Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Medal of Honor & the 48th PA. . .What About Prince, Douty, and Reese?




Throughout the American Civil War, 1,522 Medals of Honor were issued to soldiers who displayed conspicuous acts of bravery on the field of battle. I am currently gathering together information on the 27 soldiers who were issued medals for their actions during the Maryland Campaign, with special focus on those 21 soldiers who received their medals for their actions on September 17, 1862, at Antietam.

With the Medal first being issued during the Civil War, and with literally tens of thousands of acts of personal bravery throughout the conflict, I started thinking about how so few were selected to receive the medal. Who received the medal, and why were their actions worthy of the recognition, while thousands of others, equally as brave, did not? Of course, not every single instance of "going above and beyond" the call of duty could be so recognized or else there would have been tens of thousands issued, and its significance would have been naturally minimized. But still, the question remains: what actions were deemed worthy enough to receive a Medal of Honor?

A quick glance at the citations for these Medals issued during the Civil War reveals that capturing a Confederate flag, or rescuing a capturing Union flag, seemed to guarantee a medal. Indeed, 8 of the 21 soldiers who were issued the Medal of Honor for their actions at Antietam either captured or defended a flag. And of the three soldiers from the 48th Pennsylvania who were issued the Medal of Honor for their wartime heroics, two---Sergeants Robert Reid and Patrick Monagahan---either captured a flag (Reid) or rescued a captured Union flag (Monaghan). The other was William R.D. Blackwood, the regimental surgeon, who recklessly exposed himself on the field of battle to tend to the wounded and dying.

But there were many other instances throughout the war of soldiers from the 48th Pennsylvania whose heroic feats were not recognized with a Medal of Honor. Take Private Alexander Prince, of Company B, for example. On September 18, 1862, as the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia maintained their battle positions from the previous day's fight along the banks of the Antietam Creek, thousands of wounded men lay in between the two armies, crying out for help. The 48th Pennsylvania was in position on the high ground west of the Burnside Bridge, and throughout the day they heard the pitiful cries of a wounded soldier from the 6th New Hampshire regiment, lying helpless just a hundred yards or so to their front. No longer able to stand the wounded man's cries, Prince, against the urgings of his comrades to stay in line, dashed forward, reached the wounded man, and lifted him onto his back. Prince turned to make his way back to his regiment, but after just a few steps he was struck by a bullet fired, no doubt, by one of A.P. Hill's Confederate troops. Thirty years after the war ended, Oliver Bosbyshell, a lieutenant in Company G, wrote that he still vividly remembered Prince's "death cry" as he toppled forward. And Captain James Wren of Company B recorded that "through his kindness, [Prince] lost his own life." Prince would not be issued a Medal of Honor, but I believe that had he been trying to retrieve a fallen battle flag, and not save a wounded human being, he no doubt would have received the honor.

Alexander Prince is just one example. There were, of course, many, many more, including Sergeant Harry "Snapper" Reese and Lieutenant Jacob Douty. With tomorrow being the 143rd Anniversary of the explosion of the Petersburg Mine and the Battle of the Crater, this subject could not be more timely.
Around 3:30 a.m. on July 30, 1864, Colonel Henry Pleasants lit the fuse in the Petersburg Mine but when the scheduled time for the explosion (3:45 a.m.) passed, he started to grow anxious. It was Reese and then Douty who volunteered to enter the mine and see what had happened. The fuse had gone out, and the two were able to splice it back together, relight it, and crawl as fast they could back out! The mine excavated by the 48th could not have been more successful as the resulting explosion demonstrated, but the ensuing attack could not have been worse, resulting in a crushing Union defeat. Indeed, the battle of the Crater has gone down in history as one of the saddest chapters of the war. But what would have happened if the attack was successful, with the Union army penetrating the Confederate defenses and perhaps bringing an end to the war in the summer of 1864? No doubt the 48th PA would be there in public memory, side by side with the 20th Maine, as the heroes of the Union. And no doubt Pleasants, the mastermind of the mine, would be as highly regarded as Chamberlain. I have no doubt also that both Douty and Reese would have been issued the Medal of Honor for their willingness to crawl inside the mine and relight the fuse. But this is all speculation and, frankly, as with all the "what if's" of the Civil War, a waste of time. The fact is, the attack failed and the men of the 48th would receive no heroic recognition for their actions.


Sergeant Harry Reese

General John Parke, however, was determined to see the actions of the 48th, and of Harry Reese specifically, be rewarded. Parke was the 9th Corps commander following Burnside's removal from command and on February 21, 1865, he formally recommended that Reese be issued the Medal of Honor: "Having," in Parke's words, "performed a conspicuous act of gallantry on July 30, 1864." "In the undermining and destruction of the Rebel Fort No. 5 in front of Petersburg, Va., the fuse leading to the magazine had been spliced about 15 feet from the fuse of the mine, when the fuse was first lighted, it burned to the splice when the fire went out, and, after the time set for the explosion had elapsed, Sgt. Henry Reese volunteered to enter the mine and relight the fuse at the splice, which he successfully accomplished, and returned in safety to the mouth of the mine, and in one minute after the explosion took place."

For whatever reason, or reasons, Parke's recommendation was not acted upon, and Reese was not issued the Medal of Honor. However, some 143 years later there are still some, including myself, who would like to see the Welsh Sergeant issued the medal. Stay tuned.

{I would like to thank Mr. Bob Roser, of Fredericksburg, Va, for providing me a copy of Parke's recommendation. Keep up the hard work, Bob, it is well worth your efforts.}

2 comments:

George Major Hinkle said...

Harry Reese is one of Great Uncles on my fathers side. I am very proud to call him family. A little known other fact is that he was a close personal friend of Wild Bill Hickock. Harry "Snapper" Reese owned a tavern and Wild Bill would stop in when passing through. And obviously he was a coal miner as well which most of family from Central Pa Were.

George Major Hinkle said...

Correction Harry Reese was close friends with Buffalo Bill, Not Wild Bill.