Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lt. William Greenough White, 12th Mass

In the bibliography of Robert K. Krick’s Stonewall at Cedar Mountain, I found reference to the memoirs of George Kimball of the 12th Mass. Vols.   The 12th Mass., was in Hartsuff’s brigade during Pope’s Virginia Campaign and at Antietam.  The 12th was  closely associated with the 13th Mass., and Kimball frequently references the 13th regiment in his memoirs.  (I’ll be using the memoirs on my website).

     Kimball’s writings mention several comrades, but the story of Lt. William Greenough White at Antietam is quite compelling.  White was a graduate of the Boston Latin School which still exists.  Here is Kimball’s abridged narrative of the battle of Antietam, focusing on the story of Lt. William Greenough White.

     "The company in which I was serving numbered at this time forty men. We had borne our full share of the hardships and losses of Pope's ill-starred campaign. Our Captain had been killed at Bull Run on the 30th of August. Our First Lieutenant, William Greenough White, a noble fellow, had been stricken down with slow fever early in Pope's campaign. We left him behind when the advance was made up to Cedar Mountain. He would gladly have gone with us, but was too sick, and reluctantly entered the brigade hospital tent. We bade him an affectionate good-by, for we all loved him. The nurses who had charge of him told us afterward what trouble they had to keep him in bed, so great was his desire to leave and to follow on after us. When Lee cut loose from Richmond and turned his whole army upon us we were forced to retire, but we fell back fighting inch by inch. The sound of the guns came nearer and nearer the tent where our Lieutenant lay. After a while he heard it, and his keepers could keep him no longer. He rose like a lion from his lair. Demanding his uniform and sword he left while the other sick ones were being hurriedly loaded into ambulances for transportation to Washington. He started in the direction from which the firing came.  Alone and unassisted he hurried forward. His desire to be with us, his love of country, his manly pride, and the heavy roar of the guns, every moment sounding louder and nearer, nerved him on and gave him unnatural strength. When he came up we gave him a cheer, and he wept like a child, so glad was he to be with us once more.

     We were being whipped, but were constantly ready to fight and to fight again, and the arrival of our Lieutenant gave us fresh courage. We did our best to hold Lee in check till McClellan could get up from the Peninsula to help us. We were sent upon a long march to Thoroughfare Gap to try to keep Longstreet from coming through. Our Lieutenant had been as active as any of us, and we all felt his influence and loved him more than ever. But the poor fellow's strength began to leave him in a few hours after we set out, and finally he fainted and fell in the road. The surgeon took him from us again and sent him to the rear in an ambulance. In a Washington hospital he had a relapse of the fever.
     Now that Bull Run and Chantilly and South Mountain had passed into history, and our brave Captain and many of our men were “sleeping the sleep that knows no waking,” we are face to face with the army of Lee upon the soil of Maryland. It is the night before the great ball at Antietam Creek is to open. The moon, which for a number of nights had been lighting our weary way over the mountains and through the forests of the land of the Calverts, has now withdrawn her face. Evidently the heavens have thought it more in keeping with the scene and the time to draw a curtain of clouds over our heads and to shut us up in blackness. Now and then a lurid flash and a screaming shell tell us we are very close to the enemy, while the crash of rifles in front shows that the pickets are already at it.

     We are just lying down for a little sleep, with our rifles beside us and our equipments on—for we are very tired—when an unusual stir and bustle, with hand-shakings and God bless yous, announce the presence of our Lieutenant. He has again broken away from his keepers, but is no more fit to endure the rigors of campaigning than before. His face is pale, his eyes are sunken, his limbs weak, but his soul is on fire. News of an impending battle has taken him from his bed and brought him to us again in spite of the protests of doctors and nurses. We share our rations with him, for he has none, and roll him up in blankets and overcoats, and he sleeps between two comrades as peacefully as a child."

     I skip ahead now in the narrative.  The next morning after watching the earliest of the fight Hartsuff’s brigade is called into battle :

     "…We are now in the famous cornfield. Before proceeding far we strike the enemy's skirmish line and brush it away. As we move forward our brave Lieutenant, tall and as erect as a statue, is a conspicuous figure in the line. He is as cool as he would have been had he been leading his company in review. To us he seems the very embodiment of an ideal soldier. We push our way through the tall corn, which reaches far above our heads and waves as if shaken by the wind. Shells are bursting all about us, and men are falling every moment.  My limbs tremble at every step, for fear has taken a strong hold upon me, and it is only by thinking of the requirements of duty and of the ridicule to which I would be subjected from my comrades should I fail that I am able to keep my place in the ranks. Some men never had this fear in going into battle. I confess I never entered one without it.

      At last we gain the open ground, and are here met by a perfect storm of bullets, while shells and canister fly about us furiously or go screaming over our heads to the rear. Our Lieutenant is struck in one of his feet by a bullet, it is a bad wound, as two of his toes are cut away, but he halts only a moment while we are pulling down a fence. Major Burbank advises him to go to the rear, but he only smiles and says he is “worth a dozen dead men yet” I am holding a rail above my head in both hands, in the act of throwing it behind me, when a piece of shell or a solid shot wrenches it from my grasp with such violence that my arms are benumbed.
We finish leveling the fence and move forward again. The fire has been increasing every moment until now it is indeed terrible. We start up a slight rise, and our Lieutenant follows, limping. Second Lieutenant Orne advises him to go to the rear. He raises himself to his full height and somewhat scornfully replies:  “I shall not leave the company.”

     We gain the crest of the little ridge. Our main line has not yet fired a shot. Being now upon open ground, high enough to afford a view of our surroundings, what a scene is that which opens up about us!  Directly in front, not more than one hundred yards away, is "Stonewall" Jackson's whole division moving toward us. With their saucy battle flags gayly floating above them, these gray-clad heroes present a magnificent spectacle . To their left, in more scattered order, behind fences and rocks and trees, are Hood's men. Farther still in the same direction are Stuart's batteries, pouring a heavy cross fire upon the little knoll upon which we are standing.
We comprehend the situation at a glance and open and receive a storm of leaden missiles. How terrible is the shock and how our men go down!  What screams and groans follow that first volley! Then we load and fire at will as rapidly as we can. Our officers cry, “Give it to them, boys!” and the men take up the cry, too. There is a pandemonium of voices as well as a perfect roar of musketry and a storm of bullets.  Shells are bursting among us, too, continually.  In the wild excitement of battle I forget my fear and think only of killing as many of the foe as I can.  The tall soldier at my side, who had told me on the march that he felt as though he was to be hit in this battle, has already fallen. He lies at my feet with a mortal hurt. His brother drags him back a few paces and then returns to his place in the ranks. A few moments more and my brother, too, is wounded, though not so badly. When I have assisted him to a stump a short distance in the rear he creeps up behind it and tells me to “go back and give it to them.”

       Our ranks are terribly broken now, but the line is kept up and we fight on. Our Second Lieutenant has gone to the rear, his right shoulder being torn from its socket by a piece of shell. Lieut. White remains still.  His eyes glow with the joy of battle, and he seems to be everywhere imparting courage and stimulating the efforts of his men. By-and-by he is struck again. A piece of shell has stripped the flesh from the upper part of one of his arms. The shock is severe enough to throw him to the ground, but he quickly rises again and his voice is heard as before above the din of battle. I look at his face to see if he shows evidences of pain and am met with a cheery smile. By this time our ranks have become fearfully decimated, and the Lieutenant begins moving those who are yet in line up nearer the colors. “Let us die under the flag, boys!” he cries.

      Incidents of the fight are happening every moment. My ramrod is wrenched from my grasp as I am about to return it to its socket after loading. I look for it behind me, and the Lieutenant passes me another, pointing to my own, which lies bent and unfit for use across the face of a dead man. A bullet enters my knapsack just under my left arm while I am taking aim. Another passes through my haversack, which hangs upon my left hip."

  Again, I skip ahead in the narrative :

     "….Still we fight on. The Lieutenant moves what few are left of our company up to the colors. We have some distance to go, for the gaps are wide. The regimental line, such as it is, is reformed. Seven men have fallen while holding the flags. The groans of the dying seem louder and more dreadful every moment.
  A piercing shriek is heard behind us. We look, and find that our brave Lieutenant has been hit again. This time it is a mortal hurt. His hip is shattered and his abdomen torn open in a shocking manner, but his voice is heard high above the din: “Don't mind me; give it to them !”

  Kimball describes in detail his exit from the front-line.  The following two passages are about Lt. White :

       "…As we leave I look about for my brother, but find that he has gone. Of the 40 men of my company who entered the fight but seven remain. Four of us take up Lieutenant White. We place him on a blanket and start for the rear. We have to pick our way among the dead and dying. The groans of the wounded are terrible. It is hard to disregard the appeals for help that come from every quarter. The enemy have been reinforced, and it now seems as if they are bound to annihilate what remains of our brigade.  Shot and shell plow the ground about us and go crashing into the troops that are pressing forward to continue the work which we have so well begun.  It seems almost a miracle that we are not hit, for the air is full of flying fragments of iron and whistling bullets. But we hurry on with our precious burden, anxious to get our poor Lieutenant to a place of safety where the Surgeons can care for his wounds.

     …At last we reach Poffenberger's and lay our dying friend at Surgeon Hayward's feet. The doctor examines his wounds. The Lieutenant talks lightly of his hurts, and with his own hands replaces the torn flesh. This exhibition of heroism is too much even for professional self-control, and the Surgeon turns aside and bursts into tears. We take an affectionate leave of our dear friend, for we must return to the ranks.  He thanks us one by one for the service we have rendered him, and whispers a message to those who love him at home.
  Those who were with him when he died told us he was brave to the last. He died late in the afternoon. One of his lower limbs was very painful just before he breathed his last. An attendant was rubbing it.

   “Does this rubbing do you any good, Lieutenant?”

  “No,” said he, but that cheering does,” for just then our troops had gained an advantage.

     His body was sent home and buried in the family lot at Mount Auburn. The funeral, at St. Paul's Church, was attended by the Independent Corps of Cadets, to which organization he belonged when he joined the Webster Regiment. He was 22 years old and a son of Ferdinand White, a Boston merchant.  He was a Latin School boy, and resigned a desirable position in the office of a prominent State Street banking firm when the war came."