Sunday, July 21, 2013

Antietam: The death of color bearer George Booth

Corporal George Booth's grave in West Cemetery in Litchfield, Conn. A member of the 
8th Connecticut color guard, he was mortally wounded at Antietam. The gravestone of his
 friend, Sergeant Seth Plumb of the 8th Connecticut, is the largest marker in the background.
Perhaps the quickest route to death's door during the Civil War was as a member of a regiment's color guard, prime targets for the enemy in battle. At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the color guard of the 8th Connecticut suffered terribly, its grim death toll including Sergeant Whiting Wilcox of New Haven; Sergeants Henry Strickland and Harvey E. Elmore of New Hartford; Corporal Elijah White of Barkhamsted, Sergeant Charles E. Lewis of Griswold, Corporal Oscar W. Hewitt of Stonington; Sergeant David Lake and Corporal Robert Ferris, both of New Milford; and Corporals William G. Lewis of Meriden and George E. Booth of Litchfield. (Another member of the color guard, Sergeant George Marsh of Hartford, was killed by the concussion of a 12-pound solid shot just as the battle opened on the Union left flank.)

The regimental and national colors held a special significance to Civil War soldiers. Protecting a unit's flag from capture was paramount; losing one to the enemy was considered disgraceful. In a sermon shortly before "Battle-Flag Day" was celebrated in Hartford on Sept. 17, 1879, Reverend W. Jamison Thomson of Hartford eloquently described the importance of a battle flag. "It represents the cause, is the rallying point, while it is aloft  proclaims that victory is still intended, is the center of all eyes, is the means of communication between soldiers, officers, and nation," he said, "and after the engagement, and after many of them, is their marked memento so long as its identity can be preserved."  (1)

"We have been through the bloody battle which has cost our regiment many precious lives," 
Sergeant Seth Plumb began his letter to friends on Sept. 20, 1862, "and among 
them was our dear George." (Litchfield Historical Society)

As the 8th Connecticut advanced in a "storm of death" late in the battle at Antietam, its color bearers were rapidly picked off by the enemy. (2) In a courageous act later praised by 8th Connecticut Major John Ward, 20-year-old Private Charles Walker of Norwich seized the regiment's fallen national colors, planted the flag in the ground and shook it at the Rebels as they advanced before he retreated from the field with the rest of his comrades. "I will notice particularly the conduct of Private Charles Walker, of Company D," Ward wrote in the after-action report, "who brought the national colors off the field after the sergeant and every corporal of the color-guard were either killed or wounded." (3)

In a descriptive three-page letter home written three days after Antietam, 8th Connecticut Sergeant Seth Plumb of Company E described the circumstances of the death of one of the regiment's color bearers, his 21-year-old friend George Booth.

"We have been through the bloody battle which has cost our regiment many precious lives, and among them was our dear George," the 26-year-old soldier's letter to friends began. "He was the color guard of our company and was shot down beneath the colors. All but one of the color guard of the regiment was shot." (4)

"George was shot through the right arm and into his side," Seth Plumb wrote.
(Litchfield Historical Society


Recounting details passed on from Connecticut wounded who lay near Booth after the battle, Plumb wrote that his friend was shot through the right arm and side, the bullet that killed him "probably also reaching his lungs, as he bled from the mouth." Booth died about 3 a.m. on Sept. 18, "perfectly calm and in his right mind to the last." Another Litchfield man, Thomas Mason, a 41-year-old private in the 8th Connecticut, "was shot through the head and died instantly," Plumb noted. (Download my updated Excel spreadsheet of Connecticut Antietam deaths here.)

Plumb himself narrowly escaped death. A bullet grazed his head above his right ear but didn't break the skin, he wrote, and another bullet went through his blanket. A piece of shell also smashed into the stock of his gun, "but by the mercy of God I escaped unhurt," the sergeant noted.

Until the Rebels retreated to Virginia on the night of Sept. 18, Booth lay in no-man's land, his body unrecoverable. "There was no chance to get on the field until [the morning of Sept. 19] without getting shot," Plumb lamented.

Like most of the Yankees dead on that section of the battlefield (see 16th Connecticut Captain Samuel Brown post), Booth's body probably was stripped of shoes and valuables by the Rebels. After the Confederates abandoned the field, Plumb helped gather bodies of his comrades, presumably Booth's too, and pinned names to their clothes so they could be identified before he was ordered away.

Most Connecticut dead from the 8th and 16th regiments were buried on John Otto's farm, their graves marked with crude wooden headboards on which their names were inscribed. (Many of the dead, including Private Oliver Case of the 8th Connecticut, were recovered by family members and returned to Connecticut for re-burial. Others, such as Private Henry Aldrich of the 16th Connecticut, were disinterred after the war and re-buried in the national cemetery in Sharpsburg, Md.)

"It seems very sad to us that we could not have taken George from the field," Seth Plumb wrote. 
Corporal George Booth's body was later recovered and returned for burial in Litchfield, Conn.
(Litchfield Historical Society)  CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

"It seems very sad to us that we could not have taken George from the field and been with him in his last hours to comfort him and take his last words to his sister,"  Plumb wrote. "It seems sad, too, that we could not have the privilege to burying him, but such are the fortunes of war and we are obliged to accept them. George died as he wished to die if he must die in the army.

"We have every reason to believe that death found him prepared, and that his spirit now rests in a world where wars and fighting are not known. May God in mercy comfort his poor sister in this great affliction."

Delivered from the "jaws of death on the battle field," Plumb wrote that he was thankful to be alive. But a little more than two years later, the horror of war jolted his family, too. In a charge on a Confederate battery, Plumb was killed at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm near Petersburg, Va., on Sept. 29, 1864. At West Cemetery in Litchfield, he is buried a short distance from Booth, one of 11 members of the 8th Connecticut color guard to die at Antietam.

(1) Croffut, William Augustus, and John Moses Morris. The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861–65. New York: Ledyward Bill, 1868.
(2) History of Battle-Flag Day, Sept. 17, 1879,  Hartford, Conn,; Lockwood & Merritt, 1879, Page 232
(3) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890–1901, Vol. 19, Page 455.
(4) Plumb, Sgt. Seth, Letters home during Civil War, Litchfield Historical Society collection.
Seth Plumb's grave in West Cemetery in Litchfield, Conn. The gravestone mistakenly notes
 he was killed at Caffin's Farm. He was killed at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm near Petersburg, Va.

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