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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Until recently we never had much information on 48 men who enlisted or were drafted into the 18th Massachusetts, but never assigned to a Company in the Regiment. We didn’t know why they weren’t assigned, just that they weren’t. In the most cases we had little more than a name, age, and maybe their occupation. No date of muster. No date of discharge. A recent trip to the National Archives cleared up most of the mysteries, although there are some still untold stories due to the lack of a military service record being on file.

Something surprising, though, happened in combing through those 48 records. I came across a record of a man who was a draft substitute, designated for service with the 18th, and shortly afterward arrested at the Draft Rendezvous on Long Island, Boston Harbor, as a deserter from the 11th New York Infantry. Then a second record with the same exact scenario popped up. Then a third. A fourth. Finally a fifth.

Let’s consider this again. Five men, all of whom agreed to go to war in the place of others, all arrested as deserters from the same regiment. Hmmm. What was even more surprising was that four of the men were substitutes from the Greenfield, Mass. draft district. Greenfield, being in the western part of Massachusetts, is a long way from New York City, the recruiting base for the 11th New York.

A review of the 11th New York’s roster turned up only one name that matched. Two others were close, the surnames matching those of men in the 18th. Those two, however, deserted on the same day. I figured, then, if I looked for men who deserted on August 1, 1861, I might be able to narrow the possibilities and come to a reasonable conclusion about identity of the other two. Birds of a feather. What I discovered totally astounded me.

August 1, 1861. Desertion. That date and word kept coming up as I went through the roster. It occurred so frequently I went back to the beginning of the alphabet and started counting. I hit twenty such instances in record time, then thirty, forty, and on, and on, and on until I got to end. August 1st and desertion were connected 213 times. If we have a shared reaction then we’re asking the same question. What in the heck was going on here?

The 11th New York Infantry, also known as the First Fire Zouaves, was Elmer Ellsworth’s Regiment. Recruited almost exclusively from the Fire Companies in New York City, they were famed for their roughhouse reputation and colorful uniform designed by Ellsworth.

The story’s well known that Ellsworth was killed by a shotgun blast fired by James Jackson, owner of the Marshall House in Alexandria, Virginia on May 24, 1861 after Ellsworth cut down a rebel flag flying over the hotel. The events leading to

and the manner in which he died made Ellsworth, while not the first Union casualty of the war, a bonafide martyr. For years afterward relic seekers cut pieces of wood from the staircase on which he was standing when shot as keepsakes.

Fearless when battling flames or other fire companies in Gotham, there are conflicting reports regarding the 11th New York’s performance at Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Some accounts have them engaged for eight hours, while others say they were disorganized and retreated after firing one volley. Regardless, the results were disastrous as thirty-three men were killed, seventy-three wounded, and another sixty-six reported missing. Most of those missing were, in fact, captured and held as prisoners in Richmond and later Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor.

The able bodied of the Regiment soon after made their way back to New York and a three-day leave was granted. When the leave expired and the men were expected to report back to camp, a large number failed to do so. An amnesty period was granted to encourage their return and, when this failed as an inducement, those who failed to return were declared deserters.

If the military and detectives are looking for you and there’s little sympathy from your neighbors, you don’t stick around. One story is told of members of the 11th making a visit to a local firehouse during their leave and being turned away, their reputation as “cowards” in battle fueling a hostile reception from their former comrades.

If you are Timothy Nagle you change your name to John Nagle and make your way to a small town in western Massachusetts along with “William Wright,” “James McCann,” and “James Harris.” If you are John Henry, a German immigrant from Stuttgart, you keep your name but try to lose yourself in a crowded city, New Bedford, MA.

If you are Hiram Temple, a 22 year old from Heath, MA, who resides on his parents’ farm with two younger brothers, you might not be keen on having minie balls or grapeshot flying at you. Restoration of the Union and the Emancipation Proclamation are distant words in the same way the war is a distant bloodletting. There are crops to be planted and harvested, a father willing to ante up the $300 to ensure the work of the farm and your life goes on uninterrupted. And there is this illiterate Irish immigrant, “William Wright,” who agrees to the money, willingly signing enlistment papers with his mark.

If you are “James McCann” and “John Nagle,” native-born sons of Detroit and New Orleans respectively, you emerge from your refuge in Lunenburg, MA to take the places of Judge S. Dinsmore and Francis J. Lane. If you are “James Harris,” another illiterate Irishman, who has followed “William Wright” to Heath, MA and wish to remain close by his side you opt to serve in place of Horace Churchill of nearby Charlton, when Draft officials in Greenfield pull names on August 24, 1863.

Did the eyes of Wright, McCann, Harris, or Nagle recognize John Henry, who agreed to substitute for Charles C. Sanderson of New Bedford, when the five were reunited at the Draft Rendezvous in Boston Harbor? Did one of the five betray the others out of fear? In the absence of wanted posters, someone saw, someone heard, someone told. All were arrested, confined at Fort Independence and then turned over to the custody of Major Floyd Jones of the 11th New York or United States detectives.


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