Friday, April 19, 2013

THE CIVIL WAR ON PAPER Part 1 - Alford Chapman and the 57th New York

For this week's blog we will embark on a new idea.  Historical documents will be used to tell the story of some of the Civil War's most extraordinary personalities.  The story of the Civil War truly can be told on paper, but not just in contemporary form.  Think of it as history through artifacts!

One of my favorite pieces is a response document from 1864 signed and issued by Colonel Alford B. Chapman of the 57th New York.  Chapman was a young officer of much promise and during his military career he truly experienced the greatest extent of war, good and bad.  The document reads as followed:

Camp of 57th New York Vol. Infy.

Near Stevensburgh, Va.

Jany. 29th, 1864

To Second Auditor
United States Treasury

In compliance with instructions from Adjt. Genl. Office, Washington, D.C., dated Jany. 15/64, I have the honor to transmit quarterly return of Deceased Soldiers for 2d quarter of 1862.

I am Sir
Very Respectfully Your
Obedient Servant
A.B. Chapman
Lieut. Col. Comdg.
57 N.Y. Vol 1

Colonel Alford B. Chapman was born in New York City on August 1, 1835. He was born to fight in America's most deadly conflict.  At his date of enlistment, August 10th, 1861, he had just passed his twenty-sixth year. He had been connected with the Seventh New York Militia during the eight years precluding opening hostilities between North and South.  Through that connection he acquired the diligence and discipline which served him so well in the years of his war service. At the flash-point of the rebellion he accompanied the Seventh New York Regiment as a Sergeant on its journey to Washington and upon his return began to raise the company which afterwards became Company A in the Fifty-Seventh New York Volunteer Infantry.  He mustered in as its captain on September 12, 1861. He was advanced to major on August 30, 1862, and when Lieutenant-Colonel Parisen was killed at Antietam, took command of the regiment and was promoted to the vacant position with rank from September 17th, 1862. 2

The 57th New York suffered dearly on the bloodiest day in American history, being engaged along the Sunken Road or "Bloody Lane"  at Antietam.  Chapman wrote the unit's Official Report saying;
Sunken Road at Antieta
About noon of that day we became actively engaged with the enemy, our brigade having relieved that of General Meagher. This regiment and the Sixty-sixth Regiment received orders to march on the enemy, who were at that time drawn up in a deep ditch at the foot of the hill on which we were, and from whence they were pouring a galling fire into our ranks. Animated by the presence of both their brigade and division commanders, the regiment moved forward with a determined enthusiasm I have never seen excelled. In a few minutes we had cleared the ditch of every living enemy, and were driving them in great disorder through the corn field beyond. It was during this period of the action that we lost our noble and gallant Lieutenant-Colonel Parisen and several valuable line officers. We took the colors of the Twelfth Alabama and many prisoners. I am unable to form any very correct estimate of the number of the latter, but they considerably exceeded the number of men in the ranks of my regiment.

Remaining a short time in line at the farther end of this corn field, I received orders to move the regiment to the support of a battery on our left and rear. I filed round the foot of the hill under a terrible fire of grape and canister, which fortunately caused us comparatively slight loss, being aimed too high. Arriving on the left of the battery, I found General Richardson, who was in the act of assigning me my position, when he was badly wounded and carried from the field. I then formed to the right of Caldwell's brigade, and remained in that position until I received orders from the colonel commanding this brigade to form on the left of the Second Delaware, then posted on the hill, on which we remained during the two succeeding days.  Of the 309 men that went into battle with the 57th New York on September 17th, 1862, 53 were killed or mortally wounded, 44 wounded and 3 missing. 3

Colonel Alford Chapman
At Fredericksburg the regiment was again engaged in the fierce fighting along the Rappahannock River.  "During the laying of the pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg, the 57th was detailed to protect the engineers. There was no cover for the 57th as they positioned themselves along the river bank while the engineers continued construction. Chapman dismounted his horse and was quickly cautioned by an orderly that he should not expose himself so unnecessarily. Moments later Chapman was struck in the chest and from the location all assumed it to be fatal. Fortunately the ball had struck his pocket which contained a packet of letters and a small blank book which reduced the force left as the ball finally reached his body." 4

Colonel Chapman recovered in time for Chancellorsville and also led the regiment at Gettysburg as part of Zook's Brigade, Caldwell's Division, Hancock's Second Corps, where they fought in and around the Wheatfield, advancing to Stoney Hill.  The regiment acted as the brigade reserve during the fight and then acted as the rear-guard once the retreat was ordered.  From Chapman's official report on the battle:

This brigade, having been detailed the day previous as guard to the wagon train, did not arrive on the scene of action until the morning of July 2. On the afternoon of that day, the division was moved rapidly to the left, to the support of the Third Corps, then engaged in repelling a severe attack of the enemy on that point. This regiment brought up the rear of the brigade, which was then the rear-most of the division, but in taking position in line was moved to the right. I was directed by General Zook to take a position in supporting distance of the front line. I moved into the position assigned me, within a few rods of the front line. The firing at this time was very severe, and General Zook was soon after mortally wounded and taken from the field. Shortly afterward, a staff officer rode up to me and stated that the right of the line had broken, and that the enemy were coming in rapidly on that flank, advising me to move my regiment to the rear to avoid being taken. I determined and was about to change front forward to the right and endeavor to protect the right flank of the brigade, when the whole line in front of me suddenly gave way, breaking through the ranks of my regiment in considerable disorder. I held my men together until the greater part of the front line had broken through, and then moved to the rear in line and in good order, the enemy following closely.

Zook Monument on north side of the Wheatfield

During this retrograde movement I halted my regiment several times, and endeavored to rally men enough on its flanks to check the advance of the enemy, but without success. Another line of our troops soon after moved into action, and I reported to General Caldwell, and joined other regiments of the division then collecting together. 5

Chapman led 175 men into battle on July Second at Gettysburg and lost 4 men killed, 28 wounded and 2 missing.  Suffering relatively light casualties in comparison to other regiments in the action, the remaining unscathed men would not get off so lucky in the coming Overland Campaign. When Colonel Zook became Brigadier- General the vacant colonelcy in the regiment was filled by Chapman's advancement to that place although he had been acting in that capacity since Antietam.  His new rank was to date from April 24th, 1863. The commission was not signed until July 20th, 1863. 6

Although the war had been mighy bloody to this point, when Grant came east to take control of the army, there was still a level of killing to come that had never been seen before.  The document above was written in January while the Army of the Potomac was still in camp.  As you can see, this was a time for the officers to catch up on administrative duties from previous campaigns.  The deceased soldiers which Chapman is referring to in the document are those that the regiment lost during the Peninsula Campaign.  This gives a good idea of how busy the armies must have been.  From Gettysburg in July 1863 until the Wilderness in May 1864, there was finally time for field officers and higher to catch up on their reports.  There were some movements by both armies during the Bristoe Station and Mine Run Campaigns, but for the most part both armies were as "quiet as a sucking dove" just as General Lee had predicted after Gettysburg.  

Finally in May 1864 as General Grant decided it was time to move on Richmond, the last acts of the play would reveal themselves in the life of Colonel Alford B. Chapman.  It is best related by the regimental historian of the 57th New York in the unit history.

"On reaching a place along the Brock Road, about three miles south-east from Wilderness Tavern, the First Division under General Barlow, took position on the extreme left of the Union line, facing south and east. About noon Colonel Chapman was ordered to take charge of the skirmish line in the brigade front. Leaving the regiment, he was engaged in these duties until about five o'clock, when the line pushed forward through the dense woods toward the unfinished railroad bed and here was met by the advance of Hill's Confederate corps, which had hurried from Orange Court House. The clash was sudden and at once what is called “one of the fiercest battles of history" was on in earnest.

Intersection of the Brock Road (distant to right foreground) and Orange
 Plank Road (left to right) near where Chapman was mortally wounded
At the first fire Colonel Chapman was struck and in a few moments was dead. The Fifty-Seventh and the One Hundred and Eleventh were detached from the brigade to support this hard pressed line, and in line of battle charged forward over the ground where the Colonel's body lay. One of the officers discovering him called out; "Your Colonel is killed, avenge your Colonel;" whereupon there was a mad rush forward, which compelled the enemy to give way at every point. Three separate charges were thus made and the advanced position held for more than half an hour. Coming thus suddenly up on the lifeless body of the Colonel who was supposed to be alive, was an inexpressible shock and awakened a determination to whip the men who killed him, hence these persistent advances against superior numbers.

At headquarters we found three companies of cavalry; the Fourth and Twenty-Second New York and the Third New Jersey, also the Fourth United States Battery. These, with the Fifty-Seventh were to open communications with Fredericksburg and started thither the same day accompanied by several hundred wounded men and a lot of prisoners. The march along the turnpike was unmolested and we entered the city without hindrance. The inhabitants, supposing that Lee had whipped us as usual, were much surprised at our arrival. Immediately every church, hall, vacant building and the Court House were taken possession of and filled with the wounded. Those of the Fifty-Seventh were in the Court House. The body of General Wadsworth and that of Colonel Chapman were placed in the fire engine house until their removal to Washington. On the 10th of May the remains of Colonel Chapman were put into the lower part of an ambulance in charge of Iieutenant Frederick, who was in the upper part and thus the journey was made overland to Acquia Creek, where both were put on board a steamer and reached Washington at six o'clock the next morning. Here the body was prepared and shipped to the mourning relatives in New York.

He is said to have had a premonition of his fate. Before he went into the battle of the 5th of May, in conversation with one of his officers he said, this would be his last battle. Some men always talk thus before a battle, but not he, for if accounts are true he made the same remark to several persons, even to General Hancock himself. When we found him he was on his back as though he had rolled over from lying on his left side. When shot he took a note book from his pocket and wrote his father's name anti address, with these words: "Dear Father : I am mortally wounded. Do not grieve for me. My dearest love to all.—Alford." These words are engraved on his tombstone in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N. Y. One of those who bore him from the field was comrade H. Schroeder, who also turned over to the authorities at division hospital his gold watch and three hundred dollars in money.

Monument to the 57th New York at Gettysburg
The sword, sash, shoulder straps, etc., for which a popular subscription had been taken, did not reach him while alive, but was afterwards presented to his father.  This subscription list, embracing" privates and non-commissioned officers only, contained over one hundred and sixty names, representing about S300 in sum of fifty cents to five dollars. As the "present for duty" at this time is variously reported from 189 to 220 men, no evidence of the Colonel's popularity- could be more convincing than that found in this subscription roll.

Colonel Chapman was good to his men and hence he was greatly beloved by them. He was a man of personal friendships, and carefully rewarded faithful services among his officers and men. In a private conversation with a lieutenant whom he was about to promote, he said: "I have been much pleased and well satisfied with your conduct and work since your promotion to the line, and I only wish that all my appointments would prove as well." His last words: "I have received a mortal wound. Let me die here," are worthy ones in which to embalm the memory of so gallant a soldier.

It is a fabled story that the Egyptian Phoenix when old and decrepid, would return" to Heliopolis and hovering over the burning alter of the temple, would gently nestle down amid its flames and then, from its smoldering ashes, would rise again new born, stretch its wings and fly away to years of youthful activity. From the ashes of such heroes as Colonel Alford B. Chapman, our country arose to a new life. The fires that consumed them also consumed the dross of slavery and started this nation on a new career of usefulness and glory. We honor their ashes.

An extract from the Army and Navy Journal of May 14th, 1864 says of Colonel Chapman: "He offered his services to his country not from a motive of selfishness or vanity but from a sincere conviction that the rebellion was causeless and wicked, and that duty called him to the field. He was daring in action, conscientious in forming his opinions, .sincere, frank, courteous to his companions and a man worthy of imitation by every soldier. No better man has given his life in this unhappy contest." General F. A. Walker writes: "Colonel Chapman, had, on a score of battlefields displayed the highest soldierly' qualities; his figure had always been conspicuous in the front line of battle, and whether on the skirmish line or in the column of attack, he had proved himself one of the bravest and most capable officers in the corps." 7

May the story of the brave Colonel live long and be told often.  Truly a hero in life, he was truly a hero in death.  "I cannot pay a greater tribute to the memory of our comrade than to say that a braver and a truer friend never lived." Lt. Col. James W. Britt, 57th New York Vol. Inf.


1. Chapman, Alford. "Deceased Soldiers 2nd Qtr 1862." manuscript., Britt Isenberg Civil War Collection, January 29, 1864. 

2. Gilbert Frederick, The Story of a Regiment, (Chicago: CH Morgan Co, 1895), 220.

3. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xix, Pt. 1, p. 302

4. Eide, Bradley. Gettysburg Discussion Group, "Lt. Col. Alford B. Chapman." Accessed April 18, 2013.

5. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1880-1901, Washington, D.C., Ser. 1, Vol. xxvii, Pt. 1, p. 396

6. Gilbert Frederick, The Story of a Regiment, (Chicago: CH Morgan Co, 1895), 225.

7. Gilbert Frederick, The Story of a Regiment, (Chicago: CH Morgan Co, 1895), 223-227.

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