On the morning of June 18, 1864, Pvt. Payson Wolf trudged through the streets of Petersburg, Va., with other battered and bloodied Union prisoners of war. The captives were herded into an old tobacco barn with hundreds of other bluecoats to await their fate in the hands of Confederate military authorities.
Only hours earlier, Wolf had come out on the wrong end of a rare nighttime assault, which put him and his comrades in an advanced position near the formidable defenses of the Cockade City. They had been attacked by veteran North Carolina troops and compelled to surrender after a brief and brutal fight.
The prisoners were quickly divested of their muskets; one company of Tar Heels jumped at the opportunity to trade their worn weapons for the captured guns. They soon noticed that the wooden musket stocks had been ornately carved with fish, snakes, turtles and other animals – perhaps their first clue that their captives were no ordinary Union soldiers.
Samuel Tilden Kingston, an assistant surgeon in the Second New York Cavalry who accompanied his comrades on the ill-fated Kilpatrick Raid against Richmond, is the subject of my latest contribution to the New York Times series Disunion. Kingston rode with a 500-man column commanded by Col. Ulric Dahlgren, who was killed in action. Papers reportedly found on his body ordered the assassination of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet. Kingston fell into enemy hands when he remained behind with wounded troopers. He was sent to Libby Prison and condemned to death as a felon. An excerpt:
Dahlgren’s body, which had been unceremoniously dumped in a muddy grave near the place he fell, was disinterred and put on display in Richmond. “Large numbers of persons went to see it. It was in a pine box, clothed in Confederate shirt and pants, and shrouded in a Confederate blanket,” reported The Richmond Whig on March 8, 1864.
While this circus played out on the streets of the capital, Kingston and his white cellmates were informed that they had been condemned to death as felons for their role in the alleged assassination attempt. “This news appeared to have a very depressing effect on Dr. Kingston,” noted Lieutenant Bartley, a fellow prisoner.
Kingston’s cough and cold worsened, and he lost his appetite. On March 21, as he lay near death, the Confederates removed him from his cell and sent him North. He survived the trip home, and with good food and care came back to life. He eventually returned to the regiment, was promoted to full surgeon, and served in this capacity until the end of the war.
Now available on New York Times Disunion is the story of John James Toffey and how he came to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry when he saved a skirmish line at Chattanooga.
The order to begin what came to be known as the Battle of Orchard Knob (or Indian Hill) was given about 3:30 a.m. Toffey recalled, “We were ordered to charge a very strong position on the extreme right of the rebel line. It was well fortified and surrounded by dense woods, while in front there was an open field over which we had to charge.”
Confederate infantry and sharpshooters concealed themselves in the woods and in rifle pits dug into the banks of Citico Creek, and arranged themselves under cover of a railroad bridge and nearby buildings.
The Southerners opened up a murderous fire almost immediately after the 33rd started forward — no more then 20 paces according to one account. Rebel lead struck the Jersey boys with deadly accuracy. The Confederates, Toffey noted, “were directing their attention to the officers.”
I first wrote about Toffey in my 2004 book, Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories.
I originally wrote about Silas Chandler, the slave who served two masters in the Confederate army, in African American Faces of the Civil War. In a new version posted yesterday on the New York Times Disunion blog, I’ve revised the story with a few additional details, including this paragraph that provides context about slaves who served Mississippi Confederates:
“In 1888, Mississippi established a state pension program for Confederate veterans and their widows. African-Americans who had acted as slave servants to soldiers in gray were also allowed to participate. Over all, 1,739 men of color were on the pension rolls, including Silas.”
This weekend Dave Neville (pictured, right) and I signed an agreement to finalize my purchase of Military Images magazine. Today I am delighted to share the news with all of you. MI was founded in 1979, and since then has enjoyed a long tradition of excellence in bringing to light rare military portrait photographs. Key to success has been the contributions of collectors, and I’ve been in contact with many of them to continue their relationship with the magazine.
My wife, Anne, will play a major role in the magazine, and I am grateful for her love and support. I simply could not take this responsibility on without her.
Here is the press release posted on social media today:
ARLINGTON, Va. — Historian David Neville has called it quits after a decade at the helm of Military Images. Neville, who has owned and edited the publication since 2003, sold the magazine to Ronald S. Coddington of Arlington, Va., in early August.
Coddington, who is familiar to Civil War News readers as the author of “Faces of War,” takes over as publisher and editor immediately. “Military Images has a long tradition of excellence in bringing to light rare military portrait photographs, and I am thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to guide MI to the next chapter in its life,” reports Coddington. He adds, “The magazine continues to play a key role in preserving the visual record and stories of citizen soldiers in America, and is a key source for information about uniforms and other aspects of the military. In the current digital age, with so much new material surfacing, it is more important than ever to have a publication that showcases and interprets these important images.”
Harry Roach founded the magazine in 1979. He set a mission to document the photographic history of U.S. soldiers and sailors from the birth of photography in 1839 through World War I, although the vast majority of published images date from the Civil War period. Roach sold the magazine in 1999 to Philip Katcher, from whom Neville purchased it four years later.
Regular contributors to MI include some of the most respected and knowledgeable collectors in the country, including Michael J. McAfee, John Sickles, Chris Nelson, David Wynn Vaughan, Ron Field, and Ken Turner.
“I’m excited to continue working with all of our contributors, and to invite new faces with a passion for military photography to participate,” notes Coddington, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or militaryimagesmagazine.com.
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.
Read the full story.
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.”
Read the full story.
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.
This is my 45th contribution to Disunion, and the first in which I included a paragraph to explain the origins of the carte de visite:
“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.”