Paying My Respects to Pap Thomas

Thomas GravesiteAs a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, perhaps it makes sense that George Thomas was laid to rest somewhere in the north. In that grand scheme of things, Troy, NY, seems as likely a place as anywhere. Troy was the hometown of his wife, Frances Lucretia Kellogg. The “Rock of Chickamauga” preceded his wife in death by nearly twenty years (he on March 28, 1870; she on December 26, 1889), so she had him interred in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery where she, herself, planned to be laid to rest.

I’ve been through Troy dozens of times on my way back and forth to New England, but for most of that time, I never knew “Pap” Thomas was buried there. The town proudly proclaims its connection to “Uncle Sam” Wilson—the real-life prototype of Uncle Sam—but the Rock of Chickamauga has gone untouted. 

For fans of Thomas, that probably comes as no surprise. Today, he’s kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of Union generals: he gets no respect. In life, he never got along with Ulysses S. Grant, which proved to be more and more problematic for his career as Grant advanced farther and farther. Grant didn’t outright harpoon Thomas’s career the way he did, say, William Rosecrans’s, but he didn’t give Pap a whole lot of love—or credit—either.

Even in death, even today, Thomas withers under the shadow of Grant. After all, just 40 minutes to the north, atop Mt. McGregor, the pageant of Grant’s final days played out. He passed away on July 23, 1885—fifteen years after Frances laid her husband to rest in Troy—and to this day, Grant Cottage remains a source of pilgrimage for thousands of people each year. I’ve been fortunate to make it up there annually for the past five years or so.

Thomas Bust @ Grants TombThomas does, appropriately enough, make a cameo of his own in Grant’s NYC tomb. The sarcophagi of Ulysses S. and Julia Dent Grant are surrounded by the busts of Grant’s top lieutenants from war, including Thomas. (If you think Thomas gets no love, try being George Gordon Meade, who was left out of the “top lieutenants” assemblage entirely.)

While Grant’s funeral was one of the largest events ever in New York, Thomas’s was a much different affair. Not a single one of Thomas’s blood relatives attended, bitter over his loyalty to the Union over Virginia. His wife’s family generously gave him a place to rest among them, instead, in a land far away from his own—and yet not. After all, Thomas believed we were all one country. New York, he had declared through his service, was his home turf as much as anywhere.

In fact, the Hudson Valley probably had a stronger claim on Thomas than most places. He’d attended West Point, downriver from Troy, from 1836-40—a formative period in the life of a man who became a professional soldier. He served until his death, in 1870, while stationed in San Francisco, California.

Thomas Gravesite MarkerLast week, I had the opportunity to speak to the Capital District Civil War Roundtable in Watervilet, NY—a suburb of Albany. Troy was literally right across the Hudson River, so I made a point to finally seek out old Pap. At Oakwood Cemetery, a series of small metal markers erected by the Col. G. L. Willard Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans pointed the way. The camp adopted Thomas’ grave and the graves of the entire Kellogg family, among whom Thomas and his wife were buried, and the pride of their work showed.

The Rock of Chickamauga stands tall atop a knoll at one of the highest points in the cemetery. The grave—a marble sarcophagus topped with an eagle—stands with dignity inside a small fenced-in area. An in-ground plaque provides details about Thomas’s military career. There’s no flash—just clean-white marble scrubbed bright by the conscientious attention of respectful admirers.

I have to think Pap would be pleased.

Thomas Gravesite Plaque

“The Finest Cavalry Display Ever Witnessed”: Lincoln Reviews the Mounted Arm

Abraham Lincoln

The spring of 1863 brought about a season of change in the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. On St. Patrick’s Day, Brig. Gen. William W. Averell’s division clashed with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade on the south bank of the Rappahannock near Kelly’s Ford.The battle marked the first time the horse soldiers in blue launched an offensive. While the rest of the army  engaged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia around the Chancellorsville crossroads west of Fredericksburg, the bulk of the corps undertook an expedition into central Virginia. Named for its commander, George Stoneman, it was the operational making of the force. “Stoneman’s Raid” taught the officers and enlisted men how to function in the field during a campaign. The making of the corps as a combat force came on June 9, 1863 when the Union horsemen engaged Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry near a rail stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad known as Brandy Station. Seemingly lost amidst these events is an episode that took place 155 years ago today, when President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the cavalry in Stafford County.

 The day before Easter, Lincoln, along with a small party left Washington by ship, bound for Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac in their winter encampment. The journey was delayed by snow and the ship did not reach Aquia Landing until the following day. From there, the President traveled by train to Falmouth where he was met by Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and an escort from the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The group then made their way along the White Oak Road (State Route 218) to army headquarters, located near the intersection of Jenny Lind and Myers Roads in the modern Kendallwood Estates subdivision. Lincoln stayed close by. His temporary Executive Mansion was located just a short distance northwest of the junction of modern White Oak, Ringgold and Ferry Roads near the modern White Oak Volunteer Rescue Squad building.

“The good president had hastened from the White House to visit the army he had helped to create, to see for himself that his soldiers were comfortable, to cheer them by his presence and encourage by kind words,” recalled a member of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Early the next morning, the Union troopers assembled on the farm of James Sthreshley (pronounced Thrashley) to be reviewed by Lincoln. The Streshley farm house no longer exists. It stood near the south end of Scott Drive in the modern Grafton Village subdivision.

The south end of Scott Drive.

Among those in attendance were First Lady Mary Lincoln along with Maj. Gens. Oliver O. Howard and Henry Slocum. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the corps commander, waited anxiously for the arrival of Hooker and Lincoln.

“After remaining in line a long time, during which the infantry and artillery were being reviewed, the tall, gaunt form of the President came into view, accompanied by General Hooker and a vast retinue,” wrote the historian of the 10th New York Cavalry. “The latter was kept busy plying whip and spur to keep in company. The President’s face was pale, sad, and care-worn in appearance. He sat his small horse with ease, his long legs hanging straight down, the feet nearly reaching to the ground.”

“Mr. Lincoln wore his customary dress-black frock coat with quite long tails which flapped behind him as he passed at a gallop-black trousers and high silk hat…his tall, gaunt figure, and odd costume gave him a singular appearance,” observed George Sanford, an officer in the 1st U.S. Cavalry.

Approaching Stoneman, Hooker formerly introduced him to Lincoln. “President Lincoln and Generals Hooker and Stoneman start off at a gallop,” wrote Henry Moyer of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, “with about three hundred attendants, first to the right of the line, then along the whole front to the left and thence to the reviewing stand. General Stoneman now leaves the President, and with his staff again takes his position in the centre [sic] of the line, facing the corps.”

Stoneman then gave the command: “Pass in review! Column forward! Guide right! March!” “Ten thousand sabres flashed in the sun, forty thousand iron hoofs spurned the sacred soil and as each bold rider settled himself anew in the saddle, grasping the steed that bore him more firmly with hand or knee, ever and anon taking a quick, stealthy glance to right, the magnificent cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac swept steadily and proudly before the Chief Magistrate of the Nation,” officer in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry proudly wrote. It was “the finest cavalry display ever witnessed in the United States,” recalled a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A sketch of Lincoln inspecting the cavalry.

The review took 4 hours to complete. At the very end, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, armed with nine foot long wooden lances with an eleven inch blade was “brought around the house into the field at full gallop, with company fronts at that gait executed most perfectly one of the most difficult cavalry movements, that of wheeling by companies into regimental line, facing the immense company of military authorities there gathered and forming a most perfectly dressed line on the instant, every horse ready and halted just in the right place , the men looking proud that they were able to accomplish so easily this most difficult maneuver.”

At the conclusion of the review, the corps dispersed and returned to their camps.  The moment was not lost on those who participated.“It was an occasion not to be forgotten, the sight being one of the most magnificent many of us ever saw,” recalled Willard Glazer of the 2nd New York Cavalry “It seemed to do us all good to get a glimpse of the solemn, earnest face of the President, who reviewed us with apparent satisfaction.” “That review made a lasting impression,” Moyer wrote. It “was a notable day in the history of the regiment and the men were greatly enthused.” This spirit would sustain the troopers in the weeks and months to come on battlefields scattered across Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

From the ECW Archives: Creating the Medal of Honor

Civil War-era Army Medal of Honor.

March 25 is Medal of Honor Day.

When the Civil War began, the U.S. military had few medals or awards to recognize bravery or exemplary conduct.  General George Washington created the Purple Heart in 1782 to recognize “singularly meritorious action;” a Certificate of Merit recognized bravery under fire during the Mexican-American War, but it did not provide for any medal.  Recipients of the Certificate of Merit later received extra pay of two dollars per month—if they were still serving on active duty.

During the Civil War’s first winter, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill to create a Navy Medal.  The bill easily passed through Congress, and President Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature on December 21, 1861.  This Medal of Valor, as it was called, was the first authorized decoration to recognize gallant actions by American fighting men, but it applied only to the Navy.  Two months later, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced legislation calling for the creation of a similar medal for enlisted men of the Army.  Lincoln signed that bill into law on July 12, 1862—155 years ago today.  This date is considered the birth of what we now know as the Medal of Honor.  An amendment was added in March 1863 to make the award available to officers as well as enlisted men and making its availability retroactive to the beginning of the Civil War.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles contacted James Pollock, Director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, about designing the Navy medal shortly after Lincoln approved creation of that decoration.  Pollock had already submitted five designs to the Navy when he learned of the creation of the Army medal.  Pollock wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to inform Stanton that one of his Navy medal designs would actually be appropriate for the Army as well.  The Navy approved one of Pollock’s designs in May 1862, and the Army followed suit six months later.  The firm of William Wilson and Son of Philadelphia was contracted to make 2,000 copies of each medal.

Both medals were star-shaped and consisted of a figure representing the Union holding a shield against a crouching attacker holding striking serpents.  In the left hand, the Union held a fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of unified authority consisting of an ax bound in staves of wood.  The medal was surrounded by 34 stars, representing the nation’s then-34 states.  The medal’s reverse was blank to allow for the engraving of the recipient’s name and the date and place of action.  The only difference between the two medals was the manner by which it was connected to the ribbon: on the Navy medal, it was suspended by an anchor, on the Army medal by an American eagle standing atop crossed cannons.

Over 1,500 Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers for actions during the Civil War.  While many were issued for conspicuous gallantry under enemy fire and at great risk to (and sometimes at the cost of) the recipient’s life, others were issued as incentives for reenlistment or to politicians-turned-soldiers that brazenly campaigned for them.  Not until decades later, after additional decorations for valor had been created and the Medal of Honor rose to become the military’s highest award, did the reverence we now hold for this particular award emerge.  In conflicts after the Civil War, many more Medals were awarded to servicemen killed during the performance of their Medal of Honor action.

The standards of valor and personal risk that must be demonstrated for an action to be deemed worthy of the Medal of Honor have risen sharply since the Civil War.  Perhaps this is best encapsulated in the comment President Harry Truman made in 1946 as he prepared to present two Medals of Honor for actions during World War II: “I’d rather have a Medal of Honor than be President of the United States.”  Truman, a World War I combat veteran, understood better than most what the young men standing before him had done and endured to be there to receive the nation’s highest award.

To date, just over 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded.  Nineteen men have received two Medals of Honor, the most famous being Thomas Custer during the Civil War.  Thomas Custer died in 1876 with his brother and fellow Civil War veteran George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn.  Only one Medal of Honor has been awarded to a woman: Dr. Mary E. Walker, a Civil War nurse and the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon.  In 1917, the Army Medal of Honor review board revoked the Medals of 911 recipients whose actions it deemed unworthy of the Medal.  Dr. Walker refused to return her Medal as instructed and continued to wear it for the rest of her life.  President Jimmy Carter posthumously restored her Medal in 1977.  In recent years, many Medals of Honor have been awarded to African Americans and Asian Americans whose combat actions decades before were worthy of the Medal but were never recognized due to racial discrimination.

Only one President of the United States has been a Medal of Honor recipient: Theodore Roosevelt.  President Bill Clinton presented this Medal in 2001, over a century after Roosevelt’s actions at the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill and 82 years after Roosevelt’s death.  Two father-son duos have received the Medal of Honor: Arthur and Douglas MacArthur (Civil War and World War II, respectively); and Roosevelt and his son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Spanish-American War and World War II, respectively).  The Medal of Honor is presented to recipients or their family members by the President of the United States in the name of Congress (which is why it is often called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”).  Today, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all have their own versions of the Medal; members of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.

The last Civil War soldier to receive the Medal of Honor was First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing for his actions during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  Cushing was killed while performing the action that would result in President Barack Obama’s presentation of the Medal of Honor to his distant relative on November 6, 2014, over 150 years later.

For those of us that live and breathe Civil War history, it seems appropriate that the nation’s highest military award was created during this conflict.  After all, when did the country have more at stake—not only the freedom of millions held in bondage, but the survival of the very nation itself?

 

 

The Heroics of Capt. John Woodward, 1st Vermont Cavalry

The Civil War constantly moved past the Aldie Mill. On March 2, 1863, it became the site of the famous Aldie Races (courtesy of Richard T. Gillespie)

On March 2, 1863, fifty-nine troopers of the 1st Vermont Cavalry trotted into Aldie and stopped at the village’s prominent mill to rest. Suddenly and unexpectedly, two Vermont scouts on the northwest end of town stumbled into an advancing force of Confederate cavalry belonging to John S. Mosby’s command. “A charge was immediately ordered,” Mosby recalled. Mosby’s tactics caught the Vermonters—who dismounted their horses and wandered around the Aldie Mill and the village—completely by surprise. The Federal cavalrymen panicked and ran in several different directions. Few fought back against Mosby’s charge.

Amidst the chaos, twenty-three-year-old Capt. John Woodward leapt onto his horse and began firing at the Confederates during his first taste of combat. Woodward desperately attempted to rally his soldiers, but he mainly fought alone in that effort. Mosby’s men zeroed in on the heroic officer. The young captain continued to fire until he ran out of ammunition. Dropping his revolver, Woodward drew his sabre and charged into the enemy. A bullet struck down Woodward’s horse, which collapsed on top of him and trapped him underneath. Still, Woodward refused to give in, and pulled a smaller revolver out of his coat pocket. The revolver had only two shots, but he made good use of them, mortally wounding one enemy soldier bearing down on him. Now faced with no more options, Woodward threw up his hands in surrender.

Woodward’s injuries sustained during the brief fight in Aldie earned him a stay in a nearby home. That evening, Mosby visited the heroic captain, supposedly remarking that Woodward “was the bravest and best fighting man he [Mosby] ever saw.” Respecting his gallantry and the hard-fighting 1st Vermont Cavalry, Mosby paroled Woodward, sending him back to the Federal camps in northern Virginia the next day.

Capt. John Woodward’s grave in Cambridge, Vermont (courtesy of Sabina, findagrave.com)

John Woodward found himself in another predicament four months later in Maryland. During the Confederate army’s retreat from Gettysburg, a fight erupted in the streets of Hagerstown on July 6, 1863. The well-respected Vermont cavalrymen charged into the fight, spurred on and led by Capt. Woodward. Two bullets pierced Woodward’s body simultaneously, one through the brain and another into his breast. He pitched forward onto his mount’s neck and died almost instantly. A countercharge by his Confederate adversaries left his body in the enemy’s hands for one week while Southern soldiers “rifled, stripped and buried” his remains. Federals recovered the body when Hagerstown once again fell within Union lines and reinterred them “in the Presbyterian burying ground at Hagerstown.” His father, the regiment’s chaplain, retrieved the remains and returned them home to Vermont for burial.

Local Vermont newspapers covered the young captain’s death extensively. One mourned the loss of the University of Vermont graduate, calling him “a young man of high spirit and sense of duty, and of genial qualities which endeared him greatly to his friends, and a capable and efficient officer.”

A View of Kelly’s Ford

Kelly’s Ford

155 years ago today, Brig. Gen. William Woods Averell’s Union cavalry division clashed with Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate cavalry brigade east of Culpeper Court House. The day long struggle derived its name from a nearby crossing on the Rappahannock River, Kelly’s Ford. That St. Patrick’s Day, the waters which flowed from the Blue Ridge to the Chesapeake served as a point of embarkation from the past and a vision of the future.

Kelly’s Ford was first time the Army of the Potomac’s mounted forces launched an expedition with the sole purpose of engaging the Confederate cavalry. Through the course of the fight, Averell’s troopers established a bridgehead on the south bank of the river and then held their position in the fields adjacent to nearby Wheatley’s Ford against a Confederate counterattack. During this phase of the battle, the Confederates lost Maj. John Pelham, the talented chief of the Stuart Horse Artillery. Averell then pressed Lee back toward a stream known as Carter’s Run. With the sun setting in the western sky, Averell judiciously decided to break off the fight and returned to the north bank of the river.

“The principal result achieved…has been that our cavalry has been brought to feel their superiority in battle; they have learned the value of discipline and the use of their arms,” Averell wrote.

William Brooke-Rawle, the prolific chronicler of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, which participated in the battle, recalled “the most substantial result of this fight was the feeling of confidence in its own ability which the volunteer cavalry gained. This feeling was not confined to the regiments engaged, but was imparted to the whole of our cavalry. The espirit de corps and morale was greatly benefited. Kelly’s Ford was the making of our cavalry.” D.M. Gilmore, an officer in the regiment recalled after the war that the battle “gave great confidence to our men…the advantage gained at Kelly’s Ford was ever maintained.”

Kelly’s Ford marked the beginning of the ascension of the Union cavalry to a level of superiority over their Confederate counterparts. Without Kelly’s Ford, there would be no Brandy Station, without Brandy Station, there would be no Yellow Tavern, without Yellow Tavern there would be no Trevilian Station. Like a rock tossed into a river, the battle’s ripples spread far and wide through the water.

 

 

 

George Custer and Buford’s Knoll at Brandy Station

Buford’s Knoll at Brandy Station.

While preparing for my next work in the Emerging Civil War Series, The Most Desperate Acts of Gallantry: George A. Custer in the Civil War, I came across the photo at right that will appear in the book from the Brandy Station battlefield. This high ground on the farm of Richard Cunningham served as wing commander Brig. Gen. John Buford’s command post for much of the battle. Cavalry corps commander Alfred Pleasonton also observed the fighting from this area. Custer, an aide to Pleasonton was spotted here during the afternoon phase of the engagement.

Daniel Oakey was an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, which made up Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames’ demi-brigade that supported Pleasonton’s horse soldiers. “Having nothing to do as yet but smoke our pipes, we lolled on the grass and studied our cavalry friends”, Oakey recalled. “Custer was the most striking of the group with…his long hair, and spirited manner. He seemed to enjoy the shelling, and appeared to beam all over, almost dancing with excitement.”

When Buford called on the Bay Staters to dislodge elements of Brig. Gen. W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s brigade at a stonewall at the knoll’s western base, Oakey wrote that “Custer showed much interest” in accompanying them and “evidently would have enjoyed going with us.” The young officer, however, remained behind with Pleasonton.

Although I’ve used the photo on the blog in the past, I wanted to highlight it here since it will be converted to black and white for the publication.