A Story of Courage and Duty Fulfilled -- The Death of Lt White

Andy Cardinal

2nd Lieutenant
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Ohio
The story that follows is based on Corporal George Kimball's reminiscences (A Corporal's Story). As it is a rather long story, I will break it up into several parts.

Kimball served in Company A, 12th Massachusetts, which fought and mostly died in the Cornfield. The story concerns Lieutenant William Greenough White, 22 years old from Boston. White was the son of Ferdinand Elliot and Dorothy Whiten. Ferdinand was a prominent Boston merchant. William grew up the youngest of seven siblings. Unfortunately I have not yet found a whole lot about White, but as Kimball later wrote, "He was a Latin School boy and resigned a desirable position in the office of a prominent State Street banking firm when the war came. Everything that life seemed worth living for appeared to be opening up before him, but he sacrificed all."

There are countless stories like this one from both sides and in any battle I have ever read about. Still, this particular story caught my attention and so I decided to share as emblematic of the courage and sacrifice of the men who fought in the Civil War.

Part 1:

Brigadier General George L. Hartsuff's brigade bivouacked in the fields near the Samuel Poffenberger farm on the evening of September 16. They knew a major battle was imminent, and that it least some of their friends and comrades would not be with them by the end of the next day. "Now and then a lurid flash and a screaming shell tell us we are very close to the enemy," Kimball recalled, "while the crash of rifles in front shows that the pickets are already at it."

"The company in which I was serving numbered at this time forty men," Kimball wrote. "We had borne our full share of the hardships and losses of Pope's ill-starred campaign. Our Captain had been killed at Bull Run on the 30th of August. Our First Lieutenant, William Greenough White, a noble fellow, had been stricken down with slow fever early in Pope's campaign." White had been left behind as the regiment went into action at Cedar Mountain in early August. "He would gladly have gone with us," Kimball wrote, "but was too sick, and reluctantly entered the brigade hospital tent. We bade him an affectionate good-by, for we all loved him."

Confined to a cot, the hospital nurses had a difficult time keeping White in bed while his regiment was fighting without him. Then the Confederates launched the great turning movement which resulted in the battle of Second Manassas. "The sound of the guns came nearer and nearer the tent where our Lieutenant lay," Kimball wrote. "After a while he heard it, and his keepers could keep him no longer. He rose like a lion from his lair. Demanding his uniform and sword he left while the other sick ones were being hurriedly loaded into ambulances for transportation to Washington. He started in the direction from which the firing came. Alone and unassisted he hurried forward. His desire to be with us, his love of country, his manly pride, and the heavy roar of the guns, every moment sounding louder and nearer, nerved him on and gave him unnatural strength. When he came up we gave him a cheer, and he wept like a child, so glad was he to be with us once more."

On August 28, the division was sent to Thoroughfare Gap in an attempt to keep Longstreet's command from coming through and reuniting with Jackson's wing. They marched all day, although they did not reach the gap in time to prevent Longstreet from taking possession of it. "Our Lieutenant had been as active as any of us, and we all felt his influence and loved him more than ever," Kimball wrote. "But the poor fellow's strength began to leave him in a few hours after we set out, and finally he fainted and fell in the road. The surgeon took him from us again and sent him to the rear in an ambulance. In a Washington hospital he had a relapse of the fever." White missed the fighting at Second Manassas and the march through Maryland.

As the men of the 12th Massachusetts tried to get some sleep, there was a stirring in the camp, "with hand-shakings and God bless yous," as Lieutenant White appeared. "He has again broken away from his keepers, but is no more fit to endure the rigors of campaigning than before," Kimball wrote. "His face is pale, his eyes are sunken, his limbs weak, but his soul is on fire. News of an impending battle has taken him from his bed and brought him to us again in spite of the protests of doctors and nurses. We share our rations with him, for he has none, and roll him up in blankets and overcoats, and he sleeps between two comrades as peacefully as a child."
 

Andy Cardinal

2nd Lieutenant
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Part 2:

Hartsuff's were up and ready early the next morning. They mived into position and then waited. They did not know that General Hartsuff had been badly wounded. While command was passed to Colonel Richard Coulter and Coulter waited for orders, the men watched the first attack of the day (Duryea's) brigade go on without them. They could see Duryeas men fighting for their lives at the southern end of the cornfield. "We had been ready at any moment to advance and now that the Union line seemed to be melting away and the victorious Confederates were advancing, we knew we would soon be needed,” Kimball recalled. Soon Captain William Candler of Hooker's staff appeared, with orders for Coulter to send the brigade forward. "We moved down the slope steadily and with as good a line as we would have maintained had it been a parade," Kimball wrote. "At the foot of the rise men began to fall, for some of the enemy skirmishers had gained the cornfield and Stuart's shells had already begun their destructive work." [Note & question: I believe the skirmishers Kimball referred to were actually the remnants of Douglass’s three right-hand regiments, who had followed Duryea’s retreating brigade into the corn. These Georgia regiments were not very large to begin with and had already suffered heavy casualties. They probably looked more like skirmishers than a properly formed infantry attack.]

The 12th Massachusetts reached the fence at the north end of the cornfield and began to climb over it. Kimball recalled that "bullets were flying" and that several men were killed or wounded as they climbed the fence. Once on the other side, Captain Benjamin Cook led two companies of skirmishers forward into the corn with the rest of the regiment following behind. The Massachusetts skirmishers soon pushed Douglass’s Georgians out of the field. "On we swept through the waving corn," Kimball wrote, "the bullets of the enemy doing deadly work at every step and shells bursting all about us, while the yells of the foe … pierced every Union ear and nerves every loyal heart. On, on we pressed, closing every gap made by the enemy's missiles." He recalled that Lieutenant William White was as “tall and erect as a statue” as they advanced, and that he “was a conspicuous figure in the line. He was as cool as he would have been leading his company in review. To us he seemed the very embodiment of an ideal soldier." In contrast to White, Kimball wrote that his "limbs trembled at every step, for fear had taken a strong hold on me. Only by thinking of the requirements of duty and of the ridicule to which I would be subjected from my comrades should I fail, was I able to keep my place in the ranks." He added: "Some men never had this fear in going into battle. I confess I never entered one without it."

They were "met by a perfect storm of bullets" when they reached the other end of the corn. Kimball recalled that "shells and canister flew about us furiously or went screaming over our heads to the rear." They paused here to remove the worm fence at the southern end of the field. Kimball was “holding a rail above my head in both hands, in the act of throwing it behind me, when a piece of shell or solid shot wrenched it from my grasp with such violence that my arms were benumbed.” Lieutenant White was hit in the foot. Two of his toss were severed, but Kimball recalled, "he halted only a moment while we were pulling down the fence.” Obviously in great pain and already weak from his illness, Major Elisha Burbank (the regiment’s commander) told White to go to the rear. White refused, telling Burbank he was “worth a dozen dead men yet.”

“We finished leveling the fence and moved forward again,” Kimball wrote. About fifty feet ahead was a small knoll. “The fire had been increasing every moment until now it seemed terrible." They moved up the rising ground toward the knoll, Lieutenant White limping along with his men. Lieutenant George W. Orne advised White to go to the rear, and again White refused. “I shall not leave the company,” he said.

The Massachusetts men moved up on to the knoll. A Confederate line of battle was waiting. [Note & Question -- I believe this was Hays' Louisiana brigade] "Every musket was leveled at once and fired simultaneously and the effect was distinctly noticeable," Kimball wrote. "So near was the foe it is undoubtedly true that every bullet did its work. The enemy wavered and recoiled before this fearful storm of lead, but soon rallied and returned the fire and the men of Massachusetts met their onslaught with a fortitude not excelled on any battlefield of the war." Kimball wrote:

How terrible was the shock and how our men went down! What screams and groans followed that first volley! Then we loaded and fired at will as rapidly as we could. Our officers cried, “Give it to them, boys!” and the men took up the cry, too. There was a pandemonium of voices, as well as a perfect roar of musketry and a storm of bullets. Shells were bursting among us, too, continually. In the wild excitement of battle, I forgot my fear and thought only of killing as many of the foe as I could. The tall soldier at my side, who had told me on the march that he felt as though he was to be hit in this battle, had already fallen. He lay at my feet with a mortal hurt. His brother dragged him back a few paces and then returned to his place in the ranks. A few moments more and my brother, too, was wounded, though not so badly. When I had assisted him to a stump a short distance to the rear, he crept behind it and told me to “go back and give it to them.”

Our ranks were terribly broken now, but the line was kept up and we fought on. Our second lieutenant had gone to the rear, his right shoulder being torn from its socket by a piece of shell. Lieutenant White still remained. His eyes glowed with the joy of battle and he seemed to be everywhere imparting courage and stimulating the efforts of his men. By-and-by he was struck again. A piece of shell had stripped the flesh from the upper part of one of his arms. The shock was severe enough to throw him to the ground, but he quickly rose again and his voice was heard as before above the din of battle. I looked at his face to see if he showed evidences of pain and was met with a cheery smile. By this time our ranks had become fearfully decimated and the lieutenant began moving those who were yet in line nearer the colors. “Let us die under the flag, boys!” he cried.
 

Andy Cardinal

2nd Lieutenant
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Ohio
Part 3:

The fight continued. The 12th Massachusetts was suffering catastrophic casualties. Kimball had just loaded his weapon and was returning his ramrod to its socket when a bullet hit it and wrenched it from his hand. He turned to find his ramrod and Lieutenant White "passed me another, pointing to my own, which lay bent and unfit for use across the face of a dead man. A bullet entered my knapsack just under my left arm while I was taking aim. Another passed through my haversack, which hung upon my left hip. Still another cut both strings of my canteen and that useful article joined the debris now thickly covering the ground. Having lost all natural feeling, I laughed at these mishaps as though they were huge jokes and remarked to my nearest neighbor that I supposed I should soon be relieved of all my trappings. A man but a few paces from me was struck squarely in the face by a solid shot. Fragments of the poor fellow’s head came crashing into my face and filled me with disgust. I grumbled about it as though it were something that might have been avoided. My supply of cartridges was exhausted and I sought for more among the cartridge boxes of the dead. Many others were doing the same and nearly everybody had had experiences similar to mine. There were but few of us left now."

Men continued to fall and great gaps appeared in the line. Lieutenant White kept ordering those who were still standing to close on the colors. "The groans of the dying seemed louder and more dreadful every moment," Kimball recalled. "A piercing shriek was heard behind us. We looked and found that our brave lieutenant had been hit again. This time it was a mortal hurt. His hip was shattered and his abdomen torn open in a shocking manner, but his voice was heard high above the din, 'Don’t mind me, give it to them!'"

Finally, orders came to fall back. "Of the thirty men of my company who entered the fight, but seven besides me remained," Kimball wrote. "Four of us took up Lieutenant White. We placed him on a blanket and started for the rear. We had to pick our way among the dead and dying. The groans of the wounded were terrible. It was hard to disregard the appeals for help that came from every quarter." The air was full of "full of flying fragments of iron and whistling bullets" as fresh troops moved to the front and the 12th Massachusetts withdrew. Kimball's greatest concern at this point was to "get our poor lieutenant to a place of safety where the surgeons would care for his wounds."

We had to go through the cornfield again. The tall stalks had now been trodden down and the dead lay thickly everywhere. Hundreds of wounded men were slowly creeping toward the rear or, unable to get any farther, were lying down in despair to die. We passed many whose faces were familiar—those who had long been dear to us—and now realized more fully than before what heavy losses we had sustained. We stopped occasionally for a moment’s rest and, when we tenderly raised our wounded officer and resumed our journey, he cheerily sang:

O, carry me along, carry me along,
Carry me till I die.


They carried White to the Poffenberger farm. [Note & Question -- I believe this was the Samuel Poffenberger farm.] There the regimental surgeon, John M. Haywood, examined White's wounds. "The lieutenant talked lightly of his hurts and with his own hands replaced the torn flesh," Kimball recalled. "This exhibition of heroism was too much even for professional self-control and the surgeon turned aside and burst into tears. We took an affectionate leave of our dear friend, for we had to return to the ranks. He thanked us one by one for the service we had rendered him and whispered a final message to those who loved him at home."

Kimball was not present when Lieutenant William White died later that afternoon. "Those who were with him when he died told us he was brave to the last," Kimball wrote. "He died late in the afternoon. One of his lower limbs was very painful just before he breathed his last. An attendant was rubbing it. 'Does this rubbing do you any good, lieutenant?' 'No,' said he, 'but that cheering does,' for just then our troops had gained an advantage."

White's body is buried at Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge.
 

rebel brit

1st Lieutenant
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Great story. Coincidently I'm just reading that part of the battle in 'Landscape Turned Red' by Stephen W. Sears.

' When the order was given to withdraw, there were only 32 men of the 12th Massachusetts left to escort the regimental colors to the rear. A few score more would eventually turn up - stragglers, men knocked loose from the unit in the heat of the fighting, others who had helped wounded comrades off the field - but when a final count was made the proud 12th was little more than a shell.
It's commanding officer was mortally wounded, and it had lost 224 of the 334 men it took into battle, earning the terrible distinction of suffering the highest casualty rate (67 percent) of any Federal regiment on that bloody day.'
 
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