04/21/16

Adding Insult to Injury

Civil War enlisted men on both sides were responsible for the proper care and maintenance of arms, equipment, and munitions issued by their respective governments. The cost of items lost, damaged, or otherwise unaccounted for was to be deducted from the offending soldier’s monthly pay. In addition, this accountability was shared with the responsible commanding officer, as stated in Article #40 of the Articles of War: “Every captain of a troop or company is charged with the arms, accouterments, ammunition, clothing or other warlike stores belonging to the troop or company under his command.” The incident described below exposes the plight of a single Federal infantry lieutenant in this regard. It is presented as an instance of when adherence to the regulations was sometimes taken to the extreme. Consider the case of Lieutenant Michael Vreeland of the hard fighting 4th Michigan Infantry.

Don Troiani's painting "Saving the Flag" vividly depicts the struggle for possession of the 4th Michigan's colors at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Vreeland was seriously wounded in the fray. Image courtesy Historical Art Prints.

Don Troiani’s painting “Saving the Flag” vividly depicts the struggle for possession of the 4th Michigan’s colors at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Vreeland was seriously wounded in the fray. Image courtesy Historical Art Prints.

In the bloody fighting in The Wheatfield on the second day’s battle at Gettysburg, the 4th Michigan was surrounded on three sides and lost its colonel and its colors in a vicious hand-to-hand melee. This action has been memorialized in modern artist Don Troiani’s vividly graphic painting “Saving the Flag.” Also among the casualties was Lieutenant Vreeland of Company “I,” who suffered gunshot wounds to the left breast and right arm and was clubbed in the head with a musket. Only timely intervention by a Confederate officer prevented him from being bayoneted to death. In addition, all 22 men of Vreeland’s company were either killed wounded, or captured.

Vreeland fortunately survived his wounds after a lengthy hospitalization. He was even commissioned Brevet Brigadier General in 1865 for his gallantry at Gettysburg.  But then further troubles began, courtesy of the Federal government he had so faithfully served. Because of his infirmities, Vreeland was physically unable to complete the appropriate Form 1, listing quarterly ordinance and property returns for his company. Regulations required these reports to be filed “within twenty days after the quarter.” Inasmuch as all of his men were casualties, Vreeland was charged $370 for the cost of his men’s lost equipment!

Lt. Michael James Vreeland of the 4th Michigan Infantry. Photo courtesy Find A Grave.

Lt. Michael James Vreeland.  Photo: Find A Grave.

It was deducted from his future pay. In his defense, Vreeland later sought to explain: “I certify on honor that on the 2nd day of July 1863 at Gettysburg Pa. The stores enumerated below were lost under the following circumstance; The right wing of the regiment to which my company belonged was surrounded by the enemy; of my company five killed, ten wounded, and the remainder taken prisoners. The arms and accouterments carried by these men were left on the field and not recovered.”

The gallant Michel Vreeland passed away in 1876. Until his dying day he sought to recover the $370 from the U. S. government. His wife maintained the effort until 1900. They were unsuccessful. In more ways than one, Lieutenant Vreeland paid a heavy price in the service of his country.

The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, looking towards the Rose farm. This area was the scene of vicious hand-to-hand fighting on July 2, 1863. Photo by author.

The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, looking towards the Rose farm. This area was the scene of vicious hand-to-hand fighting on July 2, 1863. Photo by author.

By Bob Williams

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03/17/13

The Last Bender

Mid-April 1865 found the battered remnants of General Joseph E. Johnston’s patchwork Confederate Army encamped in regular order among the bucolic hills and woods of Randolph County, North Carolina, near modern-day Redcross.  For the veteran Southern soldiers it was a time fraught with uncertainty and foreboding. Rumors of Lee’s surrender in Virginia were already afloat.  Speculation abounded that Johnston was meeting with arch-rival Federal General William T. Sherman for the same purpose. “Grapevine and haversack dispatches are in demand” observed a Georgia infantryman.  One officer frankly confessed “Everyone suppose[s] this army is to be surrendered shortly and of course there is great excitement about it . . . The whole army [is] badly demoralized.”  539747242_o

 As if to provide much needed succor to the forlorn troops, several Confederates roaming the neighboring countryside for food made a fortuitous discovery that considerably improved, albeit temporarily, the bleak appearance of things. Captain Samuel T. Foster of Hiram Granbury’s old Texas Brigade recalled:

 “Soon after we arrive[d] at our new camp today some of our men found two barrels of Old Apple brandy buried under the root of an old pine tree that had blown down. One barrel of it was brought to our brigade and tapped – Everyone helped themselves, and of course some get funny, some get tight some get gentlemanly drunk and some get dog drunk, of this latter class are all the officers from our Major up. Kept up a noise nearly all night, but no one gets mad – all in good humor.”

 Lieutenant R. M. Collins of the 15th Texas Infantry was even more graphic (and candid!) in his description of the ensuing bacchanalia:

 “The writer was standing at the head of the street we had made by our tents on either side when he noticed a big, handsome, blossom-eyed fellow by the name of Maxwell coming out of the pine thicket carrying a camp kettle. He beckoned to us to come. Says he, ‘Smell in the kettle.’ We smelled. It was about half full of apple brandy. We turned it up, drank as long as we could hold our breath, caught it, and drank again. The third breath was expended in the question ‘Where did you find it?’ He pointed over towards the pine thicket. By this time the boys were going that way in crowds. We followed on, of course. When we got there the boys had raised the forty-gallon barrel of apple brandy from the hole in the ground caused by the wind having blown a great oak tree up by the roots. Some old North Carolina fellow had used it as a grave for his pet barrel of brandy which he was saving for his own use when the cruel war should end . . .Be that as it may we can say with confidence that few barrels of brandy have ever made a more jolly barrel than ours was on that occasion. In a very short time the bulk of our brigade was ‘over there’ around that barrel.bender 2

 By general consent the writer was appointed to issue it out. A faucet was soon made from a boot-leg, cut to fit and twisted into the bunghole. Then commenced the drawing of it in canteens and camp kettles and each canteen must need run too full and rather than pour it out so the stopper would go in we would drink it. The truck was so exhilarating and self-esteem elevating it was not long before we considered the service was menial. We resigned our position and lit out for the camps. All hands got drunk. Even our chaplain, the Reverend Hayes, a very excellent man, got drunk as an ‘English lord.’ The effect of the fluid extract of apples on the mental and physical outfit of the writer was such that he cannot keep in the middle of the road in an effort at describing what the boys said and done during the remainder of that day and night.”

 Speaking of the aftermath Lieutenant Collins confessed: “The next morning we were a hard looking set, and for the boys we plead as an excuse for this spree the peculiar surroundings. We were just at the threshold of the dying days of the Confederacy…”

 Today, a state historic site at Bennett Place, near Durham, North Carolina commemorates the location of Johnston’s formal surrender to Sherman. Yet, not a single marker denotes the location of Johnston’s camps near Redcross. Surely though, somwhere in the neighboring woods of Randolph County  a recently upturned, wind-blown tree pays quiet homage to two found barrels of apple brandy and the last bender of “Uncle Joe’s” once formidable Confederate army.

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By Bob Williams
[Excerpts from Unwritten Chapters of the War Between the States by R. M. Collins and One of Cleburne’s Command: The Civil War Reminisces and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Granbury’s Texas Brigade, CSA, edited by Norman D. Brown]

02/13/13

War Within a War

As early as April 1863 General Robert E. Lee expressed concerns to the Confederate Secretary of War about the frequent desertions from North Carolina regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia. The reasons were complex and varied. Disaffection with the war, strong Union sentiment in some NC counties, the questioned legality of the Conscript Act, and heart-rending family and starvation issues all played a hand in driving this behavior. Proximity to the front was another factor: It was a fairly easy matter for a Tar Heel soldier to slip away from the lines and use the Virginia mountains as refuge while making his way back to North Carolina.

By late summer the desertion issue had reached alarming proportions. These “outliers,” as they were called, tended to band together in what were considered safe areas of the state and forcibly defied the best efforts of Confederate authorities to bring them to bay.  North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance complained these gangs were “plundering and robbing the people” and admitted “I have found it impossible to get them out.” A Confederate Colonel who studied the situation was forced to concede that within the state “Desertion has assumed . . . a very different and more formidable shape and development than could have been anticipated.” He added ominously that the deserters were “determined to kill in avoiding apprehension.”

Vance wisely sought help from the Confederate government in Richmond. He asked “If General Lee would send one of our diminished brigades or a good strong regiment to North Carolina” to help deal with the problem. In return, Vance avowed that these units would be recruited back to full strength while within the state to compensate for any temporary loss in manpower to the army. It was a sound and reasonable request, and promptly granted.

In early September, Confederate General Robert F. Hoke was appointed to lead this mission. A native of Lincoln Co., NC, Hoke was a seasoned and dependable officer who had recently returned from wounded furlough. Accompanying Hoke would be the veteran 21st NC Infantry from Hoke’s own brigade, the 56th North Carolina from Robert Ransom’s brigade, and a small cavalry squadron.

The 21st North Carolina was recruited primarily from the central part of the state and would be operating in many of its home counties. The unit had a distinguished battle record that dated back to Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 and had fought in most of the army’s key engagements since. Its ranks had been greatly reduced during the recent invasion of Pennsylvania where most of its officers were killed or wounded. In many ways, it was a” typical” North Carolina regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. The regiment’s reliability made it a superb choice for such an assignment. Plus it gave the men an opportunity to refit and visit home.

HW1864P460858Hokes instructions from Vance were to” capture the bands of deserters and conscripts and break up and disperse any organized bands of lawless men to be found . . . resisting the authority of the Government.” Accordingly, Hoke initially ordered the 56th NC to foray into Randolph, Moore, and Chatham counties while the 21st concentrated on activities in Forsythe, Iredell, Yadkin and Wilkes counties. Rather than take a hard-handed approach and provoke conflict with the deserters, Hoke sought to utilize more subtle measures. Before conducting a sweep of an area, Hoke gave the “outliers” time “to reflect & Come in & behave themselves.”  The creative general even offered them furloughs to attend to personal business if the errant soldiers would turn themselves in. Through such means, more than “500 deserters and draft-dodgers” were rounded up in Wilkes County alone by mid-October. Hoke also managed to obtain new uniforms for the 21st NC and restore the unit to adequate fighting strength.

MRIPacification activities of this sort continued in various NC counties throughout the balance of 1863.Yet, as might be expected, they were not without their dark side. Minor skirmishes were frequent, crops were stripped and burned, homes sacked, and other outrages occurred including summary executions, sometimes of innocent individuals. Hoke even seized the property of known deserters when softer measures did not work. One officer in the 21st NC freely confessed that his men were “doing a good deal of harm, in indiscriminate plunder of property to deserter families . . . [including] depredations on property of good citizens.” While Vance deplored the practice, Hoke insisted that “This has had a fine effect on them.” Later however, the general sought to address any claims of misconduct on the part of his soldiers.

Hoke completed his mission against the “outliers” in mid-December and declared it a success. However, bitter feelings, recrimination and revenge for some of these events would linger for decades. All in all, this dirty little “war within a war” remains a little known chapter in Old North State History.

by Bob Williams