Friday, April 17, 2020

“I Have Seen as Much Service as any Other Officer from Maryland”: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 1.

On October 12, 1880, the Maryland Historical Society held a massive program at the Baltimore Academy of Music in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the founding of Baltimore. One of the keynote speakers was Brig. Gen. Charles Phelps, an ex-Union general, ex-U.S. Congressman, and a future recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the middle of his speech, General Phelps reflected upon the lives of two citizens of Baltimore, “each better known in his heroic death than his unpretending life.” For the Confederacy, he mentioned an officer who was killed at Gettysburg. For his Union hero, Phelps named Colonel Nathan T. Dushane, “who rose from the work-bench to strike an honest craftsman’s blow for the rights of labor and the rights of man, connected, as he understood them to be, with the existence of constitutional government.”

In choosing Dushane as Maryland’s representative Union hero, Phelps had made a wise choice. Dushane was an ideal candidate. Kind-hearted and brave, he led Union Marylanders with aplomb, giving up his life amid the Petersburg Campaign of 1864.

From my own personal point of view, it is difficult to be a Marylander and a fan of the Army of the Potomac. We don’t have many characters like Rufus Dawes, Joshua Chamberlain, or Emory Upton to throw in people’s faces. However, it’s time to change that. We have Nathan Dushane. This is his tale.

Nathan Thomas Dushane was born on February 3, 1817, at St. George’s Hundred, in New Castle County, Delaware. His parents died when he was only five-years-old, but in their absence, he received an education from his legal guardian, a lawyer named John Sutton. After his schooling, Dushane moved to Baltimore, where he became a carpenter’s apprentice. After years of work, he became a master builder and architect. On December 12, 1839, he married a woman named Mary Eliza Patterson, and over the course of his life, she bore him ten children (however, six died before the Civil War). Dushane also dabbled in politics. He served as a member of the First Branch of Baltimore’s City Council, representing the 12th Ward. From 1854 to 1856, he served as a Delegate to the Maryland Legislature, and during the war, he held the title of “Commissioner for the Opening of Streets” in the city of Baltimore.

When the war broke out, Dushane was among the first Baltimoreans to volunteer for federal service. He helped organize the first Union volunteers in the city, which, at the time, was no small feat. Armed Confederate sympathizers roamed the streets, targeting anyone who attempted to support the U.S. government or even dare to wave the American flag. On June 11, 1861, in an unusual move, Abraham Lincoln overrode the authority of the governor of Maryland by personally commissioning Dushane as the lieutenant colonel of Maryland’s first volunteer regiment, the 1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry. I do not know what Lincoln saw in Dushane, but based on the extent and quality of his service, Lincoln’s judgment cannot be questioned. In elevating Dushane to command, Lincoln had jump-started an incredible military career and given Maryland one of its longest serving Union officers.

Dushane’s first combat occurred one year after his commissioning. He accompanied the 1st Maryland during its confusing engagement at Front Royal, May 23, 1862. On a sunny day, Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell’s division stormed into this quiet Valley town in order to cut the rail line that connected Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s army to its supply base at Harpers Ferry. Unwisely, Banks had stationed only a handful of soldiers at Front Royal, while the bulk of his army quartered at nearby Strasburg. Several units guarded Front Royal, but the 1st Maryland constituted the majority of the garrison. Early in the morning, Ewell’s vanguard overran four companies stationed south of the town, and throughout the day, they hammered the other six, driving them north along a road that connected Front Royal to Nineveh. 

Lt. Col. Dushane led the six companies that made the futile last stand. Late in the evening, the 6th Virginia Cavalry launched a mounted charge, surrounding the Marylanders who were then defending an orchard owned by a man named Thomas McKay (on land presently across the street from the Warren County Volunteer Fire Department). At 7 P.M., after the 1st Maryland’s colonel had fallen with a saber blow to the head, and when it became clear that the enlisted men could not escape, Dushane was forced to surrender his battalion. After the Battle of Front Royal concluded, the 1st Maryland counted up 592 casualties, including 535 officers and men taken prisoner.

Dushane was slightly wounded during the battle’s final moments. His captors marched him and seventeen other officers under guard, taking them through Harrisonburg, then Staunton, then via rail to Waynesboro, then Charlottesville, then Lynchburg, and then finally to Salisbury Prison Camp in North Carolina. There, the officers were held in captivity for two and half months. On August 11, 1862, after the Dix-Hill Cartel negotiated for the parole of the Maryland officers, the rebels released them. One week later, August 18, Dushane and this comrades arrived at Camp Parole, Annapolis. Not long after that, Dushane received word that the new governor of Maryland, Augustus W. Bradford, had elevated him to the rank of colonel. On August 22, 1862, the War Department advanced the 1st Maryland’s colonel, John Reese Kenly, to brigadier general, and under Kenly’s recommendation, Bradford promoted Dushane to the regiment’s vacant colonelcy.

After three months at the parole camp, Dushane returned to his regiment, which was then deployed as border guards along the upper Potomac. When he arrived there, the 1st Maryland looked markedly different. It contained a batch of new recruits who had joined up in the summer of 1862. Further, the regiment was now brigaded with four other Maryland regiments that had been raised that summer—the 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Maryland—and together, they now formed Brig. Gen. Kenly’s “Maryland Brigade.” Dozens of prisoners who had survived the horrid confines of Belle Isle arrived in November, having been paroled and exchanged, but it took months to restore their health. In July 1863, Kenly’s brigade received orders to join the Army of the Potomac, which was then in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia following the Battle of Gettysburg. Dushane led the 1st Maryland throughout summer, and shortly before the Battle of Bristoe Stationwhen Kenly took command of the 3rd Division, 1st CorpsDushane ascended to command of the Maryland Brigade.

Like most officers in the Army of the Potomac, Colonel Dushane thought highly of himself. When he learned that another officer—Colonel Richard N. Bowerman of the 4th Maryland—wanted to receive a promotion to brigadier general and assume command of the Maryland Brigade in Dushane’s place, Dushane tried to head off this scheme. Writing to Maryland’s adjutant general, John Summerfield Berry, Dushane explained:

Colonel R. Bowerman of the 4th Md. Vol. has made application to the War Department to be made a Brigadier to command Maryland troops and I feel it to be my duty in justice to myself to lay the subject before you that you may take measures to prevent what will be, in my judgment, prejudicial to the service and a manifest injustice to myself. Although I am the oldest colonel in the service, without exception, from Maryland and have been in command of the Maryland Brigade for the last seven months, I have never thought of making application for any higher grade—my ambition has been to discharge my duties as Colonel, in such a manner as would reflect credit to the state’s and aid in furthering down the rebellion, but now than an officer much my junior in rank and in no sense superior in military skill or ability is pushing his claims to promotion I feel it to be but justice to myself to say that if another Brigadier is to be appointed from among the officers of the Maryland Brigade that my claim should not be overlooked.
I joined the 1st  Md. Vol. Inft’y in the dark days of the republic. [I] have been constantly in the field since June 1861—have seen as much service as any other officer from Maryland—have in turn commanded my regiment for 7 months, the Brigade, and, at times, the Division, and have the satisfaction to know that in all cases I have discharged my duties in a manner that have been entirely satisfactory to my superior officers—I do not ask that my name shall be pressed upon the Department, unless it has been determined to give an appointment of this kind to Maryland in that case I want enlist your influence to prevent which I conceive to be an injustice being done to me.—

Nothing ever came from Bowerman’s scheme and Dushane remained in command of the Maryland Brigade throughout the winter. In April 1864, he returned to his hometown Baltimore in the company of the veteran portion of his regiment, those soldiers who had enlisted back in 1861 who chose to reenlist for three additional years of service. Leaving Major Benjamin F. Schley in temporary command of the regiment, Colonel Dushane led his 300-man veteran battalion back to Baltimore on a thirty-day furlough.

Dushane and his veterans spent one month in Baltimore, from April 2 to May 5, 1864. As it happened, they missed the opening engagements of the Overland Campaign. While they received a much needed rest, Schley’s battalion participated in the crossing of the Rapidan River and endured ghastly combat in the Wilderness, at the Spindle Farm, and along the Po River. During the opening phase of the campaign, the Maryland Brigade suffered 36 killed, 216 wounded, and 120 missing.

Meanwhile, on May 5, just as the fighting was heating up in the Wilderness, Dushane’s men boarded trains bound for Washington, D.C., then Alexandria, and finally Belle Plain. On May 11, the veteran detachment reached Belle Plain, and there, the Marylanders saw the first casualties from the Overland Campaign. The landing zone was overflowing with wounded ready to be transported back to Washington. Dushane even encountered men from his own regiment (from Schley’s battalion) who had been wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness. Embracing one of them, he swore, “We are going forward, my dear boys, to avenge your wounds!”

The next day, as Dushane’s detachment passed through Fredericksburg and it encountered another detachment from the 1st Maryland—about sixty or seventy men—commanded by Major Schley. This was the detachment that was on its way home. These were the soldiers who had enlisted in 1861, but who chose not to reenlist. Their enlistment was about to expire on May 19. It was an awkward moment as the two detachments intermixed and bid each other “good luck” and “goodbye.” “It was a sad hour,” recalled a 1st Marylander, “for although glad to escape the exposures, hardships, and perils attendant upon active field service, there existed many heartfelt regrets at parting with comrades to whom so many ties had bound them in an ever enduring friendship.”

On May 19, after two weeks of travel, Dushane’s detachment reached the Army of the Potomac’s encampment. Within hours of their arrival, the thunder of artillery called them to arms. As it happened, their old adversary from Front Royal—Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell—was leading an attack against the Union wagon train along the Fredericksburg Road. Dushane didn’t have any orders to join in the battle, but nevertheless, he headed to the sound of the guns. Marching south down the Fredericksburg Road, he turned the 1st Maryland to the west and onto the fields owned by a farmer named Peyton. In minutes, the 1st Maryland found itself embroiled in the bloody affray known as the Battle of Harris Farm (named for another structure a bit farther south). Again, without orders, Dushane joined in the counterattack made by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler’s division of heavy artillery. During the counterattack, Dushane’s horse was killed, and Dushane was thrown violently against a tree.

At the Battle of Harris Farm, the Maryland Brigade suffered 10 killed and 68 wounded—most of them from the newly-arrived veteran battalion—but they contributed to the repulse of Ewell’s corps. For the Marylanders, the climax of the battle came when the two battalions of the 1st Maryland—Dushane’s veterans and the battalion of 1862 recruits under Captain Omer P. Cram—were finally reunited after being separated for almost two months.

Colonel Dushane’s abrupt dismounting did not hold him back. He recovered from his injuries, and on May 23, he resumed command of the Maryland Brigade. For the next three weeks, he led the 1st Maryland in a series of battles: North Anna River, Shady Grove Church, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor, and the Petersburg assaults of June 18. During these engagements, the Maryland Brigade lost another 121 officers and men.

However, Dushane’s luck finally ran out at the Battle of Globe Tavern, part of the 5th Corps operations against the Weldon Railroad. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wanted the 5th Corps to destroy the rail line that connected Petersburg to Weldon, North Carolina. (This line served as an essential route through which supplies passed from Wilmington.) On August 17, while leading the Maryland Brigade, Dushane was shot through his clothing, but otherwise unhurt. Heavy rains held off further fighting until the morning of August 21. At around 9 A.M., two Confederate divisions stormed Union-held earthworks that encircled the section of railroad slated for destruction. The 1st Maryland occupied the front line that day, and Colonel Dushane was among the first to fall. I’ve never seen a primary account of his death, but it appears that he was struck in the face by a solid shot, his head instantly lopped off. The 1st Maryland suffered lightly, losing only two killed (Colonel Dushane and one enlisted man). One officer and 12 other enlisted men were wounded.

The news of Dushane’s death struck his Marylanders hard. He had been with them since the beginning of the war and had been in command of the Maryland Brigade for almost one year’s time. “No words can do justice to his character,” remembered a veteran in the postwar years. “His kind acts are indelibly stamped on the minds and hearts of all who knew him. His conspicuous gallantry during the last series of battles in which he was engaged greatly increased the esteem and regard with which he was held among his fellow-officers and men.” Another veteran later explained, “His loss was deeply deplored by every officer and man of his command, all of whom placed the utmost confidence in his bravery, skill, and judgment. His presence on the field under the hottest fire always inspirited and encouraged the troops, and they will ever cherish with pride the memory of his bravery, as well as the fatherly care he ever manifested for them.”

The men gathered up Colonel Dushane’s earthly remains and sent them back to Baltimore. His funeral took place at 3 P.M., August 25, at his home, 57 Paca Street (presently, this is the corner Paca Street and Saratoga Street). According to the Baltimore Sun, “A large concourse of persons gathered long before the appointed hour for the obsequies to begin.” Members of the Order of Masons and the Oddfellows (Dushane had been members of both) provided pallbearers, while five companies belonging to the 194th Pennsylvania Infantry provided a military escort for the hearse. The funeral took place at his Paca Street residence and then followed a course westward for about three miles to Western Cemetery. As with most of these Civil War era funeral processions, Dushane’s horse and his African American servant (whose names are now lost to history) followed behind the hearse.

But that was not the only time Dushane was eulogized. On April 27, 1866, at a massive ceremony held at the Maryland State House, Governor Thomas Swann received the battle flag of the 1st Maryland. General Kenly, the first commander of the Maryland Brigade, arrived to make the presentation. Overwhelmed by the gesture, Governor Swann offered up a speech, one that made sure to mention the sacrifice of Dushane, whom Swann had known personally from his career in state politics. Swann recollected:

And let us take a moment amid these imposing ceremonies to drop a tear upon the grave of Dushane, my personal friend, sir, as well as of yourself, . . . and the gallant men who have laid down their lives that the Union might be preserved; and, General, what, might I ask, have you accomplished? What has been the result of these generous and patriotic labors? Maryland, you know, has sent to the field more than one-tenth of her whole population. And I am here today, knowing the loyal sentiments of the State of Maryland, to say to you that every man who has been standing up in this great battle for the Union would have given their lives rather than that one star should have been plucked from that glorious galaxy. Maryland has done her part.

What’s my lesson for this post? Well, for years after the Civil War, Marylanders saw wisdom in remembering the sacrifice of the state’s fallen hero, Colonel Nathan Dushane. Today, I ask my fellow Marylanders—Marylanders who belong to a generation far, far removed from the Civil War—to take a lesson from the past and not forget his sacrifice either.

Colonel Nathan T. Dushane (1817-1864) was one of Maryland's longest serving Union officers, until his death at the Battle of Globe Tavern.


  1. Washington Roebling, 5th Corps scout, gave full credit to the Marylanders for coming to the aid of the beleaguered heavies at Spotsylvania. But his accounts of the Maryland Brigade's performances elsewhere were less than complimentary.

  2. Washington Roebling, scout for the 5th Corps, gave full credit for the Marylanders coming to the aid of the Heavies at Spotsylvania. But his description of their performance elsewhere was less than complimentary.