Monday, May 27, 2013

A Civil War veteran speaks from experience

Recently I spoke about Our War at the library in Dunbarton, N.H. As usual, I did a little research beforehand. I learned that 130 able-bodied men lived in the town in 1861 and that Dunbarton was asked in various call-ups during the war to supply 54 soldiers. Sixty-five men volunteered for service, and the town provided 15 substitutes – men from elsewhere to whom the town paid bounties to fill its draft quotas later in the war.

A map on a battlefield marker  at Third Winchester shows the 14th New
Hampshire's charge. The regiment was part of Brig. Gen. Henry W. Birge's
brigade (blue arrow closest to left side of Confederate line). Maj. James
Breathed's rebel artillery, at left on map, pounded the attacking Yankees.    
Two brothers who were natives of Dunbarton fought with the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers at the third battle of Winchester, Va., on Sept. 19, 1864. On our drive to Florida in March, my wife Monique and I stopped at the battlefield and the Union and Confederate cemeteries there. The battlefield is still farmland, lovely and rolling, well-marked and well-preserved, a joy to walk.

With a little preparation you can see exactly what happened to the men of the 14th. They took heavy fire from Confederate artillery under Maj. James Breathed on their right flank as they marched out of the woods and into an open field. The wheat had recently been harvested, leaving the stalks cut to stubble. Confederate Col. William H. Payne said of Breathed: "(He) fought the Yankees because he hated them. When he entered a battle, it was to kill. . . . He would have thought it an insult to his dead comrades to dream in a nightmare that we were rightfully beaten and that they had died in a foolish cause." 

Brig. Gen. Henry Birge, in whose brigade the 14th New Hampshire advanced across what is known as the Middle Field at Winchester, described the charge:

"[We] crossed this field under an artillery and infantry fire from the enemy . . . and when within 200 yards charged with fixed bayonets at double quick. [We] broke his line on the entire front and drove him through and out of the woods. As the troops entered the woods, I was ordered by Gen. Grover to halt and hold that position and not to go farther into the woods, but the charge was so rapid and impetuous and the men so much excited by the sight of the enemy in full retreat before them that it was impossible to execute the order, and the whole line pressed forward to the extreme edge of the timber." 

The Union troops were now exposed, and the rebel counterattack was fierce. Brig. Gen. William Emory, the Union corps commander known as "Old Bricktop," summed up what was happening to his men this way: "My God! This is a slaughterhouse."

Fifty-four men of the 14th New Hampshire were killed and scores more wounded.

Dunbarton, N.H., celebrated its centennial on Sept. 13, 1865, almost exactly a year after this battle. The war was over but fresh in mind. David Macurdy, one of the two brothers originally from Dunbarton who fought in the 14th New Hampshire, spoke that day. Macurdy, who was 33 years old, had been wounded at Winchester leading his company. His younger brother Mathew, a sergeant in the company, had been killed.

Initially a first sergeant in the 14th New
 Hampshire, David A. Macurdy was a
captain by Third Winchester. (Photo
courtesy of David Morin.)
Capt. Macurdy’s speech for the town’s hundredth birthday conveyed his thinking about the war during its immediate aftermath. The Wirz he mentioned was Henry Wirz, commandant at the notorious Camp Sumter prison in Andersonville, Ga., which I write about in Our War. Wirz was hanged two months after Macurdy’s speech, although based on my reading, he had tried his best to improve the conditions he inherited when he took over the camp. I see him as a scapegoat for higher-ups who thwarted his quest for better food and sanitation.

Here is what Capt. Macurdy said to the veterans in the Dunbarton crowd in 1865, five months after Appomattox:

“My fellow soldiers, we who have survived the terrible conflict of the past four years, and are permitted to return to the embraces of the loved ones at home and the peaceful pursuits of civil life, let us make as good and faithful citizens as we have been soldiers. Then we shall have the proud satisfaction of having done our duty faithfully to our country in its time of need, and to our fellow men.

“And to the misguided people of the South, to the rank and file of the rebel armies, we offer pardon. At the same time we demand that justice be meted out to the leaders, to those who have murdered our brothers by the thousand in the southern prison pens. It is difficult to conceive of a punishment for those men too severe. The trial of Wirz, now going on at Washington, is daily developing facts in connection with the Andersonville prison too revolting to be mentioned here. Thousands have there suffered and died from starvation, martyrs to Truth, Liberty and Law. Their memories shall be ever cherished by a grateful people. Their graves, although far from the homes they loved, where no wife, mother or sister can scatter flowers or wet with their tears, shall ever be kept sacred.

Soldiers who died in and around Winchester lie in the National Cemetery. 
“We trust that sweet peace will smile on our beloved land for all time to come, but if treason shall again raise its unholy head, if traitors shall again assail the old flag, our swords, our muskets, our lives are pledged on our country’s altar. And we swear by the graves of our dead brothers, scattered all over the South, we swear by the grave of our murdered President, that hereafter traitors shall receive a traitor’s reward, and the assassin the assassin’s doom.”

These words speak to the fire that still remained in the hearts of Union veterans just after the war. At the Winchester cemetery today, the dead of the 14th New Hampshire – probably including Mathew Macurdy, the captain’s brother – lie beneath an obelisk in a mass grave. Thus when David Macurdy  spoke of “our dead brothers, scattered all over the South,” he spoke from personal experience.

(Accounts of Monique's and my visit to Winchester are here. and here. Since that visit, It has been decided that the battlefield will be improved to look even more as it did on Sept. 19, 1864. That story is here.)

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