Monday, July 28, 2014

The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam

The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam
By Ranger Mike Gamble

                At the base of the War Department Observation Tower on the Antietam National Battlefield, the Irish Brigade Monument vividly depicts the courage and audacity of four Union infantry regiments on the morning of September 17, 1862.  This monument, dedicated on October 25, 1997, not only describes the attack of the Sixty-ninth, Sixty-third, Eighty-eighth New York and the Twenty-ninth  Massachusetts, but also the story of its famed commanding officer Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher.  It was Meagher, leading his soldiers against withering enemy fire in the Sunken Road that epitomized the reputation of the brigade as one of the most experienced and fearless units in the Army of the Potomac.

                Born in Waterford, Ireland on August 3, 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher came to New York City in 1852 after escaping British imposed exile in Tasmania.  Meagher had been a member of the “Young Ireland” movement and was arrested by the British for advocating the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland.  He was popular with the large Irish Community in New York where he became active in Irish political affairs.  When the Civil War began, Meagher used his influence to recruit soldiers for the New York Militia and raised a company within the Sixty-ninth New York.  The unit achieved a good reputation at the First Battle of Manassas.  Returning to New York, he conceived the idea of forming a brigade of Irish regiments modeled after the French Army’s Irish Brigade that achieved notoriety for fighting the British in the Eighteenth century.  Meagher assumed command of the Irish Brigade and was commissioned a Brigadier General on February 2, 1862.

Brigadier General Thomas Meagher

                The Irish Brigade came to the farm fields outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland as part of Major General Israel Richardson’s  division of Major General Edwin Vose Sumner’s Second Corps.   Because of their battle record during the Seven Days Battles, Major General George McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, knew that Richardson’s men would insure the safety of his command headquarters and placed this division near the Pry Farm until relieved.
                  From his headquarters, McClellan received reports of the First and Twelfth Corps attacks against the Confederate left flank during the early morning hours of September 17, 1862.  By 7:30 A.M., Sumner’s Second Corps received orders to support these attacks that were at a standstill.  Sumner ordered Major General John Sedgewick’s division to assault the Confederates who had taken a stand in the woods west of the Hagerstown Pike.  Brigadier General William French followed with his division but veered south in order to support Sedgwick’s left flank.  This movement took French’s three brigades towards a fallback position that the Confederates had established in a sunken road south of the Roulette Farm.
                Sedgwick’s division assaulted the West Woods shortly after 9:00 AM.  Unbeknownst to Sedgwick, famed Confederate commander "Stonewall" Jackson, whose men held the West Woods, was just then receiving reinforcements from Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division that had arrived early that morning from Harpers Ferry.  Jackson also received assistance from Major General John Walker’s division and Colonel Tige Anderson’s brigade.  Outnumbered by the Confederates, Sedgewick’s men were hit by a furious assault and driven back from the West Woods having suffered fifty per cent losses.
                Upon the arrival of Major General Morell’s division at McClellan’s headquarters, Major General Richardson followed French’s route to the battlefield.   The lead brigade of Richardson’s division was the 1340 officers and men of the Irish Brigade. Passing by the Henry Newkirk house, they ascended the crest of a second ridge and down a second ravine, which was an extension of the Roulette Farm Lane.  Meager placed the Sixty-ninth New York in the lead, followed by the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts, the Sixty-third New York and the Eighty-eighth New York.  Brigadier General John Caldwell’s brigade formed on the left of Meagher and Colonel John R. Brooke’s Brigade followed in reserve.
                Seeing that soldiers from French’s division had taken cover on the uneven ground north of the Sunken Road, Meagher prepared his brigade for the attack.  Leaving unneeded equipment in the Roulette Lane, the Irish brigade formed their battle line.  Upon reaching the Sunken Road, Meagher’s plan directed “that after the first and second volleys delivered in line of battle by brigade, the brigade should charge with fixed bayonets on the enemy”. 
                   In the Sunken Road, three of the five brigades in Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division piled up the fence rails on the lip of the road and placed their best marksmen in the front ranks.  Brigadier General George B. Anderson’s brigade occupied that part of the road directly in the path of the Irish Brigade.  Brigadier General Robert Rhodes commanded the other brigade from the Roulette lane intersection to the Mumma farm lane.  At that point, survivors from Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade extended the Confederate defense to the Hagerstown Pike.
                At approximately 10:30 AM, the Irish Brigade began its assault on the Sunken Road.  Their regiments were in battle line formation with the Sixty-ninth New York on the right bordering the Roulette Lane.  To their left were the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts, Sixty-third New York, and then the Eighty-eighth New York anchoring down the end of left flank.  Through the smoke of battle, the soldiers saw a familiar sight.  It was Father William Corby, an Irish Brigade Catholic chaplain, giving his blessing and absolution to the troops.  

Father William Corby

Clearing the first cornfield they encountered, the troops tore down a wooden fence and pushed on to a second fence.  Brigadier General Meagher ordered the second fence torn down and eighty volunteers sprung to the task.  One volunteer, Private Samuel Wright of the 29th Massachusetts, was shot in the back as he ran back to rejoin his unit.  For his heroic actions, Private Wright will be awarded the Medal of Honor. 
                As the Irish Brigade neared the Sunken Road, Confederate Major General Richard Anderson’s division surged through the Piper Farm south of the Sunken Road.  Making their way through Mr. Piper’s apple orchard, Anderson was wounded and replaced with the next officer in rank, Brigadier General Roger Pryor.  Unable to organize the brigades coming through the Piper apple orchard and the Piper cornfield, Pryor failed to coordinate troop movements as soldiers attempted to reach the relative safety of the Sunken Road. The Confederate reinforcements were wading into the fire of Union troops who were now shooting over the heads of the Confederate men hunkered down in the road.  Confederate troops were also taking casualties from federal artillery batteries located two miles from them on the east side of the Antietam creek.  Four batteries of twenty pound Parrott rifled cannons were targeting the Confederates located south of the Sunken Road.
                The Irish Brigade slowly came in sight of the Sunken Road and as planned came to a halt.  Meagher reported “Seated on my horse, close to the Sixty-ninth regiment, I permitted them to deliver their five or six volleys, and personally ordered them to charge upon the rebel columns, while the very same moment I ordered Captain Miller, assistant adjutant general of the Brigade, and Lieutenant Gosson, first aide on my staff, to bring up the Eighty-eighth and Sixty-third immediately to the charge.  It was my design, under the general orders I received, to push the enemy on both their fronts as they displayed themselves to us, and relying on the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge, felt confident that before such a charge the column would give way and be dispersed”.
                Captain Edward Field of the Sixty-third New York described the action: “The rebels seemed to have a special spite against the green flag, and five color bearers were shot down successively in a short time.  As the last man fell even these Irishmen hesitated a moment to assume a task synonymous with death.  Big John Gleason, Captain of the Sixty-third, six feet seven, sprang forward and snatched it up.  In a few minutes a bullet struck the staff, shattering it to pieces; Gleason tore the flag from the broken staff, wrapped it around his body, putting his sword belt over it and went through the rest of the fight untouched”.
                Staying with the Sixty-ninth, Meagher ordered the soldiers to fix bayonets.  In front of the Sixty-ninth, a rebel soldier screamed “bring them colors in here”.  Two color bearers advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the face of the enemy and replied ‘come and take them you damned rebels’.
                Captain Patrick Clooney of the Eighty-eighth New York shouted to his men to form their line when a bullet slammed into his knee.  Struggling to stand up, he ignored pleas from his men to go to the rear.  Two more bullets hit the brave officer, one in the head and other in his chest.  He died instantly.
                The Twenty-ninth Massachusetts took cover behind the rise directly in front of the line.  As Colonel Joseph Barnes did not receive orders from Meagher, his men stayed in position and returned fire. 
Failing to coordinate an attack with all of his regiments, the situation for the Irish Brigade became desperate.  Galloping down the rise to the Sixty-first New York forming on his left flank, Meagher pleaded for assistance from Brigadier General Caldwell’s Brigade.  Colonel Francis Barlow, commanding the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York, had orders to remain in position and regretfully could not support Meagher’s cry for help.  Also, Brigadier General Caldwell was not present in the immediate area to approve such a move. Suddenly, Meagher’s horse was killed by a bullet and fell, trapping the General under the weight of the dead animal.  Two regimental musicians acted as stretcher bearers and carried Meagher to the rear.
                As Major General Richardson observed the worsening condition of the Irish Brigade, he also searched for Brigadier General Caldwell.  After hearing that Caldwell was not in direct command, he angrily shouted “God damn the field officers!” and ordered Caldwell’s brigade to cease their flanking movement and support the Irish Brigade. With this order, Barlow led his New Yorkers to a position behind Meagher’s men and began moving through their ranks. Other regiments of Caldwell’s brigade were able to obtain a position above the road that enabled them to fire into the lane.
                The Confederates were caught in a crossfire with Union infantry shooting at them from their front and from their right.  Colonel John B. Gordon, commanding the 6th Alabama was carried from his regiment, the victim of five wounds.  His replacement, Lieutenant Colonel James Lightfoot misunderstood an order from Brigadier General Robert Rhodes and led his men back to the Hagerstown Pike south of the Sunken Road.  The other Alabama regiments followed.
                With no support on their left, the Confederates still in position in the Sunken Road retreated towards the Piper Farm.  Soldiers from Caldwell’s brigade surged forward and were met with furious counter-attacks from the south as well as from the west.  In the process of directing artillery fire, Richardson was mortally wounded. He succumbed to his wounds that November.
                Action around the Sunken Road was stabilized when Major General Winfield S. Hancock took over command of Richardson’s division. The Confederate line had been pushed to its limits but still held the ground around the Piper farm.
                The Irish Brigade had been in action for less than two hours.  It began its attack with 1340 men and had been reduced to 688.  Of the four regiments, the 29th Massachusetts suffered the lowest loss with 10.2% casualties; the 69th New York suffered the highest casualties, losing 62% of its strength. A total of 113 men were killed, and 539 wounded. With the action now centering on other parts of the battlefield, the brigade was soon ordered back to the Antietam Creek. 

                The assault by the Irish Brigade's assault on the Sunken Road displayed how costly frontal attacks had become by September 1862.  Within three months, the Brigade was called upon to repeat this same maneuver.  Ironically, many of these survivors will meet their death near another country road. This one, however, was located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Emancipation and the Union Army: Part 2

The Pivot of the War: Emancipation and the Union Army
Part 2

Tom Nank,
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College

(This is the second of a two part series on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation and African American troops on the Union army. Part 1 can be found here.)

            On January 1, 1863, 100 days after issuing the preliminary version, Abraham Lincoln signed and finalized the Emancipation Proclamation. This document declared that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be forever free. The Proclamation also called for the enlistment of regiments of black soldiers led by white officers.  Whether Union soldiers liked it or not, the war had taken on a larger meaning.  Reaction in the camps to the Proclamation varied widely.  Most viewed emancipation as favorable to the Union war effort, but did not immediately embrace abolition of slavery on moral or ethical grounds.  A New York Sunday Mercury newspaper circulating in army camps in early February 1863, one month before the Enrollment Act established the first national draft, displayed an article titled “The Negro Soldiers Bill”.  The article stated that “the Negroes should be made to fight.  The North has sacrificed hundreds of thousands of her brave and generous sons.  No further drain can be made on the white population without withdrawing from society its chief pillars of support… It would be preposterous to draft white men to fight, while hosts of the sable sons of Africa are ready to be transformed into soldiers, and whose services the Government has a right to claim.” 
            In the officer ranks of the Army of the Potomac, the Union army with the closest proximity to the nation’s capital, opinions were divided between rear-echelon, anti-Lincoln, pro-George B. McClellan loyalists on one side, and those mostly junior officers who had seen the war up close and were more likely to see Lincoln’s true purpose on the other.  Major General Fitz-John Porter, V Corps commander, was the political soul-mate of his superior McClellan.  Porter wrote to a friendly New York World newspaper reporter after issuance of the Proclamation: “The proclamation was ridiculed in the Army -- caused disgust, discontent, and expressions of disloyalty to the views of the administration and amount, I have heard, to insubordination.”  Soldiers did their best, Porter claimed, only to see their efforts “upset by the absurd proclamations of a political coward.”  A New York Herald correspondent, traveling with McClellan’s army, wrote that if the sampling of the officers he talked to was at all typical, emancipation “will go far towards producing an expression on the part of the Army that will startle the Country and give us a Military Dictator.”1  Other soldiers had a different view.  In the same army camp, Colonel Charles Fessenden Morse of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, a battle-hardened veteran of the Peninsula Campaign, the Shenandoah Valley and Antietam, wrote of the Proclamation:

            I believe its effect will be good. It is going to set us straight with foreign nations. It gives us a decided policy, and though the President carefully calls it nothing but a war measure, yet it is the beginning of a great reform and the first blow struck at the real, original cause of the war. No foreign nation can now support the South without openly countenancing slavery.2
            Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, commanding the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, a veteran of some of the most horrific fighting at Antietam and Gettysburg, saw clearly that Lincoln’s masterstroke had given meaning to the war.  In December 1863, after Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, he wrote that Emancipation “must command the respect of the world, and inspire confidence in the ultimate success of a cause so firmly planted on the right.  If the full success we hope shall crown our struggle and slavery with rebellion be swept from the land… All hail to old Abe!”3   The enlisted men, in small numbers at first but in larger numbers over time, seemed to understand the effect of the Proclamation on the war.  Private John B. Kay of Woodhall, Michigan, serving in the 6th Michigan Cavalry wrote: “Life has to be taken to preserve the Union [and] slavery has to be abolished to save the Union.”4  A week after the Proclamation was issued, Oliver Norton, from the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote to his sister back in Springfield: “I approve of the proclamation, but I don't think it is going to scare the South into submission.  I think it will result in the total overthrow of slavery, but next winter will witness scenes so bloody that the horrors of the French Revolution will be peace in comparison to it.  If the South will have it so, the blood be on her own head.  Seward was right -- the ‘irrepressible conflict’ will continue till freedom or slavery rules the nation.”5
            In late 1862, the first black regiments, including Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1st South Carolina, began organizing and training.  On May 22, 1863, the War Department established the "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight.  Regiments and batteries of infantry, cavalry, engineers and artillery were recruited across the Union.  The colored soldiers knew what they were in for if they were captured.  The Rebel army frequently executed black prisoners, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered that captured white officers leading black troops be charged with “inciting servile insurrection”, a crime punishable by death.6  By mid-1863, white soldiers were not the only ones demonstrating heroism and valor on the battlefield.  Black soldiers were earning their blue uniforms in Union armies east and west.  General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding forces in Louisiana, spoke highly of black troops under his command at Port Hudson in May of 1863.  “On the extreme right of our line I posted the First and Third regiments of negro troops… The position occupied by these troops was one of importance, and called for the utmost steadiness and bravery.  It gives me great pleasure to report they answered every expectation.  Their conduct was heroic.  No troops could be more determined or more daring.  Whatever doubt may have existed before as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this day proves conclusively that the Government will find in this class of troops effective supporters and defenders.”7  In General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee facing Vicksburg, Mississippi at Milliken’s Bend, Captain M. Miller, Commander of Company I, 9th Louisiana Colored Troops, wrote to his aunt about his unit’s experience in combat.  “Two of my colored sergeants were killed, both brave, noble men; always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray.  I never more wish to hear the expression, ‘The [blacks] wont fight.’  Come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of 16 as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel.”8   By late 1864, black soldiers and their white officers were suffering and dying together.  Major General Henry Thomas led a Union colored brigade into battle at the Crater in the siege lines outside Petersburg, Virginia in July, 1864.  He was clearly proud of his men, white officers and black soldiers alike, and moved by their valor, mentioning them by name as he watched them fall:
            My brigade moved gallantly on the right over the bombproofs and over the men of the First Division.  As we mounted the pits, a deadly enfilade from eight guns on our right and a murderous crossfire of musketry met us.  Among the officers, the first to fall was the gallant Fessenden of the 23rd Regiment.  Ayers and Woodruff of the 31st dropped within a few yards of Fessenden.  Ayers being killed, and Woodruff mortally wounded.  Liscomb of the 23rd then fell to rise no more; and then Hackhiser of the 28th and Flint and Aiken of the 29th.  Major Rockwood of the 19th then mounted the crest and fell back dead with a cheer on his lips.  Nor were these all; for at that time hundreds of heroes ‘carved in ebony’ fell.  These black men commanded the admiration and respect of every beholder.9

            Casualties were horrific.  The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry entered the attack with 450 troops and exited with 128.10   Old racial prejudices would die hard, however.  The senior army command held a different view of the unit’s assault on the Crater: Thomas’s men and other black troops were blamed for the defeat.11
            In the end, African American troops were critical to the Union war effort.  By the end of the war, one-tenth of the men in the Union armies were black soldiers.  Most had been slaves two years earlier.  Lincoln himself acknowledged the contribution of former slaves fighting to earn the freedom that had been given them.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man,” Lincoln said, “deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear.  We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers.  This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force… Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”12  There was something more important, however, than blacks serving as a combat force-multiplier.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson summarized the importance of black regiments during the war:

            We who served with the black troops have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. The peculiar privilege of associating with an outcast race, of training it to defend its rights and to perform its duties, this was our especial meed... We had touched the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.13

            Higginson, the other white officers who led black soldiers, and the white soldiers who fought beside them, had done much more.  They had let them fight for the right to live as free men.


1.             Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 325.

2.             Charles Fessenden Morse, letter in private collection, October 6, 1862, Maryland Heights, privately published, 1898.

3.             Rufus R. Dawes, A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 230.

4.             Bak, Distant Thunder, 47.

5.             Oliver Wilcox Norton, to sister, September 29, 1862, Sharpsburg Ferry MD, Army Letters, Chicago IL, 1903.

6.             James B. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 566.

7.             Henry Carey Baird, Gen. Banks on the Bravery of Negro Troops (Philadelphia: 1863), edition, accessed 1 December 2013.

8.             Manning, A Vexed Question, 47.

9.             Henry Goddard Thomas, “The Colored Troops at Petersburg” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV (Century Magazine), 564.

10.          Joseph Glatthaar, The Civil War’s Black Soldiers (Eastern National Publishing, for the National Park Service, 2007), accessed 30 November 2013.

11.          Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume XL, Operations in Southeast Virginia & North Carolina, June 13 - July 31, 1864, Part 1, p. 166.

12.          Glatthaar, Black Soldiers.

13.          Higginson, Army Life, 206.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Emancipation and the Union Army: Part 1

The Pivot of the War: Emancipation and the Union Army, Part 1

By Tom Nank,
Interpretation Intern, CWI, Gettysburg College

            On September 17, 1862, one of the great battles in history was fought near the banks of Antietam Creek. On that day alone, over 23,000 men fell killed, wounded, and missing in action in the span of just twelve hours.
            Union General George B. McClellan’s success at Antietam in September 1862 had finally given President Abraham Lincoln the battlefield victory he wanted.  Lincoln was ready that July to change the face of the war.  He knew that the increasingly long casualty lists must come to mean more than a simple reunion of the states that existed before his election.  Lincoln knew, finally, once and for all, there was an opportunity that summer of 1862 to bring to an end 86 years of argument, compromise and delay on the issue of slavery in the United States.  The time was now, not just militarily but morally, to emancipate the slaves in areas in rebellion against the government.  With victory finally in hand, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, five days after Antietam.  Almost as an afterthought, the last clause of the final version of the Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, provided also that “such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States”.  This would effectively double the offensive punch of the Proclamation: not only would the freed slaves and their labor be subtracted from the southern war effort, but they would also be armed and added to the Union ranks to fight rebel armies.  How, or whether at all, the Union armies that year would welcome African American soldiers would be critical to the winning of the war to preserve Lincoln’s new United States.
            In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the commander of the colored 1st South Carolina Infantry regiment, the first all-black unit mustered into Union Army service, lamented the intense public focus his new command had generated.  The “constant surveillance”, he wrote, “guaranteed the honesty of any success, while fearfully multiplying the penalties had there been a failure.”  A single mutiny, he continued, “a single Bull Run, a stampede of desertions, and it would have been all over for us; the party of distrust would have got the upper hand, and there might not have been, during the whole contest, another effort to arm the negro.”1   Higginson was right to be concerned.  For the first time, free African-Americans were being armed, equipped and trained as soldiers in the U. S. Army.  Black leaders, abolitionists and radical Republicans had pushed since the beginning of the war for the enlistment of black soldiers, and Higginson’s regiment was the vanguard of what would ultimately be over 180,000 free blacks and former slaves serving in Union blue.  Not everyone approved of the initiative; bigotry and racial undertones ran strong through the country in the mid-19th century.  Some of the most important members of the “party of distrust” Higginson referred to were white Union soldiers. 
            In April 1861, immediately after the shelling of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion by the southern states.  Some men joined to fight the Rebels, some men joined to fight for the Union, some joined just to fight.  Songs, posters, parades and newspaper broadsides celebrated patriotism, the Constitution and the founding fathers. Few, if any, of these calls to action mentioned freeing slaves.  In the early days of the war, most men of the Union armies were ambivalent on the issue of slavery.  Some, however, were aware of the importance of the issue as the cause of the conflict.  Sergeant Andrew Walker, a schoolteacher from Illinois, enlisted after Fort Sumter to help the north “forever set aside Slavery.”2  A private in the 2nd Vermont wrote his fiance’ in late 1861, that “slavery was the cause of all our animosities and wranglings and this accursed rebellion… I hope the dark stigma upon our nation may be wiped out.”3  Some believed pre-war North-South political compromise should continue.  Captain Henry Potter, a schoolteacher before joining the 4th Michigan Cavalry, wrote home “I am not willing to fight one moment for Slavery.  Whenever [the rebels] are ready to come back, then I say stop fighting, for God’s sake, and let reason once more be heard on both sides.”4  Some, perhaps a majority, openly opposed freedom.  Private Edward H. C. Taylor of the 4th Michigan Infantry wrote home to his family: “When we cease to fight for the Union and begin to fight for Negro equality, I am ready to lay down my arms and will.”  True to his word, Taylor did not reenlist when his 3-year term of enlistment was up.5
            Like nothing else could, first-hand exposure to the southern slave-holding aristocracy changed minds.  For many Union soldiers, the fiction of slavery that they had only heard and read about became fact and took on life as the armies moved south.  In a letter home to his family in Buffalo County, Private Chauncey Cook in the 25th Wisconsin Infantry described his interaction with slaves in Union-occupied Kentucky:

            I listened for two hours this morning to the stories of a toothless old slave with one blind eye who had come up the river from near Memphis.  He told me a lot of stuff.  He said his master sold his wife and children to a cotton planter in Alabama to pay his gambling debts, and when he told his master he couldn’t stand it, he was tied to the whipping post, stripped, and given 40 lashes.  The next night he ran into the swamps.  The bloodhounds were put on his track and caught him and pulled him down.  They bit him in the face and put out his eye and crushed one of his hands.  He stripped down his pants and showed me a gash on one of his hips where the hounds dug into him until he nearly bled to death… I told this to some of the boys and they said it was all bosh, that [they] were lying to me.  But this story was just like the ones in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I believe them.6

            By early 1862, as Union armies moved south into the slave states, most soldiers realized that slavery was supporting the southern army’s war effort, and took efforts to stop it where they could.  Union Major General John C. Fremont, on his own initiative, freed the slaves of Missouri secessionists in the Western Division where he commanded.  His order was rescinded as premature, and when he was removed from command, Private Adam Marty of the 1st Minnesota Infantry wondered why the administration had “interfered” with an action that “would soon end this war by removing the cause of it.”7   Lieutenant Evan Woodward of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves observed up close slaveholders who “preferred a system of labor that gave wealth and luxuriant ease to the few, at the expense of the prosperity and elevation of the masses and the degradation of labor.”8  In some cases, the soldier’s views changed over time.  When he enlisted, Jasper Barney and his brother-in-law were both ambivalent about slavery.  Two years into the war, after campaigns in Missouri and Tennessee with the 16th Illinois, Barney wrote his relative: “I was of the same opinion as yourself when I first came in service, but I have learned better.  The war will never come to a close while the Negro is left where they are…. But if we take away the main root of evil and confiscate all their property they will have nothing to fight for.”9
            Jasper Barney and Abraham Lincoln were thinking the same thing.  The Emancipation Proclamation later that fall would change everything. 

This is the first of a two part series on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation on African Americans serving in the Union army during the Civil War.


1.             Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, reprint ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 4.
2.             Andrew J. Walker, to parents, April 1861, Henderson IL, Andrew J. Walker Papers, Library of Congress.
3.             Jerome Cutler, to fiance’ Emily, November 11 1861, Camp Griffin, Fairfax County VA, Jerome Cutler Letters, Vermont Historical Society.
4.             Richard Bak, A Distant Thunder: Michigan in the Civil War (Huron River Press, 2004), 49.
5.             Bak, Distant Thunder, 47.
6.             Chauncey H. Cook, “Letters of a Badger Boy in Blue: Into the Southland,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, IV (1920-1921), 328-329.
7.             Chandra Manning, A Vexed Question: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race (University Press of Kentucky: 2007), 35.
8.             Evan M. Woodward, Our Campaigns (Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1865), 14.

9.             Jasper Barney, to brother-in-law John Dinsmore, October 24, 1862, Mound City Hospital, KS, John C. Dinsmore Letters, Illinois State Historical Library.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Antietam Generals: Truman Seymour

Truman Seymour
Born: September 24, 1824, Burlington, Vermont
Died: October 30, 1891, Florence, Italy

As a member of the famed West Point Class of 1846, Truman Seymour was in good company among Civil War commanders. Many of those in his class would join him along the banks of Antietam Creek for America’s bloodiest day on September 17, 1862. Born in 1824 to a Methodist preacher in Vermont, a young Truman Seymour attended Norwich University for two years before heading to the U.S. Military Academy. Upon graduation, Seymour became an artillery officer. He was brevetted a First Lieutenant and Captain during his service in the Mexican War, and he also saw antebellum action against Florida’s Seminole Indians in the latter 1850s. 

Brigadier General Truman Seymour

Seymour has the distinction of being one the men inside the walls of Fort Sumter when, on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery lit up the sky over Charleston Harbor, initiating the American Civil War. Following the fort’s surrender a few days later, Seymour spent the next year aiding the effort to recruit and raise a Federal army large enough to put down the rebellion. On April 28, 1862, he was made a Brigadier General of Volunteers. Initially, he commanded a brigade in George McCall’s division of the 5th Corps; when McCall was taken prisoner at the Battle of Glendale on June 30, 1862, Seymour temporarily took over the division. During the Second Manassas Campaign, Seymour returned to his brigade command because John Reynold’s had taken command of the division, which was attached to the 3rd Corps of the Army of Virginia, under John Pope. When George McClellan went about reorganizing the Washington defenses following the abysmal Federal defeat at Second Manassas, Seymour’s brigade, along with the rest of his division and the 3rd Corps of the Army of Virginia, became the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Its new commander would be Major General Joseph Hooker.

During the Federal advance into Maryland, the 1st Corps, along with the 9th Corps, formed the right wing of the Union army. It was this wing which was used in attacks against Frosttown, Turner’s, and Fox’s Gaps during the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862. During this fight, Seymour’s Pennsylvania troops distinguished themselves well, overcoming difficult and impeding terrain, driving Confederates under Robert Rhodes off of ground north of Turner’s Gap on South Mountain. By nightfall, Seymour’s brigade had played a key role in an incredibly important Federal victory.

Several days later, at Antietam, it was Seymour’s men who were first engaged against Lee’s defensive lines outside of Sharpsburg. After arriving on the eastern banks of Antietam Creek, McClellan sent the 1st Corps across the Upper Bridge at mid-afternoon on September 16. Once across the bridge, Hooker advanced his corps west so that he would be positioned north of Lee’s left flank. That evening, as Federal forces closed in on Confederate pickets and defensive lines, Seymour’s brigade came into contact with the Confederate division of John Bell Hood in the East Woods. The skirmish fire was brisk, and continued until dark, when both sides settled in to await the break of dawn, when their battle would begin in earnest.

 Carman map showing Seymour's brigade at daybreak on the 17th

When the sun rose the next morning, Seymour’s men continued their fight against the Confederate line, only now, they were engaged with part of Alexander Lawton’s division; specifically, the brigade of Isaac Trimble (led temporarily by Col. James Walker), along with the brigade of Roswell Ripley, belonging to D.H. Hill’s division. After the first half hour of fighting, Seymour’s brigade began to withdraw, as the rest of the 1st Corps was beginning its assault through the famed Cornfield. Seymour's men remained in the East Woods, or north of the East Woods for the remainder of the day. Later, when Major General Joseph Hooker was wounded, Brigadier General George Meade assumed command of the corps, leaving the division to Seymour for the time being.

 Carman map showing action between 6 and 6:30 a.m.

Seymour’s Brigade at Antietam

1st Pennsylvania Reserves: 27 casualties

2nd Pennsylvania Reserves: 34 casualties

5th Pennsylvania Reserves: 10 casualties

6th Pennsylvania Reserves: 69 casualties

13th Pennsylvania Reserves: 25 casualties

Total: 155 casualties

George Meade’s Division at Antietam:

2855 Present (Source: Ezra Carmen, The Maryland Campaign of 1862: Volume 2, Antietam, ed. Tom Clemens), 573 casualties (20% casualties)

For his actions at South Mountain and Sharpsburg, Seymour was brevetted first a Lieutenant Colonel and then a full Colonel in the regular army (a distinction existed between a rank in the volunteer army and the regular army; thus, by being brevetted a Colonel in the regular army, Seymour was promoted in rank, despite holding an appointment as a Brigadier General of Volunteers)

Following Antietam, Seymour was sent south once again to Charleston Harbor. There, on July 18, 1863, he oversaw the famed attack against Fort Wagner, where the legendary 54th Massachusetts led the way and suffered near 50% casualties, including their colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Captain, 2nd Massachusetts at Antietam), who was killed that day. During this assault Seymour was wounded, but he would survive. Later that year, he commanded troops at the Battle of Olustee, the biggest Civil War battle to be fought in the state of Florida.

In May of 1864, Seymour came back to the Eastern Theater of the war. He was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness, and then part of a prisoner exchange that August. Following his exchange he again became a division commander and saw action in the Shenandoah, at Petersburg, and at Appomattox. At the end of the war, he was brevetted a Major General in both the regular and volunteer armies. In 1866, he was given command of the 5th U.S. Artillery, which he held until 1876, when he retired and left the United States. Seymour lived out his remaining days in Florence, Italy, until he died in 1891. While he was buried in Italy, his wife lived on until 1919 when she passed away and was interred at West Point.

Dan Vermilya
Park Ranger