Thursday, January 28, 2010

Unique Wartime Letter Proves Awareness of Historic Role

A letter written by the surgeon of the Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry less than a month after the Battle of Olustee is unique in several respects.

The author, Alexander Peter Heichhold (1825-1882, pictured right) a white Pennsylvania physician in his late thirties, was a staunch supporter of equal rights. According to a biographer, “The doctor was an ultra Republican, and an early advocate for the enlistment of colored troops.” Dr. Heichhold took the first opportunity afforded him to leave his original regiment, the 105th Pennsylvania Infantry, and join the Eighth.

The letter describes in detail the regiment's participation in the Battle of Olustee, Florida, on Feb. 20, 1864. It suffered the loss of more than half its men and officers, one of the highest casualty rates of any regiment in any battle during the entire war. While battle letters are fairly common, the descriptive quality of this account is as impressive as its accounting of events. An excerpt:
[Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour] now came up, and pointing in front towards the railroad, said to Col. [Charles Wesley] Fribley, commander of the 8th, "take your regiment in there," a place which was sufficiently hot to make veterans tremble, and yet we were to enter it with men who had never heard the sound of a cannon. Col. Fribley ordered the regiment, by company, into line, double-quick march, but, before it was fairly in line, the men commenced dropping like leaves in autumn; still, on they went, without faltering or murmuring, until they came within two hundred yards of the enemy, when the struggle for life and death commenced...
The letter was published in the March 12, 1864 edition of The Christian Recorder, a weekly newspaper distributed to black regiments.

Heichhold makes a point in his letter that proves he (and more than likely the men with whom he served) were very aware of the historic role in breaking through color barriers as they fought for their own freedom:
Here, on the field of Olustee, was decided whether the colored man had the courage to stand without shelter, and risk the dangers of the battle-field; and when I tell you that they stood with a fire in front, on their flank, and in their rear, for 2 1/2 hours, without flinching, and when I tell you the number of dead and wounded, I have no doubt as to the verdict of every man who has gratitude for the defenders of his country, white or black.
Photo of Surg. Heichhold from the American Civil War Research Database.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

"How Sad a Task"

This evening I was scanning the History of the Eighth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteers, looking for references to Maj. Henry Howard Huse. I found numerous references to the major, some of which will be incorporated into his forthcoming profile.

As is often the case, I found an interesting anecdote unrelated to the subject of my profile. This one is part of a diary entry penned by Chaplain Daniel Plummer Cilley (1806-1888) three days after the June 14, 1863 failed Union assault on Port Hudson.

Rev. Cilley wrote, "The flag of truce is up and the dead and wounded are being removed. I saw 114 dead soldiers buried in one long grave. I have 'wallets,' papers, and pictures to send to the friends, one of the latter articles, the photograph of a very pretty young lady. How sad a task it is to tell of death and suffering to those at home. I cannot get the scenes out of my mind."

Cilley's straightforward accounting of what he saw, and his candid expression of feeling, caught my attention.

I wonder if he carried the memory of those tragic scenes for the rest of his life.

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