Friday, April 25, 2014

An immigrant bandsman in the face of battle (3)

[Here are links of part one and part two of Henry S. Hamilton's story.]

Despite the warmth of late spring and the fear of illness, the 3rd New Hampshire had settled into camp at Port Royal, S.C., by the beginning of June 1862. The men heard rumors of battle, and soon enough one came.

In his memoir, Reminiscences of a Soldier, Henry S. Hamilton, the cornet player from King’s Lynn, England, described the camp during this quiet interlude. 

Col. John H. Jackson (right) in front of his tent. (Henry P. Moore photo)
The men now placed their bedding on floors or trunks they had installed in their tents. This kept sand fleas from stealing their sleep while netting blocked out the mosquitoes that feasted on them by day. Men walked the abandoned cotton fields to fill their tin cups with blackberries. They ate a fish called “periwinkle” from nearby creeks. And no hardtack for them: they had enough sugar and flour to make pancakes every night.

Sometimes they harvested mushrooms, Hamilton wrote, “but our New England boys had never acquired a taste for a fungus of that nature, and believed that they were poisonous, ‘nothing but toadstools.’ ” Some ate them anyway, and when these men didn’t drop dead, some naysayers changed their minds.

This life of peaceful plenty ended at 3 o’clock on the sultry morning of June 2, when the regiment turned out in full gear for a march. After ten miles the men reached the wharf, where they boarded the steamer Planter to John’s Island. There they marched nine miles inland in sweltering heat. Most jettisoned overcoats and other gear, some ran out of water, and many dropped beside the road. They made camp at 5 p.m., but stragglers wandered in till midnight.

The next morning at 2:30 a.m., the regiment was off again, to James Island. By then Hamilton had been assigned as bugler for Lt. Col. John H. Jackson of Portsmouth. Jackson had assumed command of the regiment and was soon to be promoted to full colonel. The regiment’s original commander, Col. Enoch Q. Fellows was heading home to Sandwich. Two months later, he would be appointed colonel of the new 9th New Hampshire.

The men camped on James Island within artillery range of the Confederate fort at Secessionville, and shells fell in their midst. They were close to a fight now. The campaign’s mission, commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Benham, was to destroy rebel defenses on the island, opening the way to the capture of Charleston.

For a week batteries and gunboats fired day and night. One morning Hamilton walked through a field of rebels killed by the shelling. Band members served on the details that carried in the wounded from the field, staffed the field hospital and loaded wounded men onto a steamer bound for the hospital at Hilton Head.

The men of the 3rd New Hampshire slept in the open, where the moans and cries of the wounded disturbed their sleep. Constant rain had drenched their clothing, which stuck to the skin. By the time their tents finally arrived, most of them had “the scratch.”

On June 15, each man was issued 60 rounds of ammunition and orders to rise at 2 the next morning. The objective, Fort Lamar at Secessionville, an earthwork defended by four infantry regiments and a six-gun artillery battery.

The battle of James Island (Secessionville). The 3rd N.H. led Brig. Gen. Horation Wright's column on the far left of the
map. Follow the arrows to its position near the fort. The mud around Simpson Creek kept the 3rd from entering the fort.
Col. Jackson marched six companies toward the fort, pausing only to pick up the other four companies, which had been on picket duty. The full regiment, more than 600 officers and men, approached the fort’s northwest wall, which stood beyond a wood and a creek. The 3rd had been ordered to act in support, but Jackson realized the units it was supposed to assist were not yet present. He advanced his regiment to within 40 yards of the enemy works, with a tall observation tower looming above them. Expecting more Union troops at any moment but seeing none, Jackson  ordered his men to fire.

Henry W. Benham, a general from
Connecticut., commanded the 6.000-
man force that attacked Fort Lamar.  
At first it looked like a brilliant move. The fire from the 3rd chased off the rebels manning a battery. But the marsh and creek between the regiment and the fort kept Jackson’s men from exploiting their success. In his after-battle report, he wrote of this moment: “It would have been very easy for me to have gone into the fort, provided I could have crossed a stream between me and the earthworks, about twenty yards in width, with apparently four or five feet of water, and the mud very soft; the men, therefore, could not cross.”

The rebels rallied. A battery in the rear opened on the 3rd with grape shot. Infantry fire soon followed before another battery kicked in with shot and shell.

Confederate infantry reinforcements headed for the earthworks along the 3rd’s left flank. The men shot volleys into them, but many of the rebels made it into the earthworks and, under the cover of the fort’s walls, returned the favor, opening a severe fire on the 3rd.

“Their number was so large we could not cope with them to any advantage, and, by this time, the other batteries, both in our rear and the one at the north of us, opened afresh on us, with more effect than ever,” Jackson wrote. Some of his men had by now fired 50 rounds. Their weapons were so dirty some had to shoot away rammers that stuck in the barrels.

Still in advance of the other troops of their division, the 3rd had no choice, in its colonel’s view, but to escape its perilous position. The men disengaged “in good order,” Jackson wrote, eventually moving to the rear.

Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens led the
main attack on the fort. A native of
Massachusetts and a Democrat, he
had  been appointed by Franklin
Pierce before the war as the first
governor of the Washington
The 3rd’s assault had been a flanking attack while the main federal force under Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens pushed toward Fort Lamar’s southwest ramparts. These troops had no creek to cross, but their attack failed. The New Hampshire men had indeed silenced a battery in the fort by chasing off its crew, and it stayed silent until an officer taught a new crew to fire the cannons.

As a band member, Hamilton’s role was to remove the wounded from the field after the shooting stopped. Over the din of battle he heard the cheers as his comrades attacked the works again and again. Afterward, he and the other band members crept out amid the groans of shattered men calling for help. They kept their eyes on the ground, “picking out the wounded from the dead, and, as tenderly as possible, placing them in the ambulances to be carried to the hospital, and administering water to the parched throats of the suffering fallen, torn by shot or shell, or encouraging them as best we could with words of comfort.”

Hamilton heard the jeers of the Confederate defenders on the ramparts of Fort Lamar. “Damned Yankees!” they called out, and “Bull Run!” Despite his intense anger, he dared not respond, as only the rebels’ “tolerance in not firing us” allowed the band members to do their work.

Back at camp, Hamilton recognized the great contrast between the mood now and the mood that morning. His comrades had “left with full ranks, good courage, and great enthusiasm, but sorrow was now depicted on every face. . . . There was scarcely a tent but had one or more vacant places.”

In this period drawing. Gen. Benham's right wing, under Gen. Stevens, attacks Fort Lamar. The frontal assault failed, and
the two generals argued publicly afterward over who was at fault for the failure. Benham won the argument. Note the
75-foot observation and signal tower on the southwest edge of the fort.
Hamilton and the other musicians worked all day and into the night attending to the wounded at the field hospital. “We washed them, changed their clothing, and gave them food and stimulants, and also assisted the surgeons. We obtained but a few hours’ sleep, and again the next day, went through the same ordeal.”

Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright of Connecticut led
the division on the left of Benham's force,
including the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers. 
The assault on Fort Lamar was a stinging defeat. Union forces lost 685 killed and wounded, the Confederates 204. The 3rd New Hampshire had entered the fight with 623 officers and men. It lost 104. Its 27 dead and mortally wounded were a quarter of the loss of the entire 6,000-man federal force.

The band had two more duties shortly after the battle, and both required them to pick up the horns and drums they had left behind in camp to go to battle as nurses, stretcher-bearers and care-givers.

Four of the regiment’s wounded died and had to be buried the next day. “It was a solemn scene as they were borne to their graves, on the shoulders of their sorrowing comrades; the band, with slow, noiseless step, with muffled drums, playing the ‘Dead March in Saul,’ followed by the regiment.” Many men cried.

The band’s last act of the Battle of James Island or the Battle of Secessionville (it was called by both names) was to ease the regiment back to life. “A battle, even to the victorious side, is depressing,” wrote Hamilton, “but to the defeated it is heart-rending. The men walk about in silence, and a gloom seems to pervade the entire camp. On this evening we were called out and played a few inspiring airs, which, for the time being, seemed to dispel the gloom.”

Next: So what became of Henry S. Hamilton?

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