Friday, September 20, 2019

“You Have Brought Us to the Standard of a Disciplined Regiment”: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 3.

For the past two posts, I’ve been profiling the story of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, a regiment rushed out of the defenses of Washington D.C. in May 1864 to bolster the depleted ranks of the Army of the Potomac. In just two weeks, the 7th New York lost half its complement. Already, I’ve mentioned two engagements where the regiment lost heavily: the counterattack at the Alsop Farm and the June 3 charge at Cold Harbor.

According to some authors, the Union’s heavy artillery regiments conformed to a higher standard of discipline than the rest of the army. For that reason, so the story goes, they suffered acutely when they joined the Army of the Potomac in the field. That is to say, when the heavy artillery’s fierce attention to discipline was combined with the brutal no-holds-barred style of fighting of the Overland Campaign, shockingly high casualties were the likely outcome. Or, to put it another way, the heavy artillery regiments were so well-trained they didn’t know how to take cover.

I’m not sure if I buy that theory completely, but it does lead me to a compelling question. If it’s true that the heavy artillery regiments were drilled to the point of perfection, then someone must have made them that way. Someone must have disciplined them to the point of perfection. So who was it? Well, in the 7th New York’s case, that person had to have been its commander, Colonel Lewis O. Morris.

This is his story.

Lewis Owen Morris was born in Albany, New York, on August 14, 1824. He came from a line of famous Americans. His great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather had served during the Revolutionary War. His father had attended West Point and served in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars, and in the Mexican-American War. In the latter conflict, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Monterrey. After Morris’s father fell, the people of Albany raised money to purchase an expensive presentation sword, intending to hand it to Major Morris upon his recovery. But when Major Morris died, the city of Albany presented the completed sword to his son, Lewis Owen Morris, instead.

The news of his father’s death sent the twenty-one-year-old Morris into paroxysms of grief. Immediately, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Still aching from sorrow, he wrote a letter to one of his father’s friends, William Learned Marcy, the former governor of New York and then the Secretary of War under President James K. Polk. Morris asked for a chance to join the U.S. Army in Mexico, and from there, complete his father’s mission. Taking pity on the young man, Secretary Marcy promptly commissioned him as second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Artillery. And just like that, Morris was off to war.

Lt. Morris never saw combat in Mexico. While en route, his transport foundered off the coast of Florida. Morris managed to escape into a boat, landing on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. When he finally made it to Veracruz, he was put in charge of Mexican prisoners. At the prisoner of war camp, he caught yellow fever and had to be transported back to Florida. Thus, he spent the rest of the war convalescing. Despite his best efforts, he had missed his chance to see battle in Mexico.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Morris found himself in command of Fort Brown, Texas, and refused to surrender it to Confederate forces that came to occupy the property. After leaving Texas, he fought in eastern North Carolina, earning praise for his performance at the siege of Fort Macon (a relatively bloodless siege outside of Beaufort).

In the summer of 1862, Morris returned to New York and helped raise the 113th New York, eventually receiving a commission as colonel from the governor. After his regiment filled, Morris departed with it and found himself in command of one of Washington D.C.’s many forts, Fort Reno, where the War Department re-classified his regiment as heavy artillery. It didn’t take long for Morris to express annoyance at the prospect of long-term garrison duty. As one newspaper argued, “He chafed under his inaction, when his brother officers were periling their lives in the field, and made repeated requests to be sent into the field.”

Morris gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian—and he certainly earned a few enemies for acting the part of a martinet—but it appears that the majority of his soldiers admired him. On July 4, 1863, just as the soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery were learning of the Army of the Potomac’s stunning success at Gettysburg, they held a ceremony honoring Colonel Morris with an expensive presentation sword. 

The soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery spared no expense. They made the scabbard out of solid silver and conscripted an impressive hilt adornment. The hilt contained a female Iroquois, armed with bow and arrow, surmounted with the American eagle, with wings extended, and holding in its beak a solid gold, green-enameled wreath of laurels. Each of the scabbards mountings contained an etching. The upper band represented the Battle of Fort Macon, where Morris had distinguished himself in April 1862. Between the mountings, the scabbard bore the inscription: “PRESENTED TO COL. LEWIS O. MORRIS, Commanding Seventh N. Y. V. Artillery, By the non-commissioned officers and privates of his regiment.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Private George Cameron of Battery C delivered the formal presentation address:

We know and feel, that in you we have a commander every way capable of leading us on to do our share in this great battle for Union and Right. When you assumed command of this regiment, you were to most of us a comparative stranger; but your name and reputation had preceded you. We knew that in you were all the elements of an officer and soldier. We have read with pleasure of your long and honorable connection with our army—the part you have already taken in this great Rebellion—your bravery at Fort Macon—its capture, and your subsequent command of it; and, since you assumed command over us, most nobly have you sustained your reputation. We have been in the service less than a year, yet, in that short time, you have endeared yourself to us all. We knew little, if anything, of the duties of a soldier; but, by your military skill, patience and kindness, you have brought us to the standard of a disciplined regiment. You have also been untiring in your efforts to make us comfortable and happy. I, therefore, as a token of our high appreciation and regard for you as our Colonel, and for your many noble qualities as a man, tender you this Sword, Sash and Belt; and may God, in His infinite mercy, lead you, and the members of our regiment, safely through the vicissitudes and uncertainties of this unhappy war. May our now distracted country soon be happily restored, and may we long live to remember our happy relations with you.

The news of the ceremony had to have struck Morris with shock. His own troops had decided to bestow upon him an honor that the city of Albany had once been bestowed upon his father. I cannot imagine what it felt like. Probably, it brought back the memory of his father’s sacrifice and that emotional moment, when, as a young man, Morris had to step forward and accept a sword meant for his dad. 

In any event, Morris was beside himself with pride. “You have taken me completely by surprise,” he began, “more completely by surprise than I ever expected the enemy to do—by this beautiful gift.” Apparently moved by the token, he poured out his heart:  “I know nothing of speech making; and I feel that I would rather lead a forlorn hope than make a speech. Yet, in a few simple words, I may be permitted to express to you, that this is one of the proudest moments of my life.” Speaking to his men, Morris continued:

Yours is a glorious profession. Soldiers strong by discipline—obedient to authority—firm and collected in danger—able to endure privations and weary marches without murmur and without complaint—strong and courageous in battle, and merciful in the hour of victory—are soldiers on whom our common country can lean in her hour of trial, and find she is not leaning on a broken reed. Soldiers of the 7th New York Artillery, proud am I to testify this day that our labors have not been thrown away; for I confidently believe that your ranks will be as firm and steady in the face of the enemy as they have been this day on parade. I accept this beautiful sword with feelings of pleasure and pride, as a proof of your affection and of your confidence. I accept this beautiful sword as a proof, and as a pledge, that your strong arms, and your willing hearts, will uphold it in the day of battle, and that you will follow where it shall lead. But most proudly do I accept it as a proof of your devotion to the cause in which it is drawn—the cause of our beloved country and its free institutions—the cause of Human Freedom and Human Progress—to bequeath which, unimpaired, a sacred legacy to your children, you each and all of you will pledge your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor.

That day, Morris made a promise, one he upheld for the rest his life. He promised to be as strict with himself as he had been with his men at Fort Reno, even if that strict adherence to soldiery posture led to his death. In short, Morris would not duck or dodge. He would be as firm and steady in the face of the enemy as they have been this day on parade. As I mentioned in previous posts, Morris led his regiment at Alsop Farm, Milford’s Station, North Anna, Totopotomy Creek, and Cold Harbor. The day after his regiment lost so heavily at Cold Harbor, an unlucky Confederate musket ball claimed his life.

It happened on the morning of June 4, 1864, when Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow requested Morris to accompany him to the forward line “for the purpose of fixing upon the ground for some new trenches.” The section of the Union earthworks that Barlow wished to examine came within fifty yards of the enemy line, and Barlow contemplated ordering Morris’s men to build a tunnel that might be used to explode the nearby enemy works. (In essence, Barlow suggested an operation that foreshadowed the infamous Battle of the Crater.) 

Barlow and Morris weren’t there long when a Confederate sharpshooter tried to pick them off. “No one dared show himself on either side,” recalled Dr. Frederick Brown of the U.S. Christian Commission. “The sharpshooters fired quickly at sight of cap or head.” The soldiers in the Union trench warned Barlow and Morris to take care as they walked along the parallel. The two officers started out, Barlow leading. He took a cautious approach, dodging from rifle pit to rifle pit. Predictably, Colonel Morris took no effort to shelter himself. Firm in his promise to be steady as if on parade, he followed behind Barlow, walking upright. As Morris passed between the pits, a musket ball struck him in the left shoulder. It ranged downward across his body, clipping his spine and entering his right lung. With that, he fell insensible.

When they learned of Morris’s wounding, Dr. Brown of the Christian Commission and Surgeon James Pomfret ordered him brought to a field hospital. Several soldiers carried him there, and according to Brown, he arrived at around 10 A.M. Dr. Pomfret applied stimulants, which awakened Morris, but according to Brown, “his system did not rally. His body below the wound was paralyzed. He had no pain, but suffered much from nervous distress and difficulty in breathing.”

Morris didn’t live much longer. As he expired, he began begging for mercy. Dr. Brown tried to console him in a typically Christian fashion. Brown had reason for it, of course. During the months when the 7th New York Heavy Artillery quartered at Fort Reno, Morris attended the Presbyterian Church in Georgetown, where Brown served as pastor. As Morris lay dying, Brown asked if Morris believed in Jesus Christ and considered him his savior. Apparently panicking due to his shortness of breath, Morris, began repeating, “I do. I do. I do!” Brown wanted to find a way to confirm the sincerity of Morris’s declaration, but admitted, “I was weeping so I could scarcely speak.” At 1 P.M., three hours later, Morris breathed his last, repeating a final farewell message to be relayed to friends and family, entreating them to meet him in heaven. “I feel his loss deeply,” wrote Dr. Brown to Morris’s wife, Catharine. “He was as a brother to me.” Adding further, Brown wrote, “I loved him and I think he loved me. I need not assure you then of my sympathy in your second great sorrow.”

Morris’s funeral took place on June 11, 1864. The Morris family held services at North Dutch Church (currently called the First Reformed Church) in Albany, New York. The church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Rufus W. Clark, conducted services, which, according to a newspaper correspondent for the Albany Evening Journal, were “solemn and impressive.” Noticeably, several veterans from the 7th New York who had been wounded in Virginia and returned home, bore themselves into the church upon crutches. At the conclusion of services, the pallbearers brought the casket (which was covered with an American flag and a bouquet of white roses) to a funeral car which was pulled by six grey horses, fully plumed. The local militia regiment—the 25th N.Y.S.M.—provided an escort. Morris’s horse—who had survived the fighting in Virginia—trailed behind the funeral car. The cortege marched north for 4.5 miles to Albany Rural Cemetery, where caretakers laid the body to rest. So claimed the reporter who watched the proceedings, “The streets through which the funeral cortege passed were crowded with spectators, and grief was depicted in almost every countenance.” 

The editor of the Evening Journal continued:

Col. Morris was no ordinary man. His mind naturally vigorous was strengthened by hard study and enriched by liberal culture. Strong in will, yet winning in manners, he at once commanded the respect and affection of those under his command. Although a strict disciplinarian, he was idolized by his men. Cool in the hour of danger, self-possessed when the storm of battle raged fiercest, he inspired, by his example, the courageous, encouraged the timid and rebuked the cowardly. He was a stranger to fear, and died gloriously in the field and in the face of the Rebel foe. He was an ardent patriot, loved the old Flag more than he did life, and went into the war for its defence with his whole heart. In the bright roll of martyr-heroes which History will exhibit to the admiration of coming ages, few names will shine out with a serener splendor than that of Col. Morris.

It was a fitting eulogy, but I prefer to return to the sword presentation ceremony of July 4, 1863: “You have brought us to the standard of a disciplined regiment.”

That’s what Private Cameron said when he handed Colonel Morris his presentation sword on Independence Day 1863. In my previous posts, I’ve stressed the fact that the heavy artillery regiments were different animals when compared to the rest of the Army of the Potomac. Ignorant of fear, disciplined to the point of being automatons, they went into battle, carrying earthworks that veteran regiments could not carry and dying in numbers that veteran regiments could never hope to duplicate.  

Who was primarily responsible for inculcating that level of discipline? If the soldiers of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery did not know the answer in 1864, then we surely know it today. For better or for worse, Colonel Lewis Owen Morris directed the form of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery’s life and death.

Colonel Lewis Morris promised his men he would be as steady before the enemy as if on parade. He was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter on June 4, 1864.

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