Title: Our Brooklyn Boys in the War
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: January 5, 1863
Publication information: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 05 January 1863: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00209
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
OUR BROOKLYN BOYS IN THE WAR.
A Highly Interesting Letter from our Camp on the Rappahannock—The History of an Old Regiment and its Career for Fifteen Months—Well-Known Brooklynites among the Officers—our Young Men among the Privates, etc.—The Wounded, the Sick, and the Well—Notes of our Brave and Honored Brooklyn dead—The Stern Facts of Soldier Life, as they really are.[Correspondence of the Brooklyn Eagle.]
IN CAMP, ON THE FALMOUTH SIDE, ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, JANUARY 1, 1863.
PRESENT CONDITION OF OUR FORCES.
With the exception of marching down from camp by regiments, to do our picket, and the incessant efforts of the men in all parts and clusters of camps of this famous army (spread over a space larger than Kings County) to make themselves as comfortable as possible in their flimsy-shelter-tents, and eke out, by pine-log and mud-plaster, something warmer than the thin muslin can give them, there is not much activity here, these days. Since our repulse from the Fredericksburg batteries and return this side of the river, the men take things very phlegmamatically. But I will not commence to draw you a picture of camp life. I have, for this letter, some items, a part of the general history of the war, which I think you will find of peculiar local interest.
SHEPHARD RIFLES—OCTOBER, 1861.
The Brooklyn public, many of them, may recollect the departure from the Palace Garden, New York, of the 51st Regiment of New York Volunteers, (Shephard Rifles,) who left home about a thousand strong, the last of October, 1861, some fourteen months since, under Col. Ferrero.1 This regiment was largely composed of young men from Brooklyn, embodying, at one time, if the subsequent recruits are counted, as many as from two hundred to two hundred and fifty Brooklynites. If I could run over the names of these two hundred and fifty, (as I shall some of them presently,) I might strike chords that would thrill directly or indirectly to every ward in Brooklyn, and almost every street. It will be remembered that this regiment formed part of the original Burnside expedition.2 After stopping some time at Annapolis, then sailing in transports; their first battle was the attack upon, and taking of the rebel forts at Roanoke Island, February 7, 1862.3 Even at the very outset our Brooklyn boys gave the best account of themselves, and were the first ashore, and the first soldiers that planted our flag in the secessions ands. On the 8th, also, the battle of Roanoke continuing, they were among the first in the charge, and the very first to gain the enemy's breastworks, and take a place inside of them.
A VARIED SERVICE SINCE.
I cannot give even a mere resume of the movements, service, fights, marches, sufferings of the 51st since, as my only object is to afford a sketch more particularly of what is interesting for Brooklyn readers. Suffice it to say that of all the million and more men engaged through this war in the service of the United States, not a regiment has seen more varied and active service since it started, or taken a part in more fighting, or marched farther and longer than this same 51st New York Volunteers. From Roanoke to Newbern,4 and victorious there, thence to Newport News, (July 9th, 1862,) thence to Falmouth, and from thence, about the middle of August, starting on absolutely one of the most remarkable fighting marches and expeditions known in modern history—a fighting march on the bivouac, continuing rapidly, with one or two brief intervals, for one hundred days, through all parts of Northern Virginia and Northwestern Maryland, and taking an active and important part during that time in the battles of the second Bull Run, )August 29th,)5 then in that of Antietam, (Sept. 17th,)6 with a loss in the latter alone of about a hundred killed and wounded; and so marching by day and bivouacing at night, and arriving at last opposite Fredericksburg,7 and when the time arrived actively engaged in the bloody battle there of December 13th.
THE REGIMENT WELL DEPLETED.
Out of about eleven hundred men (counting recruits) which it has carried into service, this 51st New York Volunteers now turns out, on its dress parade of an evening, only from one hundred and fifty to two hundred men. Such is the remnant that the bullets and shells of many a fierce action, the fatigues of hundreds and hundreds of miles of weary marching, the deposits in many a squad of hasty graves, and the sick cots in hospitals, and the amputated limbs compelling a discharge from service, have left this brave and veteran regiment. At the date of the present hasty sketch (Jan. 1, '63) the 51st is lying in camp, under its excellent Colonel, Robert B. Potter,8 opposite Fredericksburgh, and forms part of the Brigadier General Ferrero, (its old Colonel) in Sturgis'9 division of the 9th army corps, under Sumner.10 I have been spending a week among them, getting a taste of camp life, and almost every hour seeing some old familiar Brooklyn face.
CAPT. SAMUEL H. SIMS.
This gentleman alone took into the regiment nearly a hundred young men from Brooklyn. Those who knew him at home will be glad to hear that he has so far come through alive and well. All the harshness of war has not changed, in the least degree, his cheerful spirits and native kindness. He likes his position of Captain of Company G, in which rank he started from Palace Garden; and the men all like him, as well probably as any officer was ever liked by his company in any regiment. They have stuck by him and he has by them; and together they have borne the old battle-bruised and shell-ripped flag of the regiment safely through more than a score of fights. Capt. Sims takes to the life of a soldier as a duck takes to water. Lieut. Frank Butler and Lieut. P. H. Sims, of Brooklyn, are in the same company.
CAPT. GEORGE W. WHITMAN.11
This officer has fairly won his straps, having been in the war from the beginning; he started off in the ranks as a private with the first war jaunt of the Brooklyn 13th, immediately after the attack on the Massachusetts soldiers by the mob of Baltimore. His many friends in the 7th and 11th wards will be glad to hear from him, and that he has come out so far with only a partial wound on the face, but of no serious consequence, received in the late attack on Fredericksburg. At his very first battle, that of Roanoke, Whitman was promoted to a 2d Lieutenancy; at Antietam to a 1st; and now at Falmouth to a Captaincy. He is in command of Company K. He too, during the last fourteen months, has borne his part in seven pitched battles, some of them as important as any in American history, and in some sixteen or eighteen minor fights and skirmishes. He was all through the remarkable fighting march of the hundred days in Virginia and Maryland before alluded to; and I must not forbear to give him the name which he has universally among the officers and men of the 51st, of carrying into action, or on the march, or in camp, a coolness, courage, and military shrewdness, than which there is none superior. Brooklyn may well keep in memory such samples, of which she has contributed many a one from her children in this war, to do herself and the nation honor.
OTHER BROOKLYN BOYS.
Among the brave and noble young fellows we have sent, and who stick it out, I must not forget to mention Orderly Sergeant Frederick B. McReady, of Co G;12 no better soldier ever marched. He too is all right so far.
Wm. Schoonmaker, wounded in head at Fredericksburg. Promoted to lieutenantcy. Now absent home on furlough.
John Lowery, a brave young lad. I saw him lying on the ground, on a blanket, after the late battle of Fredericksburg, as cool as a cucumber, in good spirits, with his left forearm amputated. Absent, disabled.
Charles Bates, badly wounded, leg amptutated, absent.
Sergt. Major L. Schoonmaker, in good health and spirits.
Sergeants L. H. Baker, and Thomas F. Farmer, also Wm. M. Hatch and Thomas S. Gregary, all well at latest advices. Corporal V. King, ditto.
Edward L. Hurd and H. W. Bedell, absent in engineers' corps.
Amos H. Vliet, sick, feet frozen. I saw him in hospital doing well; will recover soon.
Thomas Wade and Wm. C. Brown, all right.
Jesse W. Mills, drummer, paroled prisoner.
WOUNDED OR SICK, ABSENT.
The following from Brooklyn and with folks there are some of the sick and wounded, at present absent from camp:
ADDITIONAL NAMES, ALL WELL.
Among the Brooklynites I heard of or met, (I think all well) in the camp of the 51st, are the following, mostly in Company G. I am sorry now that I did not get a full list of our men in the other companies:
WOUNDED AND DISCHARGED THE SERVICE.
DISCHARGED, BROKE DOWN, EXHAUSTED.
DEATHS OF BROOKLYN MEN.
Nor have I got anything like a full list of the deaths of the Brooklyn men in the 51st since it started from home. What I gleaned, I give, as follows:
A BRAVE BOY KILLED.
I must devote one short paragraph to a young son of Brooklyn, Charles Parker, Co. E, shot at Fredericksburg, on the advance. (I think I heard that his father and folks lived in Main street.) Poor Charley Parker! Every one in the regiment spoke so highly of him. He was a true soldier and fell in the front ranks. He died hard, suffered much, frothed at the mouth. When our men went to bury our dead they found this young hero's body entirely stripped by the Southerners. His grave is now there, on the battle-field, close by the Rappahannock.
JOHN J BYRAM.
He too was shot at Fredericksburg, Dec. 13th. He belonged to Capt. Sims's Brooklyn Company G. A letter from his Captain says: Five of our color guard had either been killed or disabled, when Byram caught it. He bore it until a shot struck him in the head. He was pointing to a large rent in the flag, and said, "See where our flag is stuck again." These were his last words. His death was instantaneous.
A PARTING REMARK.
I am obliged to leave unwritten much that would doubtless be interesting to the public of our city, in respect to this little corps, and its Brooklyn elements, both men and officers; of the latter, among others, I am obliged to the Adjutant and Lieut. McKee. So, hastily jotting down what items I thought would be desired at home, rather than any general sketch of the movements and battles of the 51st N. Y., I reserve that work for another occasion and form, and close, assuring the officers and men of this war-worn and fearfully reduced regiment, that there is one person at least who fully appreciates them and their career, and who realizes that there is not anywhere a body of men in all the military forces of the Unite States, that has led a tougher or more varied experience of hard fighting, long marching, &c.; nor one that has behaved braver and steadier throughout.
1. 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]
2. The expedition to which Whitman refers was General Ambrose Burnside's North Carolina Expedition from February to June, 1862. [back]
3. The Battle of Roanoke Island (North Carolina, February 7–8, 1862) was the first battle of the Burnside Expedition in North Carolina. Burnside defeated Confederate General Henry Wise in this amphibious operation. [back]
4. The Battle of New Bern (North Carolina, March 14, 1862), made possible by the Union victory at Roanoke, proved another successful victory for Burnside, who this time defeated Confederate General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch. [back]
5. 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]
6. 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, Union General George McClellan gained the strategic advantage over Lee by depleting Lee's recently replenished troops. [back]
7. In the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia, December 13, 1862), Lee defeated Burnside. Walt Whitman's brother George Washington Whitman was wounded in this battle. [back]
8. Robert B. Potter enlisted in the 51st New York Infantry in October 1861 and was promoted to colonel in September 1862. With the 51st, he participated in Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition, and, like George Whitman, he was wounded at Fredericksburg. In 1863, Potter was promoted to brigadier general, and he commanded troops at Vicksburg and Knoxville. As major general, he commanded troops in the battles at the Wilderness and Petersburg in 1864. [back]
9. The Sturgis to whom Whitman refers is Samuel D. Sturgis. After the war Sturgis led campaigns against Sioux and Nez Perce forces around the Yellowstone area. [back]
10. The Sumner to whom Whitman refers is Edwin Voss Sumner. After the war, he, like Sturgis, ended up in Indian country, commanding the Fort Meade troops against the Sioux chief Big Foot in 1890–91. [back]
11. Captain George Washington Whitman was Walt Whitman's younger brother by ten years and was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. For some of Whitman's other writing about his brother's participation in the war, see A Brooklyn Soldier, and a Noble One" (January 19, 1865); "Return of a Brooklyn Veteran" (March 12, 1865); and Our Veterans Mustering Out" (August 5, 1865). [back]