Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'The gift that keeps on giving' (part two)

Let us begin our exploration of the papers in my last post with a brief wartime history of the man accused in them. He was Welcome Crafts, a soldier from Milan, N.H., who appears in two of my books – My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth, written with Mark Travis, and Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union.

Welcome A. Crafts as a captain in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers.
When I told Mark of the latest Craft material, he said, “Ah, Welcome Crafts, the gift that keeps on giving.”

Crafts was born in 1835 in Milan, a lumber town in Coos County, the state’s northernmost. Milan’s population was about 300 at the time and just over 700 when the Civil War began. Crafts was educated in his hometown and in Norway and South Paris, Maine. He studied law in Lancaster, the county seat and the home of Edward E. Cross, a near-contemporary under whom Crafts would serve in the war.

Crafts volunteered immediately after Fort Sumter fell in April 1861. He was 26 years old and was elected captain of the Coos Volunteers. He entered the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, the state’s first three-year regiment, as first sergeant of Company F.

When I was researching Our War, Bette Paine of Strafford , N.H., contacted me about her family Civil War letters. (I learned only later that she was the mother of our longtime veterinarian in Concord, Jim Paine.) Bette’s husband’s ancestor was Louville Brackett, a private from Milan and one of the men Crafts recruited.

Crafts and Brackett fought together in Ambrose Burnside’s brigade at first Bull Run. Afterward Brackett was listed among the missing. His sister Susan was distraught, especially when Louville’s name appeared on no lists as wounded or captured during the weeks after the battle.

In the packet of letters the Paine family saved was a letter from Louville Brackett’s first sergeant attempting to ease Susan’s worries.  But the equivocation in Crafts’s letter only made things worse.

He wrote that Louville had left the Bull Run battlefield safely, “seeming to bear a charmed life and to be impervious to shot or shell.” Comrades saw him hurrying through the woods as the retreat began but lost track of him when things became chaotic. “We hope that he is only taken prisoner and that he may be exchanged for some that we took,” Crafts wrote. Even if he was wounded, he assured Susan, the rebels had promised humane care. “We know not but feel (and hope and would advise you to feel) hopeful – yet prepared for the worst.”

From there Crafts’s letter descended into a weepy sermon. “There is sweet consolation in the reflection that he who dies in the service of his country is but perishing in the cause of God & humanity,” he wrote. “The liberty of enslaved millions will come through the blood of heroes. Just such in all ages of the world men have offered themselves up on the altar of their country – have bled and died to establish while we die to perpetuate those glorious institutions which bless our beloved land. O Susan I know your grief will be that of a devoted and affectionate sister. . . . We will mingle our tears as you mourn a brother lost & I a companion in arms, a comrade in the bloody fight & the dangerous retreat.”

The letter brought Susan Brackett no peace. She clung to every rumor that Louville was alive, every doubt about his death. But no trace of him was ever found, and the government finally sent her family his pay through July 21, 1861, the day of the battle.

Two months later, Crafts was recruited as a first lieutenant into the 5th New Hampshire, the regiment Col. Cross was assembling after returning east from Arizona.

Thomas L. Livermore
One early episode seemed to darken Crafts’s future with that regiment. Cross, a fiery disciplinarian, caught him lending money at high interest to enlisted men. He ordered him arrested, made him return any interest he had collected and told the borrowers they owed only the principal. Crafts’s punishment was to stand in camp without his sword as the details of his misbehavior were read aloud to the men of the 5th.

Thomas L. Livermore, a young sergeant in the regiment, summed up the incident in these words. “If I had subjected myself to such disgrace, I should have tried hard to leave my bones on the next battle-field.”

Soon afterward, Crafts faced more embarrassment. During the Seven Days campaign on the Virginia Peninsula, he fell asleep on the eve of the battle of Malvern Hill and was captured by the enemy. After a brief stay in Libby Prison, he was exchanged and returned to the 5th’s camp at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

What spared Crafts from his mistakes was his bravery on the battlefield. This, of course, was the heart of soldiering.

He fought with the Fifth at Fair Oaks, Va., on June 1, 1862, and in the initial battles of George B. McClellan’s retreat across the Peninsula. In the Bloody Lane at Antietam that September, he was wounded by grapeshot, his scabbard bent by a ball. In Our War I tell the story of how Sgt. Eldad Rhodes, who lived in Lancaster, served in the same company as Crafts and was shot through the lung at Antietam, retrieved the scabbard for Crafts.

On Dec. 13, the 5th marched up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg into withering fire and suffered terrible losses. Crafts was shot below the left knee while climbing a fence near the Stratton House. He lay wounded on the field till morning. He returned to the regiment before Gettysburg and fought courageously there.

Edward E. Cross's gravestone in Lancaster, N.H.
Col. Cross was mortally wounded near the Wheatfield. It fell to Crafts after the battle to bring his body home to Lancaster. My friend Robert Grandchamp recounts this journey in his recent biography of Cross. Crafts secured a wagon to carry the body to Westminster, Md., and took it by train to Baltimore, where it was embalmed and clothed in a dress uniform. Another train took Crafts and Cross’s body to Concord, where they arrived July 6. They moved on to Lancaster the next day with no official escort or acknowledgement. Cross might have been New Hampshire’s greatest Civil War hero, but the Republican establishment at the time held his extreme Democratic politics against him.
Crafts next served as deputy provost marshal at Point Lookout, a camp in Maryland for Confederate prisoners. In 1864, he and the 5th returned to battle at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Crafts also led the regiment through its last campaign, which included heavy losses at the battle of Five Forks two days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

In fact, at the time he was accused of beating up a man in the Bull Ring at City Point, Va., in November of 1864, Major Crafts was already in command of the 5th.

But what was the Bull Ring, who was Henry Pitchenger, and what happened to the charges against Crafts?

I’ll take on those questions and more in the next post.


  1. Great post Mike. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Man great stuff, Welcome A Crafts was my great, great, great, Grandfather. Never knew very much about him. I have Documents from 1860's for bravery, and when he made rank.

  3. Welcome Crafts shows up in this post, too: