Saturday, June 23, 2012

Not So Friendly Fire

Friendly fire casualties are frequent during wartime and the US Civil War had its fair share. Sometimes a defective artillery shell would reap a terrible harvest among friendly troops or darkness would lead to cases of mistaken identity. But the following does not fit into either category. In a way it might be said that it was not a “friendly fire” incident at all. It should never have happened and from what can be seen from three accounts it may be either a case of sweeping an ugly matter under the rug or more pressing concerns quickly taking precedence. In either case the occurrence is hard to grasp.

In the Spring of 1863 the Ninth Army Corps (John G. Parke) was in the process of transferring from the Eastern Theater to the west, bound for Cincinnati, and would soon be melded into Burnside's Army of the Ohio. They were treated cordially by the citizens along their route, even at Baltimore, and were provided with fine suppers and breakfasts. After detraining at Columbus, Ohio on March 30, they were dealt with very pleasantly by the citizens who provided for the troops another fine meal. The stop was not to be of long duration but it would be long enough to produce a very tragic incident that might have been forgotten save for the recollections of some regimental historians.

These particular trains were carrying members of the 21st Massachusetts, 51st New York, and the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry, the Second Brigade, Second Division, veterans of Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. They were not men to be trifled with, and they may have been perceived as an intimidating force to be handled sternly by five companies of the 115th Ohio Infantry assigned as Provost Guard at Columbus, should they get out of hand. The 115th was green, very green, and had only been in Federal service since September 18, 1862, the day most of these veterans were still waiting for Lee to make his next move at Antietam.
After the men had eaten their meals, some of them decided to explore the capitol of Ohio and admire some of the buildings. They had been allowed to travel freely in the other towns where they had stopped and they had no thought that Columbus would be any different. They were only taking in the sights and they bore no weapons which they had left on the cars.
They were soon met by men of the 115th and:

...without any notice having been given to the officers of the brigade that our men must be kept in the station, with arrogant an unnecessary force set to work to drive them back with the bayonet. Being met with good natured bantering,the cowardly recruits opened up with bullets and buckshot upon our unarmed men...” [1]

This is but one version, written in the History of the Twenty-first Massachusetts.

The account of the episode left us by the historian of the 51st Pennsylvania provides a little more detail. The men had set out on their tour and had not gotten very far when they met the Provost Guard:

...and were not allowed to proceed farther, as they had no pass; but the men seized the guns of the guards and threw them over a brick wall into a private yard, and as they were equal a fight took place, and the guards were getting the worst of it when another squad of guards came to their assistance and fired on the visiting men...”.

This account puts another face on the story, but it does not excuse the actions of the Ohio men.
The aftermath of this was the deaths of two veteran soldiers. Private Samuel Wright, 21st Massachusetts, a veteran that had been with the regiment since it was formed in August, 1861, died that March 30. The roster for Company I in the regimental history states flatly:

Murdered, at Columbus Ohio, March 30 '63. [3]

He was 25 years old and from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The second man was Private Edward Quinlan who lingered until April 1 before succumbing to his wounds. He was also a veteran, a member of Company A, 51st Pennsylvania Infantry. The regimental history lists him as being:

Wounded March 30, 1863 at Columbus, Ohio. Died April 1,1863, from wounds.” [4]

He also had been with his regiment since the beginning, having enlisted in September 1861.

Both accounts relate how it was fortunate that the wills of the officers that encountered the scene prevented further bloodshed as the men rushed back to the train to retrieve their weapons. Vengeance was in the air and it was a herculean task to get the men back on the train. The good citizens of Columbus even backed the soldiers of the visiting regiments and stated that the Provost Guard had been the aggressors. Insults and even a few bricks would be hurled at the Ohio men, but no more. [5] The train would soon be on its way to Cincinnati and the row forgotten.

The Columbus Gazette reports a totally different scenario, stating that the 115th soldiers WERE FIRING BLANKS! And then after their patience was exhausted they turned to live ammunition which settled the matter and the crowd of soldiers dispersed back to the trains. The Gazette also said whiskey was involved on the side of the veterans. The Ohio State Journal claims that “several hundred troops of the Ninth Army Corps were rushing the guard” [6]
With all of the differing testimony it is hard to see the truth as to the actual cause of the disturbance, which will never be known. The newspaper accounts seem sensational, and if nothing else they blur the actual incident. If hundreds of Ninth Corps men indeed rushed the guard, it is doubtful the green men of the 115th could have stood for long. The guard was not the entire regiment to begin with, amounting to five companies and even without weapons the veterans would have done some real damage, and nearly the entire brigade was at hand.
The regimental histories, though similar, tend to put their soldiers in the best light and casts them as victims of a terrible offense. They also are at odds with the newspapers in regards to the citizens vouching for the conduct of the visitors as the histories claim.
It is unfortunate that the 115th Ohio does not appear to have a regimental history available as it would be interesting to see what they might say about the episode. Also the 51st New York does not appear to have one either. The last regiment of the Second Brigade, the 35th Massachusetts, makes no mention of the fight in their history. They were not involved and had apparently been on a different train and “passed through” the town at a later time.

It was most likely a case of a hot head on each side throwing insults at each other, and it got out of hand. It was another sad drama played out away from the battlefield that would add two more names to the death toll of the war.

The Picket

1- Walcott, Charles Folsom, History of the Twenty-first Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers in the War to Preserve the Union, 1861-1865, 1882, page 266
2- Parker, Thomas H., History of the 51st Regiment of P.V and V.V., 1869, page 292
3- Walcott, page 483
4- Parker, page 630
5- Ibid, page 293
6- Tebben, Gerald, “Columbus Mileposts: March 30, 1863: Union Soldiers Kill Comrades on City's Streets”, The Columbus Dispatch, March 30, 2012, retrieved from June 23, 2012.

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