Monday, October 26, 2009

The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce, Part One

 Colonel Peter A. Porter
I am indebted to Wilbur Russell Dunn, author of Full Measure of Devotion, for his outstanding research 
on the history of the New York 8th Heavy Artillery, which helped me prepare the Eugene Pearce entries

The Apache pilot was a couple of years older than me, ruddy and barrel chested, dressed in those fancy new pixilated camouflage uniforms they're wearing these days.  More than five hundred kids and their Boy Scout leaders crowded around the sleek, black attack helicopter, awestruck as the pilot held forth on the maneuverability, toughness, and killing power of his machine.  The Apache, for its part, looked a lot like a great metallic grasshopper, resting in this open field just south of Navasota.

"It's a real pleasure to come to your Scout camporee -- you sure picked a beautiful day for it," the pilot said, pushing his camouflage baseball cap back a bit on his head.  "We consider this a recruiting trip: we hope that in a few years, some of you Scouts will make the decision to join us up in the sky, defending our great nation."  The kids were transfixed, eyes bright with the thought of executing neat loop-the-loops while squeezing off a few rounds of heat-seeking missles at The Enemies of Freedom.  The adults, most of them big-bellied men well into middle age, had that wistful look that men get when they realize Youth is gone, and with it romance and adventure and fun and the chance to ever sit in the cockpit of a twenty million dollar attack helicopter.

Young men have always been bedazzled by war,  their souls stirred by high thoughts of defending home and country, and by more visceral desires, the thrill of danger, of adventure, of conquest.  Some just like the idea of being someplace else, anyplace but home, anywhere but where they are right now.  That's why a group of twelve and thirteen year olds at a south Texas Scout camp get so excited by the surprise visit of a battle chopper from Randolph Air Force Base.  And it's why a Wheatfield farm kid named Philander Eugene Pearce enlisted with the Union Army in the Summer of 1862.

Philander, spelled as "Flilander" in some records, went by Eugene.  He was the third of Benjamin and Vashti Pearce's sons, at least the third to survive into adulthood.  By twenty-two, he had settled into what would surely be his life's routine, helping his family work the small farm they owned, just north of what is today the intersection of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Ward Road, harvesting corn and wheat.

The Summer of 1862 changed everything.  The war, which many expected to be over in a few weeks, was more than a year old.  Radical anti-war politicians, known as "Copperheads," were agitating in New York City and Balitmore, calling for an immediate truce.  President Lincoln was hugely unpopular, and was blamed for the blunders of his generals, many of whom proved to be indecisive, incompetent, or both.  Confederate victory, and with it the dissolution of the Union, seemed a real possibility.  The times called for bold action, and in sleepy farming communities like Wheatfield, New York, there were plenty of young men ready to act.

Peter A. Porter, wealthy and well-connected, son of a former U.S. Secretary of War, provided these young men their opportunity.  With a colonel's commission granted him by the New York State Assembly, Porter put out a call for one thousand able-bodied men in Orleans, Niagara and Genessee Counties to join him in "fighting the Rebs."  On 23 August, 1862, the largest volunteer army ever raised in the area, the 129th New York State Volunteer Infantry, marched from the Lockport Fairgrounds to the train station, accompanied by several marching bands and cheered by several thousand friends, family members and well wishers, bound for Baltimore.  Among them was Eugene Pearce.  

Even in 1862, sex and money were effective tools in selling the war effort.  Along with patriotic speeches and choirs singing inspiring anthems, recruitment drives often featured young women costumed in red, white and blue gowns, who promised kisses to anyone signing up.  The state assembly guaranteed recruits a monthly salary of $13, plus a signing bonus of $200, which in 2009 dollars would be valued at about $283 in salary, and a $4,360 bonus.  That kind of money would have been enough to save a struggling farm, which may have prompted some desperate wives to push their husbands into the service: a recruitment drive in Gasport was marked by an angry wife berating her husband for deciding against joining the regiment. "If you don't do it," his angry wife yelled, "go straight home and take off those breeches and let me have them and I will go myself."  The chagrined husband signed his enlistment papers.

The bonus was also enough money for a young man to start a family, and it appears that starting a family was on Eugene Pearce's mind.  Sometime before his induction, Eugene took a bride, a young woman named Louisa.  This was a fairly common occurrence: swept up in the emotions of the moment, departing soldiers often married the girls they were courting.  Surely Louisa, not to mention Benjamin and Vashti, was among the throngs bidding farewell to the 129th as they boarded their trains.

The 129th consisted of ten companies, plus officers and non-commissioned officers, more than 1200 men strong.  "F. Pierce" was a member of F Company, all recruits from the towns and villages in southern Niagara County (the Pearce name is frequently misspelled in the records.  Adding to the confusion is the presence of Josiah Eugene Pierce, a member of B Company, who also went by the name Eugene.  J. E. Pierce was given a medical discharge in December 1862, after being wounded in a training accident.  He never saw actual combat, and is not connected to our Pearce family).  

The standards for induction were scant: a recruit had to stand at least five feet, four inches in height; show no visible signs of mouth disease or bruising or "cracking" about the chest and sternum; and to be capable of marching.  Recruits were as old as forty-one and as young as fourteen, although the boys lied about their age to meet the minimum requirement of 18 years.  They listed their occupations as farmer, laborer, cooper, blacksmith, clerk, and carpenter.  They were working class men doing working class jobs, jobs laden with hard work and monotony.  Recruits were committed to a three year enlistment, meaning that they would be discharged in August 1865.  Dressed in their brand-new blue woolen army tunics, steel tracks clicking their way out of Lockport, the men of the 129th were ready, as Private Amos P. Wetherby writes, "for a fine time on our journey."

For most of these new soldiers, the trip south was their first time on a train.  For many, it was the first time they had ventured more than a few miles away from their hometowns.  They were astonished at the thick stands of spruce and cedar that covered the peaks of the Allegheny Mountains.  For men accustomed to the gently rolling hills of upstate New York, the Alleghenies may as well have been the Alps.  Seeking relief from the swelter of their compartments, they climbed up onto the roofs of their cars (remember, trains in the 1860's rarely traveled faster than 40 or 50 miles an hour), and joked and napped and admired the passing scenery.

The 129th drew a plum assignment.  They were reclassified as the 8th New York Heavy Artillery Regiment, and charged with defending Baltimore from enemy attack.  For nearly two years, the 8th drilled and paraded, safely tucked far behind the battle lines, the war no more real for them than it was for their families back in New York.

Their leader, Colonel Porter, a man well-respected for his honesty and fairness, was offered an early release from his military commitment.  Porter had political aspirations, and the 1863 offer to run for a statewide office must have tempted him.  

To his credit, he declined the offer, writing:

I left home in command of a regiment composed mainly of the sons of friends and neighbors, in a measure committed to my care. I can hardly ask for my discharge, while theirs cannot be granted, and I have a strong desire, if alive, to carry back those whom the chances of time and war shall permit to be ' present" and to "account" in person for all.

Some had indeed died.  There were training accidents: in one case, carelessly handled gunpowder exploded, taking the lives of eight men in Company F, Eugene Pearce's company.  There was illness.  Following Gettysburg, the 8th Heavy Artillery was charged with guarding a large number of Confederate POWs, nearly 7,000 guards and prisoners crammed into Fort McHenry.  Poor sanitation and overcrowding exacerbated the spread of disease, and led to more fatalities.

These deaths were nothing compared to what was to come.

Tomorrow, the march to Cold Harbor. 

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