About Me

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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. My perspective comes from a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cool and Gallant in the Extreme

Top Row Lieutenants King, Cushing, and Evans at Antietam
On November 7, 2014, President Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing for his actions in stemming the Confederate advance known as Pickett’s Charge.  Young Cushing, age 22 gave his life when he refused to withdraw to a safer position after being grievously wounded.  Instead, Cushing advanced two of his guns to a stone wall into the very teeth of the surging Confederates.  In agony from a wound to the abdomen, and his left thumb burned to the bone while venting the guns without a thumbstall, Cushing fired a last round of canister point blank into the faces of the Confederates before being killed instantly by a shot to the mouth.[1] After the action subsided, Cushing’s First Sergeant, Frederick Fuger tenderly carried his young commanders body several yards to the rear and buried the gallant lieutenant under an oak tree.  While it took 151 years for Cushing to receive his, First Sergeant Fuger, a native of Goppingen Germany was awarded the Medal of Honor in April 1897. [2]

Alonzo Cushing is perhaps the best known of an amazing group of young officers who lead the regular artillery companies in the Union Army during the Civil War. These young men, mostly in their early to mid twenties, were a mix of West Point graduates, former non commissioned officers, and civilian appointees. They served in sixty batteries in five U.S. Artillery regiments. Together, they not only lead their own companies but also were responsible for the training and development of the volunteer batteries making them a formidable force in their own right. Men like Randol, Terrill, Du Pont, and Guenther, mostly unknown today, were present in so many battles, great and small and made the Union artillery a feared and respected force everywhere.

This Veteran’s Day, let us follow the action of some other gunners who fought with the very same Second Corps that Cushing supported at Gettysburg.  This however is nine months earlier on America’s bloodiest day, the Battle of Antietam. 

Covering the advance of John Sedgwick’s division down the Smoketown Road were two Second Corps regular batteries.  One of these was Battery A&C/4th Artillery (Evan Thomas [Civ-1861, age 19).  These unit was a combination of two severely understrength batteries and had been combined to have a sufficient number of men to man the six guns assigned to one battery.  Neither of the two captains was present to command the consolidated unit. Francis N. Clarke of A Company was on detached service with Sumner as his Chief of Artillery.  Company C’s command slot was vacant with the recent death of George Hazzard from wounds suffered in the Seven Days battle of White Oak Swamp.  This left 19 year old Evan Thomas from Company C in command. Family connections (his father was Lorenzo Thomas, the Adjutant General of the army) secured the young man an appointment in the regular artillery the year before.  Thomas was a spirited and even hotheaded young officer. The other officer present from Company C that day was Rufus “Junior” King, scion of another influential family. His uncle Rufus was the first commander of the famed Black Hat Brigade.  Thomas and King are but two examples of how family connections secured many young men coveted appointments in the regular army in the first year of the Civil War. 
As the battery moved forward down the Smoketown Road, it started banging away at the surging Confederates who had waylaid Sedgwick’s division in the West Woods. Evans opened on the advancing enemy with spherical case, and then, as the rebels approached nearer, with canister.  He reports that only the arrival of the advance elements of the Sixth Corps saved him from being overwhelmed. Lending a hand was the Second Corps ordnance officer Alonzo Cushing.  Cushing, assigned to Company C was like Captain Clarke also on detached service on the Sumner’s staff. 

Not far away stood Battery I, First US Artillery.  Considered one of the elite batteries of the army artillery establishment, the command was rebuilt from scratch after being wrecked and its guns lost at First Bull Run.   Unlike A/C/4US led by former civilians, Battery I had West Point leadership.  First Lieutenant George “Little Dad” Woodruff USMA 1861 age 22 was in command that day standing in for Lieutenant Edmund Kirby who was sick.  Battery I’s captain wasn’t with the battery but he was not far away.  James Ricketts, now a brigadier general of volunteers
Lieutenant George Woodruff
commanded a division in the Cornfield 500 yards to the north.  Woodruff had a full complement of officers so all three gun sections were commanded by lieutenants.  They included recent West Point graduates Lieutenants Tully McRea (USMA 1862 age 23) and John Egan (USMA 1862 age 25).  Also assigned to the battery was Frank Sands French (CIV-1861 age 20).  Frank’s father William French (USMA 1837) was another legacy of the First Artillery in the old Army.  Like Ricketts that day, the elder French was also nearby commanding the 3rd Division, Second Corps in the Sunken Road. Like Evan Thomas, Woodruff had to contend with surging Confederate infantry in the West Woods.  Alternating between counter-battery fire and interdicting rebel infantry, Woodruff had little infantry support around his guns. McCrea said that “it [the battery] worked like a machine and we put two rounds of canister a minute in their faces at short range.” Egan described Woodruff’s handling of the battery as “masterful.”
[3]  At Gettysburg, “Little Dad” Woodruff would fall mortally wounded not far from his colleague Alonzo Cushing.

Lieutenant Samuel Elder
The concentration of Second Corps artillery behind Sedgwick’s division left little to support the attacks of French and Richardson further to the left in the Sunken Road.  The absence of artillery and the persistent and effective rebel fire from the Reel Ridge and around the Piper orchard led General Richardson to request a battery from the Artillery Reserve.  Battery K, 1st Artillery, commanded by Captain William M. Graham (CIV-1855 age 27) was soon dispatched.  Graham’s was not a West Point graduate himself but his father James D. Graham was a member of the West Point class of 1817, and a lieutenant colonel in the topographical engineers. His uncle and namesake, Colonel William Montrose Graham, was killed during the Mexican-American War while commanding the 11th U.S. Infantry at Molino del Rey.  Graham was appointed to the First Artillery in 1855 during the expansion of the Regular Army that year.  As a measure of his ability he was in just six years promoted to captain.  Graham’s battery took position in the plowed field earlier occupied by the Irish Brigade.  The battery came under severe artillery fire from rebel batteries.  Graham managed to silence one battery 700 yards away and repelled several infantry charges but his Napoleons were outranged by Confederate rifled guns on the Reel Ridge.  General Richardson ordered Graham to save the battery as much as possible and was mortally wounded by a fragment of spherical case while standing near the guns.  Under this galling fire stood Lieutenant Theophie Bhryd  von Michalowski from Prussia (ENL 1861 age 23).  The former sergeant major of the 11th US Infantry for a long time served one of his pieces with but one cannoneer, alternating with this man in loading and firing. Lieutenant Maynadier (CIV-1861 age 25) returned with First Sergeant Cooney and brought off the two caissons, under a heavy artillery fire.  Captain Graham saved his finest praise for First Lieutenant Samuel Elder (ENL-1861 age 33).  Elder, several years older than the other officers was a former non-commissioned officer in the Second Artillery with five years prior enlisted service.  Appointed in 1861, Lieutenant Elder at Antietam served his section with remarkable effect, and was principally instrumental in silencing the battery first engaged. His conduct, under an extraordinarily heavy fire, was cool and gallant in the extreme.[4]

[1] Made of leather, the thumbstall is used by the gunner to stop the vent when the barrel is being swabbed out so that no residue or hot ashes blow up the vent and prematurely ignite the next powder load.  The thumbstall protects the gunner’s thumb from the hot escaping gases.  Not wearing one causes serious burns to the thumb and repeated thumbing of the vent without a thumbstall will certainly burn the flesh away to the bone.  It must have been excruciating.
[2] Fuger’s citation read: “ All the officers of his battery having been killed or wounded and five of its guns disabled in Pickett's assault, he succeeded to the command and fought the remaining gun with most distinguished gallantry until the battery was ordered withdrawn.”  Four months later, Fuger was appointed a second lieutenant in the 4th Artillery rising to the rank of Major in 1899 retiring in 1900. He died in 1913.
[3] Haskin, First Artillery page 540
[4] Graham OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1, Pages 343 - 344