Ben Witcher’s Story

26 June 2019

 

B. Witcher’s battlefield map (detail, click for full)

 

The map above is centered on the eastern part of the Miller Cornfield near the East Woods at Sharpsburg on the morning of 17 September 1862. There has been heavy fighting here since dawn and, along with other regiments in action, the 6th Georgia Infantry has been nearly wiped out. It is between 8 and 9 in the morning.

Stephen Sears, in his classic Antietam book Landscape Turned Red (1983), wrote this dramatic vignette of that time and place:

Private B. H. Witcher of the 6th Georgia urged a comrade to stand fast with him, pointing to the neatly aligned ranks still lying to their right and left. They were all dead men, his companion yelled at him, and to prove it he fired a shot into a man on the ground a few yards away; the body did not twitch. Private Witcher was convinced and joined the retreat. 

Over the years since I first read it, I had forgotten Benjamin Witcher’s name, but not that story. Who could forget that imagery? Even in combat, the shock of shooting into one of your own mess-mates would have been horrendous.

At least three other well-known books on the battle have used this anecdote, too, citing Landscape as their source. If you’ve read any of the basic literature, then, you will have seen it, and you’d remember.

But I’ve just found it isn’t true. It didn’t happen that way.

Lieutenant Evan Thomas commanded the consolidated Batteries A and C of the 4th United States Artillery on the Maryland Campaign.

He was the 3rd son of US Army Colonel and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas (USMA 1823), and at the start of the War in April 1861 received a commission as 2nd Lieutenant, 4th United States Artillery.  He was promoted to First Lieutenant in May. He was then just 17 years old.

He was assigned to Battery C which, due to a manpower shortage, was consolidated with Battery A in October 1861. He was in action with his battery on the Peninsula in mid-1862 and succeeded to command by order of seniority sometime after Captain Hazzard died of wounds in mid-August 1862. Evan had just celebrated his 19th birthday.

Here’s Lieutenant Thomas with a group of his fellow officers taken at Sharpsburg in September or October 1862, shortly after the battle of Antietam:

The caption on the picture is Lt. Rufus King, Lt. Alonzo Cushing, Lt. Evan Thomas and three other artillery officers in front of tent, Antietam, Md. (click to enlarge) There is no guide to who is who, but I have had some expert help working to identify them.

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918, the Great War ended under the terms of an armistice, a cease-fire agreement, signed at 5 o’clock that morning.

The most immediate requirement of the Armistice was the withdrawal of all German forces to the line of the Rhine River, which, along with “beachheads” on the east bank, was the part of Germany to be occupied by Allied troops. French, British, Belgian, and American.

One of about two million Americans of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France that day was 23 year old Joseph F. Downey from Scranton, Pennsylvania, my grandfather.

That lovely hand colored map, Territorial Terms of the Armistice, is among a stunning cache of papers he left us. They’ll help me remember him and those millions of others on this centennial of the end of the First World War.

Adolphus Greely was only 18 years old but already a veteran of more than a year’s Army service by the time he was wounded in the face in combat in or near the West Woods at Antietam on the morning of 17 September 1862. He was a Corporal in Company B, 19th Massachusetts Infantry.

Before the War he’d been working as a jeweler in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and was eager to find a bigger place in the world for himself. The Army gave him a chance to do just that.

Twenty years after Antietam he was leading a scientific observation team near the North Pole, and a year after that he was in very great danger of dying there …

 

Lieutenant Nathaniel Wales’ story at Antietam may be unique. It is certainly startling: he was saved from a fatal wound by wearing armor at the battle.

I’ve not previously found anything else like this associated with Antietam. Having little experience with the subject, then, I went off to find out something about body armor of the Civil War. As a bonus along the way, I also came upon a number of interesting characters and connections in Wales’ family.

Our man was probably named for his 5x great-grandfather Nathaniel Wales (1586-1681), weaver, who arrived in Massachusetts from Yorkshire, England in 1635. He made the passage in the ship James out of Bristol with other pilgrims including the Reverend Richard Mather (1596-1669), father to Increase, grandfather of Cotton. Wales was later brother-in-law, by the second of his three wives, to Major General Humphrey Atherton. Wales’ descendants were generally successful business people in Boston and nearby towns.

Our Nathaniel’s father Thomas Crane Wales (1805-1880), 7 generations down the line, was prominent in the boot and shoe business, particularly in rubber overshoes and boots. He seems to have been a major player in that market for much of the 1840s and 50s. He had invented and patented a lined, waterproof cold weather boot he called the “Arctic”, which was hugely popular and widely imitated. As a result, I expect young Nathaniel had the benefit of a well-to-do Boston upbringing and education.

He was a salesman in Dorchester when the Civil War began, and also belonged to a Boston militia company called the New England Guard. He was 18 years old when he enlisted as First Sergeant, Company G, 24th Massachusetts Infantry in September 1861. He looks to be a very self-possessed young man.


Lone Star by Don Troiani
(The 1st Texas Infantry in the Cornfield at Sharpsburg)

I’ve recently been catching up on Confederate staff officers who were at Sharpsburg, those serving Division and Brigade commanders .  One of the ways I find them by is rummaging through after-action reports. Over the last couple of days I’ve been sorting through that of Brigadier General John Bell Hood for the period 22 August to 17 September 1862.  He writes about quite a number of his officers, but down toward the bottom, he thanks and lists his couriers.

That’s something out of the ordinary, and it pulled me off the staff officer track to look into them.

Commonly known as mounted couriers, these men were also often Hood’s scouts, as well. Scouts which, in at least one case, could be hard to tell from spies.

At the very end of his life, in combat on the open ground south of the Miller Cornfield at Sharpsburg, John S. Taylor was entirely fearless ...


J.S. Taylor  c. 1845

He was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1820 to a family with a tradition of military service. His grandfather John Saunders had been a US Army Major General, and his great-grandfather Celey Saunders commanded the Virginia State Navy ship Thetis (1778) in the Revolution.

He began his own career in December 1836, then 16 years old, when he joined the US Navy.

Just as surely dead

8 October 2012

click to see larger image
Arthur F. Hascall, (c, 1861, NY State Military Museum)

I’m scrubbing through unit rosters, regimental histories, and many other documents as part of the Antietam Roster Project. Most of the listings are sketchy and dry, and when I have the chance, I like to dig a little deeper for more information to flesh out the individuals who were at Antietam.

An example of how this sometimes goes, with a bit of an unexpected twist, is the case of Sergeant Arthur Hascall of the 61st New York Infantry.

There’s a large and active group among students of the American Civil War fascinated with the service of Irishmen in the conflict, and with the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac in particular. There’s a vast amount of lore and legend on the subject, which I’ve only really noted in passing. I know … and with my surname, too.

So it is with some trepidation that I dig here into the life and passing of Patrick Phelan (Felan) Clooney. One of those heroes of the Irish Brigade at Antietam.

detail from the Soldiers Monument, Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NYclick to see larger image
detail from the Soldiers Monument, Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY (2009, biostheoretikos.com)

I am prompted by an effort underway to rescue a memorial to Clooney in his native Waterford. Thanks to James Doherty, who is fund- and awareness-raising, and Damian Shiels, who brought him to my attention…

gravestone of Werner von Bachelle at Antietam National Cemetery
(Janet Richmond, via Flickr)

This is the stone at Antietam National Cemetery for Captain Werner von Bachelle, killed in action on 17 September 1862 at Antietam.  He’s something of a celebrity today. School kids hear of him in their packets at the cemetery and battlefield. Though he died a brave soldier, like so many others that day, that’s not why he’s so well known. He owes his celebrity to his dog.

In April 1861 von Bachelle volunteered with his local militia, the Citizens Corps of Milwaukee, for service in response to President Lincoln’s first call for troops.  In May the officers – Capt. William Lindwurm, 1st Lt. Frederick Schumacher, and 2nd Lt. Werner Von Bachelle – were commissioned in Federal service and their unit became Company F of the new 6th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.  Like von Bachelle, nearly all of the men of the Company were German speakers, most German born …