Morris Brown, Jr., is a Hero
On March 6, 1869, a Medal of Honor was issued posthumously to Captain Morris Brown, Jr., for bravery or self sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty—the capture of a Confederate flag at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Then, less than a year after his Gettysburg heroics, Brown, acting regimental commander of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry, was felled by a rifle bullet.
It's difficult to know where to start Brown's story. An obvious place is a speech given by his father, Morris Brown, Sr. as "President of the Day," on April 27, 1861. He was fired up, and he wanted his Penn Yan, New York, audience of between 3000 and 4000 equally inspired when he finished talking. Fort Sumter, the Federal fort located in Charleston Harbor, had been shelled by secessionists. That was treason, pure and simple, he proclaimed. Brown, a partner in the law firm of Judd and Brown, wanted the attendees to consider the perilous condition of our country. "War is upon us," Brown asserted as he stood in the court house square.
Fifty-three-year-old Morris Brown was a relative newcomer to Penn Yan. Barely five years earlier he had moved from Hammondsport, at the head of Keuka Lake, where he had served as a Steuben County Assemblyman and as the Town of Urbana (Hammondsport) Supervisor. But rapidly growing Penn Yan, the Yates County seat located on Keuka Lake Outlet, held more allure, so Brown relocated. Within three years the entrepreneurial Brown had purchased or mortgaged three houses and lots in the village, the latter six acres on Main Street. By 1860, when he returned to the practice of law, he was prosperous enough to support a household of nine. This included his wife, himself, a son (Morris Jr., age 18), two daughters, ages 16 and 12, and two domestics. (His two older sons had left home by this time.)
Though an avowed Democrat, on that April day, Brown wisely called for bipartisanship. Penn Yan's three protestant churches were split over the issue of slavery, and the same ardor carried over into elections. While the nascent Republican party was in the ascendancy, Democrats were not without influence. Not surprisingly, the two Penn Yan newspapers, the Yates County Chronicle (née Whig) and the Yates County Democrat, reflected the opposing views. Leaving no doubt about his commitment, Brown concluded his talk with a rousing: "Hesitation is cowardice—delay is treason...Today we talk—let us all talk—but tomorrow and henceforth it is our duty to fight." His words would come back to haunt him later.
The immediate upshot was the formation of a Vigilance Committee, which attorney Brown was asked to chair. Three weeks later the committee saw its first volunteers, a small contingent called the "Keuka Rifles," off to Elmira, the newly created military depot. Then on May 27, Brown bade a farewell to his first born, twenty-seven-year-old Ira (often listed as John) Smith Brown, who had enlisted as a private in what would become the 1st Regiment, U.S. Sharpshooters.
But recruitment was a frustratingly slow process. By July 1862, over a year later, all hope for a short war had long since faded and the county had no regiment to call its own. So early that month a military committee, drawn from the 26th Senatorial District, was formed, with Morris Brown and six others from Yates County appointed to it. Their efforts finally bore fruit. By August 14, the Yates County Chronicle reported that Lieutenant Samuel Barras and Captains Truman Burrill and William Coleman had recruited two full companies. (A company was composed of 100 men; a regiment was ten companies, or 1000 men.) One of Burrill's recruits was Morris Brown's youngest son, twenty-one-year-old Morris, Jr., two years away from graduating at Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York.
On August 22, the 126th New York Infantry was officially mustered on the grounds of George N. Reed's White Springs Trotting Park, in Geneva, the site chosen by the military committee. Despite the blustery wind blowing dust in the soldiers' and in the attendees' faces, the silk regimental flag, procured in New York City by Penn Yan's Colonel or General Ephraim M. Whitaker, was duly presented to the new regiment.
Morris Jr. was mustered Orderly (or First) Sergeant in Captain Truman Burrill's Company A, and was advanced $21, a month's pay. (Typically Brown sent home his pay—a frequent topic of his letters—to be invested by his father.) Then, on Tuesday, August 26, sometime between 8:00 and 9:30 a.m. the recruits marched about a mile to Geneva's Steamboat Landing, where they boarded the three steamers that plied Seneca Lake, disembarking at the end of the lake at Jefferson (now Watkins Glen). There they boarded the Elmira, Jefferson and Canandaigua RR cars bound for the Elmira Depot, where they got their first discomforting taste of army food: two loaves of bread that one non-com used for footballs, two slices of cold beef, and two pieces of cheese.
At sundown, Sergeant Brown and the other new soldiers boarded the Northern Central RR train, bound for Baltimore. At Baltimore they entrained to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), to relieve militia there. There they began the inevitable adjustment to the military routine: 5:00 a.m. reveille, drills until dress parade twelve hours later, and "lights out" at 9:30 p.m.
Sergeant Brown's first letter home graphically describes what the newly minted 126th New York Infantry encountered:
This is characteristic of Brown's letters before 1864. He was full of bravado and uttering the usual complaints about food and conditions generally. Note he also refers to the recurring rumor of impending battle. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, planned an invasion of Maryland and had advanced the wings (later corps) of Generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and James Longstreet. Morris Brown and the others garrisoned at Harpers Ferry, stood in the way. Worse, Harpers Ferry was virtually defenseless. Consider Shelby Foote's memorable prose: "Low-lying Harpers Ferry, more trap than fortress, was dominated by heights that frowned down from three directions:... Seizure of these heights with guns bearing down on the [soldiers]...below would be something like shooting fish in a rain barrel."
Sergeant Morris Brown, Jr.'s October 3 letter confirmed the indefensibility of Harpers Ferry and how he came to be a prisoner of war.
As a prisoner of war Brown not only had time to write such a long letter, but, like his fellows, to rant. Accused of skedaddling, he and his comrades were labeled the "Cowards of Harpers Ferry." (In fact, fault finding and scapegoating occupied over 250 pages of testimony in Volume XIX of the Official Records.)
He and his fellow parolees were Union prisoners of war at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, guarded by other Union soldiers. Named for Illinois senator and 1860 presidential candidate, Stephen A. Douglas, it sat near the windy shores of Lake Michigan some thirty blocks south of the heart of the city. The sixty-acre camp, built in late summer 1861, originally was to serve as a military depot and training site for the northern district of Illinois. Only later did it house Confederate prisoners.
With time on his hands Morris continued to protest his fate.
At Camp Douglas not only did lice abound in the barracks, but the low, flat land, lacked drainage, resulting in standing water, and the parolees were destitute of clothing and food. (Their fare consisted of "sour bread, wormy rice, old beans" washed down with "poor whiskey," contended one parolee.)
Relief came on November 17, 1862, when Commissary General of Prisoners William Hoffman cut orders for the parolees to report to Washington for assignment. A week later they boarded passenger trains bound for Arlington Heights, across the Potomac from Washington, desperately wanting to erase the stigma of "cowards." Shortly thereafter, the parolees boarded flat cars of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, bound for Union Mills, Virginia. There they became part of Major General Silas Casey's Division of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's Twentieth Corps, Defenses of Washington, which was to defend the capital and surroundings.
Meanwhile command changes in the 126th occurred, from which Morris Brown, Jr. benefited. On December 13, 1862, he was promoted First Lieutenant Company A. While still at Camp Douglas, apparently Morris had sought endorsements from two Hamilton College professors, both of whom complied.
Professor Edward "Old Greek" North effusively wrote that Brown possessed the "qualities that belong to a successful officer—physical courage and self possession, intellectual strength and sagacity with fine social gifts and a character unsullied."
A photograph of the twenty-one-year-old in his officer's uniform captures his essence about as well as any photo could. His light complexioned square face, full beard and piercing gray eyes show the determination, even aggressiveness, increasingly evident in his letters home. Moreover, at 5 feet, 10½ inches, he was over two inches taller than average.
The atmosphere at Union Mills improved dramatically upon the arrival of Brigadier General Alexander Hays, the newly appointed brigade commander.
The forty-three-year-old Hays, a Pennsylvania native, had graduated from West Point in the class of 1844, had served with upperclassmen Ulysses Grant and James Longstreet and was cited for bravery in the Mexican War. Company C Captain Winfield Scott, a University of Rochester graduate and Baptist minister, spoke for most of his fellows: Hays was "A princely soldier; brave as a lion...we would have followed him to the death." Hays's spirit was emulated by newly promoted Lt. Morris Brown, Jr., who drilled Company A in Captain Truman Burrill's absence.
Brown was so aroused that—rather than showing relief that he had been spared the two bloody Union defeats at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and at Chancellorsville early May, 1863—he chafed from inaction.
The good news was that Morris was promoted captain of Company A on April 24, though he was not commissioned until May 9. Now he would have the chance to lead his company if it ever saw combat, though it seemed farther away each day.
Then, at approximately 2:00 p.m. on June 25, Captain Brown and others in the brigade marched out of Centreville, their home for the past three months. Unaccustomed to long marches, especially on gummy, rain-soaked roads, before long they began ridding themselves of what they considered expendables, including their knapsacks. Ten hours and ten miles later, they wearily dropped to the ground at Gum Springs. The next day they joined the Army of the Potomac's Second Corps, becoming the corps' Third Brigade, Third Division.
Unknown to them, they were were hellbent to catch up with the Confederates who were taking the war north. There would be no let up for the Union soldiers. The longest and severest march was on June 29, somewhere between thirty and thirty-five miles on dusty roads, with occasional rests totaling three hours at most. Straggling peaked before the marchers reached Uniontown, Maryland. But, as Sergeant Harrison Ferguson from Orleans in Ontario County wrote home, "It does no good to fall out, for the first thing we meet is the point of the [file closer's] bayonet." Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had boldly struck out for the north again. The result was that more than 70,000 Confederates and 90,000 Federals were converging on the little crossroads town of Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania. Late on July 1, with a battle already raging, Major General Winfield S. Hancock's weary Second Corps dropped to the ground near the southeastern base of Round Top, south of Gettysburg, and tried unsuccessfully to rest.
Sleep was virtually impossible, for the eerie silence was broken by intermittent musketry fire. Aroused at 3:00 on that sultry, misty July 2, the groggy men stumbled to their feet. Five hours later Captain Brown and the foot-sore soldiers halted near the cemetery then moved to their left at the crest of Cemetery Ridge. A few managed to find sticks to build fires to boil coffee and nibble on hardtack, but most went hungry.
To their right was the village of Gettysburg, to their left woods and straight ahead a valley which rose gradually to Seminary Ridge. Their vision was unobstructed for miles. Directly in front of Brown and others in the brigade located in Zeigler's Grove, an elevated, crescent-shaped area, was a low, stone wall and an old rail fence.
During the day, Captain Brown's Company A was spared the inconclusive skirmishing going on before them. Then around 4:00 p.m. General Longstreet's corps attacked the Union's Third Corps, badly mauling it and opening a gaping hole in the Union line. Roughly three hours later General Hancock ordered acting Third Division commander, General Hays, to send "One of your best Brigades over there." In turn, Hays directed the Third Brigade (in which Morris Brown served) to go "Over there and knock the H--- out of the rebs."
The brigade, screaming "Remember Harpers Ferry," ducked "grape,
canister and shell" raining in on them and charged through the brush
toward the swale known as Plum Run. They ran uphill some 800 yards in
an open field and into canister from Confederate guns which slashed through
their ranks. Then they ran smack into elements of General William
What followed, even who gave the order to withdraw, depends upon the narrator. It remains that when Hancock saw the brigade withdraw, he loosened a stream of profanity, as only he could, and ordered acting brigade commander Sherrill arrested. He then directed Colonel Clinton MacDougall of the 111th New York to command the brigade. To top off a rather confusing event, Captain Morris Brown, Jr. assumed he too might be under arrest. As soon as he could, he penciled the following note to General Hays's adjutant general, Captain George Corts:
Why Brown figured he was the ranking officer and why Colonel Crandell requested Captain Brown to relocate the brigade are unknowns. Nothing has been discovered to explain Brown's note, while the arrest of Colonel Sherrill, who was restored to brigade command the next morning, is documented.
That night the thoroughly exhausted, hungry, but vindicated brigade marched back to Zeigler's Grove. Again, Captain Brown spent a fitful night, while his brother, Smith, the regimental adjutant, suffered a sleepless one, assisting the surgeons in the painful hunt for the dead and wounded.
General Ewell's pre-dawn artillery attack on Culp's Hill ushered in the fighting on Friday, July 3. While Ewell failed to smash the Union right, Hays and his division were no less anxious. Most of the men "Quivered with instinctive readiness," a captain in the 8th Ohio recalled.
Fortunately, Captain Brown was spared the savage and unrelenting skirmishing that morning which proved fatal to three fellow company commanders and the wounding of a fourth. Instead, Brown's detached company remained in reserve on the brigade's right. Shortly thereafter—some time between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. there was an "Ominous deathlike silence." Then around 1:00 p.m. an ear-splitting and earth-shaking cannonade began. "The heavens looked like a continuous ball of fire," one participant recalled. "Shells struck the ground, dirt, gravel, stones and pieces of shell splattered the Union troops." Something like 150 Confederate cannon were aimed at the Union troops, which answered with between 100 and 120 guns.
After greater than an hour of the unprecedented cannonading (estimates run from an hour and a quarter to two hours), again there was silence—signaling the fateful Confederate infantry attack, thereafter known as "Pickett's Charge." Burly General Hays, standing by his old brigade and waving his sword, called out, "Now boys, look out; you will see some fun!" Hays's division, now only two brigades, was four deep in some places and extended close to 300 yards. The 126th New York, Brown's regiment, held the right behind the road in Zeigler's Grove.
At 3:00 p.m. Seminary Ridge came alive. "All at once, over their works and through the bushes that skirted them, came a heavy skirmish line," the 126th New York's Captain Winfield Scott recalled. "The skirmishers were about two paces apart, covering about three quarters of a mile on our front. Behind them about twenty rods came another heavy skirmish line. Behind them, about the same distance, came out the first line of battle." The mile-wide line of battle moved forward like "A stream or river of silver."
Approaching them were three Confederate divisions, approximately 13,000 men, representing Major General George Pickett's Division of Longstreet's Corps, Major General Henry Heth's Division of A. P. Hill's Corps, and behind Heth's was Major General William D. Pender's Division (Major General Isaac Trimble substituting).
Pickett's Division had barely begun its advance when it was met by severe Union artillery fire that cut them down "like the chaff before the whirlwind." Shortly the other two divisions suffered from similar shelling. Somehow, despite the Union artillery raining shells on them, the Confederates kept reforming and coming and became entangled, so that "The shock of the assault fell upon the 2d and 3d divisions [Gibbons's and Hays's] of the 2d corps," General Hancock later testified. Finally, when the attackers were between 200 and 300 yards of them, division commander Hays shouted "Fire," though some of his anxious men had anticipated his command. They rose up and fired away, with something like 1700 muskets and Lt. Georg Woodruff's six-gun battery.
When the full force of the Confederate attack on his right did not materialize, Hays pivoted the 126th New York and the 125th New York reserves forward on the right. An excerpt from Adjutant Smith Brown's letter to his parents, written on July 4, summarizes the results: "...Morris is a hero. Captured a rebel flag. He charged the rebel line with 10 men & captured it...Morris's flag had inscribed on it 'Shepardstown,' 'Malvern Hill,' 'Manassas Junction,' 'Sharpsburgh,' 'Harpers Ferry,' 'Mechanicsville,' 'Hanover,' 'Ox Hill,' 'Cold Harbor,' 'Frazers Farm,' 'Manassas,' 'Cedar Run' ..."
Captain Morris Brown, along with Captain Samuel Armstrong of the 125th New York, had been ordered to strike the Confederate left with his small company. (Brown estimated he had barely eighteen men). After advancing about a quarter mile, Brown deployed them so as to strike the left flank of General Joseph Davis's broken and retreating brigade. After the firing died down, the youthful Brown, at the head of his column, proudly returned with an estimated fifty Confederate prisoners and, especially symbolic, the 28th North Carolina Regiment's flag, which proclaimed its capture of Brown and the Third Brigade at Harpers Ferry!
Though he confessed that "It was a terrible fight & I don't wish to get in another unless necessary," Morris gushed over his role in a letter written twelve days later:
Only later did the tragic proportions of the battle of Gettysburg began to sink in. As General Hays lamented, "The angel of death alone can produce such a field as was presented." The Second Corps lost 4369 men, almost forty percent of those engaged. General Hays's division had suffered 1291 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), or greater than 35% of those engaged. Two of Hays's regiments lost greater than half of those engaged. The 111th New York and the 126th New York, representing the "Cowards of Harpers Ferry," sustained 63.8% casualties (58 killed) and 50.8% (40 killed) respectively. Brown's Company A was eleven men fewer, with one non-com killed, another wounded, and nine enlisted men wounded in their two days of fighting. General Hays could rightfully report that "The history of this [the Third] brigade's operations is written in blood." Smith Brown's letter in its entirety reveals the awful ordeal that he, his brother and the brigade had undergone.
© 2005, Wayne Mahood