The 16th Michigan Infantry – Divided by Politics

With my revision of the Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville manuscript progressing, I thought I would focus my attention over the next several posts on stories related to the battles, but which may not find their way into my final narrative. The 16th Michigan, of Col. Strong Vincent’s Brigade, shouldered the burden of the fighting during the early phases of the Battle of Upperville on June 21, 1863, and my post this month and next will feature the Michiganders.

***

Thomas Stockton had a rather storied family lineage. Born in New York, Stockton had been graduated from West Point in 1827, and received a commission in the infantry. Posted to the Great Lakes region, Stockton received a colonel’s commission to lead the 1st Michigan Volunteers during the Mexican War but neither he nor his regiment saw action before the war ended. Resigning his commission, Stockton explored several opportunities in California, before returning to Michigan prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Having maintained an active role with the local militia, Stockton, a life-long Democrat, assumed he would receive a colonel’s commission from Gov. Austin Blair to command one of the regiments being organized in the state. But Blair, a staunch Republican saw the matter differently. As several men, including George Custer, soon learned, Blair believed in bestowing commissions on Republicans, rather than Democrats. In Stockton’s case, Blair even ignored requests from President Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

A burly man with an ego to match his size, Stockton determined to raise an independent regiment at his own expense as a means of thwarting Blair. Then, as historian Kim Crawford explained, “The defeat of the Union Army at Bull Run on July 21 changed everything.” The secretary of war desperately needed men and, side-stepping Blair, he accepted Stockton’s regiment and granted Stockton a colonel’s commission. A captain apparently suggested the command be named ‘Stockton’s Independent Regiment,’ which pleased Stockton, both as a salve for his ego and as a means of goading Blair.

The name stuck while Stockton remained in command, but the choice became a source of confusion and friction in an army in which most every other unit carried a numerical designation. During the fight at Hanover Court House, in May 1862, Stockton’s brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, had asked, “where is Stockton?” The colonel immediately took umbrage, when the phrase, which impugned his honor and suggested he had fled the field, appeared in print. Answering an angry missive from the colonel, Butterfield, replied, “‘if you had not insisted upon [your unit] being called Stockton’s regiment, I should have probably said ‘where is the Sixteenth?’” Not until Stockton resigned in May 1863 did the regiment fully accept the designation as the 16th Michigan.

Though Stockton had selected Norval Welch to serve as his senior major, relations between the two strong-willed men may never have been cordial. Just twenty-four when the war broke out, Welch had already established an admirable resume of his own, having served as personal secretary to Lewis Cass, a former Secretary of War, Territorial Governor of Michigan and U.S. Senator. Several Michigan newspapers carried regular letters from soldier-correspondents during the early tenure of the regiment, and these letters routinely described Stockton and Welch as being popular with the men, but the rosy accounts masked problems simmering between the two officers. During the bloody Seven Days Campaign in the summer of 1862, Stockton fell into Confederate hands at Gaines’s Mill and remained a prisoner for several months. Then the lieutenant colonel resigned, leaving Welch in command of the regiment.

Following his release from a Southern prison camp, Stockton assumed command of the brigade and campaigned tirelessly for a brigadier’s commission. When his efforts failed, Stockton vented his anger and frustration on Welch. Specifically, Stockton disagreed with many decisions Welch had made while commanding the regiment in Stockton’s absence. The colonel also believed Welch had claimed undo credit for himself in his official battle reports. A regimental snowball fight in February 1863 provided the spark which finally ignited their feud.

Believing the frolic to be just what the men needed to shake off their winter doldrums, Welch ordered everyman to participate. When a sick soldier refused, Welch fined him one month’s pay. Stockton ordered Welch to restore the soldier’s pay and when he refused, Stockton court-martialed him. Welch hired Col. Strong Vincent as his counsel and prevailed, being exonerated of all charges. But Welch now had his own scores to settle and he went after several officers, including Capt. Judd Mott.

Welch court-martialed Mott for being absent without leave when he failed to return from Michigan before his leave expired. Considering the vagaries of Civil War era transportation, Mott may have faced any number of potential problems beyond his control as he sought to return to the army nearly 600 miles from his home. Commanders routinely arrested offenders such as Mott, only to drop the charges after receiving the tardy officer’s explanation. But Welch may have learned that Mott had been campaigning for a colonel’s commission while home in Michigan and thus pushed the case to a trial. The court panel convicted Mott but allowed him to remain with the regiment pending his appeal.

Several influential Michiganders had written letters to Governor Blair the previous year, recommending Mott for promotion. One described the young captain as “a gentleman of intelligence and energy… [and] truly loyal. He would not only destroy the rebellion but its cause. I doubt whether you can find a better man all things considered, for a field officer of any one of the new [regiments],” one supporter wrote. “He is one of those young men whose future, if he lives, will be useful and brilliant.” Another advocate judged Mott to be “all right on the great questions of the day. He is a fine scholar, and a young man of indomitable energy. He will do credit to any position he may be placed in.” [Emphasis in original]

At the time, Mott had simply been looking to advance his career and nothing in these letters suggests he had his eye on the colonelcy of the 16th Michigan. But in late-May 1863, in the heat of Mott’s battle with Welch, the governor received the following letter from a gentleman in Detroit.

“I have received and read several communications from officers in the 16th Regt., Michigan Infantry in relation to the appointment of Col. of that Regt in place of Col. Stockton resigned, and I have been requested to write your Excellency on the subject. I have before me letters from two officers of the Regt. strongly deprecating the appointment of the present Lieut. Col. (Welch) and if one half that is said of him is true he is a better subject for Fort Lafayette than for the office of Col. of a loyal regiment of Michigan volunteers. In his administration of the affairs of the regiment none but Copperheads seem to stand any chance and every truly loyal officer and soldier seem to be under the [bar;] such seems to me should not be the case. I understand from all information received that Capt. Mott of Co. I is the choice of every loyal line officer in the regt., while Lt. Col. Welch is supported by those of at least doubtful reputation in that respect. I am not acquainted with Capt. Mott, but he is highly spoken of by all. In fact, any man who wishes for and labors for the success of our cause would be preferred to [Welch]. I had a short conversation with [Sen. Jacob] Howard this morning [and] he informs me that he is well acquainted with Lt. Col. Welch, and coincides with the opinion expressed of him by the officers of the Regt. In these perilous times such men can do more to demoralize a regiment by appointing officers who reflect their own disunion sentiments more than the loss of a dozen battles, and the sooner the army is purged of those the better, and it is to be hoped that the appointing power will be so exercised that Copperheads will find no place of trust or emolument within its lines. [For] myself, being unacquainted with the officers I could not recommend any one in particular and have but one choice in the matter and that is that [someone] shall be appointed whose whole soul is in the Union cause and whose loyalty is above all suspicion; such a man Capt. Mott is strongly represented to be, brave, efficient and trustworthy. [With] these qualifications if no better man can be found it is to be hoped that he may receive the appointment. In fact, almost any man would be preferable to the Lt. Col. now commanding the regiment.” A few days later, Blair received a letter from a local politician denouncing “the pro-slaveryism of Stockton & some other slavery pimps of the [regiment.]” Mott had also sent a letter to Michigan’s Adjutant General, in which he termed Welch “a damned abolitionist son of a bitch.”[1]

Such comments suggest the depth of the political divide between Peace Democrats or Copperheads, like Stockton, and staunch abolitionists, like Blair. A letter from a soldier in the 16th Michigan published the previous spring by the anti-Lincoln editor of the Detroit Free Press, confirms that Stockton’s sentiments dominated the political tenor of his men. “If abolitionists are seeking to make political capital for future consumption, they make a great mistake if they suppose the army will lend a willing hand to any of their schemes,” the soldier declared. “I do not know of an abolitionist or an emancipationist amongst us. If, at any time during the last winter, or now, this army had been commanded to march to Washington and rid the Halls of Congress of the woolly crew that seek to distract its counsels and govern the country…we would have done so with glee.”

Seeking to douse the political firestorm which threatened to ruin his career, Lieut. Colonel Welch responded to Senator Howard on June 15.

“I have learned with some pain that you oppose my promotion to the Colonelcy of my Regt, on account of what you are informed are my political opinions.

I do not write you for any favor, or for your esteem, though I should be glad of it, but to correct an opinion you have been helped to by others, as to my views in regard to this war. That so distinguished a man as you & one whose social position is so high, should think me a “Copperhead,” is what wounds the integrity of my spirit, engaged in this contest. I know of no viler name to attach to a soldier or a loyal man – Copperhead is synonymous with treason, & I think I have proven my fealty to the Gov’t in the numerous times I have offered my life for its preservation. If I had not supported President Lincoln & intended to, in all his measures for the suppression of the rebellion I should not have entered the service, or resigned. Now, I support President Lincoln in every measure – right or wrong – I uphold him in his Proclamation & in the enlistment of Negroes, & I would gladly command a colored regiment today.

For a young man, my politics were well known, when I entered the service. I was a war democrat. There has been no measure, since the war commenced, for its suppression, that I have not bent every energy to carry out, nor have I in deed or word even acted otherwise, & I challenge proof, either verbal or written to the contrary. And I go this far – if it is necessary to accomplish the ends of this war, I am willing to see & help to aid, the utter extinction of the Southern race – if it cannot be done otherwise, let every man, woman & child be killed, black or white. Arm every Negro with some kind of weapon, & fight this war as it will yet have to be fought.

As for McClellan, he was my general – while he was with us, I never spoke against him – when he left us I was neither vehement for nor against him. He never spoke to me, nor I to him. He is not, nor never has been, my ideal of a general, though some things about him I like, but I never have been loud-mouthed in his praise.

Gen. Burnside was also my general – I have never said aught against him, but much for him, quietly, for I have great charity for him & believe him to be a good man. Gen. Hooker is my general now – to none have I been so much attached as to him. I know him personally, & he has treated me with great kindness on many occasions. He assured me he would gladly have signed my recommendation to Gov. Blair, had he been here when I was at his Head Quarters, but he was in Washington. Gen’l Hooker has our confidence – the soldiers love him, & we are willing to abide the result under his guidance – only give him a fair trial – other generals have had the same, & under him we have never been whipped.

As for my personal [courage] I have nothing to say. I have fought under the generals I have named, & my Regt was never in but one battle, that I did not lead it – Bull Run #2 when I was in Michigan. This is a matter that does not trouble me, as my men know me, & to them I am willing to trust the verdict.

Personal motives can be the only reasons that ever called it in question – indeed personal motives – enmity – are the only reasons why my character has been assailed or political opinions impugned. I have taken no part in politics nor do I intend to, but as far as my feeble efforts can go by active service in the field, to aid my gov’t – sustain the President & carry out everything calculated to crush the rebellion, I shall do.

Excuse me …with troubling you with this note, but whether I am promoted or not, I do not wish you, or any other citizen of Michigan to think that as good a soldier as I am from that State, could ever be a Copperhead – an imputation as unkind as it is unjust.”

Forwarding the letter to Governor Blair, the senator added, “I do not see what further [Welch] could say & be a ‘Democrat.’”

Six days after defending himself to Senator Howard, Welch led his men through Aldie and into Middleburg. The regiment, the smallest in the brigade, may have been at the head of Colonel Vincent’s brigade as a matter of daily rotation or Vincent, Welch’s friend, may have placed the Michiganders at the head of the column on the cusp of battle as a means of helping Welch erase the stain of his recent court-martial and to silence his critics.

The morning and early-afternoon phase of the Battle of Upperville involved three delaying actions conducted by Gen. Jeb Stuart along the Ashby’s Gap Turnpike. Each side sustained light casualties as Stuart had nothing to gain by being drawn into a bloody slugfest with Vincent’s infantry.

As Welch led his men west from Middleburg and over the crest of Mount Defiance along the turnpike, Vincent sent his other three regiments to the south seeking to flank Stuart’s position. Emerging into the open fields fronting the Southerners, Welch deployed two companies as skirmishers. Moments later they came under fire from Capt. James Hart’s battery of horse artillery and Stuart’s carbineers. The skirmishing continued for about an hour, until the other regiments reached their positions at which time the entire brigade advanced. Having gained as much time as possible, Stuart then ordered his men to withdraw rather than engage the infantry.

The 16th Michigan lost fewer than a dozen men during the day, with most of the casualties probably sustained during this opening phase of the fight. Only one man died; Capt. Judd Mott. The editor of a hometown newspaper remembered Mott as “a faithful soldier and good officer,” who left behind “a host of friends…who will mourn his untimely sacrifice.” Had Mott simply been unlucky, or had he possibly put himself at risk to further his own ambitions or to erase the stain of his own recent court-martial?

The regiment next saw action at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, where Welch anchored the right flank of Colonel Vincent’s line. Unsupported on his own right flank, and with two of his companies detached, Welch found himself in a difficult position once the Confederates launched their attack. Welch’s color guard drew a fury of Southern fire and the flag was shot from the staff. Then, Welch inexplicably embarrassed himself and his regiment when he led about a third of the men off the field during the heat of the fighting. His actions, which left him open to accusations of cowardice, remain largely a mystery today. Had he heard a phantom command to withdraw? Had he broken under the stress of combat or had he witnessed the mortal wound suffered by Colonel Vincent, his friend and advocate, and become temporarily unhinged?

Shortly after the campaign, Welch returned to Michigan on sick leave and recruiting duty, but historian Kim Crawford believes he spent most of his time courting key Republicans, including Governor Blair. Welch eventually received the colonel’s commission he desired but he died of a gunshot wound to the head several months later in the fighting around Petersburg. As Crawford writes of Welch, he “had at times embarrassed his men by his absence and displeased his generals…He had curried political favor and seemingly persecuted those who had crossed him. Yet there had been those instances where he had been bold and daring and shown genuine concern for his men.” He is one of the many thousands of men who may have battled their own demons during one of the nation’s most difficult periods, and who shall forever remain a mystery to us.

 

Sources

The Austin Blair Papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Detroit Free Press

Michigan Argus

Roy Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Kim Crawford, The Sixteenth Michigan Infantry

John Michael Gibney, “A Shadow Passing: The Tragic Story of Norval Welch and the Sixteenth Michigan at Gettysburg and Beyond,” The Gettysburg Magazine, Number 6, January 1992.

 

[1] Fort Lafayette, in the narrows near Brooklyn, New York, served as a military prison during the war.

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