William Parnell – A Forgotten Hero

If the stories are true, William Parnell survived the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava unscathed, only to fall, gravely wounded, in the farms fields east of Upperville, on June 21, 1863.

William Russell Parnell was born in Dublin, Ireland, reportedly, on August 13, 1836.  An August 1863 account in the Albany Evening Journal is the earliest mention of Parnell’s service with the British army I am aware of.  The Journal account, which came from Parnell, mentions that he enlisted in the 11th Hussars, “and accompanied that gallant regiment in their deadly rush at the Cossacks,” on October 25, 1854.  Following his death in San Francisco, on August 20, 1910, his service was reported to have been with the 17th Lancers, which was also attached to the Light Brigade, on that fateful day.  The Oakland Tribune announced his passing under the banner headline “One of the Immortal ‘600’ Passes Away.”  The headline in the San Francisco Call was a bit more poignant, “Taps Sound for Hero of Balaklava, Gallant Officer Again Rides Down into the Valley of Death.”  The Spokane Press proclaimed his “chief claim to fame was the fact that he was one of the survivors of the famous Six Hundred at Balaklava.”  While Parnell’s service in the Crimea and his participation in the famous charge were indeed noteworthy, the fixation of the American press on this aspect of Parnell’s long martial career ignored his remarkable and heroic military service in the United States.

Parnell arrived in New York shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War.  He was mustered as a first lieutenant in the 4th New York Cavalry in August 1861, and promoted to captain four months later.  By late-January 1863 he had earned the acclaim of his superiors on several occasions, including at Annandale, in December 1861, and near the Rappahannock River in January 1863.

Following the Stoneman Raid, Parnell’s commanding officer, Col. Louis Di Cesnola, recommended Parnell for promotion to major, but without any immediate success.  “Captain Parnell is the senior Captain of the regiment, [and] he is both an officer and a gentleman and worthy of” promotion.  The 4th New York Cavalry had then but one major, “whose cowardice in the field and insubordination in camp has compelled me to have him brought before a military board,” Di Cesnola reported to Senator Ira Harris.  Expecting an order any day dismissing the officer in question, Di Cesnola explained that his regiment, which was authorized three majors, “will be without any Major at all.”  Entering the Gettysburg Campaign, the command structure of the regiment remained in disarray and Parnell remained a captain.

On June 17, 1863, Colonel Di Cesnola was wounded and captured at Aldie.  Exactly who took command in his stead is uncertain.  Lt. Col. Augustus Pruyn may have been with the regiment that day, but the few accounts suggest Capt. Nehemiah Mann assumed command.  Mann was clearly a favorite of the men, but he was junior in rank to Parnell.  The question of command appears to have remained unsettled four days later at Upperville.  Thus, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick rode at the head of the regiment in the fighting between Oakley Farm and Vineyard Hill.

Kilpatrick was captured in the resulting melee, but rescued following a counter-charge led by Captain Mann.  Moments later Mann was shot in the left lung and sabered across the face.  Captain Parnell also went down with a bullet in his left hip and a saber wound to his face.  By his own count he received “several severe blows and cuts about the head from sabres, and the butt of a carbine.”  Mann was carried off the field by his comrades; Parnell was carried off by the Confederates.

The extent of the medical care Parnell received is unclear, in part because of slight differences in his several accounts.  In 1871 Parnell explained that he was initially left “to the care of some farmers living” near the Rappahannock River.  “Some time after when able to be moved, I begged to be taken to Winchester, then in the hands of the Rebels, in hopes of receiving some medical assistance, but when I got there it was too late, as the rebels, chagrined at their defeat at Gettysburg had deprived our surgeons” of their medical supplies “for the use of their own numerous wounded.”  In contrast to this version, a news account published in August 1863 suggests he was taken straight to Winchester by his captors, who left him in the care of captured surgeons, whose medical equipment had been seized by the Confederates.  Had his story changed over the years or had the 1863 version been cut by editors to fit available space?

Eventually, Parnell, along with the other prisoners, was “removed to Staunton.”  When several officers, including Parnell, chose to destroy their valuables rather than turn them over to their captors, they were, according to Parnell, placed in “close confinement, with a number of condemned prisoners, murderers, and all kinds of offenders against social and public law.”  Following a complaint to the commanding officer of the camp the men were returned to the general population.

Then, on the night of August 1, Parnell and four other prisoners escaped from the camp and headed for the mountains.  Living on “berries, green corn and unripe apples,” the men traveled “for twelve consecutive nights, hiding in the mountains during the day,” until they reached Union lines.

The degree to which his wounds had healed at the time of his escape is also uncertain.  In fact, the true nature, as well as the lasting effects, of these wounds, to include the possibility that the injuries led, at least in part, to his death would haunt Parnell’s widow many years later.  The bullet may or may not have been removed from his hip, and he may or may not have used crutches during the long trek to Union lines.

More curious is the wound, or wounds, to his face.  Parnell’s widow believed the Southern saber slash “shattered the roof of the mouth, and the nose, and the resulting necrosis of the shattered bones caused watery secretions to form in the head and nose, which, upon falling into the throat set up an irritation causing almost constant cough, which gave rise to bronchial and asthmatic conditions, from which he suffered with more or less severity throughout the remainder of his life, and, at the last, these secretions filled his lungs, and caused death.”  The loss of the bone from the roof of Parnell’s mouth forced him, according to Mrs. Parnell’s attorneys, to wear a silver plate whenever he ate.  This plate required constant cleaning to remove “the running pus in his mouth.”

Parnell was, indeed, required to wear a plate in his mouth, but not as a result of the wound sustained at Upperville – at least initially.  On March 10, 1863 he requested a leave of absence, “for the purpose of having an operation performed on the roof my mouth by a professional dentist.”  Parnell had been diagnosed with “erysipelas in my head,” [a streptococcal infection] as a result of “continual duty, and exposure on last winter’s campaign.”  The infection caused “an aperture in the roof of my mouth (part of the bone having been extracted lately), which is necessary to have properly stoppered by a gold plate, to prevent further enlargement, and spreading of the disease.”

Then, eight years later, Parnell explained that one of the blows he had received to his face at Upperville “was almost immediately over an old, and then, thoroughly healed wound, but which in addition completely severed the bone of my nose.”  The lack of timely and proper care eventually caused the “corroded” bone to “fall away,” leading to the need for the plate in his mouth.  While this account appears to be at odds with his earlier version, there may be a medical explanation for the discrepancy.

In February 1864 Parnell was still seeking leave to have the wound treated and the plate, which he had first mentioned eleven months earlier, put in place.  In March 1864, he asked his wife, Sarah Eliza, to join him as he was “still suffering very much both in my head and chest.  My hip where I was wounded also gives me much pain… I am indeed very ill and wish to see you.”

Parnell was promoted to major in September 1863 and remained with the command until the regiment was mustered out of service in December 1864.  Supported by generals Tom Devin, Wesley Merritt, Alfred Torbert and Phil Sheridan, he sought to join another command but was unsuccessful.

Following the war, Parnell again applied for a commission and eventually received an appointment as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Cavalry.  He saw extensive action in Indian campaigns in California, Oregon and Idaho, and earned a Medal of Honor for his valor at White Bird Canyon, June 17, 1877 (the 17th anniversary of the Battle of Aldie), during the Nez Perce Campaign.  He retired in 1887, with the rank of major, and was later brevetted to colonel for his heroism at White Bird Canyon.

But in January 1871, six years prior to earning the Medal of Honor, and ten years before he finally retired, Parnell had sought to be retired on a medical disability.  His request was grounded upon continuing difficulties resulting from the damaged palate of his mouth.  “I am deprived, to an extent, of the regular and natural tones of voice, and am in constant danger of losing or breaking the plate, which would entirely deprive me of the power of speech, in addition to which I continue to suffer from time to time from the partially healed wound.”

Duty with the 1st Cavalry took Parnell through extreme terrain and weather, far from any army post or city.  When he accidently broke the plate in November 1869 he had to travel to Portland, Oregon.  “Should such an accident occur…away from the Post,” he explained, “I would be in a very difficult and serious situation.”  Six months later and still seeking an answer from the Retirement Board, Parnell described how his health continued to suffer.  “Sleeping on the snow, and in the summer time being at long intervals deprived of the use of water for cleansing purposes, re-opened and aggravated the wound to such a degree that it is now past all hopes of a permanent cure…. The wound still continues to suppurate.”  Though supported by affidavits from doctors, Parnell’s request was either refused or withdrawn.

When he died in San Francisco in1910, the local newspapers reported his death resulted “from the effects of injuries he received in being pushed off a street car.”  Parnell, whose life and service “reads like that of one of Ouida’s heroes [a Victorian novelist], was wounded nearly a score of times on the battlefield, but he survived all his scars of war only to die from the most prosaic and commonplace of injuries.”

Sarah Eliza Parnell had died on March 28, 1890.  On January 11, 1892, Parnell married Harriett Faull, whose husband had died in 1889.  Following Parnell’s death, Harriett, known as Hattie, now 60 years of age and widowed for the second time, requested to have William’s pension increased from $25 to $30 per month.  She clearly struggled to understand and piece together the events of her late husband’s military career, as well as the injuries and illnesses he had endured.  She would have heard of these events from an old soldier entering his twilight, and when his own memories had dimmed.  But she had, undoubtedly, helped him to clean the plate in his mouth, and she knew first-hand the suffering he endured, though she may not have fully understood exactly when and how the injury occurred.

In her mind, his death was the result of the wounds received at Upperville, as well as the injuries sustained in his fall from the street car.  The Pension Board saw the cause of his death as “senile debility, cystitis [inflammation of the bladder] and exhaustion” following prostate surgery, none of which was related to his military career.  Her request for an increase in the pension was refused.

Reading through the documents in Parnell’s files, one gets the sense of an honest woman, widowed a second time, who could not reconcile her understanding of her late-husband’s military record, her knowledge of his daily trials, and the Pension Board’s intransigence.

Sources –

Albany Evening Journal

Oakland Tribune

San Francisco Call

The Official Records

Documents from William Parnell’s Service, Pension and Appointment, Commission and Personnel files at the National Archives

The 4th New York Cavalry files at the New York State Library and Archives

With special thanks to my wife, Teresa, for locating several key pieces of information on Ancestry.com, and also to Jim McLean, for providing several of the accounts around which this story was crafted.


4 thoughts on “William Parnell – A Forgotten Hero

  1. Bob, re the “600”:
    Many years ago, Deb and I were in the basement of a rare book store in London and pulled from a drawer a hand-colored etching of “Balaclava,” by Stanley Berkeley. That painting went into a nice frame selected by Deb and she loved the action captured in this wonderful etching. I have now in fact convinced myself that William Parnell rides in the front ranks of Berkely’s, “600.”
    There are worse legacies.


  2. Pingback: The 45th New York’s First Fight – Stauchendiciler

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