The Quartermaster’s Tale – Part 2

    In my last post we met Captain W. Willard Smith, an assistant quartermaster who was sent to Gettysburg after the battle, along with Captain Henry B. Blood, another quartermaster, to see to the clean-up of the field and recovery of government property. J. Howard Wert, a 22 year old farmer’s son who spent considerable time on the battlefield that summer, described Smith as “he knew just what he was there for, and he went about his work very expeditiously, standing not much on ceremony and carrying not a picayune whose toes he tramped on.” Smith arrived in Gettysburg on July 8. Captain William C. Rankin, a quartermaster on General Meade’s staff, had been left behind in Gettysburg to do the same work Smith and Blood were sent to assist with, but Rankin was apparently an inefficient fellow (he was later court-martialed for drunkenness), or in over his head, for Smith found things in town and on the battlefield a mess. The 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, the only mounted force left behind, were preparing to leave and Smith had to talk their colonel into leaving behind one squadron to help him. There were hundreds of unburied Confederates and dead horses still lying on the field, and “thousands of rebel prisoners, some of which walked the streets discussing Southern rights.” He found large numbers of people picking up equipment and weapons that littered the field. A Union surgeon wrote that there were “crowds of citizens” from “neighboring country and town, and many from Philadelphia.” Some were seeking friends but “a great many were in search of relics or ‘trophies,’ as they called them, from the battlefield; shot, shell, bayonets, guns, and every sort of military property. . . It was almost incredible, however, to what an extent this trophy mania had spread.”

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, Captain Smith's superior officer while Smith was engaged in the clean-up of the battlefield.  LC

Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs. Captain Smith’s superior officer while Smith was engaged in the clean-up of the battlefield. LC

 
    Smith wasted no time in beginning to bring order to the situation. Within a day, using his Confederate prisoners “and citizens found carrying away Government property,” he buried 337 Confederate dead and over 100 horses. On July 10 he arrested 75 citizens his men found carrying away property from the battlefield and put them to work burying dead more horses. But with only about 100 cavalrymen at his disposal Smith complained “I could not disarm and unload one tenth the persons carrying off arms.” Smith estimated that there “from Three to Five thousand persons visited the battlefield daily, most of them carrying away trophies.” 

Alexander Gardner took this image of Union breastworks on Little Round Top on July 6.  Note the cartridge box and open ammunition box in the foreground.  These are examples of the equipment Captain's Smith and Blood sought to recover.  LC

Alexander Gardner took this image of Union breastworks on Little Round Top on July 6. Note the cartridge box and open ammunition box in the foreground. These are examples of the equipment Captain’s Smith and Blood sought to recover. LC

    As Smith and Blood gradually brought order to the battlefield and its cleanup, the two officers began to venture forth into the surrounding countryside in search of government property. On July 16, accompanied by two cavalrymen, Smith visited Christian Benner’s farm, which encompassed Benner’s Hill. He found “guns, blankets, sabers, shelter-tents, &c.” From Benner’s they visited other farms east of town, including that of George Rosentsteel. Smith and his men found property at all of them “secreted in garrets, between beds, in out buildings, in fact, in every conceivable hiding place.” The captain ordered the farmers “to leave the harvest field, load up all the property with them and accompany me.” The result was a “long train” of wagons loads of army equipment. J. Howard Wert believed that to the farmer military rule “was a misty, intangible nothing. Little heed did they take of the Provost Marshal’s warning, and hence divers ones of them came to grief.” This was probably true in a number of cases, but the fact that Smith and his men found much of the property cleverly hidden away indicates that these individuals understood the Provost Marshal’s warning. Yet a number of these farmers had suffered considerable damage to their property and they saw the weapons and other equipment they picked up as something they could turn into cash to recoup some of their damages.

Alexander Gardner photographed this dead Confederate soldier on July 6.  This is the same soldier Gardner moved to create his "sharpshooter" photograph.  Captain Smith's work details would have been responsible for burying this soldier and recovering the clothing and equipment near the body.  LC

Alexander Gardner photographed this dead Confederate soldier on July 6. This is the same soldier Gardner moved to create his “sharpshooter” photograph. Captain Smith’s work details would have been responsible for burying this soldier and recovering the clothing and equipment near the body. LC

 
    Unsurprisingly, Smith’s zealous energy to recover army property and bring order to the battlefield was not popular. On the evening of the day he arrested 75 civilians for stealing property he was visited by a Congressman, I. K. Morehead, who told Smith he arrested three of Morehead’s constituents, “and threats were made that my straps should be torn off.” Smith had some bark on him and was not an easy man to intimidate. He replied to Morehead that “if it would be any service to the Government, I would willingly submit, but, I did not regret anything I had done, that the arrest of these gentlemen would be of great service to the Government by intimidating others, and no real damage to themselves.” Yet, Smith admitted in a letter to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs in a July 29 letter that “My measures were apparently severe, but so far as circumstances would admit, I treated all with courtesy, and respect.” 
    After a few weeks very few local would have agreed that Smith treated all with courtesy and respect. J. Howard Wert, recalled that the captain and his troopers became so detested “that the common appellation for them through the countryside was the ‘Forty Thieves.’” Wert also observed that Smith’s activities allowed some locals to settle personal scores against neighbors they disliked or were jealous of. “In more than one case a domiciliary visit from the provost guard and a confiscation of blankets would be in consequence of information secretly given by an envious neighbor,” wrote Wert. David McConaughy, a well-known Gettysburg attorney, wrote to General Darius Couch, commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, on November 7, to complain that “Cap. Smith with his man Slonaker and others have become a perfect terror to our quiet farmers – and are more dreaded than the Rebels.” Nathaniel Lightner, a farmer who lived south of Gettysburg along the Baltimore Pike, and whose farm had been used as a hospital and suffered severe property damages, may well have been one of those that sounded off to McConaughy. Lightner had picked up some relics from the field and sold them to a visitor from New York for cash to pay for some of the damages to his farm. Somehow word of this reached Captain Blood [who was equally detested as Smith], and he had Lightner arrested. “I told him how it was, that we had no idea of doing anything unlawful,” wrote Lightner in 1893, “but he was determined to make me all the trouble he could.” Lightner’s friends got him released from arrest but thirty years later he recalled, “that arrest is the only thing of it all that made me mad, and I am mad about it yet.” 
    There seems little doubt that Captain Smith’s and Blood’s sense of duty caused them to take their mission of recovering government property to extreme lengths, and without any regard for circumstances, such as in the case of Nathaniel Lightner, but we should not forget that their task was massive and made more difficult by the rampant pilfering of equipment from the field by locals and visitors. Smith’s posted orders not to remove property from the field had little effect and, as he wrote to General Meigs on July 10, “I deemed it advisable to use more stringent measures.” 
    Exactly how much property Smith and Blood recovered is impossible to determine but a report from Lieutenant John R. Edie, the Acting Chief Ordnance officer of the Army of the Potomac, listed the following weapons retrieved from the battlefield: 24,864 muskets or rifles, 10,589 bayonets, 2,487 cartridge boxes, 366 sabres, 114 carbines, 5 revolvers, 2 rifled cannon, 3 limbers, plus ammunition and other leather equipment. Smith and Blood were responsible for some of these recovered weapons. They also helped restore order on the battlefield and saw that the last of the dead were buried and the many dead horses on the field were disposed of. As Gregory Coco concluded in his study of Gettysburg’s aftermath, “these men managed to save the United States treasury many thousands of dollars worth of useable weapons and other property. They had also scrubbed clean a huge and corrupted parcel of ground, and made it livable again. Their actions prevented disease, and gave the land back to the people and the possibility to sow and plant and reap once more.” [Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle (Thomas Publications, 1995), 328]

D. Scott Hartwig

[Note: For those interested in exploring the work of the quartermasters after the battle, Greg Coco’s Aftermath book is a good place to start. The park library has a folder containing much of the correspondence of Captain Smith during the time he was at Gettysburg. The library is open by appointment on weekdays by contacting Historian John Heiser at john_heiser@nps.gov.]

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
This entry was posted in Aftermath, Burials, Civilians, Prisoners and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s