Louisiana Officer Meets the “Chaplain” of the 147th New York and Mrs. William McClellan

Tom Elmore

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A fascinating story appeared in The National Tribune on October 4, 1888. The author did not identify himself, but he did name his unit, the 147th New York. It was a separate 1889 letter that revealed the author to be Edwin Menzo Sperry of Company C, a sergeant at Gettysburg who was promoted to lieutenant later in the war.

Sperry writes of the sweltering march to Gettysburg and being placed on a rise of ground with enemy skirmishers only 15 rods (about 250 feet) in front, who were lying down unseen in the wheat; their presence was revealed by smoke from their weapons. (Note: This corresponds to the 147th’s position on the north side of the western-most railroad cut, opposing skirmishers of the 42nd Mississippi, who were evidently concealing their approach.) The 147th was soon flanked on the right, but (Lieutenant) Colonel (Francis C.) Miller was knocked senseless by a bullet that grazed his scalp as orders came to retreat, and it took another ten minutes before the regiment fell back. Sperry said he ran nearly half a mile, with the colors being carried out by Sergeant Wyborn (Wybourn) of Company I. Later that afternoon during the retreat, Sperry and Lieutenant Brown of Company E were passing together through the town when a fragment from a nearby exploding shell struck Sperry’s ankle. It was just a bruise but he was temporarily disabled. He was soon captured and sent to the hospital established at the courthouse. There he encountered a Dr. Chambers, who suggested Sperry assume the duties of a nurse to avoid being sent to the rear by his captors. (Note: It was probably Surgeon William B. Chambers, 97th New York, in charge of a 1st Corps, 2nd Division hospital. Thanks to Sperry we now know where Chambers served.)

Sperry used a bottle of whiskey to bribe a Confederate guard to allow him and a group of wounded comrades to access a well in an adjoining yard. Sperry wrote, “As we passed a door near the well I saw a lady and asked her for a bucket to get some water to bathe my ankle. She saw my uniform and answered me in a low tone, but very emphatically, ‘Anything I can do for you I will do gladly.’ … I drew the water from the well and stepped around the corner of the house, accompanied by the lady only, when I asked her if she could furnish me with a suit of citizen’s clothes, telling her I was not as lame as I appeared to be.” A guard appeared at that moment, but despite his presence, Sperry handed her a note telling her to leave the barn door unlocked that night, under the guise of advising her where to mail a letter in his possession. After dark Sperry bribed the guard with hospital bourbon and entered the barn to hide. The lady soon appeared and verbally passed instructions that directed Sperry through a window of the woodhouse, over a woodpile, through the kitchen and into a room where he found a washtub of warm water, razor, and a good suit of civilian clothes with a boiled shirt. The lady soon reappeared with an excellent dinner and hot coffee. (Note: In the Tribune article, Sperry did not identify the woman, but in his 1889 letter, he revealed her to be Mrs. McClellan, who lived “next to the Court House.” According to a town layout as it was in mid-1863, the William McClellan place adjoined the courthouse on its west side, facing West Middle Street.)

Thus prepared and fortified, Sperry was escorted by Mrs. McClellan downstairs into the parlor to meet an officer from Louisiana named Peck and his staff. (Note: Sperry identified Peck as a General in charge of the Louisiana Tigers, which suggests Harry T. Hays, but by naming Peck, he may have actually encountered Lieutenant Colonel William R. Peck of the 9th Louisiana. One might expect Peck to be with his regiment, but at 6 foot 6 inches tall and weighing 330 pounds, Peck may have found it hard to get around. He always rode his horse, “Black Ashby” - even into the fight at sunset on July 2, when all the other officers in Hays’ and Avery’s brigades walked.)

Mrs. McClellan introduced Sperry, under an assumed name, as a cousin and Methodist clergyman from New York, who had been detained in Gettysburg owing to the railroad being torn up. Peck accepted him at face value, boasting that “in one week we will have Baltimore, and in 10 days we will have Washington.” He freely employed profanity, but apologized often, saying, “Please excuse me, Elder, for swearing.” Sperry met Peck in the same spot very late on July 2, after the fight on Cemetery Hill, when Peck was considerably less optimistic.

Sperry eluded his captors and made it back to the Union lines on the morning of July 4. His name does not appear on a list of Gettysburg casualties. Hearing details of his escapade, his comrades bestowed upon him the honorary title of chaplain. In 1889, Sperry wrote, “while I was in Gettysburg last summer, I saw Mrs. McClellan (now Mrs. Tracy) and her daughter, both of whom seem much pleased to see me and we had a happy meeting.”

Perhaps others can fill in details on the remarkable Mrs. McClellan, who, judging from her abilities, quick thinking and cool demeanor in this situation, had the makings of a successful spy. She certainly assured one Union soldier’s quick return to the war.

Sources:
- The National Tribune, October 4, 1888, p. 3
-June 8, 1889 letter of E. M. Sperry to H. H. Lyman, Oswego County Historical Society, on file at Gettysburg National Military Park
-https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/44115253/edwin-menzo-sperry
-Map of the 1863 town structures, D. Roth, Blue and Gray Magazine
-July 9, 1863 letter of William R. Peck to his sister, Tennessee Virtual Archive, TeVA
-John W. and Travis W. Busey, Union Casualties at Gettysburg
 

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