Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Belle Boyd and the Thirty-sixth Wisconsin

            This is a warm story about Confederate girl spy Belle Boyd and a forgotten Wisconsin monument in Virginia.

The rectangular granite stone stands on a slight rise of ground near what is the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike in Hanover County. The marker is 10 feet tall and is overgrown with weeds, brush and honeysuckle vines. The inscription reads: “This monument has been erected by one of their comrades, Charles A. Storke, in memory of the members of Companies B, E, F and G of the Thirty-sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry who fought here on the first day of June 1864.” Around its sides are carved the names of the 137 soldiers who were captured, wounded or killed in the battle. Storke’s name is one of the 137. He was 18 when he was captured during an attack on the Confederate lines. He was a member of Company G and later wrote an account of the attack in his memoirs. He remembered 44 men were killed or mortally wounded, 60 suffered from serious wounds and 33 were captured. Storke was captured and spent time in various Confederate prisons before being released in 1865.

Storke moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., after the war where he was district attorney and mayor. He later started the Santa Barbara News-Press newspaper. In the early 1900s, Storke revisited the site of his capture and began to make arrangements to buy the land. “I tried to look up their graves and could not find a trace of them,” he said. “I determined then to put up a monument where they had received their wounds.” The project was completed in October 1924 and the plot deeded to Hanover County. However, County officials said later they knew nothing of the deed and that it was apparently lost in the files. The monument stood mostly forgotten.

Then in the 1930, something changed. A neighbor, Lucile Luck, said in a newspaper interview in 1987 that a group of ladies would come out every year on June 1 and had some sort of service. She identified them only as an “auxiliary.”

            While touring battlefields near Richmond in 1956, I was taken to the Thirty-sixth Wisconsin monument by a contingent from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The lead was Mrs. T.J. Nelson of Richmond, a kind gentlewoman with a keen since of the past. She proudly proclaimed her chapter of the UDC placed flowers at the Wisconsin stone each year after learning that a Grand of the Republic chapter had taken up the task of annually marking the grave of Belle Boyd, the famous spy of the Confederacy who is buried in the cemetery at Wisconsin Dells. She had died their while on a speaking tour about the turn of the century.

Mrs. Nelson also told of how she and several other UDC members traveled to Wisconsin one year to take part in the Wisconsin memorial for Belle Boyd and how much she was moved by the ceremony. The UDC delegation brought a container of Virginia soil to be spread over the gravesite to Belle would be buried beneath ground from home.

Is it not curious how the past can tie us together?

My, my…

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The last man alive to see Lincoln in his coffin

When I was a young reporter working for United Press International, I found this story among the yellowing teletype files of the Milwaukee Bureau.

It was an interview with John Bowlus of Milwaukee, who may have been the last man alive to see the body of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin. It occurred during a little known event almost four decades after Lincoln died, and Bowlus recounted the story 90 years after the "Illinois Railsplitter" had been assassinated. The story was written in 1955. Bowlus was 68 at the time and died shortly thereafter.

Bowlus was present at Springfield, Illinois when the remains of Lincoln were unearthed for the last time before being permanently interred in steel and concrete at the base of the Lincoln Monument in Oak Ridge Cemetery at Springfield.

Bowlus said it was a cool evening that night of September 20, 1902, when a neighbor, a "Mr. Freeman," who was Illinois Superintendent of Education, asked him to drive "somewhere."

Lincoln's body had been moved several times to protect it from souvenir hunters who had raided his tomb. Bowlus said he drove through the gathering dusk to Oak Ridge where he and Mr. Freeman were met by a small group of Illinois officials. There he learned the body was to be uncovered for the last time and taken for permanent burial after the tamper-proof crypt had been made ready.

The party descended into the dark catacomb under a mausoleum where the remains of Lincoln lay hidden under a pile of loose board. In silence, Bowlus helped remove the top of three lids on the coffin.

"I can see his face as if it were yesterday," Bowlus recalled. "Even in death he was an awe-inspiring figure." A boy of 14 at the time, Bowlus said he had stood on tiptoe and gazed, awestruck, on the majestic features of Lincoln, almost too afraid to peer into the glass-topped casket. "The body was almost perfectly preserved," Bowlus remembered. "The face was darker... he lay with his head and shoulders and tips of his hands visible where they were crossed on his chest." It was awe-inspiring, almost frightening," he said. "The beard appeared to have grown longer, but the dignity of the great man could almost be felt through the air-tight casket which had preserved his body," Bowlus said.

A short while later, the body was sealed in the monument to rest undisturbed forever.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A poem from the Iron Brigade

        One of the fun things of historical research on the Iron Brigade is discovering the boys of the past were in truth just boys and not mystical figures of some fanciful epic. Today's case in point, this brief poem sent to the Wisconsin State Register newspaper by Charlie Dow of the Second Wisconsin. Young Dow was many of the "prints" or former newspapermen now serving in uniform with the Iron Brigade and had not lost his way with words. This "Soldier's Prayer" was printed in the Register on April 18, 1863:

Our Father, which art in Washington, Uncle Abram is thy name;
Thy victories won, Thy will be done in the South as it is in the North;
Give us this day our daily pork and crackers;
And forgive us our shortcomings, as we forgive our Quartermaster;
And forgive us not by traitors but deliver us from Skedaddlers;
For thine is the power over...the soldier "for the period of three years or during the war."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A New Banner for the Black Hats

One of prized holdings of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison is the flag presented to the regiments of the Iron Brigade 150 years ago this month. The new flag was the effort of a group of citizens. They were proud of the brigade’s record at Gettysburg and elsewhere (“one of the most glorious organizations in the entire army,” a New York Times correspondent called it), raised $1,000, and commissioned Tiffany & Co. of New York to produce a banner of the richest construction “as a testimonial of the appreciation in which the Brigade is held for its bravery, gallantry and valor.”  The flag carried the names of the five regiments and the various battle honors. It was mounted on a special staff with a massive silver spear head. It was to be presented on September 17, 1863, the one year anniversary of Antietam, with a great flourish. Before the event occurred, however, orders put the brigade on the march.

Nevertheless, on the appointed day, W. Yates Selleck of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s military agent at Washington caught up with the brigade at Culpepper, Va. The regiments were drawn up in a square. The presentation had “no splendid bower nor distinguished guests,” said one officer, but the “victuals” were on hand and “the liquors.” Selleck gave a brief speech and presented the flag to Col. William Robinson of the 7th Wisconsin, then the brigade commander. As fitting, the oldest regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin, served as the official escort for the new colors. One of the highlights was the reading of a letter by Selleck from the army’s old commander, George B. McClellan: “My heart and prayers are ever with them, and that, although their new colors can witness no more brilliant acts of patriotism and devotion than those which the old torn flags have shared in, I know that on every future field, they and the whole Army of the Potomac, will maintain their part, and the honor of their country and their colors.”

Afterwards, the officers made for the full tables and a Wisconsin officer noted for his temperance views wrote his sweetheart that  it soon turned into “an affair that conferred little honor on the brigade, as gentlemen. I feel glad to say there were a few exceptions.” He also reported that the brigade officers and visiting generals “and staff officers within any convenient distance of us were almost unanimously drunk last night. We will see an account of the presentation in the New York Times, as I saw the ‘graphic and reliable’ correspondent of that paper guzzling champagne and wine with the rest of them.”

One Badger called it “a most disgraceful thing that spoiled the whole.” The officers had secured several barrels of whiskey and “most all got drunk.” A guard was posted by the whiskey barrels, the soldier said, but ‘the guard got drunk and the tables kicked down and the result was that most of the whole Brigade was drunk and the supper that was prepared for us was spoiled.” It was a spree of such epic proportions that it went on for two days and disturbed the sleep of the enlisted men. The rank and file, one private said, “got what they could swipe, which was not a small amount.” Another private called it “a gala day.” The new glorious flag had no official place with the brigade, however. Unable to keep it because regulations forbad all but official banners, the officers of the five regiments resolved to send the flag to Washington with Wisconsin Agent Selleck.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My, My...A FREE Copy of The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory

What is this?--A FREE BOOK OFFER: Each person who views the book trailer for my book “The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter” and posts a comment about it here will be entered into a drawing. My book publisher Savas Beatie will choose one person at random who will win a FREE copy of the book. They will select a winner five days after this is posted, so don’t delay.

Link to trailer on YouTube: http://youtu.be/1NxoiCBfFvU


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

We knew that the rebs were scooped

In Gettysburg at midday July 3, 1863, one of the wounded Iron Brigade men--Pvt. James "Mickey" Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin--found one of the band members to help him and, hanging onto the railing on the stairs, climbed to the cupola of the railroad depot. “I saw what appeared like the whole Rebel Army in a chunk start for our lines with their infernal squealing yell. It seemed as if everything stood still inside of me for a second or two, then I began to pray.”  An officer of his division, watching from Culp’s Hill with the Iron Brigade regiments, called it an irresistible sight: “On they came, banners waving in the battle smoke, cannon roaring, men shouting, horses neighing, small arms crashing in volleys! Still they came on…nothing stops them…. They almost reach our main line of battle with a fairly well-filled line of their own, as it seemed from our location.”
          Sullivan’s prayer (though he admitted he “was, and am not yet noted for the frequency and fervency of my prayers”), was that the Confederates would “catch h—l.” It seemed after a few long, anxious minutes he said, as “if the fire from our lines doubled and doubled again, and I could see long streaks of light through the Rebel columns, but they went forward. I was afraid they would capture our guns.” Another Wisconsin soldier said later watching the heavy Confederate losses that he “felt bad for the poor cusses who went down, but it had to be.”
        Sullivan watched as the Confederate infantry seem to melt as the Union infantry opened on them. “…[W]e could hear the Northern cheer. We knew that the rebs were scooped, and the old Army of the Potomac was victorious. The dozen or so wounded soldiers around Sullivan “were wild with joy, some cried, others shook hands, and all joined in with the best cheer we could get up. I forgot all about my wound and was very forcibly reminded of it when I went to shout as I had to sit down to keep from falling.” A Confederate officer came to see what the clamor was about and “when told that Lee was cleaned, he growled out if we d---d Yankees were able to cheer we were able to go to Richmond,” said Sullivan, who  admitted “our fellows felt good anyway, and the reb went out and we saw no more of him.”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

To all appearances they saved the field

The survivors of the Iron Brigade watched the fighting of July 2, 1863, at Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard from their lines on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg.    “We could plainly see that our troops were giving ground,” said a Wisconsin officer. “Our suspense and anxiety were intense. We gathered in knots all over the hill watching the battle…. As the sun was low down a fine sight was seen. It was two long blue lines of battle, with twenty or thirty regimental banners, charging forward into the smoke and din of battle. To all appearances they saved the field.” Suddenly, in the fading light, about 7 p.m., the rebel yell went up in front of Culp’s Hill and the far right of the Union line was attacked by forces under the command of Confederate General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Another attack centered on Cemetery Hill, but it flared sharply and quickly stalled when it was not supported. Johnson’s men were more successful on the far right of the Union line. Most of the Culp’s Hill defenders from the Union Twelfth Corps, had been sent to the left and only a brigade of New Yorkers under General George S. Greene remained in position. Greene insisted on constructing defensive works proved the difference, although a portion of the abandoned Federal works on the lower part of Culp’s Hill were occupied. Just as the lines on the far left were firing volley after volley, an officer came looking for Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin with orders to report to Greene. The 6th Wisconsin and the 14th Brooklyn were sent to the right to assist in repelling an attack. In the brush and darkness, Wisconsin Color bearer I.F. Kelly remembered struggling in the brush, darkness, and trees with his 11-foot flag staff. The first mounted officer Dawes encountered in the darkness was Greene, who took a card from his pocket and wrote his name and command, handing it to the young officer. He told Dawes to take his regiment into the breastworks hold. Dawes ordered, “Forward—run! March!” As the 6th Wisconsin reached the line, rebels in the dark rocks rose up and fired a volley. Greene was unaware the Confederates were occupying the breastworks and the rebels were just as surprised by the arrival of the Wisconsin men. After the volley, the Confederates went back down Culp’s Hill. “This remarkable encountered did not last a minute,” said Dawes. “We lost two men, killed—both burned with the powder of the guns fired at them.” One of the wounded was Color bearer Kelly, struck by a spatter of lead off a rock that cut his neck. The wound bled freely. Soldiers around him found a rag and wet it from canteens before wrapping it around his neck. The 6th Wisconsin remained in the line until midnight when they were relieved by troops of the Twelfth Corps who returned to the works after supporting the far left of the Union line. The Wisconsin and New York regiment returned to their original positions without further incident.