Title: Return of a Brooklyn Veteran
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: March 16, 1865
Publication information: Brooklyn Daily Union 16 March 1865: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00205
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
RETURN OF A BROOKLYN VETERAN
Campaigning for Four Years.
The exchange of prisoners of war now going on at points on James River and elsewhere is sending home quite a number of Brooklyn officers and soldiers. Among others returned within a day or two is Capt. George W. Whitman, after an absence in the service of nearly four years.1 Since last September he has been confined at Libby, Salisbury, and Danville, Va., military prisons. As he has many friends here (particularly in the Seventh, Eleventh, and Twentieth Wards) it may be acceptable to present a sketch of his campaigns since the time he left home in April, 1861. He is a Brooklyn boy, having been born in this city in 1829, in Tillary street; was raised here, and his relatives and associations have been and are here. He took an early part in the struggle, being roused by the assault of the Baltimore mob on the United States Volunteers passing through there in April, 1861. He joined at that time the Brooklyn Thirteenth, a hundred days regiment, and immediately left for Baltimore, Washington, &c. The three to four months of the summer of 1861 gave him the discipline of a soldier. At the expiration of his hundred days' service he enlisted for three years or the war in the Fifty-first New York Volunteers, then organizing at Palace Garden, New York. He was mustered in as a private, but Colonel (now Major-General) Ferrero2 promoted him the next day to Sergeant-Major, in which capacity he left with the regiment in October, 1861, as part of the Ninth Army Corps, under Burnside,3 who was preparing for his North Carolina expedition.
Sergt.-Major Whitman's first fight—after a tempestuous sea voyage, with several men lost, and great danger at times to the transports—was at the storming of the rebel forts at Roanoke, N. C., February, 1862.4 At this fight he was promoted to be Second Lieutenant. His next was at Newbern.5 His regiment lost in these two battles 150 men and 12 officers.
Skipping many items, Lieut. Whitman's next general engagement—the Fifty-first being sent north in July, 1862—was at second Bull Run.6 The regiment lost 92 men here. His next was at Chantilly,7 and very soon after at South Mountain8—both hard contests, and mainly at night. The next, September 17, 1862, was in the thickest at Antietam.9 He was here promoted to a First Lieutenancy. In these engagements his regiment lost 135 men.
The latter part of the summer of 1862, with the fall and early winter, gave Lieutenant Whitman and his fellow-soldiers of the Fifty-first plenty of hardening exposure and active excitement. For about one hundred days they were on the go, either advancing, ratreating, or in actual battle with little or no intermission, all over Eastern Virginia and Western Maryland—up and down, across and back again, amid heat, dust, rain, snow, wading rivers, climbing or descending mountains, travelling through mud, swamps, &c., often short of grub, depending frequently for days on raw corn from the fields, sometimes losing the road, travelling much at night, always sleeping on the ground, sometimes chasing the enemy, sometimes chased by them, and fighting or sharply skirmishing at least as often as half or one-third the whole time.
His next fight was at First Fredericksburg, Dec. 13, 1862.10 He was here wounded in the face by a fragment of a shell. He was promoted to a Captaincy immediately after this battle.
Captain Whitman, leaving the Rappahannock with his regiment in February, 1863, now went round with them (after camping a short time at Newport News) by way of Baltimore to Pittsburg, Cincinnati, etc., and so down into Kentucky. After some military operations here, his next experience was under Gen. Grant at the siege of Vicksburg.11 Next a hot and dusty little campaign, which resulted in capturing the City of Jackson, Miss.12 Then further service in Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, etc., thus finishing out the year 1863, in the southwestern regions of the war.
He then accompanied the regiment (what was left of it) back to New York, March, 1864, on a re-enlistment furlough of thirty days, after which they were recruited with several hundred fresh men. He again saw the Southwest—Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, &c.;13 but, soon returning North, joined, with the rest of the Ninth Corps, the Army of the Potomac, the latter part of April, 1864.
He went through, and in the very heat of them, all the battles of the Wilderness—6th, 7th, and 8th of May14—and so onward to Spottsylvania.15 The Fifty-first lost heavily. Several of their officers and men killed were well-known Brooklynites. We might mention, as one soldiering item out of many, that a shell, whose explosion had killed two of his company and seriously hurt a third, struck Captain W. on the side in passing, but without doing any further damage than cutting off just half of his canteen. When he felt the water running down his legs and boots a few moments afterwards, he supposed it was blood. In the succeeding day's fight his overcoat was shot through by bullets in two places. The fighting here, and the unsurpassed courage on both sides, will live in history forever.
Continuing on at Cold Harbor;16 then resisting a fierce assault on the Ninth Corps, about midnight early in June; then in the movement across the James, with the ensuing contests about Petersburg,17 and down the Weldon road, Captain W. bore part. In the well-known attack, July 30, on the mine explosion before Petersburg,18 the command of the regiment devolved upon him during the latter part of the contest, and he was highly mentioned afterwards in the official report of the affair.
On the 30th of September last a reconnoissance in strong force—comprising part of the Ninth and part of the Fifth Corps—advancing to the west, attacked some rebel works near Poplar Grove Church.19 Our men being repulsed, the seccession forces attacked in turn and with vehemence. The Fifty-first was on the extreme left, and held its line with coolness; but the troops to the right of it broke, leaving a gap, through which the Rebs. poured a column, cutting off the left. The severed men fought bravely, but were pressed further away. It was getting dark in the evening, and eventually they were taken prisoners.20 Capt. Whitman was acting Lieutenant-Colonel at the time.
He had now to endure that worst part of a soldier's experience of life—if that can be called life, which is worse than death—in one after another of the Confederate States military prisons; a series of many weary months of starvation, humiliation, and every pressure on body and spirit, of which the world knows too well. He was for two months sick in hospital with lung fever, for a time very low and not expected to recover. From Petersburg he was taken to the Libby, in Richmond; then to Salisbury, N. C., and kept there some time; and then to the prison at Danville, Va., whence he was last week paroled.
His career since he started out in April, 1861, and again with the Fifty-first New York Vols., in October, same year, down to his return home to Brooklyn, two days since, has indeed been an eventful one. The crowd of occurrences and changes, both personal and public, during that time, are oppressive in their solemnity and irretrievable nature. Of the officers, in their original position, that went with the regiment, not a single one remains; and not a dozen out over a thousand of the rank and file. Most of his comrades have fallen by death. Wounds, imprisonment, exhaustion, &c., have also done their work. His preservation and return alive seem a miracle. For three years and ten months he has seen and been a part of war waged on a scale of amplitude, and with an intensity on both sides, that puts all past campaigning of the world into the second class; and has had danger, hardship, and death for his companions by night and by day, in all their Protean forms. He has been in twenty-one general engagements or sieges, most of them first class of war, and skirmishing, &c., almost beyond count; has sailed the sea in long and severe storms, fought all over the blood-reddened soil of Virginia and Western Maryland, also in the Carolinas, also in Kentucky and Tenessee, also in Mississippi at Vicksburg and Jackson; and in all the Titanic struggle of the Wilderness, and so to Petersburg and the Walden road. He has marched across eighteen States, traversing some of them across and back again in all directions. He has journeyed as a soldier, since he first started from this city, over twenty thousand miles; and has fought under Burnside, McClellan, McDowell, Meade, Pope, Hooker, Sherman, and Grant. Such has been the experience, beyond what any romance could tell or narrative comprise, of one of our Brooklyn soldiers in this war the past three years and ten months. In conclusion, a remark lately made by Elliott F. Shepard,21 of New York (the getter up of the Fifty-first Regiment), in relation to him may be given: "I love that officer, George Whitman," he said; "he is a soldier and a man to love; and is as modest as he is brave."
1. Captain George W. Whitman, Walt Whitman's younger brother by ten years, served in the New York Fifty-first during the Civil War and was wounded at the First Battle of Fredericksburg. He was taken prisoner at Poplar Grove, Virginia on September 30, 1864, and spent time in several Confederate prisons in the days following his capture before being transferred to the prison at Danville, Virginia on October 22, 1864. He was released in February 1865. See Jerome Loving’s introduction to the print edition of the Civil War letters of George Washington Whitman. For some of Whitman's other writings about his brother's participation in the war, see "Our Brooklyn Boys in the War" (January 5, 1863); A Brooklyn Soldier, and a Noble One" (January 19, 1865); and Our Veterans Mustering Out" (August 5, 1865). Also see George's October 23, 1864, letter to his mother from Danville Prison. [back]
2. Edward Ferrero, a dance instructor at West Point before the war, was a famous Italian-American leader during the Civil War. After the war he continued teaching dance lessons at the ballroom of Tammany Hall in New York City. [back]
3. General Ambrose Burnside later briefly served as commander of the Army of the Potomac from November 1862 until January 1863. [back]
4. The Battle of Roanoke Island (North Carolina, February 7–8, 1862) was the first battle of Burnside's North Carolina Expedition. Burnside defeated Confederate General Henry Wise in this amphibious operation. [back]
5. The Battle of New Bern (North Carolina, March 14, 1862) followed the Union victory at Roanoke and proved another victory for Burnside, who this time defeated Confederate General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch. [back]
6. In the Second Battle of Bull Run (Virginia, August 29–30, 1862), Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated Union General John Pope. With casualties totaling around 20,000, this battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. [back]
7. The Battle of Chantilly (also called the Battle of Ox Hill; Virginia, September 1, 1862), fought between Union General Pope and Confederate General Lee, yielded inconclusive results, though the Union claimed it a victory. [back]
8. In the Battle of South Mountain (Maryland, September 14, 1862), Union General George McClellan defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee. [back]
9. The Battle of Antietam (Maryland, September 17, 1862) was the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history, with casualties totaling between 23,000 and 26,000. Though a tactical stalemate, McClellan gained the strategic advantage over Lee by depleting Lee's recently replenished troops. [back]
10. In the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia, December 13, 1862), General Lee defeated General Burnside. [back]
11. In the Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi, May 18–July 4, 1863), Union General Ulysses S. Grant defeated Confederate General John Pemberton. [back]
12. George Whitman participated in the battle at Jackson, Mississippi of July 10-17, 1863. [back]
13. This list of place names refers to locales rather than to battles. After George re-enlisted in 1864, he was sent with the New York Veteran Volunteers to Tennessee. [back]
14. The Battle of the Wilderness (Virginia, May 5–7, 1864) was the first battle of General Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought with General Lee; the results of the battle were inconclusive. [back]
15. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (Virginia, May 8–21, 1864), was part of General Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought between Union Generals Grant and Meade and Confederate General Lee; the results of this battle also were inconclusive. [back]
16. In the Battle of Cold Harbor (Virginia, May 31–June 12, 1864), Generals Grant and Meade defeated General Lee. [back]
17. The first two major battles of the Siege of Petersburg (Virginia, June 9 and June 15–18, 1864) were Confederate victories. [back]
18. On July 30, 1864, in Petersburg, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate line, which proved a tactical mistake for the Union. The crater created by the explosion became a trap for soldiers, and the resulting Battle of the Crater saw many Union casualties. Ultimately General Lee's forces defeated General Burnside's troops, and Burnside was fired for his role in this event's tactical errors. [back]
19. In the Battle of Poplar Grove, alternately the Battle of Poplar Spring Church or the Battle of Peebles' Farm (Virginia, September 30–October 2, 1864), General Meade defeated Confederate General A.P. Hill. [back]
20. George Washington Whitman was taken prisoner on September 30, 1864, at Poplar Grove. Almost his entire regiment was killed, captured, or unaccounted for after this battle. For some of his prison correspondence, see his October 2, 1864, and October 23, 1864, letters to his mother. Early in his imprisonment, George Whitman described his "tip top spirits," calling himself "tough as a mule, and about as ugly." [back]
21. Colonel Shepherd, the son-in-law of William H. Vanderbilt, was a lawyer and, after the war, the editor and owner of the New York Mail and Express. [back]