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Mass. general’s greatest hours captured in book

May 9, 2014

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (AP) — An old soldier to the bone, Frederic A. Wallace could not leave his last mission unfinished.

In 2011, the Framingham town historian and former U.S. Army intelligence officer published the first biography of native son George H. Gordon, who rose from humble origins to serve with distinction as a general in the Union army during the Civil War.

After writing “Framingham’s Own Civil War Hero: The Life of Major General George H. Gordon,” Wallace remained troubled by what seemed an unanswered question.

“Gordon wrote three books about his Civil War service that dealt extensively with his military career but never wrote about the battle of Antietam,” he recalled. “When asked about that, Gordon said, in effect, ‘I’ll leave that to the historians.’”

Wallace accepted the challenge.

“I wondered if there was some secret too horrific for Gordon to relive on paper,” he said.

A 20-year volunteer at the Framingham History Center and chairman of the town’s Historical Commission, he just published “A Most Rash but Magnificent Charge: The Story of General George H. Gordon and his Brigade at the Battle of Antietam.”

It was published by Damianos Publishing, established by award-winning photographer Lynne Damianos, a longtime member of the Fountain Street artists community.

Originally planning a lecture, Wallace began re-digging into Wallace’s military career in 2012 at the approach of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam — known in the South as the battle of Sharpsburg — the first major Civil War battle on Union soil.

Digging ever deeper into his subject’s service, Wallace extended his research from Gordon’s personal papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and into a voluminous archive of more than 60 volumes of “after action reports” written by Union and Confederate officers. Formally titled “The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” it is known to historians as OR, the official records.

Though less known than the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, remains the single bloodiest day in American history with 22,717 dead, wounded and missing.

Writing in a straightforward style, Wallace begins by reminding readers, “The Lincoln administration was in trouble” in September 1862.

After several disastrous defeats, hopes for a quick Union victory were gone and political divisions were sapping the North’s sense of unified purpose. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was 20 miles from Washington, D.C.

Wallace introduces readers into those crucial times through a letter by Framingham resident Charles R. Train, who was serving in Congress when he met Gordon in the capital in September 1862. Train was so moved by his former friend’s need for staff officers he got President Abraham Lincoln to commission him as an officer and joined him.

Wallace wrote: Train “could not have possibly anticipated the horrific scenes that awaited him.”

He chronicles the 15-day “Maryland Campaign of 1862” that culminated at Antietam with an accessible mix of historical precision and personal drama.

Wallace details the ebb and flow of battle with enough detail to satisfy history buffs but not overwhelm average readers. He provides clear diagrams and maps that convey Union and Confederate movements and his own color photos will make readers wonder how such lovely green fields could have been the theatre for such carnage.

Amid the bloody flux of battle, at 8 a.m. on April 17, 1862, Gordon ordered his troops of the 12th Army Corps to “fix bayonets” and charge into the then flattened cornfield to engage in furious, often hand-to-hand combat that forced a Rebel retreat.

His new adjutant, Captain Train wrote: “Oh God, oh God, such sights and sounds. . Gordon making a most rash and magnificent charge.”

Wallace has included archival photos showing fields strewn with Confederate corpses at a time Northern photographers rarely recorded Union dead.

The observant Train wrote: “Rode over into (Confederate) lines. The stink was awful. . They have not buried their dead. I vomited an hour and thought I should die.”

The Union claimed a victory, though Lee was able to withdraw his army to safety. Yet Lincoln felt confident enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, which discouraged England and France from officially recognizing the Confederacy and sending it arms.

Two years later, Gordon wrote in “A Diary of Events in the War of the Great Rebellion,” ″What a field of carnage lay about us. Neither time nor change can dim the remembrance of those fields, peopled with corpses; can shut out the sight too horrible to be real, yet too real to forget.”

After the war, Gordon returned to Framingham, practiced law, founded the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, wrote four books and died at 63, which Wallace attributes to diseases and wounds incurred while serving in the Mexican War and Civil War.

At his death, an organization of Union officers offered a tribute to Gordon that said despite a “cold and stern” appearance, “He was infinitely just in his relation to all of his subordinates of every rank, and those who even in the field had some degree of personal intimacy with him, knew and recognized one of the kindest and most generous natures.”

Never one to rest, Wallace has already begun work on a history of Cushing Hospital.

In a coda to his fine biography, Wallace has rescued for posterity a son of Framingham, George H. Gordon, the man and the soldier whose leadership contributed to a critical turning in U.S. history.

Mission accomplished.

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