“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” William Tecumseh Sherman so bluntly stated.[i] He is right, but I have always found it incredible how the harshest of circumstances—like war—can bring out the best of human nature. One story always comes to mind to illustrate this fact.
On September 20, 1862, a couple thousand United States soldiers waded the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, (now West) Virginia in the wake of Antietam on a routine reconnaissance mission. As it turns out, there was nothing routine about it. The mission became a Federal disaster akin to Ball’s Bluff a year earlier.
Especially smacked was the 118th Pennsylvania, a brand new unit to the war, which lost 37% of its own men in the fight and nearly three-quarters of all Union casualties. Those that managed to evade Confederate bullets and escape across the river were shocked. Picket details along the riverbank could clearly make out the limp forms of their dead comrades on the other side.[ii]
Suddenly, on Sunday the 21st , the pickets saw a dark form, “fully accoutered with sword, belt and pistol,” begin walking across the mill dam bridging the two shores. They recognized it Lt. Lemuel Crocker. Though oblivious to his intentions, they soon became witness to a tale truly “unusual in the story of wars.”[iii]
Lemuel Crocker cut an impressive figure. “He looked the very image of the daring soldier he was,” wrote one of his comrades.[iv] The New York native indulged in commercial enterprises, and joined Philadelphia’s 118th Pennsylvania Infantry in the summer of 1862.[v] Crocker’s first battle was at Shepherdstown, like so many of the other Pennsylvanians.
No doubt, the experience shook him to the core. The mangled forms of men he knew resting on the opposite shore spurred him to do something about it. That “something” was more than anyone could have imagined.
Crocker’s “sensibilities” planted him in front of his brigade commander, James Barnes, asking permission to cross the river and care for the unattended Federal wounded. Barnes reluctantly asked corps commander Fitz John Porter, who flat-out denied the proposition. Undeterred and disobeying orders in the sake of humanity, Crocker clipped on his belt, dressed his finest, and began his errand of mercy.
Upon reaching the Virginia shore, the burly lieutenant dragged the bodies of the 118th’s three dead officers to the river, as well as a badly wounded private. One by one, he slung them over his shoulder, crossed the dam, and deposited their remains on friendly soil. A Porter staff officer informed Crocker that if he did not stop, “he would order a battery to shell him out.” “Shell and be damned!” he thundered back, and continued his task.
After returning to Virginia, a Confederate officer—a general according to Crocker—found him. By now, sweat, dirt, and blood mired his large frame and new blue uniform. The officer asked this Yankee his business. Crocker truthfully told his story and “regardless of the laws of war and the commands of his superiors, he was of opinion that humanity and decency demanded that [the dead and wounded] be properly cared for.” Seeing that no one else apparently realized this, also, Crocker “determined to risk the consequences and discharge the duty himself.”
How long had he been in the army? the Confederate asked.
“Twenty days,” Crocker said. The veteran officer responded with a simple, “I thought so.” He then waved his hand in the direction of a boat that might aid Crocker, and promised the lieutenant would not receive any trouble from the Confederates.
Crocker completed his duty soon after. But his refusal of orders—and bashing of a corps staffer—brought him to General Porter to explain himself. A sympathetic Barnes accompanied the lieutenant to help any way he could. Porter scolded Crocker, and did so with “short and telling phrases, to explain the laws and regulations” of war.
Porter took into account Crocker’s “inexperience, unquestioned courage, and evident good intentions,” and dismissed him without pressing charges. The reprimand was enough of a slap on the wrist for this soldier still blinded to the cruelties of war.[vi]
“The daring of this man Crocker is beyond all precedent,” one Pennsylvanian wrote of the exploit.[vii] Crocker’s war record buttressed his performance on September 21, 1862. His men grew to respect and love him and he returned the favor. He died in western New York in 1885.
Crocker’s Forest Lawn Cemetery monument in Buffalo, New York is just as impressive as the man’s figure who lies underneath it. But it is also simple. It bears no epitaph, though the regimental history of the 118th Pennsylvania provides one surely befitting the man. “Crocker was a man of the highest integrity,” it began, “a citizen devoted to all public interests and a friend whose heart was not to be surpassed for kindness, benevolence and that charity which overlooketh faults.”[viii]
War is hell. Lemuel Crocker tried to make his soldiers forget that fact for a day.
[i] OR, ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 2, 418.
[ii] The best treatment of this battle is Thomas A. McGrath, Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862 (Lynchburg, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2007).
[iii] Survivors’ Association, History of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers Corn Exchange Regiment, from their first engagement at Antietam to Appomattox (Philadelphia, PA: J. L. Smith, 1905), 75.
[iv] Francis Adams Donaldson, Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, ed. J. Gregory Acken (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 390.
[v] 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 640.
[vi] Ibid., 76-78.
[vii] Donaldson, Experiences, 139.
[viii] 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, 640.