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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, January 29, 2018

That One Important Minute

J. Albert Monroe, First Rhode Island Light Artillery
He called it “that one important minute”, the time when an artillery commander had to make the decision to either throw one more round of canister into the face of enemy infantry just yards away from his guns, or to limber up and head to the rear. 

Albert Monroe knew what he was talking about.  He was born on October 25, 1836 at Swansea Village Massachusetts.  He was distantly related to President James Monroe.  In 1852 his family moved to Providence where he attended Providence High School for two years.  He worked in dry goods, at a jewelry establishment and spent a semester teaching school. His goal was a higher education.  In 1860 he was a student at Brown University.  In 1854 Monroe joined the famed Providence Marine Artillery, one of the premier artillery militia companies in the North.  He was a member for about three years rising to the rank of Fifth Sergeant.  Many of this unit’s soldiers would rise to prominence in the famed First Rhode Island Light Artillery Regiment in the Civil War.  This regiment produced some of the finest volunteer artillery batteries in the Union Army. 
At the beginning of the war, Monroe was commissioned as a lieutenant in what eventually became Battery A First Rhode Island Light Artillery.  The battery fought with distinction at the First Battle of Bull Run.  In September he was promoted to Captain and command of Battery D.  His company was assigned to what eventually became Abner Doubleday’s division at Antietam.[1]  Monroe’s biographer describes his distinguished career: 

He was chief of artillery to the divisions of McDowell, Doubleday and Hooker successively; commander of the Artillery Camp of Instruction at Washington, D. C.; chief of artillery commanding the artillery brigade of the Second Army Corps; inspector and chief of staff of the Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac, commanding officer of the second division of the artillery brigade of the Eighth Army Corps, and chief of artillery commanding the artillery brigade of the Ninth Army Corps.  … Monroe's battle record is as follows: Fairfax Court House, First Bull Run, Falmouth; Tar, Po and North Anna rivers; (cavalry skirmish), Thoroughfare Gap, Rappahannock Station, Sulphur Springs, Gainesville, Groveton, Second Bull Run, Annandale, South Mountain, Antietam, Kelly's Ford, Mine Run, Locust Grove, Morton's Ford, Tolopotomy, Bethesda Church, Hawes’ Shop, Cold Harbor, Wilderness, Po River, Spotsylvania, North Anna, First Assault of Petersburg, Fort Hell, Siege of Petersburg, Mine Explosion, Avery Farm,  Yellow Tavern and Pegram's Farm.  [2]

Perhaps Monroe’s greatest moment was commanding his battery at Second Manassas.  A group of federals officers who included Phil Kearney watched the rebels attempt to capture Monroe’s guns three times.  As other batteries were swept up by the advancing Confederates the seemingly impossible happened.  Awestruck, an artillery officer standing with Kearney recalled the moment:

"Our interest was centered in the battery, now all alone, entirely without support, and all expected to see it gallop to the rear and join the general stampede. " To our infinite surprise, after advancing two hundred or three hundred yards to the rear, the captain [Monroe] again went into battery, as if, single-handed, to defy the whole center of the rebel army The assurance of the battery commander, his effrontery and impudence were as much of a surprise to the rebels apparently as to us, and they seemed to be staggered for a few minutes, as if in doubt whether or not our lines had reformed and were about to advance again. Their doubts were soon dispersed, and then they charged with such a dashing, impetuous rush that, apparently, the battery could by no possibility escape. Again the horses and limbers plunged wildly forward and it seemed as if the pintle-hooks of the limbers actually shot into the lunettes of the trails of the gun carriages. Before the charging line reached the ground that the guns stood upon and fired from, the battery was moving away at a sharp trot. It looked as if the battery captain was playing and trifling with the enemy, for when he reached the crest of the hill leading down into the valley he went into battery again to pay a parting compliment to the Johnnies, but he failed to surprise them for a third time and they resumed their formation for a charge. The captain saw his danger, and without firing a shot he limbered to the rear and coolly moved down the hill, where he was lost to our sight.

Twenty-five years after the war, Albert Monroe recalled that fight in a paper he wrote for the Soldier and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island.  He bemoaned the fact that Northern historians had so far ignored the actions of the artillery in their writings.  This is largely still the case today.  Turning to that moment witnessed by Kearney the old gunner, veteran, of many battles, reflected on the absolutely necessary qualities of an artillery battery commander in battle. [3]

He should have all the dash and impetuosity of a cavalry leader, all the coolness of an infantry commander, for at times he must throw his pieces forward like a whirlwind to the very front line and fling his iron hail into the ranks of the enemy, where their success or reverse is just on the balance, or, if the onslaught is irresistible, he must know, to the very last moment, how long he can hold his position and deliver his fire with safety. This is the time that tries his mettle. He sees the line of the enemy rapidly advancing, gap after gap in the hostile line, torn out by his shot and shell, filled as if men sprang out of the ground for the purpose of mocking him. On they come until his canister rattles forth from his pieces like rain. The gaps in the advancing line in his front increase in frequency, but they are no less frequently filled, and the new men appear to be fresher and more determined than the others. Then he knows that the escape of his command depends upon how much punishment he can inflict, how much weakness he can cause up to the very moment that he must get away. Wavering in mind for a single second then, indecision for an instant at the supreme moment will prove to be his destruction, the severe crippling, if not the entire loss of his entire command. If he leaves a minute too soon the enemy quickly reaches the position he has occupied, comparatively fresh, and pours into him a destructive fire as he hastens with his exhausted men to the rear. If he uses that important minute to hurl canister from pieces well depressed, the enemy reaches the position he has abandoned, exhausted, torn and bleeding, and while he is gathering himself together, the self-contained, well-manned battery may seek cover with comparative leisure.[4]

Artillery gun position at Antietam
Albert Monroe knew what he was talking about.  And only other men who commanded batteries in extremis knew the feeling too.  Men like James Ricketts or Charles Griffin at First Bull Run.  Men like William Terrill at Shiloh.  Men like Henry De Hart or Alanson Randol during the Seven Days.  Men like Dunbar Ransom or James Stewart or Joseph Clark at Antietam.  Men like George Dickenson at Fredericksburg.  Men like John Mendenhall and Frank Guenther at Stones River.  Men like Clermont Best or Justin Dimick or Edmund Kirby at Chancellorsville.  Men like John Calef or George Woodruff or Alonzo Cushing or Gulian Weir at Gettysburg.  Men like Howard Burham at Chickamauga.  Men like Edward Williston at Trevillian Station. 

Men like Albert Monroe. 




[1] Chapters 15 and 16 of The Maryland Campaign of 1862 Volume II: Antietam by Ezra Carman edited by Tom Clemens  (Savas-Beatie 2012) thoroughly cover Monroe’s role in the Battle of Antietam.  Additionally Monroe wrote a detailed monograph titled  Battery D, First Rhode Island Light Artillery at the Battle of Antietam September 17, 1862 by J. Albert Monroe (Late Lieutenant Colonel First Rhode Island Light Artillery (Providence: Soldier and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island Third Series No. 16 Providence 1886).
[2] This summary of Monroe’s military career comes from John Albert Monroe First R.I. Light Artillery A Memorial (Providence: Soldier and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island Fourth Series No. 18 Providence 1892), pages 31-33
[3] Battery D, First Rhode Island Light Artillery at the Second Battle of Bull Run by J. Albert Monroe (Late Colonel First Rhode Island Light Artillery (Providence: Soldier and Sailors Historical Society of Rhode Island Fourth Series No. 10 Providence 1890), pages 29-31
[4] Ibid pages 8-10

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