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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

1st New York Light Artillery - Battery E - “Wheeler’s Battery”

by Robert Yott
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved by the author.

When southern forces fired upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861, response from the North was swift. Here in the Southern Tier, loyal citizens quickly answered the call and men represented Bath in 17 regiments.

The following incidents are of one such unit from Steuben County, the First New York Light Artillery, Battery E.

These units travelled to the “Elmira Rendezvous” for mustering into service, which was commanded by General Robert B. Van Valkenburgh. His Aide-de-Camp and Assistant-Adjutant General was Captain William Rumsey who resigned and was replaced by Captain Ira Davenport.

In early September, 1861, General Van Valkenburgh, who served as lieutenant with the “Bath Artillery” years before, called upon his former First Sergeant John Stocum, to recruit and command a battery for a regiment being formed in Elmira. In late September Stocum arrived in Elmira with 81 men. Charles Wheeler, who had relinquished his duties as principal of Haverling High School, arrived shortly thereafter with an additional 22 men.

Army regulation required all recruits be mustered in by an officer of the Regular Army. Battery E was mustered into service on October 7, 1861 by Captain Arthur T. Lee, Eighth US Regulars. Captain Guilford D. Bailey was commissioned Colonel and placed in command of the regiment; he was joined by Major David H. Van Valkenburgh, who transferred from Battery A. Officers were John Stocum, captain; Charles Wheeler and Robert H. Gansevoort, commissioned first and second lieutenant respectively.

On October 29 Battery E, consisting of 103 men, departed Elmira via the Northern Central and Baltimore & Ohio railroads for Washington, DC. They arrived at their camp of instruction located a mile and a half east of the Halls of Congress. Officers were required to attend schools of instruction in tactics and gunnery. Like many other officers, Captain Stocum and Lieutenant Gansevoort failed to qualify at the school.

In early January, 1862, Captain Stocum was officially relieved and replaced by newly promoted Captain Charles Wheeler. Adjutant Rumsey was made first lieutenant and Commissary Sergeant Edward H. Underhill was promoted to second lieutenant and replaced Lieutenant Gansevoort who had resigned.

One uncommon feature of the newly organized battery was the fact that they had hired a private company cook. The salary of the cook was raised by voluntary assessment of each enlisted man twenty-five cents a month. The officers made up any deficit. It is not known how long the battery enjoyed this fanciful fare but, while other companies supped on the salt pork and beans, these men enjoyed roast beef, baked ham, fried doughnuts and ginger-bread. It was also noted that these men suffered less from the effects of a poor diet.

On February 25, 1862, with ninety-five enlisted men and two officers present for duty out of the 103 original members, Battery E, or Wheeler’s Battery, was assigned to General William F. (Baldy) Smith’s Division, of the Fourth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Due to lack of sufficient strength, hopes for a six-gun battery (consistent with Union procedure) were abandoned. Instead, on March 1, Battery E received four 3-inch ordnance, rifled cannons and was incorporated into the Artillery Brigade. Included in this brigade were Battery F, Fifth United States Battery; the First New York Independent Battery (Cowan’s Battery) and the Third New York Independent Battery. Captain Romaine B. Ayres was the chief.

On March 10, the entire command headed for Alexandria, Va. where it set sail for Fort Monroe on the steamer “Agnes,” with their horses in tow aboard two schooners. At Hampton, Virginia, the brigade met with its first misfortune. To make room for the thousands of embarking troops the two horse-laden schooners were untethered and moved about so much so that apparently they became lost in the shuffle. It was not until March 27 when the artillery brigade finally landed at Fort Monroe. Thus, they began their march through the marsh and mud which would plague the Union troops throughout the Peninsula Campaign. With only half their horses ashore Wheeler’s Battery set out through the mud. The march was taking its toll on the horses but on April 5, the first gun section (two guns) was able to advance to a position near Confederate defenses at Yorktown.

On April 6, the second section had finally trudged its way through the mud and caught up with the first section and the four-gun battery was in place. It was on this day that the men of Battery E first “saw the elephant,” firing the first shots of the battle for Yorktown. Immediately, the enemy returned fire. During the barrage a round from the enemy’s 10-pounder Parrot passed through an ammunition chest of one of Wheeler’s guns. The shell exploded twenty-nine cannon cartridges and two case shots in one compartment and set fire to the packing tow of the other compartment.

Immediately, Sergeant David L. Smith and Artificer James H. Hickox of Bath grabbed buckets of water and began to douse the flames while Private William H. Kershner, also of Bath, pulled out with his bare hands burning embers, thus preventing the rest of the rounds from exploding. Miraculously, no one had been killed and General E. D. Keyes, commander of the Fourth Corps, mentioned the incident in his official report and added words of praise to the men of the Battery E.

After the engagement, the battery retired to a position opposite Confederate forces at Lee’s Mill two miles distant. On April 16, Wheeler’s Battery was called out and successfully silenced the Confederate artillery. The enemy was pouring a terrific barrage on the beleaguered Cowan’s Battery which had advanced in support of the Vermont Brigade.

For the next three weeks following the battle all was quiet. It was during this time that Wheeler’s Battery suffered its first casualty. William F. Payne of Bradford, who was never considered a very healthy specimen, died from the exposures of camp life.

The following weeks saw Smith’s Division advance on the retreating enemy with Wheeler’s Battery leading the artillery. It was General McClellan’s intention not to rush the advance as he was planning on racing up the York River and have his forces block the Confederates withdrawal at West Point. In defiance of orders, Smith, seeing an advantage in the terrain, quietly ordered Hancock’s Brigade and Cowan’s Battery to occupy an abandoned works which flanked Longstreet position at Fort Magruder.

With the works taken, Wheeler’s Battery and the Vermont Brigade were ordered forward to join Hancock and Cowan’s. General Keyes, having heard of the order, immediately set out to stop the movement. Wheeler’s Battery had set out at a gallop and could not be overtaken. The Vermont Brigade however, was ordered back. For assumption of authority, General Smith was about to be placed under arrest when McClellan arrived on the scene and ordered Hancock be reinforced.

 Hancock’s men marched forward in a line of battle beyond the works just taken. He posted his main force on an elevation in the field while waiting for the reinforcements promised but only Wheeler’s Battery arrived. Assuming more reinforcements immediately to his rear, Hancock boldly ordered his ten pieces of artillery forward to within 650 yards of the enemy’s defenses. The Fifth Wisconsin, placed just behind the batteries, was the sole infantry support. Wheeler’s Battery occupied the right flank of the line with dense woods 600 yards to their right.

At 4pm Cowan’s Battery opened fire. As the opposing lines exchanged fire a force of rebel infantry, along with 100 cavalry were discovered between the lines. A few well-placed shot by the Union guns sent them scurrying, presumably back to their lines. This was not the case however as the rebel force snuck down a ravine and massed in the dense woods aforementioned.

With no reinforcement, Hancock sent word to order back the artillery. It was too late. The enemy now appeared in force, forming two great battle lines. One, the Fifth North Carolina was immediately to the front; the other, the 24th Virginia, emerged from the woods on Wheeler’s right flank. Case-shot and canister was poured into the enemy lines but this did not deter the advance of the enemy. So rapid was the firing that the axle on one of Wheeler’s guns was broken by the recoil and sent back to the rear. As the enemy advanced, their lines took shape of a “J” with Wheeler’s gun in the curve. The Fifth Wisconsin, which had fallen back, was now firing upon 24th Virginia.

Cowan’s Battery, which suffered one man killed and several wounded, began to withdraw. The enemy advanced to within 100 yards on the front and right of Wheeler’s Battery when they received the order to withdraw their remaining three guns. One gun, commanded by the gunner Corporal James Bryant of Bath, became tangled in a fence. Bullets whizzed by their heads as the men of Gun No. 2 struggled to free the gun lest it fell into the hands of the enemy. Just as it became free of the fence, the gun immediately became mired in the mud. As the horses struggled to free the piece, Bryant, with almost superhuman strength hugged the hot barrel of the cannon and heaved to. The mud finally let loose the piece and Bryant was the last man to leave this particular field of battle.

The men were now at their original position. The infantry had fallen back, concealed beyond a slope, to await the attack of the enemy. The nine guns reached the field directly in front of their own lines and swung about to meet the approaching rebels. The artillery pieces were being used as bait to draw the enemy in. As they neared, Wheeler and Cowan poured canister into their ranks. The enemy had now advanced to within six rods of the Union lines when they were surprised by 2500 muskets firing into their ranks.

As Wheeler’s Battery struggled to fall back the enemy fired a volley into them, mortally wounding Alexander Adams of Bath. Capture seemed imminent. The battery and the Seventh Maine were endangered of being overrun when Captain Wheeler, mounted, rallied the left flank of the Seventh Maine and led a charge directly into the enemy, completely routing them. The battery resumed firing into the fleeing enemy. This so shattered the moral of their second battle line that many broke and ran and a number of prisoners were taken. This ended the action for the day.

On May 9, the newly formed Sixth Corps was announced and Battery E was transferred into the Second Division with General Smith commanding. On May 11, the battery lost Sergeant Alson W. Davis of Avoca. Davis wounded himself with his pistol and after a long recuperating period was finally discharged. Davis reenlisted as Commissary Sergeant into Company G, 22nd Cavalry.

By May 22 the battery was now stationed at New Cold Harbor. On the morning of May 23, Davidson’s Brigade which consisted of the 33rd, 49th and 77th New York; the Seventh Maine regiments and Wheeler’s Battery, moved out on reconnaissance on the Mechanicsburg Turnpike. At dusk, the reconnoitering party arrived one mile outside Mechanicsville where it captured two artillery pieces of the enemy and a regiment of cavalry. Early the next day, Wheeler’s Battery opened fire upon Mechanicsburg at a range of 1,500 yards while return fire was negligible. Unable to dislodge the enemy which was well-protected, General Davidson loudly proclaimed it was that it was the fault of the gunners of Wheeler’s Battery. After his tirade, he ordered Wheeler’s Battery to within 400 yards of the town. A few, well-placed shots forced the enemy to hastily vacate the town.

Upon entering the town, the general witnessed firsthand the effective firing of Wheeler’s Battery of the first occasion. Not one building in town went unscathed and many were riddled, by the precision of the gunners’ aim. In an effort to make amends, General Davidson apologized to Captain Wheeler in front of the entire command. Colonel McKean of the 77th New York wrote in his official report of the engage “Wheeler’s Battery most effectively riddled the village, driving the enemy’s sharpshooters out of the buildings, and causing his artillery reply at longer and still longer intervals until it was silent.” Wheeler’s Battery’s loss on this mission consisted of three horses.

On May 26, the battery was stationed in the vicinity of the Gaines’ House, east of the Chickahominy River. While the battle of Fair Oaks raged on March 31-June 1, the battery was unable to join in the fray due to the swollen river. It was during this battle that Colonel Bailey and Major Van Valkenburgh met their fate. Battery A occupied a redoubt west of the river and was about to be overran. With all their horses killed, Colonel Bailey ordered his men to fall back while he remained to spike the guns, lest they be captured and turned upon them. It was during this action that both the colonel and major fell, mortally wounded. Major Rumsey was severely wounded but survived.

A freak occurrence on the morning of June 3, 1862 would have devastating effects on Battery E and lead to its demise. At 2am, a severe thunderstorm broke out. Perhaps attracted by the heavy iron guns and equipment of the battery, a lightning bolt struck in Wheeler’s Battery’s camp and nearly wiped out the entire command. James Bryant, hero of Fort Magruder, was killed outright and nearly every man in the battery suffered from shock and numbness. Many of the horses had been thrown to the ground and all were deemed unfit for further service. For their meritorious service at Mechanicsburg, Harper’s Weekly chose to honor Wheeler’s Battery with a sketch. It is unfortunate that the following is what they chose to depict.

On June 5, the suffering men began the difficult movement across the marshes of the Chickahominy. The new location was only two miles as the crow flies but to cross the river the men had to slough through the mud to Grapevine Bridge in order to cross traverse, making the hike nearly ten miles. They were positioned on the southern end of the Union line near New Bridge. Opposite them were the rebels, occupying a place called Old Tavern. For the next several nights at sunset, the enemy would fire several rounds of artillery into Battery E’s position much to the annoyance of the men. The only casualty suffered was that of Gould’s kettle which held the men’s dinner.

By June 10, the battery had been reduced to 53 men. Captain Wheeler was ill and Lieutenant Underhill was confined to quarters suffering from malarial fever. Wheeler’s Battery had suffered terribly from the mud and rain of the Peninsula Campaign and disease and illness took its toll on the men. The lightning strike and forced march had been the final blow. The unit, which saw limited action at Harrison’s Landing near the end of July, would not recover.

The Artillery Brigade had been drastically reduced in numbers. After receiving Captain Wheeler’s report of July 10 describing the condition of his command, it was decided to grant Captain Wheeler furlough for the purpose of recruiting more men. The remaining men of Battery E were attached to Cowan’s Battery on August 8, 1862. With this unit the men served in the Maryland campaign and saw action at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

On June 20, 1863, the men of Battery E were transferred once again; this time to Battery L, First New York Light Artillery (Reynolds’ Battery.) The men saw action with this unit at Gettysburg, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

Captain Wheeler’s attempt to recruit enough men to restore Battery E had been in vain. The battery would never attain the strength it needed for a gun battery. Disappointed, Captain Wheeler resigned his commission in January of 1863.

Oddly, Battery E was reorganized in May of 1864 under Captain Henry W. Davis. Sadly, Davis, while trying to rally a line of infantry, was killed at the battle of North Anna River on May 23, 1864.

In June of 1864, Battery E, reorganized under the command of First Lieutenant James B. Hazelton, participated in its final campaign at Petersburg. It and now was in the Fifth Corps, Brigade of Artillery Reserve. The battery was assigned to the trenches and manned Coehorn mortars used during the 10-month siege. It was during this time that Lieutenant Angell Matthewson was promoted to captain and given command of the battery.

Change of command once again saw Lieutenant George H. Marsh leading the battery during its active participation in the assault of Petersburg. After the fall of Petersburg the battery accompanied Fifth Corps to Appomattox and witnessed the end of the war. One officer and four enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded and one officer and 12 enlisted men were lost to disease. The battery, once again under command of Captain Mattewson, returned to Elmira and was mustered out of service on June 6, 1865.

Although details of Wheeler’s Battery are sketchy, it is safe to say that the majority of the command had served honorably, during the war and after.

Relieved of his command, Captain Stocum returned to Bath and in the fall of 1862 he enlisted as commander of Company F, 161st NY Infantry; John F. Little and James Faucett were his lieutenants. In 1863, suffering from severe illness, Stocum returned home once again. Lincoln’s last call for troops in 1864 saw Stocum again in service, this time commanding Company A, 189th NY Infantry. On April 9, 1865, this regiment deployed as skirmishers and drove back into Appomattox the last rebel battery General Lee had sent out. Captain Stocum engaged in the furniture and undertaking business after the war and was contracted to bury veterans who died at the Soldiers’ Home. It was stated he buried more than 1,300 veterans of the war.

Major Rumsey, after recovering from his wounds at the Battle of Fair Oaks, returned to service as General W.W. Averell’s Adjutant General. Rumsey was described as a “dashing cavalry officer” and was promoted to the brevetted rank of lieutenant-colonel for conspicuous acts of gallantry during the campaign of 1864. He served on the State Supreme Court and was commander of Custer Post No.81, GAR. He died in 1903 and is buried on a private cemetery on Rumsey Estate.
Captain Wheeler served several years as principal of Haverling. After the war, he moved to New York City where he worked as a journalist. His wife Etta was instrumental in establishing the American Humane Association. Mr. Wheeler entered the Bath Soldiers' Home from Brooklyn on November 28, 1908. He died on July 2, 1912 of cerebral apoplexy at age 77. He is buried in Chamberlain Cemetery.

Robert Yott, author of From Soldiers’ Home to Medical Center” lives in Mitchellsville and is a carpenter by trade. He built his own cannon with limber and his unit represents Wheeler’s Battery at Civil War reenactment, parades and educational programs. A portion of his artifacts from the Civil War and Bath Soldiers’ Home collection will be on display beginning September 2012 at the New York State Museum in Albany as part of their exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

ON page 428 we reproduce a sketch by Mr. Mead, representing a very remarkable accident which lately took place in the Army of the Potomac. Mr. Mead writes: "A very sad and singular accident occurred in Captain Wheeler's Battery, General Smith's Division, near Richmond, about two o'clock on the morning of the 3d of June. A heavy thunder-storm had been raging from the west for some time, and had apparently almost spent its force. The tents of time men consisted of paulins or gun-covers stretched on sticks and rails, and were placed on a line between the guns and caissons. The sentries perceived a dark cloud sweeping from the west at a very low elevation, and as it passed over the park a terrific discharge of the electric fluid took place. The whole battery seemed enveloped in a sheet of flame. All of the sentries but one, the corporal of the guard, and the horses were knocked down. The flame seemed to strike one of the guns, leaped from thence to the supports of the tent, passing downward, and stunning and burning or partially paralyzing a whole platoon of twenty men. One, Corporal James Bryant, of Bath, New York, gunner of the left piece, an intelligent and brave young man, was instantly killed; the others in that tent, although rendered senseless for a time being, with the exception of three or four, were able to do duty the next day. The electric fluid passed under the rubber blanket of one man, lifting him several inches from the ground. Some had legs and arms partially paralyzed. Providentially the ammunition chests were not touched. Captain Wheeler's battery belongs to the First New York Artillery, organized by the lamented Colonel G. D. Bailey, and was engaged at Dam No. 1 before Yorktown, where a shell from the enemy exploded one of the ammunition chests, at Lee's Mills, at Williamsburg with Hancock's brigade, and at Mechanicsville with General Davidson. The men are unanimous in the belief that lightning is harder to beat than the rebels. From Harper's Weekly, 5 July 1862…