Monday, December 1, 2014

The first casualty

Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, 37, cross-eyed and deaf, was from Centre Sandwich, N.H.
A chapter in Our War followed the fortunes of a Civil War regiment thrown into battle within weeks after mustering. The regiment was the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers, and I could tell their story with confidence through letters and diary entries they wrote during and immediately after the campaign.

The regiment mustered  in Concord, N.H., on Aug. 23, 1862. Less than a month later, it fought at South Mountain and Antietam. The men’s performance in battle was predictable. Overloaded with gear on the way up South Mountain, they left a trail of equipment, food and clothing. Their commander, Col. Enoch Q. Fellows, had to halt them halfway up to teach them to load their weapons. They sometimes fired without orders. Their officers formed them into a firing line against friendly troops.

In time the 9th became a crack infantry regiment, but during this week, despite all the patriotism and bravery in their hearts, the men were bumbling greenhorns.

The other day, while trawling online, I discovered a letter that Col. Fellows wrote 12 days after Antietam to Nathaniel S. Berry, the governor of New Hampshire, about the 9th’s performance. I had read Berry’s executive correspondence file in the New Hampshire State Archives during my research for Our War, but the letter wasn’t there. It is in the Gilder Lehrman Collection at the New York Historical Society.

With one notable exception, the letter shows a commander ignoring reality and seeking to  cast his regiment’s experience as glorious and noble. Then again, why would a leader want to describe his men’s clumsiness and ineptitude, especially in a campaign that resulted in victory – or at least perceived victory – for his side? In war, as they say, truth is the first casualty.

Gov. Nathaniel S. Berry
“In accordance with the usual custom where regiments suffer on the field of battle, I have the honor of reporting to you the facts and particulars so far as the regiment I command is concerned,” Fellows opened his letter to the governor. He then suggested that the 9th’s long marches and hard fighting were “unprecedented in the history of any regiment which has seen but a single months service.”

As the regiment marched from Middletown, Va., to South Mountain in Maryland, Fellows wrote, “the ears of our young men were first made acquainted with the roar of artillery and their eyes glistened with eagerness to be brought into the contest.” They were, by his account, pleased to fight under “the gallant Burnside, the gen. who never yet lost a battle.”

When their brigadier general, James Nagle, ordered his men to fix bayonets and clear a cornfield, the 9th “gallantly went into the contest on the ‘double quick’ and rushed up the hill with a spirit of determination that would do honor to veterans,” Fellows wrote.

“Then was the time that New Hampshire and South Carolina blood was tested as to courage and true heroic valor. No sooner had I given the order ‘charge bayonets’ than the glistening salve bayonets were pointed towards South Carolina hearts and with a tremendous yell my regiment rushed into the fight making the whole line of battle near us echo with their cheers and hurrahs. For more than 100 rods the battling rung loud and deep above the roar of artillery and other regiments near the 9th gave it the name of the ‘bloody ninth’ for its gallantry at the famous bayonet charge.”

Here Fellows paused in his narrative to call out one of his company commanders. He identified him, too: Charles W. Edgerly, a 33-year-old captain from Dover who in civilian life had been the foreman of an engine company. He led the 9th’s Company H, many of whose men he had recruited.

Alas, at South Mountain, Fellows wrote the governor, “One officer . . . disgraced himself and it is my duty to inform you of this fact, an unpleasant but imperative duty. When the order was given to lead, previous to the battle, Capt. C. W. Edgerly of Co. H from Rochester, suddenly was taken weak at the knees and complained of being foot sore and asked Lieut. John G. Lewis to lead his company into the battle which Lt. Lewis did in a noble manner, gallantly leading them wherever there was most danger.”

Three days later at Antietam, the 9th was positioned on a hillside above the Stone Bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge, on the far left of the Union line. Fellows characterized the battlefield as the place where “by far the hardest fighting was done and the greatest carnage witnessed that ever happened in America.”

After four hours under fire in a perilous position, the 9th crossed the bridge. Other regiments had taken it, but this move took courage. “We crossed the bridge under a galling fire and with tremendous cheering placed our regimental colors, which were so peacefully unfurled in Concord in front of the state house, on the bloody field on the other side of the river where the rebel dead and wounded lay piled in every direction,” Fellows wrote.

As his regiment held its new position until dark, “a rebel fire of grape canister and shell was poured into our ranks and many of our brave fellows were wounded here with the exploding of shells and the terrific fire of grape which here rained upon us like hailstones falling in a hailstorm and from which there was no possible protection.”

For a new regiment of 1,000 men, the 9th’s casualties at the two battles were relatively light. They lost two killed or mortally wounded at South Mountain, eight at Antietam. Fellows nevertheless closed his account by asking that Gov. Berry give his men their due.

“And now, Governor,” he wrote, “I have given a brief sketch of what my regiment has done in a single month and would ask where there is another that has performed equal service in so short a time? In two weeks we marched 85 miles in a broiling sun, was in one skirmish and helped fight the two greatest battles of modern times for which we have received the special commendation of our Generals in Command.”

The war would inflict far more death and misery on the 9th New Hampshire. The chapter in Our War on its fights during Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864 serves as a startling contrast to the South Mountain-Antietam chapter. The regiment, though much smaller by then, lost 55 killed at Spotsylvania Court House alone.

As for the two officers whose reputations were broken and made in Fellows’s letter to Berry, their fates matched their performance at South Mountain. The weak-kneed, footsore Capt. Edgerly clung to his rank until Feb. 27, 1863, when he resigned.

By then, Lt. John G. Lewis was dead. A native of Dublin, N.H., he was 44 years old. Long before the war he had moved to Lancaster, north of the White Mountains, where he was a farmer. As the 9th New Hampshire moved into position at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862, a piece of artillery shell struck him below the ear and severed an artery.

1 comment:

  1. Lt. Lewis is my ggggrandfather. Thank you for this new information. This confirms he was at South Mountain.
    He was an interesting man. John G. participated in the survey of the border between Maine and New Hampshire. His wife, Sarah Leman Lewis was aunt to Willie Leman, the youngest of John Brown's men. Willie died at Harper's Ferry.

    John's men braved rifle fire to retrieve his body from the field at Fredericksburg. He was buried back at home a few days later.