A Tale of a Tail

Ships cats & mouse by Reb

Today’s Mewsing is a cautionary tale.  As you go through life, think before you act, because you never know who might be watching and recording your actions for posterity.

On March 5, 1862, USS Monitor sat in New York, awaiting departure for Hampton Roads, VA and her historic fight with CSS Virginia (Merrimac).  That day, the officer of the watch made a note in the ship’s log: “John Atkins deserted [and] took with him the ship’s cat and left for parts unknown.”

Now, you know that as John left with the cat, he had no idea that 155 years later, two girls with cat dioramas would trip across that record and find it hilarious.  In fact, if he had not taken the cat, we would not have noticed the quote at all—or the log’s notation might not have even made it into the book we were reading.  But he did take the cat, and now we, at least, will always remember him.

So there you go.  Be careful—you never know what posterity might discover about you!

The photo above shows two ship’s cats that Rebecca made, as well as a rat for the gray cat to stalk.  The scale is ~1:77.

Twins at Gettysburg

Since Ruth and I (Rebecca) are twins, I notice when I trip across other twins in history. In my reading about the battle of Gettysburg, I have found four sets of twins. I wonder how many more there were in the two armies. The following stories are hard for me to read, but they serve as a good reminder of what is important. We take so much for granted–possessions, friends, family, life. Take a moment to think about what is really important today.

On July 1, 1863, the 26th North Carolina marched into battle with three sets of twins in its ranks. By nightfall, after heavy fighting with the Iron Brigade, five of the six men lay dead.

On July 2nd, another set of twins advanced with the 5th Texas up the slopes of Little Round Top. As they came within 20 yards of the Union lines, one of the brothers was hit. His twin caught him and lowered him to the ground, and then a bullet struck the second brother and he, too, fell dead.

For the two of us, being a twin means having someone who shares your thoughts, feelings, and passions, and who will always understand you. I cannot imagine the anguish of losing my “other half.” What horror must the twin of the 5th Texas have felt at seeing his brother fall dead! And what must that last twin of the 26th North Carolina have felt on the night of the 1st, knowing that he was the only one remaining out of six?

If you are a twin—or even just a sibling—cherish that relationship. If you and your twin do not get along, seek out a way to heal the connection. It is a special blessing to be a twin—a blessing that can end at any moment, with the suddenness of a bullet. Don’t waste the time you have with each other.

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A Subtle Witness

In 1862, Union Gen. Philip Kearny designed badges for the men of his division to wear. The red diamonds became known as the “Kearny Patch,” and soon the entire corps wore them. When Gen. Joe Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac in early 1863, he instituted badges for all corps. Each corps had a different shape for their badge—a circle for the I Corps, trefoil (clover leaf or club) for the II, diamond for the III, Maltese cross for the V, Greek cross for the VI, crescent moon for the XI, and star for the XII. In addition, each division within the corps had a different color—red for the 1st division, white for the 2nd, and blue for the 3rd. So, by looking at a soldier’s kepi (hat), one could tell which corps and which division he belonged to.

Soldiers were proud of their corps badges, and on the Union regimental monuments at Gettysburg you will notice crosses, trefoils, and all the various shapes. Most areas of the battlefield have only one corps badge present (Cemetery Ridge, for example, has only trefoils on the monuments), but a drive through the Wheatfield area will show the III Corps diamond, the II Corps trefoil, and the V Corps Maltese cross, all mingled together.

The monuments stand as silent sentinels now, and the fields and woods lie peaceful with only rainwater, not blood, making the ground soggy.  But pause a moment and ponder just what it means that you see more than only III Corps diamonds around you. The variety in the corps badge shapes bears a subtle witness to the chaotic battle and the desperation with which the Union generals threw every unit they could find into the fighting there on July 2nd.

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Hancock the Superb

When Gen. John Reynolds was killed on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, the Union Army of the Potomac lost a general whom many considered the best in the army. Hearing of Reynolds’ death, Gen. George Meade knew he needed a commander on the field who would make wise decisions and lead and inspire the men. He sent for Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.

Meade was well aware that sending Hancock would ruffle some feathers. Gen. Oliver O. Howard of the XI Corps was already present, commanding the XI and I Corps after Reynolds’ death. The problem was that Howard was senior to Hancock in rank; Meade was asking Howard to follow a junior’s orders. But Meade knew the men needed Hancock.

Gen. Hancock stood an imposing 6’4″ tall and had the presence and personality to go with his size. He was well-known for his proficiency in swearing and for the spotless white shirts he wore, but this did not mean he was all bluster. One officer wrote, “One felt safe to be near him.” Another stated that even if Hancock were in civilian clothes, the men would follow his orders because of his commanding presence.

Gen. Meade’s confidence in Hancock was not misplaced. Over the course of the battle, it seemed that anywhere help was needed, Gen. Hancock was there, bringing up support–whether manpower or psychological. On July 1st, when he reached the field, Hancock worked with Howard to rally the Union troops and establish a defensive line on Cemetery Hill.

On July 2nd, Hancock sent reinforcements to bolster the III Corps line in the area of the Wheatfield. As the Confederate attack progressed up Cemetery Ridge, Hancock noticed a Confederate brigade approaching a gap in the Union line. The only Union troops nearby were the 1st Minnesota Regiment. Hancock ordered them to charge, then hurried off to find more men to plug the gap. The 1st Minnesota’s plucky charge stopped the Confederates, more by surprise than anything, and bought the needed time. That evening, when Confederates took East Cemetery Hill, Hancock sent over reinforcements to help repulse the Confederate attack.

On July 3rd, Hancock’s II Corps became the focal point of the Confederates’ great charge. At 1 p.m., over 120 Confederate cannons opened fire on the center of the Union army. Seeing the terrible pounding his men were taking, Hancock knew he had to show his men that he was there, right with them, and he must encourage them by his example. As shells exploded around him and cannonballs bounded past, he rode down the entire length of his line, calm and unflappable. When begged to dismount, Gen. Hancock replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count!” Seeing him, his men, in the words of an officer, “found courage longer to endure the pelting of the pitiless gale.”

Finally, when Gen. George Pickett’s Confederates struck Hancock’s line, Hancock saw the opportunity to flank them. Even as he rode to the left end of his corps, he remained aware of everything going on around him and sent reinforcements to the Copse of Trees to stop the Confederate breakthrough there.

While with the Vermont brigade on the left, as they moved to flank the Confederates, Hancock fell seriously wounded. If not for Gen. George Stannard’s quick work to improvise a tourniquet, Hancock might have bled to death. Despite the wound, Hancock refused to leave the field while the fighting raged.

While Hancock did not single-handedly win the battle for the Union, he, of anyone, perhaps came the closest, through his presence of mind and strong leadership.


Sgt. Murphy’s two-man charge

Sgt Murphy

Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, we Mewsed about the 69th Pennsylvania’s defense of the Angle during Pickett’s Charge. Today, we’re thinking about Sgt. Murphy of the 72nd Pennsylvania, which also fought at the Angle.

We don’t know a lot about Murphy. In fact, I’m only assuming he’s of Irish heritage because with red hair and a name like Murphy, how can he not be? Looking through Samuel Bates’ A History of Pennsylvania Volunteers and the accompanying index card files, I found only one Sgt. Murphy in the 72nd Pennsylvania, suggesting that our Murphy is Thomas Murphy of Company G. He enlisted in September of 1861 and was mustered in as a sergeant. At Gettysburg, he would have been about 24 years old.

The battle was well under way when the 72nd Pennsylvania came up from reserve and halted on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Facing Confederates pouring over the stone wall, the Union regiment refused to advance. Their brigade commander, Gen. Alexander Webb, ordered them forward, but they would not budge. Lt. Frank Haskell, a staff officer, also urged them to charge, but the regiment was not inclined to throw themselves against three Confederate brigades. Though disorganized, the Confederates easily outnumbered the 72nd Pennsylvania, at least 4:1, and most of the Confederates were behind the protection of the stone wall.

Six color bearers fell as the regiment fought on the crest, and now Sgt. Murphy held the shattered flagstaff. At Haskell’s urging, Murphy waved the colors above his head and ran forward. One man followed him.

Halfway to the wall, the two men fell. Seeing their precious colors tumble to the ground, the entire 72nd Pennsylvania gave a tremendous yell and charged.

Murphy would survive his wounds and the war, afterwards living in Philadelphia. Thanks to his actions on July 3, 1863, as well as the similar spontaneous charge by color bearer Cpl. Henry O’Brien in the Copse of Trees, the Union counter-attack pushed the Confederates back, ending the battle of Gettysburg in the Union’s favor.

At All Hazards

Imagine hauling your car over a stone wall.

We welcome to Civil War Tails “At All Hazards,” our small diorama of the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery at Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, Captain John Bigelow’s battery was already cut to pieces after heavy fighting when they received the order to hold a position near the Trostle house and barn “at all hazards,” to buy precious time for infantry and artillery to plug a gaping hole in the line. Bigelow later recalled how “the enemy crowded to the very muzzles of [the guns], but were blown away by the canister . . . Sergeant after sergt. was struck down, horses were plunging and laying all around, bullets now came in on all sides . . . The air was dark with smoke.”

For half an hour, Bigelow’s six guns fired at the advancing Confederates. Rifle fire picked off men and horses. Recoil backed the left-most cannons too close to the stone wall behind them, so Bigelow ordered those two cannons to the rear. The first cannon’s team of horses galloped through a gate in the wall and turned into Trostle’s Lane, but the turn was too sharp and the cannon tipped over.

Unable to use the blocked gate, the cannoneers of the second piece eyed the stone wall. The horses could easily jump it, but could the cannon? A cannon with its limber weighed just shy of two tons! But the men had no choice but to try. They took some of the rocks out of the wall to make a gap, then galloped the horses over the wall, pulling the limber and cannon over the rocks after them—successfully!


While watching his men work to get the cannon over the wall, Bigelow fell wounded. Not long after, he saw batteries coming into position behind him, knew his work had been accomplished, and ordered his remaining four guns to fall back. Bugler Charles Reed then helped Bigelow to the rear in an action that saved Bigelow’s life and led to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Reed . . . but that’s a story for another day.

Innocence in Hell


Although it is easy to see animals in war as mere tools, like tanks and Humvees, it is fascinating to remember that animals are more than mere machines, blindly following directions.  Just like the soldiers they serve, they take notice of their surroundings and contribute to the world around them.  Dogs of war can learn to deliver messages or search out explosive devices.  One horse in Vietnam made repeated trips up and down a mountain, carrying ammunition and supplies—by herself. So, too, cavalry horses in the Civil War would learn the bugle calls and respond even before their riders did.  In battle, if their riders fell, the horses would continue in the charge with their comrades, just as the mare Nelly continued with her 1st Virginia infantry regiment in Pickett’s Charge.

Even when they had no military purpose, animals played an important role in the Civil War—and undoubtedly in every war that man has waged.  Many regiments and officers had mascots or pets.  These animals offered a glimpse of home and innocence, a reminder of the world that still existed somewhere outside the hell of war. Many regiments had dogs, such as “Dog Jack” or the 11th Pennsylvania’s “Sallie” (immortalized on their monument at Gettysburg).  One regiment’s mascot dog even learned to sit up on his haunches and hold a stick “rifle” during roll call. Other units had unusual animals, such as a camel or the famous bald eagle, “Old Abe.” Gen. Lee even had a pet hen.

Animals would grow just as attached to their soldiers as the men did to them.  There are stories of dogs becoming separated from their units during a fight, only to show up again that night, having searched out the regiment, rather than high-tailing it to a more peaceful home.  “Old Abe” circled above his fighting Wisconsin regiment after a bullet cut his tether, and then he returned to his bearer when the fighting was over.  Sometimes, animals would even exhibit a sixth sense, as Traveller did one time when he uncharacteristically reared—and a cannonball passed under his belly rather than striking Gen. Lee.

On July 2, 1863, on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, one Confederate regiment went into battle with their black dog.  After the fighting ended, the Union soldiers found the dog, dead.  An officer said to give it a proper burial, as it was the only Christian on that hill. He saw the dog as the only innocent creature in that fight, the only one not intent on taking the lives of those around it.

Perhaps the innocence of animals is why there are so many stories of war animals, particularly of dogs and their bonds with the soldiers around them. Perhaps that is why we are so attached to our own pets, because when we look at them, we can see a simple life, grateful for food and shelter, happy to be with those they love, and living without any hatred, prejudice, or ill-will.