Col. John Lemmon – A Colonel at War with his Men – Part 1

The passage of time tends to blur lines and erase details.  With our passing, most of us slip into relative obscurity.  Though family and close friends may retain a grip on our essence, we become little more than a name on a page or a headstone to others.  Reaching back more than 155 years to try and clearly separate the incompetent, the malingers, the morally corrupt and the mentally unstable from the honest patriots, leaders and principled men of character sounds easy, but, in truth, can be nearly impossible.  In most cases, we simply know too little.  Too often, we rely upon the pithy judgements of contemporaries without any real hope of understanding the context which influenced their conclusions.  But humans are simply too complex to be boiled down to one or two sentence epitaphs.  Reams of evidence, including some instantly quotable comments, support the story which follows, and yet, I believe, I still know too little to fairly judge the men at the heart of the story.  Separating the good from the bad at the end may seem easy, but is it?

The men of the 10th New York Cavalry did not leave a heavily-stocked larder of letters, diaries or memoirs for writers and historians to draw upon.  They did, however, leave one of the more impressive looking regimental histories.  Noble Preston’s History of the Tenth Regiment of Cavalry, New York State Volunteers, August 1861 to August 1865 is a heavy-weight of more than 700 pages.  Nearly thirty years ago, when I worked on The Cavalry Battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, I relied upon Preston’s work as I sought to interpret the fight at Middleburg on June 19, 1863.  I found the personal accounts of the fight useful, but Preston included no such accounts of the regiment in the much larger fight at Upperville two days later.  Why?  As I searched for an answer I developed, and dismissed, a few theories before I found several grains of the story which follows.  Over time, the grains evolved into a flood of information and a story emerged of a regiment splintered by poisonous leadership and sordid intrigue.  In the spring and summer of 1863, the regiment lacked a colonel and possibly a couple of the majors.  Then, a sweeping decision on May 5 wiped out much of the company grade leadership.  The resulting void may help to explain the regiment’s performance at Brandy Station.  Finally, an incident near Middleburg may explain why the regiment slipped from view at Upperville.

Thirty years after the war, General David Gregg graciously agreed to pen an introduction for Preston’s history.  “Grand Tenth New York Cavalry,” he exclaimed.  “The writer of this brief introduction had the honor of commanding the division in which it served,” Gregg wrote.  “In two and a half years of service he never knew it to fail in its duty.  Led by such gallant soldiers as Irvine and Avery, to it belongs a full share of the glory won by its division and its arm of the service.”

General Gregg had taken an entirely different view of the regiment in early 1863, however, denigrating the command as “perhaps the most undisciplined regiment of cavalry in the field.”  Gregg believed in the junior officers and he had faith in the “soldierly spirit” of “the enlisted men,” but he knew a rot infected the higher command of the regiment.  And though he had yet to appreciate the depth of the rot, Gregg knew Col. John C. Lemmon to be the root cause.  To his credit, Preston alludes to the strife within the regiment several times in his history but little of the story which follows appears in his study.  Once again, time had blurred the lines and erased the details.

Preston tells us little about Lemmon’s background and the newspapers of the day appear to have ignored him, failing even to note his passing in 1875.  Lemmon had received a commission in a New York Militia Regiment in 1834, before establishing a milling operation near Buffalo.  Four months after the first guns at Fort Sumter, Lemmon, then about 55 years of age, received authority to recruit the regiment which became the 10th New York Cavalry.  William Irvine, a lawyer and politician served as lieutenant colonel.  Matthew Avery and John Kemper served as majors of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, and, though recruitment slowed, Alvah Waters eventually took command of the 3rd Battalion.  By the end of the year, only eight companies had been mustered into service when the command soon headed south to Pennsylvania.

After several months at a camp of instruction in Gettysburg, the regiment moved into Maryland, in March 1862, and began guarding the railroad near Perryville and Havre de Grace.  The men, some of whom had been in service since August, began to grow surly as they remained in a backwater of the Union war effort.  Rumor-mongers, claiming the men would soon be transferred to the infantry, only added to the discord.  Dispirited, the men of Capt. Emery Purdy’s Company D, complained to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton of having yet to receive either horses or weapons except sabers, and having to stand guard “in an enemy country, a position considered by all as dangerous,” with no weapons other than their sabers.  “In justice to ourselves as men we make this appeal, believing that in our present circumstances as a regiment we are in a state of rapid demoralization.”  Morale began to improve in July when the men finally received horses, and again in August when part of the command moved to Washington, D.C., and Virginia.   Recruitment still lagged, however, and Lemmon sent a detail, including Alvah Waters, back to New York for recruits.  But other problems simmered throughout the regiment.

“From the time of the organization of the Regiment there had prevailed an unfortunate difference among the officers, which had grown apace with the time, until,” Preston explains, “it had ripened into the most intense partisan warfare, the factions being known as ‘Lemmon’ and ‘Anti-Lemmon’ men; the declared purpose of the latter being to oust Lemmon from his position as colonel, alleging incompetency and old age, rendering him unfit for the place; while the Colonel, generally on the defensive, sometimes took the offensive.”  Like many other soldier-historians, Preston did not believe his book “the proper place to discuss or mention the merits or demerits of either party, but simply to notice the fact and its baneful influence on the Regiment.”  The internecine warfare, which eventually involved both soldiers and civilians, “became positively vicious in its tendency.”

In mid-May, while still in Maryland, the Pro-Lemmon faction presented the colonel with “a beautiful saber…as an expression of their confidence in you as a military commander and as a token of their respect and esteem.”  But at about the same time, Lemmon arrested Capt. Wilkerson Paige, Company F, charging him with Conduct Prejudicial of Good Order and Military Discipline for allowing his men to steal chickens, ducks and wine from the locals, while en-route to the train depot in New York the previous Christmas Eve.  Interestingly, Preston termed the march “the raid to Gettysburg.”  Lemmon also charged Paige with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Gentleman for suborning perjury, for suggesting the regimental surgeon should poison a soldier and for referring to the “Holy hind quarters of the Lamb of God.”  Other charges included selling goods from the regimental commissary and pocketing the money. The case appears to have been resolved without a formal court-martial, as no record of a hearing or a resolution has been found.  Still, Lemmon had put his enemies on notice.

The ‘Anti-Lemmon’ faction retaliated quickly.  Preston, writing in 1887, recalled the hard feelings between Lemmon and Major Avery and he noted how “neither allowed an opportunity to pass to give the other a home-thrust.”  On or about May 8, Major Avery presented a petition to Maj. Gen. John Dix at Baltimore, asking to have Lemmon removed from command.  The petition has not been found, so the basis for the request is unknown but on May 19, 1862, just two days after Lemmon had been presented with the sword, Dix ordered him to be arrested.  The beleaguered colonel complained of his detention to a higher authority and demanded, in vain, a court of inquiry.  He remained under arrest for a month.  A week after being released, Lemmon struck back, arresting Major Kemper, though no other details have been located.

Two days after Avery submitted his complaint, the officers and men of Company C, led by Capt. John Ordner, submitted a counter-petition supporting Lemmon.  “We, in the hour of our country’s need, volunteered to fight her battles under your leadership.  With this intention we left our homes in the Empire State, knowing that he who was at the head of the regiment was in every way qualified [to] fill the position which he occupied.  These are our feelings now as then. We know that you have been indefatigable in your labors for the good of the regiment in the past; you have our confidence for the future.  We therefore humbly beseech you not to resign but stand by us.”

On August 31, 1862, Capt. Henry Pratt, Company A, led a detail of about 30 men, including Lieut. Francis Wynkoop, Company H, on a reconnaissance toward Centreville, in the wake of the Union defeat at Second Manassas.  Preston describes the men riding forward on a very dark night until being challenged by an unseen sentry.  Halting the column, Pratt sent Sgt. Nelson Mitchell forward to investigate.  Once out of Pratt’s view, Confederates seized Mitchell and ordered him to call the remainder of the detail forward.  “Unsuspecting, Captain Pratt marched his little band forward and was immediately surrounded by a large force and compelled to surrender.”  Mitchell, described by Preston as “somewhat lawless,” then stabbed his two captors and escaped into the darkness.  The Southerners, men from the 12th Virginia Cavalry, paroled the remainder of the men the following day.  Two months later, with Pratt still awaiting exchange and no other commissioned officers present, Lemmon asked the state adjutant general to commission Mitchell for gallantry.  Mitchell eventually received a commission but not until the following July.

A conflicting version of events emerged in September when Lieutenant Wynkoop charged Pratt with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.  Wynkoop’s nine specifications to the charge all centered on the events of August 31.  According to Wynkoop, Pratt had “timely warning” regarding the Confederate pickets as the men could hear gunfire all around them, but he “took no heed” and led the men forward at the “double-quick.”  Then, encountering the pickets, Pratt rode ahead to investigate [Wynkoop makes no mention of Mitchell], and, after determining the pickets to be Confederates, yelled back for the men to ride forward.  Wynkoop then alleged that Pratt, several days after being paroled, remarked to another officer, “I told you I would get rid of him for you [referring to Wynkoop] but I did not mean to get taken myself.”  Again, no resolution of the matter has been found.

Major Avery, who may have been the driving force of the ‘Anti-Lemmon’ faction, had taken at least four companies to Falls Church in late August, while the remainder of the regiment remained at Fort Corcoran near Arlington.  Away from his antagonist, Avery began to ignore Lemmon, until the colonel asked, on September 16, “that Major Avery…be ordered to report himself and his command at the Head Quarters of his regiment at Fort Corcoran, Virginia, immediately.  I make this request because I am unable to secure the attention of Major Avery… He defies my authority, denies my right to make any further demands upon him, denies his owing any further allegiance to his regiment, sets up his own authority in opposition to all established rules of military justice, and actually sends word to me whenever I make any request of him that he wishes me distinctly to understand that he shall not humble himself to answer any further communication which I may see fit to furnish to him.”

Colonel Lemmon then charged Avery with Disobedience of Orders, Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Breach of Arrest, for events dating back to May 1.  The first of many legal entanglements in Avery’s checkered career, these charges remained pending until the following spring, when they may have been dropped as Lemmon refused to appear at the trial.  Ordered to return to Fort Corcoran with his detachment, Avery was present on the night of September 22, when Captain Ordner shot and killed the sutler’s clerk.

William ‘Billy’ Catron had been drinking heavily when he joined Captain Ordner in his tent and offered him a drink.  Ordner, who may have already consumed some alcohol during the evening, accepted Catron’s initial offer but refused subsequent offers.  A witness then saw Catron stagger out of the tent and fall under some horses tethered nearby.  Helping Catron to his feet, the soldier suggested he return to his own tent.  Instead, Catron returned to Ordner’s tent and tried to engage the captain in a game of cards.  When the officer refused to play for money, Catron became increasingly agitated, eventually striking Ordner in the face.  Without a guard house where Catron could be secured, Ordner had him taken back to the sutler’s tent.  Moments later, Catron left and went to Major Kemper’s tent.  Though Kemper was sick in bed, several other officers, including Captain Paige were there playing euchre.  Shortly thereafter a guard again escorted Catron back to his tent.  When the clerk fell face down into his quarters, the guard assumed he had passed out and left.  Moments later Catron emerged and re-entered Ordner’s tent.  Finding the officer in bed, Catron reportedly exclaimed, “Now, I’ve got you, Captain, where I want you,” and began striking the officer in the face.  Drawing a small revolver from under his pillow, Ordner grappled with Catron.  Pushing Catron toward the entrance, Ordner fired three shots, one of which may have been a warning shot fired through the top of the tent.  Two other rounds punched through the front of the tent as Catron staggered outside yelling at Ordner.  Then, just as the guard arrived and took hold of Catron, Ordner fired a fatal shot into the clerk’s heart.

Arriving moments later, Lemmon threatened to put Ordner “in irons,” if he did not return to his quarters.  Injured and still agitated, Ordner replied, “I don’t care anything for you or your irons, but I wish to be removed to safer quarters.”  Exactly why Ordner believed his life may have been in danger is unknown, but the sutler whom Catron worked for was Lemmon’s son.  Lemmon later told another officer, “Upon the facts becoming known in the regiment there was so much excitement against Ordner that I had to place him in Fort Corcoran for safety…I think the feeling in the regiment is so strong against him that he will never resume the command of the [company] …It is a horrible affair.”  Charged with murder and manslaughter, a court-martial panel cleared Ordner of both charges in mid-October.

Lemmon then targeted Capt. Emery Purdy, another member of the rebellious faction.  Purdy had entered a hospital in Baltimore in July.  Two months later, Lemmon accused Purdy of malingering.  Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commanding the Defenses of Washington, reportedly told Lemmon to give Purdy another two weeks and if he had not returned he would be cashiered.  When Purdy had not returned by October 23, Lemmon told Banks, “Capt. Purdy…since being dismissed from the hospital has been spending his time at Havre de Grace and at Gettysburg, where I am informed he now is, amusing himself with [hunting] and visiting and from letters addressed to members of the regiment I am satisfied he does not intend resuming duty but to retain his officer’s pay, as long as possible.”  Purdy supplied letters from doctors attesting to his fragile health, but Lemmon prevailed, and the War Department dismissed Purdy on November 24.

Purdy contested the decision and Lemmon immediately countered his efforts.  Claiming Purdy’s only talent to be the invention of excuses, Lemmon declared, “I have some letters from him saying he has been at Havre de Grace a number of times and …Gettysburg.  At each place he left female acquaintances of which he thought more of than the service.  Capt. Purdy is most essentially a [lady’s] man and nothing else.  It is universally believed in the regiment that he is only after money…Therefore, I …protest for myself and in behalf of the officers and men composing the regt against Capt. Purdy being reinstated to his former command.”

A month later, and with the case still pending, Lemmon wrote to Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General.  “I appeal to you as a lover of justice to interfere in this matter.  Capt. Purdy was in this regiment about one year and there is not an officer in the regiment but would swear that he never done twenty-four hours service in the year…I know you will do justice by preventing his reinstatement.  He is worthless as a military man.”

During his battle with Purdy, Lemmon’s own health began to fail, and he spent much of November and December in a hospital in Washington or at home in Georgetown.  Returning just before Christmas, Lemmon discerned a distinct chill among the officers of the regiment and the brigade toward him, and he immediately contacted Judge Holt, asking to have his regiment returned to duty in Washington.  “You will remember that I showed you a letter apprising me that there was a conspiracy against me which is to be persisted in to my destruction.”  Lemmon now saw himself as waging a one-man war against corruption and fraud in the army, and, most especially, within his regiment.  “There is a strong belief in the army that I have made revelations to the Gov’t that very much interferes with [their criminality].  You will remember,” he told Holt, “that I expressed to you my fears that I should get into difficulty and bring down the enmity of officers upon me.”  Still, Lemmon did not seek to abandon his crusade; he sought to avoid front-line duty along the Rappahannock River in the dead of winter.  “If I could have my regiment returned to Washington,” he asked Holt, “it would place me in a situation where I could be of great service to the Gov’t in detecting frauds.”

In his history, Preston mentions Lemmon’s brief return to the regiment as “[rekindling] the smoldering embers of animosity, and the strife was renewed with vigor.”  The day after Christmas, Lemmon certainly stoked the fires when he penned another letter to Holt; the colonel had uncovered a fraud within his own regiment.  “Since my return to the regiment I have ascertained that Washington is not the only latitude where fraud and crime predominate.  I have ascertained that there [are] not less than forty horses now in this regiment that in justice belong to the Government.”  Horses seized in the field should, by regulation, have been turned over to the quartermaster, but Lemmon accused his officers of buying them from the men “for a nominal sum, say one or two, and if a very good horse as high as five dollars per head.”  He also believed his officers may have been trying to intimidate him, as they understand “that I do not favor such practices and have been instrumental in cutting off some of their sources of revenue.”

Specifically, Lemmon may have been referring, at least in part, to a matter involving Lieut. Colonel Irvine and Asst. Surgeon George Whedon.  Lemmon prepared charges against Irvine during the winter but may not have submitted the matter as the paperwork is incomplete.  Lemmon believed Irvine had facilitated Whedon’s honorable discharge knowing the doctor had stolen medicines valued at $1,000 and two horses or mules valued at $250.  According to the colonel, Irvine had laughed off the matter, as “the cheapest way to get rid of [Whedon].”

Lemmon, now sounding like a 19th Century Captain Queeg, also accused David Gregg of pulling the only major on duty with the regiment for another assignment, “and left me alone which I know was done on purpose to embarrass and annoy me hoping to oblige me to resign.  Another [officer] made [it his] practice by taking men out of my regiment to orderly duty… I got up the regiment at my own expense, without any assistance from anybody to have it fizzled away in this way,” Lemmon groused.  He appealed to Holt, again, to have his regiment called back to Washington, as “it is not pleasant for me to be placed here to be sneered at as an informer.  If I am not to be relieved from this very unpleasant position I shall be obliged to resign.  If you can procure me the position of quartermaster with my corresponding rank you would confer a favor on me.”  As an alternative, Lemmon asked for “a position in the civil service where I can be of use to the government.”

Then, on January 17, 1863, Captain Purdy charged Lemmon with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.  Specifically, the captain accused Lemmon of lying regarding his medical status as a means of having him dismissed from the army.  The colonel was, in Purdy’s opinion, “a habitual liar to such an extent that many of his officers would not believe him under oath.

General Gregg concurred, and appended the following comments to Purdy’s complaint.  “The charges and specifications are preferred because of the dismissal from the US service of Capt. Purdy for absence without leave.  This dismissal it is alleged resulted from official reports made by Col. Lemmon… If Capt. Purdy was reported by Colonel Lemmon for absence without leave such report is in the Adjutant General’s Office, Washington, [as] no copy of such report can be found among the very few regimental papers on file.

“The certificate of a proper medical officer shows that Capt. Purdy was under medical treatment at Patterson Park Hospital from September 4 to Nov 1, 1862.  Whether or not Col. Lemmon had official knowledge of this cannot be ascertained from the regimental records.  It can be proven, however, that Col. Lemmon is in the habit of retaining official papers pertaining to his regiment upon his person, that such papers are not filed, and frequently lost, and their requirements not complied with.

“The 2nd Specification sets forth that Colonel Lemmon reported…Capt. Purdy as not having been ten days with his regiment since its organization.  The specification pronounces this false… as it is shown by the regimental morning report book that Capt. Purdy was with his regiment as stated.

“The 3rd Specification sets forth that Col. Lemmon is a habitual liar.  This specification can be sustained by the sworn testimony of many officers of high standing in the regiment now present, and by the affidavits of several officers absent.”

When the paperwork reached Brig. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, at the Adjutant General’s Office, he endorsed the charges with the following note.  “Col. Lemmon has previously been reported for dismissal for absence without leave, but no action has been taken.  It is now recommended that he be dismissed for the cause within named and that Capt. Purdy be restored to his command.”

Lemmon fought back, telling General Thomas, “I asked quite a number of [Purdy’s] men …and they say he never drilled his Co in the whole time he was in it… I saw a letter from Capt. Purdy from Havre de Grace saying he was there duck hunting… I also understand he has endeavored to cast a reflection on my character.  You will find in the War Department my letters of recommendation signed by Ex-President Fillmore and that class of men.”

On February 3, Lemmon struck again, now implicating both Major Avery and Doctor Whedon in the theft of a government horse.  Focusing his wrath on Avery, as he had done earlier with Irvine, Lemmon declared, “This Avery has rendered himself so obnoxious to the men that if he stays long in [the regiment] he will completely demoralize the Regt.  It is not an unusual thing for him to call the men God damn sons of bitches.”  Lemmon also claimed to have overheard a conversation in which Avery told another officer, “You think you are a hell of a fellow now that you and the Colonel are sucking asses together…You will,” Lemmon told the addressee, “serve the interest of the Gov’t by ridding the service of this man.”  Hinting at the pressure mounting against him, Lemmon closed by stating, “I shall be obliged to resign and then the Regt. will become completely demoralized.”

Lemmon’s detractors refused to yield, and on February 4, Lieut. Luther Barney lodged a complaint [signed by 15 other officers, including Irvine and Avery] charging Lemmon with Inefficiency and Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.  Lieutenant Barney claimed, “Col. Lemmon…is incapable of mounting even a camp guard, (properly) or drilling a Platoon, much less a Squadron, Battalion or Regiment; and as far as drilling his regiment is concerned [he] is utterly incapable of maneuvering it (in a proper manner) in the least intricate or most simple evolutions known in the cavalry drill or Tactics (by which we are governed).  The result of which is our regiment feels abused and degraded and entirely inefficient and must remain so, so long as [Lemmon] is Colonel of it.”  Barney also termed Lemmon “a man of untruth, in other words a constitutional liar and…no officer of his regiment (or even enlisted man) could believe him on oath where perjury would [serve] his private interests [emphasis is Barney’s].”

Feeling the need to clarify his motive in filing the complaint, Barney explained; “Owing to the …entire want of military and administrative ability as a commander of a cavalry regiment, together with the fact that Col. Lemmon…is in no sense of the word whatever worthy of, or fit for the position he holds, this document is forwarded with the design and hope that a fair, just and impartial inquiry and investigation may be had, to which I think our regiment is justly entitled, and to which I also think the interests of the service (the only motive by which I am governed) demands that attention shall be given.”

With several complaints now pending against Lemmon, General Gregg believed the trials should be heard outside of the division.  Seeking guidance from Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, commander of the newly organized Cavalry Corps, Gregg noted the “informal” nature of Barney’s allegations, and asked, as a first step in rectifying the problem, that the officers be ordered to appear before an Examination Board.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “Col. John Lemmon – A Colonel at War with his Men – Part 1

  1. Well done, and looking forward to the next installment. In the course of my own research, I had always wondered what catastrophe befell many of the officers of the 10th in May 1863, and it appears you will soon share the answer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s