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Madness in Combat and its Toll – Sergeant Jamie McNeil of the 40th New York

Discussion in 'Battle of Gettysburg' started by Tom Elmore, Oct 11, 2017 at 12:16 PM.

  1. Tom Elmore

    Tom Elmore First Sergeant

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    James “Jamie” McNeill of the 40th New York attempted to explain, in a letter to his love, Mary, his experience on the battlefield of Gettysburg. This excerpt details the charge of his regiment through the “Valley of Death” against the foe, which may have included the 2nd Georgia, in the rocky fastness of the Devil’s Den.

    “We formed up and marched across a large open field, then accelerated to a general charge towards the Rebs at Devil’s Den. Within a short time the fighting had reduced itself to bayonets and hand-to-hand fighting. I did my share without more than one or two thoughts (I confess) for my own safety. I tried to keep my command together, but it was difficult among the rocks and trees. With friends falling around me, my resolve became clear – first to protect them, and then to avenge them. In the next half-hour I hardly remember how many I killed. I remember climbing over rocks to stab a man in gray with my bayonet before he could reload. I remember wedging myself between two trunks of a tree and shooting at men below me. I remember wrestling with a Reb and tearing his gun from his hands and bashing him in the head with it. At one time, a man on the ground cut at my leg with his knife and I fired into his face. I was crazed and will not try to explain it. … After a while I realized I was alone among the rocks and the dead. I had used up my ammunition and took a moment to raid the cartridge boxes of some of the fallen nearby. I also picked up a pistol I found and loaded it as well with bullets from the pockets of its dead owner. Then I went out in search of my regiment. … Our company roll call that night was a dismal affair with less than half answering to their names. Somebody began telling a story of how I had saved my command by wiping out a nest of Reb marksmen that had them pinned down among the rocks. I truthfully do not remember this incident. It could be true. Perhaps it is true. I do not know. Can you understand this?”

    McNeill never received a medal for his actions that day. He must have earned the respect of his comrades, but we will never completely understand what it cost him, during his remaining days.

    http://www.groundbreaking.com/Jean_Marie_McLain/gettysburg.htm
     

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  3. Longhall

    Longhall Private

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    Thanks for sharing that. If this is not an accurate description of men living through Hell I don't know what is.
     
  4. Wallyfish

    Wallyfish Sergeant Trivia Game Winner

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    What a story. Thanks for sharing. There appears to be a Medal of Honor priority on capturing enemy flags versus a story such as McNeill's. Hopefully he was embellishing his story to Mary!
     
  5. JOHN42768

    JOHN42768 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

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    Adrenaline must have been pumping at gusher rate in his body. Heroes are where we find them
     
  6. AUG351

    AUG351 Captain Forum Host

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    When reading the full letter I couldn't help but wonder if it was original with some of the words and phrases he uses and things he mentions. Turns out the letter is fiction: http://www.groundbreaking.com/Jean_Marie_McLain/asbestwecould.htm

    That's certainly not to say many at Gettysburg or elsewhere didn't go through similar experiences though.
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2017 at 3:16 PM
  7. bankerpapaw

    bankerpapaw 2nd Lieutenant

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    When you are angry or scared, you are capable of doing anything or absolutely nothing.
     
  8. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    I was wondering that myself since a cursory look at the various rosters didn't turn up a James O'Neill.

    Ryan
     
  9. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    Great point @JOHN42768! I think it can be easy to forget about the body's reaction to stress - we know that fight/flight/freeze kicks in as a response to threats. What we often forget about is how the body comes down from that state: cortisol and acetylcholine put the body in more of a resting state, contributing to a massive slowing down of breathing, heart rate, and muscle contraction. It's important to take this into account for a few reasons:
    1) we can understand how trauma impacts combat vets, and
    2) we can better understand why it wasn't easy for armies to pursue beaten opponents.

    Meade gets a lot of heat for not launching an attack right after Longstreet's assault was beaten back, but I am guessing there weren't tons of men able to stand for long, much less assume the offensive and launch an attack. There were probably thousands of men overwhelmed by the heat and biochemical switchups going on that were, for all intents, out of action for a few hours.
     
  10. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    An interesting factoid about the 40th New York is that the regiment was made up of men from 6 regiments, which helps to explain its large size at Gettysburg. In September 1862, the remnants of the 87th New York (which had lost heavily at Seven Pines and Second Manassas) were folded into the 40th. In May 1863, the three-year men from the 37th and 38th New York were transferred into the regiment (does that sound familiar?). Previously in December 1862, the leftovers from the 101st New York had consolidated with the 37th New York. Lastly, the 55th New York was broken up in December 1862 and one company joined the 40th.

    Ryan
     
  11. E_just_E

    E_just_E 1st Lieutenant Forum Host

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    Also the original 40th NY, had only 6 NY companies; 3 were from MA and 1 from PA.
     
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  12. Tom Elmore

    Tom Elmore First Sergeant

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    Looks like I got taken in on this one. However, I must say that it was exceptionally well done, reminiscent of The Red Badge of Courage, down to realistic sounding details of the 40th New York's role.
     
  13. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    It was only 4 from New York. Until the other New York regiments were consolidated with the 40th, New Yorkers were a minority in the regiment.

    "Originally it was known as the United States Constitution Guard, recruited in New York City by Col. John S. Cocks, of which the Second Zouaves, an incomplete organization, formed part; at the solicitation of the Mozart Hall Committee, it accepted the designation Mozart Regiment. No more men being accepted from the State, except through the State authorities, the regiment was completed by taking four companies from Massachusetts, one - B - from Newburyport; one - G - from Milford; one - H - from West Cambridge; and one - K - from Lawrence; and two companies from Pennsylvania."

    http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/40thInf/40thInfMain.htm

    Ryan
     
  14. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    It was well done. I would've believed that it was authentic until I started looking for the author and couldn't find him in New York's records.

    Ryan
     
  15. diane

    diane Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host

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    Really good post. That's why Bragg thought his army was too blown to pursue the Union after Chickamauga. Forrest had seen their state of disarray and advised pursuit - mop them up before they could become entrenched. This guy knew a lot about the effects of adrenaline and he knew if the men smelled victory that extra push would be there. It was for the Union - they got to Chattanooga and immediately began digging for their lives. In Meade's case, it was a different matter - weather sure didn't help - because his men had been fighting for three days at top speed.

    Forrest is, as a matter of fact, a very well documented study in the effects of biochemical switchups. He was normally a mild mannered, soft spoken man with a fairly quiet disposition despite his legendary temper until danger arose. Then he transformed so dramatically nobody recognized him. His face became brick red, his eyes blazed, he seemed to actually become taller and bigger, and his voice changed to a loud brassy baritone that could be heard clearly over cannon fire. He also became unusually clear minded, operating at top mental capacity, always in control, quicker and more precise in actions, and he was stronger than normal. This is why he could be surrounded by a dozen men just as jacked up as he was and take out half of them. When the need for this reaction was over one of two things happened - he either collapsed, or nearly so and slept for a very long time, or he couldn't get out of it and everybody around him was in danger if they said a wrong word. That's when his aides would go get his wife, who was the only one who could calm him down from that state. I don't know if you'd call that madness but it's sure pretty close to it.
     
  16. amweiner

    amweiner Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    Interesting stuff @diane! Thanks for sharing this - I didn't know any of these aspects of NBF. It's possible his body was just well-wired for fight rather than flight or freeze, and it sounds like his mind required certain specific stimuli to start coming down from its battle high. Maybe his wife's tone of voice was a certain frequency....who knows? The brain is a fascinating thingamajig!!
     
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  17. diane

    diane Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host

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    It sure is a weird place! I can't think of any other general in the CW described the way Forrest was, except his younger brother. He would explode without any warning - always deadly, too. At least Forrest had some control - in fact, the reaction seemed to give that to him. Cheatham, when first seeing this effect, was afraid they had an excitable, impulsive and out of control commander who would get them all killed. But after the battle, he commented he had never seen a mind work quicker or more precisely. He was no longer uncomfortable about Forrest. Perhaps the concentration of energy on one situation produced this positive outcome.

    Stephen Sears wrote Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam. The title is taken from a soldier's description of his experience in the battle - he said all he observed, which was clear and precise, was through a pink haze. He was surprised the old saying 'mad enough to see red' was true!
     
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