At the Friday evening panel session of the Third Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, an audience member asked a question that I answered and Chris Kolakowski expanded upon. The topic of the discussion was “Great Attacks of the Civil War.” The question was, essentially, “Why did the soldiers do what they did when they made the various frontal assaults?”
At the time of my answer, I was thinking of a quote that I use in my battle of Fredericksburg “Sunken Road” tour—but I guess I had a senior moment, because the quote, which is one of my favorites when answering that often-asked question, didn’t come to the tip of my tongue. I responded that the men fought for their comrades and to prove their masculinity. Many would rather die than to become a coward. Chris, in adding to my response, talked about their spirit and morale in combat.
I could not really remember the full quote at the time, nor the next day when I was speaking with Chris—so I went back to my Fredericksburg quotes and found it.
The quote I use is from Adjutant Lieutenant Frederick Hitchcock of the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry, Norman Hall’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division of the II Corps, Right Grand Division, Army of the Potomac. It comes from his book, War From the Inside:
“One may ask how such dangers can be faced; the answer is there are many things more to be feared than death. Cowardice and Failure of Duty with me were some of them. I said to myself this is duty. I’ll trust in God and do it. If I fall, I cannot die better.”
During the battle of Fredericksburg, which Lt. Hitchcock referred to when he wrote this statement, he went toward the stone wall to make the attack. He was then ordered back to bring the rest of his regiment in line with the first company. This meant that he had to endure the Confederate fire going back to get the rest of the regiment – then charge with them again up the hill to the stone wall. He thought of what the soldiers thought as he ran back to get the other men. He thought of his reputation and bravely led them to the front.
He grabbed the flag from a wounded officer, whose “warm blood” splattered his face. Hitchcock was hit in the head by a shell fragment and knocked unconscious. His men turned him over and he was bleeding from his head and not moving, so they left him for dead. He finally regained consciousness after his unit had retreated. He got up and ran back toward town, when he received another wound to the leg. Hitchcock lived and was promoted before he fought at Chancellorsville. He ended the war as the colonel of the 25th United States Colored Troops.
I wanted to balance my article with the bravery of a Confederate soldier, so I thought of someone I discuss in my battle of Spotsylvania Court House “Bloody Angle” tour: Charles Whilden, flagbearer of the 1st South Carolina Infantry of McGowan’s Brigade, A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. His story is featured in Gordon Rhea’s book Carrying the Flag.
Whilden, from a family with a “proud martial tradition,” had epilepsy, but he nonetheless entered first the South Carolina militia, then the Confederate army—until he suffered an epileptic attack. Every time he had an attack, he was discharged, but he kept enlisting. That went on until 1864, when the Confederates needed every man who could fight, and they kept him in.
Whilden’s dreadful time came on May 12, 1864 at the battle of the Bloody Angle. He was feeling weak as McGowan’s Brigade was running to attack the Angle, and his stooped figure was visibly distressed by the exertion. A friend took the flag for him until they were fired upon when reaching a traverse at the battle trenches. Many of their officers were killed or wounded, including General McGowan. One rebel stated, “It was plainly a question of bravery and endurance now.”
Charles grabbed the flag with both hands and climbed to the top of the trenches and bravely led his regiment toward the Bloody Angle. Leading at the top, carrying the flag, made him a conspicuous target. There was nowhere to hide in the tremendous fire and hand-to-hand combat in a driving rainstorm.
None of the 1st South Carolina expected to be alive during this charge. Charles was still suffering from seizures, but he led men from South Carolina and Mississippi to take the Angle. When Federals shot the flag staff to pieces, Charles wrapped his regiment’s battle flag around himself, becoming a human flagpole. He suffered one wound: a bullet “gouged out a trough of skin along his left shoulder.”
After the battle, he was hospitalized, then discharged from the army because of epilepsy. He kept the battle flag. Charles died after the war, on a rainy day in Charleston. While taking a walk and splashing in puddles, he had a seizure and drowned in a mud puddle.
Finally, to further balance this article of the bravery of Civil War soldiers, I wanted to share the story of one of the United States Colored Troops. Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in the assault on Battery Wagner.
In William Wells Brown’s book The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity, he wrote, “Before the regiment reached the parapet, the color-sergeant was wounded; while in the act of falling, the colors were seized by Sergt. William H. Carney, who bore them up, and mounted the parapet, where he, too, received three severe wounds. But, on orders being given to retire, the color-bearer, though almost disabled, still held the emblem of liberty in the air, and followed his regiment by the aid of his comrades, and succeeded in reaching the hospital, where he fell exhausted and almost lifeless on the floor, saying, ‘The old flag never touched the ground, boys.’”
Captain Luis F. Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts, wrote in his classic book A Brave Black Regiment, “Both flags were planted on the parapet, the national flag carried there and gallantly maintained by the brave Sergt. William H. Carney…. Sergeant Carney had bravely brought this flag from Wagner’s parapet, at the cost of two grievous wounds.”
The 54th’s attack on Fort Wagner demonstrated the bravery of the Old North’s first black regiment, a regiment composed of mostly free black men and their white officers. Their story was widely publicized during the war and, in 1989, released as the movie Glory.
All three men were personally very brave in the battles that I discuss. All were patriotic and believed very strongly in their governments. All made frontal attacks in their battle actions. These men believed strongly in the “manly arts,” otherwise known as masculinity/bravery. They also believed in God, Country, Honor, and Duty—just like many of their comrades. That is why the majority of these soldiers did what they did.
As Chris Kolakowski said at the symposium, there is something more to the soldiers of the United States of America. Maybe it is pride, maybe ego, or just maybe it is the endurance to get the job completed. It has been proven in the many wars our country has fought in before and after—and notably during the American Civil War!