Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Memorial Day 2021

 "While with a view to avoid their mistakes in the future, we may study the faults and omissions of the brave men who here contended for the life of the Republic, let us not blame them, for there were often cogent reasons, hindrances, and drawbacks with after many years no one can remember." -- Oliver O. Howard, Autobiography, Vol 1, p. 306.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Ed Bearss (June 26, 1923 - September 16, 2020)

 Just two to remember this remarkable man.

Ed in his moment...a sunny spring day, on the field, leading good company, going forward.

On an Ed tour, he would walk up, and inches away, bring history to you.

Saturday, August 22, 2020


As recorded here previously, the West Woods never ceases to surprise those who enter its green confines. 

Fellow guide, Laura Marfut, came across this little scene sheltered under a mossy rock ledge deep in the woods.

Long may the mysteries live!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

July 4, 2020

We have not got credit for what we did. We never do. No matter. History will show, and the Official Accounts will prove all. 
—Lt. Henry Ropes (20th Massachusetts) to his brother John C. Ropes, July 11, 1862. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

“The whole Division except our Regiment was broken into a mob, madly pressing to the rear followed closely by the enemies lines:” William J. Colvill and the First Minnesota in the West Woods.

William J. Colvill to Antietam Battlefield Board, December 10, 1892
Antietam Battlefield Board Correspondence, National Archives, Box 1 {Microfilm}

No 403 Masonic Temple,
Duluth, Minn., Dec. 10, 1892
Col. J. C. Stearns and
Gen. H. Heth
Antietam Board.
Washington, D.C. 
In response to yours of the 30th inst. requesting certain data as to position of my command in the battle of Antietam, etc.: I have the honor to make the statement following:
My command was Co. F. 1st Minn. Vol. Inf. being the senior Company of the Regiment which was a part of the 1st Brigade⁠1, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps.
Illustration 1: William J. Colvill, Jr. Source:
U.S. Army Military History Institute, 
Carlisle, Pennsylvania
On the evening of Sept. 16th, the Division was massed in the order of its Brigades[1]⁠2 as they came in on the march of that day, at a point in the valley of the creek on the east side, not far—I judge about forty rods—from⁠3 Burnside’s Crossing.⁠4 I do not remember the order by Regiments, but from our marching order of the 17th when our Regiment and Brigade lead the Division, the 3rd Brigade⁠5 lead it on the 16th.
We did not move from this position until after Hooker’s farthest advance on the 17th and when there seemed to be a lull in the battle. I have the impression, this was near 9 o’clock A.M.⁠6
I have no maps and have never revisited the field and can only give you an idea of the point of our farthest advance by a recital of our movements, which I will make as brief as possible.

The Division moved—our Regiment leading—northerly to a ford⁠7 on the creek and across that and beyond on a line nearly parallel with the Hagerstown Pike to a good Division distance, then faced to the left and marched Brigade front, the other Brigades following in order, to the Pike⁠8 from which, after a brief halt, we advanced, at first square with the Pike, and then — following Gen. Sumner⁠9 who rode rapidly near our right—obliquely to the right, over and beyond the dead and wounded of Hooker’s Corps and of the enemy,⁠10 about half a mile, I think all the way through large rather open timber,⁠11 and came square against a ravine, with a cornfield on the opposite side, on the extreme right, where was our Regiment which just about covered the width of this field.⁠12 
Illustration 2. The most advanced position of the 1st Minnesota
at approximately 9:40 on September 17. The West Woods
is at their rear and they are formed along a worm fence
with a cornfield to their front. On the high ground is 
and unknown battery with the 13th Virginia in support. 
Today, the fence line, woods, cornfield and wood lined
high ground are largely unchanged. All are within
the Park boundary. Source: Antietam Battlefield
Board, 9:00 a.m. map with positions overplayed onto 
Google Earth image.
The field was long and was lost to sight towards the river, I suppose owing to the undulating character of the ground. It was bounded on the left by the same timber  through which we had passed, and on the right by a narrow skirt of same, separating the cornfield from a long pasture field which apparently extended from the River bluffs back to the Pike. On the opposite side of this pasture field dense timber grew along its whole length. We were received at the ravine by a sharp fire of small arms from the timber in and on the opposite side of the ravine and from the cornfield, and returned it with vigor.⁠13 In a few minutes the fire from the cornfield almost ceased and we could see the enemy fleeing down through the corn in numbers. In this brief time we lost heavily, I think at that point over a hundred men out of six hundred, killed and wounded.
During the fire, being uneasy about our right, I placed the Regimental Pioneers—which were with my company, and on the extreme right—at a point about 20 rods⁠14 in advance, in the skirt of timber between the cornfield and long pasture field I have mentioned. This was the farthest advance that day. The ravine mentioned must be well known, for along it from left to right ‘till it reached our Regiment, the Brigade with the 2nd and 3rd Brigades, which latter had been halted to the left rear on raising ground with intervals too short, and had suffered from this fact equally with ourselves from the enemies fire—was “rolled up”  by a furious charge from the left. 
As I saw it[,] the whole Division except our Regiment was broken into a mob, madly pressing to the rear followed closely by the enemies lines. Instantly on the breaking up of the 84⁠15th N.Y.,[1] which was next on our left, Col Sully⁠16 of our Regiment gave the order to about face and march to the rear, which we did double quickly, accompanied with a shower of cannister from a battery⁠17 which had hurried up the pasture field and which had been reported by our Pioneers just as we started.
Illustration 3. Detail from the Antietam Battlefield
Board 1030 map. On the western high ground, French and 
Branch's Batteries move into position. Raine, D'Aquin and
Poague occupy a series of hills to the south. The unknown
battery associated with the 13th Virginia and some
of Stuarts cavalry advances toward
the Nicodemus Farmstead. 
A field and farm house and farm yard, with barn and other out buildings and stacks of grain lay between us and the Pike.⁠18 We passed over this field in line with and almost in contact with the enemy, facing about twice to repulse those following us, and rushing through the farm yard under a shower of cannister, tumbled over the stone fence in front and in less than 20 seconds formed on our colors in the road, every man in his place, and then immediately moved double quick by the right flank to the corner of the dense wood, which I have described as bounding the long pasture field on our right. Here a Battery of ours was quickly placed a short distance out in the field and we formed in support on its left. 
The enemies battery⁠19 — the same which had been following us—was quickly silenced and for about 20 minutes we exchanged fire with sharp shooters, the support of the battery, which was in the dense wood and had us at an advantage on that account; but after considerable loss to ourselves, we silenced them and were then withdrawn to the Pike at a point in rear of the same wood,⁠20 where we found other troops, I think of Franklyn’s Corps;⁠21 and some time after, perhaps at noon or a little after, we rejoined our Division which had been rallied at the Batteries under Kirby⁠22 (the same which that had repulsed the enemies charging column with such frightful loss). We took position on the extreme right of the Division immediately at the guns. This position was on high land immediately back of the Pike. A few rods to our right was an orchard in which that afternoon we buried some of our dead and more the next morning.⁠23 
Illustration 4. The final position of Gorman's Brigade,
and the First Minnesota on September 17. They are
situated in and around Joseph Poffenberger's farmstead
and orchard.
We held the same position that night and on the next morning, the 18th, I was assigned—not mustered—as Major of the Regiment, and at night fall took command of the Division picketts—a very strong guard in the wood from which we had been driven the day before, with instructions to advance them as skirmishers at earliest dawn, moving till we should strike the enemy. During the night I reported constant movements of the enemies trains and artillery, and at the first break of day, advanced the picketts rapidly until we reached the River; soon after which I had occasion to cross the same pasture field along its lower end to the edge of the dense wood before spoken of, and noted near that corner the ruins of an old mill, or what appeared to be such. This may aid in locating our position on the 17th.
I have have referred to the Hagarstown Pike as the points of “departure and arrival” but I may have been misled; the distance between is so great that perhaps the farmyard I have mentioned is on some other road coming obliquely into the Pike. We crossed it first on the side towards Sharpsburg at some distance from and out of sight of the Quaker Church⁠24 and came out on the other side of the Church and about as far from it.
I suppose from your knowledge of the field and of the movements of the different Divisions, you can, from what I have stated, locate the Regiment and my command exactly.
I hope you will not find this too tedious. But for fear of becoming so, I should have made a fuller statement, and given some interesting incidents which I have not seen in print, but the collection of which may not come with the purposes of your Board. 
I am very respectfully, W. Colvill, 
Ex Col 1st Minn
1 Brd Brig General
William J. Colvill, Jr. ⁠25
1 Willis A. Gorman’s First Brigade of Sedgwick’s Division, II Corps, comprised the 34th New York, 15th Massachusetts, 82nd New York, and the 1st Minnesota.
2 The order of brigades of Sedgwick’s Division as it advanced to the West Woods were: Willis A. Gorman, Napoleon J.T. Dana, and Oliver O. Howard.
3 220 yards.
4 This is an unknown reference at this point. Sedgwick’s Division encamped on the 16th due north of the Philip Pry house and orchard.
5 This is Brig. Gen. Napoleon J.T. Dana’s Brigade.
6 II Corps Commander Edwin Vose Sumner received orders from McClellan to advance his command at approximately 7:20 a.m.
7 This Antietam ford is marked on the Antietam Battlefield Board maps and lies approximately 900 yards downstream from the Upper Bridge.
8 Hagerstown Pike.
9 II Corps commander Edwin Vose Sumner.
10 Colvill is describing the regiment’s advance through Miller’s Cornfield.
11 West Woods.
12 See Illustration 2.
13 This small arms fire came from the 13th Virginia of Jubal Early’s command that was protecting the left flank of the Confederate artillery arrayed on Hauser’s Ridge. See Illustration 2.
14 110 yards.
15 Colvill should have stated the 82nd New York.
16 Col. Alfred Sully commanded the First Minnesota at Antietam.
17 This may have been D’Aquin’s Battery. The Antietam Battlefield Board 9:00-9:30 map shows it moving to the far left of the Confederate artillery line.
18 This was the Nicodemus farmstead directly north of their 1030 position. The Antietam Battlefield Board 1030 map shows the regiment retreating north along a farm road parallel to the Hagerstown Pike and running just to the East of the Nicodemus farmstead. A stone fence bordered the west side of the farm road.
19 This may have been Capt. William Thomas Poague’s three gun Rockbridge (VA) Artillery. Poague recorded in his Official Report, that “when the enemy was forced to fall back, I was directed to report to General Stuart on the extreme left, and with other guns kept up an advancing fire on the retreating enemy until he found shelter under a number of reserve batteries.” Five Confederate batteries rushed to the support of Semmes Brigade’s breakout to the  D.R. Miller farmstead. The “other guns” that Poague mentioned were batteries commanded by Raine, D’Aquin, French, and Branch. See Illustration 3, showing their locations. OR, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, pages 1009-1010.
20 North Woods.
21 By Noon, Gorman’s Brigade, resting in the “rear” of the North Woods, were very near John Gibbon’s brigade. The rest of Sedgwick’s Division were holding about 200 yards due east of Gorman’s left flank.
22 This was Lt. George A. Woodruff’s Battery or the 1st United States, Battery I. It was previously known as Kirby’s battery for its commander Lt. Edmund Kirby. Kirby was on sick leave from Sept. 1-24 during the Maryland Campaign. Source: Cullums Register.
23 See Illustration 4.
24 Dunker Church.
25 Captain William J. Colvill, Jr. (1830-1905), Company F, First Minnesota. Although seriously wounded at Gettysburg, Colvill survived the war and went on to serve in the state legislature and as Minnesota’s Attorney General before returning to his law practice in Red Wing. See further, Al Zdon's excellent biography, "Colvill of Minnesota," published in Summer 2009 by the Minnesota Historical Society, pages 260-71 at http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/61/v61i06p260-271.pdf.

Further reading: For regimental histories, see Richard Moe, The Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993); Isaac Lyman Taylor, "Campaigning with the First Minnesota: A Civil War Diary," Minnesota History, March 1944, pp. 11-39; John Quinn Imholt, The First Volunters: History of the First Volunteer Regiment (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, 1963)Wayne D. Jorgenson, Every Man Did His Duty: Pictures and Stories of the First Minnesota (Tasora Books, 2012). Also a very useful site maintained by the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment at http://www.1stminnesota.net. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Memorial Day 2019

Camp Fires of the Boys in Gray

by Private Carlton McCarthy [1]

The substance of this paper was delivered in response to a toast at the banquet and reunion of the Richmond Howitzers, November 9th, 1875.

For the full paper, see http://www.civilwarhome.com/campfires.htm

"The camp fires of the Army of Northern Virginia were not places of revelry and debauchery. They often exhibited gentle scenes of love and humanity, and the purest sentiments and gentlest feelings of man were there admired and loved, while vice and debauch, in any, from highest to lowest, were condemned and punished more severely than they are among those who stay at home and shirk the dangers and toils of the soldier's life. Indeed, the demoralizing effects of the late war were far more visible 'at home' among the skulks, and bombproofs, and suddenly diseased, than in the army."

"And the demoralized men of today are not those who served in the army. The defaulters, the renegades, the bummers and cheats, are the boys who enjoyed fat places and salaries and easy comfort while the solid, respected and reliable men of the community are those who did their duty as soldiers, and having learned to suffer in war have preferred to labor and suffer and earn rather than steal in peace."

"And, strange to say, it is not those who suffered most and lost most, who fought and bled -- who saw friend after friend fall, who wept the dead and buried their hopes -- it is not these who now are bitter and dissatisfied, and quarrelsome and fretful, and growling and complaining -- no, they are the peaceful, submissive, law abiding and order loving of the country, ready to join hands with all good men in every good work, and prove themselves as brave and good in peace as they were stubborn and unconquerable in war."


1. Carlton McCarthy joined the Second Company of the Richmond Howitzers on October 31, 1864; he was paroled at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. NARA RG 109 (Virginia) M324/Roll0315. Compiled service records of Confederate soldiers from Virginia units, labeled with each soldier's name, rank, and unit, with links to revealing documents about each soldier.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

"I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back": The Long Journey of Elizabeth Wright's Letter

On Sunday, August 29, 2010 I posted an entry regarding a letter picked up on the battlefield by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Holmes had travelled from Boston to Sharpsburg in search of his wounded son, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 20th Massachusetts. 

From the blog post of that day:

Harvard Law School Library
As he walked the field, Holmes picked up "a bullet or two, a button, a brass plate from a soldier's belt." He also picked up a letter "directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken. 'N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright.' On the other side, 'A few lines from W.L. Vaughn,' who has just been writing for the wife to her husband, and continues on his own account. The postscript [written by Vaughn], 'tell John that nancy's folks are all well and has a very good Little Crop of corn a growing.' I wonder [Holmes wrote], if, by one of those strange chances of which I have seen so many, this number or leaf of the 'Atlantic' [Atlantic Monthly] will not sooner or later find its way to Cleveland County, North Carolina, and E. Wright, widow of James Wright, and Nancy's folks, get from these sentences the last glimpse of husband and friend as he threw up his arms and fell in the bloody cornfield of Antietam? I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps, look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it."

Years later, Jon Hill, a genealogist specializing in Civil War research, read the blog entry. After researching James and Elizabeth Wright mentioned in the letter, Jon contacted Harvard Law Library “to try and restore the letter to James and Elizabeth’s descendants who still live in North Carolina.” After a few months, Jon wrote with an update: “The Harvard Law Library made an exact replica of the letter from their archives and mailed it to me so that I could send it to the descendant of James Wright. I reached out to his descendant who was thrilled! I'm putting the letter in the mail tomorrow and it will finally be returned to the family after 150 years!”

Jon’s excellent research and his faithful diligence to getting the letter back to the family (as Holmes had hoped it would) is such a compelling story that I asked Jon to give us an account of his efforts. Below, then, please find Jon’s reply. 


"When Elizabeth Wright penned a letter to her husband on August 13th 1862, I doubt she would have foreseen what the future would hold for her words.  However the thing that makes this letter stand out from the thousands of other letters that were sent during the Civil War is the fact that this letter was not delivered. But the letter was never returned as undelivered. At least not for over 150 years."
"Elizabeth’s husband, Private James Wright, was serving in the 14th North Carolina Infantry in the Fall of 1862.  Soon after the letter was written, James became ill and was sent to General Hospital Number One in Richmond Virginia. Within a few days the 14th North Carolina Infantry fought in the bloodiest single day in American History.  Exactly how Elizabeth Wright’s letter ended up loose on the ground after the fighting ended at Antietam will remain a mystery. My theory is that the letter was delivered to James Wrights regiment just before Antietam. The letter probably was dropped in the fighting before it could be forwarded to the Hospital in Richmond where James was recovering."
"Meanwhile on the other end of the battlefield, a young Union Officer from Massachusetts was lying in a field hospital gravely wounded. His name was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He was the eldest son of one of the most prominent doctors of the time, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr."
"When Dr. Holmes learned of his son’s injuries, he immediately traveled to the battlefield to be with his son. As he traveled the battlefield looking for his son, he picked up relics off the battlefield. One item found was of particular interested to him. In Volume 8 of the Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dr. Holmes wrote:

"'A letter… directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken.  N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright… I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it.'"

"Dr. Holmes never found the Wright Family though. When he died the letter went to his son Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and upon his death, it was given to the Holmes Collection of Harvard University where it remained in an archive for over 75 years. That was until I heard about it. My name is Jonathan Hill. At the time I was a senior in high school with a passion for Civil War research. I have worked with organizations all over the country doing Civil War research. I happened to stumble across a blog post on this very website about Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr’s search for his son on the Battlefield of Antietam."

"After reading about the letter that he found, I decided to try and carry out the wishes of Dr. Holmes and ensure that the letter was returned to the family of James and Elizabeth Wright. My first step was finding out more information about James and Elizabeth Wright and searched the 1860 Census for any references. Sure enough I found them. There were only two James Wright’s that resided in Cleveland County North Carolina in 1860. One of the two had a wife Elizabeth and a Civil War Record."

"Furnished as a substitute, James became part of the 14th North Carolina Infantry in June of 1862. After being sent to the hospital, he drops out of the Confederate Army Records. He eventually returns home to North Carolina, appearing in the 1870 and 1880 Census records. He lived out the rest of his life died in the 1880s."

"The couple had quite a few children, and I was able to find a living descendant. I contacted her and she was excited about the possibility of getting the letter returned to her family."

"I reached out to the then President of Harvard University. With her permission, as well as the permission of the Harvard University archivists, an exact replica of the letter was created and mailed to me. I then sent the replica letter to the great great granddaughter of James and Elizabeth Wright."

"It took over 150 years, but a long lost letter from the Battle of Antietam finally found its way back home.”
---Jon Hill