A Promise Kept After Gaines Mill

     

First Lieutenant Oliver Cromwell Comstock was leading Co. K of the 1st Michigan Infantry when he was struck down twice during the Battle of Gaines' Mill. He reportedly told one of his soldiers "save yourself. I shall need no further care." Comstock had been born to missionary parents in India in 1836 and was raised by his uncle Oliver C. Comstock in Michigan after his parents died in Myanmar (Burma) in the 1840s. His uncle had a stone is erected in his memory at Oakridge Cemetery in Marshall, Michigan.

    Russell Alcott and Oliver Comstock made a solemn promise to one another while serving in Company A of the 1st Michigan Infantry. "He and I had agreed each with the other that if one of us should be killed, the other should write and, if possible, visit the other’s friends," Alcott wrote Comstock's uncle in July 1862. Alcott suspected that his friend was dead; in the confusion of the Battle of Gaines' Mill in which Alcott himself was wounded, the reports were contradictory. 

    "I did not see my friend Lieutenant Comstock after I was wounded. I tried diligently to learn something of him, but the men with him tell such conflicting stories that I didn’t know what to think. It is quite possible that he is wounded and a prisoner, but I dare hardly to hope it. I know he was one of the last that left the barricade and then the enemy could not have been more than five rods from him," Alcott wrote. "His men say that he gave the command, “steady boys,” as they started to retreat. Another one of the same company told me Captain Comstock was wounded and that he was helping him when another ball struck him, and that he said as he fell “save yourself. I shall need no further care."

    The awful truth soon became known that Comstock was killed in battle; six weeks after writing this letter, Alcott himself would be killed in action at Second Bull Run. 


Captain George C. Hopper commanded Co. H of the 1st Michigan Infantry and like Captain Alcott was wounded during the fighting at Gaines' Mill. He was wounded and captured two months later at Second Bull Run where the 1st Michigan took heavy casualties. Hopper is shown in this later war image wearing his rank as major and 5th Corps badge. 


Sherburne, New York

July 18, 1862

 

Mr. O.C. Comstock, my dear sir,

          With feelings of sadness, I sit down to endeavor to write a few lines concerning your adopted son Lieutenant Oliver C. Comstock. He was promoted to captain and took command of Co. K on the morning of the battle of Gaines Mill. He had been my first lieutenant a long time and of course was quite intimate with him. I should have written you before and intended to, but I received a painful wound in the same battle. I came home to my family last week and have not been able to write.

          He had been very busy several days during his leisure time before the fighting commenced on June 26th in writing one of his long letters to you. He always wrote his letters with great care- first writing then with a pencil, then copying. This letter, I think, he completed except for folding and directing. He and I had agreed each with the other that if one of us should be killed, the other should write and, if possible, visit the other’s friends. If I had been able, I should have visited Mr. Gibbs in Brooklyn when I came home. He often spoke of them.

          Thursday morning June 26th he was detailed to take command of a small guard. About noon the enemy attacked our right; we hurried to the point of attack and never returned to our camp. The long letter he wrote he left in the company desk. The next morning, we retreated to Gaines’ Mill and about 10 o’clock he joined us. He was quite cheerful. We were then preparing for battle. We shook hands and he said, “I thought of you often yesterday, Captain, during the firing, for I knew if anything should happen to you, you would have nobody to help you (he meaning I had no lieutenant with me) and no one to see to the company.” He was deeply attached to Co. K and they reciprocated the feeling.

          The Colonel [Horace S. Roberts] called him aside, told him of his promotion, and assigned him to Co. K, that company joined mine on the left. We were marched to a strip of woods and built a slight barricade and waited the approach of the enemy. We heard the enemy had taken our baggage. “Well,” said he, “if they have, they have got my letter that I have been writing to father.” He was sent out to skirmish with Co. K and was driven in by the enemy. As he passed me to his place in line, I said, “Captain, you have done well!” He laughed and showed me a gun which he held in his hand, the breech of which was split by a ball from the Rebels.

Captain Russell H. Alcott commanded Co. A of the 1st Michigan during the Peninsula Campaign until struck down June 27, 1862 at Gaines Mill. He was later commissioned as lieutenant colonel of the 20th Michigan but was killed in action while acting major of the 1st Michigan at Second Bull Run. 

          Soon the battle commenced furiously. As our companies joined, I was frequently near him; he was perfectly cool and encouraged his men by word and act. We kept the enemy at bay until half past five, when they made a terrific charge upon us. Our troops were tried; our ammunition nearly gone; the enemy got a strong position on the hill below us; they were three to our one. I was struck by a ball in the side of the head and neck which stunned me. I recovered instantly and started to go to the doctor to have it dressed. I had got but a little way before I saw our line was being forced back; I immediately turned to assist in rallying the men; they had driven us to the top of the hill into a lot. The Irish Brigade now came up and we drove them back to the woods.

          I did not see my friend Lieutenant Comstock after I was wounded. I tried diligently to learn something of him, but the men with him tell such conflicting stories that I didn’t know what to think. It is quite possible that he is wounded and a prisoner, but I dare hardly to hope it. I know he was one of the last that left the barricade and then the enemy could not have been more than five rods from him. His men say that he gave the command, “steady boys,” as they started to retreat. Another one of the same company told me Captain Comstock was wounded and that he was helping him when another ball struck him, and that he said as he fell “save yourself. I shall need no further care.”

          I don’t know whether this is reliable or not. I write it to let you know all that I do. I have some hope of hearing that he is a prisoner. I should be pleased to hear from you.

 

Yours very truly,

Russell H. Alcott, Capt., Co. A, 1st Michigan Infantry

 

 

Source:

Letter from Captain R.H. Alcott, Co. A, 1st Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Marshall Statesman (Michigan), August 13, 1862, pg. 1

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