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October 18, 2011
The Long Roll (7)By Greyhawk
(Continuing a story begun here.)
A fine toothed comb
October 21, 1861: As Colonel Augustus Morse waited with his esteemed guest, the Honorable Thomas Holliday Hicks, Governor of Maryland, he took the opportunity to thank him once again for his efforts on behalf of the regiment. That very day an expedition was departing Annapolis for Hampton Roads, thence to South Carolina (though destination officially unknown) for purpose accurately supposed to be actual battle. Morse's 21st Massachusetts had been selected to go, too - in fact, his men had worked diligently at loading stores on the ships, and actually seemed to be looking forward to seeing some real action. But the Governor had contacted General Dix and the War Department, requesting they be retained at Annapolis - the exemplary conduct of the men when dealing with the local citizens, he argued, made them best fit for the crucial mission they had here: protecting the railroad from sabotage and stopping smugglers bound for Virginia - all while maintaining good terms with the local citizenry. This suited Colonel Morse just fine; if asked he'd state his belief that his troops had become quite proficient at their current mission, and though making progress in that direction really weren't combat ready just yet. Worse still, they were currently dealing with a smallpox outbreak among the men. (If pressed, he'd have to admit there was only one case so far - but clearly a major concern...)
So, shortly before the expedition was to depart, the 21st was replaced by another regiment. If that "vexed" many of the officers and men - as they claimed it did - (some, Morse had heard, said they "much preferred taking a hand in the conciliation of the fiery State of South Carolina, to winning the golden opinions of the people of Annapolis by our pacific behavior") so be it. Just another example of their lack of proper military discipline. If these days he seemed to be getting the same sorts of looks they'd given him during the dress parade back in Baltimore, as they passed in review in the rain while he stood watching under his umbrella, he could take it. For now he could even pretend not to notice - but obviously this lot of men still had much to learn about real soldiering before they'd be ready for real war, and, thanks to Governor Hicks, Morse would have the chance to teach them.
Of course, the Governor hadn't come to receive thanks or praise...
The Colonel's runner found one of the company commanders inspecting his troops. "Colonel Morse's orders," he began - but the Captain kept his focus on the musket he'd just been presented by a private in the lines. The weapon was little more than junk, but he could find no fault with his soldier's care and maintenance of it. Thus satisfied, he returned it, then moved to the next man in formation, but also directed a question to the messenger. "What is it this time? Another man shot by our own guards?"
He accepted the weapon from his next soldier in line and began his examination. Their muskets left much to be desired - heavy, bulky, smooth-bored and "altered from flint locks," they had limited range compared to modern weapons said to be in the possession of every Confederate soldier - but two members of the regiment already had confirmed kills with them. Such a record might normally be cause for some unit pride, as that was two more than most other regiments of the Army of the Potomac combined, but since the men they'd killed had also been members of this regiment, it wasn't.
The first incident had happened about a month before. Corporal Hayden was Corporal of the Guard that night. He'd posted his men, then returned along the line to check on them. As he approached one at his station - guarding a headquarters building - he was slightly annoyed to hear him demand the countersign. Hayden stopped. He was only a few feet away, the moon was shining brightly, and he knew that he was recognized. "Good on you for being alert," he told him, "but this is an interior post, and that's not required." He began to move on toward his next post. The guard took his assigned mission seriously - he was determined to be a good soldier. Not having received the proper countersign, he did his duty as he saw it.
The sound of the shot drew a crowd. No surprise there, but the now thoroughly rattled guard didn't expect the response from those who'd gathered around Hayden as he lay dying on the ground. Corporal Hayden was well liked, and those who saw him bleeding there seemed angry enough to kill his shooter on the spot; the only thing that saved him was the protection of the other guards who'd come running at the sound of the fatal shot, too. As it was, they later conducted a "Court Martial," which was what the army called a trial. (The army had its own name for everything, it seemed, so you had to learn everything you knew all over again before you could be a good soldier.) There, three considerations led to his acquittal. One, he thought he was doing his duty - because two, he'd never been properly instructed in what his duty was. Anyone unconvinced by those arguments couldn't deny the truth of the third: the accused was only 15 years old. He'd learned a hard lesson, but deserved a second chance.
The regiment learned from that tragedy, too. "After this sad affair," one member later recalled, "the interior sentinels at Post Naval School, a place as safe as Boston Common, were not posted with loaded guns."
Nearly two weeks passed before they had another such incident. This time a lieutenant was killed by one of the pickets placed around the perimeter. As the hapless soldier explained it...
"I ordered him to halt four times before I fired; he made no answer, and did not stop; when I first halted him he was twenty or thirty feet off, the last time he was nearly at the point of my bayonet; he had on an overcoat buttoned up to the chin, and I did not know him, but thought he was a secessionist, and was afraid of my life. I fired and he fell, his coat flew open and I saw who it was. I fell down beside him and took his hand and said, 'Why didn't you answer.' I should not have killed him if I had known him; he was my best friend. I thought I was doing my duty and no more."
Fortunately for him, the lieutenant was gut shot, and lived long enough to confirm his story before witnesses. "Tell the colonel that I exonerate the man from all blame," he begged the surgeon (serendipitously named Dr Calvin Cutter), adding "give my love to all the officers of the regiment and to my folks." If there were lessons learned from this second fatal mishap, you don't want to die from a gut wound would be among them.
On an every two weeks basis, the regiment was due for another such incident. The Captain returned the musket to his soldier, then asked him a quick question on the duties of a guard posted on the perimeter lines. The satisfactory answer earned a "well down, soldier" response. He then turned the company over to the care of his First Lieutenant, and stepped off a few yards to speak with the man sent to fetch him. He would rather have been sailing for South Carolina that day; now he was being interrupted from even continuing the endless stream of routine tasks necessary to prepare his men for war - should they ever get another opportunity to join one somewhere.
"The Colonel wants you to lead a search for a runaway slave supposed to be hiding somewhere around here," the orderly told him. Both men glanced in the direction they'd last seen the topic of their discussion, but he wasn't there now. "I'll be damned if I came South to hunt slaves," the Captain declared. "Captain Walker gave the same response," came the reply, "and Colonel Morse is not a happy camper today." The Captain looked as if he was about to say more - but he checked himself, and turned a full circle where he stood. "There," he announced on completing his manhunt, "give Colonel Morse my regrets, tell him you saw me search the area to no avail." The orderly smiled, saluted, and with a crisp "sir, yes sir" moved on to the next company area, where much the same dialog was repeated.
"You know, sir," the Colonel said proudly to the Governor, "my troops really have come a long way since that day we first arrived here in your fair city." The Colonel accepted the Governor's silence as encouragement to go on. "Why, we had something of a first-class alarm the first night we were here. A sentinel in the dark fired at some phantom he claimed he saw 'creeping towards him.' My men were untested back then, and nervous at being in a new place, and in fairness, they'd been taken in by so much misinformation they'd received as to the good nature of the people of your fine State. So the alarm spread rapidly, and soon enough all our sentinels were loading and firing as fast as possible in all directions, and bullets were hissing about everywhere even as the rest of the men were forming up in response. Fortunately the guards exhausted their ammunition before anyone was hit. It could have been a tragedy, but I'm proud to say this was the last entirely causeless alarm to occur in the 21st. I've since done quite well at instilling some discipline in them, if I say so myself."
He went on to remind his guest - subtly, of course - that he was actually a Major General in the Massachusetts Militia, and had accepted a federal commission as a mere colonel because he believed he could best serve his nation by guiding these green young men in the war to reunite the Republic - much as we might abhor the necessity of such a thing. Not to say, however, that he didn't have certain talents for larger tasks. He withdrew a comb from his pocket, and handed it to the Governor, who looked curiously upon it.
"That was manufactured by the G & A Morse Company, of Leominster," he said with pride, pointing to the maker's mark. "My brother and I built that company into one of the largest such in America, and there's not a finer comb made anywhere in the world. There's not a man from Massachusetts in this army who didn't march off without a G & A Morse comb in his haversack."
"It's quite nice," the Governor acknowledged, handing it back. "Oh, no sir," declared the Colonel, "you keep that one. If you'll accept my compliment... you, sir, have a fine head of hair, and deserve nothing but the best." Hicks examined it closely, after seeing nothing moving on it slid it into his own pocket. "A man can never have too many combs," he remarked - and the Colonel quickly agreed, adding "And I couldn't help but notice by your close inspection you're a man with an appreciative eye for fine craftsmanship."
"I would presume the Maryland Regiments have already been so outfitted..." the Colonel continued, but the return of his orderly cut short the conversation. "Sir," he announced, "I engaged every company commander in the search. There are no runaways to be found in this camp."
The Governor, however, was unsatisfied. He'd been quite certain of the accuracy of the intel he'd received on the whereabouts of his man. "Well, Colonel," he announced, "I won't be taking more of your time today. Perhaps another letter to General Dix will yield better results. Good day, sir." And with that, he departed. The Colonel believed the Governor's suspicions well-founded and his response understandable - and potentially disastrous. He began to regret having ignored rumors he'd heard of earlier incidents of this nature involving less prominent local property owners. He turned to his orderly. "Have the captains assemble here immediately after the evening mess," he ordered. The orderly saluted smartly and left before the Colonel had a chance to return it. Had Morse noticed he might have corrected that discrepancy on the spot, but he had to hurry off himself to have a final word with the Governor before he got away.
"Gentlemen," the Colonel addressed his officers. "You may believe you want to join the battle immediately - but I urge you to reconsider. That time will come soon enough when you, too might have the opportunity to request Dr Cutter send your love to all the officers of the regiment and to your folks back home. But mark my words - the more we prepare for it, the less likely that will be. And the man who came here today, seeking only the return of his own lawful property, is a man who has done much to save you from the red hot shells awaiting you down south."
He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "And what was your response to his kindness?" Another pause, during which no answer was expected. "Base ingratitude. Nothing but base ingratitude. I can assure you, - because this the Governor told me himself - you will be sorry for this day's work..."
Meanwhile, as another soldier would recall the day's end, "the innocent cause of this pleasing little episode was hidden in a chimney of one of the buildings, and escaped as soon as it was dark, in a boat which some of the men kindly stole for him in the town." They'd done this a good many times during their stay in Maryland, he boasted, but "we had more fun out of this case than any other."
The fun wore off.
"October 24th. We heard the exaggerated first reports of the battle of Ball's Bluff, and of the fearful slaughter in our brother Worcester County regiment, the 15th Massachusetts. The rebels were reported to have killed hundreds of them with long-range rifles, while they themselves were beyond the reach of the smooth-bores carried by the 15th, and to have massacred most of the rest of them with bowie knives on the precipitous river bank, or while trying to swim the river. As we were armed with smooth-bores of the poorest description, the men began to complain bitterly because our wealthy government did not arm us as well as the rebels. It was also rumored in the city that ten thousand rebels had crossed the Potomac and were marching on Annapolis. Fearing a rising of the rebel element, twenty rounds of ball cartridges a man were issued, and the regiment held ready throughout the night to act at a moment's notice.""In the morning," however, "the alarm was found to be entirely groundless."
Postscript: shortly after, "we were greatly pleased when we heard Governor Andrew [of Massachusetts] had been at Annapolis, had promised us new guns, and that we had been assigned to the Ninth Army Corps and were to go on the Burnside Expedition" to North Carolina, wrote James Madison Stone. By the time they deployed, the men of the 21st Massachusetts not only had new rifled guns, but a new commander as well. Thus, when they finally shipped out, Colonel Morse was with them only long enough to bid them a fond farewell...
The regiment formed line at nine o'clock A. M., ready to embark, and Colonel Morse bade us good-by (for he was to remain at Annapolis in command of the post), telling us if we got into a fight to stay till we "lost some men."
(Next: A Slight Demonstration)
Posted by Greyhawk / October 18, 2011 9:09 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
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