Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Regimental History & Gettysburg

It is not often that I find errors in the excellent regimental history of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers, written by Charles E. Davis, Jr., in 1893, and published in 1894.  The history received high praise and is considered a classic of its genre.

Here's high praise for Davis's work  from Lt-Col. Charles H. Hovey written in a letter to historian Major John M. Gould (formerly of the 10th Maine) on March 12, 1894.

"Before I close will you please allow me to thank you for the Kind and very intelligent review you gave of "Three Years in the War; A Story of the 13th Vol. Infy"

"My friend Davis mailed the clipping and I read it with the feeling that the book was understood and appreciated by one who knew something about war books.

"I have read many news-paper notices of the book, but none are equal to yours:

"I don't Care for more puffs; and praise that seems forced; but I do care very much for a review that indicates an insight and an appreciative knowledge of what the author, (an eighteen year old boy when enlisted, and who writes as a soldier boy, feeling & knowing it all from private's position) has faithfully and carefully prepared for publication.

"It may not be known to you that Mr. Davis was very severely wounded at 2nd Bull Run and that the personal experience, that helped him up to that time had to be supplemented by what the rest of us, who served through, could furnish for publication.

"Some critics think they can discover when he left, and that the last twenty odd months of service were not experienced by Davis, but I think he has worked the Story up wonderfully, and kept up the tone of the first year nearly as well as if he had got to Petersburg with us." - Ch'as H. Hovey, Late Lt. Col. 13th Mass. Vol. Infy

Private Davis joined the regiment at its inception.  He was very badly wounded at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, on August 30, 1862, and mustered out the following February.

In 1892, after a failed attempt by another to write a history for the regiment, Davis was elected by the surviving veterans to tackle the job. He was a gifted writer and wrote the history from the perspective of a private, drawing on his  personal experiences and those of others.

To write the regimental history he had at his disposal:
 "the diaries of Lieut. William R. Warner, Samuel D. Webster, Lieut. Edward F. Rollins, Lieut. Robert B. Henderson, and Sergeant William R. Coombs.  None of the diaries covered all the time, but those of Messrs. Warner, Webster, and Rollins were the most complete; those of Messrs. Henderson and Coombs included the Mine Run and Wilderness campaigns.  Col. Charles H. Hovey made copies of such parts of all his letters as related to our movements during his presence with the regiment.  The regimental books, papers, and maps were turned over to me by Col. Samuel H. Leonard.  The "War Records" which are in progress of publication by the government have been of great service in settling disputed points."  I have derived information from other comrades, whom I have met from time to time, chief among whom is Sergeant Jeremiah P. Blake."*

Of these references, I have examined all 3 copies of Sam Webster's diary, and have copies of William R. Warner's diary entries for Gettysburg.  Edward Rollins was an editor of Bivouac Magazine, 1885 - 1888; and I have mined all of these volumes for his writings.  I also have an original copy of the history.

The only glaring omission in the completed work, is the coverage given to the 6 months service in Maryland during the regiments early days at Sharpsburg, Sandy Hook, Harper's Ferry, Darnestown, Williamsport, Hancock,  and other places.

In comparing the history to other source materials I have found only  a few minor errors.  But the entries for Gettysburg on July 2nd & 3rd can be downright confusing.

Davis was not present at the battle so he had to rely on his sources.  Drummer Sam Webster, was not in the action so his diary entries are of little use to the narrative.  The Warner account is wonderful, but it jumps around a bit giving impressions of all 3 days actions in a somewhat random manner.  Perhaps Davis got confused.

The narrative for July first, is very strong.  This was the most important day, when they were heavily engaged on Oak Ridge, and lost 2/3 of their men.  The only puzzle I find, is that Davis attributed the prisoners captured on the Mummasburg Road to a 'North Carolina Regiment,' when William R. Warner clearly attributes them to a regiment from Alabama.  This seemingly tiny misapprehension has significant implications, for the Alabama brigade attacked the Union line from a different direction than the North Carolinians. The action on this part of the battlefield is still shrouded in some mystery, and Davis's statement unfortunately adds to the confusion.

My own theory holds that Warner is correct.  A prominent Gettysburg historian familiar with this part of the field told me, that he always presumed that the captured prisoners had to be from Alabama.

The confusion I have with Davis's narrative for July 2nd start 2 1/2 paragraphs into his entry, after he writes,

"later in the evening we returned to Cemetery Hill to support Ricketts' and Weidrick's batteries, which were being charged by the Louisiana Tigers."

Up to here all is correct.  About 9 p.m. the regiment moved from their supporting position on Cemetery Ridge, somewhat south of where the Pennsylvania Monument stands today, to the support of the batteries on East Cemetery Hill, where the Tigers attacked.  But by the time they arrived, the enemy had been repulsed; with the help of re-enforcements sent unsolicited by General Hancock. The  next couple of paragraphs in the regimental history are somewhat muddled.

Davis continues;
 "We were thrown in the front of these guns, with orders to hug the ground as closely as possible while the batteries fired over us." 

Then Davis writes a descriptive paragraph of 6 or 7 sentences describing this dangerous type of duty.

Evidence does exist, that suggests Robinson's division took a position in front of the batteries, facing sniper fire from the town sometime after 9 p.m the night of July 2nd and first light on July 3rd.  Many of the regiments reference as much.  [Perhaps more on this later]. But according to these writings, it is uncertain they performed this duty immediately after their arrival, and I do not have historian Davis's source of reference for this passage.  It was dark and the batteries were for the most part silent when they arrived at night. 

At the battle of Fredericksburg, the regiment did engage in this type of duty, which is very dangerous, and several of the men were wounded and one man killed as a result of the batteries firing over them.  A similar description of the dangers of this type of work is described then.  Charles Davis seems to have repeated the description for his Gettysburg entry to add detail and interest to the narrative.

After describing the dangerous duty of lying in front of the batteries, comes another confusing paragraph.

Davis writes,
"All the afternoon we listened to the sound of battle at our right on Culp's Hill, dreading defeat and another retreat.  It made us sick at heart to think of what might occur in such an event, and glad we were when night came and put a temporary stop to the fighting.  Evidently we had not held our own at this point."

The battle at Culp's Hill took place in the evening, between 7 - 10 p.m. July 2nd, not in the afternoon as Davis writes.  Perhaps if he wrote, 'evening,' instead of 'afternoon,' the passage would make more sense. I would also think, even though it was mid-summer, that it was dark well before the fighting on the hill ended, around 9 or 10 p.m.

A couple questions come to mind with this passage.  Where was the writer of this comment positioned when listening to the battle at Culp's Hill?  [The Warner & Webster diaries don't reference the fighting on Culp's Hill].  The maps of Gettysburg historian, John Bachelder, place them near Little Round Top until about 9 p.m., after which time they moved back towards Cemetery Hill.  Exploring their position between 9 p.m. July 2nd and 4 a.m. July 3rd is the subject of another post. But before concluding here, I'd like to point out one other slight error in the entry for July 3.

The entry for July 3rd has an omission, and a mistake.  Davis makes no mention of the early morning fight on Culp's Hill that lasted from first light until about 10 a.m.  Instead,he gives an absolutely wonderful description of the regiment changing its position early in the morning.  The description is so detailed, it re-enforces the idea that the regiment was in fact in front of the batteries facing the town before first light July 3rd; -- but more on this in another post.

The slight mistake comes later, when Davis' describes the regiments move towards Zieglar's Grove on Cemetery Ridge in the late afternoon during 'Pickett's Charge.'.  Here, Davis inserts a lengthy homage to the 16th Maine, when a shell exploded among their very thin ranks during the double-quick across the ridge. The tribute is moving, and fitting, but the event, according to the history of the 16th Maine, and William Warner's diary, occurred during a similar movement in the late afternoon of July 2nd.  It is even mentioned in Davis's narrative for July 2nd.  He wrote,

"While we were formed in line, marching brigade front, a shell exploded in the midst of an adjoining regiment, knocking over a dozen men."

Why Davis failed to realize the two incidents he described on July 2nd & 3rd were one in the same is unclear.

Although these are criticisms of the work, they are only brought forth here for clarification. Davis's work on the whole is brilliant. Another post on the subject of Gettysburg may follow as suggested above.

*I have no source material from Sgt. Blake.