Thursday, April 29, 2021

Communing with spirit of Civil War 'badass' in Shepherdstown

The day after the Battle of Shepherdstown (Va.), Lieutenant Lemuel Crocker climbed atop
 these bluffs to retrieve the bodies of three officers from his unit. 
(Crocker image courtesy Ronn Palm)

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In Shepherdstown, W.Va., after cups of Joe at the excellent Sweet Shop Bakery, my friend Richard Clem and I poked around a publicly accessible slice of Civil War battlefield. I’ve visited the site along River Road at least a dozen times, once after wading across from the other side of the Potomac River. Surprisingly, the visit was the first at the Maryland Campaign battlefield for the 81-year-old Clem, the Babe Ruth of area Civil War storytellers. 

Clem and I examined the old War Department tablets and much newer Civil War Trails marker, gazed at the Shepherdstown bluffs, and then peered into the kilns of the old cement mill along the Potomac, where 118th Pennsylvania soldiers became friendly artillery fire casualties on Sept. 20, 1862. Clem, a retired woodworker/relic hunter, often stared at the ground, wondering how many Union Minies and Confederate Gardners remain inches below.

At this cement mill kiln along the Potomac River,
frightened 118th Pennsylvania soldiers hid
from fire from both sides. Some were killed by friendly
 artillery fired from the Maryland side of the Potomac.
And then I spent a moment communing with the spirit of 118th Pennsylvania Lieutenant Lemuel Crocker -- a "badass," Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf called him in comments below a Facebook post by retired Gettysburg National Military Park supervisory historian Scott Hartwig.

What a soldier.

For the May 2021 issue of America's Civil War magazine, Hartwig wrote an excellent account of Crocker's heroism at Shepherdstown. In one of the ballsiest moves of the war, the 33-year-old officer rescued wounded comrades and retrieved bodies of some of the unit's dead the day after the battle, disobeying orders. He had been in the U.S. Army less than a month.

Shepherdstown was a disaster for the "Corn Exchange Regiment" -- in their first battle of the war, the Pennsylvanians fought with defective 1853 pattern Enfields, which proved useless. Then "beaten, dismayed, wild with fright," some of them retreated pell mell under fire across a mill dam to the Maryland side of the Potomac. Others plunged to their deaths from the steep, craggy bluffs along the river on the Virginia side. A "sad and purposeless affair, with a most disastrous and fatal termination," a regimental historian called the battle. 

Terrain and ruins of an old kiln on the West Virginia side
of the Potomac River.
One who barely escaped via the dam was 46-year-old Private William Madison, who was peppered with five shots, including one that shattered his jaw. "He vented his anger in a frightful howl," according to the regimental history, "and facing squarely about gave his enemies the last shot he ever fired in the army, for his wounds terminated his service, but not his life." (Madison survived the war.)

In a letter to his parents (see below), published in the Buffalo (N.Y.) Advocate on Oct. 2, 1862, Crocker described his harrowing experience. "Almost a second Ball's Bluff," he called it, referencing a U.S. Army disaster on bluffs near Leesburg, Va., the previous year. 

The next time you visit Antietam, check out Shepherdstown, too. Stare at those precipitous bluffs, gaze across the Potomac, examine the remains of the cement mill and mill dam ... and commune with the spirit of a Civil War badass. 

(Hat tip to Jeffery Stocker, who pointed Hartwig to the Crocker letter. Note: In September 1862, Shepherdstown was part of  Virginia. In the letter published in the Buffalo newspaper, Crocker noted its location as Maryland.)

Route 118th Pennsylvania took to bluffs at Shepherdstown on Sept. 20, 1862.

An Incident of Noble Heroism. 

We publish elsewhere a letter [see below] from Lieut Crocker, son of L. Crocker, Esq., of this city, detailing his story of the recent sad reverse of the Philadelphia Corn Exchange Regiment. Since the letter was in type, we find the following thrilling reference to Lieut. C. in a Philadelphia paper: 

The regiment had reached the Maryland shore, at least that portion of it which the fortunes of the day  had spared the fate of either death or wounding. The rebels still held the field where the deadly strife had raged. Our suffering heroes languished for help; they cried for water to quench their burning thirst, for bandages to bind up their bleeding wounds.

Without waiting for the formality of a flag of truce, Lieut. Lemuel L. Crocker forded the river in the face of rebel soldiery. He reached the other shore in safety, and in a few moments was ministering to the wants of his beloved comrades. A rebel officer passed the spot, and enquired of Lieut. Crocker the nature of his business, whether he came to surrender in a hopeless cause, etc.  "I come," said he, "in the cause of humanity. If you are human, let my mission proceed."

The words touched the sympathies of the traitor, and, as if forgetting that he was a soldier in so wicked a cause, told our gallant Lieutenant that he would not be held as a prisoner, but that he might remain to take care of the wounded. 

Lient. Crocker was in Company C and this act of heroism and daring forms one of the most cheering episodes of that fatal day.
           PANORAMA: The U.S. Army briefly held its ground in this field atop the bluffs.

Shepardstown, Md. 
September 22, 1862.

Dear Parents:

I am here alive and safe. Our Regiment has been in a terrible battle -- almost a second "Ball's Bluff." We have lost nearly 300 killed, wounded and missing. Our Regiment has been in the advance of the army of McClellan for the last week. I have seen in the marches all the horrors of war -- the dead and dying lining the road-side and filling the barns. 

We have been on the march for the last week. In the great battle last Wednesday, we were held as reserves behind a battery of two pieces of Rifled Cannon. I saw the whole of the contest. 

An illustration in the 118th Pennsylvania regimental
history of the mill dam and cement mill on the Virginia
side of the Potomac River. Ruins of the mill remain.
Many soldiers in the regiment retreated across
the dam during the Battle of Shepherdstown.
The next day we were put in the extreme advance, following up the rebels until our Reg't was ordered to cross the Potomac by some one who ought to be court-martialed, as we were unsupported; the result was we were met by a force of the enemy amounting to near six regiments, supported within a mile and a half by nearly the whole rebel army. We did not know the force we were contending with. Our Colonel was wounded and carried off the field; our Adjutant was wounded; most of our officers were wounded when the Lieutenant Colonel gave the order for the men to fall back and save themselves, as we were being completely surrounded, and in our rear there was a precipitous bluff. We retreated amidst such a shower of lead I never want to take the risk again of coming out of. 

As we got to the river-side we had to go near a half a mile to a dam over which our men were attempting to cross; and to make this dam many a man lost his life, as the rebels were stationed on the bluff taking deliberate aim during the whole fight. I was cool and collected during my travel by the riverside; but when I reach this dam, I think my cheek blanched, for it seemed to me certain death to cross it, as the rebels had got into a large brick building below the dam, and the main body above on the bluff, picking off our poor fellows. But to stay was death probably, and a prison sure. So I hesitated but the instant, and crossed safely.

                PANORAMA: A view of the Potomac and Maryland side of the river in distance.

Berdan's Sharp Shooters were stationed on the opposite bank covering our retreat; and this is all that saved our Reg't, for they in a short time prevented a rebel in taking a risk of showing himself. After two hours, at the end of the dam there were about ten wounded and ten more whose courage had given out, and they must be got over. The Captain of Berdan's men and myself walked up and down the bank to try and induce them to come over. I then took off my coat and with Lieut. Marsh's revolver, covered by the Reg't, recrossed the river and brought over every man there, except those on the battle field.

The next day every effort was made by our officers of the Regiment and Brigade to get Maj. Gen. [Fitz John] Porter to send a Flag of Truce to bring off our wounded, and to bury the dead; but of no avail -- he would not do it. I stepped forward and volunteered, and with a volunteer force again crossed the Potomac, and had the satisfaction of bringing off every wounded man, and the dead bodies of our officers. The Brigadier general complimented me personally and that was another satisfaction.

Our Colonel is pretty badly wounded. My Company loses 28 killed, wounded and missing. But I assure you the 118th P. V. Reg't has made itself a name of which every man be proud who belongs to it. We are still in the advance doing picket duty. We are now numbered among the fighting regiments. 

L. L. Crocker.

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-- History of the Corn Exchange Regiment, 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers, from their first engagement at Antietam to Appomattox, By the Survivors' Association, Philadelphia, J.L. Smith Publisher, 1888.

-- Inside the Army of the Potomac, The Civil War Experiences of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken, Stackpole Books, 1998.