26 May 2010

Topics in Research-The Veteran Who Never Served

Richard Rowe May's Civil War Pension file tells the story of his fight with the government to prove his Civil War service, retain his pension and save his status as Commander of San Jose's G. A. R. Post. The problem? Despite Richard's protestations to the contrary, the War Department insisted his service consisted of only one day. An examination of pension files, contemporary newspapers and reference books helps piece together the story of Richard Rowe and Illinois' "Old" 56th Infantry-- the Mechanic Fusileers.

The Rise and Fall of 56th IL Infantry
Raised by Colonel James W. Wilson, the "regiment of Illinois Fusileers" was accepted by the War Department on 25 July 18611.  The men were recruited primarily from Illinois and the Great Lake states, and by late September were in the Chicago area where they began work on the construction of Camp Douglas. The camp, seen left in an 1862 Harper's Magazine illustration, was originally a training arena for Union troops, but by the end of the war was a notorious prison for captured Confederates. Construction went well and fast, and hopes were high for the specialized regiment.

In January of 1862, however, it came to light that Col. Wilson had used the suggestion of elite treatment and the lure of extra pay to swell the regiment. The authority for the regiment as filed at camp, however, provided that the troops be mustered in as a standard Illinois infantry volunteers--not elite or specialized in nature--and at normal pay2. Once the men found out that Wilson had lied, and the promises of extra bounty and specialized work were not to materialize, dissension broke out in the ranks, and a great deal of agitation began:
[T]he members of the 56th Illinois Infantry (Mechanic Fusileers) were enlisted upon fraudulent promises that they would receive more than the usual compensation and were to perform only a special kind of service, as skilled laborers, mechanics, carpenters, etc., and ... the members of the organization, upon learning of the deception and fraud practiced in their enlistment, became dissatisfied and refused to be mustered in. Upon the consideration of all the facts in the case ... the companies of the regiment were mustered in and mustered out of service as infantry on various dates between January 28 and February 5, 1862.3
The contracted power struggle between the Army and the Fusileers regiment--including court martials for some members of the regiment who had attempted to escape from camp--resulted in the Army mustering the regiment out of service across the span of a week or so (most on the same day), and discharging the men (honorably), "rather than trust its members with loaded weapons"4. The Chicago Tribune reported on 06 February 1862:
Yesterday morning, a battalion of the late organization, known as the Mechanic Fusileers, under command of Major Wood, made their appearance in town with drum and fife, the regimental colors, and halted in front of a lager beer saloon on Randolph street. Having refreshed themselves, they formed in line, and escorted the late Col. Wilson to their late quarters at Camp Douglas, where they went through the show of reorganizing--having been mustered out of service, and were honorably discharged.5
The suggestion that the regiment was somewhat irreverent was in tune with the coverage the men had received from local press in the prior weeks. Contrary to the press' views, and the stance of the War Department, the men of the regiment felt that they had been wronged--first by the deceit of Wilson, then by the actions of the War Department--and insisted that they were only out to procure what they had been promised for the work that had been done6. Indeed the press itself, at least initially, seemed prone to praise the regiment for the matter of its makeup and the strength of its work. In a review of the regiments at Camp Douglas in a 16 November 1861 article, The Chicago Tribune noted the presence of the Mechanic Fusiliers:
The Mechanic Fusiliers, Col. Wilson commanding, number 653 men. They commenced organizing Sept. 1st and went into camp at Wright's Grove. Their title explains their peculiar duties. The regiment is composed of mechanics, engineers, and artizans of all kinds, and will form one of the  most efficient in the service. Their utility may be inferred from the fact that the fine barracks at Camp Douglas are attributable to their excellent and rapid handiwork [emphasis added].7
The praise was a far cry from the charge leveled by the Department of the Interior in 1907 (via the press), as it was seeking to explain the withdrawal of pensions from previously paid "veterans", accusing the regiment of "never having left their camp of rendezvous and never having performed any actual service in the Civil War, but, on the contrary, having refused to be mustered in as soldiers.8

"No Pension for Shirkers"
Which begs the ultimate question: did the Mechanic Fusileers actually serve in the Civil War?  Richard Rowe, who was 19 at the time of his enlistment, surely felt he had served, in due faith, the regiment in which he had enlisted.  His pension file shows that he began receiving a pension as early as 1892, and had received an increase as late as 1901. He had been granted a pension under the Disability Pension Act of 1890, which represented a major expansion of the Civil War pension program; from the end of the war, pensions had only been available to those who had been permanently injured in the course of their service. The 1890 Act  changed all that by granting pensionable status to veterans who had served at least 90 days and could claim any disability--whether incurred in the line of service or not--as long as it was not the result of "vicious habits"9. In February of 1907, another pension act was passed, this time granting pensions based on the age of the veteran and the length of his time of service (i.e., the longer the service time, and older the veteran, the higher the pension payments)--without the necessity of proving disability at all.

It was after the passage of this latter act, on 22 May 1907, that Richard May (along with many others) was notified that he was being dropped from the pension rolls. To Richard's horror, the government was not recognizing his service. In reply to the pension cessation letter he wrote: 
You base your rejection of my claim on the ground, that my service as Mechanic Fusileer was not authorized by the Government as Military service, and consequently did not render the Government Ninety days service, we were properly enlisted and the Government so decided when they paid our transportation to camp gave us our uniforms, furnished our rations, assigned us our duties as guards guarding the camp, and if one failed to perform the duties assigned he was punished the same as other soldiers, Our Colonel was deposed for drunkinness (sic), and if my memory serves me right Major Arthur of the 112 regiment, of Illinois Inft was sent to take command and so served until we were discharged. Why? was he assigned to our command and we not in the service? I performed my part of the contract to the letter.10
Richard's frustration is tangible, and it is evident that he felt that he had performed the duties requested of him, in the manner and disciplined way of a solider. The fact that he had not seen any action in battle was not an issue in terms of pension, as decisions had been rendered that those who served even in supportive capacities, and had not seen battle, were eligible indeed for pensions. J. L. Davenport, a former Commissioner of Pensions wrote to Richard in 1913,
Members of other Organizations were dropped at the same time [as you] under the same decision of the Asst Secretary of the Interior[.] Among those dropped were the California Mountaineers and Organizations that performed service West of the Mississippi. Having never served at the seat of active hostilities. [sic] When I became Commissioner was [sic] successful in getting the decision barring the Western troops removed on the ground that they were enrolled for the War of the Rebellion but held for service on the Plains thereby relieving Regulars for service at the front.12
In 1917 Richard filed another affidavit seeking to have his pension reinstated. He continued his claim that he not only served a function as a soldier of the Federal forces, but became ill from that service as well:
The plea of the Department that we were not in service is wrong. We were properly enlisted, I on October 18, 1861, and thereafter helped to build the barrack at Camp Douglas, Chicago, did guard duty, drilled and were under orders of the Commandant of the camp, and acted my part faithfully. Our sewer pits were behind the barracks and the drinking water was taken from wells which were only holes in the ground near the sewer pits. This caused me to have fever and running sores and I was confined in the hospital at Chicago Illinois when we were discharged Feb. 1, 1862. 11
Thus while the government and the records of the War Department recognized that Richard May had enlisted 18 October 1861 and was discharged 01 February 1862, they still failed to accord his time served as technical service during the War. The issue even reverberated in his service to the G. A.R. at his local San Jose post, No. 7 Sheridan Dix, having been charged in 1908 by members of the post that his military service not being recognized, he was not eligible to serve in the organization13. While his pension was never reinstated, Richard may have felt some justice served when his status as a veteran and eligible G. A. R. member was confirmed by a unanimous vote at the 1910 National G. A. R. encampment in Atlantic City14.

Richard continued to appeal the decision to drop his pension--and continued to receive rejections--through 1917, when correspondence ceases.


1. See "Copy of the history of the Mechanic Fusileers Illinois Regiment", Pension File of Richard R. May, Soldier's Certificate 731508, Private, Co F., 56th Ills Vol Inft, Can No. 15320. The "history" includes typewritten copies of various War Department communications, along with a third-party commentary as to their relevance to Richard Rowe's service claim. It is unclear who the author of the third-party commentary is. The item cited is a copy of an order from the Secretary of War to Colonel James W. Wilson, which begins "Sir: The regiment of Illinois Fusileers you offer is accepted providing you have it ready for marching orders in twenty days."

2. The Chicago Tribune, "The Trouble in Col. Wilson's Mechanic Fusileer Regiment", 18 December 1861, page 4.

3. Letter from Adjutant General Ainsworth to Richard R. May, San Jose California, dated 12 June 1907, from the Civil War Pension file of Richard R. May. The letter goes on to state that although it appears May was enrolled in October 1861 and mustered out on 01 February 1862, there was nothing to show that he had ever been "armed or equipped, or... performed any military service whatever." Therefore, under the law passed February 1907, he was to be dropped from the pension rolls.

4. See Karamanski, TJ. Rally Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War; Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Page 84.

5. The Chicago Tribune, "The Last of the Mechanic Fusileers", 06 February 1862, page 4.

6. Ibid. The article includes a letter to the Chicago Tribune from the Fusileers.

7. The Chicago Tribune, "The State Camp of Instruction", 16 November 1861, page 4.

8. St. Albans Daily Messenger, "A Pension Explanation", 15 June 1907.

9. "The Dependent Pension Act" was passed 27 June 1890. For information, see History of Military Pension in the United States, at Google Books. For a fascinating and detailed account of Civil War pension history and process, see the Civil War Pension Law Working Paper by Claudia Linares, available in PDF form here.

10. Letter from Richard R. May to Commissioner of Pensions, dated 10 April 1908, Richard R. May Civil War Pension File. See note 1 for information.

11. General Affidavit, Richard R. May, dated 08 October 1917, Richard R. May Civil War Pension File. See note 1 for information.

12. Letter from J. L. Davenport to Richard R. May, dated 13 August 1913, Richard R. May Civil War Pension File. See note 1 for information.

13. San Jose Mercury News, "Commander May to be Re-Instated", 03 November 1909.

14. San Jose Mercury News, "Richard R. May Vindicated", 25 September 1910.


Deborah said...

Jennifer thank you for your blog about the 56th Ill. Mech. Fusileers. I have been attempting to find out about their history and hit so many dead ends. An ancestor of mine may have been part of the Regiment, in Co. E under Capt. Brooks. This was very helpful, and I will attempt to access the sources that you referenced.

Jennifer said...

Deborah- I also have some letters transcribed on my Rainy Day Research site (here) which were used as evidence in Richard May's pension file. They illuminate the matter a bit more.

Let me know if I can be of help.

Kathy Reed said...

My gg-grandfather, Britton Wainright, apparently was part of this unit. I would love to share this blog post on either/or my ancestry page or my blog page. Could I use it with permission giving you credit? This is a great post.

Kathy Reed