Three Regiment's Lesson in Dishonor
The United States Army's 2nd Corps in the late summer of 1864 was experiencing something new in combat that it had never had to tackle before. Three of her regiments, new to active operations in the field, had lost their colors to the enemy they confronted at Ream's Station, Virginia on August 25, 1864. Five days later, their division commander, Major General John Gibbon, compelled to take decisive action against them issued General Orders No. 63:
Hqrtrs. Second Division, 2nd Army Corps
August 30, 1864
General Orders, No. 63
The following named regiments, having lost their regimental colors in action, are hereby deprived of the right to carry colors until by their conduct in battle they show themselves competent to protect them: Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, One hundred and sixty-fourth New York Volunteers, Thirty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers. The officers and men of the command should understand that their colors should be the last thing surrendered, and that in all well regulated military organizations it is considered a disgrace for a majority of the command to return from the field of battle without them.
By command of Major General John Gibbon, commanding divisionů
The act itself was optional for a commander to order such, and with it came a stain upon the regiments that had lost them. Following such an order, justification may have been asked for in so doing. General Gibbon sought to strengthen his position and sent an endorsement to 2nd Corps Headquarters asking that the chain of command back this necessary but very uncomfortable decision.
Major General Winfield Hancock concurred. No regiment in the army ought to return to combat with compensated colors until a decision by the commander of the army deemed them capable of being able to preserve them. It was furthermore recommended by corps headquarters that an order of such magnitude ought to be established across all of the army; making the decision policy; as that it was widely known that regiments of other army corps likewise had lost their colors at Ream's.
Three weeks later authority to withhold the regimental flags was approved when on September 23, 1864, Major General George Gordon Meade published General Orders No. 37 stating that no regiment or battery that loses its colors in action will be allowed to carry others without authority of the commanding general and none shall be given in cases where either have lost it due to battlefield misconduct, until such troops shall, by their bravery on other fields fully retrieved their tarnished honor. The order was published army wide in relation to three regiments assigned to 2nd Division of 2nd Corps.
This now greatly concerned the 2nd Corps Commander that his endorsement was misunderstood by Army Headquarters in that he wished the decision of Major General Gibbon's to be considered as army policy and not to publicly humiliate three regiments from his army corps before the entire Army of the Potomac as cowards.
On September 28th, he wrote to the Assistant Adjutant General of the United States Armies, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore S. Bowers recommending the action taken be broadly established thus constituting a policy of it. He informed him that during that very same engagement other regiments from other army corps prior to the battle at Ream's Station had met the same misfortune and now felt that these three regiments of his were being singled out and being made an example of. Describing what General Meade's order had done, unnecessary severity had been dealt, which cast a slur upon an army corps who had captured forty three stands of colors of the enemy's just between the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg alone.
The loss of these flags had been the first for 2nd Corps after three years of warfare which cost Hancock twenty five brigade commanders, one hundred twenty five regimental commanders, and over twenty thousand casualties. He pointed out that the three regiments in Gibbon's division first saw service after the battles around Spottsylvania, at which time the colonel of the 36th Wisconsin fell dead on the field, as did the colonel of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery. The colonel of the 164th New York Infantry fell mortally wounded, and all three stained the soil with their blood storming the works at Cold Harbor. General Hancock had requested that these regiments have their colors returned to them. They had the same privileges as other regiments, that is, the right to strive and avoid the penalties of General Orders No. 37.
Two months passed and on November 3rd, after the publication that retracted the colors and news of it had time to run its course, Major General George Meade wrote the Adjutant General returning a letter written by Wisconsin Governor Alexander W. Randall with statement of Lieutenant George E. Albee of the 36th Wisconsin Volunteers. It was his belief that there was nothing improper in depriving these regiments of their colors. Having issued the order solely on the recommendation of Major General Gibbon, he felt constrained to adhere to it. The division commander had not asked for any type of modification or revocation and at the time no other cases had been presented to the army commander's attention.
The governor's letter, written to the President of the United States, stated that the vast majority of the 36th Wisconsin itself had been captured along with those flags; only thirty had escaped after a gallant struggle with their foe. He had further informed Lincoln that the colors were not lost by the regiment; they were lost with the regiment.
George E. Albee, Second Lieutenant in Company F, had presented to the governor that the order issued by Army of the Potomac was unjust, in that one hundred and fifty men went into the fight and only twenty five had left it. These he stated had been stragglers as the remainder of the regiment was now incarcerated at Richmond, only one fourteenth of the command came back from the front line.
The issue received the attention of President Lincoln, impressed and convinced by it, he asked that the Secretary of War, accord the officer a proper hearing.
Major General John Gibbon submitted a report to Brigadier General Seth Williams, the Assistant Adjutant General, Army of the Potomac at the end of October when his order regarding the conduct of these three regiments succeeded in disrupting the White House. In justification for his actions, he felt after investigation that the loss of colors to these particular regiments was not justified by the circumstances. He made a decision to act upon what he knew to be an old established rule, that a regiment which loses its colors without being able to show that their loss was attended with a glorious and persistent effort to defend them, should be deprived of the right to carry others.
Having already known the short and outstanding battle record of these units as spoken of by his corps commander, he considered a stern sense of duty to himself and his command that the example be set. He did not apologize for the order, nor did he wish at such a late date for it to be retracted. He knew that the colors were about to be returned to no less than two of the three commands for gallantry during the battle at Hatcher's Run. He promised that when these colors were restored, it would be presented to the regiments in such a way the men shall feel for themselves a pride which should entirely overshadow any previous disgrace they may have been subjected to.
In closing, he wished the desk of the Adjutant General to know that Governor Randall knew nothing authentic upon a subject which he had just characterized in such strong terms, as he, himself, would consider it out of place for the general, a soldier, to so characterize an act of his, on the one sided misrepresentations of one of the clerks in the Post Office Department. The act had not been one of gross injustice, nor had he committed it under an entire misapprehension. The division commander refused to yield to the governor having already accepted these regiments into his command by special request based on recommendation from noteworthy officers of the 2nd and 7th Wisconsin.
In retrospect, as the endorsements were written and the reports began to mount, Major General Winfield Hancock further mentioned the loss colors in the same engagement by the 20th Massachusetts Infantry who had been accidentally omitted, and proved to be an exception to the order, nothing having been done about their case. This having been discussed with his division commander; substantiated his own line of thinking in why an order such as this ought to be adopted as army policy.
General Meade's response was simply that the right of a commanding general to deprive a regiment of its colors was never in question by his 2nd Corps Commander, but that if exercised, it should be open to all who by misconduct on the field lose their colors. He remained adamant that he only issued the order based on the division commander considering the case so strong, that he, assumed the responsibility himself, to deprive the regiments of them. He continued to err upon the suggestion of his corps commander.
On the 14th of October, Major General Winfield Hancock clarified that he objected to the order unless it was applied to the service overall. He only wished that the right to bear colors denied regiments simply from the fact of having lost them. The case could have been carried to the War Department, but the injury had already been done by the simultaneous publication of all the newspapers received in the army. He disagreed with his division commander however, in that, the stigma having been publicly circulated, can not be wiped out though some amends may be made by publication in the Associated Press, an order revoking the one complained of.
It wasn't until the 7th day of November that the army commander, Major General George Gordon Meade announced to the Adjutant General of the Army that the colors taken from the 36th Wisconsin, 8th New York Heavy Artillery and 164th New York Infantry had been returned to them all based on their performance at Hatcher's Run in late October.
General Orders No. 41, Army of the Potomac headquarters dated November 7, 1864 publicly restored the colors to three regiments that became the eye sore of all their comrades. The controversy Major General Gibbon's decision caused was simply a grave misunderstanding brought about by no comprehension of what 2nd Army Corps had suggested regarding the loss of flags in combat. As a result, Major General Winfield Hancock was right, once the flag was taken; no restoration was going to bring back the stain that public perception now bestowed upon them. It was a miserable blunder by army headquarters, but a dear, perhaps undeserved lesson to these men of Wisconsin and New York in the practical sense of the word: Dishonor.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org