All that a Soldier Can Give: Stowel Burnham at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg
Stowel Lincoln Burnham was born December 13, 1837 in Windham Co., Connecticut to Luther and Marcelia “Marcy” (Lincoln) Burnham. Very little is known of his life before the war but based on his writings, he appears to have been well educated. In October 1861, he was in Kenton, Ohio visiting his sister Mrs. Lester Hunt and motivated by the patriotic fervor of the time, he enlisted in Co. A of the 82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Why he chose to cast his fortunes with strangers as opposed to enlisting at home with a Connecticut regiment is lost to history, but his comrades soon had cause to be thankful that he joined them. Burnham was appointed first sergeant, and before long was commissioned second lieutenant and, after Chancellorsville, was promoted to regimental adjutant. At every step, he proved himself to be a top flight soldier: brave, efficient, and noble. As men at war usually do, Burnham developed close friendships, particularly with Lieutenant Colonel David Thomson and Captain Alfred E. Lee.
Today’s post features an account from then First Lieutenant Burnham about the Battle of Chancellorsville. The 82nd Ohio served as the provost guards for General Carl Schurz’s Third Division of the 11th Corps during the battle, and fought to stem the tide of retreat on May 2, 1863. Burnham’s account provides some detail into how the regiment was deployed and how they behaved under fire during that most trying day. The second portion, culled from Alfred E. Lee’s Civil War (available here), gives the circumstances of Burnham’s death on the battlefield at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 as remembered by Captain Alfred E. Lee.
Camp near Brooks’ Station, Virginia
May 10, 1863
I am glad to be able to write you once more. I believe in my last to you I told you we were expecting to move every day with eight days’ rations in our knapsacks. Monday April 27 at 4 a.m. we left camp where we have spent the winter and took our winding way towards the Rappahannock, passing by General Carl Schurz’s headquarters where we joined the Third Division for the first time. This day we marched 17 miles, each soldier carrying everything he had an eight days’ rations. You never saw a merrier party than the 82nd was that day as not a man straggled. As a proof that time makes a soldier, compare this march with the one we made just one year ago from Moorefield to Petersburg, a total of 11 miles. Then we had 17 four-horse wagons; we now have but five. Back then, the tents, part of the clothing, and all the rations were hauled, now the men carry it all. Back then 50 men straggled from the ranks; now none.
We went into camp at 6 p.m. It was warm and pleasant and we had a good sleep. The morning of the 28th was pleasant, but before noon it clouded up and commenced raining. About 5 p.m. we reached the vicinity of Kelley’s Ford when we turned into the woods and ate supper, expecting to stay all night but about 8 o’clock an aide came up and then came the unwelcome order to fall in. The men were tired and wanted to sleep, but not a murmur was heard; all wore that quiet, determined look which said more than words could speak it: ‘we will follow where our brave colonel and lieutenant colonel lead.’ I don’t know how it was at headquarters, but the men expected to fight while crossing, but not a gun was heard. We crossed the river and marched until 1 a.m. before camping. When we halted, the men dropped down, and in a few moments, all was quiet as though no army was there; the only sound being the cautious tread of the sentinel watching while his comrades slept.
On the 29th, General Slocum’s corps (the 12th) passed us and took the lead which they maintained until the end. We moved rapidly through the country, crossing the Rapidan River about 12 o’clock at night. We camped on the bank of the river by the side of a barn. As it was raining, and I was somewhat wet, I concluded to locate all that was left of my physical system on the inside, so with Lieutenant Joshua Criswell we commenced exploring a found a large pile of wheat.
Spreading our blankets and congratulating each other on our good fortune, we soon fell asleep and dreamed of home, of the girls, Christmas dinners, (we had been without supper), when a rough voice called out ‘Get out of there! The General wants this for his headquarters.’ We pretended not to hear, when the order was repeated in still rougher tones. Getting up on my elbows, I ordered the guard to take that man away which, of course, he did not. I finally arose and nudging my still unconscious companion, I suggested the propriety of retiring and we were none too quick for as we left by the rear door, our ears were saluted by rattling swords, jingling spurs, and a confusion of dialects at the other.
Seating ourselves by a camp fire, and turning our faces upward that might receive all the benefit of this truly moist rain, we began calculating the improbability of human events and the uncertainty of things generally. In this pleasing occupation, daylight found us a little woebegone in countenance but with a firm belief in the glorious destiny of the American people.
We left camp a little before noon, marching through the finest country I have seen in eastern Virginia. The fences were in good conditions, contrasting strongly with the desert-like appearance of the country on this side of the river. The roads were splendid, and the men marched merrily along. We camped at night about two miles from Chancellorsville on the Plank Road leading from Fredericksburg to Gordonsville, where we remained quietly until the next night (May 1st) when the regiment was moved near General Schurz’s headquarters a half mile nearer the river.
We lay perfectly quiet until about 5 p.m. on May 2, 1863. The first information we had of an enemy was a terrible crash of musketry on our right where the First Division of our army corps, commanded by General Charles Devens, was stationed. The men sprang to arms, and before we received an order, everything was in readiness for a fight. Now our eyes were turned with painful anxiety to where our friends were: could they stand the fearful fire of musketry and canister we knew was being thrown at them? We thought not, and a few minutes proved that we were correct. The wounded came through the woods and stragglers already filled the field. At this time, General Schurz appeared and our regiment was moved.
|Major General Carl Schurz|
Third Division, XI Corps
From this time my attention was so closely occupied as we were constantly moving that I can tell but little except what our regiment did. We changed position twice and did so under a terrific fire of musketry and shells without being able to return it, and in this movement, several were killed and wounded. Finally, we were ordered to take possession of some rifle pits a quarter of a mile in the rear of the last position. The regiment moved off by the right flank as calmly as if on battalion drill. I have been with the regiment since its organization and in every battle and I must say in justice to the men that they never exhibited, nor could any regiment exhibit, any more of the qualities of tried and veteran soldiers. Colonels Robinson and Thomson were everywhere along the line, infusing their own fiery spirits into the men.
We took our position in the rifles pits and waiting the approach of the yelling and whooping crowd who were driving the First Division before them like chaff. In this position, two regiments passed over and through us before we could open fire, still not a man left the line. At length, our own men passed so we could open fire and at it the men went with a will. The Rebels at first stopped, but emboldened by their previous success, they again came on. At this critical moment, the battery in our rear left us, yet still not a man of our noble regiment ran, and many a Southern home can attest to the accuracy of the aim of our squirrel-hunting backwoodsmen. At this time, not another regiment of our troops could be seen: every battery had left, the enemy had passed by our right and left flanks, and Colonel Robinson reluctantly gave the order to fall back. Staying any longer would have subjected the regiment to certain destruction as all would have been killed or taken prisoner. This ended the part we took in the battle.
The regiment mourns the loss of 80 of its best officers and men. To the friends of those who were killed and wounded, we offer all that a soldier can give: his heart-felt sympathy. They suffer in a noble cause, and sleep in honored graves. I think General Hooker displayed good generalship and had he had as many men as the enemy, we must have been completely successful. Our loss was heavy, but not so great as theirs. The men are rapidly recovering from the fatigue of that ten days’ trip, and I suppose Joe Hooker will start us on another before long.
The “next trip” for Stowel Burnham would be his last: promoted to adjutant after Chancellorsville, he was wounded three times during the 82nd Ohio’s gallant stand north of Gettysburg and lay dying in a field beside his closest comrade, Captain Alfred E. Lee.
Captain Lee described Burnham’s final moments on July 1, 1863 which I quote from my book Alfred E. Lee’s Civil War (available here):
Looking about, I discovered my friend Lieutenant Stowel L. Burnham lying a few yards beyond. “Is that indeed you, lieutenant?” But he hardly gave me the look of recognition when a Rebel battery came up at a brisk canter and unlimbered its guns upon the ground where we lay. They seemed about to commence firing upon the town through which our troops were now retreating. Fearing the shots that would be fired by our batteries in return as well as the trampling of the horses attached to the caissons, I requested the cannoneers to remove me. Two of them kindly complied, and very gently placed me under the shade of a shrub, in the corner of a fence. They then brought poor Lieutenant Burnham who had received two or three frightful wounds and laid him close by me. His sufferings were indescribable. “Oh this is terrible, terrible,” he groaned.
Rebel artillerymen spoke with sympathy to him and their browned faces evinced sincere compassion. They endeavored to arrange for him an easy posture, but in vain; all were painful. They gave him water to quench his feverish thirst, but it only served as an emetic. Singularly thoughtful, they brought a testament which a soldier had dropped upon the field. He opened it and tried to read, but the distracted torment of his wounds would not permit it. “Oh, I cannot,” said he despondingly, and the book fell at his side. Lieutenant Burnham seemed to have not a moment’s rest from his excruciating agony. I asked him where he was wounded, and he said in the bowels. This was his mortal wound. He also had a severe wound in the thick part of one of his thumbs. I think he also had a wound in his legs.
The Rebels were very kind to us. They gave us water and whiskey from their canteens, but the adjutant could not get anything to stay in his stomach. As often as he drank anything he vomited. He begged piteously that some surgeon would come and do something, anything that might ease him or his dreadful pain. The clammy dews were upon him and he was now plainly sinking. “I shall die,” he said “and oh that I might escape this misery.” A Rebel, in whose heart remained a dint of pity, stooped over him and expressed sorrow that by giving himself to a bad cause he had brought upon himself so great a misfortune. But in words mildly reproachful and with a heroism stronger than death, he spurned such sympathy. The setting sun neared the verge of the horizon. The clouds that hung around its disc were magnificently tinged with golden light. Up through their brilliant volumes seemed to reach a gorgeous vista, to whose end the human eye could not pierce, but which seemed to die away in serene splendor. It was not hard to fancy that it was the shining road along which the souls of heroes were ascending from the bitter cross of the battlefield to the crown of glory and infinite peace.
The soft light fell upon the feverish brow of Lieutenant Burnham. It was as if the pitying angel’s hand was supplying the gentle baptism of an absent mother’s. “Oh, that I could look upon that once more,” he said, and the Rebel bolstered him with a knapsack, so that he might gaze upon the sweet pageant of nature, whose beauty too truly symbolized his sweetly ebbing life. He caught one glimpse and only a glimpse, for the posture was too painful and he sank back again upon the ground. Bending over him, the pitying Rebel asked, “Is there anything I can do for you? I will do anything in my power.” He helped me conceal my field glass so that it might not be stolen. He offered to get us a surgeon or an ambulance if he could. The dying man sighed a negative, he pressed the farther inquiry. “Is there any message or any article that you wish me to deliver to your friends. If there is, I will cheerfully attend to it at my first opportunity.” “Yes,” said he. “Here is my watch; send it to my uncle Lester Hunt.” The Rebel took the name, address, and repeated his promise to faithfully perform this dying injunction. The sun dropped behind the western hills and Lieutenant Burnham departed with the day. He lay beside me calm and still. He was dead.
At the end of July 1863, the Hardin County Republican ran an obituary for Burnham. “In the fall of 1861, whilst here visiting his sister Mrs. Lester T. Hunt, although a native and citizen of another state, he yielded to the promptings of a brave heart and noble patriotism and was among the first to enlist as a private in Co. A, 82nd Ohio, then being organized at this place. On the first organization of his company, he was appointed First Sergeant, in which officer he served until promoted to a lieutenancy. Soon after the battle of Chancellorsville, he was appointed adjutant of the regiment. In each of these positions, he was ever found willing, prompt, and capable, and enjoyed in a high degree the confidence and esteem of all with whim his duties and relations brought him in contact. Few regiments have been in so many and so severe engagements as his, yet in every engagement he was at his post and never failed to give additional evidence of his fine soldierly qualities. Youthful, brave, and promising, he was ever a ‘shining mark’ for the swift messengers of death, but until the battle of Gettysburg, he had never sustained serious injury. The first day of that sanguinary conflict was to him the ’last of life.’ Receiving a severe and painful wound in the hand, he was ordered by his commanding officer to the rear, but he insisted upon remaining at his post and did remain until his horse was shot under him, and he was again severely wounded by a ball passing through his thigh. He then attempted to leave the field and in so doing was wounded a third time- this time mortally. Lieutenant Burnham was a brave soldier, efficient officer, and a noble, generous-hearted friend; a young man of good acquirements and more than ordinary natural abilities. He has fallen early in life, a life that was full of promise, but in his death he has left a rich legacy to his relatives and friends in the memories that cluster around his bright though brief career.”
Letter from Lieutenant Stowel L. Burnham, Hardin County Republican, May 22, 1863, pg. 2
“Lieut. Stowel L. Burnham,” Hardin County Republican, July 31, 1863, pg. 3
Masters, Daniel A., editor. Alfred E. Lee’s Civil War. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2018
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