Description

    The Civil War Papers of Edwin Metcalf of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. An archive of more than 100 war-dated letters and documents addressed to Metcalf from various fellow officers and soldiers; including first-hand accounts of the Battles of Fort Wagner and a compelling account of the charge of the colored 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Edwin Metcalf (1823-1894) was a Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhode Island state legislator when he resigned his seat to enlist in the army on August 27, 1861. He was commissioned as major of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, and immediately made a name for himself and his regiment when he led the first battalion in the battle of Secessionville. He was promoted to Colonel and transferred to command the new 11th Rhode Island Infantry with the Army of the Potomac in September 1862. Less than two months later, he was transferred back to the 3rd Rhode Island to help revitalize the regiment after yellow fever had ravaged the ranks. He commanded the regiment and served as Chief of Artillery until January 1864, when he returned to Providence on medical leave. He resigned due to illness on February 5, 1864.

    In a letter dated July 17, 1863, Metcalf is told of the taking of the south end of Morris Island, and moving guns to support the attack on Wagner. In part: "During the engagement with the enemy on the morning of the 10th Inst. Lt. Col Jackson(Acting Chief...) had command of all the batteries. Maj Bailey had command ... [writing too faint to be legible] line of entrenchments... The only casualties in this detch'mt were those whom you have seen... Shaw didn't shoot the gunner. I had the honor to be in the batteries during the hubbub. Didn't get hit, but expected every moment to swallow a 10 in. for tonic... When the 76th landed to storm the reb batteries, they staggered from the heavy fire poured upon them. Brayton could not depress his guns so as to protect them. He asked for engineers to go out and dig away the dirt, but they didn't go. Then B-ordered his men to tear away the gabions and facines and run the guns out on the embankment, which they did. From this position, he played devil with the rebs." Great content, three page letter. Heavy dampstaining and fading makes it difficult to read, including some loss of text; but majority of content is decipherable. Nevertheless, an important letter.

    An eight page letter from Captain Charles Ray Brayton of Battery "C" of the 3rd Rhode Island, dated July 19, 1863, provides a detailed account of the second Battle of Fort Wagner. Brayton's command was posted in the front line of artillery, only 1000 yards from the Rebel fortifications. In part: "Since writing you we have had another set to with Battery Wagner, with the same result as before. How mortifying to meet with such results when we have men enough to carry two such works. I had the right of the line, first line, 1000 yds from Wagner. On my left Hamilton's Battery - on their left two 30 pdr Parrots... such was the tremendous weight of metal and stupidity brought to bear upon Wagner from the land on Saturday. Five monitors and "Ironsides" pitched into the Battery from the sea. Admiral Dahlgren being on board the Montauk which wnet up nearest the Wagner. The mortars opened early on Saturday morning - the rifles being held in reserve until twelve o'clock when the Monitors, the Ironsides, and the rest of us went in generally. The land Batteries soon silenced those guns on Wagner..." The letter goes on to describe the charge of the 54th Massachusetts, the colored regiment made famous in the movie "Glory": "up they went to within 300 yards of Wagner when they received a shower of grape that staggered the 54th, who were in advance, some running, but the majority pressing on to the Battery, which they soon gained. Just as they mounted the emplacement, two brass pieces from the left with an enfilading fire swept them down like grass before a scythe." He goes on to tell of how Yankee infantry fled back toward the artillery: ... soon be overpowered we call out all our cannoneers and blockade the passage with drawn sabres and pistols cocked. The rout is stayed. Some few were shot and some more sabred down. they began to reform, got into line and did not move forward. Then I rolled one of my pieces out on the beach and loaded with a Blank cartridge and fired. away went the troops up to the Battery again. All this time the 7th NH were at the Battery and in the works fighting and holding every inch, but an order was given to retreat and all fell back, leaving Col Putnam with his few brave men to die fighting in their tracks, without ammunition and without support... scenes of our brave boys dead in their tracks..." Brayton then names the fallen officers, adding, "Col Shaw 54th Mass. Taken prisoner, wounded." The letter has dampstaining affecting lower half of all pages, and some loss of paper affecting the bottom 4 lines of text. The archive includes many letters from Brayton, all of which include a blend of both personal and military content.

    George O. Gorton, of the Rhode Island 3rd Heavy Artillery, also wrote to Metcalf regularly; his letters often included reports of the goings-on in his company. Writing from Hilton Head, S.C., on August 30, 1863, Gorton reports on the injuries and deaths of men in his Company: "... a piece of shell tearing his shoulder so that his arm was amputated and the shoulder blade removed. His left lung was also injured which was probably the immediate cause of his death... Sgt. Fish was also killed and died just as the boat touched the wharf at Beaufort. Private Eddy of the same Company had his head literally torn from his body. Company 'D' had several men wounded by one of those favorite guns. Parrotts 200 pounder bursting some three or four of them have bursted since you left..." Heavy dampstaining and paper loss affecting three lines of text along the bottom.

    Also included are two letters from General Alfred H. Terry; in one instance requesting "metallic coffins". Although the majority of the letters are war-dated, the group includes about a dozen post-war dated letters with content regarding military service. There are four images, including a carte-de-visite of Metcalf as a young man, and a cabinet card of Metcalf in his later years. There is a small tintype inscribed to Metcalf on the verso; and a cabinet card of an unidentified young man, possibly a relative. A large and rich archive. Additional images are available upon request.


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    We had a wonderful time in New York during the October 2013 Historical Manuscripts auction that featured my mother’s papers collected during her tenure as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s secretary. In fact, the entire experience from beginning to end has been a pleasure.
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