McHenry Howards war

In September 1814, Francis Scott Key of Maryland wrote a poem as he watched British ships bombard Fort McHenry in the harbor of Baltimore. When an actor sang Key's 'The Star-Spangled Banner' to the tune of an old drinking song, it at once became a popular patriotic air, and many years later the official national anthem of the United States.

Francis Scott Key's grandson, McHenry Howard, did not hesitate about going to war against the Star-Spangled Banner when Northern troops invaded his hometown of Baltimore in 1861. Federal authorities simply threw into jail those of Maryland's elected legislators who would not do as they were told. Howard and thousands of other young men from the state hurried southward, eager to fight for restoration of self-government. Their purpose, Howard wrote, was 'not merely to aid the cause of the Confederacy as it was constituted, but believing that they were serving their own State - in subjection - in the only way that was left to them.' Francis Scott Key had about 60 descendants living in 1860, and 'every man, woman and child was Southern,' Howard recalled, although 'I cannot recall that any owned slaves in 1861.'

When war interrupted Howard's civilian pursuits, he had been studying law after graduating from Princeton University. The 22-year-old lawyer in training belonged to a volunteer organization, the 'Maryland Guard,' that served purposes at least as much social as military. The guardsmen affected gorgeous uniforms of the 'Zouave' variety, modeled after the outfits of French colonial troops who had caught the popular fancy in North America. Howard later described his garb with amusement provided by hindsight:

The full dress was a dark blue jacket, short and close fitting and much embroidered with yellow; a blue flannel shirt with a close row of small round gilt buttons (for ornament merely,) down the front, between yellow trimming; blue pantaloons, very baggy and gathered below the knee and falling over the tops of long drab gaiters; a small blue cap, of the kepi kind, also trimmed with yellow; and, finally, a wide red sash ... kept wide by hooks and eyes on the ends.

Private Howard would soon discover, in the world of a real soldier in the field, that 'this gaudy dress, which made a very brilliant effect on street parade ... was totally unsuitable for any active service.'

For nearly a year Howard served (more suitably attired, of course) in the ranks as an enlisted man with the 1st Maryland Infantry, Confederate States Army, made up of 1,000 young men who had escaped across the Potomac River to join the Southern cause. In the spring of 1862 he won a commission as lieutenant and aide-de-camp to fellow Marylander General Charles S. Winder. Lieutenant Howard remained at that lowest of the commissioned ranks for the final three years of the war. In his staff role, he had an opportunity to observe much of the conflict's most dramatic events, and many of its most significant leaders. After a Federal shell killed General Winder at Cedar Mountain in August 1862, Howard did staff duty with Generals Isaac R. Trimble, George H. Steuart, and George Washington Custis Lee, son of army commander General Robert E. Lee.

When Lee's Army of Northern Virginia headed north after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lieutenant Howard followed as a supernumerary. His chief, General Trimble, had not reported back to the army after convalescing from a bad wound. That left Howard without a role, but

Portrait of a soldier 77

he could not ignore his comrades' aggressive move northward and headed across country toward the Potomac to catch up with the army. When he splashed up the left bank of the river, the exiled Marylander noted sadly that it was the first time he had been on the soil of his native state in one month more than two years.

In Greencastle, Pennsylvania, Howard and a half-dozen other stray Confederates wound up in a hot street fight against mounted Yankees. Pistol bullets shattered windowpanes on all sides, dust obscured galloping horses, and the little band of Rebels had to flee. Later Howard and his mates chased a lone horseman for miles, only to discover that he was a Confederate major and an old friend.

During the army's subsequent retreat back toward Virginia, Howard rode through a Maryland town and thought wistfully, 'Oh, that it was Baltimore!' On 14 July, as the

McHenry Howard, 1838-1923. (Public domain)

General George Custer Dead

Army of Northern Virginia abandoned Maryland, Howard wrote in his diary: 'Feel very much depressed at the gloomy prospect for our State. I look around me constantly to see as much of it as I can before leaving it.' As the army crossed the Potomac into Virginia, bandsmen gladly struck up 'Sweet Home,' but that seemed 'a mockery' to the Marylanders. Howard 'could not refrain from some bitter tears as I ... looked back to our beloved State.'

For 10 months after Gettysburg, the exiled lieutenant performed staff duty under General George H. Steuart, a West Point graduate with 'Old Army' ideas about organization and discipline. The summer after Gettysburg passed without a major engagement. During the lull, Howard and his mates fought against the elements and against logistical defects - just as has every army in every era. In September 1863, he wrote disgustedly in his diary: 'Raining like

Portrait of a soldier 79

pitchforks - very disagreeable ... Regular equinoctial storm - have had nothing to eat for almost twenty-four hours.' Violent downpours had drowned every fire for miles. Through one uncomfortable day, Lieutenant Howard, General Steuart, and three others huddled unhappily in a storm-shaken tent all day long, hungry and miserable.

Howard missed the campaigning around Bristoe Station in October 1863 because he had gone to the Confederate capital for

Battle Bristoe Station

religious reasons - to be confirmed in the Episcopal faith in Richmond's elegant St Paul's Church. He had returned to duty by the time of the Battle of Mine Run, where his staff chores brought him under heavy fire: 'the bullets coming through the switchy woods sounded somewhat like the hissing of a hail or sleet storm.' He also noticed in that engagement one of the benchmarks of the war's evolution. Confederate soldiers had reached the conclusion that substantial protective fortifications made really good sense in the face of rifled musketry. They used 'their bayonets, tin cups, and their hands, to loosen and scoop up the dirt, which was thrown on and around the trunks of old field pine trees' that they cut down and stretched lengthwise.

During the winter of 1863-64, genuine hardship became a constant companion of Southern soldiers. Lieutenant Howard described his diet, at a point in the food chain well above the privates and corporals, as consisting mostly of 'corn dodgers' - corn meal cooked with water - for both breakfast and dinner. In good times, dinner also included 'a soup made of water thickened with corn meal and mashed potatoes and cooked with a small piece of meat, which ... was taken out when the soup was done and kept to be cooked over again.'

Events in the spring campaign in 1864 threw McHenry Howard into the cauldron of combat, then yanked him out of action as a prisoner of war. At the Wilderness, the night of 5 May echoed mordantly with the 'moans and cries' of wounded men from both armies who lay between the lines and beyond succor. 'In the still night air every groan could be heard,' Howard wrote, 'and the calls for water and entreaties to brothers and comrades by name to come and help them.' The next morning, fires started in the underbrush by muzzle flashes spread through the Wilderness and burned to death some of the helpless wounded.

Spotsylvania followed Wilderness immediately. On 10 May 1864, a brutal

The burning of Richmond. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

cross-fire caught and pinned down Howard and his friends. They had no option but to hug the ground and wait for darkness. 'A more disagreeable half hour,' he wrote in retrospect, 'with a bullet striking a man lying on the ground every now and then, could not well have been spent.' Two days later a Federal assault swept over the nose of the Confederate works near the point soon to be christened 'the Bloody Angle.' Yankee bayonets surrounded Howard and he went into a captivity that would last for six months. Howard's concise sketch map of the Angle at Spotsylvania remains an important artifact for studying the battle.

As his captors herded Lieutenant Howard to the rear at Spotsylvania, he began a prison experience shared by hundreds of thousands of Civil War soldiers. Howard wound up at Fort Delaware, in the middle of the Delaware river downstream from Philadelphia. There he enjoyed reasonably civilized treatment, by the uncivilized standards of the day. The fort's commander liked Howard and others of the Confederates, but some of his subordinates took the opportunity to abuse their power, as humans are wont to do. In November 1864, Howard went back south under a program for the exchange of prisoners. Once released in Georgia, he used a flask of brandy to bribe his way into a good railroad car on a Confederate train and by the end of 1864 had reached Richmond again.

Through the war's waning weeks, young Howard assisted General G. W. C. Lee in the effort to turn an accumulation of home-front troops, raw levies, and naval ratings into a hodge-podge brigade for emergency use. The emergency arose on 2 April 1865. The lieutenant was sitting in a pew at St Paul's, where he had been confirmed a few months earlier, for the 11.00 am Sunday service, when a courier informed Jefferson Davis that the army's lines had been broken. Richmond must be abandoned. For four days the ersatz brigade under G. W. C. Lee took part in the retreat west and south from Richmond. In a mix-up that especially depressed and horrified Howard, the green troops loosed a volley against friends that killed several men, victims of mistaken friendly fire just a few hours before the army surrendered.

Howard fell into enemy hands again on 6 April at Sayler's Creek. This time his prison camp was Johnson's Island in Lake Erie. There he took the oath of allegiance to the United States on 29 May and made his long way home. Awaiting him in Baltimore was a demand, dated September 1862, that he report to Yankee conscript officers to be drafted into Federal service. Men had come to his mother's house and asked the names and occupations of all the family's males. McHenry's mother responded that her husband and eldest son were being held unconstitutionally as political prisoners in northern Bastilles. Four sons were serving in the Confederate army. 'McHenry,' she told her interrogators, was 'with Stonewall Jackson and I expect he will be here soon.' The officials wrote out the conscription demand and left. McHenry kept the souvenir the rest of his life.

Lieutenant Howard enjoyed a long and fruitful career after the war. He completed his legal training and practiced law in Baltimore for decades, finding time also to write extensively about his Confederate experiences. McHenry's lively, urbane recollections appeared in periodicals both North and South. He eventually turned his story into a charming and important - and sizable, at 423 pages - book that is a classic piece of Confederate literature: Recollections of a Maryland Confederate Soldier and Staff Officer under Johnston, Jackson and Lee (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Company, 1914). Howard died in his native Maryland on 11 September 1923, two months before his eighty-fifth birthday.

The world around war

Was this article helpful?

+1 0

Post a comment