Colonel William S. Clark, 21st Massachusetts
Colonel William S. Clark had no choice. He did not have discretion to decide whether or not to obey an order. He had sworn an oath to obey all lawful orders given by a superior officer, even when he knew that his superior’s orders were a mistake. Making Clark’s situation worse was the fact that the orders came from Major General Phil Kearny. Kearny was known as a fierce fighter -- Winfield Scott called him "the bravest man I ever knew" -- but also reckless, and he was intolerant of the failings of others. He could not abide timidity or cowardice. He certainly would not abide anyone who disobeyed his orders.
Clark was a scholar, not a professional soldier. Born on July 21, 1826, in Easthampton, Massachusetts to Dr. Atherton and Harriet Clark, he attended Williston Academy before matriculating to Amherst in the fall of 1844. He graduated in 1848 with a degree in science and then returned to Williston, where he taught for two years. In 1850, Clark went to Europe and entered Georgia Augusta University in Goettingen, Germany, to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Clark's roommate and best friend while studying in Germany was another American student, a 25 year-old Yale graduate from Bristol, Connecticut, named Newton Manross. Returning to America during the summer of 1852, Dr. Clark was almost immediately appointed professor of chemistry at Amherst, a position he would hold until the war began. He married Harriet Keopuolani Richards Williston on May 25, 1853. In all, the couple would have 11 children, eight of them surviving into adulthood.
Clark & his wife
When the 21st Massachusetts was mustered into service in August 1861, Clark was commissioned as the regiment’s Major. Like most other regimental and junior-grade officers on both sides, Clark had no military training and had to teach himself how to be an officer through study and experience. Later that fall, Clark was able to write to his friend Manross, who had taken over his professorship at Amherst, “I am progressing rapidly in my knowledge of military matters and hope to become an accomplished officer.” Clark won praise for his performance leading the regiment during Burnside’s campaign in North Carolina and was promoted to the rank of Colonel in May 1862.
Only a few minutes before, the 21st Massachusetts had entered the woods, following the 51st Pennsylvania. "As we entered the woods heavy thunder-clouds obscured the sky and it became very dark," Captain Charles Walcott, commanding Company B, remembered; "as the 51st were in front of us, we were particularly cautioned against firing if we came upon troops, and for the same reason we employed no skirmishers in our front…. As we moved forward through the dense dark wood, a tremendous thunder-storm burst upon us, and our line was badly broken up by fallen trees and other obstacles, but we still moved on." Walcott remembered passing a dozen rebels taking shelter under a pile of rails, but "we took it for granted that it was all right" because the 51st New York was still in front of them. "In a few minutes we came in sight of a body of troops in front of us, in dark uniforms," Walcott wrote, "and approached until portions of the regiment were within twenty yards of them, when we halted and began to dress our line, which was badly broken, some companies having become detached by long intervals from the rest by the obstacles met on the march." In the storm and darkness, they could not tell who these men were. "We felt nervous and anxious," Walcott recalled. "More than one man said, 'Those are rebels,' but from what we knew about the situation the chance seemed otherwise." A few scattered shots rang out to the right. Some of the Massachusetts men called out, "Cease firing; we're friends." “While most of our men were standing with their guns at the shoulder,” Walcott continued, “one of the deadliest volleys ever fired rolled upon us from our right and front.” Nearly 100 men were killed or wounded, and Clark ordered the regiment to retreat.
Kearny appeared "in fierce haste" just as the survivors emerged from the woods. Kearny's order was peremptory, meaning it was to be carried out immediately -- he had sent one of his own brigades into the fight and now he ordered Clark to move at once to support them on their right. The Massachusetts men who had survived the ordeal in the woods, however, were in no condition to make an immediate advance. "We tried to steal a few minutes to get the wet charges out of our guns," Walcott wrote, "but the general, in hot and angry impatience, would brook no delay, and under his sneers, threats, and curses, we again moved forward."
They advanced a short distance when Clark ordered them to halt. He was not going to be caught by surprise again. He ordered skirmishers to move forward into the cornfield to their front and into the woods, which were now to their right. As the skirmishers were deploying an officer rode up and confronted Clark with the message from Kearny: The general would order a battery to fire on them if they did not move forward immediately. "We moved slowly forward," Walcott wrote, "and almost immediately a dropping fire was opened upon us from the corn in our front, and our skirmishers coming in from the right reported that a body of the enemy was advancing from the woods upon our right flank." Once again Clark ordered them to halt and to open fire. At the same time, Clark ordered his right flank company to "refuse" so that it now was,at right angles to the rest of the regiment and face the threat coming from the woods.
Major General Phillip Kearny
Major General Phillip Kearny
Furious, Kearny galloped to the front and confronted Clark again. The general -- "in if possible a more emphatic manner than before," as Walcott phrased it -- told Clark that there weren't any rebels anywhere nearby and again ordered the regiment to move forward. So as to prove that there were in fact rebels in the area, Walcott brought forward two prisoners just taken in the corn from the 49th Georgia. “**** you and your prisoners!" Kearny shouted and, putting his spurs to his horse, dashed ahead. "I watched him moving in the murky twilight," Walcott wrote, "and when ten or twelve yards from our line saw his horse suddenly rear and turn, and half a dozen muskets flash around him…." Within moments, Kearney was dead.
The Confederates advanced when Kearny fell. Clark and his men could see them moving toward them in the darkness of twilight. The Confederates came to a stop as they neared the Massachusetts line. “For a few moments there was no firing,” Walcott recalled, “and the brave enemies, standing face to face, demanded the surrender of each other in language rather forcible than polite.” The Captain Ira J. Kelton ordered his company to fire. “The rebels stood within a dozen feet of our men,” Walcott wrote; “the guns on both sides came down to a level, and Kelton in a prompt ringing voice gave the order to fire; the response from his men was instantaneous and effective, and every gun that would go off on our line joined in.” The Confederates returned fire, and scores of Massachusetts men fell. “The moment the command ‘Fire!’ passed the rebel colonel’s lips, I fell flat on my face,” one Massachusetts man remembered. “Every man around me, but one, fell dead or wounded.”
As soon as they had fired their volley, the Confederate commander ordered his men to charge. “Then,” Walcott wrote, “as the rebels charged through our line in overpowering mass, men snatched the guns from each other’s hands, and for the first, and so far as I know the last, time in our experience wounds in fight were given with the bayonet.” A few of the surviving Massachusetts men began to run to the rear and the Confederates began yelling, “Halt! Throw down your guns!” “I did not halt, nor throw down my gun, but I did run and he ran, after me,” one of the Massachusetts men remembered. He came to a ditch and jumped it. Looking back, he “saw the Johnny who chased me ordering some of our boys out of the ditch; they had made the fatal error of trying to secrete themselves in that ditch.” He continued to the rear “until I reached the part of the field from which we had started the advance with General Kearny; then I began to hunt around for the boys.”
On the right of the line, Colonel Clark found himself nearly surrounded with Confederates to the front, on the flank, and overlapping into the rear. The colonel and six or eight of his men became separated from the rest of the regiment. Rather than surrender, Clark decided to charge straight ahead through the Confederate. All of the men with him were shot down. When the rest of the regiment regrouped afterwards, Colonel Clark was missing and presumed dead.
The 21st Massachusetts had survived its most difficult day of the war. “The 21st left the most destructive field of their experience at two o’clock on the morning of the 2d; and after a march of six miles to Fairfax Court House, where we retired for an hour or two, moved on ten or twelve miles further to the vicinity of Alexandria and went into bivouac in the afternoon. The night following was quite cold; and being without tents, and many of the men without blankets, the 21st, weary, sullen, cold, and unhappy, passed an uncomfortable night.”
Part 2 upcoming....