A Small but Deadly Riot

Imagine you have an ancestor named Samuel Severns, who served in the 1st Michigan Cavalry during the Civil War.  Where might you look for information and what might you learn of Severns?  Fold3 is a great online resource, but service records for Michigan soldiers are not yet digitized.  If you are not close to Washington, D.C. you might try an old-school option at your local library – the Michigan regimental roster book for the 1st Michigan Cavalry, officially titled Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War.  Commonly referred to as the ‘Brown Books,’ these volumes are a good ready reference compiled by unit.  Checking the entry, on page 163, you will learn Samuel Severns mustered September 19, 1861, and re-enlisted December 21, 1863.  You will also learn he served as a blacksmith, but then you might be brought up short by the concluding notation, “No further record.”  When you eventually examine his Compiled Service Record at the National Archives, you may be brought up short again by the cryptic statement, “Died of gunshot wound of head, February 25, 1864 at Elmira, New York.”  Elmira, New York?

A researcher examining the same sources would never learn of the injuries received by Myron Skinner, Luman Roberts or Chester Crooks in Elmira.  Similarly, a researcher or descendent of Isaac DeWitt would note that Isaac deserted while in Elmira, before returning to the army a month later.  Thus the mystery – why was the 1st Michigan Cavalry in Elmira, New York, and what happened there on February 25, 1864?

I am not kin to any of these men, nor did I have an interest in them.  Rather, I was interested in Lt. Edward Negus and I followed the same path in my quest for information.  The ‘Brown Book’ offers an informative entry, explaining his rise from sergeant to captain, and his honorable discharge at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in November 1865.  His service file, however, contains terse references to his being arrested in early-1864, and cashiered in May.  Why the discrepancy?  Searching for an answer, I found the story of the Soldiers’ Riot in Elmira, New York.

In December 1863, the veterans of the 1st Michigan Cavalry re-enlisted in large enough numbers to earn a thirty-day leave.  They traveled home to Michigan in a group, but returned in two groups.  One detachment departed by train from southern Michigan on February 22.  These men, along with 500 horses, followed the freight route through Cleveland and Pittsburgh to Baltimore, and then Washington, D.C.  The second group departed Kalamazoo, Michigan one day later, and followed the passenger route, through Cleveland and Philadelphia to Washington.  The passenger route required travelers to change trains at Elmira.  The trip passed without incident until the men reached Elmira, and found no cars waiting to carry them south.  With no space available in the local barracks, the troops quickly “dispersed through the city and very soon the innumerable whiskey shops had done their part of the work.”

“Elevated by potations of whiskey,” one disgusted editor wrote, “the soldiers were for the time big bully boys, and bound to have things their own way.”  When asked by employees at the Franklin House to tone down their revelry, the men responded “by demolishing everything in the [bar],” including the windows.  Angered by the rampage, one employee “smashed” Pvt. Isaac DeWitt in the head.  Thus, DeWitt did not desert, rather he was confined to a local hospital with a head injury.

The bloodiest “affray” took place on Water Street, between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, when a handful of the men went after a trooper from a New York regiment.  Outnumbered, the hapless New Yorker ran for his life, until he stumbled and fell in front of Baldwin and Reynolds’ Clothing Store.  The Wolverines then pummeled the man as he lay on the sidewalk.  Staggering to his feet, the victim leaped through the glass door of the shop, in an effort to escape his tormenters.

The “tumult” drew of crowd of curious civilians.  Several officers also ran to the scene, including Maj. Edmund Beers, 50th New York Engineers, Capt. George Whiton, 141st New York, Lt. George Benjamin, 63rd New York and Lt. Patrick Haverty, 88th New York.  Captain Whiton ran to the shattered door of the clothing store and blocked the opening.  The battered cavalryman then appeared behind Whiton, further inciting the Wolverines.  Major Beers hustled the bleeding victim through the store and told him to remain out of sight on the back stoop.  Lieutenant Benjamin stood in the doorway alongside Whiton.  With the angry soldiers pressing toward them, Whiton drew his revolver, and “the riot then ceased for a moment.”

Lt. Edward Negus was playing billiards in the Shades Saloon with Capt. William Heazlit, Lt. William Wheeler and Sgt. Chester Crooks.   Seeing several of his men running past the saloon, Sergeant Crooks ran out followed by Negus and Heazlit.  Wheeler hesitated briefly before running after them.  Negus, Heazlit and Crooks reached the clothing store shortly after Captain Whiton drew his revolver and quieted the crowd.  Beers, Whiton and Benjamin all noticed Negus arrived carrying a billiard cue.  Emboldened by the arrival of their own officers, the soldiers began shouting “Let’s go in the store and…kill the son of a bitch,” referring to the New York cavalryman.  Negus, according to Whiton, was trying to calm his men down when Lt. William Gleason, 149th New York, ran up with his Provost Guard.

Gleason counted 50 citizens watching what he termed “a general fight,” involving 15 to 20 soldiers.  By his count, Gleason led six privates, one corporal and one sergeant, all members of the Invalid Corps.  Still, Gleason immediately ordered his men to begin arresting the riotous soldiers.

The guard members, carrying rifles with bayonets affixed, charged the men, and Gleason seized Myron Skinner.  Skinner resisted, and one comrade reportedly shouted, “Let’s die before they shall take one of us.”  Lieutenant Negus asked Gleason to “Hold on.”  Gleason refused, and events quickly spiraled out of control.  Negus, seeing no reason for his man to be arrested, took hold of Skinner in an attempt to free him from Gleason.  Gleason responded by slashing Skinner with his saber.  Whiton intervened, telling Negus to stand aside.  When Negus refused, Whiton pointed his revolver at Negus, who then released Skinner.

Negus was now incensed.  Most every witness recalled him shouting, “1st Michigan rally. Pick your man and go in.”  One witness claimed Negus offered “$50 for a revolver for five minutes.”  A soldiers’ fight now became a riot.

The first shot fired struck Sergeant Crooks.  Lieutenant William Wheeler, who had remained in the saloon for 30 seconds after Crooks and Negus ran out, passed “two men leading Sgt. Crooks down the street.  He said he was shot.”  Wheeler arrived in time to see Gleason pulling Skinner away from Negus.  Skinner had sustained several lacerations to his face and head, and Gleason later acknowledged striking several men with his saber.

Lt. Patrick Haverty waded into the fray alongside Gleason and his men.  “I caught one of the worst of them by the throat and twisted his arm around, and while I had him in that position Lt. Gleason reached over and struck him across the face with his sword.”

After releasing Skinner, Negus was confronted by three members of the guard, all “punching” him with their bayonets.  Enraged, Negus simultaneously “wrenched” the bayonets off two of the rifles.  Throwing the bayonets to the ground, he then “jerked” the rifle away from Cpl. Edward Douglass, and threw the weapon in the street.

Corporal Douglass recalled Negus shouting “1st Michigan, pick your man, rally on them and clean them out.”  Negus seized Douglass by the collar, and, according to Douglass, pulled the rifle from his hands with the aid of another soldier.  Lieutenant Benjamin then grabbed Negus by the throat.  “Just at that time,” Douglass recalled, one of the guards fired another shot.

Samuel Severns, Gleason later explained, “got hold of my coat collar and choked me.  I jerked his hand off and pushed him to one side and told the men to shoot him.  They did shoot him.”  The sight of their comrade lying dead in the street quickly brought an end to the affair; the soldiers returned to the depot, and the crowd “scattered.”

In the close quarters of the melee the fatal shot struck Severns after striking Pvt. George Dale, a member of Gleason’s squad.  Dale had initially enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, before being transferred to the Invalid Corps in July 1863.  Doctors amputated Dale’s shattered right arm the same day.  The total number of injured is unknown.  Lieutenant Gleason tallied 33 soldiers arrested.

Military authorities charged Lieutenant Negus with Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, Exciting mutiny and Joining in mutiny.  Each charge included at least one specification related to the violence demonstrated by Negus, and the manner in which he encouraged his men to resist the Provost Guard.  The court found him guilty of all charges and specifications and cashiered him from the army.

No other soldiers appear to have been charged, though the men paid $325 to the proprietor of the Franklin House, for damages inflicted earlier in the day.

Trying to determine exactly what happened, and when, is no easier now than in 1864.  Reading trial testimony can be maddeningly frustrating, but one point struck me – the tipping point.  None of the witnesses accused Negus of being intoxicated at the time, though most thought his soldiers had been drinking.  Negus certainly used poor judgment carrying the billiard cue with him, but no one accused him of ever using the cue as a weapon.  Nothing in the testimony suggests he intended to do anything other round up his men and get them back to the depot.  Several witnesses believed he was trying to remove Myron Skinner from the scene, when Lieutenant Gleason arrived.

There had been multiple incidents involving the troopers earlier in the day, and Gleason may have responded to all of them.  If so, he had reason to be fed-up with the Wolverines.  Whatever his thinking, Gleason ordered his men to wade into the melee and he began slashing Skinner with his sword.  When Major Beers led Negus from the scene, he asked him about his conduct.  Negus replied, I will “not see my men abused.”  Gleason’s slash was the tipping point.  All of the charges resulted from Negus’s actions after Gleason slashed Private Skinner.

On July 4, 1864 most, if not, every officer in the Michigan Brigade, including George Custer, signed a petition asking Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to reinstate Lieutenant Negus.  Several ranking officials, including Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan and Congressman Francis Kellogg endorsed the petition.  Following a review of the case, Lieutenant Negus was restored to his rank in September, promoted to captain in November and honorably discharged a year later.  However, the convictions stemming from his actions at Elmira were never overturned.

None of the Michigan soldiers known to have been injured in the melee filed for a pension, though Myron Skinner’s widow, Harriett, received a pension.  Skinner suffered two head injuries during the war, at Elmira and Yellow Tavern.  Any claim for the injury received during the fracas in Elmira would, almost certainly, have been denied, but the injury at Yellow Tavern was sustained during combat and unchallenged by the Pension Board.  Harriett had a different problem – she could not, initially, produce a marriage certificate.  Myron and Harriett married in Ohio in 1870, but the records were lost on March 29, 1884, when the court house was destroyed during a riot.


Sources –

Detroit Advertiser & Tribune

Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War, 1st Michigan Cavalry

Documents from the National Archives

With thanks to fellow Michigander John Fuller

2 thoughts on “A Small but Deadly Riot

  1. Bob,
    This is a very intersting story. It also sheds light on what was in and not in the records. I also wonder how common these types of fights were? Was the Soldier’s Riot a singluar event or is it just well documented? The specific numbers of fighters and arrests along with the narrative are fascinating.


    • Bill,
      I found two articles covering the riot in a Detroit newspaper, both of which were copied from an Elmira paper. Most every name in the articles was incorrect, though I was able to determine the names mentioned in the post. To my view the riot was not well documented – I always want more in the way of information. What helped was the court-martial transcript, but even that was frustrating, in that none of the injured soldiers were called to testify, and thus no other soldiers were identified. Even Severns is not mentioned by name during the trial. This is, also understandable as the original fight had nothing to do with the case against Lt. Negus. His actions were, I believe, the result of the actions of Lt. Gleason and the trial testimony follows as such. At the least I wish the New York trooper had been identified and called to testify. We would then know the cause of the original fight. Instead, we are left not even knowing what unit he was with, as three different units are mentioned in the accounts. At the core, however, this sounds like a scene depicted in countless military films – Mickey Rooney in The Bridges of Toko-ri for instance.


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