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.


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