Friday, February 8, 2013

Ours was a smaller, more neighborly country in '61

Image from the silk banner of Goodwin Rifles.
The story of Lt. Charles Holmes at the first battle of Bull Run illustrates the intimacy and neighborly feelings of a country much smaller than the one we live in now. One of the players in the story was Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, an Ohioan with New Hampshire roots.

Holmes served in Company B of the Second New Hampshire regiment. He was the company's orderly, a job that entailed policing the behavior of the enlisted men.

Perhaps the job was jinxed. On the way to the front in June 1861, Lt. Charles W. Walker, the company’s original orderly, died the first violent death of any soldier from a New Hampshire infantry regiment. He fell off the train, and its wheels crushed his leg. In Our War I tell the story of his elaborate funeral in Concord as an indication of how na├»ve citizens were about the cost of the coming war.

Company B called itself the Goodwin Rifles, after Ichabod Goodwin, the governor when the regiment formed. The hundred men of the company were armed with Sharps rifles, not the standard muskets carried by most soldiers. Concord men comprised the company's core, but the 28-year-old Holmes hailed from neighboring Hopkinton. 

The ladies of Concord made the Company B banner. 
Here is a snippet from a letter written on the Fourth of July, 17 days before the Bull Run battle, by Charles A. Mace, a 19-year-old private from Dover in Company B:

“We often go out target shooting, with our trusty Sharp’s rifle. . . We can often mark the centre at the distance of three and four hundred yards – with practice we soon hope to be able to do the same at seven and eight hundred yards. Stevens, Holden and Orderly Holmes are among our crack shots though some of the rest of us do not feel far behind them. Many of our boys are getting quite impatient to bring their pieces to bear on the rebel cowards. When we do, you may depend upon it, the Goodwin Rifles will do their whole duty, and never disgrace the splendid banner presented us by the ladies of Concord, and of which every man feels justly so proud.”

To this post I have added photographs of this gorgeous banner taken years ago by Dave Morin, a friend with an avid interest in New Hampshire in the Civil War. He found the banner rolled up in a dusty corner at the New Hampshire Veterans’ Association headquarters building at the Weirs. Where it is now, neither of us knows.

Mace’s letter was published in the Independent Democrat, a Concord newspaper. A few weeks later, its columns were filled with firsthand accounts of the Second New Hampshire at Bull Run and during its wild retreat to Washington. Company B had little use for its long-range rifles. For the most part the men saw little of the enemy. Holmes’s story can be pieced together from these published letters.

In mid-afternoon, more than 12 hours after the Second New Hampshire marched to battle, Holmes was shot in the shoulder on or near Henry Hill. He lay bleeding and untended on the field for two hours more. When the Union army suddenly took flight, a comrade, Private Calvin Burbank of Webster, roused Holmes and they joined the retreat. Burbank walked with Holmes for 6½ hours, staying clear of the highway to avoid both the retreating Union mob and possible pursuit by the rebels. Holmes “was bloody even to his feet,” an anonymous writer, possibly Burbank, wrote the Independent Democrat.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase
The distance of the first night’s walk was 16 miles. After resting beneath a tree in a pasture for several hours, the men rose and walked 16 more miles to Washington in a violent rainstorm. Possibly one of them knew Secretary Chase or someone in his family, as they wound up at his house.

The anonymous letter reports: “The Secretary sent for the best surgeons in the city, but so located is the ball in his shoulder that its removal cannot be safely effected, and the use of his arm is, we fear, forever lost to him. His father, mother, two older brothers, four older and one younger sisters live in Hopkinton; and two of his associates who fell in the battle, and one of the wounded were from the same town, all good men and true and brave as brave can be.”

Mace, the Dover private from Company B who had written to the Democrat before the battle, provided a postscript about the care of Holmes:

“For a week I have been with him and can speak from experience of the kindness of Mr. Chase and his family in doing all in their power for the comfort of their wounded guest. They often come in to inquire of him and also to inquire if there is anything they can get or do to add to his comfort. . . . Lieut. Holmes is worthy of such care – for no braver man or truer soldier marched upon that battle-field than he.” 

Holmes survived the wound but left the Second New Hampshire a few months later to serve as a captain in a regular army unit. He “retired” from service in late 1863. In 1895, when state Adjutant General Augustus Ayling’s register of New Hampshire Civil War soldiers was published, Holmes was living in Jacksonville, Fla.

1 comment:

  1. This a great read Mike. First time a lot of people will get to see the banner as well.