By the evening of May 5, 1864, in the Union field hospital on the Orange Turnpike in Orange County, Va., amputated arms and legs were stacked like “piles of stove wood, the blood only excepted,” according to an observer quoted in historian Gordon C. Rhea’s book on the third and fourth days of the Battle of the Wilderness.
Even in that wretched setting, the appearance of the peacetime Springfield lawyer and then Union Col. J. Warren Keifer “caused a stir,” Rhea writes.
Carried from the Union’s far right flank, where he’d been wounded by a ball while leading the 110th Ohio and 6th Maryland in a futile advance, “his pants were gone, leaving him clad only in a pair of socks, a shirt soaked in blood and a tightly buttoned vest.”
“His mangled right arm hung at his side. His left hand still grasped a sword firmly … His blood-matted locks, thought a witness, gave him a ‘most weird appearance.’”
Before Keifer was hefted onto an operating table of rough boards and chloroformed so surgeons could use saws and knives to dress the shattered ends of his fractured bones, he told them: “I should not care for myself if the rascals had not cut my poor men to pieces.”
The subsequent allegations that those men hadn’t performed their duty and thus deprived Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant of a clear victory in his first engagement with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Southern Virginia was to Keifer an insult that struck closer to the heart than the injuries he suffered — an insult that would continue to vex him into the next century.
The story has its roots in the reputation another Union leader established in a battle Keifer played a key role in 11 months before he was carried to the field hospital.
Although fought in the opening days of July 1863, “the battle of Gettysburg (actually) began June 5, 1863, when Lee’s army (broke) camp at Fredericksburg, (Va.),” said Erick Wittenberg, a Columbus attorney and co-author with Civil War author and lecturer Scott Mingus Sr. of “The Second Battle of Winchester: The Confederate Victory that Opened the Door to Gettysburg.”
The Confederates had won an engagement at Brandy Station to the south and were headed for Winchester, where soldiers under the command of Gen. Robert H. Milroy represented “an 8,000-man Union force sitting on Lee’s lines of communication and retreat,” for the Gettysburg campaign, Wittenberg said.
As the battle neared, Keifer was doing what he normally did, said Mingus, a Civil War author and lecture: “(performing) various staff and administrative functions … including serving as the judge advocate for trials and other legal issues.”
“When the rebels approached on June 13,” Mingus said, “he resumed command of the 110th Ohio. He led it well against the oncoming Confederates of Jubal Early’s powerful veteran division,” and “helped calm his nervous men, many of whom had not yet been in any significant combat.”
One aspect of the controversy is that they experienced their first combat at the approaches to Winchester, which “is not a place that can be defended,” Wittenberg said, one reason it was the site of three battles during the war.
In a presentation on Keifer last month at the seventh annual Springfield Civil War Symposium, Wittenberg University history professor Tom Taylor said the battle caused significant controversies because Milroy decided to defend his position there against the advice of President Abraham Lincoln and then General-in-Chief of the Union forces, Henry Halleck.
“Keifer was one of the people who told Milroy he couldn’t hold the position,” Taylor said, and when Keifer had his first contact with the Confederate forces near Kernstown, just south of Winchester, he feared it was a concentrated force, not just a cavalry advance. He was right.
Keifer and the 110th and 116th Ohio provided resistance west of the fortifications at Winchester the next day, Mingus said, and when the route was on the following day, while Milroy and his staff “fled the field,” “Keifer led a successful attack that opened a hole in the Confederate lines large enough for his and another Ohio regiment, the 123rd, to largely escape intact. Milroy would lose half of his 8,000-man division and would face a court of inquiry.”
“Keifer distinguished himself,” Taylor said.
But because it was Milroy’s name that dominated discussions of Second Winchester, it was Milroy’s reputation that preceded Keifer and others under Milroy when Union troops massed in Orange County, Va., 11 months later for what would be called the Battle of the Wilderness.
Stationed on the Union’s far right flank, he received orders the evening of May 5, 1864, to try to outflank Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s troops on what was presumed to be the unfortified left flank, then turn to attack the Rebel forces from the side.
Rhea writes that while moving up a gentle rise, “Keifer’s men realized a horrible mistake had been made. The slope was clear of growth and a row of log breastworks lay along the top. Rather than rounding Ewell’s flank, as expected, Keifer was crashing directly into strongly fortified Confederate works.”
Canceling the attack, Keifer sent word not once but twice to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour and, in turn, received orders to attack not once but twice, in part because action elsewhere on the field indicated a weakness in a Confederate position Grant sought to exploit.
Having received a second order from his commanding officer, Taylor said, Keifer believed he had no alternative but to send his troops into battle.
“Waiting until the federals were a pistol shot away,” Rhea writes, “the Confederates rose and emptied their rifles.”
As waves of Union soldiers came, “each one melted as did the first,” Rhea quotes a Virginia captain as saying. “Death was in every shot and we held fast to our works.”
A man who saw the scene unfold called the losses frightful and added that the “next morning the ground was found to be literally covered with the dead bodies.”
There were other allegations against Milroy’s former troops at the Wilderness, including those lodged against a unit that served on the Union right on the next day of the battle, though not on the far right, where Keifer had been and where another unit collapsed under Confederate pressure.
Keifer defended the men from Winchester and later claimed they were being made into scapegoats by higher ups, including Grant.
“Of the three regiments from the (Winchester),” Keifer said, “494 (one third of their number) fell dead or wounded on that field through inefficiency and blunders of higher officers who (were) never near enough to it to hear the fatal thud or passing whiz of a rifle ball.”
“Mention of the incident nearly four decades later still galled him,” Rhea writes, before quoting Keifer’s words from his 1900 war memoir: “The presence of a general officer in authority or an intelligent staff officer representing him would have averted the useless slaughter.”
Keifer was brevetted a brigadier general in late 1864 for his service in the Shenandoah Valley. On June 15, 1865, as he issued his final orders to troops about to go home, he wrote a heartfelt note that seems fitting for review on Memorial Day.
“I cannot repress the deepest feelings of sadness upon parting with you.
“I mourn with you, and share in your sorrow, for the many brave comrades who have fallen in battle and have been stricken down with disease. Let us preserve their memories and emulate their noble character and goodness. A proud and great nation will not neglect their afflicted families. The many disabled officers and soldiers will also be cared for by a grateful people and an affluent country.”
He then bolstered their spirits and issued marching orders for their peacetime lives.
“You have a proud name as soldiers; and I trust that, at your homes, you will conduct yourselves that you will be honored and respected as good citizens.”
There followed his final goodbye.
“I shall part with you entertaining the sincerest feelings of affections and kindness for all, hoping that it may be my good fortune to meet and greet you in future as honored citizens and friends.”
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