Monday, November 5, 2007

Poor Bill Christian. . .

I guess not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Take Colonel William Christian for example. Now, I feel somewhat bad for poor Bill. A leading member of his community, he sought more prominence by serving in the military. He had militia experience, and was a veteran of the Mexican-American War, although he saw no combat. Back in the army as an officer in the Civil War, Christian proved that, yes, even officers were human. He simply ran away from battle at Antietam, and suffered for it throughout the rest of his life. Now, during my tours, when I want to add just a little flavor to the interpretation with some "human interest"/anecdotal stories, I will sometimes tell the story of Bill Christian's flight. But every time I do so, well, I can't help but feel a little dirty, so to speak. He was a human being, and he got scared. . .thousands of soldiers did, and thousands showed the white feather in battle. But it just wasn't expected of officers.
Below is a short biography of Colonel William Christian I wrote initially for my colleagues at Antietam. . . .His is truly a sad story.
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Colonel William Christian
A strict disciplinarian who served during the Mexican-American War and as drillmaster for the Utica, New York, city militia, William Henry Christian certainly had the credentials of an officer. A surveyor and engineer by trade, Christian sought to make his mark in the military and got off to a promising start. As events proved, however, Christian was never cut out for battlefield command. As colonel of the 26th New York Infantry, he stayed out of the action at Second Bull Run, claiming illness. Then as a brigade commander at the battle of Antietam, he became unnerved and fled in the face of the enemy. He grew increasingly despondent afterwards and ultimately slipped into a state of insanity, dying an inmate of a New York asylum. His story is truly a sad one.
William Henry Christian was born on April 9, 1825, in Utica, New York. Little about his childhood remains known, but with the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846, twenty-one-year-old Christian enlisted as a private in Company K, 1st New York Volunteers. He spent the first two months of his enlistment on Governor’s Island being trained in the ways of the soldier and then sailed for San Francisco where his regiment remained for the duration of the Mexican-American War. Although Christian saw no battles, he must have impressed his superiors with his mastery of drill, for, in a very short time, he was promoted through the ranks until he was mustered out of service as his company’s first sergeant.
Following the war with Mexico, Christian, instead of returning to his native New York, stayed in California, being swept up, perhaps, with “gold fever.” For the next seven years, Christian made his home in San Francisco where he found work as a school teacher. He also took up the study of engineering, and when he finally made his way back to Utica in 1854 was appointed as the city’s surveyor. While pursuing this career, Christian played an active role in Utica’s militia, serving as drillmaster during the years immediately preceding the outbreak of civil war.
Soon after the surrender of Fort Sumter, thirty-six-year-old William Christian traveled to Albany where he personally asked Governor Edwin Morgan for permission to raise a regiment of volunteers. With his Mexican-American War experience, limited though it was, coupled with his standing in the Utica militia, Christian was granted his request and he returned to his hometown to establish a recruiting station. With his regiment—the 26th New York Volunteer Infantry—organized within weeks, Colonel Christian immediately went to work drilling his new command. On the training field and on the parade ground, Christian excelled as an officer. A strict disciplinarian, Christian was also a very virtuous man. He forbade, for example, the consumption of alcohol in his regiment, and even requested that his line officers sign a pledge of temperance. Sadly, although Christian looked and certainly acted the part of a capable military man, his battlefield performance proved otherwise.
Marched off to war, the 26th New York helped cover the retreat of the Union forces at Bull Run in late July 1861, and Colonel Christian even received the praise of Abraham Lincoln for the handling of his men here. With the organization of the Army of the Potomac later that summer, the 26th New York was assigned to General Henry Slocum’s Brigade. On October 3, 1861, Slocum selected Colonel Christian to lead an expedition of some 350 men to march on and capture a detachment of Confederate cavalry encamped near Pohick Church, some twelve miles from where Slocum’s Brigade was stationed at Alexandria. The entire operation was a disaster; not only did the Confederate cavalrymen escape intact, but Christian’s men proceeded to pillage the Virginia countryside on their way back to Alexandria. What is more, one of Christian’s men accidentally killed another. Furious with Christian, Slocum demanded a court of inquiry, which was granted, but the matter was apparently dropped before the court convened. Slocum was able, however, to get Christian and the 26th New York transferred out of his command. Less than one month after the Pohick Church fiasco, the 26th was sent to Fort Lyon—one of Washington’s many defensive works—where William Christian, being the senior commander stationed there, assumed command of the post.
For more than five months, the 26th New York remained stationed at Fort Lyon. During this time, Colonel Christian continued to drill his command and did so with his newlywed wife by his side. On November 6, 1861, William Christian and Mary Timmerman were married and the two took up residence at Fort Lyon until marching orders arrived in late May 1862. Assigned to General Irvin McDowell’s corps, Christian and his men spent the following months stationed near Falmouth and Manassas and would not see any action until late August at the Second Battle of Bull Run. On August 30, 1862, the 26th New York lost nearly two hundred men in its baptism by fire; they had performed well, but did so without their leader. As the regiment was marching into battle, Christian was seen laying in the shade of a tree, wrapped in a blanket. A physician by his side, Christian watched as his men paraded past. He claimed that he was suffering from heatstroke as well as from a severe case of poison ivy on his hands. However, late that same night, with the battle over, Christian rode his horse into the ranks of his regiment, which was then falling back toward Centreville, waving the brigade flag and offering words of encouragement to the troops. The men were unimpressed and just a little suspicious about Christian’s rapid recovery from whatever ailed him that morning. Then, after discovering that Christian, being the senior colonel, assumed brigade command following the wounding of General Zealous Tower earlier in the day, the officers of the 26th were concerned. They held a secret meeting that night and debated whether they should petition their division commander, General James Ricketts, to remove Christian from brigade command. They ultimately decided against such a drastic measure.
Christian turned in competent performances at Chantilly on September 1, 1862, and at South Mountain two weeks later, but his brigade was only lightly engaged at each of these battles. They would be heavily engaged, however, at Antietam, and it was here that Christian completely fell apart. Crossing the Antietam Creek on the afternoon of September 16, Christian’s Brigade went into position near the Samuel Poffenberger Farm, on the left of the First Corps line. Early the next morning, Christian’s men formed into line of battle and readied themselves for the battle ahead. Joseph Hooker, commanding the First Corps, planned for the divisions Doubleday and Ricketts to move forward simultaneously at dawn, but when the orders arrived things went bad. Ricketts fell with a severe wound, as did General George Hartsuff, commanding one of Ricketts’s Brigades. Christian’s men moved forward but when they cleared the North Woods they came under a murderous fire from Confederate artillery posted to their front and right. Christian halted his men and then did what he knew best—ordered his men to make a series of parade-ground maneuvers in the face of the Confederate shot and shell. Moving forward and then by flank across some four hundred yards of open ground, Christian’s men finally arrived in the East Woods, where their commander finally became unhinged. Upon arriving in the woodlot, Christian dismounted and then ran back towards the North Woods, supposedly ducking and dodging his head with each cannon shot, exclaiming that all was lost and that the army was in full retreat. Meanwhile, his men were simply astonished and, worse, did not what to do next. Ricketts demanded to know why Christian’s men came to a stop and upon discovering the situation ordered General Truman Seymour, of George Meade’s Third Division, First Corps, to take command of the leaderless brigade. Seymour quickly sorted out the problem and got Christian’s men moving forward once again.
Late on the evening of September 17, General James Ricketts summoned Christian to his tent and delivered an ultimatum to the humiliated New Yorker: either resign his commission or be brought up on charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Christian chose the former course, and two days later tendered his resignation from the army claiming that “Business of importance” required his presence with his family. With his resignation approved, Christian returned to Utica, New York, claiming that his departure from the army was caused by intrigue among some of his fellow officers.
Christian fell into a state of despondency following his return to Utica. He actively sought other commands, and even offered to serve with no pay, but every one of his requests was turned down. He became more and more unraveled as the years passed by. With the war winding to a close in March 1865, Christian, although he fled from the field of battle at Antietam, managed to receive a brevet promotion to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. But this gesture did not assuage his guilt and his depression. He became more despondent and was even unable to perform his work as a surveyor and civil engineer. Madness finally set in. He was once seen placing a saddle over the banister of his front porch, and then, after mounting it, delivered orders to an imaginary group of soldiers. Still, throughout the post-war years, the veterans of the 26th New York continued to invite their first commander to all of their reunions. At some of these gatherings, Christian erupted into fits of laughter. Finally, in early 1886, Mary Christian committed her husband to the state insane asylum in Utica. He died there on May 8, 1887, at the age of sixty-two. The cause of death was officially pronounced as dementia, but the local papers claimed that the old soldier succumbed to the effects of the heatstroke he suffered at Bull Run in August 1862.
After the death of her husband, Mary Christian applied for a pension, claiming that her husband’s demise was caused by his supposed wartime heatstroke. Veterans of the 26th New York rallied by her side and supported her efforts. Her claim, however, was denied.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for authoring the bio of William Christian! I'd always wondered what became of him.

I'm leading a small group of friends around Antietam on Black Friday (Nov 23). If you've got free time, you can always join us (or perhaps lead a short tour).

Tom Shay - Cressona (Schuylkill County), PA

Todd Leiss said...

Thanks for the story on William Christian, my GGG-Grandfather was with the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers and were part of Christian's Brigade at Antietam and any info on what they went through during the battle is much appreciated.

Todd Leiss tleiss@comcast.net
Middletown, PA

Richard Croker said...

I am "updating" my book, "To Make Men Free" for ebook publication and came to the section on General Christian and wanted to delve a little deeper. Thank you so much for this heartfelt piece of work. (And give my best to Ted next time you see him! He and Paul were both great helps in my research!)
Richard Croker

Gary Rohrer said...

I know the story about Christian's hasty departure but always thought that his 2nd in command, Lt. Col. Peter Lyle, 90th PA reg.stepped in to take command, not Seymour.

Liz Maxwell said...

I second what Mr. Rohrer said about Col Peter Lyle. That's what's in the official order of battle on the Antietam website (http://www.nps.gov/anti/historyculture/org-cht-1-corps.htm), among other sites, and is how it's given in Stephen Sears' excellent Landscape Turned Red. On the other hand, Col. Lyle's official report (http://antietam.aotw.org/exhibit.php?exhibit_id=266) makes no mention of it, perhaps out of delicacy. Any way to find out which is the correct story? Thanks for a moving telling of a very sad story.