Sunday, June 26, 2016

How discovery of tiny ID badge led to story of Gettysburg hero

In 1986, relic hunter Richard Clem found this postage stamp-sized, silver 
identification badge for 44th New York  Sergeant Consider H. Willett.
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Longtime relic hunter Richard Clem of Hagerstown, Md., has discovered many amazing Civil War artifacts while scouring fields with his brother, Don, in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Here is the story of one of Clem's favorite finds:

By Richard Clem

Richard Clem
Countless acts of great courage during the Battle of Gettysburg never made the pages of history. However, a daring rescue of 97 enemy soldiers, led by Sergeant C. H. Willett of the 44th New York, has been recorded. In November 1986, 123 years after this heroic, life-saving deed, it was the author’s good fortune to discover with a metal detector Willett’s personal identification badge 40 miles south of Gettysburg. Hopefully, the following account will bring recognition to this gallant performance on Little Round Top by this Civil War soldier, now resting in Chicago’s beautiful Oak Woods Cemetery. (1)

The day after Thanksgiving, Nov.  28, 1986, dawned cold and cloudy as my brother Don and I continued our search with metal detectors in a large Civil War campsite near Lappans Crossroads, near Hagerstown, Md. Relics found the previous week were evidence regiments of the III and V Corps, Army of the Potomac, occupied this area in July 1863 during the Confederates' retreat from Gettysburg. During the Civil War, this intersection in Washington County (Md.) was known as Jones Crossroads. By noon, the fur lining of my army parka and hood were more than welcome as a northern wind increased. Perhaps because of the dampness of the ground, the detectors seemed to be working better than normal as pockets were filled with buttons, bullets, knapsack hooks and other Civil War-related artifacts. (2)

Late afternoon on the edge of the campsite, my trusty machine picked up a "positive" signal. From experience, I knew the sharp, clear sound indicated the object was close to the surface. To get a more accurate reading, the ground was leveled off with my insulated boot when a small piece of shiny metal appeared. Picking up the thin piece of metal about the size of a postage stamp, I noticed it was bent in the shape of a triangle. Because of its brightness, it first resembled a piece of folded aluminum, perhaps part of a soft drink can. Fortunately, as the mere junk was about to be discarded, the sun broke through the heavy cloud cover and I noticed something engraved on the inside of the folded metal: "Co. E.” And then it struck me: Could this be a Civil War identification badge?

Now it started to make sense why the small artifact buried for more than a century was still so bright; it was not aluminum as originally thought, but rather solid silver! During the War Between the States, there were no official army dog tags. Purchased by soldiers, these small keepsakes were more of a symbol of patriotism, but also proved invaluable in identifying a dead warrior or marking what would be just another unknown grave. (3)

Wearing an early-war Zouave jacket,
Consider Willett had this image
taken about the time of
his enlistment in October 1862.
(Image courtesy Elizabeth
"Dixie" Welch)
Immediately, I headed toward Don, who was searching just up the ridge, unfolding the thin silver as I walked. Taking full advantage of the evening sun coming over our shoulders, we could read the clear-cut inscription: "Sergt. C. H. Willett, Co. E, 44th Regt., N. Y. S. Vol.”

How did the ID tag get bent? Maybe the attachment hook on the back broke and Willett simply bent and tossed it away. Or it could have been damaged during battle. One thing to be grateful for -- the delicate silver didn’t snap or break when flattened. (4)

Who was Sergeant Willett? What was his full name? Did he survive the war? Where was he buried? Finding answers to these questions became an obsession resulting in  years of research. First, a trip to the library at the Visitors Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park produced a regimental history on the 44th New York Volunteers. Of course, there were some ideas what the "C" in Willett’s first name stood for – names such as Charles, Calvin, Carl or even Clayton surfaced. What a surprise when the regimental was opened and the one name never considered jumped from the page ... “Consider.” Like it or not, there it was in black and white – Sergeant Consider Heath Willett. The origin of that name remains a mystery. (5)

Consider Heath Willett was born Dec. 12, 1840, near Syracuse, Onondaga County, N.Y.  He was the only son of William and Tryphosa Jackson Willett, having dark hair and grey eyes. On Aug. 14, 1862, after graduating from Albany Normal School and with civil war exploding, he enlisted in Company E, 44th Regiment of  the New York Volunteers. (6)

Captain Consider Willett in image
taken on leave from army 
in late 1863 or 1864.
(Richard Clem collection)
The 44th New York was a unique outfit, having been organized to avenge the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the Union’s first martyr. Ellsworth, greatly admired and respected in the North, was shot and killed in Alexandria, Va., after removing a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House. On Oct. 21, 1861, 1,061 members of the 44th New York marched off to war. Following the Confederacy's surrender, only 184 veterans returned to the Empire State.

Unlike most Civil War regiments recruited from local communities and surrounding areas, members of this unit were handpicked by the state. These soldiers were required to meet certain standards: “Good moral character, 5 feet 8 inches in height and not exceeding 30-years-of-age.” The state armed the elite group with the finest military equipment available.

Early in the war, the 44th was issued blue-and-red Zouave uniforms. When the regiment left to join the Army of the Potomac, however, the Zouave uniforms were packed away in exchanged for the standard New York State shell jackets and frock coats. By the end of 1862, the state uniforms were in such ragged condition, the old Zouave threads were pulled from trunks and put back on. (7)

Enlisted as a 1st Sergeant, Willett caught up with his regiment camped in the field following the Battle of Antietam, just southwest of Sharpsburg, Md. At this time -- October 1862 -- the 44th New York was attached to the V Corps, Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan. In the coming winter and spring of 1863, the sergeant from Onondaga County would become well acquainted with warfare during bloody engagements at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But the ultimate test of the man would come by mid-summer at a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania.

During the first three days of July 1863, the most famous battle of the Civil War was fought on a 25- square mile tract of land surrounding Gettysburg, Pa. The aftermath of the first day’s fighting north and west of town left a landscape covered with bloated forms of blue and gray; two vigilant, defiant armies were in position to continue the bloodletting struggle. (8)

Defended by a force of seasoned veterans, the Union Army of the Potomac’s extreme left flank rested on a rocky knoll called Little Round Top. This was Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade of the V Corps, combining regiments of the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan. Around 4:30 p.m. on July 2, only 10 minutes after Vincent had deployed his Federal troops, Confederate infantry of Major General John Bell Hood’s division – Law’s Brigade – launched a furious assault against Little Round Top’s steep, western face. The notorious Rebel yell filled hot, humid air as Southern forces, mostly Texas and Alabama troops, stormed the rugged heights. The boys in blue were mostly concealed behind a natural barrier of enormous boulders. In a matter of minutes, gray granite turned crimson red -- stained with the life-giving substance of the wounded, dead and dying. Vicious, brutal fighting for Little Round Top cost General Hood an arm; Colonel Vincent paid the ultimate price: his life. (9)

Monument (left) dedicated to 44th New York Infantry on Little Round Top. Willett helped
save the lives of 97 Confederates here on July 2, 1863.  (Richard Clem)
Union breastworks on Little Round Top. Big Round Top looms in the background.
(Timothy O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)
Another view of Union breastworks on Little Round Top. 44th New York soldiers helped defend
this area on July 2, 1863. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)
Colonel William C. Oates, commanding the 15th Alabama, remembered his regiment taking extreme losses against the 20th Maine on the south slope of Little Round Top: “My dead and wounded were nearly as great in number as those still on duty. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.” One Union soldier who fought during the bloodbath wrote years later, “I pray God that I may never witness such a scene again.” (10)

Positioned to the immediate right of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine were the 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and the 16th Michigan, holding the right flank of the brigade. Scores of Confederates out of ammunition hugged the ground or crawled behind boulders to escape from being accidentally shot in the back by their own men. To prevent needless slaughter, a Federal officer requested volunteers to come forward and remove the battle-weary souls out of harm’s way. Under heavy musket fire, Sergeant Willett was the first to vault the breastworks and start down the hill on the dangerous mission of mercy.  Captain Alfred N. Husted of the 44th described the scene:
Grasping the situation some half-dozen men, led by First Sergeant Willett sprang forward and received the surrender of the ninety Texans who found themselves caught as in a trap. I know that the prisoners numbered at least ninety, for I counted them myself.”
 Another witness, Sergeant E. R. Goodrich of the 44th New York, wrote in his diary:
“Sergt. Willett found a large number of the enemy concealed behind the rocks and a depression in the field, lying prone upon the ground. They were taken by surprise at his appearance among them and he quickly had them in motion and conducted to the rear. From my standpoint I counted 97 prisoners.” (11)
The 97 captured Confederates were led around the large boulders, escorted up and over the summit to security of the east, or back side, of Little Round Top. In an article “Incidents at Gettysburg,” Willett wrote, “Our musketry firing left the dead piled so thick that it was almost impossible to walk over the ground without stepping on the Rebel dead.” Although Willett’s life-saving act was soon forgotten, it would be forever etched in the minds of 97 grateful members of General Hood’s Division. (12)

Captain Willett in an image from
History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment
New York Volunteer Infantry
Heavy rain soaked man and beast as the two embattled armies withdrew from the Gettysburg field of battle; one massive sea of humanity, covered with mud and blood, slowly drifted south through southern Pennsylvania and into Maryland. These days of misery and grief found the 44th New York camped near Jones Crossroads in Washington County, where the sergeant’s personalized badge would be discovered 123 years later.

On Aug. 8, 1863, about one month after losing his silver badge,  Consider H. Willett was promoted to captain in command of Company G, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. During the Civil War, thousands of black soldiers, including former slaves, faithfully served to preserve the Union and liberate their Southern brothers and sisters. (13)

By mid-August, Captain Willett and the 2nd Colored Regiment received orders to report for duty in Florida. Official documents reveal his campaign with the Department of the Gulf continued to magnify an already outstanding military record. However, with sickness and disease producing more casualties than bullets, Captain Willett contracted yellow fever in the swamps of Key West and was admitted to an army hospital at Fort Taylor and placed on a disabled list.

Growing too weak for duty, he was honorably discharged Sept. 12, 1865. By this time, the war was over and so was the military career of Consider Willett. The veteran officer was transported to New York, where he slowly recuperated. In 1866, he was granted an army pension because of physical disability caused by the yellow fever. Knowing he could never perform manual labor, the retired captain studied law at Albany. He graduated from the University of Michigan and was admitted to the New York Bar in April 1866. (14)

On Nov.  5, 1867, Consider Heath Willett married Lois Adelaide Wilder of Ann Arbor, Mich. The newlyweds relocated to Chicago, a city with an exploding population and a great need for qualified lawyers. Here, Lois Willett gave birth to six daughters and two sons – making one wonder just how disabled the captain really was. For several years, Willett served as Cook County attorney and practiced law in Hyde Park, now called the South Side of Chicago. During the Great Chicago Fire, on Oct. 8, 1871, Willett’s law office and library were gutted; however, this man had been held to the fire before. He organized committees to help rebuild the Windy City. (15)

In March 1997, 11 years after finding the Willett ID badge, I received a phone call from Edward H. Lane Jr. of Bedford County, Va. Ed’s father founded the Lane Cedar Chest Co. in 1912. After reading one of my ads placed in a Civil War publication “. . . searching for any information on Consider H. Willett, 44th  N.Y.,” Mr. Lane’s mind drifted to a piece of dining room furniture he had purchased more than 40 years earlier. Pulling the solid cherry buffet from the wall, he was surprised to read marked on the back, “Manufactured by the Consider H. Willett Furniture Company – Louisville, Kentucky.” With Ed’s informative call and the use of a Louisville phone book, I was able to contact Elizabeth "Dixie" Willett Welch and Lois Willett Ross -- granddaughters of Captain Willett -- who lived in Louisville. Elizabeth Welch was the daughter of Consider H. Willett Jr. and Lois Ross (named after her grandmother) was the daughter of William R. Willett, the captain’s older son. (16)

Willett's simple gravestone in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
(Photo: Richard Clem)
Elizabeth recalled going to Chicago as a young girl to visit her aunts. When her Yankee relatives (Captain Willett’s six daughters) discovered their niece came from Kentucky, they jokingly dubbed her "Dixie." The nickname stuck. The Lane connection to Willett’s granddaughters produced images and genealogy of the family that could never have been found in any other source (See notes).

The captain’s youngest son, Consider Willett Jr., left Chicago in 1907 to join forces with his older brother, William Willett, already living in Kentucky. There, the brothers went into partnership in the lumber business. Consider Jr. branched out on his own in 1934, opening the Willett Furniture Co. in Louisville. At peak of production, the company employed 230 workers while gaining national prominence as the largest manufacturer of solid maple and cherry furniture in the world. During World War II, the factory built bunk beds for the U.S. Army. Consider H. Willett Jr., the justly proud son of a Civil War veteran, died in Louisville in 1944 at 54. The company continued production for a period, but it was plagued with financial problems and closed its doors for good in 1964. (17)

Captain Consider H. Willett fought his last battle Oct. 12, 1912. He was 72. A simple, small stone marks the grave beside a beautiful lake in Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. Lois Willett was placed at her husband’s side in Oak Woods in July 1936.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, Consider Willett described the action in a letter to one of his former professors in New York:
“Today I am on my knapsack for a seat, on the brick sidewalks on Main Street, Fredericksburg. The batteries are playing around us, and musketry occasionally throws in its voice to make the din of war complete. The boys of Company E crossed the Rappahannock on Saturday at 3 P.M. We were marched directly through town along or near the railroad.”
The correspondence from Fredericksburg ends revealing the cruel reality of war, but a trust and faith in a higher command:
“As we neared the outskirts of town, a destructive fire poured upon us. Many of the 44th fell wounded and our Color Sergeant was killed. We are having a terrible battle here, but have high hopes in the Ruler of all things that we will ultimately succeed. I remain as true and firm in battle as I hope to be in the battle of life. Yours truly, C. H. Willett.” (18)
Following the War Between the States, this hero of Little Round Top remained as true in life as in battle. And now, through the recovery of a small, silver badge lost more than 150 years ago in Maryland, Captain Willett can finally receive credit he so greatly deserves.

Click here for notes and sources for this story.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing it!