Times Past, Pausing to Remember


Trying to trace one's family history is full of surprises and incredible coincidences. I was interested in General Slocum for who he was and for what he did during the American Civil War, only secondarily for any connection he might have had with my family. The first thing I discovered was that he was born in Delphi falls, New York, a tiny village 14 miles south of Syracuse. This hamlet was also my mother's birth place, so chances were excellent they were related. They were, but not from any resident of Delphi Falls. They had common ancestors seven generations back, in Massachusetts.


Slocum Henry Warner Slocum was a very bright man who breezed through his courses at West Point, graduating 7th in a class of 43. When war came, his advancement was remarkably rapid. By 1862, he had been promoted to major general and was, at that time, the second youngest in the country to attain that rank.

The war started badly for him, personally. In the first major battle of the war, at Bull Run, he was severely wounded in the thigh at the head of his regiment. He distinguished himself later at South Mountain, when he and his officers overrode their indecisive corps commander, Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, and charged the Rebels behind a stone wall at Crampton's Gap, routing them and taking four battle flags.

Slocum's relative merits were described by Larry Tagg* in the following passage:
His manner "inspired faith and confidence," according to those around him....Those qualities, however, masked a careful, even cautious nature. Self-contained and unemotional, a man who loved discipline and order, Slocum was attentive to detail and protocol, sometimes agonizingly so. As a leader of men, Slocum lacked dash. He personified the Old Army way of command, never exceeding his orders. Slocum prided himself on serving throughout the war without friction, and the way he accomplished this was to always avoid assuming responsibility. There was an up-side to this style of leadership, however: in the entire war, the men serving under him never lost a stand of colors or a gun. And once he committed himself to battle, he was one of the army's hardest and toughest fighters.
General Slocum's performance in the field at Gettysburg was adequate, but undistinguished. In that battle, he is best remembered for something else - a terse statement he made at a gathering of generals called by Commanding Officer, General George Meade.

General Meade had not planned an engagement with Lee's army at Gettysburg. He had had something else in mind, and a very different place on which to fight a battle. Gettysburg "just happened" as it so often does in wartime. At the end of the first day's fighting, Meade called his officers together, and sought their thinking about the best strategy.

Mead's Headquarters
Leister House, Mead's headquarters and scene
of his meeting with his generals

Another view of the Leister House

Situated on the Taneytown Road behind Cemetery Ridge, this humble two-room house served as headquarters for the Army of the Potomac. A modest, wood frame building with a single fireplace, the widow (Lydia) Leister made her living by working a small farm that included a small log barn, orchard, and vegetable garden. By the evening of July 2, the widow's fences had been partially knocked over and the garden trampled by the passage of couriers' horses. Much of the damage seen in the first photo, above, had not yet been inflicted. Leister's food stores had been raided by hungry staff officers and headquarters guards, and some of her furniture dragged into the yard for use as writing desks.

Contacted by couriers to assemble at Mead's headquarters, the officers entered the small room lit only by several flickering candles. Seated at the table to make notes was Maj. General Daniel Butterfield, Meade's chief of staff who had served General Hooker in that capacity and remained on the staff at Meade's request. Taking seats around the room was a host of generals: John Newton, newly assigned to command the First Corps after the end of the fighting on July 1; John Gibbon, in charge of the Second Corps; David B. Birney, in command of the Third Corps after the wounding of General Sickles; George Sykes, whose Fifth Corps had seen so much of the fighting that day; John Sedgwick, the bright eyed commander of the newly arrived Sixth Corps; O.O. Howard, who's battered Eleventh Corps had settled on Cemetery Hill; and Henry Slocum, a bitterly honest and dedicated officer who believed in standing one's ground. Also among the group was an exhausted General Warren, the "savior of Round Top", who slumped to the floor and rapidly fell asleep as the meeting began.

Each officer reported on his strengths, needs, and position on the field. One officer expressed uneasiness about the Union position, and thought perhaps the battle should not be continued there the next morning. General Butterfield, aide to General Meade, suggested that each man speak in turn of his own recommendations.

Three questions were asked, including whether the army should remain at Gettysburg or retire to a better position, wait for Lee to attack or attack him, and how long should the army wait before striking Lee? Almost to a man, the officers agreed to correct any awkward positions in the line and remain on the field for another day. Due to the heavy casualties in three of Meade's army corps, they deemed it best to wait for Lee to attack before moving against him. The last officer to comment, General Henry Slocum, put it quite succinctly: "Stay and fight it out!"

Stay and fight it out they did, for two long days, with a decisive victory for the Union Army, and for the Union, itself.


*Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle. Combined Publishing, 1998. ISBN: 1882810309

Cousins in the Civil War