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.

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