An Uncommon Act Of Valor - 142nd New York Infantry Regiment
The William H. Walling Story
Written And Donated By Stephen R. Allen
During the American Civil War, soldiers on both sides of the battle lines reported “seeing the elephant”, a term used to describe the horrors of being in battle. It was during this time of “seeing the elephant” that ordinary men often did extraordinary things. I found this to be especially true when investigating the life of William H. Walling, a family member that served in the Union Army.
Walling began his military career in 1861 when President Lincoln made his first call for volunteers. Young Mr. Walling immediately began recruiting soldiers from his hometown of Gouverneur, New York. The regiment eventually became the 16th New York Volunteers. Walling saw limited action before being wounded at the Battle of Salem Church, May 3, 1863. He later mustered out of service. While recovering at home he received an urgent message from his dear friend and former classmate, Newton Martin Curtis. Col. Curtis was forming the newest regiment from northern New York, the 142nd New York Volunteers. Walling accepted a commission to serve as lieutenant. It wasn’t long before Walling found himself on the verge of a major union offensive on the North Carolina coastline.
For his acts of bravery, William H. Walling was given the Congressional Medal of Honor. Soon after the war ended, he was brevetted as a Lt. Colonel, a ceremonial rank often given for acts of valor and heroism.
Some men enlisted in the military ranks to seek adventure. They often committed reckless acts of bravery in hopes of becoming famous and gaining a reputation to impress the folks back home. I don’t believe this was the case in regards to Walling. He was a religious and patriotic citizen solider. What he did was out of duty and love for his country. He lived his life as a role model for this family and the many people he had contact with in his civic endeavors.
In the following account, the December 1864 union assault on Fort Fisher turned into a federal embarrassment. History could have been rewritten had Lt. Walling’s report to his superior’s been taken seriously. The Fort Fisher defenders were in a precarious and weakened position. Without adequate ammunition and grossly undermanned, Fort Fisher may have collapsed under increased union military pressure. In stead, Walling and his men risked their lives for nothing and the great union fleet would depart only to return a second time a month later.
Fort Fisher finally fell to the Union Army of the James and the Atlantic Navy Fleet in a mass bombardment and bloody hand-to-hand fight that exacted a heavy toll from both sides.
A PRELUDE TO BATTLE
It was a cool brisk December morning in 1864 as Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter gave the signal for the fleet to set sail from his flag ship, the “Malvern”. Leaving Hampton Roads, Virginia, the fleet’s destination was the “Gibraltar of the South”, the famed rebel landmark, Fort Fisher which stood guard on Confederate Point, North Carolina.
This expedition had been a long awaited project of U.S.Grant, Commanding General of all U.S. forces. Now the last fortified stronghold guarding the North Carolina coast was about to be the target of the union’s mighty Atlantic fleet and the veterans of the Army of the James.
Standing at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Fisher guaranteed that the Port of Wilmington would remain open. The Port was the last entry point that the sleek blockade-runner ships could enter and deliver their much-needed military and civilian cargo. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia desperately depended on the supplies delivered by these sinister looking blockade-runners docking at Wilmington. From here the military supplies were shipped by rail directly to the Confederate troops in the field.
The Union Command knew that the destruction of the Fort would hasten the fall of “The Lost Cause”. However, this task would prove to be far more costly to achieve that originally expected. The military experience of the commanders planning this offensive would ultimately affect the outcome. Even the veteran soldiers of the army could have predicted what was about to happen.
Leading the Union forces was the infamous northern political general, Benjamin Butler. He was better known as “Spoons”, a name he acquired for taking silver tableware belonging to southern owners. Others knew Butler as “ The Beast”, a nickname he earned by threatening to have the women of New Orleans arrested as prostitution if they harassed the union troops. Detested by most southerners, a bounty to kill him was offered by southern sympathizers.
Butler was not Gen. U.S. Grant’s choice to lead the forth-coming attack. He wanted Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, a West Point trained officer. Although Weitzel was still responsible for the expedition, Butler exercised his privileges as General of the Army of the James, which included the North Carolina Theater of operations, and joined the force as ranking officer.
His counter part was General Braxton Bragg, a close personal friend and military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The unpopular Bragg was known by his troops for his overly strict discipline and an affinity to retreat from battle. Although he was a loyal secessionist, he lacked the skills necessary to be a successful field general.
The creator and builder of Fort Fisher, was Col. William Lamb. He believed the fort, which was referred to as “Gibraltar of the South”, could withstand any type of attack. He was very certain the union fleet would make its appearance and test the vulnerability he thought did not exist in his fortification. It was to be a prophetic statement.
The attack plan proposed by Gen. Butler, and supported by Admiral porter, was to float a barge loaded with 200 tons of explosives and detonate it within 100 yards of the fort. The plan’s originators believed that the percussion from the explosion would seriously damage Fort Fisher’s ammunition Magazines and cave in the Traverses and Bombproofs. With this accomplished, the Army could simply march in and claim victory.
The mission began in mid December of 1864 as the fleet set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia. The navel force was soon delayed when the expeditionary force encountered foul weather and high seas. Several days before Christmas Admiral Porter arrived with his war ships. The troop transports were due to arrive soon thereafter.
When the weather calmed, twelve volunteers, led by commander Alexander Rhind, floated the camouflaged barge known as the “U.S.S. Louisiana” toward the fort. The men prepared and set off time-delayed fuses as the barge lie near its target. They quickly made their escape by rowboat.
On Christmas Eve morning there was a tremendous explosion that was heard for miles around the Wilmington area. Admiral Porter, with newspaper reporters tagging along to witness the event, believed that the great fortification stood no longer. Porter, in his glory seeking method of operation, had not waited for Gen Butler to be present with his forces as event unfolded. As daylight prevailed, the anxious Yankee’s were devastated to discover that the mighty fortress was still standing In fact it had not received any significant damage at all.
Meanwhile the soldiers who would eventually participate in the ground attack appeared none the worst for wear as the landlubbers weathered the long wait aboard ship. The troops were anxious to step on dry land. This was going to be a Christmas Eve the men would never forget.
At 12:45 the Navy ironclad “ New Ironsides” fired the first shot which began a bombardment the likes of which had never been seen before.
As planned, the ground attack was to be preceded by massed naval gunfire, followed by the landing of the federal troops. As the attack progressed an exploding shell hit and cut a hole in the palisade of the fort wall just to the left of the flag as it flew in the wind. The broken flagstaff now lay on the ground beckoning some brave soldier to retrieve it.
What must have felt like an eternity passed as the troops finally disembarked and landed on beach unopposed. Seeing his opportunity to capture the fallen flag while leading an advance line of skirmishers from Company C, Lt. Walling had his men “Look for sharpshooters and have your guns in position to fire”. He dashed in the fort as a shell exploded near by temporarily stunning him. He regained hid senses and continued his desperate journey capturing the enemy flag without regard to injury or death. Exploding gunboat shells were flying just above the heads of the brave New Yorkers as they made off with their prize. Upon returning to his picket lines, Walling was to discover the attack was called off by Gen. Butler. From his forward position, Wailing’s commanding officer, Col. N.M. Curtis, felt the fort could easily be taken, especially after witnessing the lieutenant’s daring feat. Curtis sent for reinforcements, instead he received his orders to retreat.
Butler’s order of re-embarkation was in direct violation of orders originally given by the commander of all union forces in the field, Lt. General U.S. Grant. Gen. Butler had lost his nerve and wrongly assumed the fort could not be taken. He believed a superior confederate force awaited his soldiers.
Oddly enough, Lt. Walling turned out to be the only union soldier to set foot in the rebel fortification that day. As the landing party was withdrawing, the 142nd New Yorkers were left on the beach due to rough seas. In the early morning of December 27th, they were picked up by the Navy rowboats and taken aboard the troop transports. By then, the retreating Gen. Butler had already left for Hampton Roads, Virginia. The rugged New Yorkers had witnessed one of the greatest naval bombardments of the war and now had nothing but the captured flag and a grand story to tell the folks back home.
While resting aboard the transport ship “Weybossett”, Lt Walling cut up the Confederate flag into small pieces and shared the spoils of war with his men. A small souvenir to keep as a reminder to those brave soldiers who had risked their lives in yet another of Butler’s follies.
The Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the Fort Fisher fiasco. Upon their recommendation and Gen. Grant’s common sense, Gen. Benjamin Butler was removed from command effectively ending his military career.
The new commander of the Army of the James was Gen. E.O.Ord and Gen. Alfred H. Terry was named to command the expeditionary force, which eventually would take Fort Fisher.
IN THE AFTERMATH
Lt. Walling’s exploits were recounted in a letter written by Admiral Porter, commander of the U.S. Naval forces to Gen. Butler, “ I wish some more of your gallant fellows had followed the officer who took the flag from the parapet…” Gen. U.S. Grant, in his memoirs, was quoted as saying, he met with Walling following the first battle and the lieutenant reported that the fort could have been taken without much loss. Col. Curtis, of the 142nd New York Volunteers is quoted as saying that Wallings feat was “One of the most gallant exploits of the war.”
Fort Fisher was eventually taken after a successful attack by Porter’s fleet and the Army of the James on January 13-15, 1865. In that battle, Col. Newton Martin Curtis was severely wounded and brevetted Brigadier General. His would was so horrible that his men dragged him off the battlefield believing he would not survive. For his bravery, Curtis was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fort Fisher’s commander, Col. Lamb was also wounded and carried off the field of battle. Both men would eventually recover and live long lives. The soldiers from both sides told of savage hand-to-hand combat that was some of the fiercest of the war.
William H. Walling’s military career came to an end in July of 1865 as the 142nd disbanded in Albany, New York. Upon his return to Gouverneur, New York, he was a partner with James Brodie and engaged in the clothing business. During this time, Walling was brevetted to the rank of Lt. Colonel by then President Johnson, for his gallantry in the face of the enemy.
Col. Walling acted as inspector of Customs at Ogdensburg, New York from 1867 to 1868 and as assistant assessor in the Internal Revenue Service from 1868 to 1870. In 1868 he married Miss Sara Thompson of Gouverneur. Their union produced four children; William Jr., Julie, Mary Louise, and Ruth.
In 1870 Col. Walling was elected sheriff of St. Lawrence County and served in that capacity for the next four years. Later the Walling family moved to Potsdam, New York, where he engaged in the Hardware business until his death on June 16, 1912. During this time in his life, Walling was very active and participated in many church and civic affairs.
After the war, Union General N. M. Curtis and Fort Fisher’s commander, Col Lamb, became the best of friends. Col. Lamb made numerous trips to Ogdensburg, in upstate New York, to visit Curtis whom he often referred to as “My friend, the Enemy.”
On one such visit, Col. Lamb, according to a local newspaper account, recalled that day in December of 1864 by saying he was expecting the union forces to send an officer into the fort to demand its surrender. As the three companies of the 142nd New York approached, the fort’s defenders were practically without ammunition for their weapons. As Col. Lamb watched Lt. Walling leap on the parapet of the fort, he supposed the union officer was dashing in to ask for the confederate surrender. With his men having little or no ammunition, he would have been compelled to surrender had the attack followed behind the advance of Walling’s troops.
The postscript of Walling’s exploits appears many years after the war’s memories have faded into the exaggerated metaphors of old men reliving their glory days.
Twenty-eight years after the encounter at Fort Fisher then retired Col. William H Walling, received notice that he was to be given the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action at Fort Fisher, North Carolina on December 25, 1864.
If General Butler had not lost his nerve and kept better communications with Curtis and Walling, Fort Fisher may have been taken during the first assault. How many lives and causalities could have been spared? According to the official records of the War Department, the second assault of January 12th-15th of 1865 cost the Federal army 184 killed and 749 wounded. The Confederate government reported 400 killed or wounded and 2083 captured as prisoners.