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…  


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