About Me

My photo
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, April 17, 2017

He Beat Robert E. Lee at West Point

Charles Mason
Both Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan were graduates of the United States Military Academy.  Lee graduated in 1829 and McClellan graduated seventeen years later in 1846.  Both ranked second in their respective classes.   Today, Lee and McClellan overshadow and outshine the two men who beat them out for top honors.  Charles Mason and Charles Stewart are not names that resonate in the history of the Civil War.  Most people don't even know them.  But both men deserve a better fate than to be considered obscure and unimportant.  Their contributions to Civil War history are significant and indeed surprising.  This is the first of two posts that consider the careers of the men who lead the West Point classes of 1829 and 1846.
Charles Mason was born on October 24, 1804 in Pompey New York, a small town near Syracuse. He was a full two years older than Robert E. Lee who was born on January 19, 1807.  Charles was the fifth of six children born to Chauncey and Esther Dodd Mason. Unlike the highbred Lee’s of Virginia, Charles’ father up to the end of his life was a carpenter.[1]  Mason attended local schools and at the ago of 19 was admitted to West Point.  Douglas Southall Freeman described Mason at West Point as “invincible”, a man “ of studious habits and uncommon ability.”[2] No matter how hard Lee worked, he was never able to academically supersede the young New Yorker. Like Lee, Mason never earned a single demerit in his four years at the Academy.   In July of every year, the position of adjutant was filled.  This was the highest-ranking cadet in the Corps.  It went to the man who manifested the finest military bearing and best record on the drill ground.  It is here that Lee came out on top, being appointed to that position in July of 1828. One year later, the men parted ways upon their graduation on July 1, 1829.  Marshall was number one and Lee number two.  Their high class standing destined both men for appointment to the elite Corps of Engineers.  Lee’s orders sent him to Fort Monroe.  He served his first assignment as an assistant engineer in the construction of that fort.  Mason remained at the Military Academy as Principal Assistant Professor of Engineering for two years. 
Mason did not elect to make the Army a career.  He resigned on December 31, 1831 and returned to Newburgh New York where he studied law and eventually joined a law firm.  Two years later he moved to New York City and became acting editor for the New York Post, a pro-Democratic paper.
            While Lee was establishing a reputation as a skilled military engineer, Mason moved in 1836 to Des Moines, then a small village in the Wisconsin Territory.  Governor Henry Dodge appointed him county attorney and Mason settled down on a farm at Burlington.  He married Angelica Gear a local girl and the couple had three daughters.  In 1838 when Iowa became a territory, President Van Buren appointed him Chief Judge of the Territorial Supreme Court.  In that role, Mason was instrumental in writing the criminal code for the new territory. 
Eighteen years before the famous Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Mason in 1839 heard the case of Ralph, a Missouri slave who had been allowed by his master to come to Iowa in exchange for a promise of payment to buy his freedom.  Ralph did not pay and when his owner tried to force him back into slavery, Mason ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa was forever prohibited.  A master who permitted a slave to become a resident in Iowa could not exercise any acts of ownership within Iowa.[3] 
Mason served on the Supreme Court until 1848 when he was commissioned to chair a panel that prepared a code of laws for the new state of Iowa.  By now, Captain Lee was a bona fide war hero of the Mexican War.  Serving on Winfield Scott’s staff, Lee earned three brevets for gallantry at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, and Chapultepec. 
            In April 1853 President Pierce appointed Mason as the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington D.C.  He was an energetic reformer who reorganized the system for applying for patents and inaugurated a system for obtaining weather information by telegraph.  Mason also hired the first woman to regular employment in a federal office.  This determined young Massachusetts woman was Clara Barton, future Civil War humanitarian and Red Cross founder.  Lee was back at the two men’s alma mater as Superintendent of West Point. 
            In August 1857 Mason resigned as Patent Commissioner, unhappy with the politics of the Buchanan administration.  He returned to Iowa and was elected to the state’s Board of Education.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Lee commanded the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Texas.  He returned that year to Washington to settle his father in laws tangled estate at Arlington.  Undoubtedly Mason who was back in Iowa read of Lee’s lead role in the capture of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.
In 1861, Mason unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa.  The former army officer from New York opposed secession but stood up for the constitutional rights of the southern states.  He cast his lot with the Peace Democrats declaring that the Union “can never be perpetuated by force of arms and that a republican government held together by the sword becomes a military despotism.”[4]  Mason’s only overt support of the war was his appointment by Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood to a state war bond commission.  Lee likely had similar sentiments to Mason on the issue of secession and the rights of South. Promoted to Colonel, of the 1st U.S. Cavalry on March 16, 1861, he was now one of only 19 regimental commanders in the Army.[5]  His command of that regiment would last one month. Turning down an offer of a senior command in the Federal Army, Lee resigned on April 25, 1861 to follow Virginia into the Confederacy. 
            Mason returned to Washington in 1862.  By then, Lee was remaking the Army of Virginia in his own image and emerging as the preeminent military leader of the Confederacy. Mason leveraged his political connections, to establish the lucrative patent law firm of Mason, Fenwick and Lawrence.  He was active in Democratic circles determined to oust Lincoln in the 1864 campaign.  Among other roles, he chaired the Democratic National Central Committee.  Lee was also determined to see Lincoln defeated in the 1864 elections.  Mason no doubt followed the military successes of his former classmate.  Lee, an avid reader of Northern newspapers was no doubt aware of his former rival’s partisan activities in Washington as well.
            Mason ran again for governor of Iowa in 1868 and lost convincingly.  As he grew older, Mason remained active in local affairs in Burlington serving as president of the local water company and several railways.  He returned to the national scene as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1868 and 1872.  Throughout his long life, Charles Mason retained a great interest in farming and agricultural science and the farm at Burlington was the center his family life.   
While Charles Mason did not offer his services to the Union war effort, his son-in-law had a distinguished military career. George Collier Remey from Davenport Iowa was an 1859 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.  Like Charles Mason, he graduated with honors.[6]  Though born far from the ocean, Remey served with great distinction on the seas during the Civil War.  He was on the gunboat Marblehead during the Peninsula Campaign and subsequently a part of the Union blockading squadron off Charleston South Carolina.  In the ill-fated attacks against that city in September 1863, Lieutenant Remey commanded a division of landing boats.  His was the only one to make it ashore and was smashed by Confederate gunfire.  Remey was captured and spent 13 months in a Confederate prison.  In 1873 Remey married Mary Josephine Mason.  In his long illustrious career, he served in the Spanish American War and commanded the United States Asiatic Fleet before retiring as a Rear Admiral in 1903.
Later in life, Charles Mason reflected about the war years, and his role as a leading Copperhead.  Writing in his diary he said "I played the game of life at a great crisis and I lost. I must be satisfied."[7] One can only wonder if his classmate ever harbored similar sentiments.
Twelve years after Robert E. Lee’s death and 53 years after the two young men graduated from West Point, Charles Mason died on February 25, 1882 at his beloved farm at Burlington Iowa.  He was 78 years old.




[1] 1850 Census
[2] R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman Pulitzer Prize Edition Volume 1 page 80; New York Charles Scribner’s Sons 1947
[3] Acton, Richard. “Charles Mason” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web 14 April 2017.
[4] Ibid
[5] At the start of the Civil War, there were ten infantry regiments, five cavalry regiments, and four artillery regiments in the regular army.
[6] Remey graduated fourth in his class.  At 17 years of age, he was also the youngest graduate. 
[7] The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Samuel Benjamin's Medal of Honor

Samuel Benjamin USMA May 1861
Samuel Benjamin was one of the best young artillerists to come out of the Civil War.  Born in 1839 at Manhattan New York, Benjamin received an appointment to West Point in 1855.  His father, attorney William Benjamin in making the application to the Buchanan administration for his son’s appointment, described his family as “Patriotic and Democratic” with a proud military heritage. Samuel’s grandfather Colonel Aaron Benjamin served in the Connecticut line under George Washington and participated in all of the early battles of the Revolution.  William Benjamin described his son as “exceedingly anxious to obtain the appointment [who] has from his earliest childhood set his head upon the Military profession.”[i]  Benjamin ranked number 12 out of 45 in his class but his near-sightedness almost kept him out of the Army.  He served his first year in the army on probation for defective vision but it obviously had no impact on his ability to accurately deliver ordnance on to the enemy. [ii]
Benjamin graduated on May 6, 1861. Half of the graduates were appointed into the artillery.  This was due to the great demands for artillery officers caused by the expansion of the regular army and loss of many artillery officers due to resignation, or appointment to higher-ranking staff and volunteer positions. Benjamin himself was commissioned into the 2nd U.S. Artillery, home of such legendary gunners as Henry Hunt, William Barry, and John Tidball.  Dispatched immediately to Washington D.C. Benjamin and the other new artillery officers were immediately assigned to artillery companies wherever there was a need without regard to their actual regimental commissions.  In Benjamin’s case, he found himself with Company G, 1st U.S. Artillery then commanded by Lieutenant John Edwards, 3rd U.S. Artillery.  The battery fought at First Manassas where the new lieutenant came under the critical eye of Henry Hunt.  At the battle Hunt’s battery for a time was situated next to Benjamin’s guns.  He proclaimed himself “impressed with the slowness and consequent destructive accuracy of his [Benjamin’s] shell practice.   Hunt could see that this youngster who was 21 at the time and “fresh from West Point, was a born artillerist.” Part of Benjamin’s success was that he took the time to carefully examine each and every shell and fuse for proper assembly and quality.  This undoubtedly slowed down the firing rate, but certainly assured the highest possible reliability of the ordnance.
By November Benjamin was in his proper regimental assignment - Company E, 2nd U.S. Artillery.  Right before the war this company under Captain Arnold Elzey guarded the Federal arsenal at Augusta Georgia.   In February of 1861 when Georgia secessionists forced its withdrawal, Elzey brought the company to Washington D.C. where he promptly resigned. He and the company's senior lieutenant Armistead Long soon headed south.  Long was the son in law of Union Brigadier General Edwin Sumner.  When Benjamin reported in, the company was under the command of Maine born Josiah Carlisle.  Carlisle also a West Pointer was 16-year veteran who saw combat service at the siege of Vera Cruz during the Mexican War. During the 1850s he served in Florida and other frontier assignments ending the decade at the Artillery School at Fort Monroe.  Carlisle’s company served briefly at Harpers Ferry after Robert E. Lee and the Marines recaptured the arsenal from John Brown’s incursion.  He had been a company commander since 1857. Benjamin benefitted from serving under this highly regarded officer.
The Army of the Potomac's Chief of Artillery William Barry initially assigned Carlisle’s battery to Fitz-John Porter’s division.  Carlisle and Porter were West Point classmates. Soon after, Henry Hunt incorporated the battery along with much of the other regular artillery establishment into his Artillery Reserve. Carlisle moved up to command one of the Reserve’s artillery brigades leaving Benjamin in day-to-day command of Company “E”. 
Benjamin had a fine group of artillery soldiers to work with.  Sergeant John Kaiser was the “old man” in the company.  Born in 1825 at Herzogenaurach Germany, Kaiser had been with the unit off and on since 1846. Sergeant Joseph Keeffe enlisted in the Army in 1853.  Born in Tipperary Ireland, Keeffe was 30 years old at the start of the Civil War.  On his second enlistment, Keeffe had served with the company for his entire career. A number of excellent men joined the company while it was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in the late 1850s.  This post was one of the Army’s artillery schools of practice.  Six artillery companies (five from the 2nd Artillery) were stationed there at the time[iii]. These new soldiers benefitted from rigorous artillery drill conducted at the post.  William Marshall from Limerick Ireland was 21 when he enlisted in May of 1859.  Andrew Eitelmann from Bavaria was also 21 when he joined the army a year later on May 7, 1860. Apparently the frequent practice at Fort Leavenworth paid off for the young Bavarian was considered an exceptional gunner and known for “some very fine shots.”  Albert Carew signed up the same day as Eitelmann and they were likely friends.  The Rochester born soldier was the son of Scottish parents and was 17 years old when he enlisted.   Both Lieutenant Benjamin and Sergeant Keeffe remembered Carew as an excellent soldier.  John Eichel also enlisted in the company while it was at Fort Leavenworth that summer.  Eichel was a big fellow nearly six foot tall.  He was originally from Saxe Meinengen and at 29 years old was much older than many of the other recruits.  He was a farmer before joining up.  Benjamin called Eichel “gallant” and always a good and faithful soldier.  Among an infusion of 59 new recruits who joined the company after the firing at Fort Sumter was John Buch.  Buch enlisted in June 1861 when the company was already in Washington D.C.  Born in Lebanon Pennsylvania, Buch was 21 years old as the Civil War began. 
Benjamin and the sergeants drilled the new recruits continuously on their 20-pound Parrott rifles.   Most batteries in the Army of the Potomac were issued either the light 12-pound Napoleons, 10-pound Parrots or 3 inch Ordnance Rifles.   While they packed an extra punch, the 20 pounders were more unwieldy and difficult to move around.  Company “E” and its big guns under their young lieutenant soon earned a reputation as one of the crack artillery units of the Army of the Potomac. 
A number of officers passed through the company during its formative stages but they moved on to other assignments due either to transfer or promotion.[iv]  The army was notoriously slow in keeping the officer ranks up to authorized levels.  Two brand new officers finally joined the company after it was shipped to the Peninsula.  On May 16, 1862 William Graves reported in.  Graves' family were wealthy and influential members of society in Louisville Kentucky.   His father was Congressman William Graves who died when the boy was very young.  When appointed, the younger Graves was studying engineering. Though a quick study, Graves who was 22 years old needed to be brought up to speed quickly.  He served with the company during the Seven Days and was recognized for “gallantry and fortitude.” The other new lieutenant was James Lord also 22 years old from Honesdale Pennsylvania.  Lord graduated from West Point on June 17, 1862 and was immediately ordered to Virginia.  He was attached to Company “E” in early July after the Seven Days fighting and served at Second Manassas and Antietam.  Benjamin was two years ahead of Lord at West Point and was undoubtedly acquainted with him.
On June 10th 1862 as the Army of the Potomac advanced down the peninsula toward Richmond, Benjamin was kicked by a horse and severely injured his right knee.  Despite the advice of surgeons, he refused to go to the rear. Benjamin advanced toward the Chickahominy lying flat on his back in the back of a wagon. [v]
The battery saw its first major action on June 25th and for the next week was engaged in heavy fighting as the Army of the Potomac slowly fought its way back to the James River.  Company “E” fired over 800 rounds in the course of these actions.  On the 27th Benjamin, was still disabled and unable to stand without crutches.  After his own battery withdrew, Benjamin remained with the battery commanded by his West Point classmate Adelbert Ames. He helped direct and encourage Ames’ men until the firing ceased at nightfall. Benjamin’s actions that day again caught the eye of Henry Hunt. 
It was Benjamin’s actions on the Peninsula that were the basis for his Medal of Honor award.  Henry Hunt initiated the nomination process in May 1877.  It was not until then that Hunt even knew of the existence of the 1863 law authorizing the Medal of Honor.  As he says “as chief of artillery of the Army of the Potomac at the time, I now make the recommendation I would have made at the close of the war had I then been called upon to do so or had I known of the existence of the law.”  Hunt’s letter is dated May 22, 1877.  Benjamin’s Medal of Honor file contains the following citations about the young officer’s service:

                 
Adelbert Ames
Lieutenant Adelbert Ames was Benjamin’s classmate at West Point.  Ames was also awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery at First Bull Run.  In the Seven Days, Ames commanded Battery A, 5th U.S. Artillery.[vi] Regarding Benjamin’s service with him, Ames reports that “My officers, First Lieut. W. D. Fuller, Third Artillery, and Second Lieuts. J. Gilliss and George W. Crabb, Fifth Artillery, conducted themselves most creditably. I consider it my duty to call your attention to the gallant conduct of First Lieut. S. N. Benjamin, Second Artillery. Although lame and obliged to use crutches he remained on the field after his own battery had retired, and greatly assisted me in the second cannonading.”[vii]

Captain Josiah Carlisle commanding officer of Company “E” 2nd reports:  “With the battery I had First Lieut. Samuel N. Benjamin, Second Artillery; Second Lieut. W. P. Graves, Second Artillery, and Second Lieut. J. P. Denike, Fifth New York Independent Battery (temporarily attached), who during all of this time conducted themselves with gallantry and fortitude. Lieutenant Benjamin deserves very particular mention.  As he has served much under your own immediate observation, it is unnecessary for me to recount his valor and untiring energy from the day the battery left Washington, and in the affairs of the last week he was always present with the battery, directing and encouraging the men, although so entirely disabled as to be unable to stand without crutches, and could only be carried on a gun-carriage. I would respectfully request that the particular attention of the general commanding be called to his service.”[viii]

Lieutenant Colonel George Getty commanded the 2nd Brigade of the Artillery Reserve:  “In this connection I respectfully call your attention to the gallant conduct of First Lieut. Samuel N. Benjamin, of Carlisle's battery, on the afternoon of the 27th June 1862. Although disabled and unable to stand without crutches, he remained with Lieutenant Ames' battery after his own had been withdrawn, and directed and encouraged the men until the firing ceased. He remained with the battery until it was withdrawn, after nightfall.”[ix]

In concluding his MOH application, Hunt briefly mentions Benjamin’s service at Antietam.  At the battle of Antietam September 1862 he so distinguished himself by the admirable handling and service of his battery that at a subsequent review of his corps on the field of battle President Lincoln had him called to the front and publicly thanked him for his conduct on that occasion.”  It took only two weeks for the award to be approved.  On June 4, 1877 the Secretary of War directed that a “ ’Medal of Honor’ be engraved for 1st Lieutenant S.N. Benjamin.”

Several of the Company E sergeants also served gallantly in the Seven Days battles and were recognized in the official reports.  Sergeant Keeffe rendered “ invaluable service” and was recommended for a lieutenant’s commission by Captain Carlisle.  Keeffe received an appointment as a second lieutenant in the 5th Artillery on October 22, 1862. Another was Sergeant Kaiser.  Benjamin, like Henry Hunt was unaware of the 1863 law authorizing the Medal of Honor.  After he received his Medal, Benjamin in 1878 nominated First Sergeant John Kaiser for a Medal of Honor for gallantry and meritorious service during the campaign. This is Benjamin's recommendation dated March 11, 1878:

I have the honor to recommend that Sergeant John Kaiser, formally of Company E Second US Artillery, now an ordinance sergeant U.S. Army be awarded the medal of honor for gallant and meritorious service during the “Seven days Battles "in front of Richmond 1862.
He especially distinguished himself on June 27th, 1862 by coolness and gallantry under a very warm fire. Acting as gunner as well as "chief of piece" his firing was very accurate and effective. A sponge staff was broken by a piece of shell close to his hand.
The next day he and another chief of piece, with their caisson horses were sent (under an officer) to bring off two guns which had been abandoned by another battery and were in eminent danger of capture by the enemies infantry, there being then no one near them.
He performed his share of this duty cooly and well; and the guns were saved. At the time, I was virtually in command of the battery – Captain Carlisle 2d Artillery Comdg (since dead) being in command of a brigade of artillery (4 batteries). 
I did not know until long after the war, that medals of honor were given.
Sergeant Kaiser also behaved with gallantry and skill at Malvern Hill, Groveton, 2d Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain, Antietam and other engagements. 

[signed] Samuel N. Benjamin Major, Assistant Adjutant General

EPILOGUE

By the end of July, Josiah Carlisle’s health, which was never good, broke down completely.[x]   On August 3, 1862 Lieutenant Benjamin relieved him of command of Company “E”.  Six days later the company began its withdrawal from the Peninsula and arrived at Falmouth Virginia on August 12.  It was assigned to General Isaac Stevens’ division of the new Ninth Corps.  Benjamin was thereafter associated with that corps for the remainder of his active service during the war.  He greatly distinguished himself at Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg before the Ninth Corps headed west with Ambrose Burnside.  Benjamin fought at such places as Vicksburg Mississippi and Knoxville Tennessee before heading back to Virginia in time to participate in the Overland Campaign in 1864.  He was severely wounded at Spotsylvania there ending his active frontline service.  In 1864 he was promoted to captain and served in the 2nd Artillery until 1875. In that year he was appointed a major in the Adjutant General corps.  Benjamin died suddenly on May 15, 1886 at the young age of 47 of chronic rheumatism.  He left behind his wife Julia, daughter of Congressman Hamilton Fish and four young children, a daughter and three sons (including a pair of twin boys.)  His son Julian (1877-1953) a graduate of the West Point class of 1900 was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action while serving with the 306th Infantry, 77th Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France during World War I.  The proclivity for gallantry had been passed to another generation of the Benjamin family.



[i] U.S. Military Academy Cadet Application Papers, 1805-1866; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M688, 1 roll); Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C.1856 File 24
[ii] Mary Sergent, They Lie Forgotten The United States Military Academy 1856 – 1861 (Middletown NY, 1986), 121
[iii] At Fort Leavenworth were William Barry’s Light Company A, Arnold Elzey’s Company E, James Totten’s Company F, Horace Brooks Company H and Henry Hunt’s Light Company M.  John Bankhead Magruder’s Light Company I, 1st Artillery was also stationed there.
[iv] John Butler and William Dennison were the other lieutenants who served with the company before it went to Peninsula.  Also on the books was George Hartsuff who was appointed a brigadier general U.S. Volunteers on April 15, 1862.  Hartsuff never served with the company.
[v] Association of Graduates June 19 1886 Memorial to Samuel Benjamin page 129
[vi] Early in the war, only the 5th Artillery units were officially designated as batteries.  The other four U.S. Artillery regiments still referred to their units as companies. Referring to them all as batteries gradually became more prevalent as the war progressed.
[vii] OR 11, pt. 2, 259; Reports of Lieut. Adelbert Ames, Battery A, Fifth U. S. Artillery, of action at Garnett’s Farm and battle of Malvern Hill
[viii] Ibid, pt.2, 268; Report of Capt. J. Howard Carlisle[viii], Battery E, Second U. S. Artillery, and Fifth Brigade, Artillery Reserve, of operations June 27-July 4, including the action at Garnett’s Farm, engagement at Turkey Bridge, and battle of Malvern Hill
[ix] Ibid, pt. 2, 252; Report of Lieut. Col. George W. Getty, commanding Second Brigade, Artillery Reserve, of operations June 26-July 1.
[x] Carlisle was retired from active service for disability on November 4, 1863.  He died on December 16, 1866 at the age of 46.