A MEDAL AND A VALENTINE
Newton Martin Curtis
He carried a valentine into battle. After the battle, and after the war, he still had the valentine. General Newton Martin Curtis didn't get the medal for 26 years.
The small village of DePeyster, New York is justly proud of its native son. DePeyster was a small village when he was born in 1835, and it is still a small village. Located in St. Lawrence County, on the St. Lawrence River/Seaway, DePeyster today has 936 souls in residence, or so our latest 2000 census recorded.
The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and before the smoke had lifted, Newton started organizing a company for the Union Army. He arrived in Albany with eighty volunteers and offered their services, along with his own. The group was made a part of the Sixteenth, New York Regiment, with 26-year-old Newton as its Captain.
The Sixteenth New York was at the first Battle of Bull Run and a part of the Army of the Potomac until the Battle of Antietam. Captain Curtis was wounded during the Peninsular Campaign, after which he was promoted to Colonel of the 142nd New York Regiment.
Young Colonel Curtis received a valentine that year, 1863, while he was stationed in Virginia. The writer, as far as has been determined, was a "secret admirer," someone who had watched him march away to war. He kept that valentine, and it was found recently and published in the local newspaper. Did the young man, later to become a national hero, know the identity of the sender? Was he touched by the poem she wrote on the valentine? We don't think of our war heroes as being sentimental, but Newton Martin Curtis was never an ordinary man.
I saw the sixteenth marching off
Marching down Broadway -
And marked you, Captain Curtis,
In that bright summers day.
And then I there quite resolved
What'ere should intervene,
I'd ever watch your onward course
Through every fitful scene.
I waited - waited patiently
A year had winged its flight,
Then saw you'd nobly borne your part
In York-town's bloody fight,
Had rallied onward to the last,
Til you were borne away.
For some Confederate well had marked
The Hero of the day.
And now tis Col. Curtis
How quickly you have passed
From the sixteenth, to the hundred!
Long may the title last.
But one thing is a query
I should well like to know.
Col. has your heart been touched
By little cupid's bow?
Not every Col. has a heart
Or will so nobly bear his part.
Not every Col. so can shine
So surely win a valentine.
Fort Fisher in North Carolina is gone now, washed out to sea. It wasn't much even before the waves did their work. It was mounds of sand, several of them, behind which were Confederate guns protecting access to the Cape Fear River, one of the two last ports that remained open to the Confederates throughout the war. The Federal blockade worked everywhere else. Union ships could not get near enough to the fort, because of the shallow water, to knock out the guns. Artillery shells would land in the sand piles, rearrange them a bit, and do nothing but waste ordinance. The Union needed to mount a real land attack.
The original Medal of Honor in 1862
This they did, but they had to do it twice. The Christmas Day 1864 attack by a joint army-navy Union force fizzled when Gen. Benjamin F. Butler lost his nerve and pulled out his troops. Butler was a good example of a poor leader, having gained his position through political connections. This first venture had a good chance of succeeding. Col. Newton Curtis led his men close to the fort, while the fleet bombarded it. When Butler ordered him to retire, he and his men remained near the walls of the fort, repeatedly sending back word that he could take it if his superior would let him. After the fourth order to retreat, he finally did so.
To Admiral David D. Porter, the disgusted naval commander of the expedition who had prepared the way for Butler's assault with the greatest bombardment of the war, Union General Ulysses Grant wrote that he would "be back again with an increased force and without the former commander." Grant interviewed Col. Curtis, having heard of his aggressive exploits. He promoted Curtis and replaced Butler with General Alfred Terry.
The second assault took place on January 15, 1865.
Located at the end of a long peninsula, Fort Fisher was a a massive L-shaped earthwork that stretched 682 yards across the neck of land and another 1,898 yards down the beach. Armed with 44 heavy cannon to protect the approaches to the Cape Fear River and 125 other cannon to be used in its defense, and manned by 1,500 soldiers, the fort was not a pushover.
Curtis and his men advanced towards the walls of the fort by degrees and made it safely close in, then scaled the walls and drove the defenders along. In this action, Newton Curtis was wounded four times.
Finally, a shell exploded nearby, destroying his left eye and knocking him unconscious. He was thought to be dead, and newspaper correspondents wrote his obituary. It would be 45 years before they could publish it.
The President of the United States
in the name of
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
CURTIS, NEWTON MARTIN
The first man to pass through the stockade, he personally led each assault on the traverses and was 4 times wounded.
The date of issue of the Medal of Honor was 28 November, 1891, not unusual for those awarded Civil War Soldiers. The medal changed over the years, and the image above on the right was how it looked when General Curtis received it.
Yes, Captain Curtis who became Colonel Curtis was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. Following the war, he was active in politics, serving in many elected and appointed positions including the State Legislature from 1884 to 1890, and he was a member of Congress from 1891 to 1897. He worked long and hard to have the death penalty abolished. That didn't happen, but he was an irritant to the consciences of those blood-thirsty souls who kept it in place.
DePeyster, New York can be proud of its native son, General Newton Martin Curtis, man with the medal and the valentine. One wonders, which did he treasure more?
Postscript: General Alfred Terry was the senior officer of the Union Forces at the battle of Fort Fisher. The senior officer of the Confederate forces present that day was General William Whiting. They were cousins, but they probably never knew that.
Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Thurston and Sharon Workman