Inspiration at Vicksburg: Poetry Beyond the Forlorn Hope
In the December 31, 2018, edition of the Missouri Unionist you’ll find an article remembering the brave actions of Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Henry Platt Pearsall and the other volunteers who formed the storming party in Vicksburg, MS, on 22 May 1863 nicknamed “The Forlorn Hope.” Among these brave boys in blue, 78 received the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party.”
Cpl. Pearsall was buried in Doe Run, Missouri; other Civil War Medal of Honor recipients in “The Forlorn Hope” buried in Missouri include: Cpl. Henry Frizzell, Sgt. James Flynn, Sgt. Thomas Higgins, and Pvt. Louis Hunt. The charge of the Forlorn Hope is memorialized in my poem, “The Forlorn Hope–Vicksburg, 1863”:
The Forlorn Hope–Vicksburg, 1863
Back in Vicksburg, the town was surrounded
With a battle line twelve miles long.
U.S. Grant sought to conquer the city,
But the rebel defenses were strong.
An advance storming party was risky;
They could possibly lose every man.
But they must cross a ditch and climb over a wall
Just to capture the Stockade Redan.
With extreme disregard for the danger,
While exposed to a torrent of lead,
The men carried their logs and their ladders
and soon painted the path with their dead.
The one hundred and fifty brave soldiers,
All unmarried and all volunteers,
Had advanced at a run while opposing cannon
Brought fresh screams to their still-ringing ears.
So from ten in the morning ’til darkness,
They would fight the good fight ’til they fell.
A majority there didn’t make it;
The remainder survived living Hell.
The survivors were honored as heroes,
Received medals almost to a man
For extreme gallantry of the storming party
At the fight for the Stockade Redan.
More Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients at Vicksburg
In addition to those brave souls memorialized in this poem, there were other Medals of Honor awarded for actions in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Corporal Orion Howe of the 55th Illinois Infantry is one example of those buried in Missouri. Corporal Howe was not only mentioned in newspapers at various times in later life, but his gallantry inspired a poet named George H. Baker to write a poem based on his courageous acts:
The Drummer Boy of the 55th Illinois
While Sherman stood beneath the hot-test fire
That from the lines of Vicksburg gleamed,
And burnt shells tumbled in their smoky gyre,
And grape shot hiss’d and case shot scream’d,
Back from the front there came,
Weeping and sorely lame,
The merest child, the youngest face,
Man ever saw in such a fearful place.
Sifting his tears, he limp’d his chief to meet
But when he paused and tottering stood,
Around the circles of his little feet,
There sprang a pool of bright young blood.
Shocked at his doleful face,
Sherman cried, “Halt, front face!
Who are you? Speak my gallant boy!”
“A drummer, sir—Fifty-fifth Illinois.”
“Are you not hit?” “That’s nothing. Only send
Some cartridges. Our men are out
And the foe press us.” “But my little friend— ”
“Don’t mind me! Do you hear that shot?
What if our men be driven
Oh for the love of Heaven
Send to my colonel, general dear— ”
“But you— ” “Oh I shall easily find the rear.”
“I’ll see to that,” cried Sherman; and a drop
Angels might envy dimmed his eye;
As the boy toiling towards the hills hard top,
Turned ‘round; and, with his shrill child’s cry
Shouted, “Oh don’t forget!
We’ll win the battle yet!
But let our soldiers have some more,
More cartridges, sir, caliber fifty-four.”
Civil War Medal of Honor Recipient Orion Howe – Co. C, 55th IL Infantry
The story of every war includes young men not quite old enough to enlist who cannot bear to be left out of some of the most defining moments of history. My paternal grandfather forged his birth certificate to serve during the end of World War II at the age of 16. Orion Howe managed to enlist as a drummer boy at the age of 14, as is recounted in the Streator Free Press on 13 May 1909:
“In the fall of 1861, an elderly man presented himself at Camp Douglas to join the Fifty-fifth Illinois Infantry, then in the process of forming. His name was William H. Howe, and he brought with him his two sons, Liston D. and Orion P., one 12 and the other 14 years of age. All were small and slight of form—the boys very young in appearance. All became drummers in that fine regiment—the father, an expert, became chief of the youthful, disorderly, and brave collection of boys, more or less privileged characters, who rattled away at their drums and made life a burden to all within hearing.”
Cpl. Orion P. Howe’s citation for bravery at Vicksburg on 19 May 1863 tells a far more flattering story:
“A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to Gen. W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.”
Howe’s bravery in this engagement led General Sherman to personally write a letter to Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. The letter and the act of gallantry are described in an article in the Buffalo Sunday Morning News dated 25 Aug 1912. His wife, a resident of Buffalo, enters the office of district pension agent Col. Charles A. Orr seeking an increase of her husband’s $10 per month pension. Her husband is living on a cattle ranch in Arizona, depending on the dry climate for survival due to a bullet wound which damaged his left lung and two additional bullet wounds in his right leg which have left him permanently disabled. The paper quotes the wife’s description of his ordeal from “Mulholland’s book, Men of the Legion of Honor”:
“It was the custom for the drummer boys to stay in the rear in battle and guard the horses and the musical instruments. At the siege of Vicksburg, he had been left behind and the company had gained a position at the summit of a little knoll. The men were up there blazing away at the Confederate breastworks when suddenly the firing ceased.
“At this time a detachment of boys in gray surrounded the knoll. My husband guessed that the boys’ ammunition had been exhausted and filling his army blouse with cartridges until he could just about stumble along, he began to crawl toward the top of the knoll.
“He had to go right through the Confederate line, but he kept on. He was a wiry little fellow and he got through the lines, but one of the gray boys spotted him wiggling through the brush and took a shot at him. The bullet went into his right leg, but he kept right on. Half way up the hill he came upon a skulker. With his revolver he made the fellow help him over barbed wire fences and finally reached the top.
“Here he found that the company had really been penned in and had been without ammunition. Using the cartridges he had brought, they held their position and finally drove the Confederate boys off.”
After re-enlisting once, Howe received an appointment as a midshipman to the United States Naval Academy from President Abraham Lincoln (at General Sherman’s request). He married and eventually worked as a dentist in Buffalo, New York. He also lived in Arizona on a cattle ranch for a period of time due to complications from the injuries he suffered in battle. He later settled in Springfield, Missouri, died there on 27 Jan 1930, and is buried in National Cemetery in Springfield.
I had mentioned the renown afforded to this young drummer boy relative to other Medal of Honor recipients and it remains such that toward the end of my research for this article, I learned a Mr. Derrick Lindow had posted on this topic using some of the same sources I discovered and also has a transcript of General Sherman’s letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His blog post on the matter can be found at www.westerntheatercivilwar.com.