Haunted by a premonition, Maj. Gen. Hiram Berry recklessly exposed himself to Confederate snipers at Chancellorsville and paid the price for his carelessness.
A 36-year-old Rockland (Maine) merchant in spring 1861, the physically robust Berry led the 4th Maine Infantry Regiment at First Manassas. Promoted to brigadier the following spring, he commanded the 3rd Brigade in Phil Kearny’s 3rd Division (III Corps) on the Peninsula.
Slightly wounded by a shell fragment, Berry contracted malaria and lost so much weight that he wrote Almira, “My flesh is all gone. I don’t think I was ever so thin,” before heading home to recuperate on July 29.1
He returned to a reshuffled 3rd Brigade now containing the 17th Maine Infantry and the 55th New York Infantry, led by Philippe Régis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand. Berry “was a plain, straight-forward man, tall and broad-shouldered,” de Trobriand said after meeting his new commander. “His blue flannel blouse and his whole dress gave him very little of a military air.
“But whoever judged him from his appearance would have judged badly, for, although he” looked more like “an honest farmer than … a brigadier-general, he was not the less a good officer, as faithful in his duty as he was devoted to his soldiers,” de Trobriand said.2
Berry wanted more than a brigade. His artillery commander, Capt, Thomas W. Osborn, described him as “exceedingly ambitious” and “gaining prominence quickly” and possessing a battlefield reputation as “an exceptionally brave and reckless officer.” The general developed wartime friendships with Joe Hooker and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Taking over the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, Hooker gave Berry the 2nd Division formerly led by Dan Sickles, moved up to command III Corps.
Berry “was the man in whom Mr. Hamlin was most interested, and whose fortunes he served to advance most,” commented the vice president’s grandson, Charles Hamlin. Hannibal Hamlin urged President Abraham Lincoln to promote Berry, and he was among 23 brigadiers whom the president nominated for promotion to major general on January 29.3
Berry’s 2nd Division included three brigades: the 1st (Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Carr), the 2nd (Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Revere), and the 3rd (Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott). After crossing the Rappahannock River’s U.S. Ford on Friday, May 1, Berry left Mott guarding wagon trains there and bivouacked the other brigades in woods near the Chancellor House.
That night Berry suffered “gloomy foreboding” and, summoning chief quartermaster Capt. James F. Rusling about 9 p.m., shared with him a premonition that the general would not survive the upcoming battle. He gave Rusling “certain papers and valuables” and asked him to “use every endeavor to recover” Berry’s “body and send it home to Maine.”
After finding Berry “greatly depressed” and “anxious to hear once more from his wife and daughter,” aide Capt. James D. Earle rode 18 miles round trip in the night to Stoneman’s Switch to get the general’s mail. Letters from home included photographs of Berry’s daughter, Lucy.4
After Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson shattered Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps on Saturday, May 2, panic-stricken Union soldiers soon fled through Berry’s ranks like “scared sheep,” Osborn said. “The men and artillery filled the road, its sides, and the skirts of the field … aghast and terror-stricken, heads bare and [mouths] panting for breath.”
Hooker rode up and ordered Berry to advance and “receive them [Confederates] on your bayonets, boys!” The 2nd Division helped shore up a new line west of the Chancellor House. Berry placed his 1st and 2nd brigades north of the Orange Plank Road and Mott’s brigade (arriving at 3 a.m., Sunday) south of the road.
Near daylight Rusling found Berry seated “on a stump by the roadside.” The general apparently mentioned his premonition about dying; when Rusling attempted to brighten the mood, Berry said, “Rusling, the battle is not over yet.”5
With Jackson wounded, Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart kicked off a three-division assault at 5 a.m., Sunday. Southern infantry supported by artillery placed at Hazel Grove attacked relentlessly, and fighting surged back and forth and casualties piled up as the Confederates pushed the Yankees hard.
During a short pause in the battle, Berry sent Capt. Jabez Greenhalgh to ask Hooker if the 2nd Division should hold its ground or withdraw. The general and his remaining aides quickly dismounted, and Berry said that he would cross the Plank Road to speak with Mott. An aide offered to go instead; “I will not send a man where I will not go myself,” the general replied before walking across the road.
After conferring with Mott, Berry started back. A North Carolina sharpshooter fired, and “a rifle minie ball” struck the general “in the [left] arm close to the shoulder” and “passed passed downwards through his vitals, lodged in his [right] hip, and killed him almost immediately,” Greenhalgh later learned.
Muttering “my wife and child!,” Berry told an aide, “Carry me off the field.”
He died at 7:26 a.m. that Sunday. “Absent not more than seven minutes,” Greenhalgh returned to find “his friend’s eyes closed in death, and the crimson tide [from the wound] told how it was done.” Aides carried Berry a short distance, laid him down, and spread a cloak over him.
Seeing the covered body as he rode up, Hooker asked, ‘Whom have you there, gentlemen?’”
“Major-General Berry,” voices replied. Tears welling in his eyes, Hooker dismounted, drew back the cloak, and kissed his friend’s forehead.6
Berry’s body soon started home. Rusling had a coffin made at the 2nd Division’s camp near Falmouth. Already in the vicinity, Maine Governor Abner Coburn paid his respects, and on Monday, May 4, three Berry aides escorted the coffin by train to Aquia Creek and then by steamer to Washington, D.C.
There the aides had Berry embalmed, but discovered “no burial case could be furnished” of sufficient size to contain the body, Greenhalgh said. Lincoln sent “a beautiful wreath,” and the entourage went by train to Baltimore, where the body was placed in a size-appropriate coffin.
Almira and Lucy Berry and the general’s brother, John T. Berry, met the entourage at a New York City residence on Wednesday. The Reverend Theodore L. Cuyler remembered hearing “the piercing wails of an agonized wife and daughter” when they first saw the coffin. The general “was laid down, silent and cold, before his little household. What a meeting!”7
The family and Berry’s aides traveled by train to Portland and there boarded the steamer Harvest Moon to Rockland on Saturday, May 9. A 7th Maine Infantry honor guard joined the entourage, and in Rockland Co. A, Maine State Guards waited to escort the coffin to Berry’s Middle Street home.
Crowds filled the local streets before the steamer eased alongside a Rockland wharf about 12:45 p.m. Throngs quietly watched as a hearse transported Berry to his home. Pall-bearers carried the coffin into the family parlor.
For the next four days mourners filed past the casket, its lid removed so people could view Berry through “an inner lid of glass.” He wore a major general’s uniform; Lincoln’s wreath encircled his neck and rested under an arm.
Camping across Middle Street, the Co. A soldiers stood guard over the coffin and at the house’s front door. Among the militiamen present was Pvt. Hannibal Hamlin, deeply affected by his friend’s death. Many people saw the vice president “standing unmarked in the ranks of his company.”
At 2 p.m. Thursday, May 14, a funeral procession that included Masons (Berry was a lodge brother), city officials, and military units escorted the coffin to the Achorn Cemetery near Berry’s home. Around 5,000 to 6,000 people lined the streets. The funeral featured Masonic honors followed by the Co. A soldiers firing three “separate volleys over the grave.”8
1 Edward K. Gould, Major-General Hiram G. Berry: His Career as a Contractor, Bank President, Politician and Major-General of Volunteers in the Civil War (Rockland, ME, 1899), 193-197, 204-208
2 Regis de Trobriand, Four Years with the Army of the Potomac (Boston, MA, 1889), 328
3 Charles Eugene Hamlin, The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin (Cambridge, MA, 1899), 445; Nominations for Generals, Rockland Gazette, Saturday, January 31, 1863; Gould, Major-General Hiram G. Berry, 270
4 Gould, Major-General Hiram G. Berry, 257-258
5 James Fowler Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (New York, NY, 1899), 303; Gould, Major-General Hiram G. Berry, 262, 264
6 How Berry Died, Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, May 19, 1863; Gould, Major-General Hiram G. Berry, 267, 271
7 Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days, 303; Gould, Berry, 271-272, 276; Major-General Berry, Kennebec Journal, Friday, May 22, 1863
8 The Rockland Gazette, Thursday, May 16, 1863; Peter P. Dalton, With Our Faces to the Foe: A History of the 4th Maine Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Union, ME, 1998), 247