The History of the 3rd Wisconsin Veteran Volunteer Infantry

Charles S. Hamilton

charlessmithhamiltonColonel, 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Charles S. Hamilton was born in the town of Western, Oneida county, N.Y., November 16, 1822. His early youth was passed in Erie county, where he received the training that fitted him for the United States military academy at West Point, which he entered in 1839, with such classmates as Grant, Franklin, Reynolds, Peck, Quinby, Augur, Dent, Judah, Hardee, Potter, Steele, Clark and others, who, like himself, rose to distinction in the Mexican war, and afterwards on one side or the other in the great civil strife begun in 1861.

Graduating in 1843, he was assigned to duty as brevet second lieutenant in the Second infantry, in which he served in garrison at Buffalo barracks, from 1843 to 1845. In 1845 he was promoted to full lieutenancy, and in the fall of that year was serving at Copper Harbor on Lake Superior. In April, 1846, he received orders for Mexico, and arrived there in July, and shortly after was serving under Gen. Taylor, and engaged in the battle of Monterey, September 21 and 23, in McIntosh’s brigade and Worth’s division, in which he won commendations for gallant conduct.

With Worth’s division he was soon transferred to Gen. Scott’s army, organized to march upon the Mexican capital. He bore honorable part in the siege of Vera Cruz; and in the advance upon the City of Mexico he received promotion as first lieutenant, June 20, 1847. He fought in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, August 20, 1847; and on the 8th of September following, he took honorable and gallant part in storming of Molino del Rey and the Chapultepec; an assault in which American valor shone conspicuously. Grant was there using an old cart as a scaling ladder; there American blood flowed fast, and there young Hamilton received a wound in his shoulder, which laid him up in the hospital for several months. He was breveted captain for gallant and meritorious service at Contreras and Churubusco, the latter the bloodiest battle in the Valley of Mexico.

After the war he served as quartermaster of the Fifth infantry. In 1848 he was stationed at East Pascagoula, Miss. from 1848 to 1850, he was on recruiting service at Rochester, N.Y., and in 1849 he married Miss Sophia Shepard, of Canandaigua, N.Y., a lady whom the volunteers of the Third Wisconsin remember as one of America’s noble women, the faithful and devoted companion of his eventful life. In 1850 and 1851 he was on the frontier on duty at Fort Towson Indian Territory. Thence he was sent to Fort Belknap, Texas, where he remained till 1853, when wearied with the monotony of mere garrison duty, unsuited to his resolute and active spirit, he resigned from the army and soon after settled at Fond du Lac in Wisconsin, where he turned his energies to farming and manufacture. Naturally a leader of men, he soon became prominent in civil pursuits, was president of the county agricultural society, and was actively and prosperously engaged in business in 1861 when the country was stirred as never before by the advent of civil war.

hamilton_01Governor Randall, when confronted by the duty of organizing troops for active service, sorely felt the need of men of military experience. Happily some one called his attention to the record of Capt. Hamilton in the Mexican war. He at once sent for Hamilton, besought his assistance, and on the 11th of May, 1861, commissioned him as aide upon the governor’s staff to superintend the rendezvous, organization and fitting for the field of troops to be sent under the president’s call. When it was decided in the latter part of May to put the Third regiment of infantry into camp to be sent forward, Col. Hamilton was assigned to the command, as he desired active service; and his zeal, ability, excellent judgement and prompt decision of character had made a great impression upon the governor. He was commissioned colonel of the Third infantry, with rank from May 11th, and at once set about the duty of the rendezvous of his command at Fond du Lac.

There in the months of May and June he brought together, equipped and placed under instruction the Third Wisconsin. Colonel Hamilton, then in the best maturity of his powers, a model soldier in physique and bearing, soon impressed upon his officers and men the stamp of his own many personality. Strong and firm in discipline, without arrogance or harshness, he trained them in all that became the soldier. He, with the assistance of Lieut. Col. Ruger, gave them most thorough instruction. They soon learned that best lesson of the citizen soldier, that it is manliness and dignity to obey orders, and that the strength, coherence and power of an army is in its obedience.

Always master of his men, Col. Hamilton was the soul of courtesy to his subordinates, never familiar, but considerate, kind, absolutely just. Himself a man of high mettle, quick to resent an overbearing spirit or want of official courtesy in his superior or equal in rank, his intercourse with those under his command was that blending of courtesy, dignity and high-breeding that stamps upon manhood the true coinage of the “officer and gentleman.”
He led his regiment to the field, reporting at Harper’s Ferry in July, 1861. Promotion soon took him from the regiment of which he was proud, and which was proud of him. His commission as brigadier came in August, 1861; but before that he was assigned to a brigade in the troops under Gen. Banks.
On March 12th, 1861, he led the advance upon Winchester, in the valley of the Shenandoah, of which record is found in these pages. It soon became apparent that the valley was not likely to be the scene of the principal nor, indeed, of any very active operations. Gen. Hamilton, whose spirit was bold, aggressive — he was what Gen. Sherman called a combatant general — desired to serve in a field where collision with the enemy would be sought. He was assigned to a strong division in the Army of the Potomac, in the Third corps, commanded by Gen. Heintzleman.

On March 17th, 1861, his division, the first to start in the peninsular campaign, embarked at Alexandria and proceeded to Fortress Monroe. Arriving there on the 20th, he awaited orders and the coming of the rest of the army. On the 4th of April, with little over half of the army there, it was put in motion for Yorktown. Porter's division, then Hamilton's, moved as the right column over abominable roads and on the 5th were before Yorktown, confronting the old line of fortifications which Cornwallis, in 1781, had thrown up to withstand Washington, and which Magruder had enlarged and improved to resist McClellan. Here the cautious policy of McClellan spent a month in the arduous labor of a siege.

This war with the shovel and spade let to some criticism among officers like Hooker, Kearney, and others, who had fought in the faultlessly planned and resolutely executed campaign in Mexico; and Gen. Hamilton did not admire the manner in which men were worn out in the trenches in the summer heat of that climate. Before the siege was fairly begun, he had seen an opportunity to carry the enemy's position in his front, and his plan met the hearty approval of Hooker and other generals. Gen. Hamilton suggested it to McClellan and asked leave to make the assault. This request, it seems, gave McClellan offense, and on the 30th of April he relieved Hamilton of his command, giving it to Gen. Phil. Kearney. For this act President Lincoln wrote McClellan a letter of earnest remonstrance, reminding the commander that he, Lincoln, was constantly told that his (McClellan's) management and partiality were regarded as an effort to pamper a few pets in his army and degrade their supposed rivals. A few days later, May 21, 1862, President Lincoln sent a dispatch to McClellan that a large committee had called at the White House and presented a petition signed by twenty-three senators and eighty-four members of the house of representatives, asking Lincoln to restore Hamilton to his command. "I wish to do so," said Lincoln, "and yet I do not wish to be understood as rebuking you." McClellan gave no good reason for the removal of Hamilton, but protested against his restoration. The president yielded to his persistency; but the incident was one of many that gave Lincoln the painful impression that McClellan would do injustice to good and brave soldiers, through favoritism to intimate personal friends.

General Hamilton was then ordered to join Gen. Banks, and was on his way thither, when, at the request of Gen. Halleck, he was on May 20, 1862, ordered to report to Halleck in the west, then in command at Corinth. On the 18th of June following, Hamilton was assigned to duty under Gen. Rosecrans, who placed him in command of a division of troops and region of country to the south of Corinth, his command being known as the left wing of the army of the Mississippi, as it was then called. His career in the west was useful, honorable and brilliant, and gained him many encomiums from Grant and Rosecrans, under whom he served and with whom he zealously co-opertated. He at once entered into the most active service. Within a week after his assignment to command, we find him leading a column from Corinth southwestward across the Hatchie river, on a long march, in intolerable heat, to make a junction with Sherman and to attack the enemy supposed to be in force at Holly Springs. While this movement was on, Halleck received orders to send McClernand with all his division to Washington. This order, though soon suspended, "broke up" Halleck's campaign in the west, and Hamilton was recalled after his march of eighty or ninety miles had been made, and returned to near Rienzi, where he was ordered to go into camp.

The order of July 11, 1862, for Halleck to report to Washington, placed Grant in command. But the stripping of his command of several divisions to strengthen Buel, threw Grant on the defensive on a long weak line; and Gen. Hamilton on the front of a large portion of it, was required to be constantly on the alert.

Early in September, 1862, Price had passed to the eastward of Hamilton's line, seized Iuka, where he intended to make junction with Van Dorn and press northward. Grant had information of this movement and ordered Rosecrans to move on Iuka from the southwest, while Ord was to approach from the west and north and capture Price and his command. One of Rosecrans' columns, led by Hamilton, moved on to Jacinto road, another farther eastward was to cut off an avenue of retreat. It seems that the deep forests and bad roads prevented junction on time and Ord did not hear the cannon which were to signal him to attack. Hamilton, pushing on with the energy which he could so well inspire, came near Iuka, and while his division, threading along a single narrow way through woods, where deployment or other mode of advance were impossible, with infantry, cavalry and artillery in a long extended column, his advance came suddenly upon a strong force of the enemy.

To move forward and deploy his leading regiments, seize a hill near by and begin the battle, hurrying up the troops as fast as possible, was the quick judgement of this able general. Seven of his regiments were soon in position, and fought with desperation, repulsing assault after assault of the enemy. Hamilton held his ground with the tenacity that wins victory against odds. After a march of nineteen miles this hard-fought battle was fought and won; and the next day, without stopping for rations, his column chased the flying enemy fifteen miles.

hamilton_02Rosecrans well said in his report, "Among the officers of the command who deserve special mention, are (first) Brig.-Gen. Hamilton, commanding the Third division, who took the advance and held the front in battle," and in his congratulatory address, "To the brave and gallant Hamilton, who formed and maintained his division under the galling fire from the rebel front, having his horse shot under him in the action, * * the commanding general tenders individually his heartfelt thanks and congratulations." And Gen. Grant in his terse style writes, "It was a part of Gen. Hamilton's command that did the fighting directed entirely by that cool and deserving officer. I commend him to the President for acknowledgement of his services."

Two weeks later Gen. Hamilton was hastily called with his division to Corinth to resist the threatened attack of Van Dorn, a fiery Mississippian, who wished to drive the invaders from his own state. General Hamilton's division, "the staunch fighters" as Rosecrans used to call it, was assigned to the right as the post of honor. When the fierce assaults of he massed enemy crushed the center of our line and hurled it back into the city, and the day seemed lost, the division of Hamilton closed in, swinging around by a left half-wheel and was intrepidly advanced. Raking the head of the advancing columns with grape and canister until he saw it waver, Hamilton, whose quickness to perceive and seize a favorable opportunity in battle, was the superb quality of a general — the lack of which in some of our generals, cost us the fruits of many a blood-fought victory — pushed his men forward, striking the enemy in the flanks, turned their victorious advance into an ignominious fight.

Rosecrans tells how, "When Price's left bore down on our center in gallant style, their force was so overpowering that our wearied and jaded troops yielded and fell back. * * * Riddled and scattered, the ragged head of Price's storming column advanced." Among other movements and timely relief to the center by one of Hamilton's brigades, Rosecrans says: "Hamilton having played upon the rebels in the open field, effectually swept by his batteries, advanced on them and they fled." Van Dorn's victory, which he had at the moment when success seemed assured, telegraphed to Richmond, was soon turned into a disorderly rout, almost pitiful to witness. The Confederate side of the story is well told by the acting inspector general of Maury's division in a private letter to Beauregard. Speaking of Van Dorn's assault, he says: "We advanced and entered Corinth. * * But we had scarcely got in when we were met and overwhelmed by the enemy's massive reserves. Our lines melted under their fire like snow in thaw." Again he says: "The enemy's force I do not know. When we got into Corinth he swallowed seven brigades of as good fighting men as I ever saw in about twenty minutes." He reports the losses in Maury's division alone at 2,578, in killed, wounded and missing, out of less than 3,900 taken into action, and closed his doleful letter with these words: "God bless you, my dear general, and send us better days."

On the 25th of October, 1862, Grant was placed in command of the Department of the Tennessee. On the 16th, a reorganization took place; Gen. Hamilton was assigned to the district of Corinth, and took command of all the forces theretofore commanded by Gen. Rosecrans.

For gallantry in the several engagements at Iuka and Corinth, Gen. Grant tells us in his Memoirs, that on the 26th of October he recommended Gen. Hamilton and, at the same time, Gen. McPherson for promotion as majors general. About this time Grant had been reinforced and was allowed to assume the offensive. He commenced his campaign against Vicksburg. With a moving force of about 30,000 he started south. Grant advanced southward, Gen. W. T. Sherman commanded the right wing of his army, Gen. Hamilton the center and McPherson commanded the left. So Gen. Grant reports in his Memoirs, but his field orders of November 27, 1862, give McPherson the center and Hamilton the left wing. The advance was made in parallel columns. General Hamilton's frequent reports and voluminous correspondence with Grant at this time show how fully he appreciated the duty of keeping headquarters advised of his movements, and all appearances on his front. He was a vigilant, active commander, in whom Grant had full confidence.

On the 10th of January, 1863, Gen. Hamilton was assigned to the command of the Sixteenth army corps, temporarily; and on the 15th following, he was assigned to the districts of Columbus, Jackson, Corinth, and Memphis; a command which involved much administrative skill and judgement.

He remained in such command for a month or more, when Maj.-Gen. Hurlbut, whose confirmation made him two days Hamilton's senior, became entitled to the command. The annals of the rebellion show that while Gen. Hamilton served faithfully under this officer, giving most valuable suggestions, he did not receive a corresponding fairness of treatment. On February 17th, 1863, Gen. Hamilton was assigned to the command of the Districts of Corinth and Jackson. Here he planned expeditions, and with ceaseless activity kept informed of all the movements far and near, and gave much valuable information of the movements of the enemy.

But in the reorganization of that department, undesired by Gen. Grant, some elements were introduced for political reasons that rendered it impossible, as it seems, to do full justice to Gen. Hamilton. His deserts, his able services, his splendid successes in field fight and in military administration of large and scattered commands, all claimed a recognition that was denied; and he felt keenly the action at Washington which reduced his usefulness while increasing his rank as the reward of gallant service. He cared little for his recent promotion, as compared with opportunities for usefulness united to his powers and his experience. These denied him, he resigned the service, much to the regret of his friends. President Lincoln requested him to withdraw his resignation, which would never have been accepted had the president been first consulted. But he declined to withdraw it. No gift of prophecy was needed to see that he would soon have risen by other achievements to still higher prominence in the service which he adorned by talents of high order, and aggressive courage blended with clear judgement, full control of faculties in the hour of conflict, the foresight, caution and thoroughness of preparation of the true commander, and, withal, a power to inspire the confidence of his men in him, and in themselves.

General Hamilton enjoyed in high degree the respect and esteem of the people of Wisconsin. For nine years he was on the Board of Regents of the University, and for most of that time the president of the body, and one of the broad-minded men who foresaw the possibilities of and would upbuild that institution.

He especially enjoyed the confidence and esteem of Gen. Grant. In less than a month after the latter had entered upon his duties as President, he appointed Gen. Hamilton as marshal of the District of Wisconsin, in disregard of political pressure in other directions. In this important position the general served for eight years to the general satisfaction of bench, bar and people.

He was elected Companion of the Order of the Loyal Legion in 1874, by the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts. In the following May he was one of the charter members of the Commandery of Wisconsin. In 1881 and 1882, he was its commander, and always one of the most zealous and beloved companions. He died at Milwaukee, where he had for many years resided after the war, on the 17th day of April, 1891, after a brief illness. His funeral, on the 20th, was attended by many of the ex-officers and soldiers of the late war. Among the pall-bearers were: Lieut. David Clark, Company E.; Carl Rollhagen, Company A.; and William H. Burns, Company A., of the Third regiment, all of whom he led to the field in July, 1861. By us, who knew him, and by those who come after us in perpetuation of this association, and by a grateful people whom he served with conspicuous valor and a high degree of military talent, his memory will ever be cherished, and his name held in honor.