Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part II)

This is the second of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle. Part I may be found here.

To appreciate the extent that images such as Adolph Metzner’s Cozy corner defied the conventions of mainstream art, it is beneficial to draw comparisons between his portrayal of the battle and the musician Alfred E. Mathew’s picture, entitled Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M.B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River, which was intended for a public audience. Mathews had been a landscape drawer prior to the conflict, and his skill won the admiration of many. A surgeon in the 16th Ohio Infantry recorded meeting the soldier-artist, writing: “I saw some of his sketches. They are all good. His lithograph view of “Boon’s Knob”… is very beautiful and true.”[i] General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Mathews of his views of the siege of Vicksburg, commending him by writing: “[I] do not hesitate to pronounce them among the most accurate and true to life I have ever seen. They reflect great credit upon you as a delineator of landscape views.”[ii]

Both compliments reveal a problematic issue regarding Mathew’s artistic outlook. Whilst many volunteers understood the Civil War itself as their political and social context for creating images, and that very war as their defining artistic experience, Mathews was a skilled landscape artist in the antebellum era. The war itself discouraged traditional artists’ attempts to “create meaning out of the violence” using narrative strategies designed to celebrate clear-cut heroic action and noble virtue. Landscape painters of the Hudson River School, who had visualised the ideologies of national identity by looking west, found their methods incapable of representing the internal crisis unfolding in the east.[iii] Though his creative prowess was clearly recognised by his contemporaries, his grounding in the conventions of landscape art hindered his ability to produce realistic depictions of the battle experience.

Not only did Mathew’s proficiency in landscape painting encumber his artistic representations, but so too did his desire to circulate such images through commercial organisations. Mathew’s sketches were supplied to Middleton, Strobridge, & Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, a lithographing firm that would convert his images for commercial sale.[iv] These prints were produced in “small folio” sizes to be displayed on walls for “intimate, domestic viewing.”[v] The fidelity with which the printmakers reproduced the original sketches depended entirely on their expertise. Printmakers, with their detachment from the fighting and with a patriotic fervour to instil among the populace, would often censor images to the extent that soldiers barely recognised their depictions.

Several indicators attest to the image’s conventional style. Most notable is the fact that this image presents the spectator with a panoramic battle view that combines the features of both the popularised wilderness aesthetic of American landscape views and those of traditional European history painting.[vi] The perspective taken by Mathews denies the observer the soldier’s view of the fighting, and in doing so reduces these vital participants to miniature figures in a homogenous mass. As the regiments charge, every foot steps forward together and every rifle is levelled in a uniform position. But the Civil War battlefield was, unlike the European landscape where history painting was honed, characteristically rolling and rugged, often denying regiments visibility and cohesion.[vii] Thus, the two artistic styles involved in this image are incompatible. One Pennsylvanian noted that during his entire four year service, he had only witnessed one such assault “that was like the pictures in the newspapers.”[viii]

Additional methods are employed by Mathews and the engravers in order to idealise the actions of the Union soldiers in this image. The officer leading the charge of the supporting regiment, pictured at centre-right with his sword drawn above his head, is almost farcical. Such occurrences were so rare following the early-war period that its inclusion would invite further criticism from experienced soldiers. Though the officer class are also drawn as minute figures, the annotative captions allow spectators to identify officers based on their unit’s position. For example, the first annotation allows one to identify the left-most regiment as the 31st Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, “Lieut. Col. F. W. Lister, Command’g.” The enlisted men are denied recognition, not because of the wounds they have sustained through their participation in the combat, like the victims of Metzner’s Cozy corner, but because their individualisation in the Mathew’s lithograph would detract appreciation from the Union Army as a grand, monolithic fighting machine.

Furthermore, two national flags are placed in an immediately obvious and central position in this picture. The flag borne by the regiment leading the charge rises almost triumphantly from the smoke of battle before the engagement has truly started. Though the national and regimental flags were carried at the centre of regiments, soldiers soon learned that flags did much to draw the enemy’s fire. It was not uncommon for every member of the ten-strong colour guard to be shot dead before a battle was over.[ix] The centrality of the flags and the invincibility of their bearers is more reminiscent of the idealised lithographs of the U.S.-Mexican War.[x] But whilst the vastly distant nature of that earlier conflict invited a more imaginative depiction by artists, the Civil War’s immediacy to a large section of the populace quickly revealed such images as fictitious.

It is important to also note that not a single casualty, killed or wounded, is depicted on the Union side. The soldiers are portrayed as invincible as they march forward. Even on the Confederate line, the only evidence of the casualties are three individuals dramatically falling to the ground. The image depicts none of the carnage that left both belligerents unable to renew any form of offensive against one another for months. Instead, the image provides a level of suspense; illustrating the charge in its initial stages and calling upon the viewer’s imagination to visualise the ensuing combat in their minds, should they wish to.

Consequently, Metzner’s and Mathews’ artwork illustrate how soldiers’ individually perceived their experience of battle as much as any diary entry or letter sent home. Whether choosing to record the plight of their adversaries or the might of the army to which they belonged, the artistic record of the Civil War soldier offers a rich vein of relatively untapped historical source material. Though the illustrations of newspaper sketch-artists, cartoonists, and high-art painters reveal much about perceptions of the Civil War, soldiers’ art allows us to analyse more fully the ways in which those best-poised to visually represent the war experience did so in response to their own lived realities.

[i] B. B. Brashear, ‘letter to the Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper, March 12, 1862,’ in ‘Letter from Dr. Brashear.’, Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper (Tuscarawas County, Ohio: March 28, 1862)

[ii] Ulysses S. Grant, ‘Unidentified newspaper clipping in the Western History Department, Denver Public Library,’ Daily Miner’s Register (Central City, Colorado: December 1, 1865), p. 3

[iii] David Holloway; John Beck, eds., American Visual Cultures (London: Continuum Publishing, 2005), p. 13

[iv] Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), p. 277

[v] Alfred Edward Mathews; Middleton, Strobridge & Co., lithograph, 1863 ‘Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M. B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River. January 2nd, 1863; In which the Rebels were repulsed with heavy loss, and driven behind their breastworks. Sketched by A. E. Mathews, 31st Reg., O.V.I.,’ PGA – – Middleton, Strobridge & Co.—Charge of the first brigade… (D size), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 13

[vi] Eleanor Harvey defines history painting, in the traditional, academic sense, as the “monumental canvases depicting elaborate battle scenes and heroes” that were prominent in European art. But such imagery had gained, at best, a tenuous foothold in the United States. Even Grand Manner history paintings by artists such as Benjamin West and John Trumbull never garnered the same support as the wilderness aesthetic. Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, p. 5

[vii] Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 55-56

[viii] Gilbert Adams Hays, Under the Red Patch; Story of the Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1864 (Pittsburgh, PA: Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association, 1908), p. 422

[ix] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the Civil War (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 157-178

[x] See, for example, N. Currier, lithograph, 1846, ‘Battle of Monterey – The Americans forcing their way to the main plaza Sept. 23th 1846,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Monterey (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC, or N. Currier, lithograph, 1847, ‘Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847 (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC.


Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part I)

This is the first of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle.

“Pshaw. It’s no use, they can’t picture a battle,” exclaimed the young son of Reverend A. M. Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, a recent observer of the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, as he indignantly threw down a copy of Harper’s Weekly with images depicting those engagements. By 1862’s end, Stewart noted that pictures “of officers with drawn swords riding before their men into battle” led the enlisted men to “shout out with mocking irony; all played out.[i] It seemed that war pictures, to those who had seen war, weren’t all that war-like.

But armies are composed of individuals, no matter how uniform military officials might attempt to make them, and so some men disagreed. In June 1864, George Oscar French wrote a letter advising his home-circle “to get Harpers Weekly of the 11th June. All the pictures about the Army of the Potomac are very good.” Two months later, he recommended another image for his father’s observation, noting that it was “perfectly lifelike” and could be studied for “ten minutes to good advantages.”[ii] But whilst most of the rank-and-file gauged the accuracy of conventional war images around campfires and in their correspondence, there were those decided to take up pencils and paintbrushes to make their own.

These soldier-artists are generally rendered peripheral in our comprehension of the conflict, despite the prolific outpouring of scholarship in recent decades on both Civil War artwork and the ordinary soldier. Men such as Alfred Bellard, John J. Omenhausser, Robert Knox Sneden, Charles Wellington Reed, Alfred E. Mathews, and Adolph Metzner, all unknowingly contributed to the creation of a collective visual scrapbook that provides insight into the totality of the soldier’s war experience. Much of the artwork is now published, but it rarely receives the scholarly consideration of historians: high-art painting and prominent photographs enjoy their focus. But the soldier’s artwork, no matter how folkloric or even primitive it may appear, holds much potential for analysis. Soldiers weren’t merely attempting to record the sights they encountered. They were making artistic statements about their war experiences.

By briefly comparing two Union soldier-artist’s depictions of the Battle of Stones River, one can gain an appreciation of the ways soldiers employed artwork to convey differing sentiments about the battle experience. Adolph Metzner, a captain in the 32nd Indiana Infantry, and Alfred E. Mathews, a musician in the 31st Ohio Infantry, both made pictures of Stones River, but their subjects, techniques, and intended audiences result in markedly dissimilar images. Metzner produced his image for himself, or at most a close circle of associates or family members. Conversely, Mathews had his ambition set on commercial success, and so his picture would pass through the censoring gaze of the printmakers to be made digestible for the northern citizenry.

Metzner’s artwork initially exhibited an exaggerated and comical outlook towards the war, but shifted to show the turmoil his regiment experienced following the loss of comrades at Rowlett’s Station in December 1861.[iii] By Shiloh in April 1862, the comedic elements notable in his early works were irretrievable. One of the most graphic of Metzner’s images was The rebel line at Stones River, (Murfreesboro), Jan. 1863. “A cozy corner.” The watercolour depicts a portion of the Confederate line following the battle. Soldiers of all ranks lay pell-mell in heaps. A sword, a symbol of martial authority and of southern honour and chivalry, is notable protruding from the mass of the dead.

There is no formal hierarchy in this death scene. Soldiers are rendered anonymous as they die facedown or are mangled by their wounds from the storm of bullets and shells. The carrion birds gather above the mass as they prepare to feast on the slain, emphasising fears regarding the appropriate treatment of the dead. Civil War soldiers worried greatly about their remains, as one Confederate wrote: “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from… the gnawing of… buzzards.”[iv] Metzner’s scene depicts the soldier’s anxiety over the futility of such improper deaths.

Of particular note in this image is the almost religious and sacrificial symbolism of the figures at centre-left. The pyramidal composition, which is traditionally employed to represent order and stability in conventional artwork, is that which draws the eye to the one soldier’s desperate attempt to grasp at his comrade. It is rendered the most humane act in this depiction of battle. It is no coincidence that the two subjects form a pieta, particularly in view of the similarity in the location of the bullet wound on the officer’s right breast and Christ’s chest wound caused by the Holy Lance. But in this representation, such sacrifice is revealed as useless, for the only reward is to face an impending and unheroic death in Metzner’s paradoxically Cozy corner.

But Metzner’s scene reveals sympathy rather than any hatred for the enemy. This is no exhibition of the triumph of Union military might, but instead a mournful scene illustrating the traumas of modernising warfare. Though new innovations in armament development occurred in the antebellum era, most combat continued to occur at a range of about one hundred yards, meaning that it was impossible to facilitate emotional distance from destructive acts.[v] Metzner’s work reveals the internal struggle that countless soldiers battled with, as the work of killing marked a significant departure from their understandings of themselves as human beings and Christians.[vi] His watercolour is not a visual assault on the Confederate soldier, but a terrifying representation of the fate that frequently befell the victims on both sides of the conflict.

[i] Rev. A. M. Steward, Camp, March and Battle-Field; or, Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac (Philadelphia, PA: Jas. B. Rodgers, Printer, 1865), pp. 280; 188

[ii] George Oscar French, ‘letter, to Dear friends, Camp on the Chickahominy, Near Cold Harbor June 10th;’ ‘letter, to Dear Father, Hospital, Annapolis, Sunday morn. August 28th 1864,’ George Oscar French Letters, Vermont Historical Society, http://vermonthistory.org/research/research-resources-online/civil-war-transcriptions/george-oscar-french-letters

[iii] Michael A. Peake, Blood Shed in this War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010), pp. 2

[iv] Wirt Armistead Cate, ed., Two Soldiers: The Campaign Diaries of Thomas J. Key, C.S.A., December 7, 1863 – May 17, 1865 and Robet J. Campbell, U.S.A., January 1, 1864 – July 21, 1864 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 182

[v] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2008). For more on the destructive power of rifled weaponry, which caused 94% of Union casualties in the war, see Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).

[vi] Orestes Brownson; Henry F. Brownson, ed., The Works of Orestes Brownson (Detroit, IL: Thorndike Nourse, Publisher, 1882-87), Vol. 17, p. 214


Struck by a Fired Ramrod, Part 2: Mysterious Death and Elaborate Funeral

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one can be found here.

Major William Ellis, 49th New York Infantry (Military Images)

Major William Ellis returned to the Army of the Potomac near Petersburg in mid-June. He knowingly cut short his recovery from a gruesome wound received from a Rebel who fired a ramrod at the 49th New York Infantry’s second-in-command at the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864. Upon arrival to Petersburg he was detailed as inspector general on David Russell’s staff. In early July his new division, as well as the VI Corps’ second division, sailed for the national capital. There they beat back the Confederate invasion at Fort Stevens, during which battle Lt. Col. George W. Johnson, commanding the 49th, was mortally wounded.

For a short time the VI Corps chased Early through Maryland before settling into place near the Monocacy battlefield. There they enjoyed their break from combat, trenches, and southern soil. “All are well in the regiment,” wrote Surgeon George T. Stevens. “We have a lovely situation here among the mountains, with the purist of air and of water, and if we can only stay here, we shall recruit [recover, recuperate] wonderfully. I am feeling a great deal better already, & expect to be as strong & well as ever in a day or two.”[1]

Adjutant Theodore Frelinghuysen Vaill recalled that the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery “encamped on the 3d of August on the north bank of the Monocacy, about four miles south of Frederick City. It was the pleasantest camping ground we had ever seen. The clear, sparkling river ran along the lower edge of it, and the surrounding woods abounded in saplings, poles and brush, for which soldiers can always find so many uses. Regular camp drills were instituted, company and battalion drills ordered, and things began to assume the appearance of a stay.”[2]

Major Ellis retired to his tent on the night of August 3rd, telling Stevens, the surgeon recalled, that his “pain was slightly more acute than usual” though he was “in his accustomed health.” The next morning Ellis waved his servant out of the tent for a moment and when the man returned he was shocked to find the major dead.[3]

Ellis’s unexpected passing was immediately misdiagnosed by most. “They supposed it must be heart disease,” wrote Capt. Mason Tyler. Rumors quickly spread through the Union camps. Sergeant Cyrille Fountain chronicled in his diary, “This morning Major Elles of the 49th N.Y. Vols dropt down dead from his char. The Drs. called it hart desease.” The first Buffalo newspaper to report the death meanwhile assumed “it is supposed that he was killed in an effort to drive the rebels out of Maryland.”[4]

Upon hearing the news Stevens and Dr. James Hall proceeded immediately to Russell’s headquarters where the general insisted on an immediate autopsy. In the presence of twenty of his professional colleagues, Stevens examined the body and found that lingering effects of the Spotsylvania wound had killed Ellis, concluding, “A sharp splinter of bone from one of the ribs was found with its acute point piercing vital organs.”[5]

Stevens further described his findings in his letter to his wife, “I made the examination and found that the ramrod had split a splinter of bone from one of the ribs, and that splinter, as sharp as a needle, had been piercing & irritating the internal organs ever since he was wounded. Abscesses had formed & broken in the spleen & the diaphragm had been haggled through, and finally the splinter had pierced the lung & had killed him instantly.” The surgeon preserved parts of the rib and diaphragm for medical study and noted Ellis’s physical toughness, “It is wonderful that during the month he had been on duty he had made no complaint of pain, although his countenance showed constant suffering.”[6]

Like the misinformed rumors of heart disease had earlier, the full coroner’s report now evidently spread through the ranks with remarkable speed and detail. Corporal John F.L. Hartwell, 121st New York, wrote a detailed summary the next day to his wife. “He was shot with a ramrod which shattered a rib, a piece of the bone could not be extracted & it remained loose on the inside. Yesterday morning this bone in contact with his liver or heart & caused almost immediate death, his body was sent immediately north.”[7]

While the medical professionals examined the corpse, Russell set his own staff to work in preparing an elaborate funeral procession. The entire 1st Division turned out as the fallen officer’s remains were carried to a train bound for New York. “It was the most impressive and grand pageant that I ever witnessed,” recalled Stevens. “I have often seen military displays on a far larger scale, but nothing to compare with its solemn sublimity.”[8]

Ellis’s body was wrapped in a silken flag and laid in state next to Russell’s headquarters in a large tent draped with the Stars and Stripes. The 49th New York marched past, unarmed, as mourners and formed next to the tent in two ranks facing each other. Chaplain Winthrop Henry Phelps, 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, offered a brief sermon, deemed “very appropriate and impressive” by Stevens.[9]

All of Russell’s division meanwhile formed in two parallel lines of battle, eighty paces part and facing each other, with, according to various sources, either a heavy artillery regiment or four companies of the 121st New York detailed as an escort. When Phelps concluded his sermon, Ellis’s remains were “inclosed in a rude coffin, wrapped in the flag under which he had so often fought,” and placed in an ambulance draped with a flag and the major’s hat, coat, and sword. With a mournful dirge providing the solemn musical accompaniment, the ambulance passed in front of its escort who stood at present arms. The escort then reversed their arms and marched slowly in front of the ambulance, which was followed in turn by Ellis’s horse, saddled and bridled, but riderless. The band followed, still playing their dirge.[10]

Slowly the large procession passed through the sunbrowned ranks of the division, twin lines stretching a third of a mile, where all stood at present arms with uncovered heads. Each regiment lowered their colors in honor as the ambulance passed. The 49th New York fell into line behind the ambulance, followed by Russell, his division staff, and those of the various brigades, all bearing their own flags. “A large concourse of officers, personal friends of him whose remains were thus honored,” accompanied the procession, as did many from the 2nd Division to which the 49th belonged. After passing down the length of the line the column sped up its pace and marched three miles to the train station at Buckeyestown. After a short service the coffin was loaded on the cars bound for Baltimore, then Buffalo.[11]

In his letter that day, Stevens supposed “that friends at home would hardly think that firearms, military parade, bands of music, & muffled drums were best calculated to produce solemnity on a funeral occasion, but I can not conceive a more deeply solemn show than that which we have witnessed this morning. Indeed, it seems to me that for any grand display in which an impression is to be produced, whether for the brilliant gayeties of a Fourth of July, or the mournful rites of a funeral, nothing can compare with a military parade.”[12]

A newspaper correspondent meanwhile observed, “The funeral service was one of the most imposing ever witnessed in the Army of the Potomac… Major Ellis was one of the most popular men in the corps. He was beloved by both officers and men, to whom he had endeared himself by his unassuming demeanour and great bravery. To his immediate associates his loss is irrepairable, by whom, together with his numberless friends in the Sixth corps, his death will long be regretted.”[13]

Captain Elisha Hunt Rhodes, whose writings are popularly consulted by modern historians, simply noted, “Major Ellis, a Division staff officer, died yesterday from the effects of wounds received at Spottsylvania. The entire Division was under arms and saluted the remains as they were bourne past our lines.”[14]

Many of the soldiers also participated in special religious services that day as part of a proclamation by President Lincoln calling for a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer. “Attended in an open field where the sun was hot enough to melt almost anything down,” wrote Corporal John Hartwell. He expressed resentment toward the special treatment for the officer. “A great parade was made over him, more than would have been shown a whole brigade of private soldiers if all died at once.”[15]

Others deemed such displays appropriate, given the major’s reputation. “Such men deserve the honor which our heroic people are ever willing to aware to merit and patriotism,” stated the Buffalo Advocate. “Thus our brave men go forth, gallant in spirit, fired with the best and loftiest inspirations to fight and die for their native land.”[16]

With the benefit of hindsight after the war, Adjt. Vaill realized the elaborate display represented more than just the loss of Ellis. The military parade occurred during a time of respite “after so many officers men had been buried without funeral, coffin, shroud, or audible word of prayer.”[17]

Perhaps, indeed, the funeral was the first real opportunity to take time to reflect on the massive amount of blood shed within the VI Corps over the last three months—at the intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road as well as during Gordon’s flank attack at the Wilderness; during Upton’s assault and at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania; the June 1st attack at Cold Harbor, Vaill’s Connecticut regiment’s first trial by fire; their brief stay in the Petersburg trenches and the wholesale capture of several Vermont regiments abandoned without support at the Weldon Railroad; the desperate struggle to delay the Confederate invasion at Frederick City;  the unnerving test protecting the national capital under the eyes of the president.

Along the tranquil banks of the Monocacy River the VI Corps at last exhaled. The coffin that passed through their ranks on August 4th did not just carry Ellis’s body but that of thousands of brothers-in-arms whose lives had been lost without time enough to properly mourn.

Even the body of the beloved Uncle John Sedgwick was unable to receive as proper of a send-off after the major general’s death at the hands of a Confederate sharpshooter on May 9th. Just twenty-four hours later, one-third of the corps was tasked under Upton to carry out one of their most dangerous assignments of the war.

Sergeant Alexander H. McKelvy detailed the 49th New York’s casualties during their first eight days of the Overland campaign, “During this week of fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the regiment lost 231 in killed and wounded out of the 384 officers and men who crossed the Rapidan on May 5th. Of his number, 89 were killed or mortally wounded. Ten officers were killed and four wounded.” William F. Fox wrote in his Regimental Losses in the Civil War, “At Spotsylvania the [49th] regiment behaved with especial gallantry, its percentage of loss in that battle being a remarkable one.”[18]

Within days of Ellis’s death, Phil Sheridan would arrive to guide the VI Corps and the newly organized Army of the Shenandoah into its namesake region in an incredibly successful campaign. The terms of service for the 49th expired on September 17th, but four consolidated companies of reenlisted New Yorkers composed a battalion that continued through the end of the war. They joined Sheridan for his victories in the valley that nevertheless further deplete the leadership in Wright’s command. Emory Upton would be wounded and David Russell killed on September 19 at Third Winchester. A large battle one month later at Cedar Creek would claim the life of the 49th’s first commander, Daniel Bidwell, now leading the brigade. The corps rejoined the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg in December and played an important role in the final campaign. One week before Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Lt. Col. Erastus D. Holt, in charge of 49th, was also mortally wounded, though, shot by a Confederate picket while the corps formed overnight for their decisive charge on April 2nd. “The Forty-ninth suffered a severe and unusual loss in the number of its field officers,” noted Fox.[19]

The 49th New York’s adjutant, 1st Lt. John P. Einsfeld, meanwhile in August 1864, accompanied Ellis’s body to Buffalo. Upon arrival, eight members of the Veteran Reserve Corps escorted the remains from the Erie Railway station to Catharine Ellis’s home. Funeral services were held on Thursday, August 11, at the Church of the Ascension. The Buffalo Daily Courier eulogized the fallen:

In the death of Major Ellis, the country has lost one of the noblest of its defenders. All who knew him concur in eulogy of the chivalry, the lofty patriotism, the noble manliness which marked his character. He was indeed a good and true knight, sans peur et sans reproche [without fear and without reproach]; as tender and faithful in his discharge of duty as a son and brother as in his military capacity he was brave and soldierly. At one of the battles of the Wilderness he was shot through the arm with the ramrod of some rebel soldier’s gun, the strange missile at the same time inflicting a severe blow on his side near the heart. He came home on a furlough, but, anxious to be with his regiment, returned to the field before he had fairly recovered. In the absence from the regiment of both Col. Bidwell and Lieut. Col. Johnson, the command of the 49th devolved upon him, and it is believed that over exertion in front of Washington gave a fatal character to the stroke received near his heart. “For such choice souls earth has no price, no mart.”[20]

Company D of the 74th New York Infantry escorted the major’s body to Forest Lawn Cemetery where it was finally laid to rest. “A braver, purer heart has not been laid beneath the Lawn’s green sod.”[21]

 

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one can be read here. Part three will be published tomorrow.

 

[1] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[2] Theodore F. Vaill, History of the Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery. Originally the Nineteenth Connecticut Vols. (Winsted, CT: Winsted Printing Company, 1868), 89-90.

[3] Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps, 385.

[4] Mason W. Tyler to parents, August 4, 1864, Tyler, Recollections of the Civil War, 262. Cyrille Fountain, Diary, August 4, 1864, Donald Chipman, ed. “An Essex County Soldier in the Civil War: The Diary of Cyrille Fountain.” New York History (July, 1985), 303. “Death of Major Ellis,” Buffalo Daily Courier, August 6, 1864.

[5] Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps, 386.

[6] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[7] John F.L. Hartwell to “My Dear Wife,” August 5, 1864, Ann Hartwell Britton and Thomas J. Reed, eds. To My Beloved Wife and Boy at Home: The Letters and Diaries of Orderly Sergeant John F.L. Hartwell (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997), 266.

[8] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[9] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[10] Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps, 387.

[11] Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps, 386-387.

[12] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[13] “The Late Major Ellis,” unidentified newpaper article, New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.

[14] Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed. All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 1992), 169.

[15] John F.L. Hartwell to “My Dear Wife,” August 5, 1864, Britton and Reed, To My Beloved Wife and Boy at Home, 266.

[16] “Honor to the Brave Dead,” Buffalo Advocate, August 11, 1864.

[17] Vaill, History of the Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery, 90.

[18] McKelvy, “Forty-ninth New York Volunteers,” 390. William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1865-1865 (Albany, NY: Albany Publishing Company, 1889), 197.

[19] Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 197.

[20] “The Late Major Ellis,” Buffalo Daily Courier, August 9, 1864.

[21] “Funeral of Major Ellis,” Buffalo Daily Courier, August 13, 1864.


Struck by a Fired Ramrod, Part 1: Delayed Mortal Wounding at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle

Major William Ellis, 49th New York Infantry (Military Images)

“This has been a Sabbath to me,” confessed Surgeon George T. Stevens to his wife, Harriet, in a letter written Thursday evening, August 4, 1864. “No day since the campaign commenced last May has seemed like Sabbath before, but this has been more than usually a day of rest and a day of solemnity with us.”[1]

Stevens, serving with the 77th New York Infantry of the VI Corps, was camped in Maryland at the time. The unit had been sent there in response to Jubal Early’s offensive that culminated in Confederate repulse at Fort Stevens. The Union soldiers now enjoyed their bloodless respite away from an Army of the Potomac that had been locked in continual combat from the Wilderness to Petersburg. Tragedy managed to still strike along the Monocacy River valley, repercussions from a unique wound sustained nearly three months earlier at the Bloody Angle. Major William Ellis, a friend of the New York surgeon, had been found dead in his tent from no noticeable cause.

William Ellis was born on July 17, 1842 in Brantford, West Canada—present-day Ontario. His father, Alexander Ellis, died in 1854, leaving William to provide for his mother Catharine. The next year, at the age of fifteen, William enlisted into the “Prince of Wales” 100th Regiment and was soon promoted color sergeant in the 22nd Royal Regiment. When the Civil War broke out William bought his discharge from the British army and traveled to his mother’s home in Buffalo, New York. There he enlisted into the 49th New York Infantry in the summer of 1861.[2]

His previous military service warranted the nineteen year old a position as second lieutenant. Sergeant Alexander H. McKelvy recalled, “I do not know whether [Ellis] raised any men or not, but there was a camp rumor afloat among the men that he had taken some sort of leave from one of Her Majesty’s rifle regiments in Canada in order to see service in the war between the states.” The next year Ellis received promotions to captain in January and major in December. His experience and pompous attitude impressed his comrades. Surgeon Stevens referred to him as “the dashing, impetuous young fellow who used to ride his horse so furiously.”[3]

McKelvy commented on Ellis’s exploits inside and outside of the encampment, “It was his great delight to break loose from the monotonous round of camp life and go on a scouting trip beyond the lines in pursuit of adventure and pleasure, for it was rumored that he was not averse to the charms of the fair sex. He was always well mounted and… he rode a powerful black horse, fleet of foot, and able to extricate his dare evil master from any difficulty he might plunge into.”[4]

Ellis became a popular figure in camp. His various exploits inevitably produced frequent gossip. “It is said that Major Ellis who had just returned from a visit to Canada was also married in his absence,” wrote a member of the 49th in March 1863. Later testimony would suggest it was just a rumor.[5]

The major was certainly active on the courtship scene, however. Scott Valentine, a contributing editor of Military Images, profiled William Ellis in the magazine’s Spring 2014 issue. Valentine owns a carte-de-viste of Ellis, upon the reverse side of which the flirtatious major had signed, “I kiss your hand.”[6]

The New York major also won the approval of his commanders and fellow officers, serving at the head of the regiment several times when his superiors went on medical or personal furlough. A newspaper correspondent with the 49th claimed that Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commanding the VI Corps, had declared shortly before his untimely death that Ellis “was the best fighting officer in his corps.” Massachusetts captain Mason Whiting Tyler also believed that Ellis “was one of the best officers in our corps.”[7]

Sedgwick’s death on May 9, 1864, and the Wilderness wounding of Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty, at the helm of the division to which the 49th belonged, stressed the VI Corps’ high command during the Overland campaign. Brigadier General Horatio Gouverneur Wright took over the corps, promoting Brig. Gen. David Allen Russell to lead his 1st Division. Brigadier General Thomas Hewson Neill also moved up to take command of Getty’s 2nd Division, leaving his 3rd Brigade under the leadership of Col. Daniel Davidson Bidwell, the original commander of the 49th New York. Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Johnson now led that unit.

During the infamous morning of May 12th, Bidwell sent his former regiment and the 77th New York Infantry to support Oliver Edwards’s brigade, who in turn had advanced to assist the II Corps as their determined assault against the Spotsylvania “mule-shoe salient” bogged down. Together the New York regiments hit the northwest face of the salient, just above where Col. Emory Upton had centered his attack two days before. Stephen Dodson Ramseur’s North Carolinians provided their immediate adversaries but Nathaniel Harris’s Mississippians and Abner Perrin’s Alabamians, reinforcements from A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps, soon threw their weight into the combat. The New Yorkers clung to their position just outside of the Confederate earthworks, dubbed the “Bloody Angle.” Surgeon Stevens recalled after the war:

A breastwork of logs separated the combatants. Our men would reach over this partition and discharge their muskets in the face of the enemy, and in return would receive the fire of the rebels at the same close range. Finally, the men began to use their muskets as clubs and then rails were used. The men were willing thus to fight from behind the breastworks, but to rise up and attempt a charge in the face of an enemy so near at hand and so strong in numbers required unusual bravery. Yet they did charge and they drove the rebels back and held the angle themselves.[8]

Occasional charges and countercharges did little to break the locked stalemate. The Canadian major was wounded in an unusual manner at some point during this chaotic phase. Sergeant George Norton Galloway, of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote that “during one of the several attempts to get the men to cross the works and drive off the enemy,” Ellis “excited our admiration” as he mounted the parapet in advance of the brigade, before he “was shot though the arm and body with a ramrod.”[9]

Sergeant Alexander H. McKelvy afterward recalled that Ellis was wounded “while leading the regiment in a daring charge on the enemy’s works. He was hit with one of the iron ramrods, used by the infantry in those days, which some excited Confederate had neglected to remove from his rifle barrel before firing. This rammer passed through the major’s left arm and bruised his chest severely.”[10]

William Ellis’s name appears alongside 245 other casualties from the 49th New York Infantry in the June 23, 1864 Buffalo Commercial

The New Yorker’s gallant action before his wounding was noticed by the recently-promoted Brig. Gen. Emory Upton, who had already made a name for himself at Spotsylvania. Even though Ellis was not even part of his brigade, Upton singled him out as well as Maj. Henry P. Truefitt, 119th Pennsylvania, who was killed at the Bloody Angle, when writing the May 12th section of his Overland campaign report. Upton wrote that the pair, “by their gallant conduct excited the admiration of all… the country can ill afford to lose two such officers.”[11]

Ellis was evacuated to a hospital in Fredericksburg where Surgeon Stevens examined the injury and found the ramrod “passed through the left arm and then bruised the side near and a little below the heart.” The major “suffered fearfully from the effects of the bruise in the side,” and the surgeon afterward claimed, “I supposed at the time that his heart was injured.” Surgeon William Warren Potter, a friend of Ellis’s serving with the 57th New York Infantry, however, saw the major and noted that his wound “is not reported as dangerous.[12]

After being stabilized, Ellis was sent onward to Washington to continue his recuperation. Soon thereafter he received a thirty day furlough and returned to Buffalo to recover, arriving at the city on May 25th. “It is to be hoped that he will recover from his injuries while among friends,” the Buffalo Daily Courier expressed. “He is able to be about,” wrote the Buffalo Evening Post, “and anticipates a speedy cure.” Isaac A. Verplank, a prominent local judge, later testified that he hosted William at his home frequently during his medical leave and that the soldier’s painful wounds produced occasional spasms.[13]

Only partially recovered from his injury, Ellis departed from home on June 17th to rejoin his unit. In his absence the Army of the Potomac had fought from Spotsylvania to Petersburg, via the North Anna, Totopotomoy, and Cold Harbor. Rejoining the VI Corps, Ellis received assignment as inspector general on Brig. Gen. David A. Russell’s 1st Division staff. Hospital Steward John Newton Henry noted that Ellis returned earlier than the rest of the Overland campaign casualties, writing on the 29th, “None of our wounded officers have returned but Major Ellis.”[14]

Surgeon Stevens afterward wrote in August that Ellis’s change to a supposedly less taxing assignment nevertheless resulted in the officer performing “a great deal of labor as provost marshal and in many other capacities.”[15] He further elaborated after the war:

Returning to his command before he had fully recovered, he was advised by medical officers not to attempt any severe duty. But being detailed to the staff of General Russell, commanding the First division, he at once resumed active military duties. On these recent marches, the major, weary of inaction, had taken command of a body of men who acted as additional provost-guard to the division. In this position he had exhibited his usual energy, though it was thought by some he executed his duties with too great severity. Ever since receiving his wound, he had complained of severe neuralgic pain in the region of the heart.[16]

Other friends in the army, like William Potter, however noted at the beginning of July that Ellis “was, as usual, looking well.” A week later Potter visited the 49th New York and took supper with Bidwell. Ellis called on him while the surgeon was there and the two snuck away to view a carriage that Ellis has captured from either a local resident or Confederate wagon train and stashed away in the woods. While admiring the prize, orders came to Russell’s headquarters to prepare to leave for Maryland to repulse Jubal Early’s offensive. “Ellis was in great glee over the prospect, and flew around to make preparations for the transfer of the troops to their new field;” recalled Potter, “so I hastily bade him good-bye, but never saw him afterwards.”[17]

 

This is part one in a three-part series. The next two articles will appear tomorrow and Thursday.

 

[1] George T. Stevens to “My Darling Hattie,” August 4, 1864, Wiley Sword Collection, Pamplin Historical Park.

[2] John M. Priest, ed. Turn Them Out to Die Like a Mule: The Civil War Letters of John N. Henry, 49th New York, 1861-1865 (Leesburg, VA: Gauley Mount Press), 1995, 204.

[3] “Sergeant Alexander H. McKelvy’s Report of His Capture by the Confederates, September 17, 1863,” Frederick D. Bidwell, ed. History of the Forty-ninth New York Volunteers (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1916), 105. Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[4] “Sergeant Alexander H. McKelvy’s Report of His Capture by the Confederates, September 17, 1863,” 105.

[5] John N. Henry to “My Dear Wife,” March 16, 1863, Priest, Turn Them Out to Die Like a Mule, 177-178.

[6] Scott Valentine, “A Conspicuous Target: Major William Ellis, 49th New York Infantry, at the Bloody Angle,” Military Images, Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2014), 52.

[7] “From the Forty-ninth Regiment,” Buffalo Daily Courier, May 17, 1864. Mason W. Tyler to parents, August 4, 1864, William S. Tyler, ed. Recollections of the Civil War with Many Original Diary Entries and Letters Written from the Sear of War, and with Annotated References (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 262.

[8] George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concisce Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, from from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April, 1865 (Albany, NY: S.R. Gray, 1866), 334.

[9] G. Norton Galloway, “Hand-to-hand Fighting at Spotsylvania,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 34, Number 2 (New York: The Century Co., June 1887), 306.

[10] A.H. McKelvy, “Forty-ninth New York Volunteers,” New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga, ed. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Volume 1 (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902), 390.

[11] Emory Upton to Henry R. Dalton, September 1, 1864, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume 36, Part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891), 669.

[12] Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP. William W. Potter, “Three Years with the Army of the Potomac—A Personal Military History,” Buffalo Medical Journal, Volume 68, Number 1 (August, 1912), 15.

[13] “Personal,” Buffalo Daily Courier, May 27, 1864. “Home Again,” Buffalo Evening Post, May 26, 1864. Isaac A. Verplank, Statement, June 28, 1865, William Ellis Pension, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861-1934, Record Group 15, National Archives.

[14] John N. Henry to “My Dear Wife,” March 16, 1863, Priest, Turn Them Out to Die Like a Mule, 374.

[15] “Gone to the Front,” Buffalo Evening Post, June 23, 1864. Stevens, August 4, 1864, PHP.

[16] Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps, 334.

[17] William W. Potter, “Three Years with the Army of the Potomac—A Personal Military History,” Buffalo Medical Journal, Volume 68, Number 2 (September, 1912), 83-84.


Stand in the Cemetery: George Washington Getty and the Battle of Cedar Creek

George Washington Getty. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Following the engagement at Tom’s Brook on Oct. 9, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union Army of the Shenandoah continued north toward Winchester. Sheridan eventually put his men into camp along a stream known as Cedar Creek south of the village of Middletown. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley followed and assumed a position on Fisher’s Hill. Despite the enemy presence, Phil Sheridan remained convinced that Early’s army did not pose a serious threat to his command. Little Phil was so comfortable in this mindset that on October 15, he left the army to travel to Washington to meet with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to discuss and plan future operations. In his absence, Wright had temporary command of the army. Sheridan’s complacency was unfounded; Early in fact was looking for an opportunity to strike the Federals. To that end, on October 17, Early dispatched Maj. Gen. John Gordon, Brig. Gen. Clement Evans and Jedediah Hotchkiss to Massanutten Mountain to examine the Union lines.

From their observation point, the three officers could clearly see the Union army arrayed before them. On the far right stood Sheridan’s cavalry. Posted to the cavalry’s left was the VI Corps and next to them was Maj. Gen. William Emory’s XIX Corps. Directly below them and holding the Union left was the Army of West Virginia, commanded by Brig. Gen. George Crook. To Gordon, the Union left was the weakest point of the position. The Georgian surmised that a flanking column might be able to move around the base of the mountain, cross the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and assail the Yankee left flank.

The following afternoon, Gordon presented his plan to Early at a council of war. After some discussion, “Old Jube” acquiesced. Early hoped the attack would help renew Confederate hopes in the Valley and possibly strike a devastating blow to Sheridan.

For the assault, Robert E. Lee’s “Bad Old Man” decided to send Joseph Kershaw’s division to Bowman’s Ford on Cedar Creek to strike the Army of West Virginia on its right front. Gordon, with the old Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, was to march along the slopes of the Massanutten to the Shenandoah River. After crossing the river, Gordon was to assail Crook’s left.

Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on October 19, 1864, 153 years ago, the Confederate line lurched forward. Kershaw and Gordon’s surprise attack caught Crook-and the rest of the Union army-completely by surprise. Out of the darkness, the Rebel infantry came booming, screaming the “Rebel Yell”. Crook’s men had fought well at Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, but they could not stand the gray onslaught and were driven from their position. Sparked with their initial success, the Confederate infantry continued on, sweeping westward toward the Valley Turnpike and Emory’s lines. Troops from the XIX Corps managed to make a stand, but like Crook were driven from the field.

By seven o’clock, roughly two and a half hours after the attack began, the Union line was in tatters. Crook’s and Emory’s commands were in full retreat. The only blue infantry left on the field was the VI Corps. With Emory’s lines giving way, the divisions of Frank Wheaton and J. Warren Keifer pulled out of their original line and moved out to confront the Confederates. Wheaton and Keifer deployed on ground overlooking the Belle Grove mansion. As they prepared to meet the enemy, the last VI Corps division, commanded by George Getty moved onto high ground occupied by the Middletown Cemetery, just to the north of Wheaton and Keifer.

Belle Grove Mansion on the Cedar Creek battlefield.

Belle Grove Mansion on the Cedar Creek battlefield.

 

George Washington Getty was born in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. on October 2, 1819. A West Point graduate, Getty fought in the war with Mexico and against the Seminoles in Florida. He began the Civil War as a captain in the 4th U.S. Artillery and saw action during the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days’ battles and at Antietam, where he served as the Chief of Artillery for the IX Corps. Promoted to Brigadier General in September, 1862, Getty led a IX Corps division at Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1863, he helped defend Suffolk, Virginia against James Longstreet. The following spring, he was serving as the acting Inspector General for the Army of the Potomac until given division command once again, this time in the VI Corps. Getty was severely wounded in the Wilderness, while his division fought to secure the vital Brock Road-Orange Plank Road intersection.

Getty must have paced amongst the tombstones as he watched Keifer and Wheaton stubbornly hold on against the Confederates. As those divisions finally gave way and began a withdrawal, it fell to Getty to not only cover their retreat, but hold on and buy time for the remainder of the army to rally north of Middletown. The Washingtonian and his veterans were the only thing standing between Jubal Early and victory.

Getty arrayed his three brigades, under James Warner, Lewis Grant and Daniel Bidwell,  from right to left amongst the headstones. George Stevens, a surgeon in the 77th New York and chronicler of the VI Corps remembered “now that peerless band of veterans, the wearers of the Greek cross…was to show the country and the world, an exhibition of valor…above all the grand achievements of the war…with fearless impetuosity the rebel army moved up the gentle rise of ground…and the attack, from one end of the line to the other, was simultaneous. It was like the clash of steel to steel. The astonished columns were checked. They had found an immovable obstacle to their march of victory”.

For ninety minutes, Getty’s division held. During the fighting, they repulsed three different assaults-first by John Pegram’s division, then by the 43d, 45th, and 53rd North Carolina and the 2nd North Carolina Battalion and finally by Gabriel Wharton’s division. Following a thirty minute artillery bombardment, the order to withdraw was finally given. Getty’s men joined the rest of the army and reformed north of Middletown.

Daniel Bidwell, one of Getty's brigade commanders who was mortally wounded during the fighting in the Middletown Cemetery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Daniel Bidwell, one of Getty’s brigade commanders who was mortally wounded during the fighting in the Middletown Cemetery. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Later in the day, after riding in from Winchester following his meeting in Washington, Phil Sheridan reached the field. His presence inspired his men. Launching a counterattack, the Federals swept forward, breaking the Confederate lines and sending them reeling in retreat toward Cedar Creek. What had begun as a disaster for the Federals, ended in a joyous victory.

Much of the credit for this victory should be shared with Getty and his division. Overshadowing their action is Sheridan’s famous ride to the battlefield. Had it not been for Getty’s stand in the cemetery, Sheridan simply would not have found an army to lead when he arrived. When Getty’s fight began, his was the only cohesive infantry force still remaining in the army. His hour and a half engagement allowed not only Keifer and Wheaton to reform, but Emory and Crook as well. His superb delaying action gave Sheridan the opportunity later in the day to launch his smashing counterattack. By the time Little Phil reached the field, his army had already rallied and reformed. The romantic notion of Sheridan riding in to save the day is much more appealing to the imagination than a bitter slug fest played out in, of all places, a cemetery.

George Getty remained in the army following the Civil War. He commanded the 38th U.S. Infantry for five years before transferring back to the artillery in 1871. He headed the artillery school at Fort Monroe, Virginia and interestingly, serve on the board that exonerated Fitz-John Porter for his actions at Second Manassas. In 1883, Getty finally retired. He passed away one day short of his eighty-second birthday on a farm in Forest Glen, Maryland in 1901. Getty rests in Arlington National Cemetery.

A view from Getty's line in the Middletown Cemetery. Massanutten Mountain can be seen in the distance.

A view from Getty’s line in the Middletown Cemetery. Massanutten Mountain can be seen in the distance.

 

 


Nelson Miles and the Bayonet in 1865

Nelson A. Miles
(Library of Congress)

Prevailing opinion today suggests that a war that began in 1861 as one of bayonets and bravado on open battlefields transformed into trenches, firepower, and raids on supply by 1865. Frontal attacks had become a thing of the past and no military thinker would be so foolish as to expect a bayonet charge to succeed. Right?

While flipping through the O.R.‘s for Petersburg in March 1865 (Volume 46, Part 3) I found a remarkable directive from a II Corps division commander who very much expected the cold steel to be the most effective weapon on a battlefield even at the end of the fourth year of war.

This particular officer was no slouch either. By 1865 Nelson Appleton Miles had already established a name for himself. Born in Westminster, Massachusetts in 1839, Miles received no formal military education before the Civil War. In September 1861 he recruited a company from Boston and received commission as first lieutenant. Upon arrival in Virginia Miles served on the staff of Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard.

Wounded at Seven Pines, Miles thereafter became lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Infantry. Casualties above him in the ranks brought opportunity for more promotion, taking helm of the regiment at Antietam. Miles himself was wounded again at Fredericksburg. On May 2, 1863, at Chancellorsville, he played a key role in repulsing the repeated Confederate attacks meant to mask Jackson’s flank march. Wounded yet again at that battle, Miles would receive the Medal of Honor in 1892 for “distinguished gallantry while holding with his command an advanced position against repeated assaults by a strong force of the enemy.”

His wound forced his absence from Gettysburg but he returned to command a II Corps brigade during the Overland campaign and a division at Petersburg.

On March 25, 1865, Miles’s division connected with the VI Corps near the “fish hook” in the line most prominently marked by Fort Fisher. That morning the IX Corps repulsed a desperate Confederate assault against Fort Stedman. Major General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, commanding the II Corps, intended to press the Confederate pickets in his own front. Humphreys correctly suspected that Gen. Robert E. Lee stripped the southern lines southwest of Petersburg to provide more muscle for the assault on Stedman.

Miles’s men drove the Confederate pickets near the lower branch of Arthur’s Swamp into their main line and then withstood a frantic assault launched by Maj. Gen. Henry Heth to reclaim the lost rifle pits. Modern historians refer to this combat on the 25th as the battle of Watkins’s Farm. Miles stated in his official report, “The fighting on the part of the troops of this command was marked by an unusual spirit of determination and enthusiasm; they fought in line of battle, without works, in as perfect order as if upon drill; scarcely a skulker or coward was noticed in rear of the line of battle.”

However, he also noted, “Toward the close of this action the Second Brigade, being out of ammunition, after having once replenished their boxes, and having sustained a loss of about one-fourth its numbers, was relieved by three regiments of General [Joseph J.] Bartlett’s brigade, Fifth Corps.”

The Second Brigade composed the tattered remnants of Col. Robert Nugent’s once-proud Irish Brigade. Their withdrawal to resupply struck a nerve with Miles that had manifested itself during the earlier offensives against Petersburg. Though he praised his men in his official report, including Nugent, who “particularly distinguished himself by the gallant manner in which he fought his brigade, resisting and repulsing the several attacks of the enemy in the most stubborn manner,” Miles had a scolding tone for his command regarding future engagements in his General Orders Number 28, released March 27, 1865. His reference to the bayonet is what caught my eye, but I reproduce the entirety:

The attention of all officers is called to the wasteful use of ammunition in time of action. A great deal or random firing is indulged in by the men, which is perfectly useless and must be restrained by the officers. Men are often seen going to the rear while their regiments are engaged, their only excuse being that they are without ammunition. This will be no excuse. Ammunition can always be procured behind the line of battle, but must be sent for by brigade or regimental commanders. The troops should rely more upon the bayonet, which is the most powerful weapon.

On the last campaign [referring to 1864 offensives] several regiments broke up and scattered in the most disgraceful manner. All commanders will maintain the organizations of their command under all circumstances, whether it be a regiment, company, or platoon. If a regiment receive orders to advance or fall back, it will do so in good order, and every officer must know where all his men are and hold them well in hand, so as to be able to move them in a body in any direction.

In the coming campaign any organization which breaks and disperses in the manner above referred to will be recommended to be disbanded. When attacked by the enemy, the skirmish-line, instead of falling back at once upon the main line, will resist to the utmost and contest every foot of ground. If fairly compelled to retire, the skirmishers will be assembled upon the flanks of the regiments in their rear and participate in the engagement there. Brigade commanders will never allow skirmishers to pass to the rear of the line of battle. They will rally on it, and fight with it, and when they enemy are repulsed will be again advanced.

Miles and his division saw combat twice more during the final week at Petersburg. The II Corps crossed Hatcher’s Run on March 29th to protect the V Corps flank while they, in turn, protected Union cavalry from interference along the Boydton Plank Road. During the battle of White Oak Road on March 31, 1865, Humphreys sent Miles forward to assist the V Corps as they withered under a fierce Confederate counterattack. The division plunged into a Virginia brigade also being advanced as support at that time and forced them back into their fortifications along White Oak Road.

Miles attacked this line on the morning of April 2nd, but the VI Corps breakthrough to the northeast and sweeping of the southern lines down to Hatcher’s Run had already forced the Confederates to evacuate along Claiborne Road until they assumed a defensive posture near Sutherland Station on the South Side Railroad. Miles eagerly pursued the four retreating Confederate brigades but miscommunication between Humphreys and cavalryman Phil Sheridan allowed the southerners time to retreat and position themselves on a dominating plateau just south of the railroad.

Battle of Sutherland Station, phase 1

Determined to act as aggressively as he had instructed his troops in his general orders, Miles did not take time to reconnoiter but launched an attack that the Confederates easily repulsed. Captain William P. Oldham, commanding a company in the 44th North Carolina Infantry, MacRae’s Brigade, recalled:

It was almost high-noon on that clear Sunday morning when the Yankees came in sight, formed in line of battle at fixed bayonets, they proceeded to charge our line. It was a most magnificent sight, on a most perfect day. Their guns looked like silver in the dazzling brilliancy of the noon-day sun. On they came in perfect order, at a double quick pace. But Oh! My! how we covered that ground with dead Yankees. They melted like snow before the summer’s sun. (William P. Oldham, “Horrors of Prison Life Described by an Aged Veteran,” Wilmington Dispatch, March 18, 1917.)

Battle of Sutherland Station, phase 2

Undeterred, the Union division realigned themselves and unsuccessfully charged a second time. Miles finally took time to place one of his brigades in a flanking position past the Confederate left. The Federals overwhelmed the frail Rebel resistance at this point and rolled the line back. A stubborn stand allowed the brigades that remained intact to withdraw on the Namozine Road, but their route now began to long retreat to Appomattox.

After the war II Corps veterans lauded the battle of Sutherland Station as the engagement that cut the last supply line into Petersburg. Earlier during the morning scattered elements of the VI Corps, ranging from small parties to entire regiments, had already cut the South Side Railroad, limiting the strategic value of Miles’s battle. Other veterans criticized the general for not scouting the Confederate line or maneuvering his men into better position until after two attacks had been bloodily beaten back.

Nevertheless, Miles had finally realized the culmination of what Ulysses S. Grant had intended ever since he spurred the Army of the Potomac into motion in early May 1864. He found the Confederates in the open and immediately attacked before they could better entrench or slip away. How many “what ifs” can we name from the Wilderness onward–opportunities for the Union army to land a blow that were frittered away by excessive caution.

The bayonet advocate’s tactics matched his own demands on his soldiers but ultimately produced one in a series of northern victories the decisive day at Petersburg.