Monday, June 06, 2016

Death and The Soldier's Friend: Corporal Charlie Adams' story

19-year-old Charles Adams' grave in East Cemetery in Litchfield, Conn.
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Adapted from my latest book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers. E-mail me here for information on how to purchase an autographed copy.

Less than a half-hour after he received the urgent message, Congressman John Hubbard arrived at a wharf where a small steamship that transported wounded soldiers from Virginia battlefields sat motionless at a dock on the Potomac. The date was June 11, 1864, a quiet, sunny morning in Washington so calm that there was barely a ripple on the water.

Ten days earlier, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, mostly men and boys from Litchfield County in northwestern Connecticut, had been shattered at the Battle of Cold Harbor -- the regiment’s first major fighting of the war. The butcher’s bill of 81 killed, 212 wounded and 15 missing took up nearly two full columns in the Litchfield (Conn.) Enquirer on June 9, 1864, sending the town, largely untouched by war until that time, into prolonged mourning and giving the region’s clergymen and stone carvers more work than they could have ever imagined. Two of the officers on that casualty list -- Colonel Elisha Kellogg of New Hartford and Capt. Luman Wadhams of Litchfield -- were among the most beloved soldiers in the regiment.

"How de do, Mr. Hubbard?" 
grievously wounded Charlie Adams
 feebly  greeted Congressman
 John Hubbard (above).
Charles Adams Sr., a deacon at the Congregational Church in Litchfield and one of the county’s more respected citizens, broke the news of  twenty-nine-year-old Luman’s death to the soldier’s parents the same night he told them of the death of another one of their three sons, an officer in another Connecticut regiment.

Many Union wounded arrived in Washington after they had been transferred from Cold Harbor to White House, Virginia, a key Union supply point and hospital site on the south side of the Pamunkey River, about 120 miles as the crow flies from the capital. By the time of Hubbard’s arrival at the Washington wharf about 8:30 a.m., the steamship Monitor  was emptied of all its human wreckage except the subject of the urgent message sent to the Connecticut representative: nineteen-year-old Charles Adams Jr., the youngest son of the deacon who days earlier had broken the tragic news to the Wadhams family.

Shot in the shoulder and right leg at Cold Harbor, Corporal Adams lay on the battlefield with many of his dead and wounded comrades in the “Heavies” for hours before he was finally rescued and transported to a field hospital. Nursed by a man from Goshen, Connecticut, on the journey from White House, Adams was so grievously wounded that the surgeon who treated him advised against removing him from the boat.

Shortly after he stepped aboard the Monitor, the sixty-year-old politician was recognized by the teenager.  “How de do, Mr. Hubbard?” Adams feebly greeted the longtime family friend.

“The poor boy said he was willing to die and felt prepared, said he was a soldier of the cross,” Hubbard remembered. “[He] talked much about the family and especially inquired about his sisters.”   Informed of their son’s condition,  Charles Sr. and Julia Adams were already en route from Litchfield to find him but had left Connecticut without knowing  the whereabouts of Charlie, one of their 10 children.

2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery
Captain Luman Wadhams was
mortally wounded at Cold Harbor.
Hubbard was joined at Adams’ side by a soldier from Massachusetts, Surgeon William Smith and a nurse from Massachusetts, who brought a box of cordials for the wounded teenager and almost immediately was drawn to the son of a Litchfield judge.

Perhaps it was Adams’ age -- he was just a boy, after all. Or maybe it was his dreadful wounds, either of which was considered life-threatening.  Or maybe it was the fact that Adams was the lone soldier on the boat that tranquil Saturday morning on the Potomac. But Marie Greene was captivated by the corporal with the “sweet face, patient mild demeanor and wounded helpless, suffering … condition.”

The thirty-six-year-old woman had seen plenty of death during the war as a nurse for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency that provided invaluable aid to soldiers.  “I have stood by the side of many a dying soldier and I cannot tell you how it has pained my heart to see them dying without a hope in Jesus,” she later wrote.   Greene thought of herself as a “The Soldier’s Friend,” and even signed correspondence that way. Her devotion to the needs of soldiers was so impressive that a clergyman later in the war wrote “not all the angels are confined to heaven.”

Greene bathed the teenager’s temple, gave him wine and water and endeavored to keep Adams comfortable. If she only had nursed this soldier since he was cut down at Cold Harbor, she thought.  While she tended to Adams aboard the Monitor,  Hubbard explained that Charlie was a “pure-minded youth” who led an “exemplary life,” was “beloved” and had “family associations of a high order.”

But there was only one issue to ponder now: Would Charlie Adams survive?

Death was not far from any family’s door during the Civil War. Six months after the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, the Adams family was rocked when Charlie’s cousin died in an obscure battle in far-off Florida. Killed at Santa Rosa Island on October 9, 1861, Joseph Adams was a private the 5th Georgia  -- in the Rebel army. Divided loyalties -- Deacon Adams’ sister Sarah had moved South before the war -- apparently had not strained family relationships.

Cold Harbor: The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery suffered more
than 300 casualties here on June 1, 1864. The monument in
the background of the top photo honors the "Heavies."
But the possibility of dying  did not seem to consume Charlie. After mustering into the 19th Connecticut (later 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery) on September 11, 1862, his regiment spent months manning the many forts that ringed Washington.  Although chances to fire on the enemy were few, Adams contemplated other opportunities to use his weapon.  “Nearly a hundred of the recruits have deserted all ready,” he wrote in the winter of 1864, “[and] several have been taken and I think we shall have a chance to shoot them.”

On February 2, 1864, Adams, the youngest soldier in his tent, celebrated his 19th birthday.  “I shall keep quiet about it,” he wrote to his mother, “until after we get to bed to-night, for if I should not I reason I should get whipped until I was black and blue.” And he also professed his belief in the Union cause and that the country would be rid of slavery. “If we come home all safe and sound or are wounded in battle,” he wrote, “we will never be sorry that we came out to protect the government and put down this wicked rebellion.”
Twice a week in the spring of 1864, Adams’ regiment practiced its marksmanship with heavy guns -- eight-inch mortars, 100-pounders and Rodman guns, which fired massive shells. The 100-pounders, which had an extreme range of about five miles, “make the best shots,” Charles wrote to his mother. He even imagined firing a shell on a section of town back home: “I think it would do Northfield good to drop one onto that church,” he wrote,  tongue in cheek.

By May 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant’s unrelenting pressure on the Rebels offered hope that the war soon might end.  Even a lowly corporal 60 miles from the front had a grasp of the general’s strategy. “We have good news from the army this morning,” Adams wrote his mother on May 14, 1864. “Gen. Grant is pushing Lee slowly but steadily toward Richmond … [A] great event will take place before June that will tell in this war.”

At 1 a.m. on May 17, 1864, near Fort Corcoran, one of the defenses near Washington, Elisha Kellogg and his adjutant read a letter from the War Department.  Shortly after it was received, “Reveille” was played, the regiment was ordered to fall in and soldiers left their quarters like “angry bees.”  The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery was directed to join the Army of the Potomac.  Early the next morning, it was on its way to the front at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, where it would serve as infantry.

Recalled a soldier in the regiment: “No matter how long a man has been a mere denizen of the unthreatened camp, drilled, mustered and rationed -- no matter how many blank cartridge firing he has done -- when at length he realizes that he must go to the front, and hear the ultimate arguments in the great debate of war, he feels a certain sinking of the heart.”

By the morning of June 1, Adams and the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery would be at a crossroads town in Virginia called Cold Harbor.

Behind earthworks and abatis, the Rebel army awaited.

      Interactive panorama: Where 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery fought at Cold Harbor. 

“I only wish they were here,” Charlie softly repeated to Nurse Greene, a reference to his parents. Sadly, they had traveled to White House, Virginia, and were unaware that their son had been transported to Washington.

While Greene sat by him, the teenager asked for something to support his arm, so she placed a folded blanket in her lap and rested it in it, bringing him temporary relief.  He spoke quietly to Hubbard and Greene, then fell silent.  It was about 10 a.m. on June 11, 1864, about 90 minutes after the nurse and the politician had arrived aboard the steamship.

Greene asked Charlie if he had a keepsake for his family, but he didn’t reply. “He seemed waiting, watching for the time to come, and said distinctly ‘I am ready to go.’,” the nurse recalled, before he “fell asleep in death as calmly and noiselessly as falls an autumn leaf to the soft green sod beneath.”

“My dear lady,” the nurse  wrote to Adams’ sister, Mary, “it was a sad yet noble sight to witness such a scene. In the quiet sunny morning -- on that little Monitor-- upon the calm sunlighted Potomac.  A hero yielding up his breath for the sake of his country. A faithful soldier of his country and a devoted soldier of the cross. O, what sweet consolation to mourning  friends to reflect that he lived a noble life and died in a glorious cause -- serving God and country.”

Hubbard had Adams embalmed at Thomas Holmes’ establishment on Third Street, near the White House.  “I want the work done nice and well,” he wrote to Holmes, who claimed after the war to have embalmed more than 10,000 bodies.   The congressman paid $55 for an engraved coffin in which to ship Adams’ body in back to Connecticut.

“O, his father and mother are searching for him about White House [Virginia]!” Hubbard wrote to his wife, Abby, back in Litchfield. “Please break the sad news to the family as tenderly as possible.” Perhaps to help soften the blow for Deacon Adams and his wife, Hubbard noted that Charlie “died as easy as a baby falls asleep.”

“His body,” Hubbard wrote to his wife, “will be up about Tuesday.”

June 11, 1864: Excerpt from Congressman John Hubbard's letter to his wife on death 
of Charles Adams. (Litchfield Historical Society collection)

“... he died as easy as a baby falls asleep."

-- Congressman John Hubbard on death of Corporal Charles Adams

Telegram from Congressman John Hubbard to his wife on June 11, 1864: "Charles Adams died
 this morning. He did not appear to suffer at all." (Litchfield Historial Society collection)
On Sunday, June 19, 1864, a funeral service for Adams was held at the Congregational Church in Litchfield, near the town green and a short distance from the road on which he and his comrades marched off to war in mid-September 1862.  A week earlier,  another well-attended  service was held in the same church for another  Cold Harbor victim, Capt. Luman Wadhams.

Adams’ coffin was covered with flowers and wreaths and draped with an American flag, and an “exceedingly interesting and appropriate sketch” of his life was delivered by the church’s pastor, Reverend George Richards, who had seen first hand the horrors of the Civil War a year earlier at Fredericksburg, Virginia. After the church service, Adams’ remains were taken a quarter-mile to East Cemetery, accompanied by three officers from the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery and soldiers from the 1st Connecticut, and following a prayer,  the nineteen-year-old’s remains were “committed to the dust.”

Months later, Greene still had the young  man in her thoughts. She requested a photo of Adams from his sister. (See complete letter below.)

“Perhaps I am asking too much of you but I have given much time and attention to soldiers at the wharf as they came from the front and in the hospitals,” she wrote to Mary Adams. “Consequently, I have become deeply interested in some and I am now collecting photographs of some with circumstances connected with my meeting them. If you have an extra one of your brother Charlie, I would be very grateful for it.”

When she finally received an image, she thanked Mary, calling it “perfect.”  She even wrote a poem in Adams’ memory  -- a few lines, she noted, “suggested by meeting and watching beside your darling brother Charles in his last moments.” It read, in part:

He smiled upon me in his pain
Until he sank to rest
My mission was not there in vain
I was a welcome guest 
Stranger we met, yet in his eye
I saw how he had striven,
And loved him, nobly thus to die
For country, God and Heaven 
Friends of the fallen hero boy
Beneath the chastening rod –
Great was the sacrifice – but now 
Your Charlie lives with God.  

Shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Marie Greene had even gained the notice of Gen. Grant, who instructed commanding officers that the nurse was to be provided free transportation and access to sick and wounded soldiers.  In the decades after the war, she sought a government pension, noting that her wartime service left her sickly. But despite support of veterans, her plea was originally rejected.

“During my weeks of pain and suffering,” a 39th Massachusetts officer who had been wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse wrote, “I had occasion to note the earnestness and self-sacrificing spirit with which Mrs. Greene gave her whole energies and time exclusive of her own comfort…”

At Memorial Day services at Congressional Cemetery in Washington in the 1870s,  Greene decorated soldiers’ graves and read poetry in their memory.   In February 1901, six years before her death at age 79 of pneumonia, Congress finally approved a $12-a-month pension for the ex-army nurse.

What “The Soldier’s Friend” did with her collection of soldier photos from the Civil War, including the “perfect” image of Charles Adams, is lost to history.

Nurse Marie Barton Greene's grave in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Uxbridge, Mass. She
was 79 when she died on Jan. 25, 1907.


Nurse Marie Barton Green wrote this letter to Charles Adams' sister nearly four months after the 
the young corporal's death. (Litchfield Historical Society collection)

Washington, October 10th, 1864

Miss Mary F. Adams
Dear Lady

You will see by my signature that I am the person who watched by your darling brother Charlie on the little steamer Monitor at one wharf on bright summer's morning -- and your brother was the only soldier left on board. He could not live and the surgeon (a kind-hearted man) thought it best not to disturb him. I sat there by him until he died and I would not have left the gentle patient suffering boy had he lived hours longer. He died on the calm Potomac. It was a bright tranquil morning. But I do not understand why I did not hear from you after answering you last in which I noted to you all the particulars. It is barely possible you did not receive.

Perhaps I am asking too much ...

Nurse Greene inquired about a photograph or "miniature" of Adams as a keepsake.
...of you but I have given much time and attention to soldiers at the wharf as they come from the front and in the hospitals. Consequently, I have become deeply interested in some, and am now collecting photographs of some with the circumstances connected with my meeting them, etc. If you have an extra one of your brother Charlie, I would be very grateful for it. Altho my stay with him was short, I could not have heard or known him better had I been acquainted with him months.

I should prize his photograph or miniature very much. Please write me and inform me if you received my letter written in answer to yours.

I am yours in sympathy,
The Soldier's Friend
Mrs. Marie Barton Greene
P.O. Box 421/C
Washington D.C.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


--Charles Adams letters to his mother,  Adams Family Collection, Litchfield (Conn.) Historical Society.
-- Description of Charles Adams’ dying day from John Hubbard letter to wife, June 11, 1864, Adams Family Collection, LHS.
--Litchfield Enquirer, June 23, 1864.
--Marie Barton Greene letters to Charles Adams’ sister, Adams Family Collection, LHS.
-- Greene pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.
-- Rev. Philo Tower letter to Greene, January 28, 1864, Greene pension file.
-- Vaill, Theodore F., History of The Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery, 48-49.
-- Washington Evening Star, May 30, 1873.

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