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!”