Monday, May 25, 2015

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Just around the corner from Mrs. Lee’s famed rose garden at Arlington house lays a nearly-forgotten monument that was the first Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Erected in 1866, this massive crypt houses the remains of 2,111 Union war dead that were removed from hastily dug mass graves on the battlefields stretching from Manassas to the Rappahannock River.
Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns.

On Decoration Day of 1871, Frederick Douglass was invited to come and consecrate this memorial.

His words, given below in their entirety, offer a valuable glimpse into how postwar Northerners viewed their Civil War.
Friends and Fellow Citizens: 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence. 
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable. 
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1870.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. 
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict. 
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember? 
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. 
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 1864: Death of a Legend

The following is an eyewitness account of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s death on May 12, 1864. Stuart’s adjutant, Maj. Henry McClellan, wrote to Flora Stuart to explain the circumstances of how he was wounded and the manner of his death. Flora had arrived at the home Dr. Charles Brewer on May 12th to find that Stuart had been dead for several hours and was greatly grieved to know that she had just missed a last chance to say goodbye to her beloved husband.
While yet in the ambulance Dr. Fontaine and Lieutenant Hullihen turned the general over on his side, in order that an examination of the wound might be made While this was in progress he spoke to Hullihen, addressing him by the pet name which he usually employed: -- 
“Honey-bun, how do I look in the face?” 
“General,” replied Hullihen, “you are looking right well. You will be all right.” 
“Well,” said he, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die I am ready.” 
In order to avoid the enemy, who how held full possession of the Brook turnpike, it was necessary for the ambulance to make a wide detour to reach Richmond, and it was some time after dark when the general arrived at the residence of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. The long ride gave him great suffering. On the morning of the 12th, after delivering General Fitz Lee’s message to General Bragg, I repaired to the bedside of my dying chief. He was calm and composed, in the full possession of his mind. Our conversation was, however, interrupted by paroxysms of suffering. He directed me to make the proper disposal of his official papers and to send his personal effects to his wife. He then said: --- 
“I wish you to take one of my horses and Venable the other. Which is the heavier rider?”
I replied that I thought Venable was. 
“Then,” said he, “let Venable have the gray horse, and you take the bay.” 
Soon he spoke again: “You will find in my hat a small Confederate flag, which a lady of Columbia, South Carolina, sent me, with the request that I wear it upon my horse in a battle and return to her. Send it to her.” 
I was at a loss how to interpret these instructions; for I had never seen any such decoration upon his hat. But upon examining it the flag was found within its lining, stained with the sweat of his brow; and among his papers I found the letter which had conveyed the request. 
Again he said: “My spurs which I have always word in battle I promised to give to Mrs. Lilly Lee, of Shepherdstown, Virginia. My sword I leave to my son.” 
While I sat by his side the sound of cannon outside the city was heard. He turned to me eagerly and inquired what it meant. I explained that Gracy’s brigade and other troops had moved out against the enemy’s rear on the Brook turnpike and that Fitz Lee would endeavor to oppose their advance at Meadow Bridge. He turned his eyes upward, and exclaimed earnestly, “God grant that they may be successful.” Then he turned his head
aside, he said with a sigh, --- 
“But I must be prepared for another world.” 
The thought of duty was always uppermost in his mind; and after listening to the distant cannonading for a few moments, he said: “Major, Fitz Lee may need you.” I understood his meaning, and pressed his hand in a last farewell. 
As I left his chamber President Davis entered. Taking the general’s hand, he asked: “General, how do you feel?” 
He replied: “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.” 
The Reverend Mr. Peterkin visited him, and prayed with him. He requested Mr. Peterkin to sing “Rock of Ages,” and joined in the singing of the hymn. 
During the afternoon he asked Dr. Brewer whether it were not possible for him to survive the night. The doctor frankly told him that death was close at hand. He then said: 
“I am resigned if it be God’s will; but I would like to see my wife. But God’s will be done.” 
Again he said to Dr. Brewer: “I am going fast now; I am resigned. God’s will be done.” 
And thus he passed away.


Monday, May 11, 2015

“Bully for Gordon!” – Fighting at Ground Squirrel Church, May 11, 1864

While many people are familiar with the Battle of Yellow Tavern and the resultant mortal wounding of famed Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart, the hotly contested fighting that centered around Goodall’s Tavern and Ground Squirrel Church in Hanover County on the same day has received scant attention. This rear guard action pitted Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon’s Tarheel Brigade against some of the finest horse soldiers in the Army of the Potomac.
Less famous than his cousin John B. Gordon,
James Gordon was an excellent cavalry officer.

As Phil Sheridan’s troopers rode steadily towards Richmond on May 10th, they reached the Ground Squirrel Bridge on the South Anna River, 18 miles below Beaver Dam Station, around 4:00 p.m. After crossing his entire force, Sheridan ordered the bridge burned and posted the 1st Maine Cavalry along the south bank of the river while the rest of the troopers cooked supper and bedded down for the night.

Meanwhile Stuart, who had been in hot pursuit with around 4,500 men since May 9th, decided to roll the dice and split his force – Gordon’s brigade was tasked with following Sheridan and harassing his rear guard while two of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigades under Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham and Brig. Gen. Lunsford L. Lomax would hurry east to Hanover Junction on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and then descend the Telegraph Road to interdict the main Federal body along Mountain Road.

Shortly after sunrise on the 11th, Sheridan assembled his men and moved out, leaving Gen. David. McM. Gregg to picket the South Anna. Gregg was confident that he was untouchable because the bridge had been burned and he thought the river to be unfordable – thus when, Gordon’s troopers arrived on the scene he was unperturbed.
Map by Hal Jespersen

Gordon, however, knew that the safety of the Confederate capital could be at stake and had no time to worry about finding a safe spot to cross the river. The general simply picked a spot, yelled “Forward!” and plunged into the water, not knowing the depth. His men unhesitatingly followed. 

Once across, the steep bank caused great difficulty and according to a trooper in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry, “men were hurt trying to take their horses up that almost impossible bank.” Paul Means of the 5th realistically stated, “some were seriously hurt, but we were out there expecting to get hurt.”  

As soon as the Carolinians crossed the South Anna they ran into Gregg’s pickets. The 1st Maine Cavalry – purported to be the best cavalry unit in the entire army – was under orders to hold the crossing along with the 10th New York Cavalry while the rest of the column moved on.

After a few volleys from Gordon’s troopers, the Yankees broke for the rear, where they stampeded members of the 10th New York. N.D. Preston of that unit said “it was one of those unaccountable panics which sometimes seize bodies of men without cause.” One trooper who was desperate to get to safety grabbed the tail of a passing horse and allowed himself to be dragged to safety.

The Federals fell back to nearby Goodall’s Tavern, which was quickly turned into a formidable defensive position. The tavern and all of the outbuildings had sharpshooters in the windows ready to pick off Gordon’s men should they continue to advance.

The position appeared daunting, but Gordon decided to test the defenses and put the 1st North Carolina Cavalry in line and sent them up the Mountain Road, with the 5th North Carolina in support.

After an initial attempt to take the position, one Tarheel confessed, “We…could not dislodge them. The fight between the dismounted sharp-shooters lasted several hours.” Gordon quickly changed tactics, sending a mounted squadron of the 5th NC under Col. William H. Cheek around the right to flank the Federals, while he personally led the 1st NC in a frontal assault. The combat was brutal –“hand-to hand, saber to saber, in deadly close conflict,” said a trooper in the 5th NC – and the Federals were again pushed out of their position.

During this chaotic melee the Carolinians claimed that the bugler of the 1st North Carolina ripped the bugle out of the hands of the bugler for the 1st Maine and made the rest of his bugle calls on the captured trophy. Gregg, surveying the situation, exclaimed, “My God! Is the 1st Maine coming back?”

Ground Squirrel Church. Courtesy: Sandy Satterwhite
For a second time that day, the Federals fell back to a new position at Ground Squirrel Church, where they now had the luxury of artillery support.

A member of the 5th North Carolina later recalled:
One side or the other gives way quickly as did Sheridan's splendid soldiers before these two North Carolina regiments in those glorious charges and counter-charges at Ground Squirrel Church. We kept up the fight on their rear, pressing them hard continuously.
Gordon now threw everything he had into the fight, committing his reserves. These fresh troopers charged onto the field and drove away a mounted force of Yankee troopers who proved to be the last of the Federals, who were now heading south to catch up with the main body.

By the time the battle was over, the clash at Yellow Tavern had already begun. Gordon sent a courier to inform Stuart of the victory he had won, causing the general to bellow, “Bully for Gordon!” Reality settled back in with Stuart’s next words – “I wish he was here.”

Indeed, the fact that so many hard-fighting cavaliers were absent from the Yellow Tavern battlefield contributed to the shattering defeat suffered there. And as we all know, Stuart would fall mortally wounded, dying in Richmond on May 12th.

That same day Gen. Gordon was also mortally wounded at fighting along the Brook Pike outside of Richmond.