Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stumbling Across Civil War History - Part 2

The gravestone of William H. Shaw, Company E, 32nd
Massachusetts. Photo taken by Sandra Lennox
and accessed on Find A Grave.
A bit over a week ago I wrote a post about private William H. Shaw. I had stumbled upon Shaw's grave while meandering through Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Labor Day, and I wanted to learn more about his life and his service during the Civil War.

I first took interest in Shaw's grave because of the regimental designation on his gravestone: the 32nd Massachusetts. This regiment I knew had an interesting Gettysburg story - it found itself embroiled in the whirlwind of battle in the Wheatfield and its surrounding wood lots on July 2nd. Unfortunately, despite various research efforts I cannot say with certitude that Shaw saw action at Gettysburg without sending away to the National Archives for his compiled military service record. Even then I likely would not have a definitive result. After his wounding at Fredericksburg, Shaw remained on the regiment's rolls until the end of the war, but when he returned to the regiment I cannot say. I can however piece together a picture of what his experience would have looked like if he was present at Gettysburg.

Commanded at Gettysburg by Colonel George L. Prescott,  the 32nd Massachusetts served in Colonel Jacob Sweitzer's 2nd brigade of the 1st division, 5th Corps. The brigade also contained the 4th Michigan, 62nd Pennsylvania, and 9th Massachusetts.

Late on the afternoon of July 2nd the brigade (minus the 9th Massachusetts) arrived in the area of the Wheatfield to reinforce Colonel RĂ©gis de Trobriand's forces there. The brigade deployed on a narrow rocky ridge  (today known as the Stony Hill) just to the west of the Wheatfield. Numbering 242 officers and men, the 32nd formed on lower ground at the southern end of the Stony Hill. Colonel Sweitzer did not like the look of the 32nd's position, however, and soon shifted the regiment's alignment to a position at a right angle with the rest of the brigade, giving it the benefit of elevated ground and cover.

The 32nd faced south towards Rose Woods. In the regiment's front a small stream ran through a ravine, with the wood lot looming on the opposite side of the stream. Regimental historian Francis Jewett Parker recalled what happened next:
We were hardly established in our position, such as it was, before the attack came, the enemy piling down in great numbers from the opposite slope and covering themselves partially under the hither bank of the little stream.... The men loaded and fired with great rapidity, some using much judgement and coolness, making every shot tell in the enemy's ranks; others, as is usually the case, excited and firing almost at random.
The attackers were Georgians of Tige Anderson's brigade. The men of the 32nd took advantage of what cover they could find and began loading and firing as swiftly as possible. Meanwhile, Colonel Prescott received a message from Colonel Sweitzer indicating the route of retreat if it became necessary. Full of fighting spirit, he protested. "I am not ready to retire," he responded, "I can hold this place." When Sweitzer clarified that the order only indicated a route of retreat if it became necessary, the 32nd continued to hold its own against the Georgians.

An (extremely) rough sketch of the 32nd Massachusetts first fight in the
Wheatfield using a modern satellite image from Google Maps.
Meanwhile, behind a cluster of large boulders very close to the regimental line, surgeon Z. Boylston Adams set up an advanced aid station. Here Adams provided urgent care for those wounded who could make it back to the cover of the boulders. In tribute to his bravery, in 1895 the veteran association of the regiment placed a plaque on the grouping of boulders that they believed marked the site of his aid station. Today this truly unique marker helps us understand the daring and courage of regimental surgeons serving near the firing line.

Battle smoke soon filled the ravine as the 32nd blazed away at the Georgians, and another message arrived for Prescott - Confederate forces threatened the brigade's western flank. Despite Colonel Prescott's desire to stay, the 32nd received orders to fall back through the woods to the Wheatfield Road. The men retired in good order, and when they reached their new position they saw that reinforcements had arrived - General John C. Caldwell's 2nd Corps division. The forward line in the Wheatfield and on the Stony Hill had collapsed, but Caldwell's men arrived just in time to launch a full scale counterattack, recapturing the abandoned positions on the Stony Hill, and driving Confederate forces back beyond the Wheatfield.

Soon, Caldwell's men required assistance. Colonel Sweitzer reported:
A general officer I had never seen before rode up to me, and said his command was driving the enemy in the woods in front of the wheat-field, that he needed the support of a brigade, and desired to know if I would give him mine.
The officer was none other than Caldwell himself. Sweitzer referred the earnest request to his division commander, General James Barnes, who ordered the brigade to Caldwell's assistance. Barnes rode in front of the men, made "a few patriotic remarks," and soon Sweitzer's three regiments lurched forward into the Wheatfield.

At the very moment that the 32nd Massachusetts moved forward, General Caldwell's division had reached the apex of its successful counterattack. It had driven Confederate forces off the Stony Hill and out of Rose Woods. Yet the situation remained fluid, and in a matter of minutes many things would begin to go wrong. The retreating Confederate brigades would rally in the farmyards of George Rose and George Weikert, and federal positions at the Peach Orchard to the west began to collapse. Colonel Prescott and his men did not know of these developments of course, as they moved directly south across the Wheatfield to support Caldwell's men.
Another rough sketch, using modern satellite images, this one shows the confused
movements taking place as the 32nd Massachusetts reentered the fight.
The 32nd occupied the brigade's left flank in its second advance. As soon as the men got to the southern side of the Wheatfield they plunged down to take cover behind a stone fence that bordered Rose Woods. When they arrived, Anderson's Georgians reentered the woods to resume the attack. Off on the right, the brigades of Semmes and Kershaw joined in the renewed assault, while in the 32nd's right rear along the Wheatfield Road, a new Confederate brigade commanded by Brigadier General William T. Wofford arrived on the scene from the Peach Orchard. Caldwell's division, which had shifted the momentum in the Wheatfield only minutes earlier, began to give way. Suddenly, the 32nd found Anderson's Georgians bearing down upon their position at the stone fence. "The battle waxed hot and furious," Parker recalled, and Colonel Prescott went down with an apparent wound. Supported by two men, Prescott sought out Lieutenant Colonel Luther Stephenson to hand over command. Meanwhile his men clung to the stone fence and slugged it out at close range with the murky shadows in the smoke-filled woods.

On the brigade's right flank, the situation grew worse. As the other regiments of Sweitzer's brigade arrived at the southern edge of the Wheatfield, Colonel Sweitzer noticed several federal regiments retiring from the Stony Hill in his rear, and noticed an increase in the intensity of the firing in that direction. He continued in his official report:
I observed also that there was considerable firing diagonally toward our rear from these woods, which I then thought were shots from our own troops aimed over us at the enemy in the woods beyond and falling short. They were, however, much too frequent to be pleasant, and my color-bearer, Ed. Martin, remarked, 'Colonel, I'll be ---- if I don't think we are faced the wrong way; the rebs are up there in the woods behind us, on the right.'
Martin surmised correctly - and as Confederate forces drove off the federals positioned on the Stony Hill, they turned their attention to the inviting rear of Sweitzer's battle line. To counter the threat, Sweitzer attempted to turn first the 4th Michigan and then the 62nd Pennsylvania to face the opposite direction. This left the 32nd alone at the stone fence to face Anderson's surging men. Nearly encircled, Sweitzer's right flank began to give way, and Sweitzer's aide-de-camp road up to Lieutenant Colonel Stephenson to order the 32nd to fall back. As the regiment began to retreat once again, Sweitzer himself rushed from the woods on horseback and demanded to know why the regiment was giving way. Parker later attempted to recall the scene:
Indignantly replying that the Regiment was falling back under orders from his staff officer, the Lieutenant Colonel ordered the men to face about and stand their ground. It was a fatal mistake, and one which caused the loss of many brave men. For a few minutes we stood, our enemy on our front, right flank, and nearly in our rear, pouring in a terrible fire, which the men returned with almost desperation, until we were again ordered to fall back, which we did, fighting our way, inch by inch, rebels and Union men inextricably mingled, until we reached the shelter of the woods. Just at this moment, Coloenl Stephenson fell, shot through the face, and Colonel Prescott who appears not to have been wounded at all, soon after again took command.
The monument to the 32nd Massachusetts at Gettysburg, which depicts
a pup tent. Photo by Jen Goellnitz. Creative Commons Licensing.
The regiment limped off the field as the Confederates finally asserted full control over the Wheatfield. Of the 242 men that went into battle, 13 were dead, 62 wounded, and 5 missing in action, a total of 80 casuatlies, or roughly 33 percent of its total force.

In October of 1885, veterans of the 32nd returned to Gettysburg to dedicate a monument on the site of its original position on the Stony Hill. Whether William H. Shaw served with the regiment at Gettysburg or not, he did not attend this dedication. His Civil War had a sad ending.

Several months after Appomattox disaster struck the Shaw family. Death records for Plymouth, Massachusetts show that on July 20, 1865, William's wife Mary Shaw died of Typhoid Fever. Just 17 days later, on August 6, those same death records indicate that William passed away, suffering from Tuberculosis. The couple was buried in Plymouth, and evidently left behind their three children - Alice, William Jr., and Ruth.


No comments:

Post a Comment