I am getting ready to teach, next semester at Chapman, a course on the Civil War, and thinking about how I first got fascinated by that war. It goes back, I think, to Augustus Long.
It was about 1991 or 1992, when I started looking into my genealogy, that I learned that my great-great grandfather, Augustus Long, was a sergeant in the 128th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Long was born in August 1840 so he was only twenty-two when he volunteered in August 1862. The regiment was organized in Pennsylvania, went to Washington, spent a week or so there, then hastened north in early September to defend Maryland and Pennsylvania. Stephen Sears, in his great book on Antietam, describes what happened to 128th at Antietam on the morning of September 19, 1862:
“Mansfield had ordered the regiment to deploy from its marching column into a line of battle partly in the East Woods and partly in the pasture just short of the no-man’s land in the Cornfield. The maneuver had hardly begun when Hood’s men in the woods and Ripley’s on the far edge of the Cornfield sent a hail of bullets into the ranks, killing the regiment’s colonel and wounding his second-in-command. The bewildered and leaderless rookies promptly got themselves into a terrible tangle. Whatever rudiments of drill they had learned were immediately forgotten under the killing fire. They stumbled off to the right and left where they thought they were supposed to go, nobody could hear any orders in all the racket, and when they tried to shoot back at their tormentors there always seemed to be comrades in the way.
“Colonel Joseph Knipe of the 46th Pennsylvania hurried up and began sorting things out, and the 28th New York sent several sergeants ‘to help untie the knot,’ and finally they were horsed into a rough line of battle. No one told them what to do next, however. Mansfield had been hit and the other general officers were off somewhere else. Colonel Knipe suggested to the 128th’s major that an advance was better than just standing there taking losses. The order was given and the rookies did their best to atone for the fumbling by charging straight into the Cornfield ‘in gallant style, cheering as they moved,’ as the Major reported. Then they reached the southern edge of the corn and Ripley’s men simply mowed them down. The shocked survivors fled back through the Cornfield and East Woods and out of the battle, having achieved nothing but the addition of 118 names to the casualty rolls.”
I was living in Washington when I first read those words by Sears, so I visited the battlefield and walked through the field. I thought about Augustus and his friends, almost untrained, taking heavy fire, rallying and charging, falling dead and wounded, retreating, fleeing really. Suddenly, through Augustus, the Civil War was much more real, something that I wanted to know in detail.
As I did some research at the Library of Congress into the 128th Pennsylvania, I learned that there was no book-length history of the regiment. I started gathering the materials, letters and articles and the like, to write such a history myself. I thought of my regimental history as a tribute to the boys of the 128th, both those who died and those (like my ancestor) who survived but were changed forever. My theory (unproven) was that there is no history of the 128th because the regiment was only in two battles, Antietam and Chancellorsville, and did not do very well at either battle. But is it any surprise that young boys, deprived of their commanding officer in the first few minutes of the battle, would not do well?
I never finished the history of the 128th Pennsylvania: we moved to Hong Kong in 1995 and I started thinking about an even more ambitious book, a biography of John Jay. But if I think about how I came to be what I am today, a historian and professor, I have to credit Augustus Long. Thank you.