Commanding The Regiment: Colonel George D. Wells, 34th Massachusetts – Part 1

This blog post traces the life and command experiences of George D. Wells with the 34th Massachusetts, and tomorrow’s part 2 will follow the command of Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lincoln who often stepped in when Wells was called away.

The accounts of first colonel of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment — George D. Wells — gives an opportunity to explore the presence and absence of a good commander and what that could mean for the troops in the regiment. Did they still feel like he was “their colonel” even if he was commanding at brigade level or absent with other duties? Looking into this scenario through the experiences of this one Bay State regiment is also an opportunity to look at the roles of colonel and lieutenant colonel and ponder the question of who was commanding the regiment at what point?

Born in 1826, George Duncan Wells grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from Williams College, practiced law, and was a judge in Boston. When the Civil War began, Wells volunteered for military service, joining the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and becoming their lieutenant colonel in May 1861. He remained with the 1st Massachusetts until July 1862 when he was appointed to command the new-forming regiment, the 34th. Veterans of his first regiment called Wells “old double quick.”[i]

George D. Wells (Find a Grave)

During the summer of 1862, states needed to fill new requirements for volunteer regiments and one of the regiments raised in Massachusetts at this time was the 34th. Recruiting officers worked on enlisting men who were willing and physically capable of marching and fighting, even turning away some volunteers who were too particular or unwell. Wells visited some of the towns where recruiting happened, and civilians and new soldiers welcomed him “with loud and hearty cheers” when he made a speech.[ii] His law colleagues from the Suffolk Bar gifted Wells “a superb war horse,” showing their support and appreciate of his military service.[iii] After the regiment mustered on August 1, 1862, and departed later that month for Washington D.C., a local newspaper sang Wells’s praises:

“The Colonel too, seemed the right man in the right place. The universal feeling is, that he has really earned the place he holds. Where there is fighting to be done, we know, and his men know he will be there. He knows also, we have good reason to believe, that he has under him a body of men worthy of a brave and high-souled leader. That God’s blessing may be upon him and them, is the fervent prayer of every loyal heart.”[iv]

The regiment travelled by ship, then boarded train cars in Baltimore for the last part of their journey to Washington City. The new recruits got an early experience of Wells’s calm and no-nonsense leadership style when:

While the engine was stopping at one of these grades, as the boys said to catch breath, bedlam broke loose. While in Camp Wool, many of the boys, disregarding friendly warning, had spent their money in purchasing revolvers, and now amused themselves by a little target practice, firing from the doors and the roofs of the cars. “Sergeant Major,” said Colonel Wells, “give my compliments to the officer of the day, and tell him to go through this train and confiscate every pistol he can find in the possession of an enlisted man. The fusillade ceased suddenly, and gradually a large pile of weapons, of every imaginable pattern, was gathered, to be stored by the Quarter-Master.”[v]

Wells was ordered to take charge of Fort Lyon, and the 34th settled into camp in the Defenses of Washington, settling up comfortable quarters.[vi] In this period, Wells kept strict discipline and strove to ensure that his regiment would have an excellent reputation for their appearances, drill, and duties. Pride went both ways. One soldier reported to the homefront with obvious pleasure that General McClellan had called Wells “one of the finest and smartest officers in the army.”[vii] While Wells himself made “a little speech, saying that he felt grateful to us, thankful for us, and proud of us, and that among the many regiments he had seen, he had never seen one which, on such an occasion, appeared better.”[viii]

During the Winter of 1862-1863, Wells lived comfortably in a log cabin in the camp and his troops had good quarters as well.[ix] He occasionally went into Washington City, meeting with political leaders and generals or serving on court martial boards, and during those absences, he left Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lincoln in charge.[x] General Orders were issued, putting Wells in command of “Forts Worth, Ellsworth, and Lyon and several Redoubts” in the Defenses of Washington.[xi] Though Wells wanted to take to the field with his new regiment and quit building trenches, he managed to keep morale high and instilled a sense of accomplishment and worth in the men toward their work on the defenses. Several rumors of joining the Army of the Potomac or other military forces swept through the camp, but came to nothing.[xii] Wells found time to sit on the board “to examine applicants for commissions in Regts. of colored troops” in June 1863.[xiii]

Defenses of Washington

On July 4, 1863, the regiment and semi-famous band took part in a festive parade in Alexandria, Virginia. Wells wanted to show off his regiment and ended up in a personal predicament:

“On our homeward march the Colonel was desirous of showing us off to a bevy of ladies, chief of whom was Miss U, with whom he had made an intimate acquaintance. So he dispatched the Adjutant along the line to put us on our good behavior. Arms were brought to the shoulder, and in column of companies, to the inspiring notes of “the Girl I left behind Me,” he led us by her residence, ignorant of the appearance he himself made, as with pants slipped above his knees, thus disclosing the bright scarlet of his close fitting drawers, he proudly reined his prancing bay charger before the eyes of the lady of his love.”[xiv]

Orders to leave the Defenses of Washington arrived on July 9, 1863, and an unfortunate series of events unfolded. Wells was away from the regiment that day on other duties, and many of the companies had been assigned to guard government prisons at various places around Washington. The regiment did not assemble rapidly for the march and got reprimanded until the angry outside officer was made to understand that the 34th’s men could not simply run from their posts to prepare to leave.[xv] Finally, the regiment departed, heading for Harpers Ferry, and arriving at that location, Wells was put in command of a brigade (which included his regiment) in the “Mountain Department.”[xvi] Similar to his leadership style with the 34th, Wells demanded order and military appearance, starting a curfew and issuing passes for soldiers to visit Harpers Ferry in an effort to reduce problems between the military and local civilians.

On August 18, 1863, the 34th Massachusetts had their baptism of fire in the Battle of Ripon, standing firm and taking losses. The discipline that Wells had instilled in the officers and soldiers had battlefield effects, and in the next 18 months, the regiment would gain a solid reputation during campaign and battle. At the end of the year, Wells took the brigade under his command on a march up (south) the Shenandoah Valley, going as far as New Market, and then returning to the Harpers Ferry area. Although there was no major fighting in this ordered movement, it gave Wells and his regiment a chance to see the region they would fight over several times in the next year, including the high ground near Strasburg that would a fatal point for the commanding officer.

Part of the 34th Massachusetts photographed during skirmish drill

Wells spent the winter of 1863-1864 away from his commands, often on court marital duty in Cumberland. Returning as the regiment prepared for the spring campaign, Wells issued general orders on April 25, 1864, reflecting his pride and confidence in his regiment:

“The Colonel, upon returning to the Regiment, after nine months separation from the immediate command, congratulates it, and himself, upon the able and efficient manner in which it has been commanded during the time; and the faithful devotion to duty of its officers, and the admirable conduct of the men. It has been his chiefest happiness to see it growing in grace, and good works, and winning golden opinions in every quarter. He does not quite know, yet, whether it is the best Regiment in the United States service, but he does know that it shall be.”[xvii]

The campaign with General Franz Sigel irritated Wells, but he led his regiment boldly into the battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. An ill-timed regimental charge could have nearly destroyed the regiment in an open field, but Wells ran forward and physically grabbed and held back the color bearer, causing the battle line to halt when they couldn’t see the flag, thus avoiding a worse disaster. One soldier later wrote: “Col. Wells had a horse shot from under him and his hat and coat were completely perforated with bullet holes, which came so very near killing him that there would have been no fun in it.”[xviii] Wells was wounded during the battle, but retreated with the regiment at the end of the day.[xix]

In June 1864 during Hunter’s Lynchburg Campaign, Wells fought at the battle of Piedmont and was given command of the First Brigade. Wells would not return to regimental command, but his old unit was in his brigade. The men of the 34th continued to view Wells as “their colonel” even if he led at brigade level. Wells fought at the battle of Cool Springs, maneuvered around the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley, and was in combat at Third Winchester and Fisher’s Hill. In his report of the Third Battle of Winchester in September 1864, Wells particularly noted the bravery of his 34th.

By mid-October, the Union army commanded by General Philip Sheridan had started to settle into camps near Middletown and Cedar Creek. Confederates under General Jubal Early looked for a way to strike back and retaliate for the “The Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley. On October 13, 1864, Early and his staff scouted on Hupp’s Hill, near Strasburg, and across Cedar Creek from the Union infantry camps. The Confederates brought up artillery and started firing on those camps. Two Union brigades — Wells’s and Harris’s — were ordered to cross and drive off the nosy Confederates; Confederate infantry moved to cover the high ground and their artillery.

Hupp’s Hill Park (2018) – Massanutten Mountain is visible beyond the trees.

In his advance, Wells’s units became separated from Harris’s force and entangled in underbrush as they tried to ascend the slopes. The regiments, including the 34th Massachusetts, nearly crested the hill of the Confederate position in their front and took cover at a stone wall to fire from protection. Outnumbered, separated from the rest of the Union force, and with Confederates threatening his flanks, Wells gave the order to retreat. Captain Elwell of the 34th explained what happened next: “The Colonel was struck by a rifle ball, nearly in the centre of his body, just below the breast-bone, piercing him through and through. He was mounted at the time, and engaged in directing the movement of his brigade. He slid directly from his horse to the ground, was immediately surrounded by his officers, and urged to remount his horse and be taken to the rear. But he would not mount, nor would he consent to be carried back.”[xx]

Captain Willard of the 34th remembered: “I saw Col. Wells lying upon the ground, wounded, and Lieut. Cobb sitting near him, whether wounded or not, I could not see. I stopped, hoping it might be possible to help the Colonel off the field. I saw soon that his wound was mortal; and learned that he had entrusted other officers with his watch, and messages to his relatives and friends. To me, he said that he was dying.”[xxi] Wells believed that he had been forced to retreat because Harris’s brigade had fallen back and had not been communicating with him. Miscommunications, lack of military coordination, and attacking a much larger force contributed to the problems in the fight at Hupp’s Hill.

Captain Willard was captured, and the Confederates allowed him to go back to Wells and Lieutenant Cobb. “I found the Colonel to be sinking very fast. Placing him upon a blanket, we carried him back to the hill from which the Rebel batteries were still playing upon our retreating comrades. Here we were met by Gen. Early.” The Confederate general ordered an ambulance to be brought for Colonel Wells. As a lieutenant and captain from the 34th gently lifted him into the ambulance, Colonel Wells died. “Thus died our beloved commander; always brave and cool, strict in discipline, and thoughtful for the welfare of his soldiers, and the reputation of the Regiment.”[xxii]

The 34th Massachusetts mourned their colonel. He had not always been physically present in their camps due to his qualifications for other military duties, but he had always been welcomed back. He had made them into soldiers and one of the best disciplined regiments which showed in their battle record. No matter where he went or if called to command at higher level, the 34th was “his regiment” and Wells was “their colonel.” Captain Elwell wrote immediately after the fight at Hupp’s Hill: “God only knows how tenderly and sincerely we all loved him, and how grieved and heartstricken we are at his loss. The 34th has lost its idol; and the service one of the best officers that ever stood before the enemy.”[xxiii]

Charles H. Moulton, a letter writer in the ranks, explained. “Col. Wells loss is a death-blow to the 34th and I don’t know what the Regt. will do without him. Another such officer is not on the grounds. What renders his death more saddening is the fact that he had passed through so many engagements without being hurt, that it seemed as if he was bulletproof.”[xxiv]

Confederates returned Colonel Wells’s body to Union lines under a flag of truce. He was eventually buried in his hometown—Greenfield, Massachusetts. Years later when veterans of the 34th Massachusetts created a regimental monument to be placed in Winchester National Cemetery, they chose a bust of Colonel George D. Wells to be at the top of their monument. No matter where he went or where he commanded, Wells was their colonel and his leadership was proven and remembered.

Statue of Colonel Wells on the 34th Massachusetts monument in Winchester National Cemetery. (Bierle 2018)


There are more sources about Wells, including a preserved and archived letter book. For this post, I used the regimental history and some soldier primary source letters; there is certainly more research to be done about Wells and his relationship to the regiment through other sources!

[i][i] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 43.

[ii] Ibid., page18.

[iii] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 40.

[iv] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 23.

[v] Ibid., page 25.

[vi] Ibid., page 38.

[vii] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 50.

[viii] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 48.

[ix] Ibid., page 61.

[x] Ibid., pages 44, 66, 86.

[xi] Ibid., page 89.

[xii] Ibid., page 93.

[xiii] Ibid, page 100.

[xiv] Ibid., page 111.

[xv] Ibid. page 113.

[xvi] Ibid., page 121.

[xvii] Ibid., page 254-255.

[xviii] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 184.

[xix] William S. Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion (Worcester: Press of Noyes, Snow & Company, 1879), page 288.

[xx] Ibid., page 375.

[xxi] Ibid., page 373.

[xxii] Ibid., page 374.

[xxiii] Ibid., page 375.

[xxiv] Charles H. Moulton, Fort Lyon to Harpers Ferry (White Mane Publishing, 1987), page 214.

7 Responses to Commanding The Regiment: Colonel George D. Wells, 34th Massachusetts – Part 1

  1. I really enjoy your writing. 14 of my immediate family ancestors served in the CSA. Two were KIA, two were severely injured, and two were POWs. I would love to see some articles about the Confederacy. Thanks.
    Jim Harvey

    1. Hi Jim, thanks for your comment and for sharing about your ancestors. I tend to write on subjects I’ve been pulling research files/documents and recently that’s been a lot of Union sources. There are a couple of Confederate articles I put together last month about Patrick Cleburne, and I enjoyed writing about Robert Beckham for the Brandy Station anniversary this month.

  2. Great post. I have never heard of the Battle of Ripon. Where was it and what happened?

    1. I have questions about that too… I’m thinking it could have been in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, possibly somewhere near Harpers Ferry. I’m hoping to do a little research for the details, especially since the 160th anniversary will be in a few weeks.

  3. Interesting article. Could you provide a bit more information about the referenced Battle of Ripon (e.g., commanders, numbers engaged)? I cannot find anything about it in a quick online search, and never heard of it.

  4. This article, so well written, could not help but make me think of General Isaac I Stevens, who, before the war, commanded McClellan in the west when they mapped railroad paths through Indian territories. Stevens was not impressed with McClellan, who would take the Indians’ word for where the railroad should go, rather than scout out possible better routes. In 1861, when the 5′ 3″ Stevens met the NY 79th Highlanders regiment as their new colonel, he recognized their anathema towards him, as they had had no say in the matter. Standing in front of them all he declared he feared none of them. That he had been in fights with wild Indians at arms length. Long story brevitized, Stevens moved up, leading a division at 2nd Manassas. Then he found Stonewall Jackson at the rainy Battle of Ox Hill. There he saw his beloved 79th Highlanders faltering in a charge. Running to his old unit, grabbing their flag and leading the 79th forward, General Stevens was killed in action, his last breath taken at the front of the men of his old regiment.

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