Saturday, February 4, 2017

On Many a Bloody Field by Alan D. Gaff

“Four Years in the Iron Brigade” is the subtitle here, and that’s a fair summary, this being essentially a regimental history of the 19th Indiana Volunteers, following that regiment and the men that comprised it through the four bloody years of the American Civil War.

And early on I had some concerns.

Resolved, That, from the troubled condition of our native land, and the possibility of a disgrace to the Flag we have worshipped as the emblem of Peace, Liberty and Justice, we believe it to be the duty of all American citizens to defend it, and more particularly, we who are in the prime of life, with none of the ties which bind those of more advanced age. We, therefore, resolve to tender our services to the Governor of the State of Indiana, in case our services are required, in the subjugation of those who have forgotten the noble blood of our revolutionary Fathers, which was spilled in the establishment of this, the greatest and freest government since the existence of man, and whose flag has been disgraced, for the first time, by those who should have died in its defense.

This is the text of a resolution, written by one and approved by all the members of one of the formative volunteer units that would soon be consolidated with others to become the 19th Indiana, and published in a local paper. Written and endorsed by idealistic young men who have never been to war, it is clearly written more for posterity than for the pressing realities of the present. And as I read it, early in Gaff’s narrative, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reporter Gaff would be. Would he follow this early example, emphasizing the patina of patriotic glory covering the historical events he would relate, or would he, as the young men in the 19th Indiana inevitably would, descend into the murky moralistic muck of actual war?

A hundred pages later, and the men of the 19th Indiana have not yet seen any real combat, navigating instead the politics of regimental organization and leadership. Here, when the Colonel forces out the elected Lieutenant Colonel for one of his “true friends,” the enlisted men pitch in to buy the departing officer a commemorative sword.

The regiment was formed in a hollow square with [Lieutenant Colonel Robert] Cameron, the Stars and Stripes, and the regimental colors in the middle. Sergeant George H. Finney, of Company H, came forward with the sword and made a few remarks:

“Accept this sword from your friends, through me. Wear it, and wherever it goes, let me assure you there is not a ‘wild Hoosier’ but will follow. May that blade ever be found fighting in defence of our glorious old banner, till not a rebel dare raise his arm to assail its sacred folds. May you be spared to see the end of this unparalleled war, and enjoy the blessings of that peace which your valor will have aided in establishing. May the ‘Red, White and Blue’ again flaunt joyously over city, town and hamlet, from the snow-capped hills of Maine to the golden plains of California--from the peninsula of Florida to the remotest bounds of Oregon. These our heart-felt prayers accompany this emblem of esteem. And when in coming years you gaze upon this trusty weapon, perchance dimmed by rust, remember that it is a token of kindly feeling from your fellow soldiers.”

Not bad for a few evidently extemporaneous remarks, eh?

Cameron graciously accepted the gift and, “filled with inexpressible emotions,” made the following reply:

“I feel doubly proud of this beautiful blade, coming, as it does, from one of the noblest bands of men any cause ever enlisted together--men who left their homes and firesides, their wives and little ones, and the idols of their souls, to rally around their country’s insulated flag, to render safe a time-honored Constitution and a glorious Union, who, despising all danger, all hunger, fatigue and cold, thought of nothing but how they could save their country.”

This, remember, to a group of men who had yet to experience any real combat. At this stage of the narrative, I’m still thinking about how Gaff is going to handle things when the bullets start flying around and through these men’s heads.

Now, given how long ago it happened, and given the frenetic pace of technological advancement in our current society, it is sometimes easy to forget that the Civil War itself was a time of tremendous progress and innovation. It was the first major war fought in which railroads played a key role in the movement of both men and material, for example, and that is an area of innovation in which the Union excelled. And before the 19th Indiana found itself in its first battle, the regiment played a small part in that much larger story.

The most formidable obstacle on the railroad line was at Potomac Creek, where the bridge had been burned [by retreating Confederates]. On May 1st [1862], ten men from each company in the 19th Indiana, the whole commanded by Lieutenant Benjamin Harter of Company K, reported for duty as bridge builders. Similar details were furnished by the 6th and 7th Wisconsin regiments [other regiments in what would come to be called the Iron Brigade]. Colonel [Herman] Haupt was unimpressed with his construction crew and complained that:

“many of the men were sickly and inefficient, others were required for guard duty, and it was seldom that more than 100 to 120 men could be found fit for service, of whom a still smaller number were really efficient, and very few were able or willing to climb about on ropes and poles at an elevation of eighty feet.”

Despite his untrained crew, lack of tools, and several days of wet weather, the Potomac Creek bridge was completed in less than two weeks.

Haupt’s bridge was an engineering marvel. It spanned a chasm nearly 400 feet wide and towered 80 feet above the creek’s surface. Built of unhewn trees and saplings cut in the neighboring woods, the bridge would carry ten to fifteen trains a day for several years. One engineer estimated that if all the timber were laid end to end it would stretch nearly seven miles. When President Lincoln saw the bridge while visiting [General Irvin] McDowell’s command, he declared it to be “the most remarkable structure that human eyes ever rested upon.” He also said that it appeared to be built entirely of “beanpoles and cornstalks.”

Engineering advances such as this were also reflected on the battlefields of the Civil War, where the artform of slaughtering men frequently reached an apogee never before approached. And actually experiencing this meatgrinder had a predictable effect on the soldiers who had mustered in with the heart-swelling expectations of glory and patriotism. And when it occurs, much to Gaff’s credit, he doesn’t shy away from this important and transformative part of the regiment’s history.

The 19th Indiana got their first taste of actual war at Brawner’s Farm in the Battle of Second Bull Run (or Manassas).

Both officers and enlisted men searched for some meaning to their first real combat experience, but there was none to be found. Their sacrifice had gained nothing for the cause. Consequently, indignation and ill will toward their generals, who had abandoned the Brawner Heights and allowed the enemy to occupy that position, became widespread. Major Rufus Dawes wrote bitterly, “The best blood of Wisconsin and Indiana was poured out like water, and it was spilled for naught.” Captain Patrick Hart called the affair “a useless slaughter of brave Indianians.” After listening to numerous tales by the Hoosiers, W. T. Dennis declared that [brigade commander General John] Gibbon’s losses were “damning evidences of the treachery or stupidity of [corps commander General Irvin] McDowell.” The soldiers expressed their own displeasure on the morning of August 29th [1862], when they greeted [division commander] General [Rufus] King with a chorus of groans and boos.

Welcome to war, lads. Even the generals who know what they’re doing (and many in the Civil War didn’t) can’t protect you from the shifting tides of battle. Indeed, it’s not even their job to protect you. It’s there job to use you--whether they know how or not--to stem tides that exist in the battlefields of both their war and their minds.

But, of course, it was worse than that.

Back on King’s abandoned battlefield, the glaring sun illuminated a ghastly spectacle on the morning of August 29th. The Brawner farmhouse and its outbuildings, now quite perforated with musket balls, sat as quiet sentinels overlooking the bloodstained land. Hundreds of bodies, clothed in both blue and butternut, lay scattered across the Virginia fields. In some places, a person could walk for several yards on the corpses. At a fence near the house, the bodies of several Hoosiers, now riddled with lead, hung on the rails where they had died. Even farm animals had been shot to death in their pens, while the bodies of rabbits and birds lay in the grass, innocent victims of the relentless musketry. Hundreds of wounded, overlooked during the night, groaned in pain and cried constantly for water. The stench of gunpowder and blood and human waste hung like a cloud over the battlefield. The sight was enough to sicken one’s soul.

Indeed. But it would actually get even worse than this. That was the scene on the morning after the battle. Let’s roll forward nine more days.

By that time the Bull Run battlefield was a horrid place. Looking out from the ambulances as they passed along, King’s men could see hundreds of unburied Union soldiers lying stark naked or stripped to their underclothing by the rebs. Ten days before they had been brave and jaunty soldiers. Now they lay “swollen, blistered, discolored to the blackness of Ethiopians in most instances, and emitting odors so thick and powerful that it seemed that they might have been felt by the naked hand.” Maggots crawled in their eyes, ears, mouths, noses and hideous wounds. Wounded Hoosiers must have considered themselves lucky indeed to have avoided such a fate.

Lucky? I suppose so. But I’m sure thoughts other than, “Gee, ain’t I Iucky,” occurred to some of those wounded and surviving soldiers. Thoughts about the utter random madness of it all.

A little more than ten months later, the men who survived Second Manassas would find themselves fighting 100 miles north at Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863, the 19th Indiana was heavily involved in battling Confederates on McPherson’s Ridge.

All the dead and badly wounded were necessarily left behind. [24th Michigan] Colonel [Henry] Morrow commended the neighboring Hoosiers, who “maintained their first line of battle, until their dead were so thick upon the ground that you might step from one dead body to another.” By now the entire color guard had been killed or wounded. As the regiment began to fall back, someone yelled to Lieutenant Macy that the flag was down. He shouted back, “Go and get it!” The reply was, “Go to hell, I won’t do it!” Macy and First Sergeant Crockett East, Company K, ran back and tried to put the blue silk flag in its case, but East was shot dead and fell on it. Macy pulled the stained silk from under East’s body and started up the hill. Burr Clifford, Company F, threw down his musket and accoutrements and took the flag, noticing that the banner had also fallen. He started back, but stopped to furl the colors so that “they would not make so conspicuous a mark.” Holding the state flag in his left hand and turning sideways to minimize his exposure, Clifford became the target for rebel muskets:

“almost instantly a Bullitt struck the staff below my hand an other struck my hat an other the left leg just cutting my pants below my knee, an other the right leg just above the knee cutting the pant, also two others cut the tail of my Blouse in the rear.”

Seeing no officer nearby, Clifford prudently started back up the hill with the state flag.

I know that many see heroic patriotism in stories like these--men fighting for the honor of carrying their regiment’s flag when doing so means almost certain death. But frankly, all I see is the utter madness of a mass psychosis. To my way of thinking, the rational mind resides in the man who said “Go to hell, I won’t do it!” All else is folly. But read on.

Sergeant Major Asa Blanchard had requested and been assigned the duty of detailing replacements from the ranks as color bearers fell, killed or wounded. The lieutenant colonel [William Dudley] saw this desperate situation and the “almost impossibility of getting men from the decimated ranks to discharge the fatal duty as fast as necessary” and ran to help. While Blanchard went after another volunteer, Dudley held the Stars and Stripes “long enough to meet the fate of all who touched it that day.” A minie ball struck Dudley’s right leg midway between ankle and knee, shattering the fibula. In a letter to Blanchard’s sister, Dudley described what followed:

“As I lay there with the staff in my hand your brother, his voice trembling with feeling, took the staff from my hand, and giving it to a soldier he had detailed, assisted me back from the line a few feet and said: ‘Colonel, you shouldn’t have done this. That was my duty. I shall never forgive myself for letting you touch that flag.’ He called to two slightly wounded soldiers and bade them get me out of the fire, and as he left he turned and smilingly said, “It’s down again, Colonel. Now it’s my turn.”

Two men dragged Dudley back over the crest, leaving a bloody smear form his leg in their wake. While removing the crippled officer, one of his bearers was struck by a ball that had glanced off Dudley’s side.

Imagine the scene. Like something out of a nightmare. Death swirling around in the air like supersonic hornets, men falling, bleeding, crying, dying all around, and amidst all the sound and the fury, Sergeant Major Asa Blanchard, smiling, and turning dutifully to face the unforgiving storm.


When Blanchard saw Burr Clifford walking up the ridge, he ran up, demanded to know why he was running away with the colors and snatched them from his hands. Asa unfurled the flag and began waving it vigorously. Private William R. Moore, Company K, now had the Stars and Stripes, but a bullet took off the index finger of his left hand. …

Blanchard was waving his flag and crying out “Rally, boys,” when a minie ball severed an artery in his groin. Burr Clifford stepped aside to avoid blood spurting from the wound and William Jackson, who stood next to Blanchard, watched in horror as his life gushed away. When Clifford reached for the flag, Blanchard managed to blurt out, “Don’t stop for me. Don’t let them have the flag.” Then with his dying breath, Asa murmured, “Tell mother I never faltered.”

There is madness here--a frenzied madness that can consume the patriotism and thirst for glory that young men bring with them to war and transform it into a kind of cultural hero worship, but it is madness all the same. The rational man is innately prejudiced against sacrificing his own life and taking the lives of others, but when thrown repeatedly into the kind of circumstances confronted by the men of 19th Indiana, those prejudices can be suppressed and replaced with a conviction of justice and reverence for the very acts once thought abhorrent.

But not all rational men will so succumb. After Chancellorsville (and before the events just described at Gettysburg), the men of the 19th Indiana had an experience that would test their limits of this understanding.

The victorious rebel army had started north, perhaps contemplating another invasion of Maryland, so the 19th Indiana was up and marching before daylight on June 12th [1863]. Despite the urgency of their march, after lunch the entire division formed up to witness an exceptional sight. Private John P. Woods, Company F, 19th Indiana, was to be shot to death with musketry. He had been found guilty of desertion for running away on the morning the Iron Brigade charged across the river at Fitzhugh Crossing. This was his third such offense. He had deserted first at Rappahannock Station on August 20, 1862, and remained absent until November 17th. His second absence occurred at Fredericksburg, but he had managed to convince a court-martial of his innocence. He would not run away again.

Shocking, isn’t it? Running away in the face of the enemy. Three times! Clearly a coward. Someone to make an example of. As reported, he had been tried by a second court-martial, and this one had found him guilty.

Private Woods offered no testimony in his defense, although he did make an oral statement:

“The reason I left the regiment before crossing the river near Fredericksburg was because I did not want to go in a fight. I cant fight. I cannot stand it to fight. I am ashamed to make the statement, but I may as well do it now as at any other time. I never could stand a fight. I never could bear to shoot any body. I have done my duty in every way but fight. I have tried to do it but cannot. I am perfectly willing to work all my lifetime for the United States in any other way but fight. I have tried to do it but cannot. I went to my doctor when I left the regiment and wanted him to give me a pass and I would go and work and wait on the wounded in the hospital. he told me that he guessed he had enough. I had better go on and try to do my duty. he said he would see about it. I could not find out where the hospital was. he had not stationed it. then after a while I came to the conclusion I would try to go home. I started to go to Aquia Creek landing and got lost on my way and got outside of our picket lines, out by Stafford Court House. I met the pickets there and came on to our own pickets and gave myself up. I had been acquainted in Tennessee and I gave myself up as a rebel. I made the statement for fear they would think I was a bushwhacker. then I was sent on under arms until they received me here. I am willing to do all I could do for my country. I like it as much as anybody does. I was always willing to try to fight for my country, but I never could. I am willing to try to fight for it again. I am ashamed of my conduct and will always try to do better hereafter.”

I don’t know what you see here, but I see a man of rational conscience, doing the best he can under extremely trying circumstances. I know that when the world has gone mad with something--with war, in the case, but often with other things as well--it is the people who stand apart that seem to be the crazy ones. But they are not. Just because your government and your society tells you it is okay to kill people, it does not make it so. The way most people are wired, with those kind of permissions granted, they’ll take up the gun and blaze away, likely to feel horrible remorse when the deed is done. Others will adamantly refuse, and damn the consequences, knowing that they are sane and the world around them is crazy. And others still, probably the lowest percentage all, others like Private John P. Woods, Company F, 19th Indiana, will simply and innocently just be incapable of the violence required of them.

Often, how a man like this meets his death is as illustrative to those around him as the way he had tried to lead his life.

The prisoner was turned over to Clayton Rogers, [division commander General James] Wadsworth’s provost marshal, who found Woods to be “a simple-minded soldier, without any force or decision of character.” Chaplain Samuel Eaton, 7th Wisconsin, spent June 11th with the condemned man and found him to be holding up well. Eaton wrote, “His firmness, composure and naturalness is astonishing. He does not complain or whine or cry; says he is not afraid to die.” The chaplain kindly gave Woods seven small tracts to read, so that his father and each of his brothers and sisters could have a memento after his death. While Reverend Eaton talked with Woods, the provost marshal assembled a guard detail, put together a twelve-man firing party and had a rude coffin constructed.

When Wadsworth’s division marched on the 12th, Woods, handcuffed and with shackles on his feet, rode behind in an ambulance. After completing their noon meal …

The needs of the living ever present even in the very face of death.

… the Iron Brigade and Lysander Cutler’s brigade marched into position around a hastily dug grave and the soldiers stacked arms. General Wadsworth and his staff, all mounted, waited for the prisoner, while curious men …

Oddly curious about this death among the thousands of others they had undoubtedly witnessed.

… from other commands collected outside the formation. His coffin was placed by the grave, then Woods stepped down from the ambulance and knelt in prayer with the chaplain for a few minutes. Moving with a “sturdy step” to his coffin, he took off his hat, placed it upon the ground and sat down on the rough wooden box. Woods asked that he not be blindfolded, but Lieutenant Roger said it must be done …

For whose benefit, I wonder, the condemned or those who condemned him?

… and tied a handkerchief around his head. The condemned man’s last view of this world was of twelve stern-faced men with muskets, his executioners.

This firing party “manifested more uneasiness than the criminal.” The twelve men were addressed by Wadsworth, then received their muskets, one of which contained a blank charge. This would, in theory, allow each man to imagine that he had fired a blank round, but experienced troops could easily tell the difference. …

And who but experienced troops are put into a firing squad? Shooting a fellow soldier is not generally something they asked you to do on your first day in the army. And if experienced, why bother with the blank round subterfuge? Don’t they all agree Woods deserves to die? Perhaps more or perhaps less than Johnny Reb.

… As they filed into line thirty feet in front of their target, the firing party must have been impressed with Woods’s composure. Others certainly were. Jeff Wasson said “he took it very cool” and a 7th Indiana man remembered, “He seemed to be as calm as though his end was not so near.” A Badger noticed that Woods sat on his coffin “as one would take a seat before a camera.” Sergeant Sullivan Green, 24th Michigan, thought he detected a slight shudder after Lieutenant Rogers tied the blindfold, but no other soldier mentioned any similar reaction.

As Rogers gave the command, “Ready!” one Badger imagined, “What a moment it must have been to the unfortunate victim who heard that awful click, the prelude to the last sound he was to hear on earth!” At the command, “Aim!” Woods did not move a muscle. When Lieutenant Rogers commanded “Fire!” eight muskets …

Eight? Why not twelve?

… on the right of the line roared an answer and Woods toppled backwards over his coffin. But the firing party had aimed low, only four bullets hitting him, and he still lived. The next two men advanced to within three feet and administered the coup de grace. Wadsworth’s medical director examined Woods and pronounced him dead. The lifeless corpse was lifted into its coffin, placed in the hole and covered over with dirt.

Poignant. And clearly affecting to those who witnessed it. But here’s where the story gets really interesting.

There was a strong reaction to Woods’s execution. Lieutenant George Breck, an officer in the division artillery, wrote: “Better a thousand times that he should have fallen on the battlefield than have fallen in this ignoble way.” A 7th Indiana man meditated: “In perfect health and with his friends and the next minute in eternity. What a warning, let us hope that not very many of those who witnessed the execution needed such a warning.” Another Hoosier wrote that it was a “very useful” example since desertions were so common. Jeff Wasson prefaced his description of the event by stating: “I hope never to witness the like again while in the service.”

Rumors about the affair began circulating almost immediately. One the 14th Brooklyn boys remembered:

“It was said that Wood had a wife at home, back in Indiana, who was lying desperately ill. As he marched he brooded over the possibility of her dying without seeing him again. He applied for a furlough, but the furlough was refused to him. The more he brooded, the more he determined to see her at all costs. He therefore deserted, expecting to return to his duty afterwards.”

Orville Thompson of the 7th Indiana heard a different story: “The sympathetic part came in an hour later when his aged father came to head-quarters bringing a pardon signed by President Lincoln.” Another version of this story told of an officer and citizen arriving just five minutes after the execution with a message from Lincoln commuting the sentence of death to life imprisonment. Yet a third variation claimed that an officer arrived with a reprieve just as Woods had expected to hear the command to fire. He fell back upon his coffin, “apparently dead,” but the great strain and instant release had left him “a hopeless maniac.” This last version claimed that the whole event, “a fearful ordeal for the deserter,” had been staged to make an impression upon the brigade. These rumors seemed to exonerate Woods, making his death some sort of huge mistake by the army bureaucrats.

This reveals a fascinating psychology. First, madness destroys the wisdom it finds in its midst, and then it struggles to reconcile the magnitude of its crime.

Eventually, of course, wisdom prevails over madness--a kind of earned wisdom that apparently requires the crucible of madness to be acquired. In the end, Gaff summarizes this earned wisdom well, with only a touch of hyperbole. The war is over, and the surviving members of that first volunteer unit, the Richmond City Greys, are going home.

As their train pulled out of the Indiana Central depot and headed for Richmond, the returning soldiers could not help but think back to when the City Greys started for Indianapolis to save the nation from Southern rebels. What a difference four years had made on them. In 1861 these volunteers had no inkling of what this war would be like. Their knowledge of war was confined to books that had glorified America’s previous conflicts, fanciful patriotic engravings, and tales of neighbors who had served briefly in the Mexican War. These naive recruits were stirred by the sight of prancing horses and plumed hats, accompanied by the squeaking of fifes and the beating of drums. The boys were in the prime of their lives, eager to prove themselves in this greatest of adventures. There was glory to be won and the train ride from Richmond to Indianapolis seemed liked the beginning of a holy crusade against traitors who sought to destroy the country.

These weary men must surely have smiled at that recollection of their youthful enthusiasm in 1861. Four years later, these veterans of the Iron Brigade were well aware of the cost of winning the war and preserving the nation. They had charged time after time into musketry hotter than a thousand Julys, had spit repeatedly in Death’s face and had somehow, miraculously, emerged alive from the trauma that gutted a generation of American youth. They had seen firsthand the waste, the overwhelming waste of human life and property and resources. Historians would later write of glory, but the soldiers, from a unique perspective gained with the burial parties, saw only murder on a massive scale.

Murder on a massive scale. If only current and future generations could approach the prospect of war with the wisdom seemingly only gained by those who have survived it.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment