Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thomas McConahy, pt.2

              Thomas enlisted as a private of Co. F of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment on August 31, 1861.  According to military records, he was just a few days past his 22nd birthday (31 August).  Unlike other Pennsylvania regiments, the 100th did not begin its career at Camp Curtain (named after Pennsylvania’s war governor Curtain) but were immediately sent south to Washington, DC where they completed their training, learning how to become soldiers.  From Washington, DC they were sent south to Fortress Monroe in Hamilton, VA, and then on to Port Royal, SC where they participated in one of the first amphibious operations in US history, capturing two forts in the process.
            During the winter of 1861-62 the 100th remained in South Carolina and there was a great deal of sickness in camp as men who had previously rarely ventured more than 30 miles from home found themselves in a foreign environment, eating unfamiliar food, and swapping germs and viruses.
            The war was heating up for the 100th by June of 1862, both literally and figuratively.  Although Big Tom and the others were, no doubt, accustomed to living and working in hot and humid western PA weather during the summer, they must have found that fighting in the US Army was a different story.  As a private person you could choose to wear as much or as little as was comfortable for your situation.  Stripping down to your braces (suspenders) was technically the same as stripping down to your underwear, but with no one to see you in the fields, it didn’t really matter.  And if the heat and humidity got too be too much for you, it was always possible to stop work, grab a bucket of water, and rest in the shade until the heat of the day passed.
            However, life in the Army was vastly different.  As a soldier you wore a cotton or linen shirt, long enough to come down to your mid-thigh.  This went on over your drawers, also made of cotton or linen, but possibly made of wool.  And your socks were wool, too.  The US government provided you with a nice wool, navy blue jacket with four buttons, and you wore that jacket (or “blouse”) with all four buttons buttoned at all times.  Your shirt was tucked into your pale blue wool trousers, and since ticks and chiggers were omnipresent pests, you probably tucked your trouser legs into your socks to keep the critters from invading.  Add leather shoes, called brogans, and a wool cap that sort of looks like a primitive baseball cap (kepi) and you are in uniform.  Soldiers also carried their weapon, a muzzle-loading rifled musket, cartridges with powder and Minnie balls, percussion caps, a bayonet, a canteen with water, and a haversack (think “man purse”).  Their gun alone weighed in at eight pounds.  And now you begin to feel the pain of living life as a soldier in the Civil War.
            Imagine that you joined Tom and his companions at the battle of Seccessionville, SC on June 16 of 1862.  It was hot and humid, as usual.  And you had to march several miles just to get to the battle.  Once there the 100th faced a murderous attack by three rebel cannon:  “We entered the range of a perfect storm of grape [nine iron balls fired at once], canister [27 smaller iron balls fired at one shot], nails, broken glass, and pieces of chains [just what it sounds like] fired from three very large pieces on the fort, which completely swept every foot of ground within the range, and either cut the men down or drove them to the shelter of the ravine on the left” reported Colonel Daniel Leasure of the 100th PA.  Although a regiment has, in theory, 1000 men, the 100th had sustained so many losses due to illness prior to the battle that Col. Leasure reported only approximately 400 men made up the fighting power of the 100th.  Of those 400 men and officers, 9 were killed and 33 more wounded, or a ten percent rate of casualties.[1]
            To give us some perspective on this, it is important to remember that during the Civil War, most men in a single regiment were family, friends, and neighbors.  Unlike today’s military that intentionally separates family members and members of the community; in the 1860s it was considered a good thing to keep men who knew each other together.  So as Tom and the others watched their comrades fall, they were watching the injuring and killing of young men that they knew, went to school with, worked beside, and perhaps even were their brothers, cousins, uncles, and fathers.
            After the disaster at Seccessionville the 100th was sent back to Virginia and became part of the Army of Virginia.  They marched here, there, and everywhere, and in August found themselves back at Manassas Junction, site of the First Battle of Bull Run.  It was called the “First” Battle of Bull Run because on August 28 – 30 of 1862, the 100th PA was involved in another battle on the same ground, the Second Battle of Bull Run.
            Again, the Union suffered a great defeat at this battle, with 1,747 killed, another 8,452 wounded, and 4,263 captured/missing soldiers.[2]  The 100th suffered the loss of two captains and a lieutenant, with a total of 15 men killed and another 117 injured during this battle.[3]
            Granted, 15 men dead is a terrible thing.  And 117 injured soldiers from one state are horrible.  But how does that compare to today?  To give these numbers some relevance to our time period we need to do a bit of math.  Fortunately for us, it’s easy math.  In 1860 the population of the US was approximately 31 million.  The population of the US today is just over 310 million.  So all we need to do is multiply by ten.  And now the numbers seem more terrible.
            Imagine getting the news that 150 men from your state were killed in Afghanistan in the past two days, and another 1170 were injured.  Just from your state alone.  Nationwide the report was 17,470 dead Americans, with 84,520 more soldiers wounded, and over 42,630 captured or missing.  Can you imagine the outrage in this country if our military suffered over 140,000 casualties in two days?  Can you hear the calls for our soldiers to be brought home RIGHT. THIS. MINUTE.
            But that is what was happening in all around Tom McConahy in 1862.  The scale of the death and destruction, those 15 dead and 117 injured, was to him as if we lost ten times that many in 2012.  And the killed and wounded weren’t merely numbers to Tom.  They were men he knew.  Perhaps men he cooked with or camped next to.  Family and friends.
            And the war isn’t even close to being over for Tom.  He has another year of active duty, and then one of recovery in a Union hospital before the war’s end.  I’ll talk more about those events and his life after the Civil War in a future blog posting.

[1] The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 14, p. 74.;cc=moawar;idno=waro0020;node=waro0020%3A6;view=image;seq=88;size=100;page=root
[3] The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 - Volume 12 (Part II) p261, 819.

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