Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Uncle Salem's Story

This past week we remembered those killed while in service to our country. Memorial Day to so many is just a long weekend, thanks to legislation in 1971 that changed the day we observe it from May 30 to the last Monday in May. But the first observance of Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was in 1868, when an order was issued, setting aside the 30th of May to honor those lost in the War of the Rebellion, both north and south.

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit...

...Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
-From General Order No. 11 by General John A. Logan, Commander In Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.

General and Senator John A Logan

Although decorating the graves of their fallen loved ones was something the 'ladies of the south' had been doing on their own since the war broke out, this declaration was an act of reconciliation between the north and the south, recognizing the loss on both sides of the cause when flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

This is something my grandparents' and parents' generations did unfailingly when I was growing up. The Memorial Day Committee in my home town always had the local Boy and Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls place a geranium on every Veteran's grave, marked with a small American Flag. But I never knew until just now that decorating the graves was anything more than a nice tradition or just making sure that the graves look nice for the Memorial Day services that take place in the cemeteries every year. I had no idea that to decorate a grave, to garland it with the "choicest flowers of spring time"  was written into the order that designated the holiday.
The first state to recognize it as a holiday was New York and by 1890, all the northern states had adopted it. But the southern states refused to recognize this date and held their own Decoration Days to honor their fallen Confederate soldiers. The south finally joined the rest of the nation after World War I when the holiday was changed to honor all Americans killed in any war rather than just the Civil War dead.

Decoration Day 1899 Illinois
However, today there are still southern states that commemorate Decoration Day for the Confederate war dead, on other dates in January, April and May, in addition to recognizing Memorial Day. Tennessee and Louisiana honor their Confederate casualties on June 3, the birth date of Jefferson Davis.

One of my ancestors, Salem Judson Tiffany, the brother of my great great grandfather Harlan Tiffany, was a private in the 34th Massachusetts Infantry. Salem was born in Connecticut but grew up in Southbridge, Massachusetts. The 34th was made up of men and boys from the western part of the state where Southbridge is located.

In August of 1862, at 25 years old, Salem who made a living as a weaver, still lived with his parents in Southbridge. He was the oldest of five children. Salem enlisted when the call went out along with about 1,000 other young men from the area who were assigned to the 34th Massachusetts Infantry. They left immediately for Virginia. The 34th stayed in Virginia and Washington DC for some months before they set out for various campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley during the spring of 1864.

In New Market VA, a battle was brewing. The Union Army had arrived there early on Sunday morning, May 15, 1864 to face the enemy. About 5,000 other troops joined the 670 men from the 34th who were there that fateful day.

Meanwhile, the south, with similar numbers present, had conscripted young cadets from the nearby Virginia Military Institute (VMI) knowing they may need the additional men. It was common to empty the colleges and universities in the south of their able-bodied young men when battles were waged nearby. The young cadets from 14 -18, numbering more than 200, were divided into 4 different battalions, all of them eager to engage in battle. Little did they know how celebrated they would be when it was over. 

Virginia Military Institute (VMI)

Heavy rain poured down on New Market,Virginia, leaving deep, thick mud everywhere on the field of the farm where the battle took place. It would come to be known as the "Field of Lost Shoes". As the south and the north advanced toward each other, clearly the Union soldiers were confused by what ensued and from what some say were vague and confusing orders given by  Major General Franz Sigel.

Field of Lost Shoes

In Sigel's own words:

"Our skirmishers began to fall back, and fire was opened by Snow's battery on our right. I ordered the 34th Massachusetts to kneel down and deliver their fire by file as soon as the enemy came near enough to make it effective. A very severe conflict now followed at short range, the enemy charging repeatedly and with great determination against our line of infantry and the batteries, and being repulsed by the coolness and bravery of the 34th Massachusetts, 1st West Virginia, and 54th Pennsylvania, and the batteries.
The smoke from the infantry fire on the left and the batteries on the right became so dense that I could not distinguish friend from foe.
There was an interruption of a few minutes, when the enemy's lines recoiled, and our men cheered; then the fire began again and lasted about thirty minutes; the enemy again charged, this time especially against our batteries; he came so near that Lieutenant Ephraim Chalfant of Carlin's battery rode up to me and said that he could not hold his position. I immediately ordered two companies of the 12th West Virginia to advance and protect the pieces, but to my surprise there was no disposition to advance; in fact, in spite of entreaties and reproaches, the men could not be moved an inch.  At this moment Major Meysenburg of my staff came up to me, and, to save the guns, I determined to make a countercharge of the whole right wing, and requested him to transmit the order to Colonel Thoburn, who was not far from me toward the left. Bayonets were fixed and the charge was made in splendid style, but the enemy rallied, received our line with a destructive fire, and forced it back to its position. Before the charge was made, our extreme left wing had given way; two pieces of Von Kleiser's battery fell into the enemy's hands, and a part of his forces moved against the left and rear of Thoburn's brigade. When Thoburn's regiments came back, strewing the ground with their killed and wounded, the enemy, close on their heels, now again turned against the batteries on the right, filling the air with their high-pitched yells. I saw that the battery would be lost, as men and horses were falling."

The 34th Massachusetts were the first to face the enemy and engage in battle of gunfire and bayonets in that battle. When the order was given for them to retreat, they were bringing up the rear and would not be able to get out of harm's way. The 4 battalions of cadets were right there in the thick of it, positioned closest to the 34th. In their youthful fervor they became a mighty foe. These young cadets did major damage to the 34th, and many Massachusetts sons were killed or wounded and then taken captive by the cadets and the Confederate Veterans they fought beside. Ten of the cadets died that day. They are remembered each year in a reenactment at New Market and at VMI.

And, among the wounded Union Soldiers that day was 27 year old Private Salem Judson Marsh. Wounded in his left shoulder, he was taken prisoner and brought to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. There, with quite a few others from his little town in Massachusetts, he lived in horrendous conditions of starvation, infection, and no shelter from the elements. This prison had just opened a few months before Salem was captured. It was designed to hold 10,000 men. It held 45,000. There was one small stream that ran through the middle of the open stockade which was called Sweetwater Branch. It was used for drinking, bathing and sewage. Men were dying of infection and dysentery at the rate of 100 per day. By the time the prison was closed in 1865, 13,000 men had died while imprisoned there.

Monument at Andersonville for Massachusetts Soldiers

Salem succumbed to his suffering on September 1, 1864. He is buried in grave #7468 at Andersonville National Cemetery.

Salem Judson Tiffany's Grave #7468 next row, far left, outside of photo.

When Salem's parents back in Massachusetts were told about his death, I can only imagine their heartbreak. His younger brother Edwin, had reenlisted, perhaps to avenge his brother's death, leaving his parents to worry that Salem wouldn't be the only son they would lose before it was over. I am sure the fact that so many of their neighbors and friends had also lost their sons and loved ones was little consolation.

In one report I read, of the 400 men that little Southbridge, Massachusetts sent to this war, 39 were killed. At least 10 of them died at Andersonville. The losses in Massachusetts alone totaled nearly 14,000 men during the War of the Rebellion. 100 years later during the Viet Nam war, my town, probably 3 times the size of 1860s Southbridge by then, lost just one man to that war. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts lost 1,323 soldiers in Viet Nam. It puts those numbers into perspective.

It must have been a very sad and somber Memorial Day, that first one observed in Southbridge. Younger brother Edwin was there to commemmorate it with his parents, much to their great relief. He survived multiple enlistments and lived a long life, marrying and having children of his own. His son, Carroll, was a favorite cousin of my great grandmother's. I have correspondence between them and I met Carroll on a couple of occasions, funerals I believe. But at the time I had no idea that his father had gone through so much anguish over losing his older and much adored brother.

My Paternal gggGrandfather Solomon Davis Grave
Wadsworth Cemetery in Sudbury, MA
I had ancestors from several branches of my tree who served in the Civil War. Salem is the only one I know of who did not survive it, although several were injured. It was an horrific war and the more I learn about it, the more horrific it seems.

Now when I see someone lovingly tending to a grave, brushing away the dirt from the stone, leaving a potted geranium or planting flowers near the flag marking any Veteran's grave, I will remember that there is so much more to the gesture than I once thought.