One of my favorite poems from the Civil War era was one written by an author whose name remains unknown, an ode to the unheralded, uncelebrated common soldier (reproduced in this post). One of the points it makes so poignantly is that the officers, the generals, the politicians– they are well represented in the histories (perhaps overly so), to the detriment of that private in the ranks who, though legion, often blends in to become just one face in the crowd. That focus on the officers and leaders does a grave disservice to the vast majority of men who fought, suffered, bled, and died in service to their country. As the poem states (in part):
Nobody cared, when he went to war,
But the woman who cried on his shoulder;
Nobody decked him with immortelles:
He was only a common soldier.
Nobody packed in a dainty trunk
Folded raiment and officer’s fare:
A knapsack held all the new recruit
Might own, or love, or eat, or wear.
Nobody gave him a good-by fete,
With sparkling jest and flower-crowned wine:
Two or three friends on the sidewalk stood
Watching for Jones, the fourth in line.
One such common soldier is one that I have based some of my impression on–indeed, he was the first such private I began to research when I became involved in Civil War reenacting six years ago; this fellow by the name of Edwin Henry Charles Wentworth. His is a peculiar tale that leads him through some very challenging events during the war. Unlike many of the more celebrated figures, and in contrast to the heroic image many would prefer to paint, Wentworth was a flawed individual. He was part of one of the ‘first blood’ moments of the war. He battled in the botched Peninsula Campaign under McClellan and nearly was captured or killed in the largest Confederate assault of the war (Gaines Mill). He deserted the army, only to return under an assumed name, under which he fought before Petersburg and in the brutal trench warfare. He saw the war through to its end.
Early Life in Lawrence
Edwin H. C. Wentworth was most likely born in the area around Bath, Maine on 4 August of 1843. Sometime before 1860, Wentworth moved to Lawrence Massachusetts. The town was established as a purpose-built community, centered around its massive textile mills and massive dam by one Abbott Lawrence in 1845. By 1848, the town had expanded from just a few farmers to six thousand– most of whom sought employment in the mills. The town was intended to be a workers’ paradise on earth, with strict controls over crowding, morals, and ethics established in the charter (Watson 34-35). Seeking a better life that he had in Maine, it is likely for this reason that Wentworth established himself in Lawrence.
By 1860, Wentworth had enrolled in the town’s militia company, the Lawrence Light Infantry. In the years leading up to the Civil War, and with an suspicious eye towards the concept of standing armies, the United States’ primary military force was its local militias, that could be called to service during a time of conflict. Indeed, by 1861, the regular army of the United States was a tiny affair– only 16,000 men strong, and scattered around the western frontier to contain and control the native population. In contrast, each town was mandated by Federal law to maintain a local militia of at least one company of approximately 100 men for the purpose of seeing to its own defense. The Lawrence Light Infantry was the response of Lawrence to that law. By the time of the Civil War, those militia units were often less rough-and-ready units, particularly in the cities of the east with little fear of attack, and more a local club. The men would dress up in their fashionable uniforms of the day and hold drills on the local common, looking pretty for the ladies, all puffed up in pomp and circumstance. The Lawrence Light Infantry was such a unit, what with their tall shakos, flashy red trousers ‘in the French style’, and long frock coats (Hanson 20).
In 1860 and 1861 when the sectional crisis was threatening to blossom into open warfare, Massachusetts Governors Nathanial Banks and John Andrew saw to it that the Massachusetts Militia was ready for action in accordance with their mandate– and Massachusetts’ history of providing men to the defense of the Union in but a minute’s time– the legendary Minutemen. They procured massive amounts of arms and accoutrements from Europe and locally; including the latest weapons, the model 1855/1857 Springfield Rifle-Musket. These stores were waiting in Boston when the call to arms went out on the 15th April 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter by rebel forces in South Carolina. One of the first companies to answer the call was the Lawrence Light Infantry, assigned to the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (6th MVM) as Company I, and the 6th MVM in turn to General Benjamin Butler’s brigade, destined for the defense of the capital in Washington City.
Service with the Sixth Massachusetts
The Old Sixth boarded a train for the capital on the 16th to much fanfare and adulation of their hometown crowds. The train passed through Springfield, where the militia were feted as well; then on to New York City, and Philadelphia, where the reception was also full of patriotic fervor and massive cheering throngs. The mood changed when the regiment crossed into Maryland– a border state with deeply divided loyalties. In Baltimore was a secessionist hotbed; a nest of vipers waiting to strike. As the train left Philadelphia on the 19th, Col. Edward Jones was advised that rebels in Baltimore threatened to make transit across the city impossible, but Jones, true to his orders, concluded he would go on.
The chaos truly began at the ferry crossing Havre-de-Grace. The train cars containing the soldiers of the 6th MVM were taken off their tracks and loaded onto the ferry, shuttled across the Chesapeake Bay, and then re-tracked– however, the cars were re-tracked out of order. Companies C, D, I, and L were meant to be in the center of the group corresponding to their place in the line of the regiment, but were instead moved to the rear, beyond the flank company (K). This would play a major role in the violence that ensued in Baltimore.
Baltimore had recently passed a town ordinance that– in the interest of safety– prohibited trains from moving under steam through the city. Rather, the engines had to be detached, and the cars pulled across the city by horse, a much slower but theoretically safer means of transit. It also made the 6th MVM vulnerable. The Sixth had arrived in Baltimore ahead of schedule, and thus the secessionist crowds had scarcely had time to assemble to oppose the transit of the volunteers for the Federal government when the first few cars rolled through. By the time Company K passed through, the crowds had grown quite large, and angry. They had begun making intimations that they would block the tracks, preventing the cars from passing. John Hanson, regimental historian of the Sixth relates the story of Captain Samson of Co. K:
“…Captain Sampson [was to] see the rear of the battalion across the city. He took his position; and as he was about ordering those in the car, some fifty guns, to debark, standing on the ground himself for that purpose, the cars in advance were set in motion, and whisked away as by magic, across the city, and in a moment his own car started, which he thought was the last one, containing, as it did, the left of the regiment. He, of course, could only spring aboard, and follow the rest of the regiment. It was no sooner started, than it was attacked by clubs, paving stones, and other missiles… One or two soldiers were wounded by paving stones and bricks; and at length, one man’s thumb was shot, when, holding the wounded hand up to the major, he asked leave to fire in return. Orders were then given… to fire from the windows at will. These orders were promptly obeyed” (Hanson 25).
Parker relates that the car containing Company K was stopped three times as it made its way across the city by debris placed in its way on the tracks, compelling Major Watson to force the driver to assist in removing the obstacles and carrying on. All the while, the crowds and their showers of rocks and bricks only grew larger and more violent– but Watson and Sampson were sure that they were seeing the worst of it– until they made it to the station on the far side of Baltimore and realized they were four companies short– Companies C, D, I, and L, which had been erroneously placed at the rear of the column, and were even now dealing with the crowd numbering in the thousands, and whose efforts to halt the movement across the city had become effective. Edwin Wentworth was among those men, with Company I.
The number of soldiers in the companies cut off by hazards on the tracks on Pratt Street numbered some 220. They were opposed by a massive number of shouting and violent secessionists that Parker set at 10,000. He notes that “…the air was filled with yells, oaths, taunts, all sorts of missiles, and soon pistol and musket shots” (27). Under the command of Captain Follansbee of Lowell’s Company C, the small band set off down Pratt Street on foot. The troops scaled a barricade that had been hastily thrown up with a cannon behind it. Luckily, the cannon was not yet ready for service, so the men passed by without incident. Parker notes the crowd assailing them men first with words “Cheers for Jeff Davis’ and for “South Carolina and the South;” … “Dig your own graves!”, “You can pray but you cannot fight” and then with gunshots from doors and windows. Loading on the march, Wentworth and the men of the 6th MVM returned fire. By the time the men of the four companies joined their companions at the Washington Depot, four men of the 220 were killed, and another sixteen wounded. Hanson reports that more than a hundred of the rioting civilians had been shot and killed (contemporary accounts revise Hanson’s number of civilians down to 12), and a thousand rounds of ammunition fired (Hanson 36).
By late in the evening, the remnants of the Sixth Massachusetts boarded a train at Washington depot and headed off the the capital. They were the first armed force, ready for service, to arrive at Lincoln’s call for volunteers, and came as a great relief to the threatened city. President Lincoln himself reviewed the troops, and proclaimed that “[they were] the only northern reality.” The first night in DC, the Sixth were quartered in the Senate chambers, with Col. Jones sleeping in the Vice President’s chair. After a brief time in DC while other fresh troops arrived from the loyal states, the Sixth were sent back to Baltimore where they garrisoned the relay station, and preserved the peace in order to ensure that the riot that they endured would not happen to others passing through. It was martial law, to be sure; but it kept Baltimore open to passage. Save for such police duties, the rest of the term of service of the Old Sixth was uneventful.
Only 29 July 1861, the tour of duty of the 6th MVM was up (they were currently limited to 90 days Federal service by law), and they decamped for home, passing through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and finally to Boston again. Wentworth and his pards were treated again to cheering crowds and fanfare for their service– but the nation was still in crisis. Just over a week earlier, the first major battle of the war– the First Battle of Manassas– ended in ‘the Great Skedaddle’ and a demoralizing, humiliating defeat for the Federal cause. The volunteer units were all headed home, and the Republic was left again bereft of an army of defend it; and with a broken Union.
Service with the 22nd Massachusetts and the Peninsula Campaign
To meet the challenge of the Confederacy, Lincoln again called for volunteers– Congress had authorized 500,000 to serve for three years. Edwin Wentworth again answered the call, enlisting in the Everett Guard (named for Edward Everett, a famed Massachusetts orator) being organized by another veteran of the 6th MVM– Captain John Dunning, who had served as Fourth Lieutenant with Company K. The Everett Guard was assigned to the ‘Henry Wilson Regiment’; assembled by sitting Senator Wilson, as Company D of the 22nd Massachusetts.
The lads of the 22nd Massachusetts were encamped at Lynnfield’s Camp Schouler where they trained in the art of war through September and the first week of October 1861. On October 8, they broke camp and set out for Boston where Wentworth again received the adulation of loyalist crowds. They entrained for New York, passing again through Worcester and Springfield. It must have seemed like deja vous for the veteran Wentworth. Unlike his trip in April, the passage through Baltimore was peaceful (due in no small part to the policing duties taken by the Sixth and now others), and to Washington City where the 22nd Mass encamped across the Potomac at Hall’s Hill. Here the 22nd men continued to learn the use of their weapons (Pattern 53 Enfield rifle-muskets from England; until they were swapped out for 1861 Springfields in December), how to march, and how to fight. It was all old hat to Wentworth and those men who had been part of the prewar militias, but to many of the Fresh Fish volunteers, it was an all-new experience. The unit remained at Hall’s Hill through the winter.
On March 10, 1862 the 22nd Massachusetts was finally called into action, to participate on General George McClellan’s grand plan to end the southern Confederacy in one bold stroke– a flank assault on the Richmond, VA capital by landing from the sea on the Peninsula, and quickly marching up the spit of land, taking Richmond from the rear before the defense could be moved from Manassas in the north. It was a bold plan, and very nearly worked– but for the general who led it. The men marched overland through Lee’s Church and Fairfax to Alexandria. On Thursday March 13, they boarded the steamer Daniel Webster, landing at Fortress Monroe on the Peninsula on Sunday the 16th, passing by the USS Monitor at anchor, while en route. They debarked on Monday morning (Parker 50-76).
Had McClellan moved with his collected host as it assembled, history shows that he would have quickly overwhelmed the scant defenses of the rebels. At most, a week’s fighting would have moved him into Richmond-proper, had he done it with all due haste. Instead, he waited, measured his enemy (via exaggerated reports), demanded more reinforcements from Washington, and dawdled. This gross inaction on the Peninsula before Richmond went on through April and into May– allowing the Confederates time to shift forces to meet the Federal snail-like advance. The 22nd Mass was lightly engaged at Yorktown in April– victims of General John McGruder’s infamous subterfuge, whereby the Union generals were convinced that his tiny masking force of 11,000 men facing 125,000 Federals was a number ten times their actual size. The Federal advance was held up from 5 April through the 16th, when the Federals finally drove the rebels from the position. By now it was too late– the 11,000 men MacGruder had was supported by five times their number, with more pouring into Richmond daily. While still badly outnumbered, the Confederates could stand on equal ground with McClellan’s lumbering leviathan. The Federal army resumed its slow advance up the Peninsula, with the 22nd Massachusetts and Wentworth reaching a place known as Gaines’ Mill on May 26.
By the 26th and 27th of June, the signs were strong of Confederate activity in the front. The 22nd– in reserve of the Federal line near the Chickahominy behind the 2nd Maine and 13th New York– would soon be more heavily engaged than anyone anticipated.By this time, Wentworth had been promoted to Corporal, and perhaps at the request of his fellow 6th Massachusetts veteran commander, Captain Dunning, was added to the color guard of the 22nd Massachusetts. He was thus in the middle of the fray when it erupted.
The Mainers and New Yorkers were arrayed behind breastworks before a creek and a ravine; the 22nd behind them along a thin line of wood. The battle erupted around 2:30 PM and raged on for better than five hours. 57,000 Confederates slammed into the defensive position of 34,000 Federals repeatedly; and for five hours, the Union troops checked each advance. It was the largest rebel assault of the war. Men were falling in droves. A 7 PM assault finally broke the Union line– Regimental historian John Parker describes the scene:
“…it was a surprise to the Twenty-second when the Thirteenth [New York] came streaming over our breastwork, with the cry, “Get up, boys, and give them some!” … and the response was a volley fired by firing as fast as them men could load. This galling fire delivered in the centre of the rebel line, staggered it, and they came on in the shape of a V, with the opening towards us…” (Parker 120).”
The 22nd Massachusetts was struck in the front, and on both flanks as the rebels poured over and around the breastworks. Sergeant Frank Scott relates the assault to his hometown Cambridge Chronicle:
“At last they came, and what a sight! For the last great struggle they had formed their entire force, inclusive of fifty thousand fresh troops, in line of battle, close columns by divisions five brigades deep, and thus they swept on over the hillside, which was soon one solid mass, pressing on to overwhelm us, not by fighting, but to crush us by the mere force and weight of numbers. But no coward, trembling foe did they find, as their rapidly piled up dead attested. Along the entire line, and from Smith, came the crash and rush of grape and canister. From both lines of infantry the shower of lead was incessant, and the flankers were not idle… Colonel Gove, after a hasty look to the left, immediately came down into the line and said earnestly, bringing his hands together, “Boys, we must check them here! for God’s sake give it to them!” I gave a hasty look to the left, saw the skirmishers coming in on the run, without regard to order, while at the same time the front line fell back on ours. The effect of this was somewhat dispiriting, and our front line wavered at the flanks where they came in on us. … the entire right was filled with the rebels, we turned to leave, and for my part expecting to be riddled as they were literally on us. But I was fortunate, for though the bullets whistled lively around us, like a swarm of bees, and full as thick, I escaped unhurt…. At about the time of the coming in of our line of skirmishers on the left, Capt. Dunning fell, with a ball through the head … our Colonel received his first wound, so soon followed by his second and fatal one. Soon our line was in full retreat, followed by musketry and shell from our enemy, who were now in possession of our line. Fortunately, we had reserve battery placed on a hill in our rear, and they covered us in our retreat, or the rebels would have cut us up with the bayonet, and their prize in prisoners would have been large.” (Sc0tt)
In the face of the assault on three sides, the 22nd Mass was overwhelmed and broke for the rear in complete disarray– it was not a controlled retreat, but a rout. For Wentworth’s part, the color company was cut to pieces. The color sergeant was shot down during the rebel assault, but they were saved by Corporal Crone. He then had his own arm shot and nearly lost the colors to the rebels himself. He did lose the arm. When the shattered remnants of the 22nd Massachusetts finally rallied around the colors that evening, Scott notes that:
“However, we set about the melancholy tasks of rallying the scattered remains of our company and the regiment. Soon the colors were found in the hands of Color Corporal Edwin H.C. Wentworth, who assisted by Color Corporal Wilson and one other belonging to Co. B, whose name I have forgotten, being all who remained of our Color Guard, brought them safely from the field, though they were made a target by the rebels. All honor to them said we, for it removed a heavy weight from our minds, and with the aid of the colors we soon had about sixty men” (Scott)
From just over nine hundred rifles at the start of the fight, by the evening of June 27, the 22nd Massachusetts had been reduced to sixty men. Many more stragglers continued to recollect around the colors over the course of the coming days as they found their way back to their pards, but the 22nd had taken its most grievous losses of the entire war, in what amounted to its first major fight. In all, Parker cites the Battle of Gaines’ Mill cost the 22nd Massachusetts 71 killed (including Col. Jesse Gove and four other officers), 177 taken prisoner, and 31 wounded (Parker 123-126).
For the remainder of what became known as the Seven Days’ Battles, the 22nd was lightly engaged at Savage Station (June 29) and more heavily at Malvern Hill (July 1) as McClellan’s own morale cracked and he retreated before the Army of Northern Virginia– outnumbered, but consistently victorious.
While there is little to confirm his reasons, it seems likely that the horrific fighting and losses– as well as the mismanagement of the army by McClellan– broke the spirit of Edwin Wentworth. Perhaps he feared that the war was lost, and that he’d not want to die in a lost cause; or end up a prisoner. Perhaps it was the loss of his Captain and fellow 6th MVM veteran John Dunning at Gaines’ Mill that cracked his spirit. We may never know the truth, but the record shows that the 22nd Massachusetts stayed at Harrison’s Landing behind Malvern Hill through August 14, when they marched for Newport News, where Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps had been ordered to join John Pope’s Army of Virginia in an effort to smash rebels that were threatening Washington City. On August 20, they boarded the steamer North America, up the Chesapeake and the mouth of the Potomac, to Aquia Creek where they disembarked. In town, the 22nd Massachusetts boarded a train at Rappahannock Station bound for Fredericksburg– but Edwin Wentworth was no longer with them. Somewhere between the landing and the station, he’d deserted, and took to flight.
The 32nd and 31st Maine to the End of the War
Wentworth remained “disappeared” from August 21 1862 through early 1864. When he next surfaces, it is in Bath, Maine, where he enlisted in the newly formed 32nd Maine Infantry under the assumed name of “Charles E. Nelson” as a private. (He claims this to be his assumed name on his post-war request for a Federal pension, noting it as an AKA and additional service.) Of particular note is the day “Nelson” signed his enlistment papers– April 19 1864– three years to the day after the Pratt Street Riot in Baltimore. This seems no mere coincidence. While no writing of his exists to confirm the suspicion, it is surely possible that Wentworth’s conscience got the better of him, and on a day with so much significance to himself, and to his 6th Massachusetts brethren, he reenlisted to carry the fight to its natural conclusion.
The 32nd Maine left Augusta the day after ‘Nelson’ signed his enlistment papers, and departed for the seat of war. While with the 32nd, he was quickly promoted back to Corporal– likely, his soldiering experience showed, and was needed within the green unit. On its arrival in Virginia, the 32nd was assigned to the IX Corps, under Wentworth’s old brigade commander, General Ambrose Burnside. With the IX Corps, the 32nd Maine and Wentworth were engaged at the Battle of the Wilderness (though only late, on the last day’s fighting). More significantly, they fought at Courthouse in an effort to turn Lee’s right flank. They battled on through the rest of the Overland Campaign, hemorrhaging out heavy casualties with the rest of the Army of the Potomac through the bloodletting that nearly got Grant cashiered.
The low point of the campaign for the 32nd Maine came on July 30 1864, when Burnside kicked off the Battle of the Crater. The plan was a good one, but the execution– like so much done led by Burnside– was abysmal. By this stage of the war, Grant’s and Lee’s armies had settled into an entrenched stalemate outside Petersburg Virginia on the approach to Richmond. The actions outside Petersburg presaged the Great War some fifty years later, with brutal trench warfare and static lines. In an effort to break the stalemate, the plan was hatched to undermine the rebel trenches, pack the mine with powder, then detonate it. This would rip a hole through the rebel defenses through which a Union assault could pour, breaking the line and allowing for enfilade attacks down the line. Assigned to the task of the assault was IX Corps, including the 32nd Maine and Edwin Wentworth.
The mine exploded in a thunderous roar in the predawn hours of June 30. More than two hundred rebels were killed instantly, and the predicted gap in Confederate lines was created, in the form of a massive, smoking crater. IX Corps moved to assault the position– though they were slowed by a lack of bridges to cross their own trench lines– and due to incompetence on the part of their officers, the soldiers poured down into the crater itself (rather than flanking around it), in an effort to use the hole as an enormous rifle pit. What they ended up creating was a ‘fish in a barrel’ scenario. Rebel troops gathered around the lip of the crater and poured fire down on the hapless Union troop who could not manage to scale the walls quickly. As a result, they were shot down in droves. The 32nd fared little better– through they did not charge into the pit, and in fact made their way into rebel trenches, they were cut to pieces due to a lack of support (most of their allies were in the crater, after all), and retreated back to the Federal trenches. Only 27 members of the 32nd Maine made it back– one of these was the amazingly unscathed Edwin Wentworth.
In the days immediately following the Battle of the Crater, Burnside was removed from command for the raging incompetence he showed in the execution and detail-planning of the attack. The 32nd Maine was shattered, and combined with the equally broken 31st Maine who also participated in the assault. The 31st Maine (with their 32nd Maine brethren) were assigned mostly rear-guard and reserve action for the duration of the war, as a result of their very low numbers. The survivors of the 32nd Maine posed for a photographer that summer after the attack– the results of that moment show exactly one corporal in the group– while it cannot be independently confirmed, it seems likely that was Edwin Wentworth in his guise as Charles Nelson.
Though all the battling at the Pratt Street Riot, Gaines Mill, and the Battle of the Crater, Wentworth returned home to Lawrence in 1865 unscathed. He worked for the Lawrence Daily American (a local paper) for a few years (at least 1866-8) with his brother Walter, before moving to Worcester sometime before 1870. There he married Fannie Anne Stringer (herself a first-generation immigrant from England who probably came to Lawrence seeking a better life herself) and had two children (Stephen Edwin and Carrie Ida). Edwin worked in a dry goods shop, and as a window & door salesman, until his death in 1907. Wentworth was a member of GAR Post #10 in Worcester.
Unfortunately, due to his desertion, Wentworth was deemed ineligible for a veteran’s pension, and this decision was maintained by the government for Fannie after his death.
Edwin H. C. Wentworth lived through some of the most trying moments of the American Civil War, and was a war hero. Though after the Peninsula, his morale broke and he deserted, he returned to the fight to finish the job to the end. Although I cannot hope to hold a candle to the courage and strength of this man, I was honored and humbled to walk in his footsteps 150 years later when I had the opportunity to reenact the Battle of Gaines Mill. While at this reenactment, I was assigned to the color guard of the Mifflin Guard (who were, in whole, standing in as the 22nd Massachusetts) by my own friend Patrick Browne who was himself standing in the role of Captain John Dunning. As the rebel troops came roaring at our reserve line, our color sergeant took a hit just as did the original 22nd Massachusetts. Over to my right, Patrick declared that the 22nd Mass would make it’s stand right there, jamming his sword into the ground as he spun to his side; taking a hit just as Captain Dunning did. As the colors fell, I seized them as did Wentworth as Patrick hit the ground. I barely had time to register the chaos around me than I had to run– the rebels were in front, on both flanks…
It was barely a shadow. But that shadow was long, and it is one that sticks with me to this day. What Wentworth endured, suffered, and persevered through– it bears remembering. Even though he may have only been ‘Jones, the fourth in line‘ to history; his story– all the stories of the common soldier– they bear repeating, and remembering.
Edwin H. C. Wentworth is buried in Worcester’s Hope Cemetery in a grave bearing only his surname. He is not forgotten.
Hanson, John W. Historical Sketch of the Old Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers. Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1866. Print.
Parker, John Lord. Henry Wilson’s Regiment: History of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. 1996 Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Butternut and Blue, 1887. Print.
Scott, Frank N. Cambridge Chronicle [Cambridge MA] 13 July 1862, Print.
Watson, Bruce . Bread and Roses. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.