Natick During The Civil War: Part 8
“I turned my head to speak a word of defiance.”
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” a notorious tyrant is supposed to have once said. Whatever the origins of the saying, history has validated its truth through the limitless casualties of modern warfare. In the course of the Civil War, over six hundred thousand died, including almost ninety from Natick. But Asa Smith was not one of them.
Grievously wounded and told by a dishearteningly long string of battlefield surgeons he was as good as dead, Smith managed somehow to survive his injuries, going on after the Civil War to marry, educate himself and become a physician. One of the almost seven hundred men from Natick who would serve on the Union side, that he did not join the ranks of the Union dead was in itself a bit of a miracle.
In his early Natick days he was a cordwainer by trade (a shoemaker), and only intrepid diarist, making notes on his day-to-day life as a member of Company A of the 16th Regiment. Like many Union volunteers, Smith carefully chose the regiment in which he volunteered to serve on the basis of some friends who had already joined up. That, and his high opinion of the regimental officers, helped him make his choice.
That the bulk of enlistees in his unit were from Watertown was of no account to the young soldier from Natick. He liked them just fine. Mustered in during May of 1861 at the very outset of hostilities, it is likely that Smith, like the rest of the country and the succeeding states, assumed the war would be of brief duration. But that it would not be.
The 16th was one of over 160 Massachusetts regiments (a unit of roughly six hundred to one-thousand men) that would see service in the conflict. In all, Massachusetts sent over 150,000 men to the War Between the States. It was a substantial body of soldiers, but modest in number when compared to the over 400,000 from New York and similar counts from Illinois and Ohio.
Natick sent men like Smith everywhere in the Union army – to infantry regiments, which by far comprised the bulk of the fighting force, cavalry, which in the case of Natick included two men in a cavalry unit of the five members of the Thomas family. Descended from both Praying Indians and African Americans, members of the family endure in Natick to this day, marking the continuity of faith, love of colony and country and pride represented by Natick’s Native American and black population, across a span of over three centuries.
In a country with a population of about thirty million in the 1860s, the 2.5 million soldiers in the Union Army in the course of the conflict was a substantial number, as were the one million sent to war from the South.
Smith’s wartime diary, in fine, closely written manuscript form, resides in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, where recently I examined a facsimile copy of the original.
“Bounty Shopping” was a common occurrence in the later years of the war, a phenomenon that saw potential recruits moving from town to town in an attempt to identify the municipality that offered the best incentive payment for joining up. In this way opportunists could garner a combination of federal, state and local bonuses, with many joining up in one town, deserting from their units, and joining again.
This was hardly the case with Asa Smith: “From early boyhood I had taken an interest in the question of slavery,” he wrote, reflecting a disposition on the topic that virtually obsessed Henry Wilson and his colleagues in the Natick Debating Society beginning in the later 1830s. “...And as I grew up to manhood (I) followed the political drift closely, with the result that my antipathy to the institution increased.”
Smith, in other words, whether under the influence of Lydia Maria Child, Henry Wilson, William Nutt or any of the other myriad of Natick abolitionists, was the “right” side of the slavery issue and the Garrisonian appeal for freedom for all – a predisposition not necessarily held by all members of the Union Army, even subsequent to the Emancipation Proclamation and the close of the war.
But off to war went Asa Smith, finding himself eventually engaged in the Seven Days Battle on the James River with the Army of the Potomac. The James, and surrounding environs, including Richmond, the Confederate capital, would be fought over again and again in the course of the war.
The Seven Days refers to the lengthy, ongoing course of the battle, which saw General George McClellan duel back and forth with General Robert E. Lee and in the course of the engagement “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” as it were, as a result of his chronic hesitation and ambivalence toward acts of aggressive warfare. By the close of the battle, also called “The Peninsula Campaign” due to the peculiar course of the James River, the Union would sustain 16,000 casualties, while the Confederates took 20,000 dead and wounded.
Asa Smith’s presence at the Seven Days, like thousands of his comrades and Southern enemies, was a personal disaster.
“The Johnnies climbed the hill with a rush,” he wrote, “causing the line to waver for a moment, then it closed up and gave them a murderous fire. Just as the shock came, I turned my head to the right to speak a word of defiance in the ear of Corporal William E. Eldridge and before it was turned square to the front, something hit me.”
In working my way through Smith’s diary, it was not clear whether he was in the midst of a charge or about the business or repulsing one, but regardless, what happened next ensured his involvement in the war as an active combatant was about to come to an end. “It felt as if an immense timber had struck me end first with great force.”
In fact, Smith has been struck in the face, with much of his lower jaw carried away as a result. The next day, and for many thereafter, he worked his way through a succession of army surgeons, each one of whom offered a more limited opinion on his chances of survival. Among the first, one gave him only a few days to live.
Yet somehow he endured, eventually finding competent medical help and making it home to Natick and then to medical school at Boston University, where he attended medical school. Eventually moving to Dorchester, where he raised a family and set up practice, he lived into the early years of the 20th century.
While I could not confirm it in my limited research into Smith’s wartime experience, the fact that he was wounded at Seven Days (rather than and earlier engagement, say in the first year of his enlistment) may have played a part in sustaining his life. By the second year of the war the US Sanitary Commission had been set up and finally began to provide Union troops with some modicum of medical service.
The first year of the war was unrelieved carnage, with quack doctors, limited ambulance service and many field commanders who thought it best to leave the wounded in place on the battlefield. Their apparent callousness was in fact based on harsh reality. With no medical service in place, for every wounded man removed from the field, one or two “effectives” (fighting men) would have to be pulled out of the firing line.
320,000 from the North died in the war, but not Asa Smith of Natick. His intrepid quest for help and a will of steel (along with a sharp pen and a bent for the literary) preserved his memory for us all.
Next in Natick During the Civil War – Part IV: The officers and men from Natick of the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Colored Regiments – Marching forward to glory!