Saturday, July 26, 2014

A story of the Iron Brigade


One of the interesting incidents of book signing is having a descendant of some of the Iron Brigade people you are writing about show up. It happened again a couple of weeks ago at the Walworth County Historical Society in Elkhorn when a very nice lady showed me a small silver key  chain-like device with the name “Franklin Wilcox” engraved on it with a date in the 1890s. “He was in the Mauston Minute Men of the Iron Brigade,” she explained, and had been severely wounded at South Mountain in Maryland on September  14, 1862.

That’s when the fun began. The name was familiar.  I made a quick check of the index of my book, The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter, and there he was—Frank Wilcox, Lemonweir Minute Men, Company K, Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.  He was on the skirmish line moving up the National Road when shot, and nearby an Irish private by the name of James P. Sullivan, known to one and all as “Mickey, of Company K.”

Sullivan was in discomfort at the time from a case of the mumps and his cheeks had reached “a respectable rotundity.” Lt. Lyman Upham had loaned “a big silk handkerchief” and the young private had tied it around his face. He soon discovered, however, the handkerchief obstructed his shooting and took it off and stuffed it in his pocket. Sullivan was fighting along with George Chamberlain of Mauston, Ephraim Cornish of Lindina, and Franklin Wilcox of Lemonweir.

Dusk was near and the light was fading. The four were behind a large boulder, said Sullivan, two firing from each side. Sullivan was working with Chamberlain, the boyish private who may have been his best friend in the army. Chamberlain had left a circus to enlist and it was said that he joined the army seeking relief from a hard life. Sullivan and Chamberlain were regarded as the “stray waifs” of Co. K and had “to suffer all the misdeeds or mistakes, no matter by whom committed.” It was a common statement, Sullivan said, that if Capt. Rufus Dawes would “stub his toe he’d put Mickey and Chamberlain on Knapsack drill.” Consequently, Sullivan said, he and Chamberlain were “inseparable companions and fast friends

The skirmish line of Company K men pushed forward. “Chamberlain, who was brave as a line, kept continually rushing forward leading the squad [and the skirmish line] and of course we had to follow up and support him" said Sullivan. “It was now sundown and being in the shadow of the mountain, it was getting dark very fast, and our fellows pushed the rebel skirmishers up to their line of battle, and our squad took shelter behind a big bounder and two of us fired from each side of it."

Sullivan was in a cluster of large boulders and found the air around him full of projectiles that splattered off the rocks and clattered around him. "When the crash came, either a bullet split in pieces against the stone or a fragment of the boulder hit me on the sore jaw, causing exquisite pain, and I was undetermined whether to run away or swear," he said. Somewhere in the shadow of the rock Eph Cornish cried out, "Mickey, Chamberlain is killed and I'm wounded." Then there was another "crashing volley" of musketry, said Sullivan, and "a stinging, burning sensation in my right foot followed by the most excruciating pain." Frank Wilcox, who was next to him, "toppled over wounded." Around him, the skirmish line was falling back and Sullivan, using his musket for a crutch, hopped downhill "a good deal faster than I had come up."

I must admit there is a kind of satisfaction passing that story along to a descendant of one of three men fighting with Sullivan that day long ago. Such occurrences happen every now and then and one of the most enjoyable was when I was able to give Sullivan’s account of Gettysburg to his elderly son who was unaware of his dad’s role in the Civil War. But I will let that bide for another time…  

 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gettysburg and a distant voice calling out "Come on, Johnnie! Come on!"



      
            The Civil War Trust announced recently it is purchasing a parcel of land at Gettysburg by where units of the Iron Brigade made their last stand the afternoon of July 1, 1863. Long attached to the unit, Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery was formed by half battery on both sides of the railroad cut closest to the present day motel and abreast of what is known as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. The right half battery under Lieutenant James Stewart was on the north side of the cut, slightly forward and facing west. The left half battery, under Lieutenant James Davidson, was in open order along the space between the turnpike and the railroad and faced southwest. In a small grove to the north were the 11th Pennsylvania and the 6th Wisconsin. The Wisconsin regiment was detached from its famous brigade for a successful attack against the railroad cut.
            The heavy brass Napoleons were firing with a fury late the afternoon of July 1 when heavy lines of Confederates began to close on the town. “Feed it to ‘em! God damn ‘em, feed it to ‘em,” Davidson was yelling in the smoke and confusion. Each of the heavy guns quickly fired savage blasts of double-canister that staggered the advancing Confederates. “Up and down the line men were reeling and falling,” one battery man wrote later of Gettysburg. “Splinters were flying from wheels and axles where bullets hit," said one gunner. "In the rear, horses were rearing and plunging, mad with wounds or terror, shells were bursting, shot shrieking over, howling about our ears or throwing up great clouds of dust where they hit; the musketry crashing on three sides of us; bullets hissing everywhere, cannon roaring, all crash on crash and peal on peal, smoke, dust, splinters, blood, wreck and carnage indescribable; but the brass guns of old B still bellowed and not a man or boy flinched or faltered.”
            The Confederate line came on under the storm of canister, “creeping toward” the battery “fairly fringed with flame.” The soldiers of the 6thWisconsin and 11th Pennsylvania crawled up over the bank of the railroad cut in rear of the caissons and added their musketry to the canister. Lieutenant Davidson was twice wounded and was so weak one of the men held up him. He could not stand because one ankle was shattered. The rebels fired volley after volley into the battery hitting men and horses. Finally Davidson was unable to stay in command and Sergeant John Mitchell took over the half battery. The water in the buckets used for sponging was “like ink,” one gunner remembered, saying a comrade nearby was smeared with burnt powder and “looked like a demon from below.”  North of the railroad cut, the three guns of the other half battery under Stewart “flashed the chain-lightning…in one solid streak.”
            Lt. Col.  Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin stood amid the guns watching the fighting. When the Confederates slowed under the canister and musketry, one of his infantrymen jumped forward, waving a fist, and calling over and over again, “Come on, Johnny! Come on!” It was going to be very close. Finally the order came from the rear to retreat. One Badger remembered how the Wisconsin men turned and poured in a volley to the Confederates who were so close “that we could hear them yelling at us to halt and surrender.”
            The orders were to retreat beyond the town and “hold your men together.” Dawes said he was astonished as the cheers of defiance along the line by the Lutheran Seminary buildings “had scarcely died away.” But a glance to the right and rear was sufficient: “There the troops of the eleventh corps appeared in full retreat and long lines of Confederates, with fluttering banners and shining steel were sweeping forward in pursuit of them without let or hindrance. It was a close race which could reach Gettysburg first, ourselves, or the rebel troops….” The officer wrote later that his regiment marched away with flag high and a steady step. One of his soldiers in the big hats said the order was more direct—run for it. “We obeyed this literally, and how we did run! As we came out of the smoke of the battle what a sight burst upon our gaze! On every side our troops were madly rushing to the rear. We were flanked on the right and on the left. We were overwhelmed by numbers. My heart sank within me. I lost all hope.”
            With his infantry supports retreating, Stewart of Battery B also gave the order to limber up. The left half battery withdrew along the Chambersburg Pike with the enemy within 50 yards, losing more men and horses. Stewart had to move his three guns across the railroad cut. When his three guns were clear, he rode back to check on the left half battery and found it gone and the place full of rebels. They called on him to surrender and fired, but Stewart jumped his horse over a fence and suffered only two bullet holes in his blouse. Stewart said the 6thWisconsin and his battery were the last to leave the field.
            To the south, just before the line gave way, the fighting at a make-shift barricade in front of the buildings of the Lutheran Seminary was furious. It was there the other regiments of the brigade—2nd and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan—stayed until the end. But despite defiance in the face of defeat, the famous Iron Brigade of the West, which marched to the fighting with such a confident step at mid-morning on July 1, 1863, was wrecked.
            It is fitting that that small parcel of land is finally being conserved by the Civil War Trust. The soldiers who fought there so long ago have made it a hallowed place. The modern buildings will soon be removed and the land made to look as it did more than a century and a half ago. Perhaps, in the near future, when a visitor goes there, they will still be able to catch the distant voices of the past, especially a soldier in a battered black hat calling out, “Come on, Johnnie! Come on!”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The

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