Friday, September 19, 2008

"His Death Cry. . .Is Still Heard In The Ear of Imagination:" The Death of Sergeant Alexander Prince, Co. B, 48th Pennsylvania

At the Battle of Antietam, the 48th Pennsylvania suffered a loss of 8 men killed and 51 wounded. While most of these losses were sustained on that bloody Wednesday, September 17, 1862, there were at least two men who lost their lives as a result of fighting on the following day. They were nineteen-year-old Private John Robinson, a laborer from Pottsville, and nineteen-year-old Sergeant Alexander Prince, a laborer from St. Clair, both of Company B. 

Prince was shot and killed while trying to succor a wounded man caught between the lines. To be gunned down while in this act of mercy within full view of the regiment naturally left a deep impression upon the soldiers of the 48th. Accounts of the incident were recorded in Captain James Wren's diary, as well as both regimental histories. 

On September 18, 1874, the twelfth anniversary of Prince's death, Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, former major of the 48th, penned the following account, which appeared in Pottsville's Miners' Journal:

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Position held by the 48th PA skirmishers at Antietam on September 18, 1862. . .Fence lines the Otto Farm Lane, looking west toward Branch Avenue, where Confederate pickets from A.P. Hill's and D.R. Jones's divisions exchanged shots with the 48th's skirmishers. 

The Story of Alexander Prince, Company B, 48th Pennsylvania
Miners' Journal, September 18, 1874
By Oliver C. Bosbyshell

"Who of the old members of the 48th regiment can ever forget Alex Prince, that noble Sergeant of Company B? He was a grand soldier and the embodiment of all the virtues that go to make up the true man. Handsome in person, tall, well built; a compact rounded figure straight as an arrow, a fine, clean, honest continence with large light lustrous, frank eyes. Foremost in the manner of the duty, strict in the discharge, but kind without fault, a soldier to be proud of, a friend to cherish and his nature to emulate. We read of a being who came to earth and took upon himself the nature of man, who lives a pure, spotless life and died ignominious of death for what that and through the sacrifice of humanity could gain eternal life. He gave his life a ransom with a reverence be it said. Prince gave his life a ransom, but let me recall the incident.

The work of the bloody 17 September 1862 at Antietam closed only with the dark shadows of night. The bridge so tenaciously held and so staunchly assailed, that we wrested from the enemy. A whole afternoon was spent in stubborn fighting on the summit of a shallow hill, yes I write to the boys of the 48th, remember the spot? The 48th under [Lt. Col. Joshua] Sigfried with the 51st under [Col. John] Hartranft determined to hold the line with cold steel before yielding. We picketed the same ground all that night and in the morning of the 18th found us still on the same line. During the day we shifted our position further to the left. The main body of the regiment covered by a corn field. This corn field and the clearing to the left was occupied by our skirmish line. Constant firing was kept up through the whole day and between the opposing skirmishers. Prince occupied a small rifle pit burrowed in the ground in a clearing to the left of the corn field. The regular sharp crack of his rifle evidenced his alertness. The ground between the lines fought over the previous day was strewn with dead men, and here and there a badly wounded soldier lay unable to crawl into either line. Relief could not be extended for so close were the contestants, that the least exposure of the person would result in instant injury.

A wounded soldier lay near Prince's position and his piteous cries for water touched to the heart of our gallant comrade. 'Water! Water! For the love of God water!,' begged the crippled man. Prince's warm nature could not rest at the call for help, this wounded probably dying comrade might be saved, if not whether he wore blue or gray, a fellow being suffering within sight and hearing prompted action and Alex, despite the risk, determined to aid him. He knew full well his own danger in the attempt; his strong buoyant spirit could not bear to remain quiet witness to such suffering; relieve him he must. Removing his canteen from his shoulder and fastening the strap clearly to the point of the bayonet, he pushed it out over the top of the pit to the full extent of his arm. Too short his reach, the sufferer could not be aided without a greater effort. Realizing his task and nobly determined to take it, the prize, the saving of a life. He threw himself over the side of the rifle pit, hug close to the ground, the object of his great love eagerly watching the long forth draft, his very eagerness elegantly urging Prince on. He had almost reached with the life saving water, his nearing grasp when bang, whiz, and the death bearing lead sinks deep into the heart of the poor Alex. A wild spring in the air, an earthly shriek that rises above the din of the battle, and Prince falls. A sacrifice. He died to save his fellow man, can anything be more sublime? Prince by name, a very prince by nature.

When the monument rises to commemorate the men of the 48th and give bright and dearing praises to [Col. George] Gowen [killed in action at Petersburg on April 2, 1865], think in the fullest of Alex Prince who gave a ransom. Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends."

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Twenty-one years after writing this account for the Miners' Journal, Bosbyshell published a regimental history of the 48th Pennsylvania. In it, he also discussed Prince's heroic and selfless act, adding that Prince's "death cry as he leaped into the air, and fell to rise no more, is still heard in the ear of imagination."(1)

After being struck down and killed, Sergeant Prince's lifeless body lay in the open. His comrades in the 48th back on the skirmish line--shocked and some no doubt outraged about the manner of his death--"were very ancious [sic] to get his Body," wrote Captain James Wren, but "We dare not go into him as the enemy had range on that ground." Finally, and unable to bear it any longer, several members of Company B crawled forward and were able to bring it back to their line. Captain Wren detailed several men to carry the body back across the Antietam Creek and "had it Buried in the field near the [Burnside] Bridge." The following day, Wren met Sergeant Prince's brother Elbridge Prince, who served in a 9th Corps artillery unit. "He told me he saw his Brother before he was Buried," recorded Wren, "and I am glad he had seen him, even if he was dead. I gave him his pocket book, which contained $1.30 Cents in money & 3 rings & 5 buttons & also the Bible."(2)  While not known for certain, it is likely Prince's body was later removed and reburied  buried as an "Unknown" in the Antietam National Cemetery.

(1) Oliver C. Bosbyshell. The 48th In The War. (Philadelphia: The Avil Printing Company, 1895). 82. 
(2) James Wren. Captain James Wren's Civil War Diary: From New Bern to Fredericksburg, edited by John Michael Priest. (New York: Berkeley Books, 1990): 95.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sad, brutal actions during war .. Pvt Sam Watkins of Co H, 1st Tennessee Infantry describes the same scene at his position at Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864. Only then it was a gallant confederate soldier murdered by Northern troops while trying to get water to Northern wounded in his front. I hope a good and great God took such men to a glorious reward for such sacrifive for their fellow man no matter what army they found themselves in!