An Interview with Chicago's Battery Boys Author Richard Brady Williams
The celebrated Chicago Mercantile Battery, an elite artillery unit, served in many of the Western Theater's most important engagements during the Civil War. In Chicago's Battery Boys, author Richard Brady Williams skillfully weaves contemporary accounts by the artillerists into a rich and powerful narrative that will be hailed as a classic unit history. Richard Williams recently shared the Mercantile Battery's story with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
: How did you first become interested in the Chicago Mercantile Battery?
RBW: My interest in the battery began about seven years ago at a Gettysburg Civil War show. While there, I purchased memorabilia that belonged to Chicago Mercantile Battery Captain Patrick H. White, including his red leather bound journal volume. Ted (Savas) suggested that the Mercantile Battery story had potential for a book project because White's postwar reminiscences had never been published.
: Once you had Captain White's memorabilia, did you immediately decide to research the Mercantile Battery?
RBW: No, not really. You could say that a series of events over the following years, including research, travel, and a little bit of luck, led to the finished product. That same year I attended a Blue and Gray Education Society tour of Vicksburg conducted by Ed Bearss, the foremost expert on that campaign and emeritus chief historian of the National Park Service. Terry Winschel, who has been the park's historian for more than 25 years, co-led the tour.
: Sounds like the experience of a lifetime! So I gather that this trip solidified your desire to research the battery?
RBW: Their guidance gave me the momentum I needed to get started. Ed Bearss took me to many of the exact locations where the battery was positioned during Grant's pivotal campaign. He and Terry encouraged me to play "history detective" because a history on Pat White and his unit had never been written. To begin my digging, Terry allowed me to spend two days studying primary resources at the park's archives.
: What did you find there?
RBW: The archives contained a file on the Mercantile Battery that included correspondence between Captain White and one of park's first commissioners, William T. Rigby, who was responsible for laying out the park. These letters revealed many details about Grant's May 22, 1863 assault on the Confederate 2nd Texas Lunette fort.
: Can you provide a general overview of Grant's May 22nd assault on the Confederate defenses around Vicksburg?
RBW: Sure. Grant wanted to strike quickly to capitalize on his extraordinary victories on the way to Vicksburg, while Pemberton and his officers and men were still shaken. His first attack (on May 19) got the Union army to within about 400 yards of the Rebel line. From his improved position, Grant decided to launch a broader attack three days later across exceedingly rough terrain. The Union attacks were led by Sherman, McPherson, and McClernand, the latter being a politician-general who had clashed with Grant in the past. The assault started out that morning with a powerful Federal bombardment. By noon, the battle was in full swing. Later in the day, McClernand convinced Grant that he could penetrate the Rebel fortifications on his left side of the line. Grant renewed the attacks but was furious when, after another stalled Union advance and many more Union deaths, McClernand's men did not succeed in taking any of the Rebel forts.
: Can you describe the 2nd Texas Lunette?
RBW: The Confederate defensive bastion was a formidable earthen work guarding the Baldwin's Ferry Road, one of the main approaches to Vicksburg. Prior to the attack, Texas Colonel Ashbel Smith ordered his men to strengthen the fort, add rifle pits, and open lines of fire by clearing trees and burning down houses in the way. Early in his career at Vicksburg, Ed Bearss wrote about this crescent-shaped fort. He observed that it was "the post of honor," and "the key to the center of the Southern lines."
: I see. So what role did the Chicago Mercantile Battery play in the fight for the 2nd Texas Lunette?
RBW: Some of the Union attackers had gotten as far as the ditch around the base of the earthen fort. Rebel defenders were throwing short-fuse cannon shells down upon the stranded Yankee infantrymen like hand grenades. Union General A. J. Smith sent for Captain Pat White and asked him if he would volunteer to bring cannon up a steep ravine to the 2nd Texas Lunette and provide some relief for his beleaguered troops.
: How did Pat White respond to General Smith's request?
RBW: The Mercantile Battery captain agreed to assist and took some of his artillerists, along with a company from the 23rd Wisconsin Infantry, to pull one of his field guns up the steep slope by hand. Together, the bronze Napoleon cannon tube and the carriage weighed almost a ton. At the crest of the hill, White unleashed a torrent of fire against the Texas Lunette that rallied the demoralized Union troops and eventually enabled them to safely retreat at dusk. For this valiant move, Captain White and five of his surviving artillerists received the Medal of Honor in 1895.
: You must have learned a lot of details about Chicago's Mercantile Battery and the role they played at the 2nd Texas Lunette by studying Captain White's letters. Did you discover anything new in the file?
RBW: Yes. The archive file included an A. J. Smith newspaper clipping commending Pat White's bravery at Vicksburg. After the war, he maintained that Captain White's voluntary rescuing of his fellow infantrymen trapped in front of the lunette was one of the most laudable demonstrations of bravery he had ever witnessed. I also saw White's hand-drawn maps and his account of the assault, which validated the captain's postwar reminiscences in my collection. I also read letters in the file from veterans who had fought alongside the Battery Boys, and who witnessed the bravery of Captain White and his men.
: During this preliminary research you confirmed that nothing definitive had been written about the battery, and also learned some unknown facts about the battery's assault on the Lunette fort. What else did you discover during the early stage of your research?
RBW: I confirmed the accuracy of White's unpublished reminiscences and learned that the Chicago Mercantile Battery was one of the most decorated units during Grant's campaign against Pemberton. I also discovered that White was involved in placing the unit's monuments and markers for the opening of the park in 1906. During the trip I studied these markers and the Battery Boys' monument that is situated at the park's entrance.
: What did you learn while following the unit's markers?
RBW: I retraced the path that White and some of his men took with the cannon at the 2nd Texas Lunette fort. As I reached the crest of the ravine, I stumbled upon markers about the incident and a large portrait monument of White himself!
: What a fortunate find! Where exactly is White's monument located?
RBW: It is at the base of today's Anshe Chesed Cemetery, the Jewish cemetery that was established at the fort's site one month after the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg. The cemetery is a short walking distance, about 20 yards, from the park's visitor center. However, because of the cemetery's location, this area is not a focal point for today's tours. Very few people have ever even seen the portrait monument of White and the site of his artillerists' heroic actions.
: Let's talk about Captain White for a moment. Reading his personal recordings spurred your research journey, and must have also provided important insight into his character, background, and leadership ability. What did you learn about him?
RBW: Pat White was a powerfully built, six-foot Irishman whose family moved to Chicago in 1850. Like many other Irish immigrants, White was forced to take on unskilled-labor jobs and worked in a meat-packing plant. In his spare time, he served in a militia battery, the prestigious Chicago Light Artillery. When the war broke out, he joined Taylor's Battery, a Chicago artillery unit commanded by his relative. His militia experience enabled him to have an immediate positive impact as a first lieutenant in Taylor's Battery.
: How did White end up as captain of the Chicago Mercantile Battery?
RBW: Grant kept an eye on Pat White as he distinguished himself at the battles of Belmont, Ft. Donelson, and Shiloh. The Mercantile Battery's original captain had been ineffective and Grant arranged for White to take over as commander. At age 31, White was older than most of his new artillerists and, along with his militia and battle experience, immediately gained the respect of the Battery Boys. He called himself "the poor man's captain in a rich man's battery."
: Chicago's Battery Boys is based upon numerous primary accounts. In addition to Captain White's memoirs, what other primary account stands out as having been a valuable resource for you?
RBW: Quartermaster William Liston Brown's letters. The Brown letters and my unpublished White memoir formed the core of my manuscript. I incorporated other firsthand accounts, along with secondary information, into a succinct narrative so readers could seamlessly follow the battery throughout the war.
: How did you come across William Brown's letters?
RBW: While conducting research at the Chicago Historical Society, I found a book from the Civil War centennial listing all of the primary source material in Illinois. It stated that there were 132 letters from Chicago Mercantile Battery Quartermaster William Brown. I requested to see the collection, but was given a folder with only a few photocopied letters! When I inquired about this, none of the librarians knew anything about an entire collection of letters.
: What happened next?
RBW: Upon my request, the librarians sent someone to hunt for the full set of documents. After a couple of hours, the assistant came back with an ornately decorated, blue-leather volume that contained 400 pages of the weekly Sunday letters that Will Brown had sent home to his father in Michigan. As a postwar gift, Brown commissioned a bookbinder to mount each of the pages onto customized parchment papers.
: What was so special about the letters themselves that compelled you to edit and publish them?
RBW: Brown's letters fit several key criteria. First of all, the letters were well written and reflected his comprehensive education. (After graduating from a prestigious Chicago academy at the age of 15, Will began working as a clerk in one of the Board of Trade companies near the Chicago River.) Second, Brown's unit was highly acclaimed and played a pivotal role in major Western Theater battles. In his letters, Will made cogent observations about his company, as well as the battles he participated in and the commanders he encountered. He avoided the often trivial topics that populate many Civil War letters. Minimal attention was paid to the weather and insignificant chit-chat. Instead, his letters primarily focused on military, political, and business issues.
: What topics in Brown's letters did you find of particular interest?
RBW: Will voraciously read both Northern and Southern newspapers, and his assessments are documented in the letters to his father. He also carried on a written dialogue about national topics from the perspective of a Union soldier stationed in occupied Southern cities and towns. Some examples of the issues that Will addressed included the Copperhead peace movement, conscription and recruiting policies, Confederate businesses, Lincoln's emancipation and amnesty proclamations, McClellan's Democratic candidacy, and reconstruction controversies.
: The letters must have been an amazing discovery, especially because you knew that a history had not been written on the artillery battery.
RBW: Yes, I knew I had stumbled upon a treasure trove of unpublished information. Few people knew anything about the entire Brown collection because it had been sequestered for years in a safe storage area and was unavailable to the general public. I was also interested in the Brown letters personally. Like Will Brown, I had kept in touch with my father on Sundays. At the time that I discovered the Brown collection, I had been gone from home for 25 years. During that time, I called my father every Sunday evening. As he learned more about my idea for a book project, my father became my biggest advocate and cheerleader. Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago and will miss the publication of Chicago's Battery Boys.
: Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. Why do you refer to the men in the Mercantile Battery as "Chicago's Battery Boys?"
RBW: The phrase came in part from Mary Livermore, who became famous during the war for her work in the Northwest Sanitary Commission. In 1887, she wrote the bestselling book My Story of the War. Livermore used some of the Mercantile Battery's Civil War documents for her book, including the diary of Lt. George Throop, who was killed in action at the Battle of Mansfield during the Red River Campaign. Along with 33 other young men from the Mercantile Battery, Lt. Throop had attended her husband's Church of the Redeemer in Chicago before the war. Livermore referred to the young men in Captain White's company as "Our Battery Boys," and visited them when they were camped at Milliken's Bend along the Mississippi River as the Vicksburg Campaign was getting underway.
: There seems to be a lot of confusion between Chicago's Mercantile Battery and the Board of Trade Battery. Can you clear this up?
RBW: Sure, the Board of Trade in Chicago was a formal organization that handled the trading of commodities. It was created to be a broker between businessmen in New York City and wheat and corn farmers, as well as the livestock ranchers, in the Midwest. Men in the Board of Trade sponsored their own artillery battery first. The Mercantile Association of small-business owners followed thereafter. Both batteries served in the Western Theater. The Chicago Mercantile Battery participated in the Vicksburg and Red River Campaigns, while the Board of Trade served in the campaigns to defeat Chattanooga and Atlanta.
: Was the battery you write about started by what we know today as the Mercantile Exchange?
RBW: No. The Mercantile Exchange in Chicago today is similar to the New York Stock Exchange, but trades in commodities rather than company stock. The Chicago Mercantile Battery was founded by a separate business organization, known as the Mercantile Association, which ceased to exist before the Mercantile Exchange formed. The Mercantile Association was more like our Chamber of Commerce groups today, and included businessmen from all different professional, commercial, and trade fields.
: Why did the Mercantile Association organize the Chicago Mercantile Battery?
RBW: At the beginning of the Civil War, it was not uncommon for influential businessmen in major cities to sponsor military units. An example from the Eastern Theater would be the 118th PA Infantry, which was sponsored by the Corn Exchange in Philadelphia (and is often called the Corn Exchange Regiment). These business-sponsored military units would be analogous to today's sports teams that are owned by affluent businessmen and whose stadiums and arenas bear the names of corporations. Many members of the elite artillery unit were sons and employees of the business leaders who sponsored them. Others were from prominent Chicago families.
: Based on your extensive study of the Chicago Mercantile Battery, how would you summarize the unit's service?
RBW: The Battery Boys effectively participated in Grant's Vicksburg Campaign and were known as aggressive artillerists who stood firm under fire and firmly supported their infantry comrades in the heat of battle. They rendered solid service at Champion Hill on May 16, 1863 (for more on this battle, see Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg, by Timothy Smith, Savas Beatie, 2004). Captain Pat White was highly regarded by other Union commanders. In January 1864, General Thomas E. G. Ransom promoted White to Chief of Artillery...
: The battery also experienced its share of misfortune later in the war...
RBW: Yes, it did. The men suffered horrendous losses at Mansfield on April 8, 1864, when General Nathaniel Banks led his army deep into Louisiana along the Red River. The battery fought bravely but was overwhelmed, along with much of the rest of Banks' command. It lost all six of its guns at Mansfield. Three officers were killed in action, many men were wounded, and many more were taken prisoner. Captain White also came close to being killed when he refused to surrender his presentation sword to a swarm of Texas soldiers. He was one of the prisoners.
: And you have the correspondence that details this event in your collection?
RBW: Yes, it was a thrill to put the story of Captain White's sword together using these letters. Captain Alex McDow came up in the nick of time and accepted White's sword, which he sent home to his daughter in Texas. After the war, and his subsequent death, McDow's daughter tracked down Captain White and returned his beloved sword in January 1896.
: After this devastation, the men of the Chicago Battery faced even more disappointment, didn't they?
RBW: Yes. After the battle, Captain White, Lieutenant Pinckney Cone, and 19 of their men were taken to Tyler, Texas, where they spent the rest of the war in prison. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the battery wrote letters to the Mercantile Association and their families and friends in Chicago outlining how Banks' ineptitude led to the fiasco at Mansfield. These letters broke Banks' news blackout and provided the nation with its first factual report of the disaster in Northwestern Louisiana. For this disclosure, Banks' cronies in New Orleans retaliated against the Battery Boys, who were later exonerated of any wrongdoing on the field, to serve out the rest of the war as horse artillery.
: How do you think the Battery Boys would like to be remembered?
RBW: That is a really interesting question. I would have to say they would most like to be known as reliable and stalwart soldiers-no matter what difficult circumstances confronted them. They were conscientious and worked hard to excel at being the best artillerists they could be, while risking their lives to help to restore the Union. They did their duty without complaining and fought without flinching. As cannoneers, they served with valor and distinction alongside their Western comrades in the Vicksburg Campaign under some of the Union's best generals. They stood firm under fire and contributed to one of the most successful, pivotal campaigns of the Civil War. For valiant work at Vicksburg, their captain and five artillerists later received the Medal of Honor. The Chicago Mercantile Battery is further honored by the monuments and markers that continue to stand today at Vicksburg National Battlefield Park. I think that is a proud epitaph.
: Thank you, Rick, for sharing the story of Chicago's Battery Boys. I am sure readers will enjoy this classic unit history.
RBW: You're welcome.
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