One Medal of Honor Too Many at the Breakthrough

There are a few corrections I would make to a revised version of Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg. Consider this a “setting the record straight” in the case of Sergeant Wesley Gibbs, 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, who was a deserved recipient of the Medal of Honor, though not for the battle stated on his citation.

Gibbs was born July 24, 1842 in Sharon, Connecticut. The 1860 census shows him still living at home in Litchfield County and working as a farm laborer. In August 1862 Gibbs enlisted into Company B of the 19th Connecticut Infantry. This unit was sent to the Washington defenses and redesignated the 2nd Heavy Artillery. They remained in the nation’s capital until the middle of May 1864 when the heavy losses of the Overland Campaign necessitated the transition back to infantry and transfer into the field.

The Heavies joined Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps and saw their first combat at Cold Harbor where they lost 323 killed and wounded, including Col. Horace Kellogg, on June 1st. Now tried by fire, the regiment marched that month for Petersburg and later joined the VI Corps’ movement back to Washington to protect the capital against Jubal Early’s raid in July. They campaigned that autumn with Phil Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley before returning to Petersburg in time for Grant’s final offensive against the city.

Colonel James Hubbard’s Connecticut Volunteers were in the lead rank of Hamblin’s brigade during the April 2nd Breakthrough at Petersburg. They crashed over the Confederate earthworks along Rohoic Creek and held off a counterattack by Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox that intended to restore the southern lines. The VI Corps’ destruction of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s position was a complete rout. Wright’s command swept the Confederate line clear to Hatcher’s Run by mid-morning, severed the Southside Railroad before Phil Sheridan could claim credit, and positioned themselves along the Appomattox by the early afternoon to cut Lee’s option to retreat due west.

For their brave actions on April 2, 1865, thirty-six members of the corps received the Medal of Honor. Sergeant Wesley Gibbs is counted among this number that I quote in my book. His citation stated that he received it for the capture of a flag on April 2, 1865. Thirteen others in Wright’s corps received the medal for capturing a Confederate flag that day. All of those cases can be properly verified, but a clerical error incorrectly placed Gibbs among that number.

Many VI Corps officers lumped the Breakthrough and Sailor’s Creek (April 6, 1865) into the same official report. Colonel Joseph Eldridge Hamblin submitted the report for his brigade on April 15th and stated: “Sergt. Wesley Gibbs, Company B, Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery, captured a battle-flag on the 6th instant.” That same day Major General Frank Wheaton listed a “Battle-flag (regiment unknown), captured by Sergt. Wesley Gibbs… in the battle of Little Sailor’s Creek” among the prizes taken by his division during the Appomattox Campaign. Wheaton also commends Gibbs in his April 18th report for “capturing a rebel battle-flag in the battle of Little Sailor’s Creek.

But Wright had forwarded on April 16th a list of flags captured by the VI Corps in the engagements on the 2nd and 6th. This was the first time it was stated: “Battle-flag (regiment unknown), captured by Sergt. Wesley Gibbs, Company B, Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery, in the enemy’s works near Petersburg, April 2, 1865.”

Wright’s adjutant must have bungled the dates, which in turn affected Gibbs’ Medal citation and ought to bring the Medal of Honor recipients for the Breakthrough down to a measly thirty-five. The “smoking gun” in this admittedly boring investigation into a clerical error is a September 23, 1906 article in the Springfield Republican – “Medal of Honor Legion Holds Annual Meeting This Week–Story of Modest Man and Lost Medal.”

The correspondent interviewed the veteran Gibbs and reported “during the memorable attack on Gen. Lee at Sailor’s Creek, VA., April 6, 1865, Gibbs rushed from the Connecticut ranks in front of the 121st New York and captured a rebel flag, carrying half the staff away with him under fire.”

The Museum of the Confederacy now preserves the flag captured by Gibbs on April 6, 1865

The Museum of the Confederacy now preserves the flag captured by Gibbs on April 6, 1865

As the title of the article implies, Gibbs didn’t care much for the medal he was issued on May 10, 1865. He had been summoned along with the other recipients in the corps to Washington and received a thirty day furlough from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. After his return to the regiment, Adjutant Theodore F. Vaill called the men out and presented Gibbs with his medal. “I didn’t want it, but the adjutant insisted on my accepting it and pinned it on me,” Gibbs recalled.

A friend, Henry Ayres, had received a furlough and would be passing by the Gibbs’ house in Salisbury, Connecticut on his way home. Wesley asked if Henry could take the medal and give it to his mother. Gibbs was then demoted to private, for reasons unknown, just before his own mustering out of the army.

When he returned home his mother said she had seen neither Ayres or the medal. Ayres confessed that he had indeed lost the medal but was unsure where. Gibbs let the matter pass until the turn of the twentieth century when he advertised the loss in the National Tribune. In 1905 he received a response from Pennsylvania veteran John M. Berry who had found the medal in a knapsack at a Washington train station on his way home from the war. “Though lost to me more than 40 years, I never bothered my head about the medal,” Gibbs admitted.

He worked as a contract painter after the war and lived until May 29, 1917. Despite his own claims to not give a darn about the matter, his grave in Litchfield’s Forest View Cemetery appropriately notes his receipt of the nation’s highest honor… but let the record show it was not at the Breakthrough.

Courtesy of FindAGrave.com

Courtesy of FindAGrave.com

 

This entry was posted in Battles, Common Soldier, Emerging Civil War Series and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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