans gave water to our wounded and covered them with blankets, comforting them with the assurance that ‘their friends would soon be after them.’ But members of the Hampton Legion—composed of South Carolina ‘gentlemen’—cursed our mangled men with bitter oaths, boasting that they had ‘cut the throats’ of sundry d—d Yankees.

Obviously, there were a few exaggerations in the above passage. Hampton’s Legion did not commit the killing of Mummery. It was the 4th Texas, the unit this writer identified as giving water to the Union wounded. Further, there is no way General Franklin considered putting Mummery’s body on display. Such an act would have been in utterly bad taste, and no soldier in the Union army ever mentioned such an unsightly event happening. But like many gullible war correspondents, this one believed salacious rumors and printed them as fact.

Memory of Mummery’s throat-cutting faded from the collective consciousness as bigger news stories supplanted it—and the months of June and July 1862 provided no shortage of earth-shaking headlines. But for the rest of the war, veterans of Franklin’s Division always believed that Confederates had committed a heinous crime at Brick House Point. In the minds of the bluecoats, any soldier who slit the throat of a wounded man was no soldier at all; he was a savage.

However, seven years after the Battle of West Point, new information muddied the picture the Union veterans had created about Mummery’s death. In February 1869, General Newton M. Curtis—who had once served as captain of Mummery’s company—was traveling on a steamship across the Gulf of Mexico. While on board, he met two veterans who once belonged to Hood’s Texas Brigade. Curtis, who had long wondered about the particulars of Mummery’s death, asked the Texans if they remembered anything unusual about the Battle of West Point. One man said that nothing unusual happened, but then the other burst out, “That was the place where we cut the Yank’s throat!”

Not knowing that Curtis had been Mummery’s commander, the Texan proceeded to explain what had happened. He claimed the men of the 4th Texas had found Mummery wounded and unable to stand. A cluster of Texans leveled their guns at him and demanded his surrender. Promptly, Mummery drew out a seven-shot pistol. (Apparently, before their regiment left New York, dozens of enlisted soldiers in the 16th New York had been armed with pistols, donations from well-meaning citizens. When the regiment reached Alexandria, an order required all of them to relinquish their side arms. Mummery refused and kept his pistol.) 

Mummery began firing and each one of his shots hit a Confederate soldier, adding to the pile of dead and wounded men around him. (Presumably, he didn’t kill that many. If the Confederates lost only eight men during the whole battle, Mummery could not have killed every Texan at which he aimed.) Livid that Mummery had dispatched another seven men, the Texans believed he needed to die violently. The Texas veteran speaking to Newton Curtis continued his story: “It was thought that a wounded man, whose line of battle had been driven from the field, and who thereafter continued to fight on his own account, deserved to be summarily dealt with, so we cut his throat.”

No doubt alarmed by this confession, Curtis considered the Texan’s statement and concluded that it made some sense. In other instances in world military history, men who refused to surrender received no mercy. But beyond a passing thought, Curtis made no further comment about it in his 1906 memoir—which was a bit strange for him, since he usually stated his opinion about controversial incidents with relative ease.

Perhaps the Texans had a legitimate reason for ending Mummery’s life the way they did, but the reality of what happened was far less important than the life the story had taken in the battle’s aftermath. In cutting Mummery’s throat, the Confederates had sealed their reputation in the minds of many northerners, who were only too ready to believe the worst about people who hailed from a slave-holding civilization. As soon as the southerners gave them the evidence they needed, it became the only way northerners judged them: as a malevolent, barbarous people

But one last thought should go here. Did the soldiers of the 16th New York ever retaliate? 

Well the answer to that is, no. ” Near as I can tell, the soldiers from Franklin’s division never submitted to base impulses. As angry as they were, they committed no eye-for-an-eye reprisals against the Confederates. They did not slit the throats of prisoners. They let restraint—not vengeance—guide their future endeavors.

Comment is unnecessary.

Here's a newspaper article from Pennsylvania that depicted the spreading of the throat-cutting rumor from the Battle of West Point.

This illustration depicts the Battle of West Point (or Eltham's Landing), May 7, 1862. The image is a little inaccurate. You can see Confederate fortifications in the distance. None existed. 

It's tricky to pinpoint where Pvt. Mummery had his throat cut, but I'm guessing it happened here, along present-day VA Route 273. It's also the location where Cpl. George Love almost killed John Bell Hood.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Lucky and the Luckless: The Battle of West Point, Part 2.

In the previous post, I introduced my readers to a little-known battle called West Point. Particularly, I discussed the confusing skirmish that started the battle.

For this post, I’d like to talk about another incident from that fight. It involves two men: a brave, but lucky, Union officer who survived a terrible chest wound and an equally brave, but luckless, Union private who dragged him off the field. This story involves anger, crying, forgiveness, Abraham Lincoln’s only tall-person joke, and the Medal of Honor.

Strap yourself in for this one!

But first, I should say a few things about how the Battle of West Point unfolded. On May 7, 1862, Maj. Gen. William Franklin’s Division had one goal: to protect the vital beachhead it had claimed the previous day. Originally, Franklin had hoped to move his troops southward to Barhamsville and Burnt Ordinary, but he wisely scrapped that plan when, the night before, he learned of the presence of Confederate troops. Every single one of his regiments deployed skirmishers, and all morning, so recalled a member of the 32nd New York, they kept a “sharp lookout for the enemy, who were now believed to be in close proximity to our line.”

Franklin’s Division was well poised to defend itself. Although it stood with its back against the York River, it numbered 11,000 officers and men and it had the support of five U.S. Navy gunboats whose crews could lend fire-support from the river. If the Confederates attacked, the Yanks could give them a warm welcome.

As things stood, the Confederates belonging to Brig. Gen. Chase Whiting’s division had no idea where the Union line actually stood. Although General Joe Johnston had given orders for Whiting’s men to “feel out” the enemy position, Whiting’s men carelessly wandered into Union skirmish line, making it impossible to maintain momentum.

The Confederate cavalry didn’t do Whiting’s men any favors. Some of them had fallen asleep at their vedette posts the night before and did nothing to guide Whiting’s infantrymen when they came passing through. Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood nearly lost his life because of poor reconnaissance. Around 9 A.M., Hood found several Confederate cavalry scouts asleep at their posts. Paying them no mind, he marched his brigade through the line of vedettes, stopping only when he encountered Union skirmishers. As Hood remembered it, “I did not discover the Federals till they were almost close enough to shake hands.” A wide-eyed Union corporal leveled his weapon at Hood, demanding his surrender! Having a quick choice to make, surrender or run for it, Hood leaped from his horse and ordered, “Forward into line!”

Hood’s lead regiment, the 4th Texas, began changing formation, going from column into line-of-battle. The men hastily loaded their muskets as they made the tricky change of formation. (Earlier in the morning, Hood had given orders to march with unloaded weapons. Now, as stared down the barrel of a Union rifle, he greatly regretted that decision.) As Hood frantically watched his line form, the Union soldier who accosted him—Corporal George J. Love of the 16th New York—drew a bead on him. For an instant, it looked as if Hood’s number was up. Luckily, one of his men had defied orders and marched the entire way to Brick House Point with a loaded weapon. He fired upon Corporal Love, killing him, and saved his commander’s life.

With that, the Battle of West Point was on.

Hood’s brigade deployed in full line of battle, pushing back two companies from the 16th New York, a regiment recruited in St. Lawrence and Clinton Counties. Companies F and G (from the towns of Potsdam and De Peyster), fought hard, giving way stubbornly. Between them, they numbered three officers and 102 enlisted men. During the battle, the New Yorkers lost six killed, eleven wounded, and two captured.

One of the wounded was the captain of Company G, Newton Martin Curtis. If you’ve done any extensive reading on the Civil War, you’ve probably bumped into him before. One thing that set Captain Curtis apart from most officers was his enormous size. He was huge. He stood at 6’7’’ and weighed over 225 pounds. Famously, when he met Abraham Lincoln, who was three inches shorter than him, the President mocked him for his gargantuan height, asking, “How do you know when your feet are cold?” (Apparently, Lincoln used this joke on several other freakishly tall Union soldiers. I suspect it was his only “tall-guy” joke.) Later on, after Curtis had been wounded, one of his nurses, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, remarked, “He is said to measure six feet seven inches,—and I believe it, looking at him as he lies on a cot pieced out at the foot with two chairs.”

At West Point, Captain Curtis was wounded by a ball that ripped through his chest. Somehow, he survived. Although the wound appeared mortal, it did not strike his heart, his arteries, or any of his ribs. Undoubtedly, Curtis was lucky—very lucky—to be alive. Curtis was immediately transported from the Brick House Point beachhead on a hospital ship—first on the William Small and then on the Knickerbocker—and on May 18, he arrived at the Fairfax Street Hospital in Alexandria.

By May 23, Curtis was already feeling better. His doctor wrote, “The captain has been walking about his room all day and talks of having a carriage tomorrow and taking a drive. . . . He is lively and jovial as ever, can get out of bed and walk without staggering.” One day, an acquaintance, Chaplain Henry Hopkins remarked, “Captain Curtis, I am sure that the Lord has some great work for you to perform, else he would not have preserved your life when you were so seriously wounded.” Far less religious, Curtis replied, “Chaplain, I am inclined to the opinion that the Lord will not call upon me to undertake the service you suggest until after sixty days [the duration of his medical leave] have passed.” Curtis knew that divine hands had less to do with his recuperation than the assistance of the brave soldier who had carried him from the field at the critical moment.

In July, Curtis caught a fever, which left him bed-ridden for several weeks, but he rejoined his regiment in time for the Maryland Campaign. A few days later, he left the 16th New York to receive the lieutenant colonelcy of the 142nd New York. Curtis went on to become a brigade commander and he fought on the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, at New Market Heights, and at Fort Fisher. At the latter battle, he was wounded four times, but he led his men over the works and he was among the first Union soldiers to pass through the heavily-defended stockade gate. Curtis ended the war as a brevet major general, and after the war, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Fisher. Later, he served as a treasury agent; for seven years, he served as state assemblyman; and after that, he served for two terms as a U.S. Congressman. Curtis died on January 8, 1910, at age 74, and he was buried in Ogdensburg, New York. Presently, there is a statue dedicated to him inside the Ogdensburg Cemetery.

Certainly, Newton Martin Curtis was a man made by the Civil War. Courageous and unstoppable, he ended the war as one of the Union army’s most acclaimed luminaries.

But, apparently, there was one soldier who didn’t think much of him—at least not initially. His name was Private George W. Wonless.

Back in 1861, while the 16th New York was encamped at its winter quarters—dubbed Camp Franklin—Captain Curtis had a confrontation with this man, Private Wonless. The origins of the confrontation are a bit unclear, but apparently, Wonless, who was of Scottish descent, took umbrage when another Scottish soldier was tossed into the guardhouse for public intoxication. Wonless tried to get this soldier released, appealing to several officers, but to no avail. When Wonless spoke to the colonel about it, he used such foul language that the colonel had him arrested and tossed into the guardhouse as well. (Now, I should state that Curtis never identified this soldier by name, but it had to be Wonless, as he was the only soldier to fit the description. “Wonless,” or “Wanless” is a Scottish name. It means “luckless.” Hence, the title of this post.)

When he was finally released from arrest, Wonless was in a foul mood. He hated it that his company commander, Captain Curtis, had not intervened on his behalf, and when he left confinement, he vowed to transfer to another company. As Curtis recalled, “He had a strong disinclination to remain in my company, but bided his time for making his feelings known.” Eventually, in the spring of 1862, as the 16th New York made preparations to move to the Peninsula, Wonless overheard Curtis sharing his opinion about the sluggish movements of the army, and he seized upon that opportunity to request a transfer. Specifically, Curtis had said that he was perfectly content to wait until the army’s generals issued their orders to move, but Wonless interpreted that sentiment as evidence of cowardice. Confronting him, Wonless said, “I wish to leave your company, because I do not believe that you wish to fight. I want to go with men who do.” Insulted by the insinuation, Curtis told Wonless he would not allow the transfer. He needed every man to perform all the necessary duties of the company. However, once battle was joined, Curtis agreed that Wonless might fall in with whatever company he pleased. Unsatisfied with that arrangement, Wonless departed in “bad humor.”

Wonless’s low opinion of Captain Curtis did not last. At the Battle of West Point, he had a transformation. As the fighting swirled in and out of the woods around Brick House Point, Wonless suddenly saw Curtis in a different light. Whatever qualities were destined to make Curtis into a future Medal of Honor recipient were now seen clearly by Wonless. As Captain Curtis fell, pierced in the chest by a rebel bullet, Wonless came to his rescue. Somehow, Wonless carried his hulking captain to safety. (Again, let me remind readers, Curtis weighed 225 pounds! It must have been no easy feat for Wonless to pick him up.) As the 16th New York’s skirmishers gave way to Hood’s brigade, Wonless carried Curtis to safety.

For several hours, Curtis was kept inside a small cabin near the shoreline. At first glance, his wound appeared mortal. The surgeon who examined him informed him that he intended to put Curtis on a hospital transport as soon as possible, but most likely, his injury would soon end his life. All the while, Private Wonless stood outside the cabin, and overhearing the somber conversation, started to cry. The surgeon refused to let Wonless enter the cabin to say goodbye, but Wonless persistently remained outside the door, sobbing. Curtis recalled the next few moments: “When my attention was called to his weeping I requested that he be admitted. He came in, put his arms around my neck, and asked if I would forgive him for what he had said in Camp Franklin.”

Curtis never explained what happened next, but I assume he forgave his feisty Scottish recruit. Wonless had, after all, done something heroic, an action for which he might rightly deserve the yet-unknown Medal of Honor. In any event, the two soldiers reached an accord.

Two days later, the medical staff loaded Captain Curtis and the other wounded onto the steamer Wilson Small. Thus, Curtis began his road to recovery, a road that led him to generalship, to the U.S. Congress, and to the nation’s highest award for valor.

Curtis never saw Private George Wonless again. Six weeks later, Wonless was killed in action at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill. He was twenty-years-old.

Exactly one year after being wounded, on May 7, 1863, Colonel Curtis found himself on board a ship in the York River—in fact, he was on the very same ship that had deposited him at Brick House Landing during the Battle of West Point. Now, Curtis was commander of the 142nd New York. While looking over the railing, he called over his adjutant, First Lieutenant Birney B. Keeler. Curtis recognized Brick House Point, and pointed out the spot to his adjutant. Keeler described what happened next:

On Wednesday the 7th of May, 1862, was fought the battle of West Point. It is well known that the Col., then Captain Curtis of the 16th, received a very severe wound there—one that well-nigh cost him his life—preventing him from re-joining his regiment till the army reached Harrison's Landing in July and then only to be taken with a fever and spend many weary weeks in hospital. One year from that very hour on Thursday, the 7th day of May, 1863, I stood with him on the deck of the S. R. Spaulding—in which his regiment was embarked, and the very same on which his old regiment had arrived here the year before—while as we steamed past the exact spot, he pointed out the battle ground and the house where he had been carried still standing right by the shore. It was fitting indeed, that the anniversary of the day which came so near proving fatal to him, and on which he won his hard earned laurels, should find him in command of a battalion where before he had commanded a company, yet I thought the coincidence a sad one, for it brought to mind again the failures, the mismanagement, the disasters which have left the status of the armies in Virginia so nearly as it was one year ago.

As Colonel Curtis reflected on the Battle of West Point on its one-year anniversary, I hope he paid a passing thought to the young man who summoned the strength to carry him off the field—the feisty, the regretful, the “luckless” lad: George Wonless.

This photograph depicts Newton Martin Curtis in 1864 as brigadier general. During the Battle of West Point, he served as commander of Company G, 16th New York.

Monday, June 3, 2019

An Encounter in the Dark: The Battle of West Point, Part 1.

My next three posts will profile a little-known engagement, the Battle of West Point, or as the Confederates called it, Eltham’s Landing. It was fought on May 7, 1862, and resulted in 239 casualties. Although the butcher’s bill was fairly light—especially when compared to the blood-letting soon to occur near Richmond—it was long-remembered by its participants because it resulted in the first combat experience of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Division (soon to become the 1st Division, 6th Corps). It’s a fascinating little battle that involved an amphibious landing, Medal of Honor-level heroism, and a war crime.

But all that will be covered in future posts.

In this first installment, I’d like to tell the story of the first 6th Corps soldier to fall in the battle, Lieutenant John L. Bailey. It happened this way: In the middle of the night, two Confederate scouts bumbled into two Union skirmishers and they exchanged fire. One member of each army fell dead, and this mortal exchange triggered heavier fighting on the following morning. In other words, Lieutenant Bailey fell during a nighttime encounter that served as the prelude to the larger battle.

What I find most interesting is that Union and Confederate accounts describing Bailey’s death tend to match up. That is to say, they explained the encounter in the exact same way. In fact, in the aftermath, the Confederates, too, mourned the death of their first to fall. In a way, the simultaneous deaths of Bailey and the Confederate soldier who fell next to him—Sergeant William Hartley—were mirror images of each other, two admirable men going down in a confused exchange of gunfire.

But before we launch into that story, let’s first explain why the Battle of West Point took place.

The Battle of West Point happened because, during the siege of Yorktown (April 4—May 4, 1862), Maj. Gen. George McClellan came up with an ingenious plan. Having lined up his artillery in preparation for the bombardment of Yorktown, McClellan ordered Franklin’s Division—11,000 strong—to depart on a flotilla of transports, sail up the York River, and land on a beach called Brick House Point. Nearby, there was a plantation called Eltham.  Thus, Confederate forces called the ensuing engagement the “Battle of Eltham’s Landing.”

If Franklin’s troops moved fast enough, they could move southward through Barhamsville and Burnt Ordinary and hit Joe Johnston’s army as it retreated through Williamsburg. If the plan worked as McClellan intended, the Army of the Northern Virginia might get caught between two Union forces and be smashed for good.

Of course, the plan didn’t work as Little Mac intended. Unexpectedly, the Confederate army didn’t hold its position. Before McClellan could unleash his bombardment against Yorktown, General Johnston pulled his army back through Williamsburg, leaving the Yankees as masters of the field. Fearing the graycoats might slip his grasp, McClellan promptly sent Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman’s 3rd Corps in pursuit. On May 5, the 3rd Corps collided with the Confederates. At Williamsburg, they fought a hard battle, producing some 3,900 casualties and driving the Confederates from the city.

Meanwhile, on that same afternoon, Franklin’s division got to work. Those troops made haste for the newly-opened wharf at Yorktown. General Franklin reasoned that if his men reached Brick House Point by sundown, May 6, they might salvage McClellan’s plan and get in the Confederate rear. From the wharf at Yorktown, Franklin’s three brigades loaded onto transports and sailed upriver. 

Apparently, it was a beautiful voyage. From the deck of S. R. Spaulding, a New Yorker in Brig. Gen. Henry Slocum’s brigade recalled, “The journey was one that will never be forgotten by the soldiers of that command. The banks and sloping hills were green with the heavy foliage of May, and the beauty of the scene far exceeded anything before witnessed by the men on the soil of old Virginia.”

At first, it appeared as if Franklin’s troops arrived in time. At 3 P.M., May 6, the first of Franklin’s soldiers came ashore on pontoon boats, landing at Brick House Point, just opposite West Point. West Point was a small river town that occupied the spit of land between the Mattapony and Pamunkey Rivers. Its proximity to the landing zone caused the Union troops to call the ensuing engagement the Battle of West Point. The first regiment to come ashore—the 27th New York—deployed as skirmishers. Meanwhile, the rest of the division hastened to build an artificial dock out of the pontoon boats.

Everything looked prosperous for Franklin’s Division. The bluecoats were exactly where they needed to be to strike the Confederate rear. A twelve-mile march might have put them at “Burnt Ordinary” (modern-day Toano) by midnight. If they made the nighttime trek, they would be astride the Confederate line of retreat.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s men discovered they weren’t alone at Brick House Point. To their surprise, they discovered that Joe Johnston had dispatched Brig. Gen. Chase Whiting’s division—11,000 strong—to Barhamsville, just six miles south of the beachhead. Johnston had not intended to counterattack, but merely wanted to use Barhamsville as a line of retreat from Williamsburg. However, once Johnston learned of the presence of Franklin’s Division ahead of him, he felt it wise to brush it aside. Although he told General Whiting to “feel out” the Union beachhead, the Confederates under Whiting’s command made an aggressive attack. They attempted to drive the Union troops back into the York River.

The 27th New York—a regiment recruited in Broome, Monroe, and Livingston Counties—detected the Confederate presence. As the New York skirmishers trudged into the dense woods southeast of Eltham, they captured two soldiers belonging to the 5th Texas. (Apparently, one of the prisoners was very tall and the other was very short, which made their capture especially comical.) Upon hearing this, General Franklin decided (perhaps wisely) to hold his position until the size of the enemy threat could be determined. With little daylight remaining, he ordered a strong picket line advanced into the woods, while the rest of his troops bedded for the night.

The soldiers of 27th New York received no opportunity to sleep. They remained on alert all evening. In the darkness, it didn’t take long for Union and Confederate skirmishers to make contact with each other. At midnight, Second Lieutenant John L. Bailey of Company D was trooping his line of pickets. He had just stopped to speak to one of them, Corporal Henry Crocker, when he heard footsteps approaching. Both he and Crocker grabbed rifles. (Bailey, who was an officer, normally did not carry a rifle, but he grabbed one from Crocker’s file-mate, who was lying down).

Bailey shouted, “Halt! Who comes there?”

Two shadowy figures emerged from the brush. Both of them were Confederates. They raised their muskets. Two shots rang out. Only Crocker and one of the Confederates had fired, but both of them hit their targets. Crocker killed a Confederate sergeant by shooting him through the neck, and the other shadowy figure (who happened to be Private John Cussons of the 4th Alabama) killed Lieutenant Bailey. Struck in the heart, Bailey died instantly. He was twenty-six-years-old.

The noise alerted the skirmish lines on both sides. Throughout the woods, jumpy pickets began firing at nothing, alarmed by the sound of the two shots coming from the deadly encounter along the 27th New York’s picket line. Crocker and his companion raced back into the woods, reloading as they went. They spent the remainder of the night in silence, awaiting an attack that never came. The surviving Alabama soldier, Private Cussons, likewise beat a hasty retreat. He reported the news of his deadly encounter to his superiors.

The next morning, just prior to daylight, Corporal Crocker and a few others returned to the scene of the confrontation. They found Lieutenant Bailey’s body untouched. The ball that had killed him had gone through the company’s roll book, which he carried in his breast pocket. Bailey’s blood now saturated the pages. Crocker noticed how his own name had been smeared out. Somberly, the New Yorkers hauled Bailey’s body back to the landing, boxed it up, and buried it along the riverbank beneath two Weeping Willow trees.

The New Yorkers also buried the dead Confederate who fell within speaking distance of Bailey. Searching his clothes, they discovered him to be Sergeant William Hartley of Company B, 4th Alabama. The New Yorkers recovered Hartley’s revolver, an old English watch, and letters written by Hartley’s girlfriend who happened to live in New Haven, Connecticut. The New Yorkers buried Hartley where he fell, and one of them, Sergeant Charles N. Elliott, later mailed the watch to Hartley’s parents in Huntsville.

Sergeant Hartley was the 4th Alabama’s only casualty at the Battle of West Point, but his regiment felt his loss deeply. After the war, Adjutant Robert T. Coles recollected that he was “among the best in the regiment, a disciplinarian, and through his efforts, the morals of his company, which were not the best, were very much improved. Not only his company, but the entire regiment, deplored his death.”

Coles remembered an incident from May 1861, when Hartley reprimanded a young soldier, Private Anthony B. Shelby, for breach of discipline. After receiving an upbraiding, Shelby grew angry, saying that he would not be talked to by a “Damned Connecticut Yankee” (a reference to the fact that Hartley had attended Yale and courted a Connecticut sweetheart). Unable to restrain himself, Shelby punched Hartley in the chest as hard as he could. Hartley made no reaction. He crossed his arms and gave Shelby a withering look. In response, Shelby bowed his head sheepishly and slinked away. After the war, Shelby recalled that Hartley’s serene response was the “severest chastisement ever inflicted on anyone,” and he never forgot the valuable lesson Hartley had taught him about controlling his temper. Hartley’s loss, all agreed, had robbed the 4th Alabama of one of its brightest stars.

Likewise, the men of the 27th New York mourned their loss in similar fashion. Lieutenant Bailey had been a popular officer. The regimental historian later recalled, “Lieut. Bailey was from Binghamton, N. Y., and a young officer of great promise, and a favorite with the whole regiment. He had received his commission only a few days before, and this was his first tour of duty as an officer.”

Soldiers, it seems, no matter in what century they fight, rarely forget the names and personalities of the first to fall. Certainly, the loss of combat virginity is a truly haunting moment, something never to be overlooked. And quite possibly, the first casualties are so well remembered because they tend to be the best men in the unit. It’s a simple fact that war tends to cull the best and brightest in its first threshing. Clearly, Lieutenant Bailey and Sergeant Hartley fit that definition.

But Bailey’s and Hartley’s unlucky encounter in the dark woods near Brick House Point did more than just make memories to haunt the dreams of the survivors. It touched off a bloody battle that ended the lives of fifty-six other men.

Some of those stories will follow soon.

This is the roll book that was in Lt. Bailey's pocket. The image comes from the 27th New York's regimental history.

This is Hartley's revolver, also taken from the 27th NYV's history.

This modern-day map depicts the location of the Union landing zone on the York River--Brick House Point. I've highlighted the beachhead in blue. The 27th New York's skirmishers held the wooded area south of the beachhead. Somewhere in those woods, Lt. Bailey fell dead.