Captain George F. Norton had been in Confederate service since April 1861 and led the First Virginia Infantry on the Maryland Campaign, seeing combat on South Mountain and at Sharpsburg. He was in command again at Gettysburg, where he was wounded, and afterward was promoted to Major. He was with the regiment to the end of the War – which for him occurred when he was captured at Sailor’s Creek, VA on 6 April 1865.

He jumps headlong out of the distant past, though, in this brief letter he wrote to President Jefferson Davis on 28 February 1865:

Sir,

I respectfully ask to be appointed Colonel of a Negro Regiment –

I am a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and accompany this application with recommendations from my Brigade and Division Commanders.

I am – Sir – very respectfully,

George F Norton
Major 1st Va. Infantry

I’ve never seen anything like this before.

In February 1865 there were no “Negro Regiments” in Confederate service, nor were any expected. So this seems like an off-the-wall request.

The idea of arming slaves had been argued before, and roundly rejected. In December 1863 General Patrick Cleburne formally floated the idea in a proposal he shared among his officers. Word got around the army, and the reaction was universally and understandably negative.  Cleburne either misunderstood or underestimated the power that slavery held in and over the Confederate States.

Most of the leadership probably agreed with Howell Cobb, Georgia politician and Confederate founding-father, who later famously wrote:

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began … If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong, but they won’t make soldiers.

When he received the proposal in January 1864, President Davis firmly rejected it and demanded the document and all copies be destroyed.

However, a year later the situation was desperate, and on 10 February 1865, and with the support of General R.E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi introduced a bill (HR-367) authorizing arming slaves in the defense of the Confederacy. It passed the House on 20 February, and slightly amended, by one vote, the Senate on 8 March. President Davis signed it into law on the 13th.

So it may not be such a mystery that Norton wrote that letter. From a prominent Richmond family, with friends in the city, it is likely that he knew of the legislative activity. Perhaps he saw an opportunity for advancement and wanted his name in the running.

I have not found a reply from the President to Major Norton in the record.

_____________________

The CS War Department issued General Orders No. 14 to implement the new law on 23 March. Notably they included these among the provisions:

No slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring as far as he may, the rights of a freedman …

It is not the intention of the President to grant any authority for raising regiments or brigades. The only organizations to be perfected at the depots or camps of instruction are those of companies and (in exceptional cases where the slaves are of one estate) of battalions consisting of four companies …

The war was effectively over less than a month later, and by that time only two such “companies” had actually been formed.

_____________________
Notes

The image above, of Major Norton’s letter (along with the accompanying recommendations from Generals Corse, Terry, and Pickett, and Thomas Haymond’s forwarding letter) is in the US National Archives in his Compiled Service Record; I found it online from fold3 (subscription required).

The Howell Cobb quote is from a letter he wrote to then-Secretary of War James Seddon on 8 January 1865, which is online from the Encyclopedia Virginia.

The text of the approved Act of the Confederate Congress and of War Department General Orders No. 14 authorizing enlistment of black soldiers is online thanks to the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

George F Norton’s bio page is on Antietam on the Web.

For a deeper look at the issue of enlisting slaves for Confederate service, from an early 20th century perspective, you might consult N. W. Stephenson’s The Question of Arming the Slaves (American Historical Review, January 1913), and Thomas Robson Hay’s The South and the Arming of the Slaves (American Historical Review, June 1919), both online from JSTOR.

[Nathaniel Wright Stephenson (1867-1935), a prolific writer of history and biography was appointed professor at the College of Charleston (SC) in 1902 and at the new Scripps College (CA) in 1927.  T.R. Hay (1888-1974) was a Penn State-trained electrical engineer who became a noted historian and editor.]

Lieutenant Richard C. Shannon of the 5th Maine Infantry was assigned as aide-de-camp to Major General Henry W. Slocum, commander of the First Division, 6th Army Corps, in March 1862. Although a well-educated young man, he was still learning his profession as a staff officer in August and September 1862.

Shannon left behind some wartime diaries which, although not especially dramatic as narrative, offer insight into his day-to-day experience in the field.

Of particular interest to me is this field notebook/diary he had with him on the Maryland Campaign.

It is a flip-page style that he probably carried in his pocket, and he used it both as a traditional diary – writing a brief summary of each day’s activity – and as a working notebook to keep orders, names, maps, and other things he needed to remember.

I’ll pull out some pages to give you a flavor, here. Click on any of them to expand for easier reading.

I should be doing something else, but got pulled off track by a trooper of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, James Williamson, who was killed in a little-known cavalry skirmish at the Quebec Schoolhouse near Middletown, MD on 13 September 1862.

His regiment’s historian, former Corporal William N. Pickerill wrote a fascinating account of that ‘desperate little cavalry battle’ for a newspaper in 1897, and put it in his regimental History in 1906. Because of him, I’ve spent the last couple of days putting names and faces with some of the men who were there.

While looking for something else, I came upon what may be the story of the first Confederate soldier killed on the Maryland Campaign of 1862. He was one of the earliest, certainly.

It happened on 8 September 1862, at Monocacy Junction near Frederick, MD, and probably did not involve gunfire.

On that date much of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) was in camp in and around Frederick, MD and Private Thomas Riley of the 6th Louisiana Infantry was part of a detail assigned to destroy the nearby railroad bridge across the Monocacy River. They succeeded in blowing it up, but Riley was killed in the process.

About a week later, after the ANV had moved on, the 14th New Jersey Infantry returned to their post at the bridge. In a somewhat gruesome postscript to our story, Sergeant Terrill of the 14th described what they found:

Everything looked desolate. The bridge destroyed, remnants of wagons, dead horses and mules lying around… It was raining hard and very muddy. Tents were pitched in a plowed field in regular order, guards were stationed around camp …

The rebels [had] left a squad of men to destroy the bridge; in the attempt one man was blown up and buried near the ruins, leaving his arms and head above ground. This was the first rebel the men had ever seen, and for some time was an object of curiosity to us; he lay exposed several days; at last his remains were taken up and decently interred by our men.

________

The picture at the top is a sketch by Alfred Waud of the railroad bridge as it looked in June or July 1863,  after it had been rebuilt. The original is in the Library of Congress.

James Grant of the Christian Commission was on the field after the battle of Antietam …

While moving around amongst the wounded … my attention was called by a disabled officer to a friend of his, badly wounded in the face, and lying out somewhere without a covering. Following his directions, and throwing the rays of my lantern towards the foot of a wooden fence, I soon discovered the object of my search … The ball had entered one side of the cheek and passed out at the other, grazing his tongue, and carrying away several of his teeth. His face was horribly swollen, and he could not speak. On asking him if he was Lieut. M. [Morin], of Philadelphia, he assented by a nod of his head.

During the next two days, the Surgeons were all so busy, that his wound, which had been hurriedly dressed on the field, remained untouched; yet he showed no signs of impatience. In the inflamed, wounded condition of his mouth, nothing could be passed down his throat. On the third day, as the Surgeons still had more to do than they could manage … [w]ith some hesitation, I took the Lieutenant’s case in hand, and, after two hours’ labor, succeeded in cutting away his whiskers and washing the wound pretty thoroughly, both inside and outside the mouth. This done, and all the clotted blood and matter cleared away, the swelling abated, and he began to articulate a little. A day or so afterward, he could swallow liquids; and being carefully washed daily, in less than a week he was able to travel to Philadelphia …

__________________
Notes

This excellent photograph of First Lieutenant Anthony Morin of Company D, 90th Pennsylvania Infantry is from the collection of Scott Hann.

The quotes here from Edward P. Smith’s Incidents among Shot and Shell (1868), online from the Hathi Trust.

Corporal John H “Highly” Coulston, Company A, 51st Pennsylvania Infantry was wounded at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain in September 1862. He was Captain by January 1865 and mustered out in July.

Tragically, he was severely injured in a train crash – known afterwards as the Exeter Station wreck – on 12 May 1899 while returning with many other veterans from the dedication of a statue of statue of General Hartranft in Harrisburg. He died the next day.

Superimposed on the front page of the Reading Times of 13 May 1899 above is a picture of him c. 1864 from a published photograph contributed to his Findagrave memorial by Charles McDonald.

The crushed train car below testifies to the force of the collision. Below that is a post-war photograph of Isaac E Filman – also of Company A and wounded at Fox’s Gap, and also killed in the crash (lower two photos from the Pottstown Mercury of 1 July 2012).

New on AotW: a handy pocket guide to the field artillery pieces of each of the Confederate and Union batteries at Antietam and on the Maryland Campaign of 1862. In spreadsheet form, it shows counts by gun type for all 135 batteries present, and it’s available as a PDF and also as a link on the main AotW Weapons page .

I welcome your feedback.

OK, so it’s not really a “pocket” guide and the print is really small on a letter-sized sheet. But it is concise and reasonably complete. Perhaps best read zoomed-in on your computer screen.

Some patterns are easy to see in this form. Have fun with the analysis – Confederate vs Federal.

As always, there’s more info about each gun type and every battery online at Antietam on the Web.

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.

Dead List update

10 March 2019

I’ve been pushing hard the last few months to get more soldiers into the database on AotW, focusing particularly on those who died on the Campaign.

As a result I’ve posted an update to the list of The Dead of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. It’s now up to just over 6,300 people –  out of the more than 7,600 who died.

There’s so much more to do, but this is a good jump from the previous edition.

Pages for those individuals and thousands more are available on AotW, of course, if you want to see more about them …

I’ve found a fascinating description of the Smoketown Hospital as it was in January 1863 in a letter to an Indiana newspaper. I came upon it while looking into one of the many soldiers of the 27th Indiana Infantry wounded at Antietam, Private Thomas Mitchell Gaskins. 

The writer lists some of the patients, like Gaskins, and their status, which is immediately useful, but his description of the hospital facilities and staff are the most interesting pieces to me.   

Here’s my transcription of the complete letter as published:

U.S. Hospital at Smoketown,
or Antietam, Jan. 15, 1863

Editors Sentinel:   As the people of Indiana take a deep interest in the condition and treatment of our sick and wounded soldiers, enclosed I send you a short statement of what came under my own personal observation.