State Highway Marker

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Unamiable firmness" and General Isaac Wistar

Picture from the autobiography of Isaac Wistar, 1914

An incident at Yorktown during  April of 1864 gives, I believe, some idea of the mindset of Isaac Wistar, the general who so often chevauchĂ©d his way through the Tidewater of Virginia.

In April, 1864, numerous regiments and batteries gathered from all parts of the Department, were sent me to be organized and Brigaded into the 18th Army Corps, which it was understood was to be commanded by the able and well-known General William F. Smith, then wearing his freshly-won Chattanooga laurels, at which place by rescuing the communications of the Western Army he had saved the army itself and thus rendered possible its subsequent success. Many of the regiments were old ones recently filled up with drafted or kidnapped men by certain iniquitous practices first made known to me by the following circumstance which, in the interests of humanity, one may hope could scarcely happen outside of a free (?) Republic. A New Hampshire regiment one night reported its arrival and was posted by one of the staff a couple of miles from the fort, to be inspected and provisionally brigaded next day. But early in the morning the Colonel personally reported that eighty of his men had deserted during the night! In reply to some sharp strictures on the quality and discipline of a regiment in which such things could happen, he explained that his command was an old and good one of long service, but having been reduced by various casualties to barely 150 men, had just been filled up with 600 drafted men. These were foreigners, mostly speaking foreign languages, who had been drugged and kidnapped in New York, there purchased by the 'quota agents' of his State, their muster papers regularly made out, then heavily ironed, confined in box cars, and shipped like cattle, to his regiment.
All this proved on inquiry to be true. One could not but sympathize with the poor wretches thus maltreated on their arrival in a land whither many of them had probably fled to escape a much milder military service at home; nevertheless their chains had been forged by experienced hands and were without a flaw. They came to me with all regular forms complete, as duly enlisted, sworn and mustered soldiers of their regiment, and I was bound by every consideration of oath and duty to treat them as such until discharged, regardless of their individual misfortunes. The deserters were of course trying to get to the enemy, but must all be retaken sooner or later by our pickets or patrols. Should their escapade be allowed to pass without special attention, as might have been possible under almost any other circumstances, the offense would be repeated indefinitely by them, as well as by the hundreds of similar unfortunates drafted like them into other regiments, and must at last be stopped at any cost, even by wholesale executions, if required.
It was therefore not merely in the interest of the Government, but of humanity as well, that I felt that such an example must be made of a few of those first caught as might serve to cut short the contagious and dangerous defection. The opportunity was not long delayed. Three poor devils were brought in that evening, immediately tried by special court martial, found guilty, condemned to death, and sentenced to be shot at sunrise next morning, in presence of their regiment. I approved the conviction and sentence, as plainly authorized to do by the Sixty-fifth Article of War; but to avoid all question of authority, telegraphed the facts and my intention to execute the sentence to the Department-Commander at Fortress Monroe. General Butler wished the execution deferred till he could receive and examine the record, but feeling very clear both as respected my authority and duty, I declined to so do on the ground that the efficacy of the punishment as a deterring influence, lay mainly in its immediate infliction, and plainly stated that if restrained in this exercise of judgment, I should decline further responsibility for the troops in this condition, and would ask the favor of an immediate assignment to the Army of the Potomac. Butler then contented himself with requiring the record of conviction to be telegraphed him, which process went on through the remainder of the night and was still being conducted long after the culprits had ceased to exist.
One reason for such unamiable firmness in the matter, was the prevailing feeling that among so many newly-drafted reinforcements, the prisoners could not be publicly executed without insubordination and perhaps mutiny. Even so good an officer as the colonel of their regiment, while concurring in other respects, begged that the execution might be private, or at least not in presence of his regiment, which he feared might not be controllable.
But his reason for privacy was mine for publicity, since the very existence of such doubts rendered it all the more imperative that the entire command should know by exhaustive public test, whether the Government with its officers, order and authority, was or was not stronger than the mutinous conscripts and drafted men, of whom the army was likely to become more and more composed.
The place of execution was selected near the center of a level plain south of the fortifications, extending from the high banks of the York estuary to a woods half a mile distant. Prior to the appointed hour, all troops having been first paraded in their respective camps, and the streets commanded by reliable artillery, the deserters' regiment was drawn up in line a few paces from the spot occupied by the prisoners, and a firing-party from their own regiment, closely watched by a picked detail of the provost guard. Opposite the flank of this regiment and at right angles with it, were posted two reliable regiments of my old brigade, one deployed in line of battle with a section of artillery in its center, the other in two columns each doubled on the center, in rear of the respective wings. A few squadrons of cavalry were drawn up at the edge of the woods, a quarter of a mile distant, a field battery, harnessed and mounted, was placed in position in the nearest bastion of the fort, and another was harnessed and standing ready on the road inside the nearest gate. It did not require a very experienced military eye to perceive that in case of any mutinous demonstration by the offending regiment, it could be mowed down by the enfilading fire of the regiment and guns on its flank, and if it broke, could be annihilated by the charge of the two infantry columns, and every straggler cut down or captured -by the cavalry in rear. The disposition being effectually, and therefore mercifully made, the ceremony was conducted deliberately and with perfect regularity. The men fell dead at the first discharge, and were buried where they fell, not another sound being audible from first to last, but the necessary officers' orders, till quick time beaten by the drum corps announced the ceremony completed.
The results justified the painful harshness of this measure. All the other deserters were captured and brought in within a few days and received less severe punishment, and not another desertion occurred except on a single occasion some weeks afterwards, when thirty-four of the same class of men deserted from a Connecticut regiment while in action at Drury's Bluff, but were mostly killed by our fire while running for the enemy's line. To say nothing of the necessities of the service and the interest of the Government and country, I believe that many lives were saved by this timely severity, and have always felt fully justified in it, even regarded as a measure of humanity alone. But it was none the less an infamous outrage not only on the poor ignorant victims, but on commanding officers constrained to such painful measures, that these should be rendered necessary by the base acts of those quota-hunting villains in northern cities, who, if justice could have been done, would have first felt the halter. Smarting under this feeling I wrote an indignant but unofficial letter to Major-General Dix, then commanding at New York, setting forth the violence and fraud by which emigrants and other friendless persons were dragged against their will into the service, by outrages committed in New York, worse than any acts of the old British naval press-gangs, and the responsibilities thus imposed on commanding officers charged with the duty of receiving such so-called recruits.

-Autobiography Of Isaac Jones Wistar 1827-1905, Vol. II
The Wistar Insititute Of Anatomy And Biology,
Philadelphia 1914

Here is where I pontificate.
That discipline is necessary for the ability of any military force to successfully carry out its mission goes without saying, however it also true that "discipline" and "firmness" can become the watchwords that cover a multitude of sins. That Wistar would try, convict, sentence and execute three members of his unit,  a) newly arrived conscripts, b) within 24 hours, c) not in the field but at his base of operations, d) without allowing any oversight by his superior officer, all the while admitting that the "draftees" had essentially been kidnapped off the streets of Northern cities is a black mark against him. That he then wrote "an indignant but unofficial letter" complaining of the prior treatment of the(now deceased) soldiers mitigates nothing, but instead smacks of a lethal hypocrisy. A hypocrisy all the more glaring, in that the war on the Virginia Peninsula, by 1864, had become one whose ostensible purpose was freedom and emancipation.

I will flesh out some of the details of the situation at Yorktown and its repercussions at my other site Thread the Rude Eye.

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