Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Two Views of McClellan from Soldiers in the 85th PA

General George Brinton McClellan
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
      The standard view of Union General George B. McClellan is that he had good organizational skills but was a poor field general. For the first six months or so when he was in charge of the Union army in 1861-62, McClellan was very popular with his troops, including the 85th Pennsylvania regiment. As they trekked up the Virginia peninsula in the spring of 1862, morale was high and a quick victory was anticipated. The prevailing view was not IF Richmond fell but WHEN. McClellan's leadership was thought to be a key component of an impending Union victory in the war.
      This positive view of "Little Mac" was shared by most of the men of the 85th Pennsylvania until McClellan unfairly shamed them (and the rest of their division led by General Silas Casey) for allegedly retreating like cowards at Seven Pines (VA) on May 31, 1862. Of course Casey's outnumbered troops had held off a substantial Confederate attack for several hours until help arrived, but this information never got to McClellan, who made his rash statement mainly based on the report of III Corps General Samuel Heintzelman.
      Heintzelman, who was in charge of McClellan's two corps on the south side of the Chickahominy River that day when the Confederates attacked, apparently needed a scapegoat for being unprepared for the rebel offensive. General Casey became a convenient patsy. 
      The 85th Pennsylvania, in Casey's division (of Erasmus Keyes' IV Corps) was stationed far in front of the rest of Heintzelman's command,  with flanks exposed. Casey's Division was McClellan's least experienced division, decimated by disease. Why McClellan would place them at the front of his 120,000 may army, just three miles from his goal of Richmond, the Confederate capital, is a mystery. Casey's men became an inviting target for General Joseph Johnston and his Confederate troops. 
Headstone of Private Joseph Wilgus
Company B     85th PA
Seven Pines National Cemetery
       On the day of the attack, Casey's men were outnumbered at least 2-to-1, maybe 3-to-1. Yes, Casey's men eventually did retreat, but only after holding off the rebels for several hours in time for Union reinforcements to arrive. They actually helped save McClellan from a disastrous defeat. Had Johnston's plan worked, he would have had 3-2 numerical advantage over McClellan on the south side of the Chickahominy River. Plus a heavy downpour the night before the attack had swelled the Chickahominy River, making it doubtful McClellan would be able to have more troops cross the river to reinforce his two corps under Heintzelman's command. McClellan was fortunate not to have suffered a devastating loss.  
       On the second day of the two-day battle, which ended with no decisive winner, McClellan informed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that all of his troops had fought hard, with the exception of Casey's Division. Relying on Heintzelman's cover-my-rear-end assessment, McClellan said Casey's men "had given way unaccountably and discreditably." As if to emphasize his words, McClellan later stated in the same report, "With the exception of Casey's division, our men behaved splendidly." 
         McClellan's report, which went public on June 2 was based on Heintzelman's input. Besides Casey and Keyes who immediately voiced strenuous objections to the report, the press began to be seriously question McClellan's unjust claims. This prompted McClellan to backtrack two weeks after the battle, stating, "My dispatch...was based upon official statements made to me before I arrived on the battle-field...From statements made to me subsequently...I am induced to believe that portions of the division behaved well and made a most gallant stand against superior numbers..." 
          For the regiments involved like the 85th Pennsylvania, it was a case of too little, too late. Casey was soon sacked and spent the rest of the war in Washington, DC.
         Coupled with McClellan's retreat from the Virginia peninsula a month later following the Seven Days' Battles, McClellan's reputation within the ranks of the 85th Pennsylvania took a severe hit.
        Lieutenant John E. Michener of Company D, once a staunch supporter, of Little Mac, had this to say in a letter written home several months after the battle. Michener wrote the following to his brother and sister back home in Fredericktown, Washington County in August of 1862.
Lieutenant John E. Michener

           "Madam rumor says that Burnside is likely to relieve McClellan of his command. Altho' I have ever been a friend of McClellan's, vindicating him whenever assailed, I have now lost confidence in him, believing him to be unequal for the great task before him. My ardent attachment to him had blinded my eyes to all his blundering errors of the past. Ye Gods! What has he done? Visit the rude cabins from Newport News to the Chickahominy Swamp and there view innumerable mounds --the unmarked spots, where rest the remains of patriotic soldiers! Then go to the battlefields of Fair Oaks [Seven Pines], Mechanicsville, White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, and as you gave upon the bleaching bones of the brave men that gave their lives to their County, you will have an answer! I am in favor of a man who is for a vigorous prosecution of this war. Pope and Burnside have both proven themselves active generals, and I would prefer being under either of them."

          On the other hand, one man in the 85th Pennsylvania who stayed loyal to McClellan was Sergeant Marquis Lafayette Gordon of Company H. Gordon penned the following brief story several decades after the war.
          Part of Gordon's allegiance was political. Gordon's family back home in Greene County, PA, were loyal Democrats. Gordon's father, John, had run for county school superintendent several times as a Democrat. McClellan eventually ran against Abraham Lincoln as the candidate of the Democrat Party in the election of 1864 and lost, although he carried Gordon's home county of Greene County.
          Part of Gordon's fealty may also have been that he missed the Battle of Seven Pines while recovering from a disease in a New York City hospital.
           Nonetheless, here is a vignette  imparted by Gordon as to McClellan's affection for the common soldier. The article was published about seven months after McClellan's death in October of 1885. It ironically was also published within a few days of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Pines.
         The article was entitled, "McClellan's Kindness." Gordon rejoined his regiment at the beginning of August. The 85th regiment crossed the Chickahominy River on August 16, and General McClellan and his staff passed by on August 19.

Sergeant M.L. Gordon

          "Reference is frequently made to the peculiar personal attachment which General McClellan’s troops had for him. The following incident may be worthy of record as illustrating one of the causes of this attachment:
         “In August, 1862, during the march of the Army of the Potomac, from Harrison’s Landing to Fort Monroe. The 85th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers was halted midday just before crossing the pontoon bridge across the Chickahominy. It was extremely hot, and the road very dusty. A group of tired soldiers flung themselves on the ground to rest, not knowing they were on the leeward side of the road.
         "Presently the clanking of sabers told of the approach of a body of mounted men. Just as they reached us the leader drew up and said quietly: “Better cross to the other side lads, or you will be covered with dust.”
         "It was a slight act, but it showed that the commander of the army – for such we recognized him to be, just as he and his staff moved on – was not indifferent to the comfort of the humblest soldier.”

Monday, May 18, 2020

Musician William Barker of Company B

Waynesburg (PA) Messenger     July 17, 1867
          The subject of the unfortunate accident mentioned in the news article above is a former member of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment, William J. Barker. The accident highlights several ironies in Barker's life.
         Barker enlisted into Company B of the 85th Pennsylvania as a 16-year old drummer boy in the fall of 1861, He was a musician in the company along with 18-year old fife player Eli Crumrine.
Unidentified Civil War Drummer   LOC
Although a great majority of the soldiers from Company B came from Washington County, Barker was one of a handful of men in the unit from the town of Brownsville in Fayette County.
       Barker's date of enlistment is October 11, 1861. This relatively late date may be the reason he had not joined the already established Company C of Captain John C. Wilkinson, which was composed of boys and men mostly from Brownsville and the surrounding area.
      Barker survived the war and returned home to Brownsville three years later while still in his teens at the end of 1864.
         Barker had been born in Chester County, PA in 1845 to parent Matthew and Jane. At some point prior the outbreak of the war, the family moved across the state to Brownsville. Following the war, Barker returned to Brownsville and worked as a glass blower but soon headed to Pittsburgh where he spent most of his life. He was engaged in various artistic professions for the next several decades, including work in glass art and editing an art publication. In the last few decades of his life, he found work as a machinist.
        Barker died in 1910 and is buried in the Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Mexican War six-pound cannon     LOC
The first irony surrounding the Fourth of July accident in 1867 shortly after the war had to do with the cannon itself. It had been brought back to Brownsville as a war prize confiscated during the Mexican War (1846-1848).
    Another news article of the accident, this from a Pittsburgh newspaper, offers more information about Barker's mishap.
Pittsburgh Daily Commercial      July 15, 1867

         Although this article states that Barker's injuries were potential fatal, he survived the event and lived another 53 years. Also, his partner in the event, William Norcross, is mistakenly mentioned as a former member of the 85th Pennsylvania. Norcross was 50 years old at the time of the accident and may have been a Mexican War veteran,but he was not a former member of Barker's regiment. 
       The end of this article mentions that a similar explosion occurred 18 years earlier on the same spot of ground. That accident killed Samuel Austin, a Mexican War veteran and a former member of the Second Pennsylvania Volunteers. 
         James Hadden offered more information about Austin's war record and this first accident in his history of his hometown entitled A History of Uniontown (1913).  It is not stated, although perhaps probable, that the same cannon was involved in both accidents.

          This article mentions the site of the accident as Brubaker Hill. At this location was a tavern that was a stopover for travelers along Route 40. It is located near the present site of a Dairy Queen and Dollar General store. It is also close to the Redstone Cemetery, where several veterans of the 85th Pennsylvania are buried. 
        The second irony involves the manner of Barker's death in Pittsburgh in 1910. After surviving the war and the cannon accident, Barker died as the result of another accident at the age of 65. The manner of his death is recounted in the following obituary.

Pittsburgh Daily Post   2-10-1910

Monday, May 11, 2020

Private Henry K. Atchison of Company G

Canning Jar by Henry K. Atchison
Circa 1860
Courtesy of

From the 1890 Veterans Schedule
Special Census of Civil War Veterans
           About 20 or so members of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment suffered the amputation of an arm or leg during the war. One who did and survived was Henry K. Atchison of Company G, who suffered the loss of his right arm in 1864. Atchison did not suffer from a gunshot wound; his arm was not cut off by a doctor. His arm was instantly detached by an artillery shell while Atchison was sitting calmly in camp.
        Atchison was born in 1820 and was 41 years of age when he enlisted into the 85th Pennsylvania in 1861. Like his colonel, Joshus B. Howell, Atchison was born in New Jersey. His parents were Robert and Jane Parshall Atchison. While growing up Henry learned the pottery trade from his father. [Samuel Bates, History of Greene County, 762-3]
        At age 35, he moved to New Geneva, PA in Fayette County and continued his trade for the next six years. He lived in Butler County, PA before moving to Greene County just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in Company G, a unit from Greene County, that eventually became part of Howell's 85th regiment.
        Atchison was nearing the end of his three-year enlistment when he was wounded. The regiment spent the summer stationed in the Bermuda Hundred peninsula of Virginia between the James and Appomattox Rivers south of Richmond.
       In August of 1864, they had just returned to their camp near Ware Bottom Church from a grueling week-long campaign north of the James River that culminated in the Second Battle of Deep Bottom that resulted in scores of casualties in the regiment.
      Just three days after their return, they were ordered to march to the Petersburg,VA front upon the orders of General Benjamin Butler of the Army of the James. When the regiment got there in late August, they prepared to attack the Petersburg defenses but the attack was called off. They instead were sent to Fort Morton, perhaps a mile from the famous Battle of the Crater where one month earlier, Union forces ignited a massive explosion beneath a Confederate position but failed in the follow-up assault to pierce the enemy position.
Fort Morton   LOC
        Fort Morton was perhaps less than a mile from the Crater across a valley, In the valley was a stream where soldiers from both sides would meet and exchange items during lulls in the shelling.
     Colonel Howell described the position in a letter to his family. " we are in front of the celebrated city of Petersburgh. My command is a mile and a quarter from the city. The steeples of the churches and the clock are plainly in sight of my forts. The celebrated Burnside mine and crater are directly in front of us. About 300 yards from us are two of my forts. We are under heavy fire of artillery and musketry the entire day and night --shell and ball (rifle and artillery) fly about headquarters with a 'perfect looseness.' An orderly's horse was shot this morning just in front of my quarters. A shell exploded over my quarters about 30 paces beyond it in front whilst I was asleep yesterday morning." [Book of John Howell and His Descendants, Volume II, 452]
     Indeed their position seemed to be perilous. Two privates, John Cairney and Joseph Banks, were struck with the same bullet from a Confederate sharpshooter as they were delivering food to the soldiers on the picket line.
      There are several versions of Atchison's wounding which occurred on September 1, 1864 that all basically tell the same story. The first comes from Sergeant M.L. Gordon who was a member of Atchison's company
         "We were right in front of the mine that had exploded a few weeks before. Here firing was going on almost all the time, day and night. Our camp was in easy range of the enemy's guns. One day I was standing in camp, talking to a friend named Myers Titus, when a cannon-ball came over, struck in a tent near us, where 'Skeety' Atkinson [sic] was writing, cut his arm off near the shoulder, and passed on between my friends and me as we were talking."  [M.L. Gordon, Experiences in the Civil War, 20]
        Regimental historian Luther S. Dickey recorded that, "...on September 1, Private Henry K. Atchison of Company G, while sitting in camp making our muster rolls, had an arm shot off by a solid shot or unexploded shell from the enemy's artillery." [Dickey, History of the Eighty-Fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, 374]
        A soldier from another regiment in their brigade, Homer Plimpton of the 39th Illinois, mentioned Atchison's wounding in his journal. " old man of the 85th Pa. was struck in the shoulder by a fragment of a shell while making out company payroll in the captain's tent. The arm was so shattered that it hung merely by the nerve and artery and a small bridge of integument. It was removed at the shoulder joint and although he was sixty years of age [actually 44] he bids fair to make a good recovery." [The Civil War Journals of Col. Homer A. Plimpton, John L. Dodson, ed. 2012, p . 354]
      Atchison survived the wound. He was a prominent potter prior to the war. Several of his pre-war creations have recently been sold at online auctions for thousands of dollars.They can be seen here,  here and here.
       Atchison began receiving a government pension for the loss of his arm in 1874. By 1883, he was receiving a payment of $24 per month.
        After the war, he is still listed as a potter in the 1870 census. More likely is that he was either running the family business or training two of his sons in the trade. Sons James and Henry are listed as potters still living with their parents.


        Ten years later, Atchison is listed in the census as a "U.S. Storekeeper," [below] a government position that often went to soldiers who had suffered from amputations in the war. A third son, Charles,was now listed as a potter.


        Atchison died in 1893 at the age of 73 and is buried in the Monongahela Hill Cemetery in Greensboro, PA in Greene County.
Headstone Application


Monday, May 4, 2020

The 85th Pennsylvania and the Peninsula Campaign


Map by Hal Jespersen
     [NOTE: The participation of the 85th Pennsylvania is described in more detailed fashion in a Chapter 4 of my book, "Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War."
          I am also currently chronicling the 85th Pennsylvania during the Peninsula Campaign on my Facebook blog called "85th Pennsylvania Civil War Page." That blog  follows the regiment on a day to day basis.]

          The Peninsula Campaign was the costliest military campaign in which the 85th Pennsylvania was ever involved. Seventy-eight men died during the approximately four-month operation from April to early July of 1862. Two thirds of the deaths resulted from diseases. Another seventy-two men were medically discharged and sent home.
General George B. McClellan   LOC
          After initially being stationed in Washington, DC in 1861-62, the 85th Pennsylvania sailed away from the nation's capital in the spring of 1862 to participate in the Peninsula Campaign. This was General George B. McClellan's grand effort to capture the Confederate capital city of Richmond, VA by executing an amphibious landing at Fort Monroe and marching up the Virginia peninsula between the James and York rivers towards their objective seventy miles away.
        Due to McClellan's delays, misjudgment of the enemy strength and the emergence of Robert E. Lee as the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union campaign ended in failure. McClellan withdrew his army from the peninsula in July of 1862. It took two years for the Union to once again threaten the capital city of the Confederacy.
       The Peninsula Campaign had long-term repercussions, mainly the cold realization for the Union that the war would not end quickly. President Lincoln called for a draft in which the states would provide 300,000 additional troops to subdue the rebellion.
       The Peninsula Campaign would comprise a series of battles beginning with the Yorktown siege and Battle of Williamsburg in early May, at Seven Pines and then the Seven Days Battles. The 85th Pennsylvania was heavily involved in the first-day fighting at Seven Pines but sent to the rear for the ensuing Seven Days Battles. Finally, the 85th Pennsylvania was among the Union regiment which were tasked with helping guard McClellan's retreat to Harrison's Landing in July.
       At the outset, the march up the peninsula took its toll on McClellan's army. This was especially true for the regiments (including the 85th) of General Silas Casey's Division of Erasmus Keyes' IV Corps. Casey's Division was the most inexperienced in McCellan's army, not yet fully trained when they left Washington, DC. Casey's men lacked basic supplies for weeks and often had to haul supplies over rain-soaked and muddy roads.
       The 85th regiment marched out of Newport News at the bottom of the peninsula on April 16 and
Soldiers Assisting with Lowe's Balloon    LOC
were soon encamped at Camp Winfield Scott near Warwick Court House. They were stationed here for two weeks on McClellan's left flank while Union forces prepared for a siege of Yorktown, famous of being the site of the British defeat at the hands of George Washington's Continental Army in 1781 that effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Immediately upon arriving at Warwick Court House, Company A of the 85th Pennsylvania was detailed to help Professor Thaddeus Lowe launch his observation balloon on April 17.
         McClellan finally struck at Yorktown on May 4, only to find the much smaller Confederate force had abandoned the fortification the previous night. As the Confederates were marching away from Yorktown,  Union forces caught up to their rearguard. The Battle of Williamsburg ensued on May 5. During this battle, casualties numbered 4000 (2300 on the Union side).With Colonel Joshua B. Howell of the 85th Pennsylvania replacing the severely ill brigade leader General William Keim, the regiment was called into a line of attack in a reserve role. Although they stayed aligned in formation during a cold night of freezing rain and were targeted by Confederate artillery, the regiment was not called upon to enter the battle. Two of their men were wounded by shells; one (Sergeant Daniel Miller of Company K, the regiment's first man to fall in battle) fatally.
         The IV Corps of General Erasmus Keyes, which included the divisions of Casey and Darius Couch, continued towards Richmond and crossed the Chickahominy River in late May. The III Corps of Samuel Heintzelman soon followed. While the III Corps stayed close to the Chickahominy, Keyes' Corps advanced. Couch's Division established a camp at Seven Pines; Casey's Division advance another 3/4 of a mile and set up a camp at Fair Oaks. Why McClellan would place his smallest and least-experienced division at the vanguard of his army just three miles from Richmond in an exposed position remains a mystery.
      Noting the vulnerable position of McClellan's split army, Confederate General Joseph Johnston decided to attack the two Union corps on the last day of May following a torrential rainstorm that swelled the Chickahominy. This would make it difficult or perhaps impossible for McClellan to reinforce Keyes and Heintzelman across the suddenly fast-moving waters of the  Chickahominy.
Map by Hal Jespersen 
     Despite being severely reduced by disease and being outnumbered 2-to-1 or 3-to-1, Casey's Division valiantly held off the Confederates for 2-3 hours before being enveloped on three sides and retreating. For this they were severely rebuked by McClellan, who was far behind the fight hobbled by an attack of malaria. But because of the effort of Casey's men, the Union had time to get additional men into the fight from across the Chickahominy that stabilized the field for the Union and kept the Confederates from swallowing up nearly half of McClellan's army.   
        The two-day battle of Seven Pines ended with no decisive winner. It did result in 11,000 casualties, mostly on the Confederate side. It was the largest battle in the East up until that time and the closest ever fought near Richmond.
        Casey's Division, which took more casualties than any other Union division on the first day of the fight,was sent to the rear for the next month. Silas Casey, erroneously scapegoated for retreating on the first day, was replaced by John J. Peck.
       For three weeks, the 85th Pennsylvania was stationed on McClellan's extreme left near White Oak Swamp. The had no tents or knapsacks, which were left behind at Seven Pines. Scores of men got sick in this environment and many died. Camp hospitals were filled; their doctors were called away to help with the wounded from the Seven Days Battles. The 85th Pennsylvania did no fighting during the Seven Days Battles; instead they were tasked with several reconnaissance missions and with digging entrenchments, They were in a reserve role for the final encounter Malvern Hill.
       When McClellan decided to abandon the peninsula, his army was ordered to march from Malvern Hill to Harrison's Landing for the withdrawal. Peck's division was tasked with guarding the withdrawal. The irony did not escape the 85th Pennsylvania and other regiments from Casey's former command. Once shamed for retreating from Seven Pines,  it was now their task to monitor the retreat of the rest of McClellan's huge army.
    The 85th Pennsylvania, now part of a brigade led by General Henry Wessells who was named Keim's permanent replacement, marched back down the peninsula to Hampton, VA. While the rest of McClellan's army was shipped to northern Virginia for the Battle of Second Bull Run, Wessells' Brigade was sent to Suffolk, VA where they spent the next four months.
Union Retreat from Harrison's Landing, VA
Frank Leslie's Illustrated


Monday, April 27, 2020

Captain John A. Gordon of Greene County

Lt. John Adam Gordon
from M.L.Gordon's Experiences in the Civil War

         In 1861, Greene County, Pennsylvania School Superintendent John Adam Gordon was committed to developing news schools and helping to establish a teacher's college when the Civil War broke out. As a pro-Union member of the Democrat party, he resigned from his school position and went organizing a company of soldiers that included
John A. Gordon
his son, Marquis Lafayette Gordon. His troop paraded through the streets of Waynesburg before marching on to the training camp of the 85th Pennsylvania, established at Camp Lafayette in nearby Uniontown, Fayette County. 
     Gordon and his son probably assumed that, as long as they were not wounded or killed, that they would serve together throughout the Civil War. But although both survived the conflict, they actually spent little time together due to shifting responsibilities.
      When Captain Gordon's company arrived at Uniontown to enlist and train, it turned out his unit of about 50 men was too small to sustain a full company, so they were combined with another small company from Fayette County. In this new grouping, Isaac M. Abraham would be the captain and Gordon would serve as his lieutenant.
        After a few months of being stationed at Fort Good Hope near Washington, DC, Lieutenant Gordon was sent back home for recruiting duty at Brownsville, Fayette County in the spring of 1862.

M.L. Gordon
Experiences in the Civil War
         While Lieutenant Gordon was away, his son Sergeant Marquis "Mark" Gordon explained in his postwar memoir, the young man became ill in early May on the Virginia peninsula, spent time in a New York City hospital and did not rejoin his regiment until July. By that time, his father had been transferred out of the 85th Pennsylvania on a semi-permanent basis.
         Wrote Mark, "[My father] returned to the regiment about the end of May, expecting to see me, as he had heard nothing of my sickness. Colonel [Joshua B.] Howell met him with his usual smile, telling him what a splendid soldier I was proving myself to be. When my father told him I was not with the regiment, the colonel was somewhat taken aback. My father was with the regiment at the battle of Fair Oaks [Seven Pines] and through the Seven Days Battles [and] on the retreat to Harrison's Landing. A part of this time he was command of Company I. He knew nothing of me until he saw my name in the list of soldiers taken to New York, and the people of Waynesburg heard nothing either, so some thought I was dead, and I made quite a sensation when I got home."

       Lieutenant Gordon had returned to the regiment in time to participate in the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, which Mark Gordon had missed due to his illness. The division leader of the 85th Pennsylvania, General Silas Casey, was unfairly blamed for his men's retreat on the first day of the battle. He was replaced as division commander by General John J. Peck. 
     Mark Gordon continued, "A few days after I got back to the regiment, my father was placed in charge of the Ambulance Corps of General J. J. Peck's division. This made him a staff officer, his designation being 'Acting Assistant Adjutant General of the Ambulance Corps.' The position was a good one, giving him a horse and easier duties but was not quite so much as the high-sounding name would imply. As he did not really return to duty with my company until the last few months of the expiration of our term of service [in November, 1864], it will be seen that, although we were in the same company and regiment we really served together for only a very short time. He was often near us for quite a long while at a time, so I had many pleasant rides on his horse."
        A clerical error  nearly caused John A. Gordon to be sent to prison as a deserter in early 1863. With then 85th Pennsylvania stationed on Folly Island and Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina, Lieutenant Gordon had remained at Suffolk with Peck's division. Colonel Howell of the 85th Pennsylvania made a strong request that Gordon be returned to his regiment.
        While Howell's request was being processed by the War Department, Confederate General James Longstreet made several movements towards Suffolk. General Peck's medical director requested that Gordon remain in Suffolk for the time being.
    When Gordon did return to the 85th Pennsylvania a few weeks late, he found that he had been mistakenly listed as
Civil War Ambulance Wagon
National Tribune  3-5-1903  
"absent without leave."  He was set to be court martialed and tried for desertion. But the court martial was overturned by General Quincy Gillmore and President Lincoln, and Gordon quietly returned to the 85th Pennsylvania.
      Later in 1863, Gordon was commissioned to captain.
       John A. Gordon performed one more voluntary service before returning home. As most of the regiment went home in November of 1864 at the end of their three-year enlistments, Captain Gordon was one of 55 men who took part in a special two-month duty. They served as guards for a large-scale prisoner exchange between Point Lookout, Maryland and Savannah, Georgia. Most of the Union prisoners with whom they sailed to the North were in extremely poor physical condition. Gordon may have volunteered because of his familiarity with sick soldiers from his duties in Peck's ambulance corps.

        Prior to the war, Gordon was elected the first Greene County school superintendent in 1854. His first order of business was to take an inventory of schools throughout the county, He determined that Greene County had 154 public schools, almost all one-room school houses, then called common schools. The schools included 167 teachers, ninety percent of whom were males.
Early Pennsylvania School House     LOC
          During John A.Gordon's first three-year term, 30 more schools were built that would provide education for "several hundred" more students than in 1854. His four goals were obtaining state funds to defray costs, more visitations to the schools, higher cooperation of parents, and higher quality teachers. Gordon set as a goal keeping the schools open for four months per year.
     Gordon served from 1854-57 and then ran for the office again in 1860. After winning that election, one of his main goals was the establishment of a normal school in the county to train teachers, but this endeavor was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. The war also produced a shortage of teachers, as many of the young men, including Gordon's son, left the classroom to enlist into military service. Instead, Waynesburg College became the main local training ground for local teachers. [Samuel P. Bates, History of Greene County, Pennsylvania, 1888]
       Gordon died in 1898 at the age of 82 and is buried in the Green Mount Cemetery in Waynesburg.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Profile of Principal Musician Henry L. Regar

Henry L.Regar
Courtesy of John Regar

         When Henry L. Regar died at the age of 86 in 1912 in his hometown of Connellsville, Fayette County, it marked the end of an era. Regar was the last surviving Pennsylvanian who had served in both the Mexican War and the Civil War. A drummer boy during the Mexican War, he rejoined the 85th Pennsylvania during the Civil War and became the drum major of the regimental band.
          A 1903 profile stated, "It takes quite an effort to imagine that the quiet, peaceful tailor who cuts and rips and sews in Mace & Co.'s department store helped charge the City of Mexico with the gallant Eleventh infantry and fought with McClellan at Coal [sic] Harbor and Malvern Hill." [Weekly Courier, Connellsville, PA, 2-13-1903]
        The article exaggerated on a few points. General George B. McClellan was not at "Cold" Harbor, and either was Regar and the rest of the 85th Pennsylvania for that matter. Nonetheless, the point was that a resident of Connellsville at that time would not have assumed that the soft-spoken Regar was a veteran of two wars.
        He enlisted into Company H of the 85th Pennsylvania as a musician in 1861. Regar was 35 years of age but felt the desire to serve his country once again. Near the end of 1862, he was promoted to one of two principal musicians in the regimental band along with Samuel Woods of Company C.
        After the Civil War, besides working as a tailor, Regar worked in the theatrical business for twenty years. He is buried in the Hill Grove Cemetery in Connellsville, Fayette County.
        Regar was born in 1926 in Connellsville to parents Solomon and Rebecca Vance Regar [the name has also been variously spelled, Reger, Reager, Regour and Reggar] Henry was about 20 years of age when he left Fayette County to join the 11th United States Infantry regiment during the Mexican War.
        A newspaper account from the 20th century stated that Regar tried to enlist into a Connellsville regiment but was turned down as being too young at age 14. [Again this appears to be an exaggeration. Interestingly, the same article states that Regar was 87 at the time of this profile (1912), making his birth year around 1826. If he had tried to enlist at age 14, he would have been born around 1832]. The article goes on to state that Regar then went to Pittsburgh and successfully joined the 11th U.S. Volunteers. [Daily Courier, 2-26-1912]
       The 11th infantry was under the command of Colonel Albert C. Ramsey in the brigade of Brigadier General George Cadwalader and included future Civil War officers William Taliaferro and John Gregg. Taliaferro, from Virginia, became a Confederate general in the Civil War. Gregg earned the rank of brevet general for the Union in the cavalry by the end of the Civil War. Most of the men in the regiment were from Pennsylvania; some came from Virginia and Delaware.
       The 11th participated in the battles of Cerro Gordo, Chapultapec and Mexico City. Regar remembered,
        “I served throughout the war in Company K, Eleventh United States Infantry.  The Eleventh Regulars lost over two-thirds of its members in the battles in and around the City of Mexico…The bloody climax…came when the regiment entered the city, crowding the aqueduct and battering down the heavy gates of the city. Once inside, the fighting coursed up the plaza…fighting their way from square to square and from street to street…Of the 800 men which started in the campaign with the regiment, only 200 were left. My regiment followed the defeated and retreating Mexican Army, after the battle and capture of the City of Mexico, over the mountains and into the Valley of Lerna.” [Weekly Courier, 2-12-1903]
Thomas Knox, Decisive Battles Since Waterloo, 1887

         A Pennsylvania soldier from the 11th regiment gave this account about a fight at Molina del Rey in September of 1847.

         "The 11th was ordered to charge the battery....The 11th had to charge over the same ground where fell so many of our gallant troops....They advance steadily, but now the enemy is vomiting his grapeshot and canister upon them, and they leave a train of dead and dying. Do they falter? No -- their gallant commander is waving his sword, and they are now rushing forward at a full run...Did you hear that shout? Comes it from the Mexican ranks? No! That is true Pennsylvania shout,and tells of danger defied, and glory to be won. Here they go, onward, up to the enemy's guns.  Huzza for the old Keystone! The Mexicans are giving way before our gallant little band..." [Public Ledger, Philadelphia, 11-8-1847]

        In the Civil War, Regar stayed with his regiment for three years until his enlistment expired.

        “I entered the service as a private. I was afterward promoted to Corporal, and later, after the battle of Fair Oaks [Seven Pines], was made Drum Major for bravery in action. This position, although on the non-commissioned staff, I did not like. I accepted it at the suggestion of the Colonel [Joshua B. Howell], who promised me a commission, but the commission never came my way.” [Weekly Courier, 2-13-1903]

       After the war, Regar worked as a tailor and was a member of the Connellsville school board for two terms. He was also a member of the Silver Coronet Band of Connellsville. The group, clad in gray uniforms with red-plumed helmets, won numerous competitions. They participated in the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 and the inauguration of Pennsylvania Governor Henry M. Hoyt in 1878. [Daily Courier, 3-1-1913]

         In 1906, during the centennial celebration for the town of Connellsville, double-war veteran Regar was an honored guest who was part of an automobile parade through the city streets. [Daily Courier, 11-17-1952]
Decorated Street of Connellsville for 1906 Parade
Centennial History of the Borough of Connellsville, Pennsylvania 1806-1906

             Regar's obituary in 1912 mentioned that he "was an entertaining conversationalist and had a host of friends in and around Connellsville." He was married to his wife, Rebecca Robbins Regar, for 64 years and was the father of seven children. The story also mentioned that he was wounded during both wars. [Daily Courier, 9-21-1912]
            In a 1903 profile of Regar by a local newspaper, Regar stated, "My opinion of the two wars is that the Mexican was more terrific and successful for it was fought from start to finish without a single drawback of defeat, although at all times were were fighting against long odds. i will say in conclusion, however, that I want to live to see the time when wars are over and when arbitration will settle disputes, for war is of the devil and not of God."

Monday, April 13, 2020

Profile of Surgeon Samuel Longacre Kurtz

Dr. Kurtz and wife Sarah   1861
Courtesy of Eleanor Hancock
             The above photo shows Army Surgeon Samuel L. Kurtz and his wife, Sarah Morgan Kurtz. The photo was taken in late 1861 when Sarah visited her husband at training camp in Philadelphia. At the time, the 28-year old Kurtz was an assistant surgeon with the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, also known as the 40th Volunteer Regiment. On June 3, 1862, just days after the Battle of Seven Pines, Kurtz was transferred to the 85th Pennsylvania and was promoted to head surgeon. He held this position for the next 32 months until he completed his service and returned home to Reading, Pennsylvania.
         Kurtz replaced Surgeon John B. Laidley of Carmichaels, Greene County, who was medically discharged from the 85th Pennsylvania in May of 1862.
        In the photo, Kurtz is proudly dressed in his uniform including his officer's sword. Years later,
Kurtz' granddaughter, Georgeine, asked him about the sword that he wore in the photograph. Kurtz replied, "The Rebels sank it in the James River." He state that the sword was on a baggage raft that was sunk by the enemy, probably in August of 1864 when the regiment was returning to their base in the Bermuda Hundred area of Virginia after a bloody fight at Second Deep Bottom.
        Kurtz lost a prized sword, but later, acquired an even more precious possession. When the men in the 85th Pennsylvania were winding down their three-year enlistment in the fall of 1864, they pooled their money and bought a complete surgeon kit in an engraved chest for Dr. Kurtz. It was one of his proudest possessions for the remainder of his life. It was a striking gesture for the man who cared for them when they were wounded, sick and for many, on their deathbeds. It was somewhat ironic because Kurtz was from eastern Pennsylvania, unlike most of the regiment than hailed from the southwestern corner of the state.

Reading Times   1-2-1865

       The presentation of the gift was chronicled in a Reading, PA newspaper shortly after Kurtz returned home from the war in early 1865. 

       Kurtz was born on September 27, 1832 in Chester County, PA. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1854. Prior to the war he practiced medicine in Phoenixville (Chester County) and Oakland Mills (Juniata County). He settled in Reading  (Berks County) and practiced medicine there for 40 years. In 1891, he was elected as the president of the Pennsylvania State Medical Society. 
Gift Medical Chest of Dr. Samuel L. Kurtz
On the right is Kurtz' granddaughter Georgeine Gruver
Reading Eagle   2-19-1967   p.44

        During the Civil War, Kurtz was involved in a bizarre battlefield incident that resulted the the death of musician Lemuel Thomas. It occurred on the first day of the regiment's six-day mission near Richmond in which they fought at Second Deep Bottom. 
        Musicians often served as doctor's assistants during a fight. As described by 85th Pennsylvania historian Luther S, Dickey, “Musician Lemuel Thomas of Company C, was on duty with Surgeon Kurtz of the Regiment assisting in caring for the wounded. Surgeon Kurtz was standing with an arm resting against a tree when a cannon ball from a battery of the enemy ricocheted, striking the heel of his shoe and then bounded to the head of Musician Thomas, fracturing his skull from which he died the following day. Although painfully wounded by the enemy's missile Surgeon Kurtz remained on duty.” [Dickey, History of the 85th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry,  p. 377]
      The 24-year old Thomas was from Fayette City, Fayette County. He is buried in the Hampton (VA) National Cemetery. 
       Kurtz was later involved in helping the wounded at the Battle of Darbytown Road near Richmond on October 13, 1864. By this point in the war, according to the following account by Dr. Charles Clark of the 39th Illinois, Kurtz and other surgeons of their brigade were moved close to the battlefield to provide more immediate care to the wounded. Both the 85th Pennsylvania and the 39th Illinois were part of the First Brigade of Colonel Francis B. Pond during the battle. The 85th Pennsylvania suffered only a few wounded at Darbytown Road but losses by the rest of their brigade were in the hundreds.
       Dr. Clark wrote, "The writer’s experiences at this battle [Darbytown Road] were unusually disagreeable…On the morning of the 13th [of October], he with other surgeons of the First Division of the Tenth Corps were ordered by the Medical Director to take the field and follow the command with strict orders to keep within 300 yards of the line of battle. When the First Brigade were preparing and forming to assault the rebel redoubt, he took the position behind a corn-crib in the yard of the Gerault house. As the Brigade advanced, there was a painful hush, like that of an audience awaiting some terrible denouement. Then came the roar and rattle of guns and a rain of shell and grapeshot in a most careless manner, shattering the old crib and scattering splinters and debris in all directions. One ambulance horse was killed and the driver wounded, and much other damage done. The wounded soon came back in numbers…Finding our position untenable, we felt justified in transgressing orders and removed to the left and rear inside an old earthwork where at last we could give our undivided attention to our work without fear of being either killed or wounded. The wounded…were sent back to the corps hospital some three miles distant." [Clark, Yates Phalanx, p. 179]
     After the war, upon reestablishing his practice in Reading, Kurtz won the trust of local residents when he treated a group of children involved in an accidental explosion. A group of boys were playing with gunpowder at a canal near his office when the explosion occurred. Kurtz treated their injuries effectively and the new doctor won the trust of his neighbors. 
        Kurtz married Sarah Morgan in 1854. Together they had two sons and a daughter. His two sons, Julius and Clarence, also became doctors. (Morton Montgomery, Biographies from Historical and Biographical Annals, p.399)
        Kurtz died on April 21, 1921 at the age of 88. He had practiced medicine for 60 years. At the time of his death, he was the oldest practicing physician in Reading. He is buried in the Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading. 

Monday, April 6, 2020

Home on Furlough 1864

Harper's Weekly
February, 1864

        After a hard campaign around Charleston, SC that resulted in the capture of Morris Island (but not the fall of Fort Sumter and Charleston) the 85th Pennsylvania spent the first few months of 1864 in relaxed duty on Hilton Head Island.
        While stationed there, the Union hierarchy made a concerted effort to have as many regiments as possible reenlist beyond their original 3-year commitments. If a certain percentage of men in a regiment re-enlisted, they earned the designation of being called "veteran volunteers."
      The other three regiments in the brigade of the 85th Pennsylvania all earned this distinction. They were the 62nd Ohio, 67th Ohio and 39th Illinois. Although a number of 85th Pennsylvanians re-enlisted, not enough extended their service to earn the distinction of being a veteran volunteer regiment.
Waynesburg (PA) Messenger     3-16-1864,    p.3
       In my book, Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War, I detail the efforts of their officers to encourage their men to re-enlist and explore the reason more men did not sign on for extended service.
       Those that did re-enlist earned an immediate 30-day furlough to go back home to visit family and friends; also some states used the furloughed men to recruit new men from their home areas. Another inducement may have been cash payments in the hundreds of dollars from their local and/or county government. This helped fill a quota of men the locality was expected to furnish towards the war effort.
       Only about a hundred or so men re-enlisted from the 85th Pennsylvania. The article at the right is from a Greene County newspaper of the time, the Waynesburg Messenger. It lists a number of Greene Countians, mostly from Companies F and G, who returned home on leave in early 1864 under the command of Lieutenant Levi Rogers.
       Unfortunately, when they returned to army duty, less than half of the men in this group made it unscathed through the rest of the war. The article mentions 23 men from the 85th Pennsylvania who visited Waynesburg. When their month was over and they returned to the war, three were killed, seven were wounded, two died from disease and one was captured. The rest returned to the war and survived without dying or being wounded.
    It should also be noted that none of the men who were killed or hurt died as a result of extending their service. All fell during the period of their original enlistment, which ended in November of 1864.

           Below is the list of the men in the same order they are named in the news article, as well as what happened to them during and after the war.

Soldiers Home on Furlough
Harper's Weekly
January 23, 1864
Lieutenant Levi Muncy Rogers was severely wounded in the hip at the Battle of Second Deep Bottom outside of Richmond in August of 1864. He died three weeks later at a hospital at Fort Monroe, VA. He is buried in the Hampton (VA) National Cemetery.
Sergeant Elmore A. Russell was wounded four times during the war. His most severe wound was suffered at Second Deep Bottom where he was shot in the arm. Russell survived the war and settled in Texas for the last four decades of his life. His occupations included teacher, farmer, fruit-grower, postmaster and city councilman. He died in 1912 at Lamar, TX at the age of 70.
Sergeant Alonzo Lightner was killed at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom. He was about 24 years of age.
Corporal Thomas J. White survived the war and settled in Nebraska where he worked as a printer. He was one of eight members of the regiment who earned a "Gillmore" Medal for meritorious service during operations on Morris Island, SC in 1863. White died in 1896 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 
Corporal John N. Durbin was wounded in the leg at Darbytown Road near Richmond on October 13, 1864. He died in 1897 and is buried in Greene County.
Corporal Thomas M. Sellers was wounded at the Battle of Second Deep Bottom but survived. He became a farmer in Kansas and a horticulturalist in Texas after the war. He died at the age of 86 in 1932 and is buried in Houston.
Civil War Song Sheet  LOC
Corporal John D. Haveley was wounded at Second Deep Bottom but stayed in the army until the end of 1865. He died around 1880.
Private William E. Leonard was awarded a Medal of Honor for the capture of an enemy flag at Second Deep Bottom, where he also suffered a head wound.
Private Lisbon Scott was captured in May of 1864 during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. After nearly a year, he was released from Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He went home to Greene County and served as a county commissioner. Scott died in 1917.
Private John Rizor was born in Marshall County, VA (later West Virginia) and served until 1865. He died in 1919 and is buried in Belmont County, Ohio.
Private Isaac Gray was wounded twice prior to his furlough. He served until 1865 and then returned to his life as a farmer in Greene County. He died in 1906.
Private George Pettit suffered a facial wound at Second Deep Bottom. He returned home and worked as a farmer in West Virginia. He patented a self-closing farm gate in 1897. Pettit died in 1917.
Private Jackson Kimble had his right arm amputated after being wounded at Second Deep Bottom. He died in 1913 and is buried in Greene County.
Private James Huffman returned to Greene County and his life as a farmer after the war. He died in 1911.
Private Jacob Huffman was wounded at Darbytown Road in October of 1864. He died in 1827 at the age of 86 and is buried in Illinois.
Private David Fry served in the regiment for four years and three months. Returning after the war to Greene County, he had a wife, Mary, and four children. He died in 1907.
Private Henry Fry was shot and killed while on picket duty at Ware Bottom Church on June 17, 1864. He was survived by his wife and three children.
Private Andrew J. Morris returned from his furlough and soon died from smallpox in April of 1864. He is buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina.
Private Alfred McDonald returned from his furlough and contracted jaundice. He died in October of 1864 at the age of 44. He is buried in the Hampton (VA) National Cemetery. McDonald was survived by his wife, Christina, and four children.

Private John Rush was one of three men named John Rush in the regiment, all from Greene County. This is probably John J. Rush, who returned to Greene County after the war. He died in 1914.
Private William Seabold survived the war and moved to Ohio. He died in 1918 and is buried in West Jefferson, Ohio.
Private Thomas Rinehart returned home to Greene County after four years of service. He died in 1922 at the age of 86.
Private Andrew Frakes lived in Ohio and West Virginia after the war before returning to Greene County. He died in 1922 at the age of 76.