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 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.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Tributes to Colonel Joshua B. Howell

From L.S.Dickey's 1915 History of the 85th Pennsylvania

             Colonel Joshua B. Howell, founder and leader of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment, died on September 14, 1864. While his regiment was encamped at Fort Morton near the famous Petersburg (VA)  Crater, Howell's death occurred nearby at the X Corps headquarters. His death came as the result of a fall from his horse. He was 58 years of age. His long-sought after promotion to general came posthumously.
          Howell had had several close calls with death in the previous year, mostly notably in August of 1863 on Morris Island near Fort Sumter, South Carolina. A bombproof under Howell's command was hit by an enemy shell. Buried under a pile of rubble, Howell nearly died, and was left with a severe concussion from which he never fully recovered. He took several medical leaves from his beloved regiment in the following 12 months, the second time under the supervision of his brother, Dr. Benjamin Howell
Dr. Charles Clark
Howell's death was remembered twenty-five years later by his friend, Dr. Charles Clark, the surgeon and later historian for the 39th Illinois who had treated him after his riding accident. In 1889, Clark wrote. "On the morning of the 13th, we were painfully shocked to hear that Colonel Howell, then temporarily commanding the Third Division, had been seriously injured the previous evening by the falling of his horse. His clothing and even his sash and sword were still on him...the Colonel was placed aboard and taken to the Brigade Hospital...he was suffering from a severe concussion of the brain and possible hemorrhage. it was evident, however, that he could not live. He remained unconscious up to a few moments before dissolution, when he opened his eyes an effort to speak, but was unintelligible." [Yates Phalanx, Charles Clark, 171]
          Colonel Howell's untimely death was a dark day in the history of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment. Had he lived another month, he would have had the opportunity to return home to western Pennsylvania with the majority of his regiment, whose three-year enlistments were about the expire 
          Weeks prior to his death, Howell had been promoted to acting commander of the Third Division in the X Corps of the Army of the James. Howell's personal horse had been injured so he was riding a substitute at the time that was said to have a sensitive mouth and did not respond well to its reins being pulled. Howell's body was sent back to New Jersey near his boyhood home for burial
          Nine days prior to his death, Howell wrote proudly to his daughter that, "To my great surprise I received an order last week assigning me to the command of this [Third] Division due to the illness of [the] General commanding, who had gone on to Fort Monroe. It is a high compliment from Corps Head Qrs. and a responsible command." [Book of John Howell and his Descendants, p.453]
        This account of Howell's death appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer five days after the event.
       "A very great calamity befell the Tenth Army Corps in the sudden and lamentable death of Brigadier-General [actually his rank in the state militia] Joshua B. Howell , commanding a brigade in Major General A.H. Terry's division.The circumstances were as follows: Shortly after dinner, Gen. Howell proposed to mount his horse and ride to a point somewhat distant from his quarters. He had only succeeded in gaining his position on his horse, which was exceedingly uneasy at the bit, when the general unfortunately grasping the wrong rein, the horse suddenly careened and fell backward, falling wholly on the person of the deceased, where he remained. His orderly at once rushed to the general's rescue, and with much exertion got his prostrate form from beneath the vicious animal. Being borne to his quarters he was found to be insensible, and did not rally to the last. He died in the evening, and his embalmed body is now on its way to his Pennsylvania [actually New Jersey] home."
        Howell's posthumous promotion to Brigadier General was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February of 1865, to be postdated from the day of his death. 
         Howell's last corps commander. General Alfred Terry, wrote this touching tribute to Howell in 1882. "At this distance of time, I cannot speak of General Howell's military career, but my recollection of him as a man and an officer are as clear and distinct as they were eighteen years ago. I have never known a more courteous gentleman; I never saw a more gallant and devoted officer. The record of his service was without spot or blemish...His untimely death was lamented by all his comrades as a loss wellnigh irreparable..." [The Book of John Howell and His Descendants, pp. 429-30]
             Soon after his death, General John G. Foster named a fort in Howell's honor at Mitchelville on
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, near where Howell and his regiment were stationed in early 1863. The structure, built by the 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment,  has been historically preserved. 
           Furthermore, a Grand Army of the Republic post, Post #31 in Woodbury,  New Jersey, was named in Howell's honor. Howell was born in New Jersey in 1800 and lived there until moving to Uniontown in the late 1820's.

The Morning Post   Camden, NJ   8-19-1887

The article at left from 1887 describes the donation of Howell's sword to the G.A.R. Post named in his honor by his second wife, Katherine. Joshua B. Howell's first wife, Mary, died in 1852. Howell married Katherine two years later. Katherine Howell died in 1898 and is buried in Delaware.

            In the years following his death, his regiment worked to keep Howell's memory alive. In 1890, a Washington County newspaper reported that, "The local committee of the 85th regiment yesterday made a contract with C.S. Kilpatrick, the Connellsville artist, to paint a life-size picture of Col. Joshua B. Howell. The canvas will be about 4 x 7 feet and the painting will represent the colonel in a standing posture, dressed in full uniform, with sword in hand, a camp scene in the rear. It is to be completed in September [in one month] and will be on exhibition at the regimental reunion [at Uniontown] here September 1." [The Canonsburg [PA] Notes, 8-16-1890, p.2]
       Around 1904, it seems that the portrait of Howell was donated to the Fayette County Courthouse in Uniontown. As of 1964, according to a local newspaper, it was still hanging in Courtroom No. 1. But at some point it the next nine years, the portrait became lost. 
        In 1973, the Evening Standard newspaper of Uniontown carried a headline that read, "Judge Feigus Seeks Portrait of Howell." The accompanying story outlined the mission of Judge Samuel Feigus. 
        "An oil portrait that hung in Courtroom No. 1 here at the courthouse for many years is being sought by Judge Samuel J. Feigus. Judge Feigus has been working on a history of the county bar Association, the courts, its judges, and other famous figures associated with the court in past years. The picture in question is a full-length portrait of Brig. Gen. Joshua B. Howell, at one time a member of the county bar association. 
      "It was procured on April 11, 1904 and for dozens of years adorned Courtroom No. 1...Anyone with information on the missing portrait who would like to aid Judge Feigus in his historical research is asked to contact him..." [Evening Standard, 5-2-1973,  p.6]
      It is unknown if Judge Feigus successfully tracked down the location of the Howell portrait or its current whereabouts. Feigus died a year later in 1974.
        More recently, Howell's likeness was recently added to the Gloucester County Wall of Heroes in the county justice complex in New Jersey. 
Glouceser County, NJ Wall of Heroes

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Capture of Lt. James B. Washington

Casey's Division is circled. The line is the position of Casey's pickets.
The "X" is the approximate location of J.B. Washington's capture.
From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, II; 1887, p.227

           In reviewing obituary records for the men of the 85th Pennsylvania infantry regiment from the Civil War, I came across this brief notation for Private George Washington Anderson of Company H. It pertains to an event that precluded the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) near Richmond, VA that began on May 31, 1862.
        "During one of the Virginia campaigns, while doing picket duty, he [Anderson] captured Major J.B.Washington of the Confederate army, now and for a number of years past secretary of the Pittsburg and Connellsville branch of the B&O R.R. Major Anderson and Mr. Andrews met in Somerset a few years since, when their recognition was mutual and they spent a pleasant hour talking over their war experience." (Somerset (PA) Herald,  October 20, 1897, p.3)
           If true, the capture of Washington by Anderson would be a notable occurrence from the battle by
Picket Duty    LOC
a member of the 85th Pennsylvania.  Many accounts of the Battle of Seven Pines mention Washington's capture, but Anderson's obituary is the only one I have come across that states the identity of the  soldier who captured him. [If any reader has further information about Washington's capture, I would appreciate a response.]
          It is confirmed that members of the 85th Pennsylvania were on picket duty that day. Lieutenant John E. Michener wrote, "There on Saturday of May 31st, without any support, our little Division was attacked by an overwhelming force of the enemy's best men, and after suffering a heavy loss, was repulsed...I was on picket duty in front of the swamp, and had instructions to hold my ground till the last." [Michener letter courtesy of Margaret Thompson]
          Private Milton McJunkin also wrote, "...our Company was on picket at the time so you see I saw the whole performance. About 1 o’clock the rebs fired three shots into our camp to give Casey warning. At the same time we, that is us pickets, were attacked by 5 brigades and nearly surrounded. Our Company was in the centre of the line and was cut in two so you see we had to retreat as it was useless for 200 pickets to try to check 5,000 of the best troops Jeff [Jefferson Davis] had so we scattered and got to camp the best way we could..." [The Bloody 85th: The Letters of Milton McJunkin, a Western Pennsylvania Soldier in the Civil War, by Palm, Sauers and Schroeder, p. 39]
           The capture of Washington, who was apparently performing a reconnaissance just prior to the Confederate attack, was significant. The Confederate attack in the early afternoon of May 31 nearly overwhelmed the division of Silas Casey, which was outnumbered 2-to-1 or 3-to-1. The 85th Pennsylvania was in the thick of the early fighting that day, in the brigade of General Henry Wessells, stationed near a battery during the early part of the battle. Pushed back to a line of trees, Colonel Joshua B. Howell rallied his 85th Pennsylvania regiment and parts of others to boldly advance towards a rifle pit and temporarily regain control of the position. Howell's men had to fall back once again, but not before buying precious time for Union reinforcements from across the Chickahominy River to arrive later in the afternoon and stop the Confederate advance.
          Despite their efforts, Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan (based on the questionable account of General Samuel Heintzelman of the Third Corps) chose not to praise Casey's Division for their stand but to disparage them publicly for their retreat after two or three hours of fighting.
         Casualties in the 85th Pennsylvania numbered around 30 dead and another 50 or so wounded.
        One of the charges made against General Casey was that he was unprepared for a Confederate attack. But in truth, Casey knew the precariousness of his position and was furiously trying to reinforce in anticipation of a rebel attack.
        The capture of Washington several hours prior to the battle only served to intensify the Union belief that an attack was imminent.
         Many accounts of the Battle of Seven Pines mention Washington's capture, but Anderson's obituary is the only one I have come across that says who captured him.
       Luther S. Dickey wrote the official history of the regiment in 1915, about 18 years after Anderson's death. He mentioned Washington's capture on that day but did not mention Anderson's role.
          "During the forenoon of May 31, the enemy appeared in force in front of the pickets immediately north of the Williamsburg Road. Shortly after 10 'clock A.M., Lieut. J.B. Washington , an aide-de-camp on the staff of General Joseph E. Johnston, was captured by Casey's pickets on the Nine-mile road and taken to Gen. [Silas] Casey's headquarters, and thence to Gen. [Erasmus] Keyes' headquarters..." [Dickey, p.71]
          Keyes immediately notified McClellan's staff of Washington's capture. "This young gentleman [Washington] was handsomely captured by our pickets on the right...In connection with the appearance with this young officer, on our right near our lines, I will state that the general officer of the day, Col. Hunt of Casey's division, heard the cars running through the night continually. Yesterday there was much stir among the enemy, and everything on his part indicates an attack on our position,which is only tolerably strong, and my forces too weak to defend it properly." [Dickey, p.72]
         Anderson died on October 14, 1897 in Ursina, Somerset County, Pennsylvania at the age of 65. He served three full years in Company H, comprised of men from Somerset County and led at the start of the war by young Captain James B. Tredwell. After the war, he held a variety of positions in Ursina, including constable, justice of the peace, town council member and judge. 
       Incidentally, Anderson's obituary mentions that he and Washington met after the war in Somerset to discuss their meeting at Seven Pines. This is entirely plausible, since Washington for a time managed the Somerset branch of the B&O Railroad.
         During the summer of 1863, the 85th Pennsylvania was stationed on Morris Island, South Carolina. After two failed assaults on Battery Wagner at the northern end of the island, the 85th Pennsylvania was tasked with the arduous duty of digging a series of parallels or trenches that approached Battery Wagner. Many were killed and wounded during the digging operation, falling victim to enemy sharpshooters and shelling from five Confederate forts.
           After the end of the operation, which resulted in the Confederate abandonment of Battery Wagner,
Gillmore Medal
History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1888
several soldiers in each regiment were nominated by their officers for special Fort Sumter Medals, also called "Gillmore Medals" for valorous service. Anderson was one of eight men from his regiment who were awarded this honor.
         James Barroll Washington, meanwhile,  was born in 1839 and was 23 years old at the time of his capture. He was born in Baltimore and was a graduate of West Point where he was a classmate of future General George Armstrong Custer At Seven Pines, after being captured, Washington posed with Custer, then a captain in the 5th Cavalry, for several photos, including the one below.
Matthew Brady photo of Washington and Custer
at Seven Pines on the day of Washington's capture    LOC

          Washington was part of a prisoner of exchange four months after his capture in September of 1862 at Aiken's Landing, Virginia. He then served the Confederacy in Alabama. He became a corporate executive of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1900. He is buried in his hometown of Baltimore.
          Interestingly, Washington's father, Lewis Washington, also has a prominent place in history. Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of President George Washington, was one of the hostages taken by radical abolitionist John Brown in 1859 during his infamous raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. After Brown and his men holed up in the town's fire house with the hostages, it was Washington who pointed out Brown after U.S. Marines broke down the engine house doors and end the standoff.
John Brown'provisional army with hostages on the left in Harper's Ferry engine house
Lewis Washington is depicted as the second man from the left    LOC


Monday, July 27, 2020

George Fisher's Centennial Birthday

          The longest living member of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment was William Mahaney of Company C. Mahaney enlisted into the regiment as a 17-year old in 1861 and died in 1944 at the age of 99, several months shy of his 100th birthday.
Lincoln (NE) Star
The second-longest living soldier in the regiment, the subject of this article, was Corporal George Fisher of Company E. Fisher was 23 when he joined the regiment and died at the age of 100 in Nebraska in 1938.
        About three months prior to his death, a local newspaper in Beatrice, Nebraska wrote an article in celebration of Fisher's 100th birthday. Although intended to be celebratory in nature, the article is a mixture of fact and fiction with somewhat dubious information relating to Fisher's service in the Civil War. Since he was likely the main source for the details of the story, Fisher seems to have misremembered or exaggerated some of the events. Colored by the passage of time, Fisher's remembrances and perhaps some information provided by his children and grandchildren resembled but did not accurately reflect past events.
       This is not meant to disparage a 100-year old man who honorably served his country for three years. It is meant as a warning that obituaries and articles such as this one are not always 100% accurate.
        The article states that Fisher, born in Germany, came to this country alone at the age of 15. After having what little money he had stolen from a hotel room in New York City, the article states that he "walked to Uniontown, PA and got a farm job which he kept 22 years except for time spent in the service of the Union army during the Civil War."
      As a reader, I would like to know what motivated Fisher to "walk" to Uniontown. The distance is over 300 miles and it seems that Fisher could have found work as a farm laborer much closer to New York City.
         The article continues on that, "He [Fisher] enrolled as a private in Co. 'E,' 85th Pennsylvania infantry in September, 1861. He was mustered into service on November 12, 1861 for a three-year enlistment and on August 27, 1863, was wounded by the explosion of an enemy shell."
Bombproof in Trench on Morris Island    LOC

          This account of Fisher's wounding is probably correct. In his comprehensive 1915 history of the regiment, historian Luther S. Dickey notes that Company E (Fisher's company) was in the trenches for digging duties near Fort Wagner on Morris Island on the night of August 27. Several members of Company E were killed by a shell explosion, including John H. Linn and Joseph Neely. Three other soldiers (William Marquis, Henry J. Ridgen and John I. White) later died of wounds suffered in this explosion.
        Although Fisher is not mentioned by name, Dickey writes that the explosion caused "more than a dozen casualties."
        The article continues "Fisher served with Generals Grant and McClellan and fought in the battles of Williamsburg, Charleston, Deep Bottom, Cold Harbor and others."
       There are several issues with this observation. The 85th Pennsylvania did not do much "fighting" at Williamsburg in May of 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign.  The divisions of Joseph Hooker and Phillip Kearney did  most of the fighting for the Union side. The 85th Pennsylvania formed a line and may have gotten off a volley or two into an unseen enemy beyond the tree line. And they were shelled by Confederate artillery. But for the most part they remained in formation and did not advance towards the battle. However, the 85th Pennsylvania did experience hard fighting at Charleston and (Second) Deep Bottom.
        The sentence also states that Fisher (and his regiment) served under Ulysses S. Grant and George B. McClellan. The 85th Pennsylvania assuredly served under McClellan's command during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in 1862. But they were never under Grant's direct command, either in the western theater or during the Overland Campaign of 1864. Technically, with Grant in command of the overall Union strategy beginning in March of 1864, every soldier in the Union army served under Grant. But in 1864, while Grant pushed towards Richmond with the Army of the Potomac, the 85th Pennsylvania was in the Army of the James under General Benjamin Butler and later under General Edward O.C. Ord.
        Grant did briefly accompany the Army of the James for part of the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia from the Petersburg front to Appomattox in April of 1865, a campaign that culminated with Robert E. Lee's surrender. 
The centennial article then states, "He [Fisher] helped construct the 'Swamp Angel,' a masked battery with which the Union army shelled Charleston...."
          This may have occurred. The regiment was stationed in the interior of Morris Island during the late summer of 1863 when the  Marsh Battery or Swamp Angel battery was under construction. It took much manpower to carry 13,000 sandbags to the site. The Swamp Angel was constructed between James and Morris Islands near Charleston, SC in July and August of 1863. The Swamp Angel floated on hundreds of sandbags (on top of 20 feet of mud), which soldiers carried over wooden planks to the marsh. On August 22, the Swamp Angel began an incendiary bombardment of Charleston, which continued until the 36th shot shattered its breech. 
         A problem here is that the 85th Pennsylvania was heavily involved in another Union effort at the time. Following the failed second assault on Fort Wagner on July 18 led by the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts, the next stage was unglamorous: the digging of a series of trenches or parallels to threaten the sand-walled battery. Along with the 100th New York and 3rd New Hampshire, the 85th Pennsylvania devoted almost all of their efforts in the month of August to this endeavor. Dickey's history of the regiment cites the diary of Commissary Sergeant John B. Bell for a day-to-day account of the regiment at this time. There are numerous references to "fatigue duty at the front," "completed seaward battery at third parallel," and the like, but no direct reference to constructing the Swamp Angel. 
           In his entry for August 17, Bell does state, "Regiment....moved to the front and during the day was engaged at fatigue duty filling gabions to strengthen the fortifications. Marsh Battery was completed ready for mounting guns."
           Next,  the end of the previous sentence is problematical. "...[Fisher] saw the battle of the
Monitor and the Merrimac.
          This could not have occurred. The battle of ironclads took place on March 8-9, 1862. The 85th Pennsylvania did not arrive at Hampton Roads for the Peninsula Campaign until three weeks later on April 1. Yes, several soldiers in the regiment wrote of seeing the Monitor in the waters around Fort Monroe as their ship came in for docking. At another time, the Merrimac was spotted when they were camped near Hampton, VA. But the ironcld battle itself was not witnessed by Fisher or anyone else in the regiment.

        The article concludes with the statement that, "A Republican, the aged man cast his first vote for president for a candidate with whom he shook hands several times, Abraham Lincoln."
         It is possible that Fisher met Lincoln face to face, but to have shaken hands with the president more that once seems to be a stretch. First of all, several soldiers from the regiment claim to have encountered  Lincoln when they were posted near Washington, DC during the winter of 1861-62. When they had free time, the men would often tour the capital city and several wrote that they talked to the president while walking the streets of Washington. 
         Lincoln then crossed paths with the regiment when Lincoln reviewed the entire Army of Northern Virginia in early July of 1862 at Harrison's Landing,VA. Finally, Lincoln was present at City Point,VA on March 25, 1865 and reviewed Union troops, including what may have included some in the 85th Pennsylvania. But Fisher had completed his three-year enlistment and had gone home the previous November.
           Fisher and his wife, Martha Rockwell Fisher from Uniontown, spent the last six decades of his life in York County, Nebraska. He passed away on January 23, 1938, three months after his one-hundredth birthday.