My latest contribution to Disunion is now available. Corp. James Brownlee of the 134th New York Infantry suffered multiple wounds during the first day’s fight at Gettysburg. An excerpt:
Union forces along the northern edge of Gettysburg, Pa., occupied a precarious position on July 1, 1863. Advancing Confederates poured deadly volleys into the rapidly thinning blue ranks as a steady stream of wounded trickled into the normally peaceful Pennsylvania town.
A federal division commander in the thick of the fray, Gen. Carl Schurz, was running out of options. A former German revolutionary who became an influential voice among fellow political refugees, he sent his aides in search of reinforcements. While he waited for help, he received reports that Union troops on his right and left had buckled under the intense pressure of the Confederate juggernaut.
A mile south, Cpl. James Brownlee watched and listened to the raging battle from the heights of Cemetery Hill. A farmhand who had emigrated from Ireland with his family when he was a boy, Brownlee and his comrades in the 134th New York Infantry could clearly see the fighting where Schurz was hotly engaged.
The story of Amos Rhoads, a lieutenant in the Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, was killed in action during the June 27, 1863, raid on Shelbyville, Tennessee, was posted on Disunion this afternoon. Rhoads’ wife, Anna, left their home in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to bring her husband’s remains home.
One day during the summer of 1863, in Union-occupied Nashville, Tenn., Anna Rhoads visited the headquarters of Gen. Walter C. Whitaker and requested a meeting with him. Perhaps to her surprise, he granted one.
A Kentuckian known for his volatile temper and a fondness for alcohol, Whitaker was moved as the earnest young woman recounted the grim errand that prompted her visit. “Mrs. Rhoads is here with the body of her husband, Lt. Rhoads of the 7th Penn. Cav.,” wrote Whitaker to Gen. Robert S. Granger, an old West Pointer in command of the military district that included Nashville. “He was a gallant officer. She has come from Pennsylvania to take his body home and is short of money.” Whitaker added, “I send this note to you hoping in its perusal you may find it proper to give her transportation for herself and the body of her husband.”
The story of Fifty-third Massachusetts Infantry Capt. Edward Richmond Washburn’s experience at the massive failed assault on the Confederate defenses of Port Hudson was published this afternoon. Washburn is pictured, left, and Brig. Gen. Halbert E. Paine (Wisconsin Historical Society image).
Confederate artillery and infantry fire roared from the formidable defenses of Port Hudson, La., on June 14, 1863. Shot and shell raked the rough-and-tumble terrain where Union forces were pinned down after a failed assault, caught between the lines and unable to advance or retreat.
A glimpse through thick drifts of gun smoke revealed a knoll littered with broken bodies of men in blue. Dead, dying and wounded soldiers blanketed the exposed ground in the scorching heat of the day. Those who had not been struck hugged the earth as the hail of fire continued.
One of the injured federals trapped on the hill was Edward R. Washburn, a popular captain in the 53rd Massachusetts Infantry. A musket ball had ripped into his right leg during the attack. Near him lay the brigadier general who led the assault, Halbert E. Paine. He had also been shot in the leg. Attempts to rescue the general cost the lives of two men, and two more wounded. Paine waved off other rescuers. He “begged them to make no further efforts to get him,” reported First Lt. Henry A. Willis, who told the story of the assault in the 53rd’s regimental history years later.
My profile of James F. O’Brien is now available. After a shaky start in his first engagement at Plains Store, La., Lt. Col. James F. O’Brien of the Forty-eighth Massachusetts Infantry had an opportunity for redemption as commander of a “Forlorn Hope” against the formidable defenses of Port Hudson. O’Brien and his 200-man storming party assaulted the Confederates on May 27, 1863, with terrible losses. An excerpt from the story:
In an open letter to the mayor of Charlestown written about the time of the Battle of Plains Store, O’Brien announced his strong support for the Emancipation Proclamation, “I say that the crime of rebellion which has caused thousands of our citizens to fill bloody graves is but partially atoned for in the sweeping array of the noxious institution of slavery. The policy of our government with respect to that institution is just, and wise, as any thinking man who has an opportunity of practically witnessing its effect will acknowledge.”
O’Brien also shared his views on black soldiers in blue. “Slave labor feeds our enemy in the field, digs his ditches, and builds his fortifications. Every slave liberated by our arms is a diminishment of rebel power. Every slave who wields a spade or musket in our cause is so much added to our strength.”
He ended his letter with a rallying cry. “The great American heart beats true to the cause. On its patriotism and courage an Empire might be wagered with security, it was resolute and hopeful in the beginning and will not falter or despair now that we are slowly though surely and successfully approaching the end. The first year of this war was prosecuted compromisingly. We strove to make the people of the South believe that we warred not on their institutions, that all we desired was to save our beloved country. But their blood was hot. They would yield nothing. They would propose nothing. They would accept nothing. Now then our blood is up, our armor is buckled on, the shield and sword are in our hands, and we are ready to stand on the blood sprinkled fields of our ancestors and swear in the presence of high heaven that this Union in which the happiness of unborn millions reposes shall live.”
My profile of Joseph Cornwall Wright is now available. A prosperous and popular Chicago entrepreneur, Wright made a rousing war speech in early 1862 that led to the formation of the Seventy-second Illinois Infantry. A modest man, he declined the colonelcy due to his lack of military experience and instead served as lieutenant colonel and second-in-command. The Seventy-second wound up in Vicksburg and suffered major losses during the ill-fated assault against the stronghold on May 22, 1863.
An excerpt from the story reveals an exchange between Wright and Brig. Gen. Thomas E.G. Ransom before the attack. The exchange was recounted by Maj. Joseph Stockton of the Seventy-second:
Wright and Ransom sat with other regimental and staff officers on the sweltering morning of May 22 and discussed the pending attack. The main topic of conversation was most likely the finalization of plans for the participation of the 72nd and the rest of Ransom’s Brigade in Grant’s full-scale assault set for that afternoon. Major Stockton attended the impromptu gathering and recalled, “We all knew we were to assault the rebel works, and that there would be bloody work.”
The conversation continued. Stockton recalled that Ransom noticed an especially fine field glass carried by Wright. Ransom turned to Wright and, perhaps in an effort to ease tensions, jocosely remarked, “Colonel, if you are killed I want you to leave that glass to me.” The good-natured Wright replied, “All right.” Stockton chimed in: “Stop, Colonel, you forget you left that to your boy when you made your will at Memphis,” where the 72nd had spent part of the last winter. “That is so,” said Wright in acknowledgment of the promise he had made to his 13-year-old son, John. The discussion presumably turned back to the grim work ahead before breaking up.
My profile of Samuel Bean Noyes is now available. A New Hampshire native who dropped out of school to enlist in the Twelfth New Hampshire Infantry, Noyes’s officers did not think he had much potential as a soldier at first, and assigned him to be the regiment’s mail carrier. After the Twelfth was decimated at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Noyes was moved into a combat role and participated in his first big fight at Gettysburg.
“Noyes went home to New Hampshire for a brief visit about this time and sat for his portrait in a Concord photograph studio. His image was captured in the popular carte de visite format, a French style that became a world phenomenon after it was introduced in 1854. Indeed, “Cardomania” was all the rage in America during the war years. One of the advantages of the format was that multiple paper prints could be inexpensively produced from a glass negative. Photographers typically offered a dozen cartes de visite for a few dollars. Noyes likely purchased at least a dozen and distributed them to family and friends.”