I am a loosely self-appointed, history buff. I am a staunch critic of our current and constant fight for human rights for all…in that the beat goes on. Centuries have passed, and yet, the rights of, women, African-Americans, immigrants, LGBT, etc.; seem to lie in question. As though, God, whichever one you choose, decided, who shall inherit the earth and handed that message down only to…that ‘moral majority’!
Hence my interest in history. For as many great and wise poets and sages have pointed out, history will repeat. Particularly, if we do not face our differences, heal and commune together as the certain ‘melting pot’ society we are!
On Aug. 11, 1862, Robert Gould Shaw arrived in the Virginia town of Culpeper on a grim errand: the young lieutenant was there to accompany the remains of five fellow officers on the first leg of a final journey home to Boston. Before the bullet-ridden corpses were packed for shipment, Shaw carefully clipped a lock of hair from the lifeless head of one body. He repeated the somber act on the others, and put the locks away for safekeeping. He planned to present the keepsakes to mourning friends as a memento mori.
Two days earlier and five miles south of Culpeper, the five officers were still very much alive as they prepared to go into action during the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Shaw marveled at their courage as they marched “straight up into the shower of bullets, as if it were so much rain; men, who until this year, had lived lives of perfect ease and luxury.”
One of the deceased who inspired Shaw was William Blackstone Williams. Known by his middle name to movers and shakers in Boston’s high society, he was well educated and widely traveled. He prospered as a civil engineer in the booming railroad industry, and served in the militia.
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Williams was quick to enter the Army. “I am young and unmarried, and am just the one to go,” he told a friend. At age 30, he wasn’t exactly young for a soldier. He was in fact a reluctant warrior. Williams believed that the war might have been avoided and blamed ruling Republicans for it. He was “staunch in the conviction that the success of that party, following the long agitation at the North of the disrupting question of slavery, had precipitated the Rebellion,” his minister noted. But he set aside political differences to defend the Union.
Williams became a first lieutenant, and along with Shaw and other sons of the first families of Boston signed on to the Second Massachusetts Infantry. It was considered the best-officered volunteer regiment in the Army, due in part to its West Point-educated colonel, George H. Gordon. He broke with the convention of having members of the rank and file elect their own leaders and selected his own subordinates. According to notes kept by Gordon, the first man to apply to join his regiment was Williams.
In July 1861, the Second forded the Potomac River and entered Virginia. Col. Gordon recalled, “The officers were in full uniform, adorned with epaulettes and sashes. The ranks were full, a thousand men, marching in close order, moving with the military precision of veterans, and keeping time to the music of a full band.” He added, “Never again was the regiment to make that march in such style.”
One year later, in the summer of 1862, the Second mustered half as many men. There were also changes in the cadre of officers. Williams had been promoted to captain. Gordon had advanced to general and commanded a brigade that included the Second and two other regiments. Shaw served Gordon as an aide.
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 9, the Second and the rest of Gordon’s Brigade occupied the extreme right flank of a mile-wide Federal front at Cedar Mountain. The brigade on their left received an order to attack. Shaw recalled, “They advanced through a wood, emerged from it, and crossed an immense field under a very heavy fire from forces far superior in numbers. After they were cut to pieces, our Brigade was ordered up.”
“We went through the same wood, but more to the right, and came out into the same broad field,” Shaw explained. “The first thing I noticed upon coming out of the wood, was the immense number of bodies lying about the field, and then I saw a long line of rebel battalions drawn up opposite, and almost concealed by the smoke from their pieces.” He added that the Massachusetts men “were placed on the edge of the wood, behind a snake fence. The men were ordered to lie down until the enemy came nearer; almost all the officers kept on their feet, though.”
Shaw was called away to another sector of the battlefield about this time. The order might have saved his life.
The Confederates poured forth a perfect storm of fire as Williams and the other captains and lieutenants steadied the men. A soldier in the ranks reported, “The rebel’s assault was met with our accurate heavy fire, and so they did not advance closer than fifty yards of us. Then the heaviest fire yet came down on our right flank.” He went on: “Our line wavered and backed away. The brass eagle was shot from the staff which bore the colors of our regiment, and the staff was shattered by a bullet, but the flag was saved.”
The order to retreat could not come quickly enough. In 30 minutes, the Second had suffered 173 casualties, about a third of the 496 officers and enlisted men engaged. Roughly one of every four Massachusetts men was killed outright. Total casualties, North and South, numbered 3,691. The overall result was a Federal loss.
Gordon and Shaw surveyed the Confederate-occupied grounds on Aug. 11 under a flag of truce. Gordon observed, “In the woods into which our regiments charged and by the fence where my Brigade fought in line of battle, there were ghastly piles of dead.” An eyewitness account reported by one newspaper confirmed their observations: “The view of the battle field was a sight never to be forgotten. It was full of horror. For nearly a mile, the dead lay scattered or in heaps, many disemboweled, decapitated and mangled by shells.” Temperatures hovered near the 100-degree mark, speeding the decomposition process and adding a foul odor to the nightmarish landscape.
Gordon and Shaw arrived at the grisly scene where the Second had been decimated. Among dozens of corpses they found the five officers — four captains and a lieutenant. Shaw found the first captain, Richard Cary, lying on his back, his head resting on a board and his hands crossed over his chest. He had been mortally wounded, and according to an injured sergeant who lay nearby, lingered for some hours before he died. Shaw observed, “He looked calm and peaceful, as if he were merely sleeping; his face was beautiful, and I could have stood and looked at it for a long while.”
Shaw then discovered Williams and the two other captains, Edward Abbott and Richard Goodwin, clustered together where the regiment made its last stand. He judged that all three had been killed instantly. He did not attempt to describe their appearance except to note, “all were much disfigured,” and “the heat was very great.” The last man, Lt. Stephen Perkins, Shaw stated, “was some distance to the rear, lying on his back with his face to the front as if he had turned round in the retreat.”
Later, after Shaw snipped the locks of hair and saw the bodies off from Culpeper, he observed, “All these five were superior men; every one in the regiment was their friend. It was a sad day for us, when they were brought in dead, and they cannot be replaced.”
The pastor who presided over the well-attended funeral of Williams echoed Shaw’s sentiment: “My friends, his best eulogy cannot be spoken. It is the silent homage to his worth, of which this immense concourse of friends is the expression; it is the unbounded confidence, respect, and love of his companions in arms, and their pathetic testimony to his extraordinary merit as a man and a soldier; it is the eternal debt which the American Nation owes to his memory, and the enrollment of his name in the grand historical obituary of the peerless defenders of her institutions, her liberties, and her life.”
A month later, an even greater death toll at the Battle of Antietam grabbed headlines across the divided nation. Cedar Mountain faded into oblivion, barely remembered as the opening clash of arms in the Second Bull Run Campaign. In a 1921 biography of the philanthropist Henry Lee Higginson, who served alongside Williams and Shaw, the author Bliss Perry stated, “Cedar Mountain was a stupid, useless sacrifice of brave men.” Two of Higginson’s closest friends were killed in the battle, and he never got over the loss.
But the courage of Williams and the other four officers inspired other survivors of the Second, who achieved a distinguished combat record in 11 engagements. William F. Fox, in his treatise “Regimental Losses in the American Civil War,” lauded it as one of the “Three Hundred Fighting Regiments” in the Union Army, in recognition of its high casualty rate.
Perhaps no soldier was as profoundly moved by the losses at Cedar Mountain as Robert Gould Shaw. He later left the Second and became the colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of African-Americans raised in the state. He famously fell at the head of his troops during the failed assault against Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. He and his men were buried without ceremony in a common grave.
We all die the same death. And, in truth, we will all be in the same common grave!