Tuesday, January 5, 2021

John E. Michener Commands a Transport of Deserters and Stragglers

       Like  all officers, a part of Lieutenant John E. Michener's service in the Civil War had nothing to do with the battlefield. Time spent fighting accounts for a small fraction of a soldier's life. For an officer in camp, many logistical matters need to be addressed. In December of 1862, while his regiment was sent to North Carolina to participate in the Goldsboro Expedition, Michener was assigned to a precarious task of leading a transport of soldiers from Alexandria to Fort Monroe, Virginia. But these were not ordinary soldiers. They were stragglers and deserters who had been rounded up and were awaiting the return to their division. Along the trip, Michener kept a potentially volatile situation under control and completed the mission.

       An account of this event  is included in an 1867 brief biographical sketch of Michener's war service as written by author T.J. Simpson called "Prison Life." This two-paragraph narrative is quoted at the end of this post. Michener was tasked with picking up the ship load of deserters and stragglers from Alexandria and returning them to General John J. Peck's Division in southern Virginia.

        Stragglers were those who could not keep up with the rest of their compatriots on a march and dropped out of formation or fell far behind. The reasons for this action are varied. Some hesitant troops were trying to avoid a potential battle up ahead. Others could not withstand the physical demands of a long march. Eventually most rejoined their regiments. 

       Deserters, on the other hand, were those who were caught trying to permanently leave their regiment. Sometimes if caught, they would be subjected to humiliation, even execution. In late 1862, orders were issued to return both categories the soldiers from Camp Convalescent in Alexandria, Virginia to their regiments. Hence, Peck assigned Michener with the job to pick up up these men at the camp in northern Virginia who belonged to his division and bring them to Suffolk.

Execution of Five Union Deserters     LOC

         Camp Convalescent was the temporary home of three kinds of soldiers: the first were men who had recovered from illnesses or wounds at Washington, DC hospitals and were waiting to rejoin their regiment. A second camp was for stragglers and deserters commanded by Lieutenant Stephen H. Balk of the 6th U.S. Cavalry. The third camp was for recruits to the army.

Camp Convalescent
National Museum of Civil War Medicine

       The location of the Camp Convalsecent was described as being on Shuter's (or Shooter's) Hill near Fort Ellsworth. The camp was organized in August of 1862, after a series of battles around Richmond, and was under the command of Brigadier General John P. Slough, the military governor of Alexandria.

        Conditions at Camp Convalescent, also called Camp Misery,  probably had the men there is a surly mood before Michener and others arrived to take them back. One newspaper wrote, "Those not fit for duty are sent to the convalescent camp and placed in little diminutive tents six by seven on the ground. No floors nor straw to spread their blankets on, but the poor fellows just from comfortable quarter in the hospitals are turned into these pens, and compelled to sleep on the cold, damp ground, and this in a climate but little warmer than that of Massachusetts. In these miserable dog kennels the men are obliged to stay until called to to go to their respective regiments. Many of them are not cured, and the exposure here frequently brings on their old complaints and in this condition they are sent to their regiments. For rations they are fed on pork, fresh beef and bread, with occasionally a few potatoes and onions. These articles, together with sugar and coffee, are issued to the men raw, owing to the scarcity of wood. The men have to go out and pick up wood and faggots to cook their meat and boil their coffee. There is no wood to be had within a radius of two miles, and the men are obliged to go that distance for wood, or eat their rations raw. Many are without blankets and overcoats and suffer exceedingly from the inclement weather. Clothing is issued to those needing it when it can be obtained, which is but seldom. There are not less than 6,000 men in different divisions of this convalescent camp and with a few exceptions, all fare the same -- sleep on the ground, live on raw pork and bread, and in this manner eke out a miserable existence. It can hardly be called living -- it is merely staying here. No wonder the men are discouraged and dejected and desert, as they sometimes do." [The Burlington (VT) Free Press, December 11, 1862, p.2]

Camp Convalescent
Library of Congress

         Considering that they missed some of the fighting, stragglers had few defenders. One soldier however noted the life of a straggle could be perilous.

          "One of the saddest sights of the march was the great number of stragglers. We read in the newspapers of so many stragglers picked off by guerillas, or captured and missing, and one naturally supposes that these unlucky ones have willfully strayed from the command, and suffered the penalty for their carelessness and disobedience. But what is the reality? As the column goes hurrying by, you catch a glimpse of a pale face lying by the roadside, faint and weary; a few steps farther on, one with his shoes off, bathing his blistered feet; here is a poor fellow whose summer has been spent in hospital, sick of a fever, and whose little stock of strength is soon exhausted ; these are the stragglers who reach the camp long after the others have made themselves comfortable for the night, and, after a restless night, they start off the next morning with a like prospect before them, until human endurance can hold out no longer." [Charles Eustis Hubbard, The Campaign of the 45th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, 1882, p. 53-4]

          A journalist who was on the march to Goldsboro, NC and back with the 85th Pennsylvania in December of 1862 further explained, "I have spoken of stragglers upon the march. There are two or three distinct kinds of straggling. One is involuntary — the result of sickness or exhaustion. Another comes from laziness or the want of a spirited determination to bear up; and another from cowardice. Do not imagine that because a man enlists and goes to the wars that he necessarily does his whole duty as a soldier. There are no better opportunities for shirking than those afforded the soldier. It was noticeable upon our late march that whenever cannonading commenced at the head of the column, as it did day after day, scores of men commenced falling out and laying down by the side of the road." [Zenas T. Haines, Letters from the 44th Regiment M.V.M, 1863, p. 59]

         The deserters were who were on board the transport with Michener were a different matter. By definition their only goal was to escape military life. When things went badly on the voyage from Camp Convalescent, it would not take much imagination that these men would foment dissension or use any excuse to leave army life (again) if they had the chance.  

Map of Potomac River region showing Alexandria, Aquia Creek and Maryland Point      LOC

     The account, says Simpson was related by "J.E.C.," an assistant sutler with the 85th Pennsylvania. This is probably sutler James Clark.

          From "Prison Life:" "An instance illustrating Lieutenant Michener’s wonderful tact and skill in governing and controlling reckless and desperate men in times of peril and danger is related by J.E.C., assistant sutler of the Eighty-Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers. In December, 1862, General [John J.] Peck, then in command of the troops at Suffolk, Virginia, detailed Lieutenant Michener to proceed to Alexandria, Virginia, and conduct from that point to Suffolk some two hundred deserters and stragglers belonging to his division. On the arrival of Lieutenant Michener at Alexandria, a number of the men refused to go and, being of a desperate character, much difficulty was apprehended. The assistance of a company of regulars was necessary to get them on board the steamer Thomas P. Swan. The officer in command at Alexandria, General Slough, offered Lieutenant Michener a guard of twenty men to accompany him to Suffolk with his reckless charge, but he declined the offer, stating that he thought he could take them without a guard. Nothing of importance occurred on the voyage until the steamer arrived off Maryland Point where she ran aground on the reefs, or kettle bottoms, as they are called. The men had only been furnished with one day’s rations, sufficient to take them to Fortress Monroe. These were now exhausted; the men became boisterous; a mutiny was threatened; they demanded the keys of the captain’s larder. In this critical moment Lieutenant Michener called the men upon the upper deck and in a brief and persuasive speech calmed their passions and prevailed upon them to wait patiently until relief should come.

Aquia Creek Landing, VA        LOC

        "A signal of distress was then thrown out and two hours later a gunboat came up and attaching a heavy hawser [large rope] to her bulkhead, parted it twice in vain attempts to pull her off. Seeing a schooner some two miles distant, Lieutenant Michener requested the captain of the steamer to send him off in a boat to the schooner, assuring the men that he would go to Aquia Creek, procure a tugboat and rations, and return at once. It was two o’clock P.M. when he left the steamer and did not arrive at Aquia Creek until after midnight. [General Ambrose] Burnside had just commenced his great but disastrous move against Fredericksburg and all was hurry and confusion at Aquia Creek. Lieutenant Michener succeeded, however, in procuring two tugboats and rations and reached the steamer at daybreak next morning. The combined efforts of the two tugboats, however, failed to get the steamer off, and Lieutenant Michener was compelled to return again to Aquia Creek for assistance. The men, however, became desperate, rage and passion burst forth, the lives of the captain and Lieutenant Michener were threatened. All seemed to be lost; it was a moment of dreadful suspense. Finding kind words and remonstrances in vain, Lieutenant Michener sprang to the deck and quickly armed ten of the most reliable and trusty soldiers and assuming a stern and commanding aspect, soon quelled the spirit of revolt. Appointing one of the ten as sergeant in command, with orders to shoot down the first man who should show feelings of revolt, he returned to Aquia Creek, procured a transport, transferred the men from the grounded steamer, started for Fortress Monroe, and arrived safely the next morning." 

       Simpson's account demonstrated Michener's strength as a leader. When the boat became stuck, he used words to calm the situation and took personal charge of trying to find a way to dislodge the Thomas P. Swan. When that attempt failed and the men became more rowdy, Michener resorted to the threat of physical harm and again returned to Aquia, this time for a replacement transport. The Simpson story stated that he had to quickly chose ten men from the group, most likely from among the stragglers who had fallen from the ranks of their regiments due to physical exhaustion and not avoidance of battle. Perhaps even sutler Clark was one of the armed men, since he could be trusted. All with the Union army in disarray following the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg just 15 miles away.

       Although not a heroic chapter from his life in battle, the story nonetheless displayed that Michener commendably pulled off his mission under dangerous circumstances without the loss of life. 

NEXT: John E. Michener's encounter with the Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry just prior to their famous assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

John E. Michener and the Peninsula Campaign


Captain John E. Michener
Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs
New York Public Library

       The brief, 40-page chapter in "Prison Life" (1867) about Captain John E. Michener of the 85th Pennsylvania, mentioned in my previous post, offers some heretofore little known details about his three years in the Union army, beginning with information about the Peninsula Campaign. 
        Michener, from Fredericktown, Washington County, PA, first joined the 85th Pennsylvania regiment as a lieutenant in Company D. He was 23 years of age with a wife and newborn daughter. His brother, Ezra, served as an assistant sutler attached to the regiment. Later in the war, in early 1864, Michener would be promoted to captain of Company K. 

        After a brief stay in Washington, DC during the winter of 1861-62, the 85th Pennsylvania was transported to Fort Monroe, Virginia to be part of General George B. McClellan's massive movement to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, by advancing up the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. This effort, known as the Peninsula Campaign, would prove to be a massive Union failure and starkly shattered the expectation of many northerners that victory would in a short amount of time. 

Position of Casey's Division At Williamsburg in support of Hooker and Kearney

         The first pitched battle of the of the Peninsula Campaign, was fought at Williamsburg on May 5, 1864. Union forces caught up to the rear guard of the Confederate army that was retreating from Yorktown. The battle involved over 70,000 troops and resulted in about 4,000 total casualties, but ended without a decisive winner The Union pursuit continued up the Virginia Peninsula towards Richmond. 

      The 85th Pennsylvania played a supporting role during the engagement. They were called into a line of battle line during the night of May 5, but did not fire their rifles. The men were very excited to be placed in a position to be under fire from artillery for the first time. Although shelled, the regiment suffered just two casualties, their first of the war. Also memorable was the bone-chilling weather, as they stood shivering in formation all night long during a rain storm. More information about the Battle of Williamsburg can be found here.

      What "Prison Life" adds to the story: Because of the minor role played by the 85th Pennsylvania at Williamsburg, "Prison Life" adds little to what is already known. Author T.J. Simpson exalts Michener for parading in front of his men and exhorting them to stand in readiness for an order to advance that never came. Michener deserved credit for encouraging his men, but not on the level described below by Simpson. Although placed under fire for the first time, the Confederate shells directed at them mostly fell behind the men, not upon them or in front of them. Michener displayed plenty of bravery during the war; however, it was a stretch for Simpson to highlight this incident in such sonorous language.

From "Prison Life:" [Standing in formation at Williamsburg] "Here Lieutenant Michener’s coolness and intrepidity was fearlessly displayed and won for him the admiration and confidence of all his comrades. Seizing a musket, he rushed to the front and as if wholly unconscious of danger, continued to encourage and animate his men, both by word and example, in the midst of a most deadly fire, until the close of the battle."

         The Confederate army following the battle continued their withdrawal up the peninsula towards Richmond under the command of General Joseph Johnston with McClellan in pursuit. Nearly a month after Williamsburg, the 85th Pennsylvania was in the front lines for the Battle of Seven Pines. This fight involved 73,000 troops and ended with nearly 14,000 casualties. This three-day fight, the closest ever to Richmond, ended in a draw. Confederates held off the invasion of Richmond, while the Union rallied after nearly being overwhelmed on the first day of the battle. 

        The 85th Pennsylvania, as part of Silas Casey's Division of Erasmus Keyes' Fourth Corps, was in the front lines on the first day of the battle. This inexperienced division, greatly reduced by sickness, fought extremely well, holding off a much larger Confederate strike force until re-enforcements arrived hours later from across the Chickahominy River. For more information about the Battle of Seven Pines as well as an excellent detailed map of the opening of the fight, click here.

        Michener, then a lieutenant in Company D, was on picket duty with the fight commenced along with his captain, William Horn, and a handful of men. Facing overwhelming numbers of Confederates, he and his men struggled to return to their regiment. Several of were captured. While some in others regiments panicked and fled to the rear, Michener was able to coolly lead the rest of the men back to their regiment.

    What "Prison Life" adds to the story: Specific details about Michener's role are provided. Michener, it turned out, was given charge of a group of Confederate prisoners during his return from the picket line by a colonel of another regiment. Michener through Simpson also disclosed the route of his return. 

History of the 103rd Regiment
PA Veteran Volunteer Infantry p.174
Union picket line on the far left; 85th PA to the right of the redoubt along the stage road

  From "Prison Life:"
"Lieutenant Michener was cut off from his division, with the rebels in front and rear, while he and his men were exposed to a galling fire from both friends and foes. With thirteen men belonging to his own company and four of the ninety-sixth New York, he moved through the slashing of newly-fallen timber to the York River railroad, deployed his little squad as skirmishers, and captured three prisoners with the loss of one of the New York boys, who was shot in the head while gallantly fighting at his post. Moving then to the right of the railroad, he succeeded in escaping from his dreadful dilemma and hastened to the point where [General John] Sedgwick fiercely contesting every inch of ground, finally changed defeat into victory and triumphantly closed one of the bloodiest battles of the war."

Michener's route from the picket line along the RR line to Sedgwick's position at the Battle of Seven Pines
History of the 103rd PA by L.S. Dickey, p. 166

Colonel Oliver H. Rippey
61st PA Infantry
Killed at Seven Pines

    "Here Lieutenant Michener was directed by Colonel [Oliver H.] Rippey, [61st PA, killed at Seven Pines] a brave and gallant officer, to take charge of some forty-five prisoners and guard them securely until they could be removed to the rear."

         The 85th Pennsylvania and Silas Casey's entire division, after a severe public rebuke from McClellan, was sent to rear during the ensuing Seven Days' Battles. In late June of 1862, McClellan gave up his plan to capture Richmond. After the final fight at Malvern Hill, the 85th Pennsylvania as part of the division of General John J. Peck (who replaced the scapegoated Casey) guarded the Union retreat. McClellan's huge army set up a defensive position at Harrison's Landing on the James River and sat for six weeks. In mid-August, McClellan's army began loading onto ships and left the peninsula. McClellan called the massive retreat a "change of base." 

       It took several days for the army to be removed aboard transport and barges from Harrison's Landing. The mood of many in the Union army as well as in the North was disappointment and confusion that the Union offensive to end the war had stalled. A Pittsburgh newspaper wrote, "Without a struggle, without even the loss of a single man, the immense Army of the Potomac, officers and men, bag and baggage, stores, tents, horses, ammunition and contrabands, are now far away from Harrison's Landing...steamer after steamer and vessel after vessel passed us steaming or sailing in the direction of Fortress Monroe heavily laden with horses and stores." [Pittsburgh Gazette, August 21, 1862, p.1]

Harrison's Landing
Harper's Weekly

  From "Prison Life:" This vignette displayed Michener's organizational and management skills. [McClellan’s retreat] "At the evacuation of Harrison’s Landing, Lieutenant Michener was detailed to take charge of all the baggage belonging to General Peck’s division. The baggage consisted of trunks, boxes, knapsacks, etc. They had been hastily and carelessly tumbled into crazy old canal hulks by a careless and reckless quartermaster and consequently the boats rapidly filled with water and sunk at the wharf where they had been loaded. To remove this baggage out of these sunken boats to others was a slow and difficult task. In less than eighteen hours, however, Lieutenant Michener with a squad of soldiers and one hundred contrabands [former slave laborers], succeeded in transferring the whole of the baggage from the sunken boats to the schooner W. A. Ellis. After this was accomplished, he was ordered by General Peck to proceed with the schooner to Hampton Creek, Virginia, near Fortress Monroe and land the baggage."

Yellow - water route of baggage barge on the James River
Blue - land route of 85th Pennsylvania
Joel Dorman Steele, 
A Brief History of the United States 

          Most of the Army of the Potomac sailed to Fortress Monroe, Virginia and then on towards Washington, DC. They would soon fight at Second Bull Run, Virginia in August and at Antietam, Maryland in September. The 85th Pennsylvania did not board transports but instead marched back down the peninsula to Fortress Monroe where they stayed while their future assignment was being debated by McClellan and the War Department. The 85th Pennsylvania was eventually sent to Suffolk, Virginia where they spent the next three months.

 Next: John E Michener is in charge of a dangerous mission transporting deserters and stragglers.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Prison Life of John E. Michener Overview


Captain John E. Michener
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs:
 Print Collection, The New York Public Library

             My most recent post was about an escape attempt by Captain John E. Michener of the 85th Pennsylvania in 1864. It was told partly by Michener himself but mostly through the words of the Union prisoners with whom he attempted to flee. The post explored a letter to a newspaper that Michener wrote fifteen years after the escape in which he disputed a southerner's version of the use of dogs to track down slaves and escaped Union prisoners. The story of the escape and apprehension of Michener and his comrades was largely based on a postwar memoir by Captain John A. Kellogg of Wisconsin. Kellogg was one of the five Union officers who attempted to escape with Michener from a train bound from Georgia to Charleston, SC. 

       Michener had an account of his own war experiences published just after the Civil War, but I could not find a copy to review for this post.   Thanks to George Thompson, the memoir has been found on microfilm at the New York Public Library. A copy has since been obtained and reviewed.

       Based on the title of the Michener narrative, "Prison Life," I assumed that Michener's story would mainly be a first-person about his experiences in 1864. This includes the period in which he was captured on Whitemarsh Island near Savannah, GA to his release as part of a prisoner of war exchange ten months later. In the time in between those two events, Michener spent time in several Confederate prisons and tried to escape at least twice. 

       Surprisingly, just the last third of the 40-page chapter covered Michener's time in captivity. Furthermore, the Michener account ends while he was still in prison in Macon, GA. The daring escape attempt from the train bound for Charleston that was covered in my last blog was completely ignored in this treatment. It also omitted the last few months of his imprisonment as well as how he obtained his freedom. Why the overall work was entitled "Prison Life" is therefore a bit of a mystery.

       However, what "Prison Life" does provide is a rich story of Michener's war experiences from 1861 to mid-1864. Although not written in the first person, the account certainly includes heretofore unknown details about Michener's service.

        My next several posts will explore "Prison Life." In those posts, I intend to review what is known about the events concerning Michener and his regiment, the 85th Pennsylvania, and how Michener's memoir has enhanced our knowledge of these events. I will begin with the current post which will be an overview of Michener's brief tract.

      Although at first disappointed at what was not written about in Michener's story, I now believe that these omissions are not that great of a loss. We have Captain John A. Kellogg's detailed review of the escape attempt and capture from the Charleston-bound train. We further know many of the details of Michener's time in a Charleston prison from a postwar letter that he wrote. The last few months of his time in prison was covered in several brief newspaper accounts from the period as well as the details of his exchange in the official records of the war. 

      The first two-thirds of "Prison Life" covers Michener's service in the war, from the Peninsula Campaign, to Suffolk, VA and finally to the fight at Whitemarsh where he and two others from the 85th Pennsylvania regiment were captured. Although we have several letters from Michener's family that give details of these events, "Prison Life" adds substantially to the story.

      "Prison Life" appears to be intended as an opening chapter of a larger work to be written by T. J. Simpson. The title promised illustrations of various battlefields and implied there are more chapters to follow. But for some reason, the story of Michener seems to be the only one that reached publication. Michener and Simpson probably met in Washington, DC immediately after the war. During this period, Michener worked for the postal service and was involved in the creation of an organization for former Union prisoners. 

         It is curious as to why Michener simply did not pen the chapter in the first-person. Michener is virtually the sole source of Simpson's story. From letters that Michener wrote to his family as well as letters he penned to a few newspapers during the war, it is apparent that Michener could have been quite effective if he had provided a first-person account. Perhaps Simpson had better connections to get Michener's story into print.

       Simpson seems to have used Michener's thoughts and words almost exclusively to write the chapter. One exception is a story from sutler James Clark (for whom Michener's brother Ezra worked) that is recounted. Furthermore, Simpson included some speech portions from other captured officers are used at the end of the piece. But otherwise, the remembrances seem to be from Michener alone. 

      Simpson writes in his introduction that, "...each one [story of a former Union prisoner] has some peculiarities connected with his history worthy of note, and many facts and incidents of an interesting and thrilling character which render the separate history of each one necessary to a correct and comprehensive view of the whole. The plan adopted, therefore, is to write the history of each one separately in a clear, concise and comprehensive manner."

      Simpson went overboard in exalting Michener's accomplishments. It would have enhanced the chapter if Simpson had quoted other soldiers about Michener's deeds. A reader could easily assume that Simpson attempted to portray Michener as a super soldier, or even worse that Michener himself overinflated his experiences. Having read numerous other accounts by and about Michener, I do not believe it was Michener's idea to inflate his accomplishments. 

      During the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in 1862, many men in the Union army became sick with various ailments including typhoid fever and other potentially deadly diseases. Simpson exalted Michener for assigning his black servant, likely a former slave, to care for the sick in the 85th Pennsylvania. By modern standards, Should Michener's so-called sacrifice in this instance be the object of such praise? Michener, wrote Simpson, "threw the coffee-cup, haversack, etc. over his shoulder, prepared his own food, washed his own clothes and cheerfully accepted the 'situation.'"  

        There is little doubt that Michener was extremely patriotic and highly regarded as an officer by the men in his regiment. As "Prison Life" showed, he was constantly put in charge of special assignments, a testament to his professionalism and reliability.  Michener wrote several personal and public letters during the war denouncing antiwar sentiments and encouraging the citizenry to continue to fight to preserve the Union.

    In late 1863, Michener wrote a letter to the Reporter and Tribune, a pro-war Republican newspaper in Washington, PA. Michener stated, "How do the Copperheads feel under the rebuke administered to them by the Union men on the 13th?...I believe your Southern sympathizers to be wickedly drunk to every feeling of loyalty or attachment to the United States Government. Their open treason, manifested by their cringing sympathy for the rebels; the vindictive spite with which they assail every friend of the Federal Government, and their opposition to a war prosecuted for the salvation and perpetuation of the Union is clear evidence of their infamous purposes, and wicked treason."

        During his more than two years in the 85th Pennsylvania, Michener was often chosen to lead special assignments, such as in two incidents highlighted in Simpson's memoir; namely to shuttle prisoners and deserters aboard a schooner and being in charge of the barge that shuttled the 54th Massachusetts to Morris Island, SC for their historic charge against Fort Wagner. 

        Michener was also involved in leading men on special missions into battle, such as the assault on Battery Gregg on Morris Island and the attempt to capture a key bridge during the assault against Whitemarsh Island, GA where he was captured.

     In this event, he made sure that all of his men had the chance to escape back to their transports, and was only captured because he was the last man to attempt to re-cross the bridge back to safety.

    The best part of Michener's story is the account of his capture and the many privations suffered in prison. These evens as well as his time in the regiment prior to his capture will be explored in my next several posts in the order in which they occurred.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Captain John E. Michener's Escape Attempt

         In my soon-to-be published Volume II history of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment, one chapter is devoted to the capture of Captain John E. Michener of Company K. Michener began the war as a lieutenant in Company D, the unit that included my great grandfather and his brother. 

        Michener participated in the Battle of Seven Pines (VA) in 1862 and siege operations around Charleston, SC in 1863. In early 1864, he was promoted to captain of Company K. But in February of 1864, Michener was taken prisoner along with two other members of his regiment on Whitemarsh Island near Savannah, GA and held in captivity by the Confederates for ten months before being exchanged.


Captain John E. Michener, 85th PA
Courtesy of Ron Coddington and
Military Images magazin

          I  wrote of Michener's period of captivity for Military Images magazine in an article entitled, "Following the Torn and Blood-Stained Colors: John Michener's Civil War Odyssey." The author is grateful to Michener descendant Margaret Thompson for providing family letters that were written that form the basis of above article as well as the chapter of my book.

      Shortly after the war, Michener wrote a brief publication about his time in prison. So far, the author has been unable to find Michener's work, entitled, "Prison Life: Capt. J.E. Michener of Co. D, 85th Pa. Vols." (Michener's former regimental comrade, Sergeant James E. Sayers of Company F, later owned a newspaper in Waynesburg, Greene County and  mentioned Michener's work in an 1867 article.)

       While researching the regiment, the author came across a letter written by Michener that appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper in late 1879. Michener's letter was in response to an event that made national news; a South Carolinian names Thomas J. Butler travelled to New York City for a series of paid demonstrations in which his trained dogs were used to capture fugitive slaves and later escaped Union prisoners during the Civil War. Michener's newspaper letter was a response to this Butler's comments. More on that later.

Map showing Macon and Charleston
The "X" is the approximate location of the escape

           In his 1879 letter, Michener disclosed a wartime escape attempt from a train by himself and five other Union officers whom he lists by surname. The author was able to identify two of these fellow officers: Colonel John Azor Kellogg of the 6th Wisconsin and Navy Paymaster Luther Guiteau Billings. Billings was later promoted to read admiral and in a 20th century news article, gave a brief summary of the escape attempt. [the other three escapees were described by Michener as Ensign Stoner of New York, Ensign Smith who later settled in Washington, DC, and Lieutenant Brooks, who became an editor with the National Republican newspaper in Washington, DC]

       Even though Michener's book has not been found, Colonel Kellogg wrote a detailed summary of the escape attempt that he entitled, "Capture and Escape: A Narrative of Army and Prison Life." . It was published in 1908, twenty-five years after Kellogg's death

             Michener briefly described the escape in his 1879 letter, "During the night of the 27th of July, 1864, me and several hundred of my brother officers were being transported from Macon, Ga., to Charleston, S.C.,, and escaped to the swamp, through which we hardly thought an alligator could have followed us. Late in the afternoon of the second day, however, we heard the deep baying of dogs which we held off with stout clubs until the two fiendish owners had called them off."  [Pittsburgh Commercial, reprinted in the Lancaster (PA), Examiner, November 5, 1879, page 5]

Rear Admiral Luther G. Billings
Baltimore Sun, 2-17-1918
       In his equally short version for an interview more than 50 years later, Luther Billings remembered, "Once during my imprisonment, with some other men, I managed to break out and we headed toward the coast, hoping to reach the Union fleet. we came to a swamp three miles wide and struggled through it, swimming, wading through mud, dodging snakes, and when, after five hours' toll, we got through, we were captured by a posse of Confederates with hounds." [Baltimore Sun, February 17, 1918, page 46]

        Then in October of 1879, John Thomas Butler of Hamburg, SC, travelled to New York City with his pack of dogs for the purpose of demonstrating how the animals were used to track down fugitive slaves. Butler's expressed purpose, in addition to making money from the exhibition, was to show people in the North that the process of capturing fugitives was relatively humane and that the purpose of the dogs was to track runaways, not attack them.

       Said Butler, "I wanted to travel a little and brought these dogs along to pay my expenses and to show you all at the north that we are not quite as bad as we are said to be."

         Another New York newspaper quoted Butler at stating: "Slave-tracking has been ever since I remember a great business in the South. Slaves going over fences and through swamps for more than 300 miles have been successfully pursued by these hounds, but they are all trained to a nicety and never will do harm except by order of their master." [from the New York Herald, October 5, 1879]

        [Butler was evasive when asked if he had used his dogs or otherwise taken part in the so-called Hamburg (SC) Massacre in in 1876. In this event, six blacks and one white were killed. Four of the deceased blacks were hanged. A group of about 200 armed whites attempted to disarm 38 members of a black militia in the predominantly black community near the end of the Reconstruction era.]

      Butler came to New York City with an African-American named Sam Britton who performed the role of a runaway slave. Britton's task was to escape on horseback and on foot, and then wait for Butler's dogs to track him down. 

John A. Kellogg
Service in the 5th Wisconsin Volunteers
Rufus Dawes, 1890

       One newspaper described the exhibition: "Reaching the gate, Sam consented to be 'treed' and mounting the high gate-post, awaited the hounds. When they found him they redoubled their noise and leaped high into the air, trying to reach the negro, who beat them off with his whip, until Mr. Butler came up and sounded his horn, at which the barking ceased as if by magic and the fugitive withdrawn. Mr. Butler says the dogs would have bitten the negro, well as they knew him, had he descended before the horn sounded, unless he had a club with which to beat them off. The moral seemed to be that a runaway slave must be careful to have a tree handy when the dogs overtook him, or, if he is caught in a swamp, he should be able tot cut a hickory stick in season." [New  York Tribune, reprinted in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, 10-18-1879, page 2]

        According to the New York Times, Butler's dogs were not ferocious looking. "the dogs were meek and mild little fox-hounds, of the kind that could hardly frighten anything larger than a rapid. Colonel Butler said they were the only kind every used in the South for tracking negroes and that they were not bloodhounds...They looked very sleek and neat, also looked as if a man with a good nerve and a heavy pair of boots could easily overcome their alleged ferocity." [reprinted in the Buffalo Morning Express, 10-13, 1879, page 2]

         Michener read of Butler's comments and became enraged.  His experience as a prisoner and escapee that that the dogs were not as benign as Butler described. "Before starting on our weary march back to that dreaded imprisonment this Mr. Butler took occasion to say: 'It's a good thing for youuns that our catch dogs gave out half a mile back here, for I reckon they'd a tored youuns up 'fore weuns got thar.'" [Michener presumed his captor was not Thomas J. Butler, who would have been about 21 years old at the time, but a member of the extended Butler family.]

     "I saw a Captain Holmes of St. Louis, Mo., a prisoner of war at Macon, Ga., in July, 1864, who had been fearfully mangled and torn by a catch dog in Alabama while he was trying to escape. I frequently saw two large South American blood-hounds outside of the stockade at Macon. At Andersonville, they had a large pack of blood-hounds.

       "...when this other edition of the Butler family tells the Tribune reporter that they 'had and have no blood-hounds down thar in South Carolina,' I say, 'you lie, you villain, you lie.'"

        Upon surrendering, Colonel Kellogg asked his captor if the dogs would have bitten the escapees had they not been called off. The captor smiled and said, "I reckon they might; right smart, too. I've seen them hounds eat [blacks], and I reckon they wouldn't know the difference atween them and you uns."


Harper's Weekly   November 21, 1863

      Kellogg's statement confirms John E. Michener's claim that using the hounds was not always humane, as Butler claimed in 1879, but that the dogs had the potential to bite, maim, and even kill the humans they were pursuing.

     In his blog entitled, "Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates," Toussaint Heywood has a post entitled "Track-dogs, catch-dogs and bloodhounds" that describes in detail the use of these animals to pursue and capture runaway slaves. 

        Kellogg, who had been wounded and captured at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia on May 5, 1864,  wrote his memoir in the early 1880's. Kellogg states the name of his pursuer in 1864 was named Davis, who may have been Butler's partner during the search. Kellogg alludes to Butler's visit to New York City in the following statement,  relating that there was a special observer among those at the New York City slave-catching demonstration in 1879.

       ",,,,this negro hunter,,,exhibited his pack of bloodhounds in New York City, and among those who attended the exhibition was my friend L.G. Billings. I should have supposed his curiosity would have been gratified in South Carolina."

       Michener was not the only reader to dispute Butler's performance, although for different reasons. A South Carolina newspaper wrote of the event, "the stalwart Republican press has been heralding it abroad with the startling news that there are hounds of this character in every neighborhood through the South and that the poor negroes are chased and torn by them at the mercy and caprice of the lawless whites...it is a miserable falsehood." [The Intelligencer, Anderson, SC, 10-23-1979, page 3]

Uncle Tom's Cabin Theatre Poster   LOC
         If Butler's main purpose was to make money, he apparently was successful. It was reported that Butler was paid well to join an acting troupe that was performing "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Butler's dogs were to be used in one of the scenes for dramatic effect. He also expressed hopes to tour the country and perhaps even Europe.

           Upon being captured by Butler and Davis, Michener and his five fellow escapees were sent to prison at Charleston. Two months later, Kellogg attempted another escape. This time he travelled 350 miles and succeeded in reaching Union lines in Georgia. He rejoined his regiment and participated in the Battle of Five Forks near Petersburg, VA on April 1, 1865. Kellogg returned to Wisconsin and resumed the practice of law. He was elected to the Wisconsin state senate in 1878 and died five years later.

         Later in life, Billings was promoted to rear admiral of the navy and served in three wars. He died in 1920 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

        Captain John E. Michener was released as part of a prisoner exchange on the James River in Virginia on October 16, 1864 for Mississippi cavalry Captain Alonzo J. Lewis. Michener's letter to the newspaper concerning the track dogs was printed on November 5, 1879. He died four days later from a lung disease that perhaps the resulted from his confinement and escape attempt. He was 41 years old.

Fredericktown Cemetery, Washington County, Pennsylvania



Monday, September 14, 2020

The 199th Pennsylvania Joins the Brigade

Regimental Colors of the 199th PA
PA Capitol Preservation Committee
Room 630 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA

             In October of 1864, about three-quarters of the men in the 85th Pennsylvania completed their three-year enlistment and prepared to return home to western Pennsylvania. They were removed from the front lines near the James River in Virginia and sent to Portsmouth, Virginia  for a month of relaxed duty before leaving the service.
            About 150 of their comrades from their regiment remained on the front lines, either because they had re-enlisted or because they had joined the regiment after 1861 and still owed the government a year or so of service. These remaining men would play prominent roles in the Battle of Fort Gregg and the Appomattox Campaign in April of 1865.


The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, PA, September 3, 1864

          The other three regiments in the brigade of the 85th PA had a more substantial number of men in remain in the service. In early 1864, many of these men from the 39th Illinois, 62nd Ohio and 67th Ohio had reenlisted. This brigade was designated as the First Brigade, First Division of the Army of the James.

Wetherill House, Samson St.
Philadelphia where the 
199th PA was organized

        Because of the departure of the men from the 85th PA, the brigade, temporarily led by Colonel Francis B. Pond of the 62nd Ohio,  was low in numbers. Therefore a new regiment, the 199th Pennsylvania, joined their ranks in Virginia. The 199th PA was composed of nearly 1,500 troops from around the state, including the counties of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Lancaster, Crawford, Allegheny, Lycoming, Wilkes-Barre, Dauphin and Lackawanna. They had enlisted for one year of military service in the fall of 1864.

Camp Cadwalader
Where the 199th PA Trained

            The 199th PA was led by Colonel James (later Joseph) C. Briscoe, He born in Ireland and had served as a staff officer for Generals Phillip Kearney and David Birney.  Meanwhile, several  members of the 85th PA became officers in the 199th PA: Robert P. Hughes (Lieutenant Colonel), Oliver Sproul (First Lieutenant, Company H), Charles Eckels (Captain, Company K) and Walter Cravin (Captain, Company E).
        On April 2, 1865, Union forces made a breakthrough against Confederate lines near Petersburg. In their first battle at Fort Gregg later that day, the 199th PA suffered 18 killed and 91 wounded. Colonel Briscoe was shot in the leg during the charge but continued towards Fort Gregg. 

        Briscoe's official report of the charge at Fort Gregg stated,  "About noon we received orders to attack and
James C. Briscoe
Am. Civil War Research Database

carry the fort, and the whole line advanced, in good style. The ground in front of the southeast salient of the work forms a perfect natural glaces for about 300 yards; passing over this space my regiment suffered its severest loss-canister, shot, and minie bullets tore through the ranks, yet not a man faltered. I was struck down by a flanking ball about seventy-five yards from the work, and although I lost but a moment in recovering myself, the men were already in the moat and clambering up the exterior slope; were fighting hand to hand across the parapet, the enemy refusing to surrender, though surrounded on all sides. This sort of thing lasted nearly twenty minutes, when we finally burst over the parapet and the fort was ours."
         Lieutenant Oliver Sproul, the former 85th Pennsylvanian, planted the colors of the 39th Illinois on the wall of the fort. William Chick of the 85th PA claimed that this was the first of many Union flags planted on the parapet as the fort fell to the Union. Wrote Chick, "The first flag to reach the fort was the flag of the 39th Ill. The Color Bearer fell as he reached the ditch and First Lieut Oliver Sproul of the 199th Pa. grabbed the colors, mounted the parapet, and planted the flag." [National Tribune, Washington, DC, June 12, 1902]
       Another account of Fort Gregg came from Private Jacob Etter of Company H. Etter wrote this tribute to his captain, John G. Bippus of Butler County, who like Briscoe was wounded in the charge upon the fort. "[You were] leading your command into action – that terrible charge on Fort Gregg, the key to the stronghold, Petersburg. I shall never forget it, nor my feelings as I picked you up and placed you in the ambulance [after a gunshot wound to the head], with the impression that you were mortally wounded…How any of us escaped to tell the tale of that day may only be attributed to Him who governs the universe and rules the stars, and who also directed the flying missiles. " (Butler Citizen,  August 7, 1878)

Charge of Fort Gregg    LOC

            After Fort Gregg fell, General Robert E. Lee abandoned Richmond and Petersburg and headed west to escape pursuing Union armies. At Rice's Station, on the way to Appomattox, a brief fight left four men dead and eight wounded from the new regiment. In total during their brief service, the 199th PA lost 32 men to the battlefield and 52 to diseases.
        Following the surrender at Appomattox, the 199th PA was encamped near Richmond and the men were mustered out two months later. [Frank H. Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War, 1913]
        Because they were from counties from throughout the state, the 199th PA often held company reunions rather than trying to bring the entire regiment together. One such reunion was held in 1912 by Company K. For this get-together, Captain Charles E. Eckels, formerly of the 85th PA, traveled from West Brownsville in Washington County to meet his former soldiers in Lancaster County.
       In his remarks to the company, Eckels said that, after the surrender at Appomattox, Company K was given the honor of guarding Union headquarters by General John Gibbon (Commander of the 24th Corps in the Army of the James) because of the company's strong appearance, discipline and training. [Williamsport [PA] Sun-Gazette, September 12, 1912]
      The last surviving member of the 199th PA was Paul Albaugh from Meadville, Crawford County. He died in 1935.

The Mercury, Pottstown, PA, July 15, 1935

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Captain Lewis Watkins


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

The transcribed letter at the end of this post was written by Captain Lewis Watkins of Company E of the 85th Pennsylvania. At the time it was written, in the summer of 1864, his regiment
 was stationed on the Bermuda Hundred front near Ware Bottom Church, Virginia. Watkins and his fellow western Pennsylvanians were encamped near the southern bank of the James River below Richmond and had recently provided cover during the construction of an important pontoon bridge across the river at Jones Neck. 

James River Pontoon Bridge LOC
        This bridge would enable the Army of the James to threaten Richmond several times in the next few months. [Watkins' regiment later crossed that bridge on their way to Second Deep Bottom]. Their last few days had involved low-level skirmishing along the front against the Confederate “Howlett Line” of defenses.

        Ironically, Watkins' letter appeared in the newspaper on August 17, 1864; this was the day after Watkins was severely wounded at the Battle of Second Deep Bottom near Richmond. His fate is described later in this article.

         Lewis Watkins, age 37, originally joined the regiment as a first lieutenant in Company E, led by Captain Henry A. Purviance (who was later promoted to lieutenant colonel). In a sad irony that mentioned Watkins' speculations about his future while he was laying in a hospital bed fighting for his life. Watkins was sent to Chesapeake Hospital at Fort Monroe. He died there of blood poisoning six weeks later. He was survived by his widow, Mary. They had been married for just six months and had no children.

Congressman James Kennedy Moorhead   LOC

        Watkins wrote the letter to Congressman James Kennedy Moorhead (1806-1884).  Moorhead was a Republican member of House of Representative (1859-1869) from Pittsburgh’s 22nd Congressional district. He had earlier served as state adjutant general in 1838  After the war, he would later serve as president of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce for the last seven years of his life.  Prior to his career in politics, Moorhead had been involved in the Monongahela Navigation Company that built lock and dams for the navigation of the Monongahela River between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, VA (later West Virginia). Watkins mentions in his letter that his late father, Richard, lived near Lock #5 near Brownsville, Fayette County.

          In his letter, Watkins mentions the high number of Confederate deserters making their way to Union lines from nearby Confederate entrenchments. This was due to several causes:  forced marches to defend different points menaced by Union cavalry, diseases, the inability to remove sick men from the front, and lack of food.

              Watkins also spoke of his appreciation in Moorhead voting to eliminate the substitute clause of the conscription laws. This clause allowed a draftee to avoid service by making a $300 payment to the government or to higher another to take his place in the military. By mid-1864, northerners were growing weary of the war, particularly after Grant’s Overland Campaign to capture Richmond had stalled with heavy losses. The antiwar feelings were blunted by union victories at Cedar Creek, Mobile and Atlanta.

       At the time of his letter, Lee’s army was somewhat trapped behind fortifications along the Richmond-Petersburg front. Grant had just moved his command to City Point, VA and Lee now had to protect not only Richmond but also his vital supply line at Petersburg. Watkins was correct that victory would eventually be achieved “If we could get them out of their fortifications.”

           Watkins may also have been writing to Moorhead in the hopes of networking for future employment opportunities. Had he lived, Watkins would have returned home in November of 1864 so he was within a few month of the end of his three-year enlistment. In the last sentence of his letter, however, Watkins hints that he might reenlist and stay in the service until the end of the war, after seeing to the needs of his mother in Pennsylvania.

         Watkins was survived by his wife, Mary Elizabeth Chrissinger Watkins, whom had married earlier in the year at McKeesport, PA. Watkins had gone home on March 3 from Hilton Head, South Carolina to accompany 110 members of the regiment who had reenlisted and had therefore earned a month's furlough to travel back to western Pennsylvania. Accompanying Watkins aboard the steamship Arago (right)  for this duty were Captain Ross Sanner of Company F as well as Lieutenants Jacob Davis of Company E and Levi Rogers of Company F.

         Upon his death, Watkins'  body was sent home and he was buried on his family's property in West Brownsville, Washington County. Mary apparently never remarried and died in Iowa in 1909. 


                       The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial             August 17, 1864                  Page 4

                             A Cheering Voice from a Gallant Officer

                                                                                                                     Camp of the 85th Penn’a Vols.

                                                                                                                      Near Bermuda Hundred, Va.,                                                                                                                       July 5, 1864

Hon. J. K. Moorhead, Pittsburgh, Pa.:

    DEAR SIR: -- I intended to have written to you before the closing of Congress, at which time you were at Washington City zealously engaged in counteracting Copperhead influence so as to repeal the three hundred dollar clause of the Conscription law. However, I was prevented on account of the continuous fighting which was going on in our front. If it had not been that I observed, in the reading of the proceedings of Congress, that you were among the number who voted right, I should have made a great effort to drop you a line. I assure you that the army was considerably interested, and all who favored the repeal have won the admiration of all the soldiers and every patriot.

       No doubt but I had better introduce myself before proceeding, for fear that you have forgotten me, or it may be that you never knew me. Suffice for me to say, I remember you. However, I am satisfied that you will recollect or have some knowledge of me when I refer you to my father, Richard Watkins, who, before his death, lived at Lock No. 5. I have been in the army nearly three years, under the command of Colonel J.B. Howell, with whom no doubt but you are well acquainted, during which time

Confederate Deserters   Harper's Weekly  7-16-1864
I never was more confident of success as now. When the Army of the Potomac was on the Peninsula, two years ago, scarcely a deserter came into our lines. And if any did come they were always foreigners or were Northern men. Since we have been here this time there are many, almost every one of whom are natives of Virginia. I have talked with several within the last few days. They all say that much dissatisfaction prevails in their army, and a lack of confidence of success. A great many complain of the bad faith of their government, in first getting them into the army, and at the expiation of their term of service conscripting them for an indefinite length of time or so long as the war lasts. I am afraid that the people of the North will become impatient and be disposed to have peace on any terms, when the Confederacy is fast falling to pieces, and a short time will consummate the work of destruction. Although the rebels fight well, yet I think that they were not as determined as when we fought them at Fair Oaks [Seven Pines]. If we could only get them out of their fortifications, the fate of the rebellion would soon be decided.

            The last of the Southern men are in the field, and as this war will terminate only then the resources of the South are exhausted. I think that the beginning of the end is at hand.

         The weather is quite hot, yet much healthier than when we were on the Peninsula before. The health of the troops is good considering the season. The attack on Petersburg did not result as favorable as we could have expected, yet we are not discouraged nor was it barren of any advantage. Grant sill sticks close to the enemy, and would succeed if the rebs were kept out of the State. The accounts given by correspondents of the press must be taken with considerable allowance. I believe that our cause has been injured by false statements.

       My term of service will soon be out, having served for nearly three years. I expect to return home and procure a satisfactory home for an aged mother, after which I will return if this war is not terminated.

                   I remain your friend.

                                                                                          LEWIS WATKINS

                                                                                          Captain 65th [sic] Pa. Vols.