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.}

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Private John C. Weaver. . ."The First and Last of President Lincoln's Volunteers"

Last week I posted the story of Captain Jacob W. Haas who, in the days following the assassination of President Lincoln and while the hunt for his killer was still ongoing, was mistaken for John Wilkes Booth on several occasions. I'm sticking with the theme of Lincoln's Assassination this week with, of course, another connection to Schuylkill County.

* * * * * * * * * *
On April 18, 1861, three days after President Lincoln issued his first call-to-arms, five companies of Northern volunteers, all from Pennsylvania, arrived in Washington. The 475 or so men comprising the ranks of these five companies were the first volunteers to reach the nation's capital following the commencement of sectional hostilities and would go down in history as the "First Defenders."
Two of the five companies, the National Light Infantry and Washington Artillerists, hailed from Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill County. Taking up quarters in the halls and chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building, the volunteers were welcomed in Washington by a host of high-ranking government officials including Speaker of the House Galusha Grow, US Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and US Secretary of State William H. Seward. April 19, the day after the arrival of the First Defenders, President Abraham Lincoln made his way to the Capitol Building and thanked the Pennsylvanians for their service and their timely arrival in the nation's capital. As he made his way to the Washington Artillerists, someone called out for Lincoln to make a speech. "Officers and soldiers of the Washington Artillery," replied Lincoln, "I did not come here to make a speech. The time for speech making has gone by, the time for action is at hand. I came here to give you a warm welcome to the city of Washington, and to shake hands with every officer and soldier in your company providing you grant me that privilege."
No one, of course, denied Lincoln the privilege.
Shaking hands with President Lincoln that morning was John C. Weaver, a 27 year old private in the Washington Artillerists. While most of the men of the Pottsville company would never get so close to the president again, Weaver did. . .but under much more tragic circumstances.
Four years after marching into Washington with the First Defenders in April 1861, Weaver was once again in the city. He had survived the war and, on April 14, 1865, was in Ford' Theatre, catching a showing of the comedy Our American Cousin. The show began but was interrupted a short time later by the arrival of President and Mrs. Lincoln. The Lincoln's received a tremendous applause from the audience, who then settled back down to watch the remaining acts. But the show was once again interrupted when John Wilkes Booth fired his Derringer into the back of Lincoln's head, leaped onto the stage, and made his very theatrical exit. Pandemonium broke loose in Ford's Theatre. Dr. Charles Leale, also in attendance, made his way to the dying president and decided that Lincoln must be removed from the crowd and from the theater. Soon, six soldiers reached the president's box: William Sample, Jabe Griffiths, John Corey, Jacob Soles, another soldier whose identity remains unknown, and. . . John C. Weaver.
Weaver and the five other soldiers carried Lincoln across the street to the Peterson House, located at 453 Tenth Street. After helping to lay Lincoln's body on a bed in a small back room of the house, Weaver remained near the Peterson home all night.
Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 on the morning of April 15, 1865. His lifeless body was laid in a crudely built pine coffin, which was then taken to the White House some time later. Helping to carry the coffin from the room in which he died to an awaiting carriage in front of the Peterson Home, and escorting Lincoln's body back to the Executive Mansion was, of course, John C. Weaver.
Private John Weaver is known in some circles thus as the First and Last Volunteer for President Abraham Lincoln.
Weaver died on November 12, 1920, at the age of 86. Obituaries appearing the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and the New York Tribune all maintained that Weaver was the last survivor of the six soldiers who carried President Lincoln from Ford's Theatre to the Peterson House on that terrible night in April 1865.

A Post-War Photograph of Lincoln's First. . .and Last Volunteer
John C. Weaver

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Jacob W. Haas and the Hunt for John Wilkes Booth

The assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865 triggered the largest manhunt up to that point in American history. And it was not just confined to the District of Columbia, southern Maryland, and northern Virginia. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, and with the nation reeling, the search for Booth extended throughout the country. Pennsylvania was certainly no exception. And, as we will see with the case of Captain Jacob W. Haas, it was not uncommon for those who bore even a little resemblance to Booth to be mistaken for the assassin. 
* * * * * * * * * *
On April 22, 1865, eight days after Lincoln's assassination and with the killer still at large, Schuylkill County's leading newspaper, The Miners' Journal, printed a report that John Wilkes Booth had been spotted in Reading, some forty miles or so southwest of Pottsville, the Schuylkill County seat, just a few days earlier. More immediate, Booth, reported the Journal, was able to escape from Reading on a north-bound train. . .meaning he was heading toward Schuylkill County! Pursuers traveled to the train station in Port Clinton to capture Booth, but there discovered that the man fitting Booth's description had fled to nearby Tamaqua. So a telegram was sent to the authorities in Tamaqua: Be on the lookout for a man resembling John Wilkes Booth, with black eyes, short black hair, and a short black mustache. He was wearing a black frock coat, a crape on his left arm, and, of all things, a Lincoln badge of mourning on his coat. The following day, Constable Chrisman, arrested and detained two men in Tamaqua. Had Booth been captured? That very same day, a man arrived in Pottsville from Philadelphia, registering his name at a local hotel as B.B. Cook. The hotel clerk believed this man was acting rather suspicious, so he summoned a police officer and the man was arrested. "His conduct," reported the Miners's Journal is certainly suspicious and he will be held until he establishes the fact that he is an innocent man." So,one week after the assassination of President Lincoln, at least three men were arrested in Schuylkill County for resembling John Wilkes Booth. When news arrived that Booth had been shot and killed in Virginia during the early morning hours of April 26, these men were released from their confinement.
* * * * * * * * * *
Throughout the country, Americans were relieved to learn that Booth had finally been tracked down. Perhaps none more so than Captain Jacob Washington Haas.

Captain Jacob Haas
Repeatedly Confused With John Wilkes Booth in the Days Following Lincoln's Assassination

Haas was a native of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and was among the first northern volunteer soldiers to reach Washington after the start of the Civil War, and had served throughout the war in the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry. He survived some of the war's deadliest battles including Gaines's Mill, Crampton's Gap (where the 96th suffered terrible loss), Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania, and by the time of his discharge in October 1864 he had risen to the rank of Captain, commanding Company G.

Following his discharge from the army, Haas returned to Pottsville, but in early April, 1865, he, along with Colonel William Lessig, also of the 96th PA, traveled to western Pennsylvania hoping to strike it rich in the oil fields. Haas and Lessig were staying at a hotel in Lewisburg, when word of Lincoln's death spread throughout the country. Someone in town noticed Haas, and mistook him for Booth. A mob began forming around the hotel. Haas and Lessig, discovering that they were the targets of the mob's fury, barricaded themselves inside their room. It was a harrowing time for the two men. Fortunately for them, a native of Sunbury, perhaps a veteran of the 96th, was able to identify both Haas and Lessig with certainty.

A few days later, on April 22, 1865, as Haas and Lessig continued to make their way west, however, they were taken into custody by members of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry near Philipsburg. Word spread quickly throughout the town that Booth had been captured, and, once again, an angry mob formed intent on hanging Lincoln's killer and his accomplice. Lessig was able to convince 2nd Lt. G.P. McDougall, commanding the 16th PA Cavalry, that Haas was not Booth, and that day, McDougall released them. The lieutenant provided them with a pass, stating: "I have this day arrested W.H. Lessig and J.W. Haws, and examined them and find they are not as suspected Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln."

As Haas and Lessig continued on their way, they felt safer now that they carried along with them the pass from Lieutenant McDougall. But when they reached the town of Clarion on April 26, 1865, they found out how mistaken they were. For a third time, Haas was taken into custody. A mob formed. They dismissed the pass as bogus and procured a rope for hanging. Haas claimed he could prove he was not Booth. Take him to the bank at Franklin, he begged. His request was granted and Haas was taken under escort to the bank where he had previously deposited money. The mob was satisfied and let Haas go. Imagine Haas's relief, then, when a few hours later word spread throughout the nation that the real assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was tracked down and killed.

Jacob W. Haas died in 1914 in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, at the age of 81.

John Wilkes Booth
His assassination of Lincoln nearly led to the death of Captain Jacob W. Haas, a Schuylkill County native and veteran of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Soldiers of the 48th: Lieutenant James May, Co. E

Lieutenant James May
Company E

Born on December 4, 1843, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, James May was a first-generation American, the son of English immigrants. He attended school and by the outbreak of civil war in 1861 was employed as a blacksmith. On August 20, 1861, May, at eighteen years of age, was mustered into service as the 5th Corporal of Company E, 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers. He served with the regiment throughout all four years of the war, seeing action at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and throughout the campaigns in Kentucky and East Tennessee. He rose steadily through the ranks, rising from corporal to sergeant to second lieutenant. He was promoted to first lieutenant after the battle of the Wilderness, and in this capacity led his men at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Having survived all four years of the war unscathed, May was mustered out of service as a "Veteran" on July 17, 1865.
After the war, May settled in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, taking up residence in the town of Shamokin. He was a merchant for several years before entering the coal business in 1871, working with the Burnside Colliery, and the Morris Ridge Colliery, where May rose to become senior partner. He remained active in military affairs, joining the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1867. He was first a lieutenant in the Shamokin Guards, but soon rose to the rank of captain, and finally to major. May was also an active member of the community, serving for three years on Shamokin's borough council, and as treasurer of the Home Building and Loan Association. In 1904, he helped locate the position of the 48th Pennsylvania during the battle of Antietam, and helped select a suitable spot for the regiment's monument there. He died the next year, on September 29, at the age of 61. His remains were buried in Shamokin's St. Edward's Cemetery.

{I am indebted to Mr. John Mattre, a descendant of James May, for providing information on the lieutenant}.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Four 4th's in the Forty-Eighth. . .

I could not think of a more appropriate post this week. With the Fourth of July being celebrated nation-wide this Wednesday, I thought it would be interesting to record just how it was the soldiers in the 48th Pennsylvania observed and celebrated Independence Day throughout the Civil War. It's interesting to note that since the 48th Pennsylvania served throughout war in the "wandering" Ninth Army Corps, the regiment celebrated Independence Day once in North Carolina, once in Kentucky, and twice in Virginia.

* * * * * * * * * *

July 4, 1862:

The 48th Pennsylvania was stationed along the coast of North Carolina, with half the regiment at New Bern and the other half at Roanoke. Lt. Curtis Pollock recorded in his diary on July 3, 1862, that the officers "held a meeting for the purpose of making arrangements for the proper celebration of the fourth of July. We adopted resolution," wrote Pollock, "and will have a grand time I expect."

It seems, however, that things did not go as planned, for on the morning of July 4, orders came for the entire regiment to proceed immediately to Newbern. So, the soldiers boarded the steamer Cossack and spent Independence Day on board. Wrote Pollock: "The grand celebration did not come off for reasons unknown to myself. . . .It is rather a dry fourth and we have not been doing anything but laying around loose in a most miserable state of existence." The weather must have put a damper on the day. It was "quite cool and cloudy," recorded Pollock. After ten and a half hours on board, Pollock and his comrades in the 48th arrived at Newbern, disembarked and went into camp.

Although there was no grand celebration that 4th of July, Joseph Gould remembered that rumors spread quickly throughout camp that George B. McClellan had taken Richmond, and that the soldiers would be home by Christmas at the latest. . .Of course, these rumors proved false.

Oliver Bosbyshell was also disappointed by the way in which the 48th Pennsylvania celebrated its first Independence Day in the army. "When the fourth arrived, its celebration was greatly interfered with by the . . .movement of the Cossack, for by 4:30 in the morning that staid old vessel was plowing its way through the waters of Pamlico Sound, heading for Newbern. " However, Bosbyshell did remember "National salutes were being fired by the gunboats and shore batteries, bells were ringing and flags flying when the Regiment arrived at the wharf at Newbern."

Bosbyshell also wrote of the rumors of McClellan capturing Richmond, but, alas, wrote: "McClellan was not in Richmond, he was very, very glad to be under cover of the navy's gunboats at Harrison's Landing, and wait promised reinforcements. So the regiment knew its destination."

He was right. Just four days later, on July 8, 1862, the 48th Pennsylvania, along with most of Ambrose Burnside's 9th Corps made its way north to Virginia to reinforce the Union armies operating in that state. . .

Throughout the summer and fall of 1862, the 48th saw action at 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, and then, after Burnside was relieved of his command of the Army of the Potomac, the 9th Corps traveled west with their commander. The 48th Pennsylvania was named Provost Guards of Lexington, Kentucky, and it was here where they would spend the summer of 1863.

* * * * * * * * * *

July 4, 1863:

The 48th Pennsylvania spent Independence Day 1863 as Provost Guards for the city of Lexington, Kentucky, and their celebration that year was much more successful than in 1862 while encamped along the sandy beaches of North Carolina.

"We celebrated the 4th of July," wrote Gould, "with a very pretty street parade through the city during the day and fireworks at night. Our camp was crowded with the elite of the city, and everybody went away happy."

Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants of the 48th PA, commanding the Lexington Post, sent out orders on July 3, 1863: "At the present time, when the United States is making gigantic exertions to crush out a rebellion which threatens to destroy its nationality, it is especially appropriate that the anniversary of the day when the liberty of its people was achieved, and their rights secured, should be held sacred and suitably celebrated." Continued Pleasants, "It is therefore ordered. . .that in honor of the eighty-seventh anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America (July 4, A.D. 1863) two National salutes of thirty-five guns each, be fired from Fort Clay--one at dawn, and the other at mid-day. It is also ordered that the Forty-eighth Regiment P.V. have a street parade at 7 o'clock a.m., to be ended by a battalion drill."

For Lieutenant Curtis Pollock, the celebration began late on July 3, 1863. Late that night, Pollock and a few others attended a grand ball at the Broadway Hotel "and had a pleasant time." "It was very warm dancing," wrote the young lieutenant, "but I managed to get through with quite a number of dances." The dance ended sometime around 4:00 a.m. on the morning of July 4, but the late hour did not deter Pollock and "a party of Gents" from going downtown, procuring a number of firecrackers, and "started in the 4th of July." After being up all night, Pollock rejoined the regiment in time for the 7:00 a.m. parade. "We started down town about 7 o'clock with about two hundred men and marched all over town and when we got to the Court House Square we went through the Manual of Arms and the firings and did it very well." Finally, at 11:00 a.m. the regiment returned to camp and Pollock took a bath in the warm waters of a nearby creek. He took a nap that afternoon but was up that evening to witness the "quite extensive fire works."

* * * * * * * * * *

July 4, 1864:

By the spring of 1864, the 48th Pennsylvania was back in Virginia with the 9th Corps. Throughout May and June of that year, the regiment suffered heavy casualties in some of the war's heaviest fighting: at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg. Hundreds of men killed and wounded during these two months put a serious damper on any celebration as the Fourth of July rolled in. Indeed, neither of regiment's two histories make any mention, whatsoever, of the 48th celebrating Independence Day that year. And Lieutenant Curtis Pollock, who recorded the daily actions of the regiment since his enlistment in August 1861, was now dead, mortally wounded in mid-June at Petersburg. Instead of celebrating the nation's Independence on July 4, 1864, the 48th Pennsylvania occupied its time in tunelling under the Confederate defenses, a project that began some two weeks earlier. One of the men who did the digging, Samuel Beddall of Company E, recorded the following in his diary:

"Monday 4 July: as this day is almost allways most highley celebrated by the Civil & Millitary homes it was passed to day with out anny thing transpiring unusually. it passed off very quiet. talking of home was the most thing"

* * * * * * * * * *

July 4, 1865:

There is no mention in any of my sources how the 48th celebrated its final 4th of July in the army. But with the end of the war and the cessation of hostilities, Independence Day 1865 was no doubt much better celebrated within the ranks than it was just one year earlier. With the regiment stationed near Alexandria, Virginia, most of the men probably wished they were back home in Schuylkill County observing the Fourth of July with their families.

Two weeks later, the 48th Pennsylvania was mustered out of service, and the men headed for home.

* * * * * * * * * *

Four Fourths in the ranks of the 48th Pennsylvania. . . Some more memorable than others and certainly all, from 1865 forward, observed by the survivors at home with more meaning and importance.