|Unit History Project|
Rochester's Forgotten Regiment:
In the drowsy summer heat of late August, the languid, humid air over Irondequoit Bay was touched occasionally with the soft cooling breezes from Lake Ontario. On the grounds in front of the Newport House, a baseball game was in progress in which the men, most approaching and some well into middle age, could hardly be mistaken for serious ball players. Each team member played in various stages of undress, some without dress coats, others in vests or divested to shirt sleeves, a few with their bowler hats on, others bareheaded. A lazy fly ball to the infield ended the game in the 4th inning (by common consent) with Sergeant Peter Anger’s squad triumphing over Sam Porter’s boys by a score of 3 to 2. Sam Porter, who had just turned 36 four days earlier, had a quite a reputation as a ball player in Rochester before the war but the four wounds, three of them to the legs, suffered in the Union cause had taken a significant toll on his agility. So, when a football game was initiated after baseball, Porter decided to sit it out and moved quietly to the sidelines where sat another well known pre-war ball player, a pitcher, Colonel Charles J. Powers, Brevet Major-General of the Army of the Potomac, whose left arm hung virtually useless at his side as a constant reminder of the battle in the Wilderness. Despite the good natured banter during the game and the jovial ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ atmosphere, the war had scarred them all, one way or another. For some reason, these veterans of the 108th New York chose to celebrate their first full reunion on August 20, 1879 on the seventeenth anniversary of their enlistment – not ten or twenty but seventeen. This first reunion, however, was not the initial gathering of the regiment since the boys who returned to Rochester directly after the war formed the Hancock Guards on September 17, 1866 to commemorate their initiation into combat at Antietam. The Guards, consisting of approximately 40 members of the regiment, were mainly Rochester natives and met annually over the next 12 years. Near the end of the 1870’s, the Hancock Guards was dissolved and then reorganized to include all the surviving veterans of the 108th New York.1
A large number of these men who gathered at Newport House on Irondequoit Bay had not seen each other since the end of the war when they marched at 1.00 p.m. on May 23, 1865 as part of the Second Corps “down Pennsylvania avenue past the White House and out to Georgetown” in the triumphant grand review of the Army of the Potomac. Seven days later, the remnants of the regiment left their camp in Munson Hill, Virginia, “without any symptoms of lachrymose regret”, as one of the first regiments to be sent homeward. Typically, they embarked on their journey from Washington with minimal rations – hard tack and coffee. Once on board, they were not even allowed to make coffee but any possible discontent was alleviated by “the all predominant desire” to get home. By the time they reached Williamsport, PA., they had begun to wonder “from whence something to eat was to come” when “an old farmer, with a scythe on his arm approached the train.” “Well boys,” he said “you have got through” but “There don’t seem to be many of you left.” Approximately 180 remained of the 1000 that marched out of Rochester nearly three years earlier. The farmer ruminated on the statistic for a moment then added, “Rochester sent out a big lot of good soldiers. Are you hungry?” His question was magic to the hundred or so New Yorkers who had subsisted on hard tack, without coffee to wash it down, for the last twenty four hours and who had even resorted to the attempted theft of railway workers’ lunches. “Well,” the farmer continued, “you see that large white house across that field ; the girls have been baking bread this afternoon, and have got through milking by this time. Go over there, and tell the girls to give you all the fresh bread and milk you want.” They did not have to be told twice. As the train moved out, the boys from Rochester gave three “loud and hearty cheers” for their generous benefactor, farmer Herdic of Williamsport. Later, after numerous delays for coal trains, they boarded the Genesee Valley Railroad at Elmira and arrived home in Rochester at 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31, 1865, where they were given an appreciative welcome by the city and their comrades from the 13th and 140th New York. For the last time, the 108th New York was led by Colonel Charles Powers, who rejoined the regiment on May 28th, to the fair grounds and suddenly it was all over. They “settled up with Uncle Sam, received a check” for their pay and were citizens once more. From then on, the war began to fade into memory.2
Some members of the regiment could not allow the war to simply disappear into the mists of time. The war had usurped their youth and their innocence, exposed them to sights and sounds too ineffable to contemplate, yet had structured and strangely given meaning to their lives for the past three years. To say it was over was an ineffectual verbal construct, a phrase without reality. For those who waged it, the war would never be over, would always be there, sometimes like a dream, a lot of times like a nightmare but ever present coloring their perception of the civilian world to which they tried to return. For these men, severance with the past was impossible so they kept the memory of the 108th New York alive immediately after the war with the formation of the Hancock Guards. However, a number of the veterans returned to civilian life and tried to forget about their three years the conflict. When Sam Porter, a major at war’s end, came back to Rochester, he eschewed any offer of further military advancement as well as “all proposals for political office.” Instead, he settled into business life as a wool merchant but, when forced to abandon this vocation because of his rheumatism, he ended up as a manufacturer of barrel stock “in which he continued to the end of his life.”
Perhaps Sam’s indifference to his military career had its beginnings in the incident with Haskell after the Gettysburg battle. Earlier in the war, he had toyed with the desire to become a staff officer, especially after his wrangle with Palmer and Pierce about promotion following the battle of Fredericksburg, but never really pursued the idea. However, on his return to the regiment in August of 1863 and his subsequent wounding at Bristoe Station later that fall, Sam must have divested himself of any lingering illusions about the nobility of war and personal sacrifice. Not once in his letters does he ever weaken in his belief about the justness of the Union cause but after surviving the hell of Gettysburg only to be shot by a supercilious self-styled martinet, who, up to that point, had never commanded troops on the firing line, must have forced Porter to re-evaluate his personal assessment of the war. When he returned once more, a number of staff assignments were offered to him, which may have been part of the cover-up, and Porter accepted them all. After his fourth and final wound in the Wilderness, he spent the remainder of the war as an Aide to General Smyth where he learned “to enjoy all the little extra conveniences of a staff position.” A writer recently marveled about the officers of the 108th New York and their “willingness to suffer repeated wounds and still return to the fray.” In Sam’s case, perhaps there is no mystery since being shot by a fellow officer while attempting to go to the bathroom was not exactly the same as acquiring the red badge of courage in battle, especially if that battle were the climactic battle of Gettysburg. Therefore, going back could also have been an attempt to re-gain his honor, even though he had no need to since the dishonor was Haskell’s not his.3
In April of 1869, at age 25, Porter married Mary S. Bush and apparently attempted to put things military behind him. His name was not associated with the Hancock Guards and he only attended the first regimental reunion in 1879. Whether he would have attended others was rendered moot since shortly after the first, his health began to fail. Over the next two years he sank slowly until “he faced death with the same undaunted courage that he had shown upon so many battlefields” and surrendered his life on the 7th of March, 1881 at the age of 37. After the war, Sam never applied for a pension although the four wounds acquired in the service of his country certainly diminished his quality of life. The couple tried to have children but the first child, born on July 4, 1871, died the next day and the second child, born on Jan.9, seven years later, did not survive 24 hours. Three years after his death, Mary Porter applied for a widow’s pension. In her application, she cited Sam’s shoulder wound as a contributing factor to his tuberculosis and subsequent death. Obviously, Sam had been embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding the wound since he told Mary a largely modified version of the event from which had been removed any reference to scatology or personal hygiene. To his close friend and cousin, Porter Farley, he more or less recounted an accurate, if less detailed and graphic, rendering of the event. Consequently, it may not be so surprising that Sam Porter had very few rose-colored memories of the war. Later in life, his wife declared that she knew little of Sam’s military background “and had only an indistinct recollection of what he told her of his army life.” Sam Porter died within 24 hours of the death of his father “so on March 9,1881 ‘there was a sad and tearful assemblage of mourners at the funeral of Samuel D. Porter and his son, Samuel, at the residence on Fitzhugh Street.’ The caskets were placed side by side.” For some reason, the minutes of the third reunion in August of that year made no mention of his loss.4
Of the dozen or so Canadians in the regiment, only one returned to Canada, which should come as no surprise since nearly of them had left their native soil during their teenage years or younger. For one of these transplanted men, John Giblin of Company C, was reserved one of the most gruesomely bizarre and ironic of fates. Giblin, a native of St. Catherines, Upper Canada, went through the war without a scratch. An orphan at the age of ten, young Giblin set out on the road from St. Catherines to Buffalo, New York, but luckily was taken in by a kindly local man from Rochester, named John Wells, on whose farm the boy worked until he joined the 108th New York, in August of 1862. After the war, he took up farming in Michigan where he remained until August of 1889 when he decided to attend the eleventh annual reunion of the 108th New York. On August 19, 1889, Giblin’s body was found almost cut in half “beside the Lake Shore tracks at Hamburg street”, Buffalo, New York. In “changing cars at Buffalo for Rochester instead of taking the New York Central train”, Giblin “ boarded the Lake Shore and Northern train by mistake, and after going some distance discovered his mistake, and without any person knowing his intention attempted to jump from the moving train and was in some manner thrown under the wheels.” Both legs were clipped off close to the torso and his left arm was severed near the shoulder. The body was found later in the evening by a switchman who noticed that the track, for a distance of 40 feet or so, was covered in blood. His reunion letter and a card of the 108th New York helped to identify him and the undertaker in Buffalo performed the final indignity by poorly preparing the body which was so badly decomposed by the time it reached Michigan that the remains could not be present at the funeral service. What the Army of Northern Virginia and its artillery could not do in three years of war, complete irrationality did in moments, 14 years later.5
Francis Wafer returned to Kingston, Canada West (Ontario) in June of 1865 and, in the fall, resumed his medical studies at Queen’s University which he completed over the next two years. Although initially he had intended to serve only between the school semesters during the summer of 1863, he stayed on till the end of the conflict and was remembered fondly by the men of the 108th New York for courageously “risking his life on numerous occasions with front line troops when he could have remained at a safer distance in the rear.” In somewhat precarious health, Wafer accepted his M.D. degree at the Spring Convocation in 1867 but “for a year after graduation was too ill to engage in medical practice.” 6 He had been unwell since the fall of 1864 when he first noticed pain in the lumbar region of his back which “soon thereafter developed itself as a tumor” gradually increasing in size during November of 1865. When probed the growth exhibited profuse suppuration and pus discharge as well as “revealing two or more pelvic abscesses.” The doctor was suffering from tuberculosis, a death sentence in the late 19th century, and the disease ate away at him over the years. When well enough, he was appointed Demonstrator in Anatomy at Queen’s and eventually went into practice with Dr. Michael Sullivan in the town of Kingston. However by 1873, the progress of the disease greatly impaired the surgeon so he applied through the Consul of the United States for a pension in compensation for his service with the 108th New York. He wrote that his “disability arose from fatigue and severe labor” associated with his duties in the regiment and “by cold and exposure lying on the snow covered ground in December, 1864.” A number of surgeons as well as the former Lt. Colonel, Frank Pierce, supported Wafer in his request but it would appear that the matter was not settled since the U.S. government was still quibbling about the pension claim in late 1875. Unfortunately, Francis Wafer was unable to wait around for the decision since he died from complications of his disease on April 7,1876 at the age of 45, leaving his father, mother, five sisters and younger brother. Wafer’s estate was minimal and his practice was “poorer by some thousand dollars than when he began” all of which probably led his father, Peter, to apply for his son’s pension in March of 1883,but whether he succeeded where his did not could not be determined. In the obituary, printed in the Kingston Daily News, the reporter opined that many of the doctor’s “companions living in Rochester will hear with regret of his death.” Yet his old regiment was unaware of their surgeon’s passing since George Washburn, the secretary of the regiment in charge of outings, personal updates and correspondence, found out about Wafer’s death 14 years later in August of 1890 and only after sending the dead doctor a notice for the 12th Annual Reunion.7
After the experience of war, other men in the regiment took solace in religion. For three years, death, destruction and loss had been quotidian events that, to many, only confirmed and verified the temporal frailty of man and his ambitions. Some of the boys from Rochester were just that, boys, when they enlisted and these youths had come eye to eye with the demonic ferocity of man on bloody fields in Northern Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. How could man claim kinship with divinity, yet revel in such horrors? Could God condone such acts? Was there a greater plan? To these questions, religion counseled faith and hope for a better, eternal world which would give meaning to their journey through hell, so a few young men sought out the spiritual life as a vocation. Willard H. Peck, whose brother was cruelly murdered before the Gettysburg Campaign, suffered a head wound in the incident with his brother which left him incapable of future service in the army. He remained in his parents’ care until his 20th birthday in 1867 and then “entered as a student the law office of Butler & McDowell in Cohocton, New York where he remained about a year.” He moved on to Avoca, New York and when he finished his law studies in Dansville, he practiced law for a few years in the area but was not satisfied, something still eluded him. In 1872, he found an answer in the ministry of the Free Baptist denomination, left his law practice and became an ordained minister on September 4, 1874. As he moved through various pastorates in New York over the years, he made numerous government acquaintances which allowed him to unite his legal and spiritual vocations when he “took up the business of a U.S. Pension and Claims Attorney” to aid and expedite the pension claims of his comrades from the war.
Jacob Winslow, like the younger Peck, survived the war and fulfilled his promise given to God on the field of Gettysburg. Directly after the war, the 21 year-old veteran set out to obtain an education at Lima, New York. Five years later, he moved on to Oberlin College at Oberlin, Ohio and graduated in 1875. The next three years were spent at Oberlin Theological Seminary for his qualification as a minister and for the remainder of his life, he preached in the Midwest, keeping his vow given to God on that hot summer afternoon of 1863 in Gettysburg.
Another survivor of Gettysburg was the diminutive Corporal Enoch K. Miller, whom Pierce comforted and believed mortally wounded on July 3,1863 after the final assault. Pierce was not alone in his belief about Miller since two modern historians have pronounced that Miller died from his wounds at Gettysburg. Fortunately, the assertion of Miller’s death at the battle was greatly exaggerated, although the chest wound, which narrowly missed his heart, incapacitated him for the rest of his life. In February of 1864, after months of medical treatment, Miller returned to Rochester and was granted a license to preach for the Presbytery where he was a member. Later in March of the same year, he was commissioned as “Chaplain of the 25th United States Colored Troops” with whom he remained for the duration of the war. When the war ended and army life was behind him, Miller continued his spiritual calling with the American Missionary Association where he came into close contact with General Oliver Otis Howard, the Christian General, former leader of the 11th Corps. On September 4, 1888, the small English born Chaplain delivered the dedicatory prayer for the monument of the 108th New York at Gettysburg and stood beside his old friend Lt. Col. Pierce who unveiled the giant granite trefoil, etched with the depiction of a soldier, prone upon the ground with his rifle at the ready, while a battery fires in the background. For some reason, the near fatal wound that he received at Gettysburg formed a bond between Miller and the battlefield. So much so that upon his death in December of 1903, the small corporal’s request to lie with his comrades in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg was honored and he now rests in the semi-circle dedicated to the New York troops lost in the battle.8
The commanders of the 108th New York each fared differently after the war. Oliver Palmer, the original colonel, returned to Rochester in 1863 and was immediately taken on by the Western Union Telegraph Company where he thrived quite successfully for the next two decades. He died of pneumonia on Saturday, Feb. 2,1884 at his home in New York City at the age of 70. Palmer never attended a reunion of the regiment, either as the Hancock Guards or as a regimental organization but their old colonel always held the boys from Rochester near his heart. In a life already filled with variation and success, the war, for him, was only a passing event, something he felt obligated to do when no one else wanted to command the regiment. On the other hand, for Lt. Col. Francis Pierce, the war marked a highlight in his life that would never be equaled by anything civilian life could offer. His first experience of the euphoria of battle at Antietam never left the former school teacher and the possibility of losing such a sensation with the cessation of hostilities did not appeal to him. After “the muster out of the 108th” he “was appointed colonel of the 1st United States Volunteers (a regiment composed of discharged veterans) and was stationed in Washington and Hart’s Island, New York harbor.” Two months after Lee’s surrender, a few of the ex-officers of the 108th New York gathered at the Osburn House on Main Street in Rochester to honor Francis E. Pierce, who would soon join the regular army. What followed was a warm festive occasion with good food, good drink and bittersweet recollections of the war just ended. As the evening drew to a close, the laughter subsided and the smoke filled room suddenly grew quiet when the former officers of the Rochester Regiment gave Pierce a watch and chain “as a token of our mutual regard for you as a gentleman, a true soldier and a kind commander.” Pierce was deeply touched and wished that he “could express in words one half” of what he felt for the men who proffered him the gift which “will be esteemed as priceless.” As part of his peroration, Pierce added, “The 108th exists no more” but “memories connected with it will remain as long as one of us have life.” When, in November of 1865, he was given a chance to be a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Infantry, with “little deliberation he accepted the position, having decided to make arms his life-long profession.” For the next 30 years or so, Pierce followed his chosen passion westward to the Dakotas and Arizona, dealing with Geronimo and the Apache uprising in the 1880’s and ending up at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota shortly after the conflict at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890. For the one-eyed teacher-turned-warrior, soldiering suited him perfectly. He loved the hardships of the life as well as the camaraderie, the swearing and the drinking. He could go “as dirty as I please, wear government shoes”, comb his hair and wash his shirt but once a week and, most of all, thrill to “the glorious excitement of the fight.” Ironically, his death was far from the fields of glory and battle. He fell from the balcony of his house in San Francisco and later died from septicemia and internal injuries on Nov. 4, 1896.9
Pierce did not realize how prophetic his words at the Osburn House would be since the memory of 108th New York quickly faded with the approach of the new century. What these men did and who they were are virtually forgotten today and the neglect of the regiment begins in the city for which it was named. Rochester History is a quarterly publication and each issue deals with an aspect of Rochester’s past. In four issues, published between 1940 and 1991, Rochester’s part in the civil war was the focus. None of the four deal with the contributions of the 108th New York. One article extols and details the action of the 140th New York at Gettysburg but that the 108th participated in the battle is not mentioned. Another two part article on the war deals exclusively with the 13th and 140th, while the 108th is overlooked. The existence 108th New York is noted in only one of the four articles. If the hometown history of the regiment is so indifferent to its fate then it should not be surprising that the regiment has little presence in the general literature of the war. In most studies of the particular battles in which it was engaged, the regiment is ignored or dismissed in a sentence or two, except for certain myths.10 At Antietam, the regiment and its colonel were branded as cowards by the self-serving questionable account penned over 40 years after the battle by Hitchcock, adjutant of the 132nd Pennsylvania. A stained reputation, whether justified or not, cannot be wiped clean after a 140 years of civil war lore. This fabrication about the 108th New York is still alive and well today since the panic ridden, quivering colonel, clinging to the ridge above the Bloody lane and his cowardly rookies is the stuff of fiction, often more attractive than fact and very few have looked into the facts. When they fought at Fredericksburg, they were just one of the many faceless brigades that Burnside hurled all day at Marye’s Heights. They had no aura, like the Irish Brigade, wore no sprigs of boxwood as they advanced, they just provided more cannon fodder and then retired. But of all their engagements, their role at Gettysburg was the most significant event that contributed to the eclipse of the 108th New York.
In the post war years, the significance of the battle at Gettysburg became inflated to mythic proportions - ‘The High Water Mark’ of the Rebellion, The Turning Point and Most Important Federal Victory of the War, The Sunset of the Confederacy, etc… Unfortunately for the 108th New York, they were not instrumental in any decisive part of this battle. The regiment did not save either of the Union flanks, instead the New Yorkers lay in support of Woodruff’s battery and were pounded for two days by Confederate artillery even though “the hardest task in war is to lie in support of some position or battery, under fire without the privilege of returning it.” When the climax of the battle arrived on July 3rd, once again, the 108th seemed to be on the periphery since the placement of their monument reinforces the misconception that the regiment was physically separated from the rest of the brigade and played no part in the repulse of the Confederates on July 3, which of course was not the case. Modification and modernization of the park plus the heated debate among the veterans of the 111th New York and the 12th New Jersey as to their rightful position of their line on Cemetery Ridge created the illusion that the 108th were a glorified guard for Woodruff’s battery and not involved with the defense of the ridge on the final day. Alexander Hays imposed the thankless and thoughtless task of supporting artillery on the 108th New York at Gettysburg and the performance of their duty cost them 51% of their men. None of the other regiments in their brigade suffered such a percentage in killed or wounded during their time at Gettysburg.11
However, there was another regiment from Rochester, the 140th New York that did help to save the Union flank at Little Round Top on July 2nd, but at the cost of its young colonel’s life, an occurrence that far out shadowed the action of its sister regiment. Colonel Patrick Henry O’Rorke was a charismatic figure for the working class Irish of Rochester, New York and his death while gallantly leading his regiment to the aid of the 16th Michigan insured his fame and that of his regiment. The “whole city mourned when Colonel O’Rorke’s body was brought back” for “a military funeral at St. Bridget’s Church” and the funeral created “a bond between some elements of the differing ethnic and religious communities within Rochester that lasted past the end of the war.” O’Rorke’s heroic action and death at Gettysburg “helped to forge a new unity in the city.” If the memory of O’Rorke became an ideal or a symbol of community harmony, then the realities of someone like the unpretentious Col. Powers or the blunt Lt. Col. Pierce of the 108th would obviously suffer by comparison. The ideal is usually more socially palatable than the real. To compound their plight, Powers’ regiment suffered from the lack of a proper PR man, a deficiency shared with the 140th New York, but O’Rorke’s regiment fought in an action that produced an ideal spokesman and champion, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. After the war, the action on Little Round Top was told, written about and re-written by the former professor of Rhetoric from Maine. His writings generated controversy, some involving Porter Farley, Sam Porter’s cousin, of the 140th New York, charges and countercharges but all the while kept the struggle for Little Round Top in the public eye and foremost in the dramatic actions of the battle. During the growth of tourism after the war and even today, thanks to the novel, Killer Angels, and the film version of the book, Gettysburg, Little Round Top was and is the top tourist attraction on the field. Consequently, as could be expected, the limited actions of the 108th New York at the opposite end of the field paled in comparison and were eventually forgotten.12
Among the forgotten of Gettysburg is William H. Raymond, the gangly youth of Company A, 108th New York. Of the 63 Medals of Honor awarded at Gettysburg, 11 of them went to Hays’ Division and 7 of these were bestowed on regiments in Smyth’s Brigade. Of the 6 given to the Second Brigade on July 3rd, 5 were for the capture of enemy flags during and after Longstreet’s final assault but the other 1 was awarded to William Raymond for his heroic work on the skirmish line near the Emmitsburg Road. The honor was awarded 33 years after the battle, long after the once young 2nd Lieutenant had spent years of suffering from the effects of typhoid fever, contracted near Falmouth in 1863. He could never hold onto a steady career so most of his life was moving from one odd job to another and somehow supporting his wife and four children, three girls and a boy, Albert, on his soldier’s pension of $24 a month. The award brought little recognition and little in the way of cash until May of 1916 when he got 10 extra dollars a month for being on the Medal of Honor Roll but unfortunately William died 7 months later on Dec. 7,1916 at the age of 72. New York troops were given 10 Medals of Honor for their heroism and sacrifice at Gettysburg and the 108th New York was the only regiment from Rochester to receive one. The two medals awarded for the action at Little Round Top went to the colonel and the color bearer of the 20th Maine.13
The 108th New York could not produce anyone who could remotely fulfill the role of Chamberlain. Regimental histories are usually good source material and, if used judiciously, can provide primary accounts of the regiment’s actions. George Washburn, the self-styled regimental historian of the 108th New York, never served with the regiment after Chancellorsville and was detached to the War Department for the remainder of the war. His accounts of the battles before and after his detachment are either vague or borrowed or left to another. Generally speaking the most useful part of the work are the letters submitted by the men for the Life Sketches part of the history. However to his credit, despite his shortcomings as an historian, he was instrumental in compiling the history, such as it is, and apparently was the driving force behind the various reunions with the last recorded one taking place in 1894, a year before Washburn departed for Minnesota with his new wife. With his departure, the recorded history of the 108th New York ends. In another essential reference work, New York at Gettysburg, the entry for the boys from Rochester is completely uninformative. The oration for the dedication ceremony of the monument for the 108th New York was delivered by Honorable John M. Davy, who was a First Lieutenant in Company G but who also was discharged three and a half months before the battle. What should be an informative reminiscence merely became bloated oratory, filled with classical allusions and almost no specific details of the regiment’s activity on July 2nd and 3rd. From an historical perspective, it would seem that those least qualified chose to speak for the regiment since no one else in the unit displayed any inclination to leave a coherent record. Pierce made it quite clear that his letters were meant for private communication and Sam Porter produced a substantial correspondence but made no effort at publication. Dr. Wafer tried to shape his wartime diary into a post war record, not intended “for the public eye” but, for some reason, the work ends at the description of the battle of Spotsylvania. Today, the doctor’s civil war papers reside at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and the diary, unreadable in many spots, becomes more unreadable as time goes by.14
In the immediate post-war years, very little in the way of memoirs was written by the veterans since the war was too close and the memories too vivid. But, as the century wore on, the memory of the war, like the battle of Gettysburg, underwent metamorphosis in the recollections of the old soldiers. Re-union became a paramount goal for the veterans so the Northern men bought into the Southern interpretation of the war, promulgated by Jubal Early and the Lost Cause disciples, as a war fought nobly for equally noble motives and not involving slavery. The black man was forgotten as the South presented a chivalrous Christian conflict, fought mainly between white men. In other words, the popular image of the war was scrubbed clean, sanitized, deodorized and scented by Southern magnolia. One immediate consequence of this myth making was that fact and fiction, often difficult to separate at anytime, were encouraged to intertwine and blur as some dubious tall tales were replaced with taller ones. Even though it lacked a professor of Rhetoric, the 108th New York was no stranger to this process since it did have Alexander Connolly, formerly of Company F and captured at Mine Run in the winter of 1863, who in his own small way challenged Chamberlain for fictional creation.15
Twenty years after being mustered out, Connolly took umbrage and claimed to be libeled when the Sunday Herald in Rochester published a post-war account of his capture which stated Connolly joined the Rebel army after he was taken prisoner. The published story went on to claim that Connolly not only changed uniforms but actually “raised a company of guerillas in East Tennessee and, after many successful raids on the Union troops, turned the company over to the Union army” near the end of the war. Of course, the slighted Irishman vehemently denied the allegations but, unfortunately, published “a short sketch” of his service which recounted a more fantastic tale as his defense. According to Connolly, he and 185 fellow skirmishers were left “as a sacrifice at the battle of Mine Run” while General Meade and the army stole away into the night on Dec.3,1863. Abandoned south of the Rapidan on the morning of the 4th these soldiers were soon surrounded by four Confederate regiments and, after a valiant but futile stand and out of ammunition, 72 of the Union men and 58 wounded were taken prisoner by A.P. Hill’s Third Corps. Later that day, these captives were interred at Belle Isle where Connolly’s real adventures began. What followed was the stuff of 1930’s Hollywood and matinee swashbucklers. Brutal jailers, drunken sadistic blood lusting prison guards, a prison revolt that was squashed by the threat of artillery, torture, starvation, all the stereotypes of prison compressed into 3 months captivity. But the next chapter outdid the previous since the scene now switched to the most notorious of prison camps, Andersonville and brought Connolly into direct conflict with one of the so-called premiere villains of the war, Captain Henry Wirz.
On the way to Andersonville, the resourceful Irishman cut through the wall of the railcar, escaped, but was re-taken at Rolla, North Carolina. To keep him put for the rest of the trip, he was “staked to a car bottom.” Upon arriving at the prison on Feb. 24, 1864, Connolly immediately escaped but was re-captured 4 hours later. In March, he led a revolt by digging out the foundation of the stockade thereby collapsing the wall of the east side and while leading the men over the fallen timbers, he was captured again. This time, he was “staked to the ground for seventy-two hours.” At the end of the three day ordeal, a guard, believing him to be dead, freed Connolly who quickly jumped the man stole his uniform, escaped and, four days later, was re-taken near Macon, Georgia. His escapades brought him to attention of Captain Wirz who personally gave the elusive Celt “a ball and chain” riveted on by slaves. But what chance did the Swiss-born prison commandant have against Connolly since the escape artist quickly filed through the iron rivet of the restraint and replaced it with a lead one for convenient removal. How or where he obtained the file was not specified. Next, to undermine the hapless commandant Connolly initiated a series of tunnels but all were discovered when some of his henchmen betrayed him and informed the Rebel guards. His stay at Andersonville had just begun to sound like the pilot episode for Hogan’s Heroes when a chain of events that involved a one-legged Frenchman, a hunchback cripple disguise and the murder of a giant guard named Caleb Gay brought Connolly the death sentence at Andersonville.
At 4 p.m. on May 10, 1864, by the order of Captain Wirz, Connolly was to be removed from the prison yard and shot on his coffin for his part in the death of Caleb Gay. When his accusers arrived the plucky Irishman berated his would-be executioners “with a ten minutes speech” which modulated into a “rousing” oration of farewell to his prison mates as he was hustled off for execution. In almost biblical fashion, three times the firing squad, composed of Irish southerners, came to the ready yet did not fire. So impressed were they by the prisoner that the officer in charge offered him a position in their Charlestown Irish Battalion. As could be predicted, Connolly “rejected his offer with scorn in a short speech” and, for some reason, was returned to prison where, once again, he effected his escape by assuming the disguise of a black prisoner and digging to freedom. Later, he captured a guard, whom he left on a an island in the Flint River, stole a horse which was shot from under him as he made an impromptu freedom speech to “about 200 slaves”, then hid in a swamp at Greenville. Disguised once more as a cripple (sans hunch), the slippery Son of Erin, despite a $3000 reward for his capture, managed to make his way towards Sherman’s lines but, still in his cripple disguise, mistakenly wandered into a camp of Rebel cavalry, commanded by Joe Wheeler. A colonel of the 9th Alabama took the ‘crippled’ refugee under his wing, even allowing him to ride his horse on account of his ‘condition’. While riding with Wheeler, Connolly was shot in the head but was cared for by loyal “Union folks” who dwelt in a cave on Lookout Mountain. He took over these people, drilled the men into partisan raiders to attack and harass Confederate cavalry and eventually returned to the 108th New York, thus ending his picaresque adventures almost a year after his initial capture. With the end of the war, he returned to Rochester and became the captain of Company A, 25th Fenian Regiment, Irish Republican Army, perhaps with the intention of continuing his adventures in a war against the English. Irishmen have the gift of the ‘gab’ and Connolly was no exception. His “short sketch”, like most historical fiction, contained elements of accuracy, yet the story still stretched the limits of probability. Intriguingly, one aspect that Connolly completely forgot or intentionally omitted was a detailed account of his return to the 108th New York. Those in the regiment who remembered his return to duty recalled that Connolly roundly condemned a fellow soldier, Sgt. James Walker, who was captured with him and “stated that Walker of Company K, took the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and was placed on guard over the Union prisoners in that ‘Hell’ under the notorious commandant Wirtz [sic], who was afterwards justly hung in Washington.” Oddly enough, twenty years after the war, the roving Irishman had to defend himself against accusations that sounded eerily familiar. The story of Alexander Connolly was just that, a story, the imaginative fancy of an aging Irishman who, perhaps, subscribed to the belief that the more unbelievable the lie, the more it will be taken as truth. Connolly’s contribution to the history of the war, while humourous, did little to thwart the fading memory of the regiment, but a strange effort to do so came from the most unlikely source and in a most uncharacteristic manner.16
When all is said and done, the most significant factor for the neglect of the 108th New York was the unspectacular nature of the regiment. The men entered the war to do a job, to see it through to the end and then to go home. If the regiment is a family then the colonel is the father who “should have personal acquaintance with every officer and man, and should instill a feeling of pride and affection for himself, so that his officers and men would naturally look to him for personal advice and instruction.” Like a family unit, the regiment and its colonel are so intertwined that they become a reflection of each other and nowhere was that relationship clearer than in the 108th New York. In his pre-war career, Powers was not a brilliant, aggressive or histrionic attorney but rather “chose his positions deliberately and wisely and maintained them earnestly and perseveringly to the end.” Such characteristics carried over into his military career since the attributes often associated with Colonel Charles Powers by those who served with him were competence, respect and quiet courage. Powers was remembered as a man “possessed of remarkable coolness which enabled him, when all were excited around him, to be perfectly composed.” However he never lost touch with the men and ‘always had the greatest solicitude and care for the welfare of the private under his command.” Unlike any of the others in the regiment, Powers was in the war from the start as Adjutant of the 13th New York in May of 1861. Like Pierce, the military life suited him but when he could not follow his desire in the post-war army, he accepted the position of County Clerk, a somewhat tame alternative, where he performed “conscientiously, quietly and without ostentation.” In September 1865, he was granted a monthly pension of $22.50 in compensation for his ¾ disability but since the left arm and shoulder were paralyzed “rendering the arm entirely useless”, Powers applied for and received a $7.50 increase to $30 monthly in 1866 which remained fixed for the rest of his life. Ultimately, the Brevet Major General, Colonel of the 108th New York approached life and war with the same innate dignity and competence as did the regiment that he faithfully led for the last two years of the war. In apparent contradiction to his stoic attitude of self-effacement, Colonel Charles Powers wrote an extremely puzzling and uncharacteristic letter in July of 1878 to John B. Bachelder, the Gettysburg historian who was gathering primary data on the battle. In the letter Powers wrote:
I was Col. 108 N.Y.Vols…during the engagement of the 2nd and 3d days in line on Cemetery Hill the Point D’appui of the line of battle and of course had a fine opportunity to observe with a good field glass the several engagements of those three days. You have given Tom Smythe (sic) of the 1st Del. the command of our brigade on the third when you should have given it to me as he was detached on the night of the 2d and did not join us for two weeks. I was the senior Col. commanding in the decisive repulse of the attack made on our position July 3d.
Just why Powers would write such a letter is a mystery. His claim to command of the brigade is refuted by at least four regiment members, including the assistant surgeon and the Lt. Colonel at the time, who claim that Powers was absent from the battle. Colonel Thomas A. Smyth was not “detached” on July 2nd but was wounded on July 3rd during the cannonade and returned to duty the next day. When Smyth was wounded, he “surrendered the command to Lieut. Col. Francis E. Pierce, One hundred and eight New York Volunteers” and, as already documented, Pierce was on the firing line when Longstreet’s assault broke against Cemetery Ridge. The letter could be attributed to age and failing memory but it was written fifteen years after the battle, when Powers was only forty-five. Surely he would remember his presence or absence at the climactic event of what would become the climactic battle of the civil war.17
Powers may have been at the battle of Gettysburg but he was not in command. As recorded by Wafer, the Colonel was still in command on June 29th after the torturous thirty-odd mile hike to Uniontown but, by July 2nd, the doctor reported that Pierce commanded and Powers was sick. On July 10, Powers was officially diagnosed with scurvy and on July 19 was ordered to the Officers Hospital in Georgetown. Since scurvy “remains latent for 3 to 12 months following onset of severe vitamin C deficiency” and is “preceded by a period of ill health”, characterized “by loss of energy”, anemia and “great weakness”, then the beginning of Powers affliction could have started as early as his medical leave in December of 1862. On June 29, after a grueling 35 mile march, Powers must have been exhausted. In fact, Wafer recalled that Powers called a halt that evening without orders to do so. Sometime over the next two days, Powers turned the command of the 108th over to Pierce and since the army was going into action and since the regimental surgeon could not issue a medical certificate “until after sufficient time”, Powers was probably confined to ‘quarters’ (perhaps behind the line) until he was officially diagnosed with scurvy and sent to Washington. In the letter to Bachelder, Powers said that he had “the opportunity to observe” the “several engagements of those days” which was likely the only role that he played in that famous battle.18
The motive for why he claimed to be in charge of the brigade can never be known and can only be guessed at. Possibly, he could not admit to himself that he was simply an observer at what became touted as the pivotal battle of the war and therefore lied to Bachelder. All his life, Powers had been regarded as the quiet unassuming clerk or studious lawyer and he may have tired of the label. His letter may have been a final grasp at glory and honor, a chance to be a soldier once more seeking “the bubble reputation / even in the cannon’s mouth” since he could not follow his desire, like Pierce, to stay in the army but was forced by filial duty to care for his decrepit mother. Such may well have been the motivation. In his last years of life, “he was not satisfied with his life” and felt that “he had not succeeded as he wished.” Strangely, he went on to state” he was glad the war took place twenty years ago for he was twenty years nearer his rest”, an odd assertion for a man not yet 50 years old. The world around him was changing “too much” and he seemed far more preoccupied with the spiritual level since “too little reliance could be placed in the things of the world.” As the real war receded farther into the past and the sanitized version of the war began to emerge, then the unspectacular memory of the 108th would also recede. The 180 men who returned to Rochester in June, 1865 and the 191 who never would as well as the many others scarred by the war were the average unsung heroes, similar to those in hundreds of other Union regiments. As the ‘father’ of the regiment, Powers’ letter might have been an effort to prevent the memory of him and his Rochester boys of ’62 from fading into the growing obscurity. Unfortunately, his effort failed and Powers himself fell prey to the shadows.19
On August 27, 1882, Powers awoke earlier that usual, perhaps the damaged arm that still caused him pain was the cause. Nevertheless, the day had broken and would probably be a warm Sunday. Although earlier than usual, he decided to take his customary constitutional. Slowly and deliberately he dressed. His left arm hanging limply had to be placed into the shirt then jacket while the claw-like clammy left hand could only offer minimal assistance with his undergarments, pants, socks and shoes. As he slowly opened and closed the door to his boarding house, the rickety portal still squeaked but not as loud as it could. Once outside, he moved south down North Washington Street, perhaps he would turn along Main and take a stroll by the river. At 5.30 a.m., he turned towards home. He felt a sudden clamminess descend on his neck and face, followed by loss of eye coordination and extreme vertigo. His legs buckled and he fell heavily, face first on the sidewalk of North Washington Street, about a block north of Main St. West, his breathing was labored and sporadic. Two of Rochester’s finest arrived shortly afterwards and attempted to lift the suffering man but he heaved deeply then expired. Charles J. Powers, the wartime commander of the 108th New York, was dead of a stroke in his fiftieth year.20
To bring the story of the 108th New York full circle, the example of Henry Niles of Company K can stand as an epitaph for the regiment. At Antietam, Henry Niles and some others from the 108th joined the charge which finally broke the Rebel line at Bloody Lane. Whether on his own accord or simply by happenstance, the young private ended up with a captured Rebel battle flag and the prospect of a Medal of Honor for himself and glory for his regiment. As he made his way off the field, clinging to his trophy and looking for his colonel, an officer from another regiment bilked Henry of his prize so the acclaim was never forthcoming and the regiment was left with a fictionalized stain on its honor. Months later at Centreville, Henry suffered severe sunstroke which sent him to the hospital, completely erasing his memory and leaving “a blank, a sealed book and as dark as Egypt on the days of the Pharoah.” He could “remember nothing definitely that happened during the war.” 21 To Henry, the war was not a dim memory, instead it never was. His action at Antietam disappeared into non-existence as did the regiment for which he fought. How singularly ironic that the 108th New York would suffer the same fate as Henry, its men forgotten and its glory unremembered.
1108th New York, p. 301, 340, 351; Priscilla Astifan, “Baseball in the 19th Century, Part Two”, Rochester History, Vol. 62, No.2 (Spring 2000)pp.2,22.
2108th New York, pp.98-103,146-147.
3108th New York,p.301 ; Sam Porter, Service Record, National Archives, Washington, D.C. ; Porter Letters, Oct.26,1864 ; Bob Marcotte, “The University of Rochester and the Civil War : Three Heroes At Gettysburg”, talk delivered at the Department of rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester, December 17, 2002, n.p.
4Porter Pension File;Bob Marcotte, op.cit. n.p.;108th New York, pp.,356.
5 108th New York., pp.264-65, 390.
6“A Queen’s Medical Student in the Army of the Potomac, 1863-64”,Douglas Library Notes, Vol.VI, no.3 (Dec.1957), Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, no page numbers ; H. Pearson Gundy, “A Kingston Surgeon in the American Civil War”, Historic Kingston, no.7,1958,p.48.
7Francis M.Wafer, National Archives Military Record, certificate no. 141188, can no.2621,bundle no.3 ; Kingston Daily News,”The late Dr. F.M. Wafer”, Friday April 7 1876 ; 108th New York, p.401.
8108th New York,pp. 299,329-330, 291,385 ; Enoch K. Miller, National Archives Military Record, cert. no.588932,can no. 50037,bundle no.1. For incorrect assertions of Miller’s demise at Gettysburg see: Gregory A. Coco, Killed in Action (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications,1992) p.113 ; Roland R. Maust, Grappling With Death, The Union Second Corps Hospital at Gettysburg (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House Inc.,2001)pp.598-99.Both historians confidently claim that Miller could not or did not survive his wound, but in each case the assertion is based on no documentary evidence and is in fact quite wrong.
9108th New York, pp.188-89, 353, 191-92, Robert Marcotte, “The Civil War Battles of Lt.Col.Francis Edwin Pierce 108th New York Volunteer Infantry”, Rochester History, Vol.65,No.2 (Spring 2003), p.18.
10The following articles all appear in Rochester History: Blake McKelvey, “Rochester’s Mid Years: Center of Genesee Country Life” ,Vol.2,no.3(July,1940) ; “The Irish in Rochester An Historical Retrospect”,Vol.19,no.4(October,1957) – in this article the 108th New York, which did contain Irish soldiers, is completely ignored ;”Rochester’s Part in the Civil War”,Vol. 23, no.1(January,1961) – here the 108th is mentioned but its presence at Gettysburg is ignored while the performance of the 140th is extolled ; Donald M. Fisher, “The Civil War Draft in Rochester Part One”,Vol.53,no.1(Winter,1991) ; “The Civil War Draft in Rochester Part Two”, Vol.53,no.2(Spring 1991) – this two part work deals exclusively with the 13th and 140th while the 108th is overlooked. On a more positive note Robert Marcotte’s article (see previous footnote) on Lt. Col. Pierce does bring some recognition to the regiment but focuses mainly on Pierce.
11Sherman’s Memoirs, vol.2, p.407. For modern studies on the myth making associated with Gettysburg see: Thomas A. Desjardin, These Honored Dead, DaCapo Press,2003 ; Jim Weeks, Gettysburg, Memory, Market and an American Shrine, Princeton University Press,2003 ; Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory, University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
12 Blake McKelvey, “The Irish in Rochester An Historical Retrospect”,p.8. Jim Weeks,op.cit.; Garry Adelman and Timothy Smith,Devil’s Den A History and Guide(Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications,1997) p.81. This work deals with the popularity of the Round Tops after the war.
13William Raymond, National Archives Service Record, cert.no.941258, can no.19392,bundle no.13 ; B.T. Arrington, The Medal of Honor at Gettysburg (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1996).
14New York at Gettysburg, vol.2,pp.781-786.
15For the history of the Lost Cause see: Thomas l. Connelly, The Marble Man (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1977 ; Thomas Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows, God and General Longstreet, The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana state University Press,1882) ; William Garrett Piston, Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press,1987),pp.95-137 ; The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History , edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan (Indiana: Indiana University Press,2000) pp.11-60.
16 Ibid. pp. 58, 239-242. Where to begin with Connolly? First, Connolly dates the Mine Run campaign in early November, 1863 instead of late November/ early December, so the dates were altered from his account. With regard to the ‘abandoned’ skirmishers, J.E.B. Stuart mentioned the capture of 100 prisoners from the Second Corps at Mine Run(O.R. 29,12,p.900). General Rodes recorded the capture of 137 men, and Doles claimed 206 prisoners (O.R.29,1,pp.876,878). Meade reported that 120 men of the Second Corps were lost(O.R.29,1,p.20). The Official Records seem to support Rodes’ estimate since the divisions in the Second Corps lost 136 men missing at Mine Run but this would include the entire 7 day march from Nov. 26 to Dec.3 (O.R.29,1,p.680). The 14th Connecticut (p.207) claimed that they lost 12 men – actually they lost only 1(O.R.29,1,p.680). Washburn in his history of the 108th New York claimed that 120 men were lost from the 126th New York alone (p.63) whereas in reality the 126th also lost only 1 likewise for the 108th New York (O.R.29,1,p.680. The correspondent for the 14th Connecticut does mention the loss of some pickets (Dunn Browne, p.208) but does not specify the regiments involved. So there were some men lost, perhaps ‘abandoned’ at Mine Run but since the 108th lost only one –who was it?, Connolly or Walker? Other members of the regiment recall that Connolly was taken at Bristoe Station in mid October of 1863, which would give more credence to his claim that he arrived at Belle Isle Prison on Nov. 4, but Powers recorded 0 missing in his report on Bristoe (O.R.29.1,p.298). George Vaughn, Wafer’s medical orderly, in a later memoir(108th New York,p321), averred that Connolly was present at Mine Run and even volunteered for a hazardous assignment from which he never returned until a year later – so much for the abandoned ‘sacrifice’! While at Andersonville, he claimed that he made acquaintance with Tom Carr, a member of the 14th Connecticut who supposedly aided him during the Caleb Gay affair. Carr was captured at Bristoe Station(14th Connecticut,p.447) but it is not clear whether or not he was sent to Andersonville. Apparently Carr deserted after his parole in Dec.1864, which could be seen as convenient for Connolly’s story. The murdered guard, Cpl. Caleb Gay was, according to Connolly, in the 55th Georgia, Company A. The National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (website : http:www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/Soldier) has a listing of four men named “Gay” in Company A of the 55th Georgia, only one of which was a corporal but his name was Joshua Gay. Of the three others, none are named “Caleb” Perhaps of more interest is the fact that of the 32,000 records of prisoners at Andersonville, seven of which were from the 108th New York, there is no record for Alexander Connolly or Thomas Carr. So either the list is incomplete, which is possible, or Alexander Connolly never was there. In an article entitled “Escapes From Prison”, p.148, contained in volume 4 of The Photographic History of the Civil War (Secuasus, New Jersey: The Blue and Grey Press, 1987), the author writes
Escapes from Andersonville were not frequent. The triple stockade required such a long tunnel that many grew tired before it was completed and many of the prisoners were too weak to do much vigorous work. Then, too, the pack of hounds kept outside the stockade was successful in running down some of the fugitives…..
Oddly enough, Connolly in his numerous, albeit unsuccessful, escapes from the prison made no mention of the pack of dogs. Even odder, Connolly’s name appears no where in the government data base for the soldier search, regiment search or on the search list for prisoners at Andersonville.
17Sherman’s Memoirs, vol 2, p.385 ; 108th New York,pp.428,444-45 ; Powers-CSR, contains numerous medical certificates attesting to the severity of the wound ; The Bachelder Papers,vol.1, p 617 ; O.R.27,1,pp.454,465.
18David N. Holvey,ed. The Merck Manual (Rahway,N.J: Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories, 1972) 12th Edition ,p.1056 ; Clayton L. Thomas, ed., Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (Philadelphia: F.A.Davis Company, 1997), 18th Edition, p.1730 ; Revised Regulations for the Army of the United State,1861 (Philadelphia: J.G.L.Brown, 1861), rpt. The National Historical Society (Harrisburg, PA: The National Historical Society,1980), p.285.
19William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II, iv,162-63 ; 108th New York, p.445
20”General Powers’ Death – Stricken with Apoplexy” Rochester Morning Herald, Aug.28,1882.
21108th New York, p.294.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military