Thursday, June 17, 2021

Captain Michener in Prison at Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia


Union Prison Camp     LOC

        This will be the last in a series of articles about the captivity of Captain John E. Michener of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment. It covers his life from his capture on White Marsh Island near Savannah, Georgia in 1864 to his release later that year in Charleston Harbor. This segment focuses on his time in prison at Camp Oglethorpe near Macon, Georgia. Later in his confinement, he was part of an escape attempt which was chronicled here

      In this part of "Prison Life," the postwar story of Michener's incarceration as related by author T.J. Simpson in 1867, Michener focuses on the privations of prison life: lack of food being his main topic of interest. 

      In 1864, Fort Oglethorpe was being used by the Confederacy as a prison pen for Union officers. More information about Camp Oglethorpe can be found here.


        From "Prison Life--"

        Captain Michener and other Union officers were marched to Camp Oglethorpe where they were confined within a high stockade fence and guarded by two regiments of Georgia troops. Here they met some eight hundred Union officers who had just arrived from Libby and Saulsbury prisons where they had been reduced to the last extremity of suffering and, almost naked, and fearfully emaciated, were brought here to die. Before entering the gates of the stockade, Captain Michener and his companions were carefully searched by Captain W.E. Tabb, commander of the prison.

          Having no blankets and there being but two old frame buildings within the stockade, and they used only for the accommodation of the sick and convalescent, Captain Michener and his friends experienced more exposure and suffering during the first month of their confinement here than while in Charleston jail, having to lie on the bare ground with no shelter whatever, exposed to the heavy dews, frequent rains, and violent storms. 

        After the first month passed in this dreadful condition, rough pine boards were furnished with which the prisoners erected shed capable of accommodating one hundred men each. The prisoners were then divided into squads of a hundred each, the ranking officers taking command and appointing a commissar whose duty it was to receive the rations from the rebel quartermaster and divide them equally among his fellow prisoners. The rations allowed was one pint of cornmeal per day to each prisoner and twice a week a few ounces of beans. Sometimes a few worm-eaten peas and  a very small quantity of rice was given. But the quantity of rice and rotten peas was so very small indeed, that each prisoner would be compelled to save up until he would have from six to eight days allowance in order to have enough for a full meal. 

      It was truly an affecting sight to see these ragged and half-starved prisoners gathering around and with the most haggard and imploring looks, piteously but anxiously watching the commissary as he measure out their ration of meal in a tin cup, and to see how eagerly they seized it. Sometimes, from long fasting, and the irresistible carvings of hunger, their appetites were so ravenous that they would seize the rations and devour them on the spot, without cooking. Officers of all ranks were here placed upon an equality without respect of persons, having to draw and cook their own rations, wash their own clothes, and perform all other menial services and, in addition to attend two roll calls each day. Some had been fortunate enough to conceal and thereby retain  their money about their persons, at the time of their capture, and this money could be accordingly exchanged for confederate money, with which they could purchase a few vegetables and other articles of food and hence they could command a reasonable support while their money lasted. But a much largest number of prisoners had no money, it all having been taken from them at the time they were taken prisoners and hence they would exchange with the rebel guards fingerings, breast-pins, watches, knives, combs and whatever little precious  keepsake they still possessed and even their few rags of clothing in some instances for something to eat. 

          Among this large number of prisoners were men of all classes and occupations -- lawyers, doctors, preachers merchants and mechanics -- many of whom were very wealthy , noble and generous at home, but here in prison, reduced to beggary and starvation.


   Strange as it may seem, under these trying circumstances, a cold indifferent spirit of selfishness predominated and it was only in a very few instances that a prisoner could be induced to divide his little stock of money with a suffering fellow-prisoner. In some instances when offices of the same regiment would happen to meet, a more liberal spirit prevailed and under the excitement of the moment they seemed to return to their former selves and forgetting the extremity of their circumstances were readt to divide their last cent. Sometimes from four to five and even eight or ten of these starving men would form a mess to cook and sleep together and in every such instances, if anyone or more of the number were fortunate enough to have any money, it was freely and cheerfully divided among them until the last cent was gone. There were many instances also in which officers of superior rank who had no money, would cook and wash and do all kinds of menial service for those of inferior rank in order to get  a share of the provisions purchased with their money. A major of a New York regiment, a brave and talented man, destitute of money and reduced to the last extremity of suffering and starvation, gladly embraced the opportunity to act the part of a servant for two lieutenants, relieving them from any menial service whatever, simply because they were fortunate enough to have money, while had had none; showing that in this instances at least, money was the standard of merit and that 'all that a man has will he give for his life.' The prisoners were also but poorly furnished with cooking utensils with which to prepare to meagre rations they received. All that were allowed for the men was a camp-kettle and skillet and hundreds were not even supplied with them; hence borrowing become the order of the day and when this could not be done, the use of cooking utensils had to be dispensed with and the rations devoured as nature prepared them without any artificial help.

Union Officers in Prison     LOC
      Roll call was announced by a rebel soldier marching through the stockade beating with a stick in a furious manner upon an old kettle drum. The first arrangement with the prisoners for this roll call was the forming into two ranks, each squad of one hundred men, who had an adjutant selected from their own number who kept the roll of the men and the rebel commander would call their names. Afterwards, however, a new plan was adopted. The prisoners were all crowded into one end of the enclosure or stockade, a company of rebel soldiers were marched in and deployed across the center of the pen at intervals of about three paces and then two rebels officers would form a gate, themselves acting as posts through which the prisoners would all have to pass single file, and be counted after the manner of counting hogs or sheep. This roll call was generally greatly dreaded by the prisoners for it most frequently happened while they were preparing their little rations for a meager meal. Some of them would have a corn pone baking, others would have mush boiling and would have to leave all in a moment for roll call. Frequently, they were detained from one to two hours by these proceedings; for if the commandant, through his stupidity, would happen to make a mistake of one or two in the count, they were all driven back again and counted over the second or third time. Hence, when the men would return to their fires, they would often find their scanty ration burned up, and would have to wait and starve until drawing day came again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Gambling and Alcohol Don't Mix on Folly Island

Charles Caryl Coleman in 1876
[Notice the profile obscures the left side of his face where he was shot.]
By Oliver Ingraham Lay from the Frick Digital Collections.

        For the first time on this blog, I am going to explore an event in which the 85th Pennsylvania regiment had only indirect involvement. It concerns a shooting that took place during a card game between two Union lieutenants -- one from New York and one from Massachusetts -- in the summer of 1863 on Folly Island near Charleston, South Carolina.

          At the time, May of 1863, the 85th Pennsylvania was stationed on the Folly Island near the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. They were there in preparation for attacks against Fort Sumter and Charleston, the seat of the Confederate rebellion. Folly Island had been in in Union hands for about a month at this time.

       Until the early days of July, there were eight infantry regiments stationed on Folly Island, among them the 100th New York from the Buffalo area There were also several artillery units and one detachment of cavalry, Company I of the 1st Massachusetts.

       The war record of the 100th New York closely paralleled that of the 85th Pennsylvania. Both regiments were at Seven Pines, the Charleston Campaign (including Folly Island), Bermuda Hundred and Appomattox.

      On Folly Island, although drinking was supposed to be limited and card-playing not allowed, both officers and enlisted men frequently participated in both.

       In one of the tents occupied by the cavalry officers, a card game began one evening and the liquor began to flow. Eventually, an argument broke out between two officers during a game of cards. One or both men were described as being intoxicated. A gun was drawn, a shot was fired, and one of the participating officers was shot and nearly died. Struck in the face, he remained disfigured for life.

       The unfortunate victim was Lieutenant Charles Caryl Coleman of the 100th New York infantry. The shooter was Lieutenant Charles Varnum Holt, the commander of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry detachment on Folly Island. Both men were in their early 20's. Although Coleman was the one shot, Holt suffered the more unfortunate after effects.

       The most detailed account of the event came from Dr. Charles Clark of the 39th Illinois. Not only did Clark pen the history of his regiment and recount the incident, he also cared for Coleman in the immediate aftermath of him suffering s potentially fatal wound

        Here is Clark's version of what happened in his regimental history, Yates Phalanx.

Dr. Charles Clark
39th Illinois
      "Gambling was prohibited in the command. Yet it was not and could not be wholly suppressed, although a careful watch was always kept and punishment often inflicted. The regimental sutlers also came under surveillance from the fact that they were constantly selling intoxicating liquors under false names...When our soldiers were not busy with the spade or on picket duty, they spent a large portion of their leisure, even intruding on bed hours, in playing poker or some other game of chance, and many were the dollars lost and won. Beans were the prevailing currency until the Paymaster arrived, when each individual bean, representing so much value, was cashed. These set-downs or squat-downs to a game of poker, euchre or 'seven-up' were frequent among both officers and men, and the invariable accompaniment was a canteen of commissary whiskey or some vile concoction from the sutler. Gatherings of this character were sometimes attended with unpleasant results. Some Veterans will remember the shooting of a Lieutenant of the 100th New York Volunteers at the quarters of Lieutenant Holt of the First Maryland [sic, Massachusetts] Cavalry in a wrangle over a game of cards. A witness to the affair thus described it to Doctor Clark, who was called to attend the wounded man: 'You see, they were drunk! and got into a skirmish over the game, and all at once Lieutenant Holt, of the cavalry, snatched a pistol from the table and said, 'Damn you!' 'I will shoot you!' And sure enough, the pistol exploded and we thought we had a dead man, but he [Coleman] rallied. The Lieutenant was badly shot through the face. He was taken into the hospital, and after recovery received a leave of absence for sixty days. He never returned to his regiment, resigning his commission. He was badly disfigured for life."

       It can be inferred from this second-hand account that Clark's unnamed source felt that both men were intoxicated.  Below are several accounts from Buffalo newspapers, which covered the story because the 100th New York soldiers came from several counties in western New York. All of these news accounts mention Coleman by name but not Holt. The first version below does state that Coleman was shot by a "cavalry officer." . The article stated that the weapon was "accidentally discharged;"  there is no mention of the drinking and gambling that played a role the shooting, whether or not it was accidental, or how much these were factors played in the event.


Buffalo Courier and Republic     June 10, 1863
           Dr. Clark stated that Coleman was never able to rejoin the 100th New York, but the follow-up article below stated that Coleman actually did go back to South Carolina after several months of recovery. The article stated that his facial wound was "unhealed."

Buffalo Courier and Republic   October 15, 1863
[NOTE: The 100th NY was on Morris Island at this time, not New Orleans\

         However, Coleman was not able to stay with his regiment for very long received a medical discharge. The article below does mention Coleman's intention to return to the world of art. 

Buffalo Courier and Republic     December 12, 1863

             As for Holt, no record could be found regarding military or legal consequences for the shooting. At some point, his cavalry company rejoined their regiment. Holt and the rest of the 1st Cavalry soon transferred into the newly formed 4th Massachusetts Cavalry. On July 26, 1864, Holt left the 4th Cavalry with a disability and returned home to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

           Holt married the next year to Sarah Fiske. But in 1866, just about two months after the wedding, this unfortunate article was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 15. "CAMBRIDGE –Suicide. Mr. Charles V. Holt, son of V.S. Holt, shot himself through the head in his apartment at his father’s residence last evening, between five and six o’clock while the family were at tea. He was found dead upon the floor in front of the mirror immediately afterward. The deceased was thirty years old and married. No cause is assigned to the fatal act."

             Speculating on why Holt took this drastic action, there could be several reason. Perhaps he carried guilt over the shooting of Coleman. Maybe he had a drinking problem or had PTSD issues. Although the article stated his age was 30, he was actually only 25 years of age. He was buried in Cambridge.

        Further information about Holt's life is sparse. The 1860 federal census shows that he was born in New Hampshire in 1841. His father was a grocer and Charles was a clerk, very probably in his father's store.   

Buffalo Morning Express  
February 24, 1907

         Coleman, on the other hand, was able to put  his life back together and thrived  in his professional life. Coleman lived until 1928, passing away at the age of 88. Dr. Clark wrote that Coleman would be "badly disfigured for life;" but by growing facial hair, he was able to hide his wound. Existing photographs do no show his scar. And although he moved away from Buffalo, he kept close ties to his hometown. 

         In pursuit of his career as an artiest, Coleman became one of the preeminent American painters of his time. He studied in Paris prior to the Civil War. Soon after the war ended, he first moved to New York City and opened a studio. He soon thereafter moved to the island of Capri near Italy in 1867 where he spent the last five decades of his life.

          The Buffalo Courier and several other city newspapers followed his career through the decades, always prideful of connection to the city. 

       A recent internet article on Coleman by Dr. Adrienne Baxter Bell stated, "Early in 1867, he moved to Italy and rarely looked back. There, he joined a vibrant, international community of artists that included  [Elihu] Vedder, Maitland Armstrong, William Graham, Thomas Hotchkiss, Frederic Leighton, Giovanni (Nino) Costa, and other artists in the circle of the Macchiaioli."

(link is external)     "Within a decade, Coleman became a leading artist of the International Aesthetic Movement. Ultimately, he produced at least 410 paintings, drawings, pastels, and watercolors; they reflect his intense and lasting devotion to the Medieval and Neoclassical Revivals, and to Middle Eastern and Far Eastern aesthetics."   

         For the most part, biographies of Coleman mention his service in the Civil War but omit both his wound and how he received it. Lieutenant George Stowits of the 100th New York, who wrote the official history of the 100th New York regiment in 1870, completely omits the shooting incident. Stowits did mention that Coleman created a sketch of his regiment's camp in Bogue Sound near Beaufort, North Carolina in late 1862 that was hung in the Buffalo Art Gallery at the time Stowits' book was published.

         In 1902, when Coleman was in his 60's, a more heroic, though false, version of how he was shot was furnished to a Buffalo newspaper by Coleman himself.

Buffalo Times    May 20, 1902

           In this story, Coleman was shot by a Confederate. What is interesting is that he is recounting the story with a fellow officer in the 100th New York, Charles Walbridge, who must have known the truth. This indicates that the fabricated story was very likely for the benefit of the reporter.

          Below are is a painting by Coleman. For color examples of his work, click here.

Early Moonlight, Capri    1900       LOC

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Peripatetic Life of Lt. Colonel Norton McGiffin


Norton McGiffin
Property of Ronn Palm Museum of Civil War Images
Gettysburg, PA

         Shortly after the 85th Pennsylvania regiment was organized in the fall of 1861, 37-year old Norton McGiffin of Washington, PA was elected to be the first lieutenant colonel of the regiment. McGiffin would be second-in-command to Colonel Joshua B. Howell, who organized the unit. McGiffin was elected by the officers and was endorsed by the rank-and-file. He was an obvious choice, having served in the Mexican War before going on to a political career in his home county. 

         But after only seven months of service with the 85th Pennsylvania, McGiffin was forced to resign in the spring of 1862 due to illness. He was replaced as lieutenant colonel by another resident of "Little Washington," Henry A. Purviance.  

          During the months of April and May of 1862, when the regiment had just arrived in Virginia for the Peninsula Campaign, 33 men were dismissed for medical reasons. Twelve men had already died from diseases, mainly typhoid fever. 

        Regimental historian Luther S. Dickey wrote, “Lieut. Col. Norton McGiffin’s resignation was accepted, owing to impaired health. This caused universal regret among both officers and men, as he was highly esteemed by all, not only as an efficient officer, but as a most estimable, chivalrous man. The fact that he had served throughout the Mexican War and in the three months’ service before coming to the 85th Regiment had given him great military prestige, and as he was imperturbable in temperament and never gave way to excitement under the most trying circumstances. His final departure was regarded as a distinct loss to the Regiment.”

        McGiffin's time with the 85th regiment was brief; he and the 85th had peripherally participated in just one battle thus far at Williamsburg on May 5 where two of their men were wounded. Although his Civil War record was abbreviated,  McGiffin's overall life was nonetheless one of the most varied and interesting of any of the thousand men who served in the regiment from southwestern Pennsylvania

Siege of Puebla

         McGiffin was one of the few members of the 85th Pennsylvania who had previously participated in battle.  A graduate of Washington [PA] College (now Washington and Jefferson College), he was 22 when that war broke out. McGiffin was planning for a career as a lawyer as he clerked for Judge Nathan Ewing in Uniontown in the 1840's, Then the Mexican War changed the course of his life. During this conflict, he was a private in Company K of the First Pennsylvania Infantry, known as the "Duquesne Grays." McGiffin participated in engagements at Puebla, Vera Cruz and Mexico City, where he stormed the fortress castle of Chapultapec. He was wounded during street fighting at the Siege  of Puebla (1847).  

        McGiffin went home to Little Washington shortly before the end of the war due to his injury. At a banquet at the end of the war held in nearby Canonsburg, McGiffin was presented with a silver-mounted pistol. 

Court House, Sheriff's Residence and Jail
Boyd Crumine's History of Washington County

        A decade after c
oming home from Mexico, McGiffin was elected to be treasurer (1849) of Washington County before being voted to be county sheriff in 1858. He was in that office when the Civil War began in 1861. McGiffin immediately resigned to join the 12th Pennsylvania for three months. Following the expiration of that term of service, he joined the 85th Pennsylvania.

        After the Civil War, McGiffin moved with his family across the state border and lived for four years as a farmer in Ohio County, West Virginia. He moved back to Washington County in 1870.

          Upon his return, McGiffin attended the organizational meeting in Uniontown, Fayette County in 1873 for the postwar regimental association. This group of former members of the 85th regiment would conduct reunions for the next 45 years. McGiffin was elected to be the first president of the association.

         McGiffin went on to hold a wide variety of political positions, both elected and appointed. He was voted into the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives in 1880 and served one year.
        After his term in the state house, McGiffin lived for four years in Ida Grove, Iowa as a farmer. He then lived for the next four years in Fair Haven, New York near Lake Ontario.

James G. Blaine

         For the next stage of his life, McGiffin was appointed U.S. Consul at Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada by United States Secretary of State James G. Blaine, a classmate at Washington and Jefferson. This was shortly followed by an appointment to the same position at Port Hope, Canada for two years. In the 1890's, he found his way back home to Little Washington.

        McGiffin died on July 30, 1905 in his home town. He is buried in the city's Washington Cemetery. He was the last survivor of the Mexican War from Washington County. 

           McGiffin had many interesting events and triumphs in his personal life. Several of his children, however, did not fare as well. In 1872, his 17-year old son, Thomas, shot a school principal, Welty J. Wilson, at the Union school in Washington, PA. The story has several versions. All stated that Wilson intercepted a note that young McGiffin had written to a female student. Thomas shot him in the hip when Wilson would not return the note.

          A local version of the incident in a Little Washington newspaper was sympathetic to Thomas. "Young M'Giffin," it said, "has borne the reputation of a quiet and peaceable boy of warm-hearted and generous impulses, and is one of the last who would have been suspected of being involved in a matter of this kind." [Washington Reporter, February 7. 1872, page 1]

         Another Washington County newspaper noted, "there are several sides to the story --one of which accuses the Teacher with reading the note before the whole school and also...making fun of McGiffin's 'love sickness;' also of giving the note to some students  to take to the College and there make it public. If this be so, much of the sympathy will learn toward the boy, as no young man of spirit could quietly brook such a needless insult. Shooting however is not the remedy and must be severely frowned upon. Shooting is getting too terribly common--nearly one half the boys of town and country carry loaded revolvers." [Monongahela Republican, February 8, 1872, page 3]

         On the other hand, the newspaper from Warren, Ohio, the hometown of the teacher, came down hard on the teen. "universal sympathy is extended to Mr. Wilson, as well as to the afflicted parents of the hot-headed young man...we cannot refrain from adding that Mr. Wilson was undoubtedly right in refusing to permit the delivery of the note...the murderous attempt on his life was without just cause or provocation...Young McGiffin should be retired to a state prison or a lunatic asylum for several years until his blood has cooled off and his head become level." [Western Reserve Chronicle, Warren, Ohio, February 14, 1872, page 3]

        Wilson survived and lived until 1925. Thomas eventually moved to Hawaii where he spent the last four decades of his life. He died in 1922 at the age of 68, survived by his wife, Malina, and several children.

         Norton McGiffin's second son, Philo Norton McGiffin, became the most famous member of the family. Philo was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. While at Annapolis, he earned the reputation of an unrepentant prankster. But he also demonstrated personal bravery that would mark his life by rescuing two children from a burning home. Furthermore, during a training session, when it seemed his ship's mast might collapse, he dashed up the rigging to secure the spar and prevent disaster. 

            Unable to gain a commission in the U.S. Navy because of it's small size at the time, Philo became a noted officer in the Chinese navy as an instructor and advisor. Philo McGiffin was the first American to command a modern battleship in wartime at the Battle of the Yalu during the First Sino-Japanese War in the 1890’s. 

Philo McGiffin
Nimitz Library U.S. Naval Academ

         Philo suffered numerous wounds during the battle as he personally put out fires, directed artillery and directed movements of his ship, all while receiving fire from four Japanese gunboats. He was in severe pain for the rest of his life. Returning to the United States, he wrote a review of the battle and delivered a few lectures, but finally succumbed to his painful wounds. He shot himself in 1897 and died at the age of 36.

           A few years earlier before the Battle of the Yalu, Philo wrote, "I don't want to be wounded and hate to think of being dreadfully mangled and then being patched up with half my limbs and senses gone, yet a triumph of surgical skill. No I prefer to step down or up or out of this world when my time comes." [The Fall River [MA] Daily Herald, October 2, 1894, page 5]

         Seven years later in 1905, Norton McGiffin was honored on his 80th birthday in Little Washington by the city's G.A.R Post. He was presented with "a fine Morris chair." A letter signed by the members of the post included the following tribute:

       "We congratulate you, sir, that at your very birth, you entered at once upon the inheritance of an honored name, for from that early time when your brave grandfather [Nathaniel] marched in the Pennsylvania line and suffered with [George] Washington at Valley Forge, through him and after him your honored father [Thomas], in his turn filling for many years a large and varied place in business and professional life, the name you bear has occupied a bright and prominent place upon the pages of our country's history." [Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, January 24, 1904, page 13]

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Michener, Bailey and Shallenberger in Captivity


Union Prisoners
    Tucker-Vaughn Papers

           Primary source materials regarding Captain John E. Michener of the 85th Pennsylvania have been abundant in the research of his regiment. Michener's Civil War letters and those of his family, provided by descendent Margaret Thompson, have offered a rich source of material. Michener also penned a few letters home that were published in local newspapers that proved to be excellent primary source material.

Harper's Weekly          February, 1862

    Michener was an effective, even admired officer who spent seven months in captivity in 1864. He was captured on Whitemarsh Island near Savannah on February 22, 1864 along with two other members of his regiment -- Sergeant James Bailey of Company K and Private Eli F. "Frank" Shallenberger of Company C.

       Although much is known about Michener's later captivity and release, little has been written about the early days and weeks of his imprisonment with Bailey and Shallenberger. A few Southern newspapers provided some details of their capture on Whitemarsh Island. Included in these stories are descriptions of their immediate capture; but much of these narrations were gloating about them falling into Confederate hands while the Union mission to Whitemarsh Island, Georgia ended in failure and quickly returned to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Union versions, meanwhile were just as one-sided; they ignored the failure of the mission on Whitemarsh to capture African American workers while emphasizing the capture of a dozen Confederate pickets.

      "Prison Life," the 1867 work by T.J. Simpson that is partially about Michener's time in captivity, is rich in details about these early days of imprisonment of Michener and his two comrades. Michener, through Simpson, related the story of  their interrogations, their time in Savannah, and then their transfer to various prisoner-of-war camps. Simpson made Michener a hero for misleading his captors about the strength of the invading Union force on Whitemarsh.

      Michener spent part of his imprisonment in Charleston, South Carolina. Shallenberger and Bailey meanwhile were both shipped to the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. They both technically survived. However, Bailey lived long enough only to be a part of a prison transfer. He died from malnutrition aboard a hospital ship on his way back to the North. Shallenberger was also greatly diminished by his time at Andersonville. But Shallenberger was released at the end of the war, recovered, and went home to Brownsville, PA where he became a prominent contractor and builder.. 

         "Soon after the capture of Captain Michener, a rebel brigade under the command of General [Raleigh] Colston arrived at the fort having been hurried forward with all possible haste. Halting his brigade for a moment, he sent his aid to interrogate Captain Michener. as to the strength of the Yankee forces on the island. The union forces under General [sic, Colonel Joshua B.] Howell, composing the entire expedition to the island, only numbered between five and six hundred; but the chivalrous rebel general somehow received the impression from Captain Michener that they exceeded five thousand in number, and thus was detained with his entire brigade until his scouts returned and reported that the small number of Yankees who had infested the island were embarking in their boats and then it was too late to pursue them. Had the rebels known our strength in time and thrown but one regiment over the bridge, and followed our hastily retreating forces, the whole command might have easily been captured; as it was, however, their escape was entirely due to the detention of the rebels by Captain Michener's answers to their interrogatories. But this ruse of Captain Michener's to save his friends from capture came near costing him his life, for the rage and chagrin of the rebels when they found how they had bee duped by that Yankee officer know no bounds. A reported of a Savannah paper who was present insisted they should hang Captain Michener from the nearest tree. While they were debating what disposition to make of him, another Union prisoner, [Eli] Frank Shellenberger, was brought in and their righteous indignation settle down into a holy calm. These three prisoners being guarded together, Captain Michener availed himself of the opportunity to post the other two so that their reports to the rebels might agree.

         "As the evening approached, the prisoners were marched to Savannah and were then on their first visit to the \city, generously furnished by the Southern chivalry with apartments in the jail. All along the road to Savannah they were treated by the soldiers and citizens to a continued series of compliments and encomiums, some of which it is true were of the rougher sort and none of which it is true were often falling from the ruddy but pouted lips of the lily-fingered beauties of the South, were a s palatable as would have been a little roast beef or boiled ham. But an inward consciousness of the glory they had achieved in that one hour's struggle and triumph caused them to receive the compliments, thus gratuitously bestowed  with a smile and to march to that prison with a prouder step than to a slaveholder's banquet or a rebel throne.

Left to Right: Andersonville, Macon and Savannah    LOC

           "At nine o'clock that evening, after their introduction to a somewhat narrow apartment in the city jail, the prisoners were invited to indulge in the luxury of a limited meal on corn mush, a favorite kind of provision with generous rebels to satisfy the appetites of hungry Yankees. Although the captain and his fellow prisoners had for the last 24 hours substituted rapid marches and hard fighting for the more agreeable pastime of eating, yet either because the invitation was rather cool, or the corn mush not sufficiently inviting, they respectfully declined the proffered kindness. During the night they were favored with the presence of a rebel sentinel, whole interest in these newcomers was such as to drive slumber from his eyelids and cause him to pace the room during the long an silent hours, with undeviating footsteps, much to the annoyance of the prisoners, who failing to appreciate his society, declined to admit him into their councils and hence conducted their interviews in a whisper.

       At six o'clock next morning this prisoners, with tired limbs and empty stomachs, issued from the jail in all the 'pomp of glorious war,' and falling into line, marched with measured step, not to the martial notes of fife and drum, but to the coarser music of taunts and sneers and mingled should of the chivalrous inhabitants of Savannah, who seemed anxious to give them a parting salute from the well filled magazine of their pent-up wrath, as the Yankees took their seats in an old ragged car, and bid them a final adieu. As the train moved off, the prisoners felt that, although not 'homeward bound,' they were bound for the seat of Southern chivalry and that they would be favored with a change of base at least in the great city of Charleston. 

Charleston Jail      LOC

          "Two days had now passed without anything to satisfy the cravings of hunger, and Captain Michener began to realized that there was something more than poetry in the fortunes of war. In his first lessons the romantic was mixed with the real, but now the real began to predominate, greatly to his annoyance. The trip to Charleston was performed without any violation of the rules of fasting which had been so rigidly observed and it was not an unwelcome thought that this pious operation would terminate with the journey. They reached the city as evening began to cast its lengthening shadows and although strangers in the place found no difficulty in procuring lodgings as previous arrangements had been made for their reception The equanimity of the city authorities was not seriously disturbed however with any extensive preparations for an ovation to the prisoners, on their arrival but a small procession, composed of a select few of the prominent officials headed by the provost marshal of the city quietly conducted them to their private apartment in the jail. And now, retired from the obtrusive gaze of the vulgar herd, a change of plate, well filled with the choicest provisions adapted to the appetite of an epicure, would not have been objectionable. But the virtue of abstemiousness had been so long and rigidly practised that it was feared the too liberal indulgence of the appetite might superinduce dyspepsia; therefore corn mush prepared in the latest style with a little hot water and no salt, was again sparingly furnished the prisoners. This the dictates of modesty and exhausted nature would not permit them as on a former occasion to decline; hence their first night in the city of Charleston was rendered memorable by a banquet on cold much in jail.

Savannah Jail     LOC

        "...On arriving at Macon, Georgia, Captain Michener and his two fellow prisoners who were captured with him on White Marsh Island, Corporal Bailey and Frank Shellenberger, were called to experience the pangs of separation, the captain being retained at Camp Oglethorpe, while they were sent on to Andersonville, that much-dreaded and fatal prison. As the train moved slowly off and the parting words fell from their lips, they but too plainly saw in each other's countenances the conviction that it was a last adieu as the sequel proved in the case of poor Bailey. Having reached Andersonville, he lingered amid pestilence and famine for six months and when the news of his exchange came, the last feeble energies of his nature rallied and enabled him to reach Charleston harbor on his way to his beloved home and family when in sight of his country's flag, with the flag-of-truce boat ready to receive him, he died, the victim of starvation in a land of strangers, leaving a wife and little ones to mourn his said and untimely end. His companion, Frank Shellenberger, scarcely less enfeebled and emaciated from the effects of starvation, finally succeeded in reaching his home, the mere wreck and skeleton of his former self -- a living witness of the barbarous treatment and unparalleled sufferings at Andersonville."

Andersonville Prison     LOC

NEXT: Michener is held prisoner in Macon, Georgia.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Capture of Captain John E. Michener


Whitemarsh Island Assault by Captains George H. Hooker and Robert P. Hughes
February 22, 1864     Map Courtesy of Craig Swain

         The last seven paragraphs of this entry is a lengthy quote from the 1867 book entitled "Prison Life" about the capture of Captain John E. Michener on Whitemarsh Island near Savannah, Georgia in 1864. Michener had spent the first 2 1/2 years of the war as a lieutenant in Company D of the 85th Pennsylvania. In early 1864, he was promoted to be captain of Company K. The Whitemarsh Expedition marked his first field command with his new company.

       I earlier have written about Michener's captivity in an article for Military Images magazine entitled, "Following the Torn and Bloodstained Colors: John Michener's Civil War Odyssey." This article features letters from Michener and his family as well as newspaper accounts of his captivity, courtesy of descendant Margaret Thompson.

         I have also written extensively about the Whitemarsh Island Expedition in my soon to be published Volume II history of the 85th Pennsylvania entitled, "Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War, 1864-1865" from by Monongahela Books.

       This author of "Prison Life," T.J. Simpson, offers further details about Michener's role the expedition and the early days of his time as a prisoner of war. Future posts will give additional details about Michener's time in captivity.

         The one-day expedition from Hilton Head to Whitemarsh Island, led by Colonel Joshua B. Howell of the 85th Pennsylvania, was intended to capture around 300 [Simpson said it was 500] contraband workers who were building defenses for the Confederacy. One report, which was accurate, said that some Confederate troops had been sent from Savannah to Florida, leaving Savannah under-defended. This action by the Confederates was meant to deal with Union General Truman's Seymour's Florida campaign that began with landing at Jacksonville and ended with a lopsided Confederate victory at Olustee.

Slaves Building Confederate Earthworks
Mississippi Dept of Archives and History
     The Whitemarsh Expedition was led by Colonel Joshua B. Howell of the 85th Pennsylvania. Accompanying the Howell regiment were elements of the 4th New Hampshire and 67th Ohio.

     The expedition landed successfully on February 22. Confederate pickets on the beachhead quickly fled with Michener and 20 men from his company (K) in hot pursuit. Michener was  under the command of Captain George Hooker, who was tasked with capturing a bridge between Whitemarsh and Oatland Islands and thus prevent the Confederates from sending re-enforcements.

       Michener and his men made it across the bridge but were confronted with an earthwork with a small two-gun battery.

Captain George H. Hooker
85th PA
Guiding the Union mission were several escaped slaves from the area who knew the terrain. But the fugitives did not know of the battery that had been built since their escape.

       Hooker's men halted their attempt to capture the Oatland Bridge. But as Simpson described, Michener and his sergeant from Company K, James C. Bailey, were trapped trying to re-cross the bridge. Near the interior of the island, another member of the 85th Pennsylvania, Private Eli F. ("Frank") Shallenberger of Company C, became separated from his Hughes' team and was also captured. Everyone in the expedition except for these three unfortunate captives were able to safely return to their boats and return to Hilton Head Island.

        This account below, in Michener's words as told to author Simpson,  is somewhat critical of Captain Hooker for not sending expected re-enforcements in a timely manner to help Michener's men escape from the other side of the bridge.

         "On the 21st of February, 1864, while the Florida campaign [Olustee] was in progress, General Joshua B. Howell, commanding the district [that consisted of] Hilton Head, St. Helena’s Island and Fort Pulaski, embarked from Hilton Head Island, with the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers and Fourth New Hampshire, for a small island about four miles distant from Savannah, Georgia known as White-Marsh Island. Upon this island some five hundred negroes were actively engaged in throwing up breastworks under the protection and supervision of about two hundred rebel troops. This island is about three miles wide and is connected with the main land by a wooden bridge. To destroy the [Oatland] bridge, so as to prevent succor from Savannah; attack and scatter or capture the rebel troops guarding the negroes; destroy the works and bring off these negroes to Hilton Head, were the objects of this expedition.

"Prison Life"
T.J. Simpson  1867
           "The destruction of the bridge, the first and most important object to be accomplished, was assigned to companies B, D, E, H, I and K of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers under the direction of Captain George H. Hooker, acting assistant adjutant general to General Howell. The transports arriving a short distance above Fort Pulaski, dropped anchor and launched the small boats for the above-mentioned detachment. These boats were designed to carry from twenty to thirty men, each but having been lying up in the hot sun for months at Hilton Head, they were wholly unfit for the service. Many of them filled with water as soon as launched, and sunk immediately, while the others were only kept afloat by constant bailing.

           "This detachment was to proceed some three miles up a small sluggish creek and get in the rear of the enemy before the transports landed the remained of the troops at the front approaches to the island. It was long after midnight when the order 'cast off' was given and the tide coming in greatly assisted the strong but muffled paddles and caused the awkward and leaky boats to shoot through the water with astonishing rapidity.

           "The night was calm – the 'wind slept soundly'—while the twinkling stars in the hazy sky relieved the midnight darkness. The moon at length peered above the horizon and shone with a mellow light as she travelled from cloud to cloud. The snake-like stream, stirred by the many muffled oars, sparkled on its winding way, lending a soft attraction to the gloomy marsh. Far along its grassy borders the tall, green seaweed formed beautiful arches, through which the silent moonbeams crept as if to smile upon those daring men as they noiselessly glided along in their frail boats…

             "Arriving at the island, a dash was made for the shore, which was quickly gained without the loss of a man. The rebel picket only fired a single volley and then fled like frightened deer. Captain Hooker directed Captain Michener to deploy his company (K) as skirmishers – pursued the retreating pickets with all possible haste and gain the bridge before the alarm could spread among the enemy.


"After penetrating the dense timber and undergrowth for nearly a mile, Captain Michener came to a cleared field only a few hundred yards from the bridge. To his astonishment he discovered what appeared to be an earthwork but a few rods distant from the opposite end of the bridge. Halting for a moment, he sent his orderly sergeant back to confer with Captain Hooker and request him to come up. In a few moments this gallant officer arrived in company with Captain
[Rolla] Phillips of Company D. they however doubted the fact of the enemy having a fortification there and agreed with the negro-guide (who had only escaped from the rebels a few weeks before) that it was only ‘earth-houses occupied by the colored folks,’ and Captain Hooker ordered Captain Michener to advance upon the bridge. Captain Michener still insisted that it was a battery and having only twenty men of his company with him asked for more men, stating that if he found it to be an earthwork when he arrived at the bridge, he would try and take it. Captain Hooker said it was not necessary, that he would support him.  ‘Yes’ responded Captain Phillips. ‘Michener, we will be at your heels.’ Captain Michener advanced at double-quick and on arriving at the bridge, discovered that his suspicions were correct and that the enemy had a small earthwork with one gun in position and the panic-stricken rebels trying to get up a second one. Believing to retreat would expose him to a close and galling fire and seeing but few rebels in the fort, he resolved to charge it. With a shout the gallant captain and his brave boys dashed towards the bridge, which was soon gained when the rebels opened upon them with one volley of grape, but the gun being too much depressed, the shot fell short and did no other damage other than to splinter a portion of  the bridge, a fragment of which struck Captain Michener, felling him to the ground. Quickly springing to hie feet, he dashed across the bridge with only ten men, the rest stopping short of the bride and seeking shelter from the shower of musketry concentrated upon them. With this immortal ten, Captain Michener pushed fearlessly up to within fifty yards of the earthwork; but finding no support coming up, as had been promised, he at once saw the folly of hurling those few devoted followers against the fort. Seeing a small embankment near the ditch to the left, he quickly deployed his men behind it and lying flat upon the ground, opened a brisk fire upon the enemy, killing one man and two horses. Here this little Spartan band fought bravely for more than an hour, waiting for reinforcements and not permitting a rebel to raise his head above the parapet. What an hour was that! Lying almost under the very shadow of the fort, with two guns and two hundred muskets concentrated upon them, how desperately they fought and how anxiously they looked for the promised supports. A half hour passes, the enemy is still held at bay, and now they listen for the shouts of their comrades rushing to the rescue. They load and fire again, rebels fall from the parapet; another half hour passes; the bloody strife continues, but no supports have arrived; the moment is big with danger; to advance is death, to retreat is almost hopeless, to remain longer in than position was certain destruction. Oh! That relief would come. They read each other’s thoughts in their anxious countenances; death is preferable to surrender, and a soldier’s glory is to fall, if fall he must, with his face to that foe.

Lt. Norman B. Ream
Dickey's History of the 85th PA

[Norman B.] Ream of Company H, a brave and gallant officer, had been ordered by Captain Hooker to hasten with his men to the aid of Captain Michener while he was thus being overpowered by the enemy. He had proceeded but a short distance, however, when he fell, severely wounded.  His comrades at once endeavored to carry him back to the boats, but were so hotly pursued by the rebels that the brave lieutenant requested them to lay him down and make their escape, saying it was better for him to fall into the hands of the enemy than for them all to be captured. They persistently refused, however, and finally succeeded in reaching the boats in safety with their noble but suffering leader.

         "At length, despairing of aid and knowing the hopelessness of their condition, they resolved to attempt escape at least by crawling through the marsh to the stream and swimming to the bridge. They gain the bridge; the heroic spirit that had sustained them through the last dreadful hour now yields to excitement. Captain Michener entreats them to be calm and courageous, that they would either escape or die together. He orders them to cross over, one at a time, so as not to

Captain John E. Michener
Courtesy of Ron Coddington

draw the enemy’s fire and resolves himself to bring up the rear. The first crosses, safely, and then the second and the third, but the rebels have discovered the skillful maneuver; they make a flank movement and gain the abutment of the bridge just in time to intercept the captain and his last man, Corporal
[James C.] Bailey. The captain might have escaped with the first that crossed the bride if he had consulted his own safety alone, but acting the part of a true soldier and unselfish commander, he determined to see his comrades safely over before fleeing himself from danger, and thus, on the 22nd day of February, 1864, fell into the hands of the enemy.”

NEXT: The early days of captivity for Michener, Bailey and Shallenberger.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

John E. Michener and the Attempt to Capture Battery Gregg


Morris Island, Battery Wagner and Batter Gregg
Robert Knox Sneden    LOC

          In August of 1863, Lieutenant John E. Michener and his regiment, the 85th Pennsylvania, were stationed on Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina. They were part of a Union effort to recapture Fort Sumter and subdue Charleston, the city considered the heart of the rebellion. The 85th Pennsylvania spent the month assigned to the arduous task of digging a series of parallels or trenches that the Union hoped would eventually lead to the capture of Battery Wagner, the key Confederate sand-walled fort. A bit farther towards the tip of the island at Cummings Point lay Battery Gregg

Lt. John E. Michener
New York Public Library

          The 85th Pennsylvania had arrived in South Carolina in late January of 1863 from New Bern, North Carolina. They first spend a few weeks at St. Helena Island. In early April, the invaded Folly Island and found it had been abandoned. The were stationed on Folly Island for several months until they crossed Light House Inlet to Morris Island, where they would spend about three months.

          In July  the 85th Pennsylvania did not participate in either of two assaults upon Battery Wagner, the key Confederate sand-walled fort that helped guard Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. During these two assaults, hundreds of Union soldiers fell trying to capture the structure. [Last month's blog entry was about Michener's command of the barge that ferried the famous African-American 54th Massachusetts from Folly Island to Morris Island for the second assault on Battery Wagner]. However, during the ensuing month-long work digging five parallels, the 85th Pennsylvania lost more men that any other federal regiment. Among the wounded was their leader, Colonel Joshua B. Howell who nearly died when the bombproof that he occupied had a direct hit from a Confederate shell on August 18. While Howell recovered from a severe concussion, the regiment was led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Purviance. He was instantly killed by a friendly-fire incident a few days later on August 30 when a Union shell prematurely exploded directly over his head while he led his troops in a trench.

Storming Battery Wagner's Rifle Pits
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper       9-26-1863

       On August 26, with the parallels nearing completion, three hundred men from the 24th Massachusetts captured the Confederate rifle pits in front of Battery Wagner. With the distance to Battery Wagner vastly closer, for a third time, a third infantry  action to storm the walls of the structure was scheduled. Ahead of this third assault, a stealthy movement This was intended to be a stealthy up Vincent's Creek was planned to capture Battery Gregg and surround Wagner. About 150 men from four or five regiments were chosen for this assignment, including the 85th Pennsylvania, 100th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, and the 104th Pennsylvania. The mission, under the command of Major Oliver Sanford of the 7th Connecticut.

[AUTHOR NOTE: Sources differ about the number as well as which regiments participated in the assault. All agree that the 85th Pennsylvania and the 100th New York were involved. But the other regiments are varied.  Even though the commander of the assault, Oliver S. Sanford, was a member of the 7th Connecticut, the author could find no evidence that his regiment participated. Interestingly, in his 1905 "History of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry," soldier and historian Stephen Walkley did not mention the Battery Gregg mission at all, including Sanford's role as leader.]


Path along Vincent's Creek to Battery Gregg
Map by Robert Know Sneden    LOC

       The mission against Battery Gregg was hampered by two unforeseen events. First, cloud cover evaporated and a bright moon revealed the Union boats on their way to Gregg. Second, when a Confederate boat with about 12 men aboard was spotting leaving the battery, Lieutenant Francis J. Higginson, in charge of the naval personnel and in control of the assault boats,  ordered his men to open fire. The boat was captured but the presence of Union  assaulters was revealed, and the mission was called off.

         The Union tried again the next night, but Battery Gregg, now on full alert,  immediately began shelling the Union boats before they reached the shore. Again, the mission was cancelled.

          Plans for a Union land assault upon Batteries Wagner and Gregg went forward anyway. But when the federals approached Battery Wagner on the morning of September 7, they found it had been abandoned. Battery Gregg was left unmanned as well. Confederate troops inside had escaped in the early morning hours. 

    Below is an excerpt from "Prison Life" by author T.J. Simpson, a short 1867 work about John E. Michener's war experiences, followed by a second version of the event from Lieutenant George Stowits of the 100th New York.

Carrying boats up Morris Island for the Assault
Harpers Weekly 10-3-1863
    "Two nights before the evacuation of Forts Wagner and Gregg," wrote Simpson, "a boat expedition had been planned by General [Alfred] Terry to proceed up Light-House creek to Charleston harbor, surprise Fort Gregg, capture and blow up the magazine and retire. Major [Oliver S.]  Sanford of the Sixth Connecticut was ordered to the command of the expedition. Details were made for the Eighty-fifth and One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers and two other regiments, in all about two hundred men. Lieutenant Michener had charge of two boats of twenty men. Captain [Rolla] Phillips and [William] Kerr of the same [85th PA] regiment had charge also of three or four boats of the command. These small boats were manned by sailors and proceeded slowly and cautiously up the stream until they arrived in Charleston harbor, and between Forts Sumter and Gregg, the point to be assailed. As the boats arrived opposite Payne’s dock, they successfully formed on the right by filing into line and moved steadily forward for the intended assault. At the moment the boats struck the beach, the men were to rush for the fort without waiting to form in line of battle. A knowledge of their position by the enemy would have proved perilous in the extreme, for they were then directly in the center and in close range of a chain of regel forts and batteries that could have destroyed them in a moment. The moon, unfortunately for the expedition, began to rise at that moment and when they had arrived within less than a hundred yards of Fort Gregg, were discovered and repulsed.                    

          "The enemy at once sent up a signal and soon Forts Johnston and Moultrie and battery Beauregard had united in raising one continued shower of shot and shell upon them. Major Sanford, seeing the utter hopelessness of then making an attack, ordered the boats to rapidly withdraw. This order was, at first, but imperfectly understand on account of the great excitement; and hence, while some of the boats were beating a hasty retreat, others were pulling for the beach. The mistake, however, was soon rectified and all rushed to get beyond the range of the batteries, to add to the confusion, oars would get foul, boats run into each other, and some even goaground. In the midst of this dreadful dilemma a cannon ball went crashing through the side of Lieutenant Michener’s boat, and it was with the greatest difficulty kept from sinking. Astonishing as it may appear, but few lives were lost in this bold and daring adventure, and the boats returned in safety."

Approaching Battery Gregg
Harper's Weekly  10-3-1863
          Interestingly, Michener, through author Simpson, does not blame naval personnel for exposing the Union boats by firing upon the departing Confederate craft; but Michener did  state that moonlight gave away their location. Also, "Prison Life" makes no mention of the second assault upon Battery Gregg that was called off before any of the Union boats reached the shoreline.

        Perhaps the best  account of the mission against Battery Gregg came from Lieutenant Stowits of the 100th New York. Stowits was a member of the assault team, but was unimpressed by the planning and leadership prior to the assault. Many lives would have been lost in what he felt was a poorly-planned assault. 

Lt. George Stowits, 100th New York
History of the 100th Regiment   p,187
        "Five hundred men were detailed from four of the most reliable regiments, and the command of the expedition was entrusted to Maj. Sandford of the Seventh Connecticut...We remember the visit of the Chaplain to the tent of the writer to ascertain if we could swim. When assured we could, he responded that it was favorable. We knew not then of our detail for the expedition. Boats had been collected in one of the creeks, and the men assembled near the camp of the boat infantry, and awaited darkness, before embarking...Scanning the manner of Maj. Sandford [sic], and his apparent, to us, unfitness for so a responsible a work, we could not but feel that many brave men, if landed, would be destroyed.

      "Files for spiking the guns were put into the hands of men selected for that purpose. On inquiry as to what should be used for driving the files, the answer was given that anything that lay around the gun. To us, that was too uncertain. We obtained permission to leave the guns of the men selected, and ordered them to use the flat side of the bayonet, that no time should be lost in searching in the sand or battery for what might not be at hand. The orders were to head the boats for the beach, land, form, and rush for the fort, spike the guns, blow up the magazine and retire...We endeavored to impress our men with the danger, as well as the importance of the enterprise, that each man should act for himself and as though he was to do the work alone and unaided. In consequence of the limited number of boats a large number were left behind. The boats were filled with a quiet, thoughtful band. We glided along with the music of shell overhead, exploding and striking the water about. As we neared the bay a boat shot out from Gregg. She was hailed. No attention paid. We fired and brought her to. We captured a surgeon, major and ten men. The garrison was aroused, and we were ordered back. The next night a second attempt was made, with no better success. The enemy opened on the boat and drove them of. The loss was slight. Thus ended an ill-conceived and fruitless. enterprise."

Union camp on Morris Island    LOC