General Edward Ferrero was unique by any measure. A dance instructor at West Point before the war, he commanded the 51st New York Infantry 1861-62. Many people know him as the brigade commander whose troops captured Burnside’s Bridge during the Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862. A teetotaller, Ferrero had suspended the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania’s whiskey ration for disorderly conduct. When ordered to take the bridge, Ferrero’s men asked, “Will you give us our whiskey?” Assured yes, they went into the successful attack. Ferrero made good his promise a few days later.
This anecdote, told humorously at Antietam, turns darker upon looking at Ferrero’s later career. His men participated in the bloody attacks against Fredericksburg’s stone wall, fought at Vicksburg and Jackson, massacred Confederate attackers outside Knoxville, and followed the bloody Overland Campaign to Petersburg. Along the way, disease and harsh climes made death a near-constant companion. All this had an effect on Ferrero, who as a sensitive leader built a strong rapport with his men, felt these events keenly. Less than two years after Antietam, he is one of two generals sharing a bottle of gin during the Crater attack on 31 July 1864.
For the men on both sides, commander and commanded, the Civil War was a defining and life-altering event. Edward Ferrero was no exception, and indeed may offer one of the more extreme examples.