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.

No comments:

Post a Comment