“Holding His Command”: Colonel Nelson Miles at Chancellorsville

Nelson Miles

Yesterday, I sorted through the official records’ order of battle lists and tweeted about it. I posted a photo of a portion of the list and asked followers if they could identify which battle I was working on from the picture. It showed Darius Couch as the commander of the Union II Corps and listed Nelson Miles as wounded and receiving a Medal of Honor. Those were the clues. Well, it didn’t take long and I had a couple of correct responses: Chancellorsville. Miles and the Medal of Honor had been the answer giveaway.

Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Miles leading the 61st New York Infantry at Chancellorsville doesn’t have a lengthy citation: Distinguished gallantry while holding with his command in an advanced position against repeated assaults by a strong force of the enemy; was severely wounded. As usual, there is more to the history than the simple summary sentences.

The Civil War made Miles a soldier, starting him on a journey of service that continued for the rest of his life. The twenty-one year old, who had previously worked as a clerk in a pottery shop in Boston, enlisted in 1861 with the 22nd Massachusetts as a lieutenant. The following year he promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to the 61st New York, second in command to Colonel Francis C. Barlow. At Antietam, when Barlow collapsed with a serious wound near the Sunken Road, Miles took command and continued the advance beyond the Confederate’s position, helping to drive them back. For his actions in this battle, Miles promoted to colonel and remained in command of the 61st New York. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Miles was wounded in the neck during the charge against Marye’s Heights. He recovered, though, and stayed in command.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Miles and his regiment formed part of the advance of the Union army on May 1, 1863. As Hooker pulled back his army to the Chancellor House area, the 61st New York covered part of the retreat for that portion of the II Corps’ line. They took a new position, north of the Chancellor House, and on May 2:

“We were constantly engaged skirmishing with the enemy during the day, and at about 3 p.m. the enemy commenced massing his troops in two columns, one on each side of the road, flanked by a line of battle about 800 yards in front in the woods. Their orders could be distinctly heard. They soon advanced with a tremendous yell, and were met with a sure and deadly fire of simply one line. A very sharp engagement continued about an hour, when the enemy fell back in disorder. Their charge was impetuous and determined, advancing to within 20 yards of my abatis, but were hurled back with fearful loss, and made no further demonstrations…. About 9 a.m. of the 3d instant, I received a detachment of 250 men, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel McCreary, of the One hundred and forty-fifth Pennsylvania, as support. Soon, after, my line was vigorously attacked by the enemy on the left, and engaged the entire line. This continued for about half an hour , when I deployed about one-third of my reserve on the left, and was about to order up the remainder when I received a severe wound in the abdomen, and was obliged to leave the field….”[i]

In later reminiscence, Miles remembered carefully constructing rifle pits and using marshy ground to his front to delay the Confederate advance. He also noted that as General Hancock sent reinforcements to that part of the line which the young colonel was making a determined stand while other units broke around him, the general sent units with commanded by junior officers, purposely letting Miles retain command in that part of the field. Miles described the fighting on May 2 and 3 as “desperate assaults” but kept his men on the firing line, holding position and guarding an important part of Hancock’s line.

Miles stayed mounted on his horse during the battle hours, riding the length of his line to see the combat and rally his men. General Hancock seemed much impressed with the young officer’s courage, and according to one account, sent a message during the fight that Miles was “worth his weight in gold.” Other parts of the Union line and leadership were in disaster at Chancellorsville, but some Union officers had some of their finest moment within that battle. General Couch – the Union II Corps commander – also praised Miles, speculating that someday he might be proud to serve under Miles’s leadership.

Badly wounded in the abdomen, Miles moved to the Chancellor House for medical aid and was informed that he would die. He managed to escape the flames later in the afternoon with the structure caught fire and had a torturous journey to other field hospitals before his brother found him and managed to get him home to Massachusetts. Though the family and doctors pulled long faces and waited for his death, Miles did not slip away easily. Eventually, a surgeon removed the bullet from his body, and Miles made a full recover. He returned to active duty, fighting again with the II Corps in the Overland Campaign, around Petersburg, and in the Appomattox Campaign.

Following the Civil War, Miles stayed in the U.S. Army. He guarded Jefferson Davis and worked with the Freedman’s Bureau. In the 1870’s, Miles commanded troops in the Plains War, leading to some controversy over his treatment of Native Americans. Though associated with the leadership in the events resulting in the Massacre at Wounded Knee, Miles regarded the massacre as “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children” and advocated for compensation and aid for the survivors. He organized and led U.S. troops in the Spanish American War and volunteered to leave retirement to fight in World War I. General Nelson Miles died in 1925 and was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1892, Miles had received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Of his all military actions and leadership, it was the Battle of Chancellorsville which earned him this high honor. Holding a line and conspicuous for his visible and inspiring courage created a bright moment on a day generally considered dark for the Union cause. Miles’s history at Chancellorsville can serve as a reminder of rising leadership forged in crisis.

Sources:

Nelson Miles’s Report of the Battle of Chancellorsville, written May 5, 1863; Official Records.

A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles, 1839-1925 by Peter R. DeMontravel

Serving the republic: memoirs of the civil and military life by Nelson Miles

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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