Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Steel-Cold General John Gibbon: An Artillerist at Heart

John Gibbon was born in  Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from the center of Philadelphia, on April 20, 1827.   John was the third son and fourth child of  Dr. John H. Gibbon and Catherine (Lardner) Gibbon.  When John was eleven the family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where his father had obtained a job as assayer for the U. S. Mint.  In 1842 John was appointed to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point from which he graduated 20 in a class of 38 in 1847.

After graduating from West Point, as a brevet 2nd lieutenant, Gibbon was sent to Mexico during the Mexican War but did not see combat.   He served in Florida in the Seminole Wars and later was an instructor at West Point where he wrote The Artillerist's Manual.  When the civil war broke out Captain Gibbon was commanding Battery B 4th U. S. Artillery at Camp Floyd, Utah Territory.

                                       Brigadier General John Gibbon

John Gibbon, his wife, young children and Battery B left Camp Floyd with elements of the 2nd U. S. Cavalry and the 10th U. S. Infantry on July 27, 1861.  The column spent 74 days in route to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas where they arrived on October 8, 1861.  From there Gibbon and Battery B went to Washington.  Gibbon was soon appointed chief of artillery for General Irvin McDowell.   He spent the winter instructing Battery B and three other volunteer artillery batteries.  On May 8, 1862 newly minted Brigadier General John Gibbon assumed command of a brigade of western regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin & 19th Indiana) to which Battery B was attached.  He would command this brigade at the September 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam.

When John Gibbon's brigade stepped out around 6:00 a.m. on September 17, 1862,  advancing south from the Joseph Poffenberger Farm toward the Confederate forces in line of battle about a half mile to their front Battery B followed.  They advanced to a field directly south of the North Woods and then to high ground east of the D. R. Miller Farm all the while firing their 12 pounder bronze guns in support of Gibbon's brigade and the other troops in General Doubleday's Division.  Soon the 6 gun battery would move to the west of the Hagerstown Pike south of the D. R. Miller barn.  Here, while suffering heavy losses in men and horses, they would help repulse General Stonewall Jackson's troops and assist Gibbon's brigade and others in advancing within a couple hundred yards of the Dunker Church.

Confederate General John Bell Hood's counter attack around 7:00 a.m., forced the Union infantry back to and through the cornfield at Antietam and in some cases to the west side of the Hagerstown Pike where they rallied to support Battery B which was receiving heavy fire from Confederates in the cornfield.  While this was going on General Gibbon saw that his prized bronze guns, especially the one on the pike, were in danger of being captured by the Confederates even as they fired rounds of double canister at the foe. 

In Recollections of the Civil War John noted: "I happened to look at the gun (in the road) and noticed that the cannoneers had carelessly allowed the elevation screw to run down and every time the piece fired its elevation was increased until the missiles were harmlessly thrown high over the heads of the enemy in its front.  I yelled to the gunner to run up the elevation screw, but in the din he could not hear me.  I jumped from my horse, rapidly ran up the elevation screw until the muzzle pointed almost into the ground in front and then nodded to the gunner to pull the lanyard.  The discharge carried away most of the fence in front of it and produced great destruction in the enemy's ranks."


After assisting with the cannon Gibbon encountered Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin who was rallying his men in a field east of the D. R. Miller house.  Dawes commented on this encounter in a letter to Ezra Carmen dated March 4, 1898.  In the letter Dawes noted: "General John Gibbon came to me as I was rallying my regiment... and I remember one exact expression he used. His face was black with powder smoke.  He had been sighting one of his guns.  He said by --- --- --- they shan't have these guns and he marched over by my side when I moved my regiment over to the battery".

To an artilleryman, the cannons in a battery, are like their children.  It was a point of honor to never loose a gun to the enemy.  So at Antietam, even as he commanded a brigade of infantry, John Gibbon still had an attachment to the guns of Battery B which he commanded at the outset of the civil war and for a number years prior to that.  In the full uniform of a brigadier general Steel-Cold John Gibbon stood up to the Confederates in the cornfield and probably in so doing helped save his prized guns from being captured.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

From Harvard to Cedar Creek: The Storied Life of Charles Russell Lowell

Charles Russell Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, January 2, 1835 the son of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., and his wife Anna Cabot Jackson Lowell.  He attended Harvard, graduating as valedictorian in the class of 1854.  Lowell was employed in various practical, menial jobs, learning to be a businessman,  between his graduation from Harvard and his being diagnosed with consumption in October 1856.  He spent 2 years in Europe (1856-1858) in an attempt to regain his health.  By the spring of 1861 when the civil war broke out Lowell was employed at the Mount Savage Iron Works in Cumberland, Maryland.  

Lowell traveled to Washington City in April 1861 seeking a commission in the Regular U. S. Army even though he had no background or experience in the military.  Seeking assistance from Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator he had never met, Lowell noted he: "could speak and write English, French, and Italian and read German and Spanish," and that he had once known "enough of mathematics to put him at the head of my class in Harvard".  He also claimed to be "a  tolerable  proficient with the small sword and the singlestick" and to be able to "ride a horse as far and bring him in as fresh as any other man."  In closing his note to Sumner Lowell wrote: " I am twenty-six years of age, and believe I possess more or less of that moral courage about taking responsibility which seems at present to be found only in Southern officers."    

                              CDV of Charles Russell Lowell circa 1863

Lowell was commissioned a Captain in the 3rd U. S. Cavalry (later the 6th U. S. Cavalry) in June 1861.  He was an aide-de-camp to General George B. McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign and at Antietam.  In 1863 Lowell helped recruit the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry  and was appointed Colonel of the regiment on May 10. He spent part of 1863 and 1864 engaged against Colonel John Singleton Mosby's Partisan Rangers in northern Virginia.   By the fall of 1864 Colonel Lowell commanded the Reserve Cavalry Corps in Brigadier General Wesley Merritt's First Division, Cavalry Corps of Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah.

Lowell Monument, Middletown, Virginia

On the morning of October 19, 1864 while leading his brigade at the Battle of Cedar Creek Lowell was struck by a bullet in the right breast.  Even though he was in great pain and probably had a collapsed right lung he would not allow himself to be removed from the field.  In the afternoon he insisted he be allowed to lead his brigade in a charge against the Confederates.  While leading his brigade in a charge that would help win the day for Union forces Lowell was struck by a second bullet that severed his spinal cord.  He was taken to a house adjacent to the Valley Pike in Middletown, Virginia where he died on October 20, 1864. 

Lowell's Headstone, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Lowell's body was returned to Massachusetts where he was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery on October 28, 1864.  This unsung hero, who is all but forgotten today, was praised by Custer, Merritt and Sheridan for his action at the Battle of Cedar Creek.  He died in the service of his country, two weeks short of his 1st wedding anniversary (he was married to Robert Gould Shaw's younger sister Josephine) one month short of the birth of his daughter and three month short of his 30 birthday.

For further reading see:  The Nature of Sacrifice A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 1835-1864, the Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell and California Sabres The 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry in the Civil War.