Friday, May 1, 2020

“Each Died For His Cause”: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 7.

For this last post about Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, I want to discuss the story of the Prentiss brothers, two Baltimoreans who served in opposing armies. The Union brother, Lt. Col. Clifton Prentiss, was part of the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps. He was mortally wounded in one of the last battles, the April 2, 1865, assault against the Petersburg earthworks. His younger brother, Pvt. William Prentiss, was mortally wounded at the same battle. Amazingly, after having been separated for four years, the two brothers ended up at the same field hospital! It’s a story that has been told a few times before by other historians, so I cannot say that I’m going to add much that hasn’t been said before. However, I’d like to profile it largely because it is a quintessentially Maryland story. Quite often, we Civil War buffs erroneously call the Civil War a “brothers’ war.” Of course, in reality, Civil War families rarely divided because of political allegiance. More often, brothers fought alongside each other, not against each other.

But Maryland was an exception. Truly, it was a state divided by political fidelity and these differences of opinion ripped families asunder. Maryland’s 1860 population numbered about 687,000. Most estimates suggest that 4,000 Marylanders fought for the Confederacy and up to 60,000 Marylanders—black and white—fought for the Union. The Prentiss brothers were just two of those 64,000, and they were among the very last Marylanders to perish in the conflict. Nothing represented the story of Maryland better than their tragic demise.

Here’s what happened.

On December 22, 1825, Massachusetts-born educator John Prentiss married Amelia F. Kennedy of Baltimore. Together, they had nine children. Five of these children died young. (Marcia, born September 1, 1831, died on June 30, 1832; William, born on July 10, 1833, died on January 25, 1836; Aurelia, born May 2, 1838, died five days later; Mary Amelia, born August 26, 1841, died on December 11, 1845; and Marcia Gray, born August 25, 1844, died on December 4, 1850.) Then, the two parents died within five years of each other. Amelia Prentiss died in February 1857, and John died on August 31, 1861. He died when his carriage—which was crossing a railroad track in downtown Baltimore—was struck by a train. This accident occurred at the intersection of Cathedral and Biddle Streets, right where the Northern Central Railway crossed the road. (Today, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra building occupies this area.) Prentiss was thrown from his carriage and instantly killed.

Thus, only four Prentiss children lived to adulthood. They were:

·         John H. Prentiss, Jr., born November 26, 1826. He became a physician.

·         Thomas Melville Prentiss was born on October 29, 1829. He moved to Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York, and became an elder Presbyterian minister.

·         Clifton Kennedy Prentiss—the one who served in the Union army—was born on June 16, 1835.

·         William Scollay Prentiss—the Confederate soldier—was born on May 29, 1839.

Not much is known about the two youngest Prentiss brothers, other than that they lived in Baltimore most of their lives, and that they benefited from their father’s wealth and his connections in higher education. (William Scollay Prentiss, for instance, graduated from the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy.) Both brothers were propelled into military service in the summer of 1861, right when the war’s turbulence led to several high-profile political arrests in Baltimore. Clifton Prentiss joined a Unionist militia company, entering as a private. Meanwhile, William Prentiss fled Maryland and slipped across the Potomac River. In Virginia, he joined the unit being organized by Colonel Bradley Tyler Johnson, which became known as the 1st Maryland Infantry (C.S.A.). It’s tempting to wonder how their father’s death in August influenced their decisions, but so far, I’ve discovered no information to connect John Prentiss’s violent death with the decisions made by his sons.

In any event, the war carried the two brothers along its treacherous track. Assuming that Private William Scollay Prentiss remained with his regiment at every engagement, he participated in Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, the Second Battle of Winchester, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg. Prentiss appears to have been a private the whole time, staying in Company A, 1st Maryland Battalion, and then with Company A, 2nd Maryland Infantry (C.S.A.), when his regiment was re-designated by the Confederate War Department in January 1864.

Meanwhile, Clifton Prentiss joined a new regiment in the summer of 1862. In June, the War Department began raising a brigade of Unionist Marylanders called the “Maryland Brigade.” Prentiss helped recruit one of the companies. When it mustered-in, it became known as Company F, 6th Maryland. On July 31, Governor Augustus Bradford commissioned Prentiss as second lieutenant, and then as captain, on August 27. Rushed to the front in September 1862, the 6th Maryland eventually joined the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert Milroy. In June 1863, it participated in the Battle of Star Fort, part of the Second Battle of Winchester. (Although William Prentiss’s regiment was nearby, there is no indication that the two brothers met, or were even aware of the other’s proximity.) After Gettysburg, the whole division—and the 6th Maryland with it—became part of the Army of the Potomac. It became 3rd Division, 6th Corps. The 6th Maryland had an active final year, fighting in the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Captain Prentiss appears to have been with his regiment the whole time, except during the summer and fall of 1864, when he served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Truman Seymour. On November 17, 1864, Governor Bradford promoted him to major, and he returned to his regiment, serving as its second-in-command.

On the morning of April 2, 1865, fate compelled the two brothers to meet.

That day, the 6th Corps prepared for its massive 14,000-man assault to be delivered against the Confederate earthworks southwest of Petersburg. During the predawn hours, near a winding rivulet called Arthur’s Swamp, Col. Joseph Warren Keifer lined up his brigade. Knowing that the battle might very well deliver the coup de grace to the Confederacy, Keifer made certain his men would break through the enemy line. The 6th Maryland occupied the front and center of Keifer’s line-of-battle. Because of its position, the 6th Maryland stood the best chance of being the first Union regiment to breach the enemy earthworks. Keifer later explained:

A narrow opening, just wide enough for a wagon to pass through, was known to exist in the enemy’s line in front of my brigade, though it was skilfully covered by a shoulder around it. The existence of this opening was discovered from the observation tower, and deserters told of it. I determined to take advantage of it, and therefore instructed Colonel Clifton K. Prentiss of the 6th Maryland, when the time for the attack came, to move his regiment by the flank rapidly through this opening without halting or firing, and when within, open on the Confederates behind the works, taking them in flank, and, if possible, drive them out and thus leave for our other troops little resistance in gaining an entrance over the ramparts.

At 4:40 A.M., signal guns near Union Fort Fisher fired a salvo, indicating that the time had come to commence the attack. With a mad cheer, the 6th Corps troops charged forward, and Major Prentiss, true to his word, was among the first to leap atop the Confederate earthworks. Col. Keifer, who was mounted and riding up toward the concealed gap in the earthworks, recalled:

The time occupied in the assault was short. Colonel Prentiss with his Marylanders penetrated the fortifications at the opening mentioned. They surprised the enemy by their presence and a flank fire, and, as anticipated, caused him to fall back. The storming bodies swarmed over the works, and the enemy immediately in their front were soon killed, wounded, captured, or dispersed. Ten pieces of artillery, three battle-flags, and General Heath’s headquarters flag were trophies of my command.

Major Prentiss paid for his heroics. As he mounted the parapet, a musket ball struck him in the chest, ripping through his lungs. Keifer, who was near enough to get a decent view of the scene, explained, “The brave Colonel Prentiss as he led a storming column over the parapet of the fort, was struck by a ball which carried away a part of his breast-bone immediately over his heart, exposing its action to view. He fell within the fort.”

As the 6th Corps infantry widened the breakthrough, soldiers from the 6th Maryland carried Maj. Prentiss to a nearby field hospital, quite possibly the Hart Farm, which was immediately behind Confederate lines. Meanwhile, other soldiers from the division—those who survived the initial morning clash along the parapet—turned south and began rolling up the Confederate line, widening the gap. Near an artillery bastion called Fort Davis, Brig. Gen. William McComb’s brigade tried to stem the tide of Yankees. In the heated fighting, Private William S. Prentiss of the 2nd Maryland Battalion fell wounded with a shattered right leg.

As it happened, soldiers from the 6th Maryland began passing over the battlefield, chasing McComb’s routed men. Some of the Marylanders stopped to assist the wounded Confederate soldiers who were now trapped behind Union lines. As fate would have it, some of the 6th Maryland soldiers found Private William Prentiss and gave him water from their canteens. Curious about the fate of his brother, Prentiss asked if the 6th Maryland was nearby.

The soldiers replied, “We belong to that regiment! Why do you ask?”

Prentiss replied, “I have a brother in that regiment.”


“Capt. Clifton K. Prentiss.”

No doubt shocked by this wounded man’s identity, the 6th Maryland soldiers pointed, “Yes, he is our Major now and is lying over yonder, wounded.”

William Prentiss said, “I would like to see him.”

Here’s where the story gets murky. According to John Rigdon King, an officer in 6th Maryland, the soldiers sent word to Maj. Prentiss that his brother, William, was lying nearby. When he heard the news, Clifton refused to see him. He snarled, “I want to see no man who fired on my country’s flag.” But then, the commander of the 6th Maryland, Col. Joseph C. Hill, apparently hearing the news, ordered the stretcher-bearers to carry William Prentiss to the improvised field hospital and lay him beside his brother, whether he liked it or not. As King described it, “Our Major glared at him. The Confederate brother smiled: that was the one touch of nature; out went both hands and with tears streaming down their cheeks, these two brothers, who had met on many bloody fields opposite for three years, were once more brought together.”

Hospital Steward William Howell Reed, who was also in a position to know what happened, told a slightly different story. He claimed that the two brothers were laid side by side, but entirely by accident. He explained:

In one of our wards we had an officer, Colonel Clifton J. Prentiss, of Baltimore, whose case was of such peculiar and touching interest that it ought not to be passed by. In one of the closing battles of the war he was wounded through the lungs. When I first saw him, he was brought into the hospital from the field, as we thought, fatally hurt. At the same time a lad, a rebel soldier, was lifted from the stretcher upon an adjoining bed, with a thigh amputation, having been struck by a fragment of a shell above the knee. This Union officer and this rebel soldier lay side by side, not knowing that they were indeed brothers, and unconscious, in all that bloody strife which had set its fatal seal upon them both, that they had been striking the one against the other, and falling but ten feet apart. And so, by some blessed providence, they were brought together at last,—the glance of an eye, or some well-known tone of voice, making their recognition complete, which it only needed the hand-grasp to confirm.

I’d speculate that King’s recollections were more accurate. (Human agency, not luck, probably explained how the two brothers came to share the same field hospital.) But, whichever version was the truth, both brothers did indeed meet inside the field hospital and they clasped hands when they saw each other. Another member of the 3rd Division, 6th Corps, John Newton Terrill of 14th New Jersey, recollected simply, “A rebel lieutenant was picked up wounded, who gave his name as Lieut. Prentiss, of the 2nd Maryland regiment; he was the younger brother of the major [of the 6th Maryland], whom he had not seen since the rebellion broke out; they were both placed in the hospital together, and their wounds dressed. The meeting between the brothers was very affecting, causing many to shed tears.”

Both Keifer and Reed also agreed that at least one, perhaps both, of the older brothers came down to visit the two wounded Prentiss brothers at the field hospital. Reed, in fact, seemed to know a great deal about the final hours of the two wounded men, and apparently he served in the same facility after both of them were transported from the battlefields in Virginia. Both brothers went to a general hospital in Washington, D.C.—most likely Armory Square Hospital. After that, they were moved a second time, arriving at an unknown hospital in Brooklyn in either May or June. William Scollay Prentiss died first. He endured an amputation at the upper thigh, but expired on June 23, 1865. Whether derived from firsthand knowledge or not, Reed explained:

Day after day we used to visit him in the quiet ward where he seemed to be so much alone, for he had but little sympathy until he was converted over to the old flag which he had forsaken. And when the memories of his home and his early companionships came over him, and he felt that even this renewal of old ties was still but a fraternal estrangement, his boy’s heart quite gave way, and he begged for the kindly smile of this elder brother, for I the love and generous sympathy of their boyhood. In a few weeks the exhaustion of his system was so complete that he sank rapidly away and died.

Like his younger brother, Maj. Clifton Prentiss was held at the Armory Square hospital for several weeks—at least until May—and was later transferred to a hospital in Brooklyn. On April 25, while at Armory Square, he received promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, a reward for his leadership during the April 2 assault. He lingered on into the summer, but death eventually came for him as well. He breathed his last on August 20, 1865. Because he was also assigned to the Brooklyn hospital, Reed knew about the final moments of Lt. Col. Prentiss. He explained:

The brave and all-enduring colonel lived on,—every breath a stab, and every movement of the poor frail body like the tension and snapping of some cord of life. Through many weary months he waited and suffered. Life had much in store for him. He longed to be again amid its peaceful activity; yet he was always submissive, and only looked to see what was the loving Father’s will. And that will was revealed at last, giving him but time to say, “It is well; I am ready to go.”

Both Prentiss boys were laid to rest, side by side, in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Presumably, the two eldest brothers, James and Thomas, made the funeral arrangements.

Before their death, the Prentiss brothers caught the attention of one of the nineteenth-century’s most famous authors, Walt Whitman. During the last week of May, Whitman—who often visited Civil War hospitals—met both of them. He jotted down his thoughts and eventually published them in his 1882 book, Specimen Days. Whitman mentioned the encounter under the title, “Two Brothers, One South, One North.”

May 28-9.—I staid to-night a long time by the bedside of a new patient, a young Baltimorean, aged about 19 years, W.S.P., (2d Maryland, southern,) very feeble, right leg amputated, can’t sleep hardly at all—has taken a great deal of morphine, which, as usual, is costing more than it comes to. Evidently very intelligent and well bred—very affectionate—held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave. As I was lingering, soothing him in his pain, he says to me suddenly, “I hardly think you know who I am—I don’t wish to impose upon you—I am a rebel soldier.” I said I did not know that, but it made no difference. Visiting him daily for about two weeks after that, while he lived, (death had mark’d him, and he was quite alone,) I loved him much, always kiss’d him, and he did me. In an adjoining ward I found his brother, an officer of rank, a Union soldier, a brave and religious man, (Col. Clifton K. Prentiss, Sixth Maryland infantry, Sixth corps, wounded in one of the engagements at Petersburgh, April 2—linger’d, suffer’d much, died in Brooklyn, Aug. 20, ‘65.) It was in the same battle both were hit. One was a strong Unionist, the other Secesh; both fought on their respective sides, both badly wounded, and both brought together here after a separation of four years. Each died for his cause.

“Each died for his cause.” This was classic Whitman, saying what something was rather than what it meant. Undoubtedly, he wanted readers to contemplate the war’s tragedy, that a nation had been torn asunder by two oppositional causes. I wish he had paused to consider how the death of the Prentiss brothers had been a uniquely Maryland problem. The Old Line State had been split in twain by the same national confrontation. It was the hotly-contested middle ground of the Civil War. Indeed, the chasm created by the war had cleaved the Prentiss family. No incident from the war better explained the richness of the war’s consequences upon Maryland as the death of Lt. Col. Clifton Prentiss and his Confederate brother, William.

This photograph depicts Major Clifton Kennedy Prentiss in early 1865. There are no known photographs of his younger (Confederate) brother, William.

This is the approximate location of Major Prentiss's mortal wounding. On April 2, 1865, he led a contingent of men from the 6th Maryland over the parapet in the background. These entrenchments are located on the grounds of Pamplin Park. The area is identified by the presence of the "shoulder" mentioned by Col. J. Warren Keifer. The wayside depicts the shoulder and sally-port. 

In May 1865, Walt Whitman met both Prentiss brothers as they lay dying in a Washington, D.C. hospital. Whitman wrote an account of his meeting in his book, Specimen Days.

Although some controversy exists as to the final location of the Prentiss brothers, both appear to have been buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. These markers commemorate their deaths. 

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