Friday, September 7, 2012

Stumbling Across Civil War History - Part 1

The gravestone of William H. Shaw, Company E, 32nd
Massachusetts. Photo taken by Sandra Lennox
and accessed on Find A Grave.
I have learned over the years that you can find Civil War history in places that you least expect.

This Labor Day Weekend my fiancee and I went on a camping trip with some friends of ours to Cape Cod. On Monday morning we decided to head over to Plymouth to potentially visit Plimoth Plantation. We thought that if we got an early start we could get over the bridge and off the Cape before the major traffic hit that afternoon. We failed. When we finally arrived in Plymouth we had enough time to walk around town for 45 minutes or so, grab lunch, and continue our journey home.

We wandered around the water front, visited Plymouth Rock, and then headed up the hill to Leyden Street, where the Pilgrims located their original settlement. We soon found ourselves strolling amidst the graves on Burial Hill. The settlement constructed a fort on this hill in 1621-1622, but by the second half of the 17th century it had become a graveyard.

Burial Hill contains the grave sites of many noted individuals, including William Bradford and William Brewster, and Patriot leader James Warren. Yet, I found myself drawn to the gravestones marked as veterans, and in the brief 15 to 20 minutes we spent I found several Civil War soldiers. I grabbed a notebook and began writing down as much information as I could. I wanted to know more about these individuals, and I found myself drawn in particular to the stone of William H. Shaw. His grave read as follows:

Co. E.
32 Mass. Regt.
died Aug. 6, 1865,
aged 35 y'rs.

When I got home, I began to do some digging. I found that William H. Shaw was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts around 1830. The 1860 Census listed William as a shoemaker living in Plymouth along with his wife Mary and three children: 8 year-old Alice, 5 year-old William H. Jr., and 3 year-old Ruth. In December of 1861, William enlisted as a private in Company E of the 32nd Massachusetts.

The first six companies of the 32nd - including Company E - formed initially in the fall of 1861 as a battalion to protect Boston Harbor. Shaw enlisted on December 2nd. Two other Shaws - Eleazer Shaw of Plymouth and and Robert B. Shaw of Cohasset, also joined up with Company E that December. The three Shaws of Company E were not brothers. I spent several hours of quality time this week with and, but I still cannot say what if any relation these Shaws had to each other. All three enlisted as privates. Eleazer served throughout the war and rose to the rank of Sergeant. Robert B. Shaw suffered wounds on May 5th, 1863 at Chancellorsville and at Bethesda Church on June 4th, 1864 before receiving a discharge that December.

The battalion left for Washington in May of 1862, and moved to the Peninsula, where it joined the Army of the Potomac just after the battle of Malvern Hill. By the summer of 1862, the 32nd would boast a full compliment of ten companies. Assigned to the 5th Corps, the regiment was present on the fields of 2nd Manassas and Antietam, but saw little action. It got its first true test that December.

At about 1 pm on December 13th, 1862, with the Battle of Fredericksburg already raging on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River, Charles Griffin's division, including the 32nd Massachusetts, received orders to cross the pontoon bridges and enter Fredericksburg. The troops arrived in the lower part of the city at about 2 pm, and at 3 received an order from 5th Corps commander Daniel Butterfield to move to the support of troops attacking the southern portions of Marye's Heights. Ordered to push forward and carry the enemy's works, the 32nd and the rest of Colonel Jacob Sweitzer's brigade advanced to the right of the Telegraph Road. Griffin later reported:
Our troops advanced, exposed to a severe enfilading fire from both directions, and from a direct fire of artillery and musketry in front. Our lines moved up to within a few yards of the enemy's infantry, who were protected behind stone walls and in trenches, when the fire became so galling that they were compelled to fall back behind the crest of a knoll.
In 1880 regimental historian Francis Jewett Parker left his account of the fight:
No words can fully convey to a reader's mind the confusion which exists when one is near enough to see and know the details of battle. One reads with interest in the reports of generals, the letters of newspaper correspondents, or in the later histories constructed from those sources, a clear story of what was done; of formations and movements as if they were those of the parade; of attack and repulse - so graphically and carefully described as to doubt whether one who was actively engaged and in the thick of the fight can correctly describe that which occurred about him, or tell with any degree of accuracy the order of events or the time consumed.... To the memory now comes a strange jumble of such situations and occurrences as do not appear in the battles of history or of fiction.... We recall the terrific accession to the roar of battle with which the enemy welcomed each brigade before us as it left the cover of the cut, and with which at last it welcomed us. We remember the rush across that open field where, in ten minutes, every tenth man was killed or wounded.

In the assault the 32nd lost 35 officers and men, 6 of them killed or mortally wounded. According to records, William H. Shaw was among the wounded.

After their failed assault, the men of the 32nd fell back slightly behind a crest of ground for cover, and here the troops remained in their advanced position. Regimental historian Parker continued his account:
Night closed upon a bloody field.... The line of rebel infantry at the stone wall in our front was precisely where it was in the morning. We were not forty yards from it, shielded only by a slight roll of the land from the fire of their riflemen, and so close to the batteries on the higher land that the guns could not be depressed to bear on us. At night our pickets were within ten yards of the enemy.
In this position they would stay until 10 p.m. the following evening. How severely William H. Shaw was wounded, or when he returned to the ranks I can't say without ready access to the monthly muster rolls at the moment. As I continue this series I will take a look at the 32nd's service at the battle of Gettysburg (this is a Gettysburg blog after all), and complete the sad story of William H. Shaw.

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