Saturday, January 7, 2012

The 48th/150th: Thoughts on General Thomas Williams. . .

Brigadier General Thomas Williams

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During first winter of the American Civil War, the 48th Pennsylvania found themselves encamped at either Fort Clark or Fort Hatteras on Hatteras Island, North Carolina. For these Pennsylvanians, this winter must have been much different than those they were accustomed to in Schuylkill County. At Hatteras, the volunteers learned the trade of the soldier, and overseeing the post was a non-nonsense U.S. Regular, Brigadier General Thomas Williams.

Williams was born on January 16, 1815, in Albany, New York, though his family soon moved to Michigan. His father, General John Williams, served for a time as mayor of Detroit. Following in his father's footsteps, young Thomas took an interest in military affairs and even served as a private in the Black Hawk War. He next entered West Point, graduating twelfth in a class of fifty, and alongside such future Civil War notables as Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, William French, John Sedgwick, John Pemberton, and Joseph Hooker. Williams fought creditably in Mexico, earning several brevet promotions for gallantry in action, and after the war, advanced steadily to the rank of captain.

With the outbreak of civil war, Williams was made Major of the 5th U.S. Artillery then given the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. In that capacity, he was sent to Hatteras where he was named post commander. Afterward, he fought alongside Federal land and naval forces in the capture of New Orleans. On August 5, 1862, during the siege of Baton Rouge, Williams was shot through the chest at killed. His remains were taken back to Detroit, where they were laid to rest in Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery.

Williams's Final Resting Place

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Williams certainly left an impression on the soldiers of the 48th during his tenure in command of Hatteras. Joseph Gould recorded his thoughts in his regimental history: "General Thomas Williams. . .came upon the scene to make our lives miserable, as we believed, by inaugurating five drills per day. Later we thought better of him as we grew older, and as we learned that the extra drills and discipline he enforced upon us did a great amount of good when we were called upon to assume the heavy work attending the life we had chosen, many were the expressions of sorrow from the boys of the regiment when news came of his death."

Oliver Bosbyshell had more to say about Williams, and recorded some memorable moments:

"The post was commanded by the veteran, Brigadier General Thomas Williams, U.S.A., and those who had the experience of serving under him, well remember his severe discipline. There probably was no one man ever more heartily hated than this same General Williams by the members of the Forty-eighth. He was abused roundly every day for his tyrannical orders, rigid discipline, frequent calls for duty, severe guard regulations, excessive drills, thorough inspections, and the like. He issued an order depriving the regiment of the every day use of its flags. This seemed so harsh and uncalled for that all the denunciatory terms in the dictionary were poured upon his head. When least expected he would turn up, and woe betide the soldier found derelict. It is easy to remember the constant vigilance of the old General as he paced the front of his quarters, one hand supporting his coat-tail, the other twirling his stiff, wiry moustache, whilst his watchful eyes would detect a slouchy sentinel, and then, 'Orderly, send the officer of the guard to me.'

"The senior captain of the Forty-eighth, making his report as officer of the day, with his arms folded majestically across his breast, broke down in the middle of his narration by General Williams' peremptory order, 'Put down your hands, sir!' Down they dropped, little fingers on the seams of the trousers. Seven days after arriving at Hatteras, whilst enjoying the ills of the island to its full extent, at Fort Clarke, a review of the regiment was ordered. As the maneuvering had to be made in sand ankle deep, it was a rather laborious undertaking, especially as the General required the review to be in heavy marching order. The eighth corporal of 'G' was a stout little fellow, noted for carrying the largest and fullest knapsack in the regiment. He bore the marching in review at common time, and then at quick time with some equanimity, but when the order came to 'Pass in review, double quick time,' his patience was exhausted, and as he trotted with gun at a 'right-shoulder-shift,' his left arm supporting his great knapsack, he gave vent to his feelings at every step, by hissing through his closed teeth, 'White-livered-son-of-a-_____,' 'White-livered-son-of-a______.'

"The General had few friends those early days on Hatteras, but as the weeks went by each day developed the fact that beneath the rough exterior and austere demeanor, beat a heart of true devotion to the old flag, a heart overflowing with love and regard for his soldiers. His strict discipline made the regiment a body of well-trained soldiers. Revering the flag with a feeling akin to holy awe, he sought to inculcate the same reverential feeling in the men, and whenever the standard was brought out the ceremonies attending its reception were of the most dignified and lofty character.

"When he received his orders to proceed to Ship Island, the writer happened to be standing beside him on the ramparts of Fort Hatters. 'What,' he exclaimed, 'am I to go there and leave all these noble boys? What shall I do without them?' He was a true man and thorough soldier, and died where such a veteran would wish to die--on the field--at the battle of Baton Rouge. As the colonel of the Twenty-first Indiana was being borne severely wounded, from the front, General Williams rode up to that regiment and said: 'Boys, your field officers are all gone; I will lead you.' Almost immediately afterward a rifle bullet pierced his chest, and he fell a corpse.

"The War of the Rebellion brought so many men into prominence through great deeds, grandly accomplished, that there is danger of forgetting the patient, earnest, loyal soldiery of the regular army, whose trained officers did so much as schoolmasters in bringing the raw material, gathered from all over the North, into shape for such stern work as war.
"General Williams was one of these, and deserves a place upon the same plane with the most honored heroes of the great struggle."

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