Friday, July 31, 2015

On more fields than the Old Guard of Napoleon...

One of the interesting rewards when a book is reprinted (in this case In The Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg with William J.K. Beaudot, by Savas Beatie) is the chance to again go over materials used in the writing so long ago. Among the items I rediscovered is a letter written by Rufus Dawes to those attending a Grand Army of the Republic reunion in Mauston, Wisconsin, where he was the first captain of a company of infantry raised to put down the rebellion. It became the Lemonweir Minute Men, Company K, of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry in the famous Iron Brigade of the West.


The camp fire at Mauston in Juneau County that January 8,1885, was a great success despite temperatures that dropped to 20 below. There was music by the Cornet Band and singing by the Glee Club as well as several speeches, including one by Phil Cheek of nearby Baraboo, an old comrade in the Sixth Wisconsin. Young Arthur Patterson used a drum carried from Atlanta to the sea for his drum solo. The supper was “good, substantial repast, and was partaken of by a large number of people. But the reading of a letter from “Gen. R.R. Dawes” received the closest attention.


It was written November 23, 1884, from Marietta, Ohio, where Dawes as living, and included his regrets that he would not be able to attend the camp fire at Mauston. He went on to say that he did want to recall the memories of his old Company K. He wrote:


”Glancing this morning at the official record of Wisconsin in the war, I find that from one devoted company, 21 men were actually killed in battle, and 51 shot besides; of those wounded men you have many in Juneau County. I can think of Eugene Rose, Jim Barney, Dan J. Miller, Eugene Anderson, James Sullivan, Wm. H. Van Wie, Franklin Wilcox, Erastus Smith; and there are doubtless others.


“These are now your plain fellow citizens, but they were heroes tried and true as ever offered life on a field of battle. The young generation can hardly realize that their modest neighbors are soldiers who have fought on more fields of battle than the Old Guard of Napoleon, and have stood fire with far greater firmness. Where has the firmness of the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg been surpassed in history? Two thousand muskets were carried into battle and for four long hours these men breasted the billows of rebellion until twelve hundred were shot down under the colors. Then, with colors flying and an broken front, they retired to the Cemetary Hill. But that four hours time saved for our army the Cemetery Hill, and that enabled it to save the nation. Here, as everywhere, upon fifty fields of battle, Company K held its portion of the line.


“But it was my purpose to recall,” Dawes went on, “rather the memories of my friends who died in battle. They lie scattered over the land, and their names should be gathered up around your campfires, and their character and deeds presented….”


In so many ways, those few sentences are an explanation of why I write about days long ago and the “plain fellow citizens” and “modest neighbors” of my home state of Wisconsin who fought on more fields of battle than the Old Guard of Napoleon.


Rest in Peace, Black Hats.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rifle-muskets, paper cartridges, and a cherished memory

One of the latest trends in the Civil War hobby is the use of original style paper cartridges to live fire rifles, rifled muskets, and rifle-muskets in the “traditional” manner, and I must admit I have crossed the river. After the recent Muskets and Memories Civil War weekend at Boscobel, Wis., I find myself left with an empty wooden St. Louis Arsenal box that was once full of 30 wrapped packets of 10 cartridges each, a work space littered with snippets of paper and string, and a sore left elbow from rolling tubes. It is all the fault of my grandson, Gabriel, and—bless him—my desire to show him a different side of musket shooting.

 The use of paper cartridges for as been around for a time and a number of shooters have enjoyed taking a step back in time to roll paper tubes, tie one end shut, then load a Minie ball and powder before folding the tale. It takes a while longer produce such cartridges then it does to type those words, however, and  the practice has been limited to the few individuals interested in trying to replicate the Civil War experience of live firing an 1861-65 style shoulder arm.

I must confess I have long been a member of the North-South Skirmish Association, Inc., the organization which holds marksmanship competitions for all sorts of Civil War firearms and artillery, first with the old Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers and now the Union Guards, as well as a longtime member of the American Civil War Shooters Association, a similar organization based in the Midwest.  The N-SSA is in the process of developing a “traditional” match for five-member teams using issue-style paper cartridges and firearms with original sight configurations.  The ACWSA actually put the idea to a test in a recent demonstration at Boscobel, Wis.

Nineteen participants, a mix of about a dozen living historians and a handful of ACWSA members, shot more than 240 paper cartridges in two five minute relays. The first target was a 4x4 foot sheet of drywall at 100 yards and the second a mass of mounted clay pigeons on a backer at 50 yards. The first event was by volley fire and the second rapid fire. The cartridges were issued in arsenal packs of 10 each from a replica wooden arsenal box. The cartridges contained a Burton-style hollow-base bullet of the type developed in the late 1850s along with an internal powder tube and 60 grains of Goex FFg black powder.

The living historians, with little live fire experience, seemed to be fascinated with the paper cartridges and the live fire experience. They were quick to point out how much they had learned about how potent the old rifle-muskets proved to be and how the ramming of actual bullets slowed the loading procedure. The shooters quickly adapted to the paper cartridges and some skirmishers with experience said they found them just as fast as the plastic tubes used to quick loading.

The chawing of cartridges and furious loading was a sight to see.  As my comrade from the old Sixth Wisconsin, Pvt. Johnny Dunn, likes to say, “Once you shoot paper you can never go back.”

As for my grandson, who began his reenacting as a drummer boy in the “Seeing the Elephant” in-the-round video for the Civil War Museum at Kenosha, Wis., and now plays “the devil’s tattoo” for Co. K, Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, the live fire of paper cartridges experience is a memory he will long cherish. The same can be said for his grandfather and the others who participated or watched.

A special thanks to the ACWSA for hosting and developing this event, and a nod to my friend N-SSA Commander Phil Spaugy and others for encouragement and help in making it a reality.

Now I am wondering how this traditional shooting of Civil War style muskets is going to develop. I know one thing—it sure is a lot of fun.

Videos of the traditional shooting can be seen at:

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!”

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."