Times Past, Pausing to Remember



RICHARD AND ERASMUS BASSETT


Three of the sons of Allen Bassett went to war that year, Richard, Erasmus, and George. Richard was the oldest, son of Allen's first wife Drusilla. She died in 1829 during Richard's first year of life. He was the youngest of her five children. Allen had nine more children with his second wife, Jemima. It was likely that Richard never made much of the fact that these were "only" half-siblings; certainly he felt towards Erasmus and George as strong a bond as if they had shared mother as well as father.

Richard and Erasmus joined the same unit, the 126th New York State Volunteer Regiment. George enlisted in another, so his course diverged from that of his older brothers.

The 126th, made up of men from the Bassetts' home county of Yates and two others in the Finger Lakes region of New York, was not going catch much luck, and things went very wrong very soon. Within three weeks of its formation, it would be captured in total at Harper's Ferry, an undermanned and poorly managed garrison on the Potomic River. It occupied a strategic position that the Confederates wanted, and they took it with ease. The men were captured and paroled, to sit out the war until they could be matched by paroled Confederates and allowed to fight once more. Because the 126th was a new unit, with inexperienced troops, it was scapegoated - given much of the blame for the entire garrison's downfall. The men didn't deserve the reputation they acquired, but they had no way of combating the slur against them. They were known as the "Harper's Ferry cowards."

Harper's Ferry


These young men has signed up out of patriotic fervor, out of a sense of duty, because their community of friends and neighbors expected it, to retain the respect of their peers, and, most of all, to prove to themselves they were equal to the task of serving and defending their country. Some were escaping boredom and seeking excitement, but most really wanted to make a significant contribution. Three weeks later, they were out of the war, at least temporarily, and on their way to some other duty in the west.

For Erasmus and Richard Bassett, things got worse - much worse - two days after the debacle at Harper's Ferry. September 17, 1862 found them camped near the town of Monocacy, Maryland. They could hear sounds of cannon firing in the distance. They were listening to the battle of Antietam, taking place near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Known as "the bloodiest single day in American History," September 17, 1862 saw more deaths of Americans in battle than any other day, before or since. George Bassett, the youngest of the three brothers, was in that place, and Richard and Erasmus knew it. In addition to the humiliation they experienced over their own situation, they were filled with apprehension about his welfare. Their worries were justified. Sergeant Major George Bassett died of a head wound that day.

Months of misery followed. They were herded west, encamped in horrific conditions near Chicago, and much of the time suffered hunger, cold, health problems, inadequate clothing, and always, always, always - were burdened with the sour reputation that was so unjustified but impossible to reverse: Harper's Ferry cowards. Their only hope was to go into battle again and prove their worth.

That opportunity came the following July, at Gettysburg.

Part of the Gettysburg battlefield today


Descriptions of the battle of Gettysburg speak of the well-known places: Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, Culp's Hill. One could easily form a false mental picture of the terrain, which was, in fact, fairly flat. The landscape was rolling, full of little knolls and very slight ridges, but looked pretty level from any distance, as in the modern photograph above.

That is important to keep in mind when talking about the 126th Infantry's position on the field that day, July 2, 1863. They had missed the beginning of the battle, arriving during the evening of July 1, after the first day's fighting was over. They camped behind the Round Tops and would join the rest of the Second Corps, to which they were assigned, the next day. The Order of Battle dictated that they would be part of General Winfield Scott Hancock's command.

The 126th was one of four regiments making up Willard's Brigade, and they were the last regiments attached to the Second Corps to arrive on the field. Assigned as reserve units and placed in the rear, they had more waiting to do, long hours of eagerness and apprehension. It looked as if their opportunity for redemption might be at hand, a chance finally to go into battle and prove their worth.

The Union forces were in a defensive position along a low ridge - Cemetery Ridge so named because on the northern end was Evergreen Cemetery. The ridge ran roughly north and south, curving around to the east on its northern boundary and terminating near the Round Tops, low hills, at the southern end. Most of the Confederate forces were across the fields on a similar, but lower ridge, known as Seminary Ridge. Parts of Lee's army were in motion, but heavy growths of timber and the undulating landscape obscured just where they were, how many, and their direction of movement. The main thrust of attack today would be by troops commanded by General James Longstreet. It was long in coming.

With the Federal line facing west, the attack finally began on their left. It would be another two hours of waiting for the Bassett brothers and their comrades, as the battle raged and artillery sounded. To their left, the entire Third Corps, commanded by the colorful but controversial General Daniel Sickles, was taking a beating and was in very serious danger of total destruction. General Alexander Hayes, commanding the Third Division of the Second Corps, of which Willard's Brigade was a part, was talking things over with Willard when General Hancock's aid rode to them and said, "General Hancock sends you his compliments and wishes you to send one of your best Brigades over there," pointing to the left. Hays turned to Willard and gave his instructions. "Take your Brigade over there and knock the hell out of the rebs."

The assignment was a difficult one. The Union Army could have used a lot more men in that place at that time. Units in reserve were not in short supply, but they were camped in many places, and none were immediately available. The four regiments were deployed without support, with the task of stopping a vigorous Confederate assault. The historian, R. L. Murray, who has researched this regiment and written a fine book about it (see below) wrote:
Colonel Willard took great care to make sure his brigade was going to be properly deployed; this was a critical moment for the men of Willard's command. They not only had the opportunity to erase the stain of Harper's Ferry surrender but they were in a decisive position to affect the outcome of this important battle. If they faltered and retreated, the gap they were filling would be wide open for the Southern forces to drive clear through to the rear of the Union position. If they could stop the rebel advance, however, then Union reinforcements would soon arrive to help shore up the defenses and prevent a breakthrough. It was critical to both the Union cause and the "Harper's Ferry" regiments' reputation that the soldiers did their duty here, alone, on this field.

Willard's Brigade was facing a Confederate Brigade, four regiments, commanded by Brigadier General William Barksdale. They were being directed towards Willard's position, intending to sweep through and open a gap in the Union line. When they were about 400 yards away, Willard ordered his unit to attack. Barksdale, trying to spur his men forward, was fatally wounded.

The opposing forces were close, now, and casualties on both sides mounted. Sergeant Erasmus Bassett was carrying the Colors and, according to R. L. Murray remained several yards in advance of the line. A favorite target is the color bearer of the enemy, and Erasmus was not a lucky exception. Wounded in the leg, he continued on a short ways. A second missile pierced his heart.

Brother Richard saw him go down. Another casualty was Colonel Willard, and a third was Melvin Bunce, a close friend of the Bassett brothers. The wounds of both Bunce and Willard were mortal. Of the men in the 126th, there were 65 killed or mortally wounded in that engagement. After the Confederate attack had been successfully repulsed, and in darkness, Richard went back to the field to find his brother. He knew from others Erasmus had been killed. Finding the body, he removed personal effects and later marked the grave where his brother was buried.

Of the three sons of Allen Bassett who went to war, only Richard returned home. I hope it was of some comfort to him, and to his family, that the defamatory phrase, "Harper's Ferry coward," would never be applied to him, or to brother Erasmus, again.




For a more complete account, the following book is excellent:
R. L. Murray: The Redemption of the "Harper's Ferry Cowards." Wolcott, NY: Benedum Books, 1994

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