Three Volunteers from the same region of Pennsylvania experienced the war in very different ways
The afternoon of July 2, 1863, found the larger part of two great armies, nearly 165,000 men, locked in combat in and around Gettysburg, Pa. For three officers engaged on the Federal side, the battle took on special meaning—as Pennsylvanians, they were fighting on their native soil. The three men came from varying backgrounds and upbringings, had differing political viewpoints and reasons to enlist, and were also serving in three different branches of the army. Their views are proof of the complex motivations that urged men to fight for the United States. Far from being a homogeneous military mass, the Army of the Potomac was composed of immigrant, native, wealthy, and working-class men, and thousands of different viewpoints about the war and what is was for.
The soldiers in question, listed with their ages and responsibilities by the time of Gettysburg, were 23-year-old Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, a company commander in the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry of the 5th Corps; Captain Louis R. Fortescue, 25, the leader of a detachment in the Signal Corps; and the youngest officer, 19-year-old 2nd Lt. William Brooke Rawle, who had been in the army for less than seven weeks, a commander of a company of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry. What the three “native” men had in common, in addition to their hometown of Philadelphia, was that through their contemporary letters, and, in Fortescue’s case, a voluminous memoir, they produced finely detailed, ground-level accounts of their Civil War experiences that provide insight into the mindset of the junior officer corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Donaldson and Fortescue both joined the army in mid-1861. “I burn with indignation when I think of the outrageous conduct of the South,” wrote Donaldson when he learned of the firing on Fort Sumter, “and I will never be able to give up the fight until they are chastised into submission.” Donaldson would initially enlist in the Philadelphia-raised 1st California Regiment, later renamed the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry, as a sergeant, and later be promoted to second lieutenant. Fortescue was equally motivated by the attack on Fort Sumter, which he considered an attempt by “Southern traitors…who had openly and defiantly seized Government property” to insult the nation’s flag. Fortescue was commissioned first lieutenant in Philadelphia’s 29th Pennsylvania Infantry, and not long after was assigned to the newly established Signal Corps. As a Signal Corps officer, Fortescue would enjoy freedom of movement and a degree of autonomy that would have been unthinkable had he remained an infantry officer.
While Donaldson and Fortescue both developed into seasoned veterans over the ensuing two years, William Brooke Rawle, the only surviving son of a wealthy, old-line Philadelphia family, was completing his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Eschewing both his graduation ceremony and a life of privilege and ease, the boyish looking Rawle set out for Virginia in mid-May 1863, not long after completing his classwork. He had secured a commission in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and after arriving at their camp near Fredericksburg, Va., on May 17, found himself in command of a campaign-thinned company of veterans, some of whom were twice his age.
Of the three men, Donaldson was the most expressive, pouring out his observations and opinions in equal doses via lengthy letters to his family. With the 71st Pennsylvania, Donaldson’s first fight would come at Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, where he was captured after the fighting ended. Exchanged after several months in captivity, he made his way back to the 71st, now part of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps, in time to participate in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Donaldson, a self-described member of the Democrat Party, “first, last and always,” came of age as a soldier serving under McClellan, and was devoted to “Little Mac.” “I do not think any other living man could handle this army successfully,” he wrote in March 1862. Shortly before Lincoln relieved the “Young Napoleon” later that year, Donaldson would refer to him as “the greatest military chieftain of the age.” Even after his dismissal, McClellan would represent, in Donaldson’s eyes, the standard by which all future commanders of the army would be measured.
Prior to his assignment to the Army of the Potomac just before the Antietam Campaign, signal officer Fortescue served in the Shenandoah Valley under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in the spring of 1862, and later in Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia during the Second Manassas campaign. Fortescue was supportive of the Lincoln administration and its war aims, and skeptical of McClellan, and he criticized those of his ilk who “placed safeguards around the property of rebels and punished the weary and footsore soldier who helped himself to their fruit.”
Cavalryman Rawle, like Donaldson, was also a Democrat, but having joined the Army of the Potomac six months after McClellan’s departure, he was more pragmatic in his opinions. Several weeks before the election of 1864, which pitted Lincoln against McClellan, Rawle informed his mother, “Tho partial to McClellan personally, I think that a change would be prejudicial to the good of the cause,” adding just after the election: “I of course voted for ‘old Abe’ because I think the administration should be held up at all hazards. When anyone attempts anything he ought to carry it through.”
Each man, as might be expected, experienced different sensations under fire. Lieutenant Rawle first smelled powder during the cavalry fight at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863, after he had been in the army for only three weeks. Sent to support a Federal artillery unit, he came under counter-battery fire: “For the first time I heard the shells with their nasty noise,” he wrote in a letter three days later. “Bang—zzzzZZZZ—bing—boom is the way I can put it on paper. Sometimes they would bury themselves in the ground with a ‘thud’ & scatter the dirt in every direction, when a general laugh would arise.”
Fortescue’s first real taste of fighting came at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, where he was detailed to serve as an aide to General Banks. Positioned on a knoll overlooking the battlefield, Banks and his staff presented a tempting target for Southern artillerists. While seated there on horseback, Fortescue heard a “depressing shriek” behind him, and turned to see a “scene so ghastly, that I was almost unnerved by the sight.” A shell had flown several feet over the group and passed through the chest of an orderly near them, mangling both the man and the horse he was mounted on. Continuing on, Fortescue recalled, the shell proceeded to burst, tearing “almost to pieces” three soldiers who were coming up as supports.
Infantryman Donaldson advanced up the Peninsula with McClellan, and, learning of his advancement to 2nd lieutenant, was determined to prove to his men that he merited the promotion. As the 71st Pennsylvania approached the battlefield at Fair Oaks on May 31, 1862, they were ordered to lie down in support of a line of troops who were engaged, but for Donaldson, it “was the opportunity I had sought to fix myself in my men’s confidence.” He decided to remain standing, and his somewhat foolish display of bravado proved costly. “I received a musket ball through my left arm, about three or four inches below my shoulder. The force of the blow turned me completely around….Reaching around with my right I caught hold of my left hand and drawing it up in front of me let it fall, when the arm swung about utterly useless. The blood ran down my fingers in streams.” Donaldson was soon evacuated, and after his recovery, accepted a commission in August 1862 as captain in the newly raised 118th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Each of the three men were vocal in their opinions of their fellow officers. In the 118th Pennsylvania, reported Donaldson, a fellow captain was “insufferably impertinent and overbearing,” and the first lieutenant of his company was “rough and grossly ignorant.” A middle-aged company commander was “an old grandmother who knows absolutely nothing about soldiering or the Tactics,” while the adjutant of the 118th was “as fit for the position as I would be to navigate a ship.” Fortescue had spent only eight weeks with the 29th Pennsylvania before his assignment to the Signal Corps, but he developed similar views. He described the lieutenant colonel and major of the regiment as “principal ignoramuses…[who] possessed not a scintilla of military knowledge, were ignorant in the English grammar, had no experience in the handling of men, and were rank cowards from their boots up,” while the captain who commanded his company was a “dishonest and supercilious package of arrogance.” Cavalryman Rawle, fresh from college, found much in common with the officers of his regiment, many of whom were from moneyed, influential Philadelphia families. Like Fortescue, however, he found several of his field officers wanting. A major was “a man who will let no officer of the Regiment get a soft thing, but who is almost always away from the Regiment himself,” while the middle-aged lieutenant colonel of the 3rd was “an old fogy…very disagreeable…very unpopular and entirely unfit for the position, being far too old and incompetent.”
During the Antietam Campaign, Fortescue was assigned to man a signal station on Maryland Heights, outside Harpers Ferry, and report on enemy movements. He reached there on September 4, and after two days spent attempting unsuccessfully to attract the attention of the nearest signal station 10 miles southeast at Sugar Loaf Mountain, he decided to abandon his post on September 7 and try to reach Union lines. Fortescue knew Lee had crossed the Potomac into Maryland, and, he reasoned, “Better to risk capture in an honest attempt at resistance than lie quiet at the Ferry and suffer this rabble to walk over one roughshod.” After riding a clockwise circle around the Confederates, he reached the army in time to witness the horrors of Antietam.
In a rearguard action south of Shepherdstown, Va., three days after Antietam, Donaldson and the 118th Pennsylvania, part of the 5th Corps, found themselves isolated on the Virginia side of the Potomac, staring across a broad farm field as Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Division closed in on them from three sides. Lee had ordered Hill to turn and push the pursuing Federals back across the river, and the green Pennsylvanians, many of whom had never fired their guns and who had little concept of how to fight, were there because their inexperienced colonel refused to obey an order to withdraw because he believed it had been delivered to him improperly. For Donaldson, it was Ball’s Bluff all over again—overmatched, outgunned, and a river bordered by steep bluffs behind him. “The fire of the enemy was appalling,” he wrote several days later, “…the rush of bullets sounded like a hurricane.” The 118th was soon decimated and sent reeling back. When it was over, 269 men were casualties.
Lincoln relieved Little Mac in early November and placed Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside in command. Signalman Fortescue, never an acolyte of McClellan, was non-plussed. He characterized the former army commander at the time as “a pigmy compared to the masterly generalship displayed by those who afterward commanded [the] army.” Donaldson, in contrast, who was beside himself at the change of commanders, wrote that he “gave way to tears of indignation and words of bitter reproach.” He predicted doom under Burnside: “We do not think he can command this army.” Burnside turned the army towards Fredericksburg, and as Fortescue peered through his signal binoculars across the Rappahannock in the days before the battle, shared Donaldson’s forebodings: “It was apparent to all that Lee’s army in its entirety occupied the heights in the rear of the city, and were daily adding to its impregnability by redoubts and traverses.”
One of Francis Donaldson’s older brothers, John, was living in Charleston, the capital of present-day West Virginia, when war broke out, and decided his sympathies lay with the South. He enlisted as sergeant in Colonel George Patton’s 22nd Virginia Infantry, eventually rising to captain. Francis feared that he might meet his brother in battle, though they never did. “When you write to John,” he instructed his family in 1861, “tell him that now that he is a soldier, even though it be in a bad cause, to try and distinguish himself, and….I do not blame him, because he believes he is right.” After Francis was captured at Ball’s Bluff, John appealed for his brother’s parole, and managed to gain an audience with Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, who granted the request. John went to Libby Prison to free his brother, and wrote after the war, “I will never forget how he looked as he was brought in to me between two Confederate soldiers….How I shook with emotion as he came towards me and as I folded him to my heart the tears streamed down my face. He did not know I had his parole in my pocket.” John took Francis to a Richmond hotel, and the brothers spent several days walking about the city, during which Francis, wearing his uniform, was jeered by the locals. Eventually, John had to rejoin the 22nd Virginia, and Francis traveled back to Union lines. In 1864, John was captured at Cold Harbor on June 3. By then, paroles and prisoner exchanges had ended, and John remained a prisoner at Fort Delaware, 35 miles south of his Philadelphia birthplace, until two months after the war ended. – J.G.A.
The Army of the Potomac began its fruitless assaults on Marye’s Heights on December 13, and from the city that morning Donaldson and his men watched as the lines of blue infantry that preceded the 5th Corps attack “moved up the hill, and then as quickly melt away.” His men, he wrote, “felt defeat before encountering it.” Donaldson advanced part of the way up Marye’s Heights, losing nine men. “The tempest of shot was fearful,” he related, before he stopped to tend to a wounded sergeant.
The day after the battle signal officer Fortescue was ordered into the city to occupy a signal station in the top of the cupola of Fredericksburg’s courthouse, overlooking the battlefield. Confederate artillery soon detected him and his detachment there and sent shells screaming toward their perch. The signalmen soon beat a hasty retreat across the river, but not before the shells directed at them had killed and wounded men in the streets below. In the days that followed, Fortescue laid the blame for the defeat at Fredericksburg on Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, who mismanaged the forces on the Federal left. Donaldson uncharacteristically had little to say about the outcome of the fight, instead focusing on the men in the ranks: “The army was glorious, nothing wrong with its material, but its strength and capabilities were misdirected.”
Following the aborted Mud March in January, Donaldson voiced the opinion of many in the army regarding Burnside: “Why! Oh! Why! Don’t they remove this comically incompetent general…?” Morale in the Army of the Potomac plummeted in early 1863. Major General Joe Hooker’s priority when he replaced Burnside in early February was to restore the army’s confidence, and he undertook the task with a vengeance. Furloughs were granted, rations improved, camps were cleaned up, and desertions were quelled. Hooker’s reforms infused the men with a new sense of pride: “I never saw the army in such splendid condition and such excellent fighting trim,” Donaldson wrote after two months under Hooker.
Although he composed a 50-page letter describing what he saw and did there, Donaldson and the 118th were only lightly engaged at Chancellorsville. His experiences there were enough to convince him, however, that Hooker should be replaced: “The men are morose, sullen, dissatisfied, disappointed and mortified,” he wrote nine days after the defeat. “I sincerely trust there will not again be any forward movement under Fighting Joe!!!” Fortescue concurred, remarking that Hooker “failed to convince those around him that he possessed the qualities necessary to fit him for command of the army.”
Donaldson and Rawle maintained a healthy respect for their Confederate opponents. “They are splendid fighting men,” Donaldson wrote in September 1862, adding in January 1863 that the Southerners were “energetic, brave and wonderful.” Lieutenant Rawle had relatives in the South, and his interactions with Southern citizens were generally positive. During the winter of 1863, he was encamped near Warrenton, Va. “The society of the place is very aristocratic,” he reported to his mother; however, he noted, its sympathies were “very hot secesh.” Signal officer Fortescue heaped scorn on the civilians he encountered. “Lean, lank, sallow-pated and alcohol-drenched biliousites,” was how he described the citizens of Winchester, Va.; other descriptions were similarly uncharitable.
The Army of the Potomac experienced yet another change in commanders as it moved to Gettysburg. Joe Hooker was out, replaced by Pennsylvanian George Gordon Meade. Despite being friendly with George Meade Jr. before the war, Rawle was silent regarding the change. Fortescue also said nothing about Meade, but any goodwill engendered by having a general from his native state in command was wasted on Captain Donaldson. “‘Old Four Eye,’ as [he] is universally termed by the men, appears to be man universally despised in the Corps,” he wrote in late June. “He certainly cares very little for the rank and file, and curses loud and deep are hurled at him.”
An exhausting 37-mile march brought the 5th Corps to the outskirts of Gettysburg at 3:30 a.m. on July 2. Later that afternoon, as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s assault across the Emmitsburg Road threatened to collapse Union lines, Donaldson and the 118th were sent into the woods west of the Wheatfield to help blunt the attacks of Anderson’s and Kershaw’s Brigades. “The scene now beggars description,” Donaldson recalled as the regiment became engaged. “The deafening shouts of the combatants, the crash of artillery, the trembling ground beneath us, the silent and stricken countenances of the men, the curtain of smoke over all and its peculiar smell made up a picture never to be forgotten by any who witnessed it.” A fellow captain he held in high regard was mortally wounded a few feet away from him, and soon, he wrote, “nothing could stop the rebel onslaught.”
From their position on the eastern edge of the East Cavalry Field on the afternoon of July 3, Lieutenant Rawle and his captain watched as Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry attack, nearly three brigades strong, moved from a walk to a gallop and thundered across the open field toward them. It was clear that Southerners would present their flank as they passed the position of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry; it was equally apparent that unless something was done to check their momentum the Rebels would overwhelm the lone Federal regiment charging up to meet them. What would be described many years later as the “supreme moment of his life” was at hand. “Captain, let’s rally the squadron, give ’em a volley with our carbines and then pitch in with our sabres,” said Rawle. “Will you stand by me if I order a charge?” his captain asked. “I will stick to you till hell freezes over,” Rawle replied. Soon, Rawle, his captain and 100 Pennsylvanians were galloping headlong into the unsuspecting flank of the Southern column that was charging past, blunting the force of the assault and helping to break up their attack.
Captain Fortescue and his signal detachment were sent to Jack’s Mountain, near Fairfield and just over the Pennsylvania border, on June 29, where they were to establish communication with Meade’s headquarters, then at Taneytown, Md. Fortescue’s station on the mountain lay 10 miles southwest of Gettysburg, and as the armies converged on the crossroads town, Fortescue and his fellow signalmen found themselves behind enemy lines. During the fighting they could intermittently see signal flags waving on Little Round Top, and, through their telescopes, were witnesses to Pickett’s Charge, but throughout the battle were unable to establish contact with other signal detachments. Lacking orders, they remained at their station, and were surprised and captured by retreating Southern cavalry on the morning of July 5 in a house in nearby Emmitsburg, where they had been spending nights.
The paths of the three Philadelphians diverged in the months following Gettysburg. As a captive, Fortescue’s experience was the most trying. He was trundled off to Libby Prison in Richmond and spent the next 20 months eking out an existence in five different Confederate prisons, growing more and more embittered toward his captors each day. He survived and was exchanged in March 1865. Francis Donaldson led his company until late December 1863, when a long-simmering feud he had with the commander of the 118th boiled over and led to Donaldson’s dismissal from the army. He later succeeded in having the charges against him dismissed. William Brooke Rawle would spend the balance of 1863 and early 1864 fighting guerrillas in Mosby’s Confederacy. In February 1864, the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry was assigned to duty at the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, and from there Rawle witnessed the fighting of the Army of the Potomac through the surrender at Appomattox. In the years after the war, he studied and wrote about the conflict on the East Cavalry Field, and became recognized as the authority on the fighting there. In recognition of his efforts, a flagpole dedicated in his name stands near the scene of the heaviest fighting on July 3.
J. Gregory Acken is a Civil War writer and researcher who resides near Philadelphia. In addition to the three books dealing with the Civil War experiences of Union officers in the Army of the Potomac referenced in this article, he is currently preparing the letters of a Massachusetts officer for publication.