Late Winter through Early Spring 1862 (Florida): Serving as Soldiers and Surrogates for Family

Drummer Boy William Williamson, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company A, circa 1863 (public domain).

Arriving with March 1862’s winds of change in America were career advancements for members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who were settling into life as soldiers on garrison duty in America’s Deep South during the Civil War. Among those receiving word that their lives would be changing even while continuing to serve with their regiment at Fort Taylor, Camp Brannan and other duty stations in Key West, Florida were several members of Company A: Jacob Beck, who was promoted from the rank of corporal to quartermaster sergeant; drummer boy William Williamson, who took on additional duties with the regimental commissary; Private John J. Jones, who was ordered to report for daily duties at the fort’s hospital; and Private Peter Lewis, who was ordered by Colonel Tilghman H. Good to assist First Lieutenant Washington H. R. Hangen with his added duties as Adjutant General of the Union Army brigade to which the 47th Pennsylvania had been attached.

Meanwhile, G Company Sergeant Charles A. Hackman was advanced to the rank of first sergeant (sergeant-major) while the regiment continued to add to its rosters with the enrollment of several new members, including Charles Martin, an immigrant from Kent, England who became a private with Company B.

And Major William H. Gausler, the regiment’s third-in-command, also assumed a heavier burden, having been appointed as Provost Marshal of Key West—a position which required him to oversee the city’s police operations and judicial affairs—duties which he performed from an office located at Hick’s Wharf in Key West.

Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C, circa 1862 (public domain).

On Monday, March 10, the 97 members of F Company were marched from Camp Brannan to Fort Taylor, where they would live and work moving forward. The next day, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin of C Company penned a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to inform him that:

“Gen. Brannan has appointed me Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Department of Key West, giving me Supervision of all law proceedings on the island. I have Samuel Haupt for my clerk, and it keeps us both busy. I have a splendid office in the barracks – everything nice as can be. It beats the one at home all to pieces…. The weather continues very warm.”

In fairly short order, though, a new hindrance—the lack of safe drinking water—gave renewed strength to the regiment’s old adversary—disease. This happened because soldiers at the fort were frequently required to rely on rainwater captured by above-ground cisterns—an unworkable situation both in terms of water quantity and quality. In response, Brigadier-General John Milton Brannan, the Union Army general in charge of all of the Key West-based regiments, ordered his subordinates to board schooners and sail for Havana, Cuba in mid-March in order to locate and purchase additional water supplies.

And, as if battling water shortages and disease were not enough, 47th Pennsylvanians were quickly learning that local flora and fauna would also prove to be a significant threat. According to H Company First Lieutenant William W. Geety, who penned a letter to his wife around this same time, the bite of just one six-inch-long centipede meant “certain death” for any Pennsylvanian not sharp-eyed enough to spot the insect and step away fast enough.

Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida, 1863 (courtesy of Robert Champlin, used with permission).

On Thursday, March 13, Regimental Chaplain William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock was in another contemplative mood, putting pen to paper to inform readers of Philadelphia’s The Press newspaper about what life was like as a Union soldier in America’s Deep South while also presenting his perspective on why the war was still being waged:

“In my former communication, I promised a more minute description of the beautiful island and city of Key West. I now do so; but cannot refrain, in the first place, from adverting to the glorious victories which have recently crowned our arms in the different divisions of the grand army of the Union. No wonder the whole country is wild with excitement and rejoicing. No wonder that cannons have been fired and bells tolled in every city, town, and hamlet, of the loyal States. For such successes and such victories as have recently crowned our flag with imperishable glory, are enough to thrill every fibre of the Republic and cause its great heart to beat with renewed life and activity. We have now passed the long line of checks and reverses and have made rapid advances on the broad, clear road that leads to complete and abiding triumph. Every true American breathes freer, walks firmer, and hopes brighter.

Whilst the year 1861 was one of trial, suffering, and discipline to the Government, it was to the rebel leaders, in a large measure, one of hope, of promise and success. But how different the opening of the year 1862! In the great cause of the Union, the bow of promise looms up on every side. There has been one continuous stream of success and victory.

To the rebel leaders all is discomfiture, disaster, and dismay. Every star of hope and promise has disappeared—defeat, ruin, and death, are closing around them on every side.

It is a marvelous [sic] fact in the history and warfare of the Anglo-Saxon race, that the side which suffers most grievously in the beginning is the side which triumphs most gloriously in the end. In not a single instance, during the last hundred years, has this rule varied. It was so in the ‘Old French War,’ when British arms sustained disaster after disaster, commencing with Braddock’s inglorious defeat, and running on through three campaigns, until the French had acquired possession of every foot of the disputed ground. But at Louisburg the tide turned, and Frontenac, and Ticonderoga, Niagara, and Quebec, soon drove the French from every standing place on the continent. A precisely similar experience attended the British operations in other quarters of the globe. Failure followed failure, but in due time gave place to a course of uninterrupted success by land and sea, such as has seldom fallen to the lot of any nation.

It was so in our Revolutionary war. The side beaten first was the side to win last. During the first twenty months of the war, up to the battle of Trenton, there was a continuous record of American discomfitures and retreats. In fact, there was little to lighten the dark page of that fierce struggle, until the battle of Saratoga and surrender of Burgoyne, the year afterward. Washington, and all the military chiefs of the Revolution, all through the first half of that military period, with all their lofty constancy, almost uniformly evince the painful consciousness of miscarriage and misfortune. The civilized world knows the grand success that at last crowned their efforts.

It was so in our last struggle with England. One of the first events of that war was the shameful surrender of Hull, at Detroit, by which the entire peninsula of Michigan passed into the hands of the enemy. He had been sent to invade and seize Upper Canada, but never was there a more ignominious failure. The first year’s land campaign, throughout, form the most discreditable chapter in our national annals. Yet the struggle, severe as it was, closed with the most memorable of all American victories at New Orleans, and has passed into history as a war completely successful for America.

However it be accounted for, the fact is undeniable, that, with the Anglo-Saxon family, opposite fates precide [sic] at the outset and upshot of their military undertakings; whilst success and victory invariably crown their close. The present wicked and lunatic rebellion is the last, but not the least illustration of this great fact. Much as I desire to elaborate this subject more fully, time and space both require me to leave it for the present, and give you as promised a brief description of

KEY WEST ISLAND AND CITY.

The island is six miles long and two miles broad, and nowhere more than twelve or fifteen feet above the sea level. It is of coral formation, and has a sandy, sterile soil, but in the few spots which are arable the vegetation is extremely rich. The greater part of it is covered with copsewood or low brushes. There are some vegetable gardens which produce through all the seasons, though less in winter than summer. The climate is well adapted for all kinds of tropical fruits. Cocoa nuts [sic], oranges, lemons, pomegranates, pine apples [sic], bananas, etc., are very abundant. There is an artificial salt pond on the island, 350 acres in extent. On the southwest point there is a lighthouse with a fixed light 70 feet above water.

Key West City, on the same island, is the capital of Monroe county, Florida, and the southernmost settlement belonging to the United States. It is situated in latitude 21 deg. 32 min. N., longitude 81 deg. 48 min. W., and has a population of about 3,000. It has a fine harbor, accessible through several channels by the largest vessels drawing twenty-four feet of water; being the key to the best entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, it is strongly fortified. The principal work of defence [sic] is Fort Taylor, built on an artificial island within the main entrance to the harbor. It is a first-class fort, intended to mount upwards of two hundred guns of the heaviest calibre, and is now in excellent state of defence [sic]. The barracks are large and commodious buildings, forming three sides of a quadrangle, the opening facing the sea. Near these barracks our regiment is now comfortably quartered, and the camp presents a most romantic and picturesque appearance.

The streets of the city are wide and clean; the houses are generally of white frame of the cottage style, are neat and mostly embosomed in shrubbery. The flowers and roses are seen blooming around almost every house during the whole year. There are Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic churches, a well arranged marine hospital 100 feet long by 45 feet wide, a customhouse, a court-house, and other public buildings. A large proportion of the population of Key West consists of natives or children of natives of the Bahama islands. These mostly sympathize with Secession, and had it not been for the prompt action of Captain, now Gen. Brannan, his handfull [sic] of men and the co operation [sic] of the loyal citizens, at the outbreak of the rebellion, the island and city with all the fortifications would have fallen into the hands of the rebels.

As a regiment, we have great reason to thank God for his watchful care over us, in sparing our lives. But with all, the unerring hand of death has not altogether left our ranks untouched. It is my painful duty to announce the death of three of our brethren-in-arms since we have pitched our tents in the sunny South.

Frederick Watt, Co. H, Captain Kacey’s, died in hospital February 13, of “brain fever,” contracted on board the Oriental. Aged 23 years. He enlisted in Perry county, Pennsylvania.

Andrew Bellisfield [sic], Co. A, Captain Graeffe’s, died in hospital of erysipelas. Aged 30 years. He was born, raised and enlisted In Northampton county, Pennsylvania.

Henry Beltz, Company B, Captain Rhoades [sic], died in hospital of typhoid fever. Aged 20 years. He was also a native of and enlisted in Northampton county, Pennsylvania.

Thus, three of our number have boon summoned from the field of strife and conflict, we trust, to the sweet fields and sunny banks of Canaan above.

They were buried with all the honors of war, and now sleep side by side, till the Resurrection morn. Although no kind father and mother, no affectionate sister and brother, were here to shed the tear of grief and sorrow over the graves of our departed brethren, yet there were few hearts in the ranks that were unmoved, and few cheeks that were dry, as we deposited their remains in the cold, silent earth.

Rest, soldiers, rest; your country comes,
With tender love and true,
Freely to deck your honored beds,
Her banner o’er its turf to spread,
And on your monuments to shed
Fond memory’s pearly dew.’

There are but few of our men now confined to the hospital, and these are doing very well.

Much yet remains to be said of our regiment, this post, etc., but as the mail will leave in a few moments by the Rhode Island, Captain Blanchard, I will close, promising to write again ere long.

‘In Peace or War, on land or sea,
Our flag, the aegis of the free,
Bright emblem of Columbia’s glory I
Shall tell to coming years the story,
How, stout of heart, and strong of hand,
The patriots of our native land
Bore it, the nation’s hope and life,
On tented field, ‘mid fearful strife,
Still on, till [sic] through the sulphurous [sic] cloud
It broke in triumph Treason’s shroud.'”

* Note: In point of fact, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers had come together on the afternoon of February 13, 1862 for what would be the regiment’s first funeral at Key West—that of Private Frederick Watt, a 19-year-old Perry County laborer who had fallen ill with measles while sailing aboard the S.S. Oriental and had been confined to the post hospital at Fort Taylor since disembarking. Following his interment with full military honors in grave number 27 of the post cemetery, hospital clerks muddied the documentation surrounding Watt’s passing, noting his cause of death as both brain fever and typhoid pneumonia. Watt’s body was later disinterred, in 1927, as part of a mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains from Fort Taylor to the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida, and was subsequently reburied at that national cemetery in section 18, grave number 92.

In contrast, Private Andrew Bellis (not “Bellisfield”), succumbed to complications from erysipelas, which developed after Bellis had been bitten by a scorpion. Laid to rest in grave number 26 of the post cemetery following funeral services officiated by A Company Captain Richard A. Graeffe, Private Bellis’s cause of death was confirmed by B Company Private Jacob Apple in a letter to his own (Apple’s) family. As happened with Private Watt, Private Bellis’s body was disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldier, and was subsequently reinterred in section 17, grave number 97 at the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery.

As with those privates who preceded him in death, Private Beltz was also laid to rest in the post cemetery. Initially interred there in grave number 181, his body was similarly disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains; tragically, though, his remains were among those of multiple members of the 47th Pennsylvania that were mishandled. Unable to be re-identified upon transfer to staff at the national cemetery, Private Beltz’s remains were carelessly consigned to one of 228 graves marked as “unknown”—the majority of which still have not been identified as the centenary of that grave relocation project approaches.

As for the Key West lighthouse mentioned by Rev. Rodrock in his letter, the structure had been forced to darken twice after its 1822 construction authorization by the U.S. Congress to protect ships navigating the dangerous Straits of Florida. Initially illuminated on December 17, 1825, it ceased operating in July 1836 when its tower was heavily damaged during the Second Seminole War. Repaired in 1846, it continued to operate until August 1861 when supporters of the Confederacy sabotaged it by removing the system’s reflector while also wrecking its central prism. Determined to fix the problem, Brigadier-General John M. Brannan sent a team of carpenters and guards to the lighthouse in April 1862, but the mission was aborted when technicians determined that the light could not be repaired with the limited tools they had available at that time. Out of service until it was repaired in 1866, the light finally began functioning again on April 15 of that year.

As illness continued to ravage the ranks of the 47th Pennsylvania throughout the late winter and early spring of 1862, Company A’s First Lieutenant James Meyers was subsequently hospitalized for two months while F Company’s Private John Weiss was ordered to convalesce in his quarters.

On Monday, March 17, Assistant Regimental Surgeon Jacob H. Scheetz was placed in command of the 47th Pennsylvania’s medical unit when the 47th’s Regimental Surgeon Elisha W. Baily was reassigned to detached duty. (Scheetz would continue to fulfill this role until September 1862 when he was placed in charge of the Union Army’s General Hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where the 47th Pennsylvania was stationed.)

Two days later, Northampton County Journal readers learned from that day’s edition of their newspaper that fourteen men from their community would be returning home, including A Company Privates Christian Haldeman and George Muller, residents of Easton who had been respectively employed as a laborer and hostler, Stockertown blacksmith Enos Unangst, and Monroe County’s William Pucker—all of whom had been honorably discharged on surgeons certificates of disability. (Muller was released due to a foot injury.)

On Sunday, March 23, Captain Gobin informed family and friends back in Sunbury that:

“Two batteries of field Artillery have been landed on the Island, and we are drilling our Regiment to the use of them. The men have been supplied with new clothing, brass shoulder scales to protect them from cavalry, and everything betokens a readiness on our part to join in the grand encircling of the monster Rebellion. The trees are still being cut down, while artillery roads, thirty feet wide, are being run from one part of the island to another, at different points. Our men have been working hard, but we daily expect 500 contrabands from Port Royal, when we will have easy times.”

All the while, the regiment’s most fearsome foe continued its scything of the ranks as E Company Private Amandus Long and 29-year-old Second Lieutenant Henry H. Bush of F Company lost their respective battles with typhoid fever.

Beloved by his F Company subordinates, Lieutenant Bush “had just been presented a sword by his company a few days before,” according to Schmidt, “and left a widow and two little children behind.” In reporting the death of the Catasauqua millwright, editors of the New Era confirmed that Bush had initially been laid to rest at the post cemetery:

“It becomes our sad duty to record the death of Lt. H. H. Bush, of Company F, 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. He died of Typhoid Fever on the 31st of March and was buried with Masonic and Military Honors in the soldiers burying ground near the barracks.”

The most enlightening glimpse into the funerary rituals of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, however, was Company Order Number 23:

“The Major commanding has the painful duty to announce to this command the death after a short illness of 2nd Lt. H. H. Bush of Company F stationed at this post. By his death the service has lost a good officer and efficient soldier. His remains will be buried at 5 PM (April 1). One half of company accompanied by subaltern will form escort. The usual badge of mourning will be worn by the officers of Company F for one month.”

* Note: Initially interred in grave number 3 of the post cemetery, Private Amandus Long was one of the 47th Pennsylvanians whose bodies were disinterred in 1927 as part of the mass relocation of Union soldiers’ remains from Fort Taylor to the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida. Tragically, his body was also among those that were mishandled. Unable to be reidentified upon transfer to the national cemetery, his remains were also carelessly consigned to one of 228 graves marked as “unknown.”

Unlike the remains of Private Long, however, those of Second Lieutenant Henry H. Bush were disinterred and brought back to the Keystone State at the request of his surviving family. Lieutenant Bush was then finally laid to rest at Catasauqua’s Fairview Cemetery.

The deaths of Beltz, Bush, Long, and so many other young men sorely tested the notion of 19th century Pennsylvanians that terminally ill loved ones “should die amidst family assembled around the deathbed,” according to American Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president emeritus of Harvard University and the author of This Republic of Suffering. Tradition had long dictated that “family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul” because the “critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition.”

“Kin would use their observations of the deathbed to evaluate the family’s chances for a reunion in heaven. A life was a narrative that could only be incomplete without this final chapter, without the life-defining last words.

Last words had always held a place of prominence in the Ars Moriendi [‘Good Death’] tradition. By the eighteenth century, ‘dying declarations’ had assumed—and still retain—explicit secular importance: a special evidentiary status excepting them from legal rules excluding hearsay. Final words were regarded as possessing an especially high truth status, both because it was believed that a dying person could no longer have any early motivation to lie and because those about to meet their Maker would not wish to expire bearing false witness…. Not only were last words important because of their assumed honesty, they also imposed a meaning on the life narrative they would conclude. At the same time that they exemplified a life, moreover, they communicated invaluable lessons or insights to those gathered around the deathbed. This educational function provided a critical means through which the deceased could continue to exist in the lives of the survivors. The teachings that last words imparted served as a lingering exhortation and a persisting tie between the living and the dead.”

But when members of the 47th Pennsylvania died far from home—as they were now doing at Fort Taylor in Florida—this immediate and long-lasting form of comfort and counsel was out of reach of the loving embrace of a dying soldier’s family and friends. And that, according to Faust, was utterly shocking and “unbearable to many nineteenth-century Americans left at home while their sons, husbands, and brothers died with their last words unrecorded or even unheard.”

As the war would continue to rage, according to Faust, a dying soldier’s regimental comrades would often become surrogates for far-away family, as would regimental and hospital chaplains, physicians, and army nurses, “struggling even amidst the chaos of the war to make it possible for men—and their loved ones—to believe they had died well. Spiritual wounds demanded attention as powerfully as did those of the flesh.”

Sadly, these realizations was being driven home to the members of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry time and again as the dawn of a second year of civil war loomed in America.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Vol 1. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

2. Faust, Drew G. The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 3-38. Houston, Texas: Southern Historical Association (Rice University), 2001.

3. Florida’s Role in the Civil War: ‘Supplier of the Confederacy.” Tampa, Florida: Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida (College of Education), retrieved online January 15, 2020.

4. Gobin, John Peter Shindel. Personal Letters, 1861-1865. Northumberland, Pennsylvania: Personal Collection of John Deppen.

5. Johnson, Rossiter and John Howard Brown. The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Vol. 1, p. 419: Brannan, John Milton.” Boston, Massachusetts: The Biographical Society, 1904.

6. “Letter from Key West” (from “W. D. C. R., Chaplain, Forty-seventh Regiment, P. V.”; dated March 13, 1862). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Press, March 31, 1972 (front page).

7. Rodrock, William DeWitt Clinton and Julia (Weldy) Rodrock. Photographs, Correspondence, Sermons, etc., 1849-1900. St. Louis, Missouri: “William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock Collection” held by Robert Champlin.

8. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

9. Sharp, Rebecca. Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (video). Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, June 3, 2015.

10. Staubach, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Miami During the Civil War: 1861-65,” in Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, LIII, 31-62. Miami: Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 1993.

11. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1861-1868.

 

 

A Voyage North and a Memorable Encounter with Abraham Lincoln

Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Fort Stevens, July 1864 (public domain illustration).

Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Fort Stevens, 12 July 1864 (public domain illustration).

With the Union’s Red River Campaign across Louisiana finally over by June of 1864, their supplies replenished, their dead buried, and the traumatic injuries of their wounded on the mend by early July, it was time for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers to move on. Still part of the 2nd Brigade of Brigadier General William Dwight’s 1st Division in Brigadier General William H. Emory’s 19th U.S. Army Corps, Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I received orders on the 4th of July to leave Companies B, G and K behind and march for Algiers, Louisiana. Boarding the U.S. Steamer McClellan there on Thursday, 7 July 1864, the bulk of 47th Pennsylvanians then sailed away from the docks at 1 p.m.

According to a diary entry made that day by Corporal George R. Nichols of E Company, the regiment was forced to leave behind those three companies because the McClellan simply did not have enough space for the entire regiment. Noting that they had been ordered to begin packing at 6 a.m. that morning for the march to the steamer, he said “about Nine hundred men was Shoved on her.”

Note: Left behind in Morganza, Louisiana under the command of F Company Captain Henry S. Harte to await additional transportation, Companies B, G, and K sailed later that same month aboard the Blackstone, made a brief stop at Bermuda Hundred, arrived in the Washington, D.C. area on 28 July 1864, and reconnected with the remainder of the regiment and the 19th Corps three days later in Maryland at Monocacy.

Carrying sealed orders with instructions that they be opened and read only after the McClellan had traveled “beyond the bar,” Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I sailed in the dark – figuratively and literally. “The passage down the Mississippi was mostly at night, so I am unable to give you a description of it. An expedition was on the move but what point no one outside of headquarters was able to tell. It was a secret move,” wrote C Company Musician Henry D. Wharton to his hometown newspaper. He and his superiors were among the many who speculated that the regiment was headed for new duties near Mobile, Alabama which would place them under the command of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Note: This speculation proved to be completely off the mark, and would result in the utterly incorrect “documentation” by numerous genealogists, historians and news reporters which persists even today that the 47th Pennsylvania had participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea and the burning of Atlanta when the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were nowhere near Sherman and his troops during those incidents.

The initial secrecy was a smart move, observed Wharton, “for the destination of former expeditions was known weeks before embarking, and by the time the troops reached the point to which they were ordered, the rebs were ready to receive them.” New Orleans, he added, was “filled with traitors and spies, ready to do the bidding of Jefferson D.,” making it “necessary that the greatest precaution be used when anything extraordinary is going on.”

After obtaining a new pilot for the steamer at Pilottown, the McClellan continued on. Once the pilot had helped the steamer to clear the bar, the orders were indeed finally opened and, according to Captain Gobin, “the consternation was great when it was discovered we were bound for the Army of the Potomac.”

U.S. Steamer McClellan_Alfred Waud_c. 1860-1865

U.S. Steamer McClellan (Alfred Waud, c. 1860s, U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

Still steaming for Washington, the 47th Pennsylvanians lost another of their brotherhood when, on 8 July, Private Jonas Snyder of I Company died from consumption (tuberculosis) and related complications. The 45-year-old Carbon County native was buried at sea with full military honors – sixty miles off America’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico. In recounting the ceremony for Private Snyder, Wharton noted that:

His body was prepared for burial by nicely sewing it up in blankets, with weights attached to make it sink. The funeral was conducted by Chaplain Rodrock, who read the beautiful sea service from the prayer book of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The ‘Flag of our Union’ was at half mast, the boat stopped, and as the sun was hiding in the west, the body was launched into the sea, sinking to rise no more, until the great day comes when the soul must give an account for the ‘deeds’ done in the body.

As the 47th Pennsylvanians grieved their latest loss, the hearts of citizens in Washington City were also troubled as General Jubal Early’s Confederate troops marched their way. According to historian Lewis Schmidt, as the first members of the 19th Corps began arriving at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, “their orders were changed and they were sent on to the Capital.”

At 7 a.m. on Sunday, 10 July, the 47th Pennsylvanians began rounding the tip of Florida, sailing past Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, and on past Key West at 2 p.m. An intense yellow fever epidemic among the locals and remaining soldiers stationed there eliminated all hopes of a short sojourn at Fort Taylor.

According to Captain Gobin, “Pleasant weather attended the voyage,” and the McClellan finally steamed into Hampton Roads, Virginia on the afternoon of 11 July. But before the ship’s anchor could even hit the water, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were receiving new orders – directed to march for Washington, which they did the next morning. Little did they know they would soon have yet another memorable story to be passed down to their grandchildren – and their grandchildren’s grandchildren.

An Encounter with Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Arriving on Horseback at Fort Stevens, 8 July 1864 (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Nespaper, 13 August 1864, public domain).

Lincoln Arrives on Horseback at Fort Stevens, 12 July 1864 (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 13 August 1864, public domain).

In an essay penned in 1907 for the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, The Honorable John Peter Shindel Gobin (now a former Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania), recalled how the majority of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers suddenly realized they were seeing Abraham Lincoln in the flesh during the summer of 1864 – and how an incident that same day – one which “might have been exceedingly serious in the prosecution of the war” – nearly took the life of their beloved Commander-in-Chief as it brought Lincoln “under the actual fire of the enemy in their attack upon Fort Stevens, July 12th, 1864”:

We landed at the Navy Yard, were met by an officer with instructions to move out at once, leaving a detail to look after baggage and horses. Up the avenue and out Seventh St. we at once proceeded, and at intervals were met by handsomely uniformed officers, who urged us to hurry up double quick.

Officers and men moving along discussed the cause of all this, but with no intimation of trouble or information or instructions of what was needed until we heard the sound of artillery and later of musketry.

There appeared to be no unusual commotion in Washington – few people on the streets – nothing to indicate the presence of an enemy, until the sound of firing was heard. The day was very hot the column marched along until Fort Stevens was reached, when, to the great surprise of every one, it was evident that a fight was going on at the front. We halted, and then began the inquiry, ‘What’s up? Are those Johnnies? Where’s Grant?’

Fort Stevens, explained Gobin, “was an earthwork in a line of fortifications built for the defense of Washington. It was a strong earthwork, and apparently easily protected. The guns were mounted en-barbette and were all of heavy caliber.” While waiting for new orders, members of the 47th struck up a conversation with an officer from another Union regiment and were told, “’Old Abe’s in the Fort.’”

This was so startling, as it was repeated from file to file, that everybody made a rush to get near enough to see him. There was no mistaking him. His tall figure and high hat made him prominent, and I think every man of the regiment had a look at him.

Our Corps badge resembled that of the 5th Corps, and to many inquiries, ‘Do you belong to the 5th Corps?’ the answer was, ‘No, to the 19th.’ Considerable curiosity was evinced to know where the 19th Corps was from, and great surprise was expressed as to how we had gotten there from New Orleans, as it was stated, just in time.

In the meantime, numerous officers had been circulating around, various orders had been received, but nobody seemed to know what to do with us, and the regiment stood awaiting definite instructions.

At last it came, to move out to the left and deploy, move forward and connect with Bidwell’s Brigade. As we came into line and moved out, a young staff officer rode down the line, shouting, ‘You are going into action under the eye of the President! He wants to see how you can fight.’ The answer was a shout and a rush. We met with but little opposition. A sparse picket line of dismounted cavalry got out of the way readily, other regiments came in on our left. We did not meet Bidwell’s Brigade, but passed over their battle ground, until, after nightfall, we passed over some of the ground they had fought over, and recognized the red cross of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, as being the fighters. They had evidently been on the extreme left of the line in action. We bivouacked that night near the remains of a burnt house which was said to be Montgomery Blair’s.

The fighting was virtually over before we arrived, but the camp was full of stories during the night as to what had occurred at Fort Stevens while the President was there. Evidently that fort was within the range of the artillery and the skirmishers of the Rebel Army, and it was rumored that General H. G. Wright had positively ordered the President to get out of the range of danger after an officer had been shot by his side.

Mr. Chittenden, Register of the Treasury, in his account of it says that when he reached the Fort, he found the President, Secretary Stanton and other civilians. A young colonel of the artillery, who appeared to be the officer of the day, was in great distress because the President would expose himself and paid little attention to his warnings.  He was satisfied the Confederates had recognized him, for they were firing at him very hotly, and a soldier near him had just fallen with a broken thigh. He asked my advice, says Chittenden, for he said the President was in great danger. After some consultation the young officer walked to where the President was looking over the edge of the parapet and said, ‘Mr. President, you are standing within range of 500 Rebel rifles. Please come down to a safer place. If you do not it will be my duty to call a file of men and make you.’

‘And you would do quite right, my boy,’ said the President, coming down at once, ‘you are in command of this fort. I should be the last man to set an example of disobedience.’ He was shown to a place where the view was less extended, but where there was almost no exposure. As Mr. Chittenden was present and speaks from personal knowledge, I assume this to be a correct statement.

I have recently seen a publication in which an officer, claiming to be on the staff of General Upton, describes the President as having halted at the side of the road, and with having been struck by a stray bullet. No mention of it is made in any of the accounts hitherto published of his presence. Certain it is, he was in the Fort and not in the road when we reached there. There were no other troops except those in the trenches and in the Fort at that time, and my recollection is that it must have been after dinner, the fight well over as, although we went in immediately and rapidly, we had no serious casualties. Our Brig.-General came to us, as he said, as soon as he could get a horse, and halted us for the night.

 The 47th Pennsylvanians could breathe a sigh of genuine relief when they were all finally reunited in late July of 1864. President Abraham Lincoln was still safe – and the boys from Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I had gotten a very good look at him.

 

Sources:

1. Gobin, Companion J. P. S. Lincoln Under Fire, in records of the Memorial Meeting held on 13 February 1907, in Abraham Lincoln. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Commandery of the State of Pennsylvania, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, 1907-1911.

2. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.

3. Wharton, Henry D. Letters from the Sunbury Guards. Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Sunbury American, 1864.

 

Blest Be the Tie That Binds – Putting Aside Differences to Become One Nation, Indivisible on Memorial Day

Ottumwa today showed her honor to the nation’s defenders by closing shop and factory, school and place of merchandising, that all might lend their token of honor and veneration to the memory of those who fought, bled and died that the country might live. The Grand Army of the Republic, the Women’s Relief corps, those who were orphaned through the great strife of nearly half a century ago, and others that represent a grateful nation, have devoted this day to the memory of the Union soldiery of the civil war, both living and dead. The dead are being remembered by eulogy and flower tribute, the living by the willingness manifest by the people generally to honor the dead and the cause that all feel a like interest in. Music and eloquence, silent tears and prayers, the floral tribute that adds a fragrance incense-like to the solemn occasion – all are blended with the full heart of gratitude and esteem paid the memory of the dead and living veterans who made possible the happiness and prosperity, peace and security that today is the blessed heritage of the citizens of the United States. – Ottumwa Courier (1 June 1911)

 

Ottumwa, Iowa. Most Americans recognize the name of this community in the nation’s heartland as the hometown of fictional television character Walter O’Reilly – better known as “Radar,” the young corporal at the 4077th M.A.S.H. who slept with a teddy bear while coming of age at an army hospital during the Korean War. His eyes witnessed the worst of humanity; his responses to the most painful of those moments tweaked the collective conscience of the millions of television viewers tuning in each week, reminding us that displays of kindness, compassion and hope are still possible even in the midst of hate and horror.

But Ottumwa also has ties to very real wars, including to America’s terrible Civil War – and to one of that war’s lesser known, but valiant regiments – the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. For it was in Ottumwa where Lewis W. Saylor (1845-1877) chose to resettle after serving two terms as a Private with Company H of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and where he closed his eyes for the final time and was buried with military honors.

Memorial Day Planning Headline, Ottumwa Courier, 9 May 1901 (public domain).

Memorial Day Planning Headline, Ottumwa Courier, 9 May 1901 (public domain).

On Memorial Day in 1911, Ottumwans honored Lewis Saylor and more than 200 other Civil War veterans with pomp and poignant oratory. The day began with a gathering by members of the Grand Army of the Republic’s Cloutman post who rode or marched from the court house to the Ottumwa Cemetery, the place where the largest number of Civil War soldiers had been laid to rest. The 1 June 1911 edition of the Ottumwa Courier described the procession as follows:

Led by six police officers each of whom carried a large bouquet of flowers to place upon the graves of the veteran dead, the parade formed and wended its way up Court hill. The Fifty-fourth regiment band attired in its military uniforms added a martial aspect to the pageant which was inspired by the national melodies that were rendered by this excellent musical organization. The local guardsmen of Co. G.I.N.G. were also in the line as were a number of Sons of Veterans aiding by their presence to the occasion that honored their fathers’ memory. The speakers in carriages and the old soldiers in vehicles were also in evidence and excited the love and esteem of the onlookers as the parade moved forward to the cemetery. Both Cloutman and Tuttle posts of the G.A.R. and the Relief corps of the two posts were a part of the parade. Citizens voluntarily fell in to swell the ranks and lend their aid to the expression of honor and esteem of the veterans. 

A large crowd was gathered in the city park preliminary to the starting of the parade and in the band stand of the park, the Fifty-fourth rendered several selections while the crowds assembled. Carriages and autos gathered about the park ready to join in the parade to the cemetery, and the street cars carried hundreds to the graves of the departed veterans and relatives as the pageant moved slowly toward the cemetery.

The Courier went on to report that members of the G.A.R and Women’s Relief Corps also decorated the graves of Union veterans at the Calvary Cemetery, and added:

Honorable Ellsworth Rominger of Bloomfield this morning made the Memorial day address in South Ottumwa. He told a remnant of the Grand Army of the Republic, their wives who largely comprised the Women’s Relief Corps and the children of the veterans, of the great debt the nation owes the noble sons who in the stormy days of the nation’s strife and her hour of greatest need, responded to the call. He graphically sketched and in a realistic panorama brought before the minds of the assemblage the days of the civil war, and equally effective was his treatment of the fruits of this terrible conflict so great in cost to the nation.

 Noting that the ranks of the aging Civil War veterans were now “somewhat thinner,” the Courier also observed that:

The ravages of passing years was made more evident in the expressions and step of the veterans who each year have assembled at this memorial gatherings. There were present those who had to be wheeled to the hall in a chair, some who are bent with age an infirmity, but all seemed young once more as the days of the civil war were recalled by the speakers.”

The Program

Memorial Day Headline, Ottumwa Courier, 31 May 1900 (public domain).

Memorial Day Headline, Ottumwa Courier, 31 May 1900 (public domain).

Commander J. Trisler began the day’s events at the 1911 Memorial Day ceremony in Ottumwa with a brief speech, followed by prayers delivered by the pastor of the Davis Street Christian Church, Rev. S. I. Elder, and the formal Memorial Day address by Major Hamilton. The regimental band of the Fifty-Fourth Iowa then led the G.A.R marchers into the ceremonial gathering, and Ellsworth Rominger began his aforementioned address. Declaring that the Grand Army of the Republic would continue to live on in the hearts and minds of Americans even after the passing of the G.A.R.’s final member, Rominger added:

If you would ask me what this great war cost, I would ask you to accompany me through the soldiers’ home of this state and look into the faces of 600 veterans. There your answer would be plain and you would readily appreciate the great cost the war had been. It is said that this strife cost the nation $400,000,000 and 100,000 lives, more than enough to purchase all of the slaves. But that was not the cost, for it cannot be computed in money.

Rominger then said something which still holds a powerful truth, and is worthy of taking to heart in the midst of America’s recent heated election season. Despite the extreme divisiveness which erupted before and during America’s Civil War, Americans who had opposed each other in battle later went on to come together to work for the betterment of their nation and respective communities. They found the strength to forgive, to put aside their differences, and to compromise. To illustrate his point, he recalled the dignity accorded to a Confederate soldier’s recent burial. Accompanied by a Grand Army of the Republic honor guard, the soldier’s casket was draped with both the Confederate flag (“stars and bars”) and the American flag.

To solidify that sentiment and close that 1911 Memorial Day program, Ottumwans joined in singing Blest Be the Tie That Binds:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above. 

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our alms, are one,
Our comforts and our cares. 

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear. 

When here our pathways part,
We suffer bitter pain;
Yet, one in Christ and one in heart,
We hope to meet again. 

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way,
While each in expectation lives
And longs to see the day. 

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity. 

– John Fawcett (1772)

Others who had served with East Coast or federal units during the Civil War and were also lionized that day included:

  • Applegate, N. S.: Co. E, 9th New Jersey Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Barnhart, Ira: Co. H, 124th New York Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Buckley, Thomas R.: Co. M, 3rd New York Cavalry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Best, Nelson: Co. I, 47th New York Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Bannister, D.: Colonel and paymaster, U.S. Volunteers, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Caton, James C.: 50th U.S. Infantry, interred at the Catholic Cemetery;
  • Conlin, Michael: Co. K, 160th New York Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Carter, Josiah: Co. C, 3rd U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Davenport, W.D.: Co. H, 3rd New York Cavalry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Davis, Edmund: 24th Pennsylvania Reserves, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Dodd, Zachariah: Co. C, 18th U.S. Colored Troops, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Dougherty, Constantine: 1st Mechanical Engineering Corps, interred at the Catholic Cemetery;
  • Fetzer, W. H.: 10th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Fleming, John: 16th U.S. Infantry, interred at the Catholic Cemetery;
  • Grebby, George: Co. F, 8th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Hutchison, J. G.; 131st Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Hoffman, William: Pennsylvania Reserves, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Jolliff, Jas.: Co. K, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Keister, J. D.: Co. I, 44th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Kilby, L. W.: Co. F, 147th New York Volunteers, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Manchester, J. C.: Co. E, 1st Connecticut Artillery, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Mahon, S. K.: Captain, 16th U.S. Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Miller, William: 55th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Mills, Robert: 11th U.S. Cavalry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Morley, George: Co. C, 19th U.S. Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Peck, Jesse: Co. H, 85th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Powell, C. C.: Co. I, 9th Delaware, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Shaw, F. B.: 33rd Massachusetts Infantry, interred at Shaul Cemetery;
  • Smith, Zachias: Corporal, Co. G, 1st U.S. Battery, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery;
  • Stewart, Calloway: Co. G, 2nd U.S. Infantry, interred at Shaul Cemetery;
  • Stoddard, John C.: Surgeon, 56th U.S. Infantry, interred at Ottumwa Cemetery; and
  • Wilson, J. H.: Co. C, 15th New York Artillery.

As you celebrate Memorial Day this year, take a moment to give thanks to the men, women and children who gave so much so that we might remain “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”