Hearts still touched with fire

Stories of men who served in a Mass. regiment much-bloodied during the Civil War still resonate with relatives, 150 years later

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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Until he was in his 20s, Alex Chaulk never thought much about his great-great-grandfather. When he began to delve into family history, though, he started to appreciate the service and sacrifice of Nantucket-born Brevet Major General George Nelson Macy, who distinguished himself in many of the war’s major battles, from the early Union disaster at Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg and beyond.

“He went through some of the worst battles of the war,’’ said Chaulk, 42, an engineer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. “He lost a hand at Gettysburg and was crushed under his horse in the Wilderness campaign.’’

Tuesday will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which began April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery fired on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Some descendants of those who fought in the war have family stories of their exploits, either handed down through the generations or stumbled upon through an interest in genealogy. Others know little or nothing.

This is their year to learn more. Hundreds of events across the country will mark the beginning of the war and continue for days or months. In Charleston, a somber sunrise concert will begin at 4:30 a.m. to mark the time when Confederate artillery opened fire. In Washington, D.C., the African American Civil War Museum will host readings of the words of leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Closer to home, the Boston Public Library is scheduling eight months of Civil War programming, which starts next month.

Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the subject of the 1989 film “Glory’’ — may be the most celebrated unit in the state, but another regiment fought with great distinction throughout the war. The 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, with which Macy served, became known as the Harvard Regiment for the number of Harvard graduates in its officer corps, including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice.

Before that, though, it had acquired another sobriquet: “The Bloody Twentieth.’’ It earned the name. The 20th Massachusetts ranked fifth in combat deaths among all Union regiments. It began the war in 1861 with 800 men. When it mustered out in 1865, there were fewer than 400. A mere 44 original members remained.

“We remember the Civil War for the suffering that goes on in it,’’ said Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society. “ ‘How many people did they lose?’ was a measure of it.’’

While largely unknown to the general public, the 20th Massachusetts has long been recognized by Civil War historians. The unit fought in almost every major battle against Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The 20th Massachusetts was also in the furious fight at The Angle at Gettysburg, a spot in the Union lines where some Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s Charge briefly breached.

Chaulk’s growing interest in General Macy, in turn, triggered earlier memories about him he had forgotten about. He had, after all, been face to face with part of the man’s legacy for years without giving it much thought.

“I grew up looking at his memorabilia on my grandmother’s wall in Newton,’’ said Chaulk, who grew up in Wellesley. “His commissioning papers to brevet brigadier and then brevet major general, signed by Lincoln, were there, along with his battle and dress swords. He had inscribed on his dress sword every battle he fought in. My uncle has them now.’’

For all Macy endured during the war, his death was ironic.

“After the war, he carried a derringer in his pocket,’’ Chaulk said. “He had health-related issues from the war, and he stumbled on some steps and shot himself through the stomach and died.’’

‘In safe keeping’ Since he was a child, Morris Longstreth Hallowell IV, a vintage gun dealer in Livingston, Mont., had heard family stories about his great-great-grandfather, William Penrose Hallowell, and two brothers — all officers who served in the Civil War. As an adult, he became interested in genealogy and plunged deeper into his research on his ancestors.

“I’m interested in history in general, so I consider it only natural to be curious about one’s own family,’’ he said. “My living forbears have always been proud to related tales of their own. “I’ve done genealogical charts on both sides of my mother’s and father’s families comprising over 1,600 names. I find it more interesting than crossword puzzles.’’ He has detailed records of family relationships and war service.

Edward Hallowell fought in the 20th Massachusetts before moving to the 54th, one of the first black regiments in the Union army, under Shaw. After Shaw’s death, Hallowell took command. Norwood Penrose Hallowell was a close friend of Holmes at Harvard. Both were badly wounded at Antietam with the 20th.

Hallowell then served in the 54th and later created and led the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the second black regiment raised in the state after the 54th. William Penrose Hallowell, who was not in the 20th, was adjutant in the 55th.

After the war, the regimental flag of the 55th Massachusetts stayed in family hands.

“My grandfather had the regimental flag,’’ said Hallowell, 62. “It was the only one not at the State House. He was asked by the governor at the time if he would bring the flag to the State House so that it join the others, and my grandfather said OK, providing no press would be there when he handed it over. There were masses of reporters when he showed up, and he said, ‘Sorry’ and left,’’ angry that the governor had not kept his word.

Where is the flag now?

“It’s in safe keeping,’’ Hallowell averred.

Becoming a citizen John DiSanto, 50, first learned as a child from his grandfather about his great-great-grandfather, Henry Wittekindt, who fled his native Germany to escape Prussian rule and enlisted in the 20th Massachusetts when he got to Boston in 1861.

“We always talked about him in our family since I can remember,’’ said DiSanto, a musician who lives in South Easton. “My grandfather would tell me stories about the battles he was in. My mother’s cousin did a lot of research. There was a big plaque on a wall of my grandfather’s house listing all the battles Henry Wittekindt fought in.’’

In his late 20s, DiSanto became a full-blown Civil War buff and has read voluminously about it ever since. He remained transfixed by his forbear and has twice read “Harvard’s Civil War: The History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’’ to learn of his great-great-grandfather’s war record.

“He couldn’t speak a word of English when he arrived,’’ DiSanto said.

Wittekindt, who fought in one of the two German companies in the 20th, had a personal reason for enlisting: He wanted to put himself on a fast track for US citizenship. He earned it the hard way.

“Wittekindt was wounded in the third day of Gettysburg,’’ DiSanto said. “The cannonade left him quite deaf, and he was mustered out two months later.’’

After the war, he settled in Mattapan, where he built his own house and worked as a cabinet maker and carpenter. He married and had two daughters. He died in 1899 when he was hit by a trolley.

“Five major engagements,’’ DiSanto said. “He was wounded three times, and he was killed by a street car.’’

A matter of necessity Jerry Darrell, 69, learned almost all of what he knows about his great-grandfather Josiah Morse Darrell from historical records.

“We had nothing on him — no pictures, no letters. We only knew he fought in the Civil War and was wounded,’’ said Darrell, who was born in Weymouth and recently retired as head of dining services for Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. “My dad knew nothing at all about his grandfather, so I did all the research.

“I got interested in him after reading Alex Haley’s ‘Roots,’ ’’ Darrell continued. His father had a cousin, a lawyers in Boston, who would write to him with stories about Josiah in the war. “But I struck it rich at the National Archives in D.C.’’ he adds. “The best records are for people who were captured or wounded or hospitalized.’’

Darrell learned that Josiah fought in most of the big battles until 1864, when he was shot in the head during the Battle of the Wilderness. “By God,’’ said Darrell, “after three months in the hospital he came back to the regiment with a metal plate in his head. He reenlisted after his first three-year enlistment ended. He didn’t do that for patriotism. He was uneducated and needed a job.’’

After the war, Josiah worked as a watchman on the Boston docks, and did so for the rest of his life. But he was never the same after the wound. He suffered horribly from it. According to one doctor’s report about one incident, “He was walking in the street with his wife, who suddenly observed water pouring from both sides of his mouth like a baby’s. He fell several times and had no use of his right arm.’’ He died in 1883 at 47.

An unexpected connection Carol Swaine-Kuzel’s odyssey to learn about her great-great-uncle Oliver Stanton Bates has been an exercise in passion and perseverance that continues today.

No one in her family knew anything about Bates in the Civil War. “I didn’t know about him, but TNT used to run ‘Gettysburg’ on Super Bowl Sundays before the games, and I got caught up in the history,’’ said Swaine-Kuzel, a computer programmer from Beverly. In 2002 she went to Gettysburg, still unaware of Bates and his connection to her. “Something called me there,’’ she said.

Several months later, she learned from a cousin the names of her great-great grandparents, and this led to her discovery of Bates, a farmer from Pittsfield. The next year, she joined the New England Historic and Genealogical Society to further her research. She learned still more from the National Archives and obtained a copy of the 20th Massachusetts regimental history. By then, she knew all about the unit’s critical role in the hand-to-hand combat at The Angle at Gettysburg.

“Since learning of Oliver,’’ she said, “I have followed in his footsteps, visiting Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, as well as Gettysburg.’’ Still on her list is Petersburg, Va., where Bates was fatally wounded in 1864.

All told, she has been to Gettysburg eight times.

“There was a reason for me to go to Gettysburg,’’ she said. “It was a place I needed to go.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at