Sunday, February 25, 2007
Friday, February 23, 2007
Captain Winlack, center, with Lieutenants Thomas Bohannan (left) and Joseph Fisher (right)
During the siege of Petersburg in mid-July 1864, as the 48th tunneled under the Confederate lines, Colonel Henry Plesants was fearful that Confederate troops had gotten word of their operation and were engaging in counter-mining, trying to locate the 48th's tunnel. Thus, late on the night of July 17, with the main gallery completed at some 511 feet, Pleasants awoke Captain Winlack, himself a mining man, and with another soldier, the three crawled the length of the mine. "Lying down with every sense alert, in perfect darkness, and supreme quiet for a period of thirty minutes, until a low whistle, the intended signal, came from Pleasants, brought them together. . ." Pleasants whispered in Winlack's ear: "What do you think about any counterboring?" Winlack whispered back: "The rebels know no more of the tunnel being under them than the inhabitants of Africa." "That's just what I believe," answered Pleasants, and the three men crawled their way back out. Of course, some Confederates were aware of the tunnel, including General E.P. Alexander, who did indeed order a number of counter-mines dug. All of them, however, were too high to discover the 48th's mine.
Winlack was discharged from the army on August 21, 1864, his three year term of service coming to an end. He settled in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, after the war and served as postmaster for a number of years. He died on June 6, 1907, in Coaldale, at 80 years of age.
Monday, February 19, 2007
Every day I spend at Antietam is great, and I stop to think quite often about how lucky I am to be working there and to be working alongside some of the best rangers the National Park Service has to offer.
In addition to providing talks and tours, one of the best things about the position is helping interpret the battle for years to come, and this past month I was honored by a fellow ranger when he asked me to help develop the walking trail brochure for the new Union Advance Trail at Antietam.
My good buddy and colleague, Ranger Mannie Gentile, has documented in his excellent My Year of Living Rangerously blog the progress of this new trail, and I highly encourage anyone who has not yet seen his blog to do so at: http://www.volunteersinparks.blogspot.com/
Ranger Keith Snyder (one of the very best at any National Park) and I have worked together to create the trail text and brochure, and today I received in my mail a copy of the first, rough draft.
This new trail will tell the story of the 9th Corps's attempts to carry the Burnside Bridge, and Keith and I resolved to use this trail and brochure to help correct the general belief that Burnside was a bungler at Antietam. One of the most frequently asked questions at the park is: Was Burnside an idiot? I try to remind the visitors that Burnside had an incredibly difficult task in carrying that position given the nature of the terrain and the poor intelligence he received from higher up. There was no possible way a large-scale attack could have occured there; instead the ground permitted only small, regimental size assaults, which seriously hindered chances of success. I also point out that Robert E. Lee was no fool, and if he believed the bridge would have been as easily taken as many today believe, he would have assigned more than just a skeletal force of Georgians to defend it. I also remind them that Burnside's plan was to create diversionary attacks at the bridge, to keep the Georgians pinned down while 1/3 of his command (Rodman's Division) was sent downstream to cross the creek at a more favorable spot and outflank the Confederate troops on the high bluffs and rifle pits west of and looking down on the bridge. And if the visitor is not yet convinced, I add that the water at the creek was too deep to be waded to any effect and that one of the first attempts to carry the bridge (Captain John Griswold's, leading Company A, 11th CT) failed when he attempted such a crossing. And if the visitor still thinks Burnside was an incompetent officer, I point out that he led the only, yes, the only, Union attack at Antietam that was more than one division in strength, and that he had come very close to smashing Lee's right flank late that afternoon had it not been for the timely arrival of A.P. Hill's men from Harper's Ferry.
Keith and I are hoping, then, that Burnside will be given more credit, and are hoping that the new Union Advance Trail and brochure will help correct the general impression of, in my opinion, a much maligned Civil War figure.
The new trail will have six stops. Each of the Union attacks on the bridge, including the one led by General Nagle of the 48th PA, will be explained. So when you make your way to Antietam this spring and this summer, be sure to take advantage of this, and the other new trails that we are opening at the battlefield.
The cover of the Union Advance Trail brochure features the excellent artwork of Don Troiani.
See you at Antietam!
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Located in east-central Pennsylvania, Schuylkill County was home to the vast majority of soldiers who served in the 48th Pennsylvania. In 1860, the total population of the county numbered 89,510 men, women, and children. Almost 30% of this number, or some 26,267 persons, were foreign-born. Remarkably, in my sample study of the 48th Pennsylvania, I found that 29.1% of the regiment were foreign-born: almost an identical percentage. There are some variations, however, when we look at the percentages of each of the major ethnic groups in the county and in the regiment.
An estimated 35% of Schuylkill County's foreign born were German, while another 35% were either English or Welsh. Irish immigrants constituted 25% of the county's immigrant population. In the ranks of the 48th PA, throughout the four years of its existence, we find that of the foreign-born soldiers, 31.3% hailed originally from England & Wales, just slighlty below the county percentage. However, those in the regiment of German nativity comprised just 18% of the foreign-born soldiers, while the Irish constituted 36%, substantially higher than the county average. What accounts for this disparity in the percentage of German and Irish born soldiers?
It most certainly is due to the areas of enlistment. Five companies of the 48th PA were recruited from Pottsville, the county seat, while another was formed in Minersville. Company E was filled with soldiers from the Silver Creek/Middleport area. All of these areas were largely coal-mining communities, where the Irish were more inclined to settle. German immigrants to Schuylkill County tended to settle in the county's agricultural areas, where only two companies of the 48th drew most of its recruits. If one was to do a study of the ethnic composition of the 96th PA and 7th PA Cavalry, two units that were also Schuylkill County-based, they would probably find the percentage of German born soldiers to be higher, and the percentage of Irish soldiers to be lower, than in the 48th, for these regiments drew more heavily from the county's agricultural areas.
Five of the 48th's ten companies were recruited from Pottsville, the County Seat
While the percentage of foreign-born soldiers in the ranks almost equaled the percentage of foreign-born residents of Schuylkill County, it is clear that were was a much lower percentage of German-born soldiers in the 48th but a much higher percentage of Irish soldiers. The percentage of English/Welsh soldiers in the regiment (31.3%) was just slightly below the county-wide percentage (35%).
Now, let's take a closer look at these numbers and statistics. Remember:
-Schuylkill County's Foreign-Born population in 1860 was 30%; the percentage of foreign born soldiers in the 48th PA throughout the war was 29.1%
-35% of Schuylkill County's foreign born were English/Welsh; another 35% were German. 25% of the county's foreign born were Irish. In the 48th PA, 31.3% of the regiment's foreign-born were English/Welsh; 18% were German, and 36.1% were Irish.
1. The Volunteers of 1861 & the Enlistees of '64-'65:
-Of those who volunteered in the summer of 1861, 24% were of foreign-birth, some 5% lower than regimental average. 38.6% of them were English/Welsh, 34.1% were Irish, and 16% were German.
-35.6% of the soldiers who were mustered into service during the last two years of the war, 1864-1865, were foreign born, almost six percentage points higher than the regimental average. Most of these soldiers, nearly 40%, were Irish, while only 25.2% were English/Welsh. Why such a big difference? See below. . .
2. Substitute Soldiers and Conscripted Soldiers:
-The draft seemingly hit harder among Schuylkill County's foreign-born population. Indeed, of the soldiers who entered the regiment as conscripts, 54.5% of them were not born in the United States. In addition, of the soldiers who entered the ranks in place of someone else, i.e. substitute soldiers, 60% of them were foreign-born. Those hailing from Ireland represented the highest percentage of these foreign-born troops. These numbers certainly do tell a story.
3. Commissioned Officers:
-Of the regiment's commissioned officers, 75.9% were born in America, while the other 24.1% were foreign-born, just 5 percentage points below the regimental average of foreign-born soldiers. Interestingly enough, 35% of the foreign-born commissioned officers hailed from England; another 35% from Ireland. From these numbers, one cannot say that an individual's nativity bore an influence on whether he served as an officer, at least not in the 48th.
4. Soldiers Who Died of Disease:
-As the percentages show, there was no correlation between a soldier's place of birth and his likelihood of succumbing to disease: 28.6% of those who died of disease were foreign-born, an insignificant .5% below the percentage of foreign-born soldiers in the regiment as a whole.
-Last category. . .Were foreign-born soldiers more likely to desert? Well, it's tough to say for certain, but the numbers indicate that they were. Indeed, 50% of the regiment's deserters were of foreign-birth, significantly higher than regimental percentage of foreign-born soldiers (29.1%). However, as mentioned in previous posts, desertion was probably more influenced by a soldier's age and whether or not he was married. Most desertions in the 48th took place in 1864-1865, when the regiment was increased with the addition of conscripts and substitutes, who were on average much older, more likely to be married, and, and stated above, largely foreign-born.
One last look. . .
So, what does all this mean? It is clear that the 48th was a diverse regiment, with nearly 30% of the regiment being foreign-born. Most of these soldiers were natives of either England, Wales, or Ireland, while not a small number hailed from Germany. Scots, too, comprised a large percentage. The higher percentage of Irish soldiers in the regiment, compared with the county-wide percentage, was due to the areas of highest recruitment: 7-8 companies of the regiment drew its members from the coal mining and more urbanized areas of Schuylkill County, where Irish settlers were more inclined to settle and find work in the antebellum years.
A higher percentage of the soldiers who entered the regiment in 1864-1865 were foreign-born, but, as the numbers show, this is due largely to the draft. More than half of the men who were hired as substitutes or who were conscripted were foreign-born, with the Irish being the largest percentage of these soldiers.
Place of birth may have played a role in whether or not a soldier deserted, with 50% of the regiment's deserters being of foreign-born. However, we must also look at age and marital status as well. Nativity was not the sole cause of desertion.
Finally, ethnicity seemingly played no role in the composition of the 48th's commissioned officers.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Captain Francis D. Koch, Company I, and Wife
(From the Collection of Ronn Palm, Museum of Civil War Images, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
From the census records, it is clear that the 48th Pennsylvania was largely a regiment of bachelors. Overall, of the 657 soldiers I was able to locate in the census records, 479, or 72.9%, were not married in 1860. 178, or 27.1% of the regiment, were husbands when they marched off to war in 1861, and 90% of the married men who served in the regiment were fathers as well.
Let's look at how these numbers break down into the various categories.
1. The Volunteers of 1861. . .
The volunteers who enlisted in the summer of 1861 were somewhat younger in age than the regimental average, it is thus no surprise that just one-quarter of them, an even 25% of these soldiers, were married at the time of their enlistment. This is just slightly lower than the regimental average overall. However, the greatest difference lies among the regiment's first commissioned officers. An astonishing 77.8% of the regiment's officers in 1861 were married, a more than fifty percent increase from the regimental average. This too is most certainly due to the older age of these men.
2. The Enlistees of 1864-1865. . .
Nearly 30% of the soldiers who were mustered into service during the final two years of the war were married in 1860. Seventy percent were thus single, at least they were in 1860.
3. Commissioned Officers. . .
As mentioned above, 77.8% of the regiment's first commissioned officers were married at the outbreak of civil war in April 1861. And most of these men, some 86%, had children as well. However, it is interesting to note that as the war dragged on and as the 48th's original field officers were replaced with those from the ranks, we see a vast decrease in the number of married men holding commissioned rank. Indeed, only 40% of the regiment's officers as a whole were husbands.
4. Soldiers who Died of Disease. . .
31.4% of the soldiers who died of disease were married, a figure just slightly above the overall regimental average. If there is a link between marital status and whether or not a soldier succumbed to disease, I cannot think of it. There is probably no connection, whatsoever.
5. Substitute and Conscripted Soldiers. . .
As I mentioned two weeks ago, the soldiers who entered the regiment in the place of another or as a drafted soldier were typically older than those who voluntarily joined. So again we see another correlation with their marital status. Some 35% of substitute soldiers were married, while 63.6% of conscripted men left behind a wife when they were forced into service.
6. Deserters. . .
Finally, let's take a look at deserters. Of the soldiers who fled the regiment, 35% were married, which is 8% higher than the regimental average. 93% of the desertes were fathers as well.
In summation, it is clear that, at least in 1861, the vast majority of the 48th's commissioned officers were married. This is most likely due to their higher average age. Most of the men they commanded were single, which continued to be the case throughout the four years of the regiment's existence. It is also clear from this data that a higher percentage of soldiers who entered the regiment as substitutes or as conscripts were husbands, while 35% of the men who deserted went home to their wife, and, for most of them, their children as well.
Perhaps these numbers can help us further examine the motivations behind a soldier's enlistment and his reasons for desertion.
My next entry for "Portrait of a Regiment" will analyze the ethnic composition of the regiment.
Friday, February 2, 2007
Sometime around 7:00 p.m. on the evening of April 18, 1861, some 475 Pennsylvanians, organized into five companies of volunteer militia, arrived in Washington. They were the first organized volunteer soldiers to reach the capital after the commencement of the Civil War. Fort Sumter had been fired upon less than one week earlier, and it had been but three days since President Lincoln issued his first of what proved to be many calls-to-arms. The arrivial of the Pennsylvanians help set many in Washington at ease, including President Lincoln himself. In fact, so thankful was the recently inaugurated president that he paid these five companies a personal visit and insisted on shaking the hands of all of the nearly 500 men from the Keystone State. The companies were quartered, literally, in the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol building, and Lincoln slowly made his way around to each of the five units, thanking each member for their service and prompt arrival.
Some in the crowd rushed toward the Pennsylvanians with knifes and pistols, only to be stopped by the increasingly overwhelmed police force. Gunpowder was sprinkled on the floors of one of the cars, hoping a match would be struck by one of the Pennsylvanians on their way to the capital. An attempt to hijack the train was made, but was quickly averted when the engineer drew his sidearm and threatened to kill those making the attempt. Then a shower of bricks, stones, bottles, and other projectiles fell among the Pennsylvanians, injuring a number of them.
With his head wrapped in blood soaked bandages, Nicholas Biddle was wearing the uniform of the Washington Artillerists although he was not officially a soldier. He was not allowed to be, for he was a black man. As Biddle made his way through Baltimore as the orderly to Captain James Wren, the sight of a black man in uniform enraged many in the crowd. Shouts of "Nigger in Uniform!" were raised, and as Wren later wrote, "poor Nick had to take it." He was soon felled; struck on the head with a brickbat, which reportedly left a wound deep enough to expose bone.
As some of Biddle's blood stained the floor of the Capitol, Lincoln took him by the hand and recommended he seek medical treatment for his injury. But Biddle refused, preferring instead to stay with his company.
So, who was Nicholas Biddle?
1840 was also the same year that eighteen-year-old James Nagle organized the Pottsville Blues, a militia company that would soon become the Washington Artillerists, upon changing its branch of service. Biddle immediately became friends with the members of this unit, and was attached to it for the next twenty years.
When civil war erupted in April 1861, Biddle, described as "a gently aging man of sixty-five," departed Pottsville with the Washington Artillerists, as an aide, or orderly, of the company's commander, Captain James Wren. Making their way first to Harrisburg and then to Washington via Baltimore, the Washington Artillerists, along with the National Light Infantry, also of Pottsville, the Logan Guards of Lewistown, Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading, and the Allen Infantry of Allentown, were the first organized troops of Northern volunteers to reach the nation's capital after the start of the Civil War and thus went down in history as the "First Defenders."
The "First Defenders" were 90 Day enlistees, and would spend their term of service in the defenses of Washington. When their enlistment expired in late July, the vast majority of these troops reenlisted to serve in three-year organizations. The Washington Artillerists formed the nucleus of Company B, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Nick Biddle, suffering from his painful wound, remained in Pottsville as his comrades in the Artillerists reenlisted throughout the summer of 1861. He found work performing odd jobs for the citizens, but later in life, he was destitute. Throughout the late 1860s and into the 1870s, Biddle, with his head still deeply scarred, was seen walking around Pottsville carrying a piece of paper, seeking donations. The Miner's Journal reported: "If poor old Nick Biddle calls on you with a document, as he calls it, don't say you are in a hurry and turn him off, but ornament the paper with your signature and plant a good round sum opposite your name. Nick has been a good soldier and now that he is getting old and feeble, he deserves the support of our citizens."
Biddle would always insist that he had large amounts of money saved up in the bank, but when the died on August 2, 1876, at the age of 82, it was discovered that he died penniless. Having no money to cover funeral expenses, the survivors of the Washington Artillerists and the National Light Infantry assumed the burden. They also arranged for his funeral. With the Pottsville Drum Corps in the lead, the members of the two First Defender units led a lenghty funeral procession through Pottsville, from the home of Biddle to his final resting in the "colored burial ground" behind the Bethel A.M.E. Church. Rev. Samuel Barnes, the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, delivered the sermon, and read extensively from the Book of Job. Each of the surving members of the two militia organizations also donated one dollar a piece to pay for a humble tombstone, upon which they had inscribed: "In Memory of Nicholas Biddle, Died August 2, 1876. His was the Proud Distinction of Shedding the First Blood in the Late War for the Union, Being Wounded while Marching through Baltimore with the First Volunteers from Schuylkill County. 18 April 1861. Erected by his Friends in Pottsville."
Sadder still, and quite shamefully, Biddle's tombstone has, over the years, been destroyed by vandals to the point where it no longer remains, and Biddle's final resting place is unknown.
By Chaplain James M. Guthrie
The grave of Nick Biddle a Mecca should be
To Pilgrims, who seek in this land of the free
The tombs of the lowly as well as the great
Who struggled for freedom in war of debate;
For there lies a brave man distinguished from all
In that his veins furnished the first blood to fall
In War for the Union, when traitors assailed
Its brave “First Defenders,” whose hearts never quailed.
The eighteenth of April, eighteen-sixty-one,
Was the day Nick Biddle his great honor won
In Baltimore City, where riot ran high,
He stood by our banner to do or to die;
And onward, responsive to liberty’s call
The capital city to reach ere its fall,
Brave Biddle, with others as true and as brave,
Marched through with wildest tempest, the Nation to save.
Their pathway is fearful, surrounded by foes,
Who strive in fierce Madness their course to oppose;
Who hurl threats and curses, defiant of law,
And think by such methods they might overawe
The gallant defenders, who, nevertheless,
Hold back their resentment as forward they press,
And conscious of noble endeavor, despise
The flashing of weapons and traitorous eyes
Behold now the crisis—the mob thirsts for blood:-
It strikes down Nick Biddle and opens the flood—
The torrents of crimson from hearts that are true—
That shall deepen and widen, shall cleanse and renew
The land of our fathers by slavery cursed;
The blood of Nick Biddle, yes, it is the first,
The spatter of blood-drops presaging the storm
That will rage and destroy till Nation reform.
How strange, too, it seems, that the Capitol floor,
Where slaveholders sat in the Congress of yore,
And forged for his kindred chains heavy to bear
To bind down the black man in endless despair,
Should be stained with his blood and thus sanctified;
Made sacred to freedom; through time to abide
A temple of justice, with every right
For all the nation, black, redman, and white
The grave of Nick Biddle, though humble it be,
Is nobler by far in the sight of the free
Than tombs of those chieftains, whose sinful crusade
Brought long years of mourning and countless graves made
In striving to fetter their black fellowmen,
And make of the Southland a vast prison pen;
Their cause was unholy but Biddle’s was just,
And hosts of pure spirits watch over his dust.
Very well said, indeed. . .