Friday, March 28, 2014

A brutal beating in the 5th New Hampshire (part three)

One significant detail in the saga of Maj. Welcome Crafts is the dateline on both Private Henry Pitchenger’s complaint and the provost marshal’s suggestion that Crafts be court-martialed for abusing Pitchenger. Both were written in early November 1864 from the so-called Bull Ring at City Point, Va., which was Union army headquarters during the siege of Petersburg. (You can read the documents here, in the first post of this series.)

The Bull Ring was a prison camp housing men accused and convicted of desertion, cowardice, murder, rape and other crimes. Some Confederate prisoners were also held there. The camp comprised three one-story barracks surrounded by high wooden fences. William Howell Reed, an agent of the Sanitary Commission the Red Cross of wartime, called the Bull Ring “a pen of filth and vermin.” Reed heard a Union officer say he would rather spend six months at Libby Prison in Richmond than one month in the Bull Ring.

Marsena R. Patrick, provost
marshal of the Army of the
By late 1864, the makeup of New Hampshire regiments had changed drastically. Instead of companies of men from the same towns or counties, the ranks had been filled with bounty soldiers – paid substitutes from foreign countries. The desertion rate of substitutes was so high that several were executed as examples of the consequences of running away. Other deserters wound up in the Bull Ring or other makeshift military prisons.

Henry Pitchenger was a substitute from Montreal. He filled a spot in a regiment with a reputation for courage and proficiency in battle. When the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers came home after Gettysburg, war had reduced it to just over 100 men fit for duty of the 1,000 who had left the state less than two years before. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, the corps commander under whom the 5th fought at Gettysburg, called these survivors “refined goal.”

Pitchenger joined the regiment more than a year after Gettysburg, in September 1864. He was in the Bull Ring when Maj. Crafts. his regimental commander, came looking for him.

Pitchenger wrote his complaint about being beaten  to Capt. Edwin Forrest Koehler, a Philadelphian serving as judge advocate at City Point. Kohler passed the complaint up the chain of command to Brig. Gen. Marsena H. Patrick, provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac. It is probably significant that Patrick asked none other than Hancock to authorize the court martial of Crafts for the ruthless beating of Pitchenger in the Bull Ring.

Brig, Gen. "Tucky" Collis
Patrick obviously believed Pitchenger’s claims. Most likely he interviewed neutral witnesses who supported Pitchenger’s accusations. Patrick was outraged. To expedite the court martial, he even suggested adding the Irish-born Charles H.T. “Tucky” Collis, a newly minted brigadier general, to a judicial panel already in session.

I could find no evidence that Crafts was court-martialed for his offense and some evidence that he was not punished at all. In the face of such powerful accusations of a violent attack on a private soldier in a prison camp, why was he spared?

Sometimes, especially in the absence of a full record, history is what we think happened. More records may turn up in the case, but on the basis of the evidence available, here’s what I think happened in the case of Henry Pitchenger and Welcome Crafts.

Probably Hancock or one of his subordinates reviewed the documents. Anyone would conclude on that evidence that Crafts lost his temper and pummeled Pitchenger without remorse.

But Pitchenger’s complaint  also revealed something of his own behavior in battle. His regiment had fought the enemy often from the trenches before Petersburg during October 1864, losing five men killed. Pitchenger wrote of at least one of these fights: “He (Crafts) has also shamefully ill-used me whilst in the regiment at the front which was the reason of my leaving the regiment as I had no chance at all for my life, being bucked and gagged while the shells were bursting within a few feet of me & in sight of the enemys sharpshooters.”

“Bucked and gagged” refers to a common form of corporal punishment during the Civil War. A piece of wood blocked the soldier’s mouth and was held in place by a band tied round his head. The soldier’s hands were tied. He was forced to sit and pull his knees into his chest, then reach his tied hands around his ankles. A rod placed beneath his knees and above his elbows kept him from moving.

Why other than for fear of Pitchenger’s running away would Crafts order this harsh punishment at the front? Crafts had known since First Bull Run that infantrymen had to be able to withstand enemy artillery shells and the presence of sharpshooters during battle. He also knew that at Petersburg desertion to the enemy by substitute soldiers in the 5th New Hampshire was so rampant that the rebels had stuck a sign above their trenches reading “Headquarters, 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. RECRUITS WANTED.”  

Maj. Gen Winfield Scott Hancock faced a choice
between the leader of a regiment he admired and
an abused soldier he abhorred.  
General Hancock knew these things, too. His choice was clear. He could order the court-martial of a decorated, wounded combat veteran who now headed a diminished but revered regiment in his command. Or he could ignore a serious and truthful complaint from one of hundreds of substitutes who had shown more cowardice than courage before the enemy.

I think he chose to work around Pitchenger’s complaint rather than act on it. Crafts’s record shows no blemish from this incident. He had made major on Sept. 6, 1864, and his promotion to lieutenant colonel was dated Oct. 28, a short time before Pitchenger’s complaint. He continued to lead the 5th. He was promoted to colonel just after the war, although he was not mustered at that rank. His two postwar promotions cited gallant and meritorious service during the Fredericksburg and Gettysburg battles.

As for the 22-year-old Pitchenger, he seems to have avoided punishment for running away. On Nov. 20, 11 days after lodging his complaint, he was returned to the 5th and placed in a new company. When the regiment mustered out in June 1865, he was listed as “absent, in arrest.”

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