Friday, May 30, 2008

Civil War color bearer: the toughest job you'll ever love, but it will probably get you killed

Carrying a regiment's colors into battle was considered an honor and a privilege. It was also a very dangerous job and would likely get a man maimed or killed. Thus, it required a great deal of courage.

Below is a portion of text excerpted from: My Story of the War: a Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience as Nurse in the Union Army... It is an excellent example of the grim outlook for the regimental color bearer.

"The fatality that attended the color-bearers, officers, and men of this regiment at the battle of Gettysburg was very great. It had in its ranks on the morning of this memorable fight four hundred and ninety-six officers and men. It lost in killed and wounded three hundred and sixteen. The 24th was a part of the Iron Brigade, which was the first infantry engaged at Gettysburg. It carried into this battle only a state flag, which was presented to the regiment by the citizens of Detroit. This was carried by Color-Bearer Abel G. Peck, a tall, straight, handsome man, and as brave a soldier as ever gave up his life for his country. More...He was instantly killed almost at the beginning of the famous charge of the Iron Brigade. The flag was then seized by Private Thomas B. Ballou, who was desperately wounded immediately after, and died a few weeks later. The flag was then carried by Private August Ernst, who was instantly killed. Corporal Andrew Wagner then took the colors and carried them until shot through the breast, from the effects of which he died about a year after the close of the war.

When Corporal Wagner fell, Colonel Henry A. Morrill took the flag, and gallantly attempted to rally the few survivors of the regiment. But Private William Kelly insisted on carrying it, saying to Colonel Morrill, " You shall not carry the flag while I am alive." The gallant fellow held it aloft and almost instantly fell, shot through the heart. Private L. Spaulding then took the flag from the hands of Kelly, and carried it until he was himself badly wounded. Colonel Morrill again seized the flag, and was soon after shot in the head and carried from the field.

After the fall of Colonel Morrill, the flag was carried by a soldier whose name has never been ascertained. He was seen by Captain Edwards — who was now in command of the regiment — lying upon the ground badly wounded, grasping the flag in his hands. Captain Edwards took the flag from him and carried it himself until the few men left of the regiment fell back and reached Culp's Hill. Captain Edwards is the only man who is known to have carried the flag that day, who was not killed or wounded.

This grand old flag is no longer in existence. It was so riddled and torn with shot and shell that scarcely a square foot of it remained intact. The staff was shot and broken in pieces also. The men had great affection for the old flag, and after the battle of Gettysburg they agreed to cut it up and distribute the pieces to the survivors. This was done, and to-day in many a Michigan household a small piece of faded blue silk is cherished as one of the sacred mementoes of the war.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The attempted poisoning of Henry Wirz by his wife: fact or fiction?

One of the more peculiar stories to come out of the trial and execution of Henry Wirz is the one in which Wirz's wife tries to assist him in committing suicide by providing him with strychnine. Following Wirz's execution, the story appeared in the New York Times on November 11, 1865. It was subsequently deemed a total fabrication by Wirz's attorney and wife.

[Excerpted from "History of the United States Secret Service" by General L.C. Baker]

...I shall never forget the first meeting between Wirz and his wife. She exhibited the most stoical indifference, and simply said, "How are you, Wirz?" Instead of embracing him, as would naturally have been expected under the circumstances, she sat down in a chair in front of him, and looked at the doomed man a moment, and then gave utterance to the most vindictive words against the Government, in which he joined. More...Instead of talking of their family affairs, the unfortunate position in which Wirz was placed, and the probability of his execution, she took occasion to denounce Colonel Chipman, Judge-Advocate of the commission before whom Wirz was being tried, and the witnesses as perjurers, and in the most threatening manner defied the Government to carry the findings of the commission into execution. This interview finally closed in their making an appointment for another.

The conduct of Wirz and his wife was to my mind very suspicious. I did not conceive that such indifference was natural under the circumstances, and determined to watch their next interview very closely. It came in due time, and was very similar to the first one. Mrs. Wirz sat in front of her husband, and I took a position where I could casually observe the movements of each. Mrs. Wirz took from her hand a glove, inside of which I noticed she had a small package ; what it was I could not tell. The interview was short, as both were conscious that I was observing every movement. At the third interview the same thing was repeated. As we all rose to go to the door leading to the hall, Wirz walking first, Mrs. Wirz next, and myself at the rear, she for the first time approached him, when they embraced and put their lips up to kiss each other. I watched the motion, and perceived that she was conveying something from her mouth to his. I sprang forward in an instant, caught him by the throat, and threw him on the floor. He raised a pill from his throat, brought it within his teeth, crushed it and spit out. I picked it up and found it to be a small round piece of strychnine inclosed in a piece of oiled silk. Upon this discovery I informed Mrs. Wirz that she could have no more interviews with her husband. She was compelled, therefore, to leave him to his fate. My next step was to inform the Assistant Secretary of War and Judge Holt of the singular occurrence. I also showed to the former the strychnine pill. On the day of the prisoner's execution, I related the poison scene to a reporter of a New York paper. It was given to the public by him. The copperhead press imme diately opened their artillery of abuse, making me the target of bitterest attack. The whole statement was pronounced a fabrication, while it was verified entirely by Louis Skade, the counsel of Wirz, and by Mrs. Wirz.

The Battle of Gettysburg: we could have whipped you

Lorenzo L. Crounse, chief correspondent for the New York Times during part of the Civil War, was present at the Battle of Gettysburg. His July 8 column, "Further Details of the Great Battles of Friday", contains the following interesting conversation between a captured Confederate colonel and a Federal captain:

A peculiar fact concerning our position is contained in the expression of surprise which the rebel officers uttered when they crossed our lines as prisoners of war. One of the Colonels said, as he looked at our thin line, "Where are the men who fought us"? "Here", said a Captain. "My God!" exclaimed the Colonel, "if only we had another line we could have whipped you;" and then, still gazing about him in astonishment, he continued, with great emphasis, "By God, we could have whipped you as it was!" This is a positive fact, and illustrates how the noble Army of the Potomac can yet fight after all the imputations of demoralization and inefficiency which have been heaped upon it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pickett's Charge: a thing of beauty???

Below, a member of the 107th New York Volunteers (Lieutenant Colonel William F. Fox) describes what he saw as General Pickett's division emerged from the tree line and began their infamous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. In his description, he uses the word "beautiful" to describe the charge -- how ironic that something that resulted in so much loss of life could at the same time be "beautiful".

[Excerpted from Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg]

"It was a beautiful sight to see these long lines of men with bayonets fixed and glistening. From right to left a wave-like motion ran along the moving columns as they tramped down the sloping hillside into the valley. But let us turn to the sterner aspects of this scene. More... All our batteries now open on the advancing Confederates; their ranks are ploughed with shot and shell; great breaches are made in their columns, but they close up touching toward the centre. We are getting even with them for the reception they gave us at Fredericksburg.

The path of this charge is strewn with the fallen, the centre of contact is piled with Rebel dead, and now what remains of the 14,000 men who started out, either yields or runs back towards the ridge whence they came. The struggle has been terrible; the victory is complete.

The position of the Fifty-seventh was so far to the left that the charging column did not come up to it, except those who dropped their guns and came in as prisoners of war. Our view of the whole charge and repulse was superb. We felt sure that such an attack could not succeed, though it was not as light a matter as our confidence made it. All manner of fun and laughter and ridiculous speeches went the rounds. " Come on, Johnnie, we long to embrace you," " They must be hungry for lead," " As they drop on our bayonets we will help them to the rear," " See them skedaddle," — indeed anything that could be thought of to heighten the occasion was contributed.

Our losses in this battle were: 4 men killed, 2 officers and 26 men wounded, and 2 men missing, making a total of 34, Captain Mott and Lieutenant Hall were among the wounded."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Captain Henry Wirz: ruthless villain of Andersonville, or innocent pawn? (part 5 of 5)

[Part 5 of 5 in a series of documents that suggest Wirz's innocence]

Early on in the Civil War, Union and Confederate officials set up a system for the exchange of prisoners of war. This system eventually broke down. Some have suggested this breakdown resulted in the deplorable conditions at Andersonville, and ultimately, the prosecution and execution of Henry Wirz.

Excerpted below, from the Official Records, is a communication from U.S. Grant regarding his opposition to the exchange of prisoners.

City Point, VA., August 18, 1864. Major-General BUTLER, Commanding, &c.:

I am satisfied that the object of your interview had the proper sauc- tion and therefore meets with my entire approval. I have seen from Southern papers that a system of retaliation is going on in the South which they keep from us and which we should stop in some way. On the subject of exchange, however, I differ from General Hitchcock. It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we com- mence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would iusure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.

Lieutenant- General.

Friday, May 9, 2008

March towards Gettysburg: the importance of the fife and drum corps

A soldier comments on the importance of the fife and drum corps while on march towards Gettysburg. Excerpted from: Leaves from the Battlefield of Gettysburg: a Series of Letters From a Field Hospital.

Letter from a young Officer of the 118th Reg. P. V. written on the Battle-field.

July 2, 1863. Thursday noon.

"We started at 5 1/2 o'clock P. M., to make a march of some fifteen miles. The men being chafed and footsore, the march was painfully made. The Colonel kept the drums and fifes beating and playing continually, which was the only thing that kept the men up. It is singular how inspiring music is to a used-up soldier."

Read the full entry below

More... I wrote you last from bivouac near Myersville, Md., on the 30th, which letter as yet I have been unable to mail. At 10 A. M. on the 1st of July we left bivouac near Myersville and marched towards the Pennsylvania line. As soon as we had passed the line, the colors were unfurled and the drums were beaten, and three times three cheers were given for the Keystone State. The men seemed imbued with new spirits. In fact everybody seemed in a good humor; all were determined to give the rebels a rough shake for their impudence. We took the road leading toward Hanover. At every assemblage of houses we passed by on the road, the drums were beaten, and the regular step was kept. When within half a mile of Hanover, we halted and stacked arms, and preparations were made to remain all night. We had just got comfortably fixed, when orders were received to push forward to Gettysburg. This order was anything but agreeable to us; all hands were completely tired out by continued marching. We started at 5 1/2 o'clock P. M., to make a march of some fifteen miles. The men being chafed and footsore, the march was painfully made. The Colonel kept the drums and fifes beating and playing continually, which was the only thing that kept the men up. It is singular how inspiring music is to a used-up soldier. We passed through the towns of Cherrysburg and Brushtown, and halted at 12 1/2 o'clock P. M., about five miles from Gettysburg, and turned in, with orders to move at five o'clock in the morning. At 4 1/2 o'clock this morning, we were routed up and marched to within three miles of Gettysburg. We then struck a road leading to the Baltimore turnpike. We could hear heavy firing toward Gettysburg. We were formed several times in line of battle on the right of the road, and then moved to the left and formed in line of battle, and ordered to rest, from which rest I write you. We are at present on the second line of battle, the First and Twelfth Corps being in the first. The rebels are in possession of Gettysburg at present, and our pickets are on the outskirts.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

War is Hell: memories of a Civil War drummer boy

William Tecumseh Sherman once said, "war is hell". Below, a Civil War drummer boy shares his experiences regarding war and hell.

[Excerpted from: Drum Taps in Dixie: Memories of a Civil War Drummer Boy, 1861 - 1865.]

To fully appreciate Gen. Sherman's definition of war, one needs to be at a field hospital on the outskirts of some great battlefield where the ghastly surroundings of death and suffering are more terrible than on the battlefield itself.

The day after our retreat from Bull Run our regiment was ordered to proceed by train to Fairfax station, where all the wounded were sent for transportation to Washington. More...We rode on the top of freight cars, every man with a loaded musket ready to shoot any of Mosby's men who might try to wreck the train. The cars were filled with cots, stretchers, blankets and other supplies for the wounded.

The night was a dark and rainy one, and as we jumped off the cars at the station, which was located in some dense woods, we saw the horrors of war spread out on every side. Acres of ground were covered with bleeding, mangled soldiers, who but a short time before had stood amid the storm of shot and shell, now just as bravely enduring suffering.

The surgeons and their assistants at the amputating tables with coats off and shirt sleeves rolled up, their hands red with blood, worked swiftly to save life, for it is the "first aid" to the wounded that counts. The spectacular effect was heightened by piles of blazing pitch pine knots, torches and lanterns suspended from the limbs of trees, which imparted a strange wierdness to the scene. All night long the interminable trains of ambulances and wagons from the battlefield came bringing their loads of sufferers with the smoke of battle upon them. Many were so exhausted that it was necessary to give them stimulants before they could be lifted from the wagons.

The United States Sanitary and Christian commissions were represented by a large number of workers. Women of culture and refinement, from some of the best families in the land, were cutting off the blood-drenched clothing, bathing and bandaging shattered limbs, giving nourishment to the fainting, speaking comforting words and listening to the messages of the dying; and all this going on within the sound of rattling musketry and booming cannon, for it was the night of the fight at Chantilly, when Gen. Jackson attempted to flank Pope's army and reached a point not far from Fairfax court house.

Our regiment stood in line in a wheat field, just outside of the woods, a good part of the night with the rain falling in torrents and heaven's artillery vicing with that of the forces engaged. A drummer boy of our company who had lost his drum at Manassas, was carrying a musket that night and stood in the ranks with his father who was a sergeant in the same command. I need hardly say that the events of that night are graven as with an iron pen on his memory.

The authorities at Washington were fearful of risking any more fighting so near the capital and Gen. Pope was ordered to withdraw his army within the defenses of Washington and the wounded were hurried away from Fairfax station in every kind of conveyance, even hacks and carriages being sent out from Washington. Our regiment remained until the last wounded man had been sent forward and then set fire to the immense quantities of supplies stored there, to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. Our casualties in the second Bull Run affair were comparatively small, we being engaged only in the first encounter at Manassas Junction, which was merely preliminary to the great battle. Gen. Stuart's cavalry did, however, manage to take as prisoners about two hundred of the regiment.