Monday, January 20, 2014

'Life is a valuable sacrifice but not too great for a country like ours' – Cpl. Elmer Bragg, a Vermonter in Co. E

Earlier this month I spoke to the Green Mountain Civil War Roundtable, which meets in the old Coolidge Hotel in White River Junction, Vt.

Cpl. Elmer Bragg, 9th NH Infantry
The Coolidge is fun: On the walls of the Vermont Room, where the group meets, is a lively mural painted in 1950 by Peter Michael Gish. Its theme is the state’s history, and the style evokes the work of Mexican muralists of the period just before Gish painted it. He lived at the hotel and created the mural in exchange for room and board.

Civil War roundtables are daunting audiences for a historian. The war is a vast subject, and members of these groups often know more about it than their speakers do. For someone like me, who has focused mainly on New Hampshire’s war experience, speaking to a Vermont roundtable called for a change of pace.

Fortunately, one of the most articulate soldiers in Our War is a Vermonter who crossed the Connecticut River to serve in the 9th New Hampshire Infantry. His name was Elmer Bragg.

I first learned of Bragg at a 2011 exhibit at The Fells, the summer home of John Hay on Lake Sunapee. Bragg’s descendants, including a doctor in New London, N.H., had lent the estate his letters and wartime keepsakes. After reading just a few snatches of the letters through the glass, I knew I wanted to use Bragg in the book. Years ago, the late New London historian Mather Cleveland transcribed the letters and donated the transcripts to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth. That is where I read them in full.

At the Green Mountain Civil War Roundtable, I used the letters again to tell the story of the young man from just up the road.

Elmer Bragg was born in East Plainfield, N.H., in 1842, and soon moved to Quechee with his family. With fellow students from Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., he marched into Lebanon to enlist in Co. E of the 9th New Hampshire on July 25, 1862. In Our War, I write about Cpl. Bragg’s company in two chapters that show the contrast between green and veteran troops.

Less than a month after mustering, with little training and no ammunition, the men of the 9th found themselves on Arlington Heights, where they could hear firing from the second Battle of Bull Run in the distance. Within days, they were on the march north into Maryland.

Bragg wrote to his parents: “I am glad that I am here for I know that I am needed. Life is a valuable sacrifice but not too great for a country like ours. You would be surprised to know what an army we have. . . . I think Vermont and New Hampshire do not have all the credit they deserve for the bravery of their troops.”

On Sept. 11, still on the move, he wrote his aunt, Sarah Bragg Littlefield: “The probability is, that we are now on the eve of a great and fearful struggle. God alone knows who will here be called to sacrifice their lives to their country’s cause. It may be one; it may be another. But can we not meet all this with firmness, if we put our confidence in an Almighty Arm and go forward under the convictions of duty. I think we can.”

On the way up South Mountain, the men were halted for a lesson on how to load and fire their weapons. They tossed away much of the gear they were carrying, including in some cases their food and blankets.

“I have nothing but the clothes on my back,” Bragg wrote after the battle on the mountain. “My blanket and overcoat, shirts and stockings are all left on the Battlefield. Life you know is worth more than all else. The Captain gave us orders to throw off everything, and fight like men, and we did. . . . You can form no idea of the harrass of the Battlefield. It was only through excitement that I endured it. . . . I felt no kind of fear through it all. I was as calm as if I was out upon a peaceful drill.”

Burnside's Bridge, where Bragg and the 9th New Hampshire fought
on Sept. 17, 1862,  just weeks after mustering.
Two days later, on the morning of Sept. 17, from the bank of Antietam Creek, Bragg again wrote home: “Our forces are now under a hot fire of shot and shell from the Rebel batteries. They fly over our heads like rain. We may be ordered at any time to charge upon them and God alone knows the result. But we are ready.”

Bragg survived the battle of Antietam at Burnside Bridge, named after his brigade commander, Ambrose Burnside.

He wrote his father: “The Rebels were there in force and they had a strong position. Hour after hour the contest raged. The thundering of the cannons and the roar of musketry was a continual clang all day. The slaughter on both sides was fearful. At length two regiments, with the 9th New Hamp. were ordered to make a charge across the bridge. Then the struggle was at its height. . . . You can judge of immense slaughter when I tell you that in 10 minutes, 800 of our brave soldiers were lying upon the bridge and near it, both dead and wounded. But the ‘Greybacks’ can’t stand steel and they gave way. Then we planted the Stars and Stripes upon the opposite bank, and with loud cheers rallied around the old flag. . . . For a new Regiment we have seen very hard times in a short time we have been out here.”

By the spring of 1864, the 9th was a veteran regiment serving in Burnside’s 9th Corps. It was in a northern New England brigade commanded by Simon G. Griffin of Keene and including three New Hampshire regiments, two from Maine and the 17th Vermont. On April 28, 1864, Elmer Bragg described the men’s march through Washington on the way to Virginia.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside, 9th Corps commander.
“As the Corps passed through the city the President and Gen. Burnsides stood on the balcony of the Willard Hotel, and any number of Senators and Members of Congress were near the Capitol and White House to welcome the troops who had been in the department of the West. I was surprised to see how careworn the President was looking for he seemed to be really ill, and who can wonder that this is the case in times like the present? . . .

“We received a harty welcome from the citizens of Washington and thousands of people of every class crowded in the side walks to see Burnsides army. Though we had seen rather rough times I believe that we all felt as proud as though we were fancy troops who had never seen hard service. There is an honest pride in feeling that one is doing something if it be but very little, is there not?

“When we were passing through one street I heard a Gentleman who was sitting in a Carriage nearby remark as the regiment was passing ‘New England troops-God Bless them’! . . .

Of course ’tis all a mystery with us where we are now to act whether directly on Richmond or elsewhere. Time will reveal, and what matters it if we are doing our duty as best as we can? As we move on to meet the enemies of Freedom we go with a sacred trust on our hands, and if we are true men and Brave soldiers we can meet duty wherever it calls and far above the smoke and carnage of the Battlefield a righteous peace will ere long shine down on a free and happy people.”

On their way to the Wilderness, the men passed the old Bull Run battlefield, where the Union army had suffered defeats in 1861 and 1862. Like many soldiers before and after him, Bragg could not resist describing what he saw there:

“It will be a great many years before the marks of Old Bull-Run will be effaced though thousands and thousands of visitors have been over the field to carry to their Northern homes mementoes of the battles on that ill fated field. Wrecks of Ambulances, dismounted pieces of Artillery too large for a curiosity gatherer to carry off, broken muskets, rusty bayonets, fragments of exploded shells & solid shot still lie and will lie in mixed confusion telling passers-by of the awful destruction of war, and yet how feebly! For the dying groans and death struggles of the thousands who were called to die on the field are hushed and all are enclosed neath the green sod.”

On the march, Bragg was surprised “to see what an immense body of troops, Cavalry and Artillery are continually moving up to the front. . . . . The Army of the Potomac is today larger than ever before and under Gen. Grant will prove a serious obstacle to Gen. Lee. Movements are already being made and ere many days pass there may be a battle of as great magnitude as there has ever been fought on the Continent.”

Bragg kept a diary, bless him, and it you can read of his regiment’s movement toward this fate:

May 3, 1864 – Orders to move in the morning

May 4 – The whole of the Brigade except the 32nd Maine & the 9th move on.

May 5 – Break camp 4:30 and march on a line with the R.R. 20 miles to Rappahannock Station. Go into 
camp pretty well tired out.

Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New
Hampshire and a candidate for governor
of the state in 1863, was captured in the
Wilderness and held prisoner for five months.
May 6 – Off again this morning about 6 o’clock and as the Me. Boys (a new regiment) went rather slow we took the lead. Heavy firing heard as we near the Rapidan. A brisk engagement going on all day at the front. Col . Harriman missing. [This was Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th NH, and he had been captured in the Wilderness.]

May 7 – Sleep at night on the field. In forenoon we move up to the front where we threw up breastworks and waited for the enemy. . . . Heavy charge just after dark by Rebs.

May 8 – The loss on our side in the three day fight at Chancellorsville reported at 18,000. In the morning we went into the old fortifications of Hooker and remained in line of battle all day. . . . God Grant, we may soon believe great success.

May 9 – Relieved this A.M. by a negro Division. We marched with the teams about 4 miles towards Fredericksburg. Gen. Sedgewick reported killed but hope it will not prove true. [Gen. John Sedgwick was indeed dead. He was outraged at his staff for trying to duck and dodge rebel bullets from 1,000 feet away. “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” he said. A moment later he fell dead with a bullet hole below his left eye.]

May 10 – Marched about 8 miles in the afternoon to the front about 2 miles to the left of Spottsylvania Court House. Formed a line of Battle with Regiment under artillery fire. Staid all night in a rifle pit & the firing comparatively still.

May 11 –Toward night we moved to the rear for a while. Drew fresh beef. Returned to the pit again by dark where we staid all night up at the front.

May 12 – At the light the whole front line advanced on the enemy’s works and our regiment was engaged early. I was wounded near the left temple and in the breast (a slight bayonet wound in the breast) taken prisoner with several others, taken to the rear, under guard.

May 13-14 – I am stopping in a piece of woods. . . . Nearly 150 of our wounded men are here. . . . I am quite comfortable and hope to be soon well again. ’Tis sad to see how some of my comrades are suffering in the hands of the enemy.

May 14 – Spent the day with the rest of the wounded in the woods, and busied myself in washing and cooking us food. Several Rebel surgeons came over to perform amputations.

Back in Quechee, Bragg’s family did not know at first what had happened to him.

On June 10, 1st Sgt. Franklin Burnham wrote Bragg’s father William in response to his queries. Burnham said he had seen nearly every dead face on the battlefield where the 9th had fought and not found Elmer. “I am almost certain that he was not killed nor so badly wounded as to be unable to help himself. Most of the men think he was taken prisoner. Elmer would be the last one to run, and the last any of us now present saw of him he was in the front rank and even beyond banging away at the Johnnies on our front, and quite likely did not see that we were out-flanked till it was too late to skedaddle. One of our men who was wounded and left on the field said when we brought him off that before he was hit he saw Elmer suddenly turn round and lay or drop down with a wound in the face, and on the strength of this we at first reported him wounded.”

In August the handwriting in Bragg’s diary became fuzzier and fuzzier. A typical entry read, “I hope to be well soon, but things are slow.”

In mid-month he was paroled and sent to the naval hospital at Annapolis, Md. From there he wrote his father with details of his capture and imprisonment in Richmond. He had been robbed by the man who bayoneted him, losing his knife, stockings and rubber blanket. The man cut his pocket and took the pocket watch his father had lent him. Elmer promised to pay his father back for the watch and wrote his sister: “Father will never lose a cent if I can ever get enough.”

He had allowed a rebel surgeon to remove the ball from his head, but the wound still hurt. “Head ache troubles me, and often I am crazy for two or three hours and sometimes I am taken blind to last a few minutes,” he wrote.

His father arrived at the hospital on Aug. 19 and found his son comfortable but ill and hard to recognize. For some reason, William Bragg couldn’t stay. The next letter in the Bragg file was written the next day by Maria Hall, one of Elmer’s nurses, to William Bragg. It read:

“But yesterday you were with us & enjoyed the pleasure of seeing your son alive again from Richmond & its prison. But our Father’s word tells us that in the midst of life we are in death – and my heart fails me as I write that the case of your own child is a striking illustration of the truth of these solemn words. The shock of his death came upon me like a thunderbolt. . . . I regret very much that you could not have stayed longer. Elmer told me last night with so much pleasure of your visit – how surprised he was to see you & how glad it made him. He went from my tent back to his quarters & in the night was taken with severe spasms of a peculiar nature. He could not speak at all this morning & seemed as if he were filled and choked up. He lived till about half past ten this morning when he died, as it were choked to death.”

In her letter she enclosed a lock of his hair.

1 comment:

  1. This chronicle of Corporal Elmer Bragg is fascinating and closely parallels, in part, the service of George P. McClelland of the 155th PA covered in my book "Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier's Odyssey" published in 2011 by University pof Missouri Press. McClelland was born in the same year as Bragg, served in the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to 1865 and also fought at the Wilderness.