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A historian is a man who watches the battle from the safety of the hills and then comes down to bayonet the wounded. Charles Lyell, 1797 – 1875

Very few ancient wars occurred without at least one siege. Very few sieges occurred without the captured town being put to the sword. The tradition of “bayoneting the wounded” has been around as long as there has been warfare. It was even practiced by those yankee patriots who sought independence from the British crown as shown in the following description:

It was a momentary, thoughtless, atrocious act committed by a young man in the aftermath of the North Bridge fight. But both the incident and its perpetrator, long shrouded in silence, would profoundly impact remaining events on 19 April 1775.

As the British Regulars fled the bridge, Col. Barrett’s men pursued a short distance. According to Rev. Emerson’s account, a wounded British soldier, left behind, attempted to rise and was assaulted by a young fellow going to join his American countrymen. The culprit “not under the feelings of humanity, barbarously broke his (soldier’s) skull” with a small hatchet. Acton’s Thomas Thorp would note that he was horrified by the sight.

Ens. Jeremy Lister, among the British troops returning from Barrett’s farm, came upon his comrade and later wrote, “4 men…killd who afterwards scalp’d their eyes goug’d their noses and ears cut of, such barbarity execut’d upon the Corps could scarcely be paralelled by the most uncivilised savages”. Five other soldiers would declare seeing the wounded man with the skin over his eyes cut and also the top part of his ears cut off. As word spread among the British troops in Concord that Americans were scalping and mauling the dead and wounded, attitudes turned from contempt to fear and hate.

LTC Smith, commanding the Concord expedition, reported to Lord Percy and General Gage that “after the bridge was quitted, they scalped and otherwise ill-treated one or two of the men who were either killed or severely wounded”. Gage would write in his summaries, “… one scalped, his head much mangled and his ears cut off, though not quite dead…a sight which struck the soldiers with horror”. Rumors even circulated that eyes had been forced from the dying soldier’s sockets. What actually occurred may only be known to the victim, the young culprit and possibly Rev. Emerson, who witnessed the event from beside his home, the Old Manse. The minister acknowledged a fateful ax blow but insisted that the soldier was neither scalped nor his ears cut off but that he did languish for hours before expiring.

Various explanations for the cause of this deed were advanced. The culprit was “half-witted”; excused only by excitement and inexperience; startled by the soldier and acted out of fear; acting to end the soldier’s suffering. Extreme claims noted that the victim was trying to drown himself in a water puddle and begged someone to kill him; had thrust at the American with his bayonet; or was an escaping prisoner. None of these theories have a basis in fact and had such mitigating circumstances existed, would certainly have been mentioned by the witness Rev. Emerson.

While the British publicized the incident, Americans chose to ignore it possibly due to embarrassment, fear of reprisals, failure to appreciate its importance or a notion that it would blot a historic cause. Provincial authorities hesitated to confirm that the act had occurred but in response to a Boston story insured that the burial detail testified that “neither of those persons (2 dead soldiers buried at the bridge) were scalped nor their ears cut off”. Concord historians Ripley and Shattuck ignored the incident completely while well into the 19th Century, British historians continued to write of the scalping and ear cutting episode.

A long guarded secret was the name of the young culprit who tradition acknowledges as Ammi White. Emerson knew it and might have told Rev. William Gordon during interviews the latter conducted a few days after the battle. Yet as late as 1932, Allen French interviewed an elderly women who was reluctant to mention the ax wielder’s name. Stories abounded that the person was a wood-chopping chore boy of the Emerson’s or their African servant, Frank. The former did not exist and the latter was accounted for by the family members.

Most probably Ammi White was the young man. Born around 1754, he was a young private in Capt. Brown’s company. Though troubled and haunted throughout his life by the incident, in 1807 he confided to Charles Handley that at the time he thought he was doing right. White survived the war, married Mary Minot in 1788 and lived in one end of her family’s Concord home (Colonial Inn). He eventually moved to Westmoreland, NH where he died in 1820 at age 66. Nathaniel Hawthorne, having heard the ax story from James Russell Lowell, wrote of it in “Mosses from an Old Manse“, brooding over White’s life and how his soul was tortured by the blood stain.

The British troops returning to Boston would remember the “scalping” with fear, anger and a sense of revenge. This coupled with civilian hostility in Boston and cowardly tactics of the colonials along the retreat route would lead to bloody reprisals and British atrocities (house burnings, killing of unarmed men, bayoneting of wounded and dead colonials, etc.) especially in the village of Menotomy. Lord Percy’s relief column had been informed of the “scalping” and Gen. Gage would later use it to off-set atrocity charges against his troops.

Thus did an inauspicious incident, on 19 April 1775 near North Bridge by a little known private have a major impact on the culprit’s life, later military actions and propaganda efforts by the British.

The practice was nor unknown – by either side – throughout the American civil war and continues across the world until this day in the less civilized countries. In the more civilized countries it has been transformed from the physical act of desecration to the writing of books like the following.

Civil War generals in defeat    Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, c 1999   edited by Steven E. Woodworth Military art and science United States History 19th century Case studies Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. viii, 240 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

Commanders who serve on the losing side of a battle, campaign, or war are often harshly viewed by posterity. Labeled as mere “losers,” they go unrecognized for their very real abilities and achievements in other engagements. The writers in this volume challenge such simplistic notions.

By looking more closely at Civil War generals who have borne the stigma of failure, these authors reject the reductionist view that significant defeats were due simply to poor generalship. Analyzing men who might be considered “capable failures” – officers of high prewar reputation, some with distinguished records in the Civil War – they examine the various reasons these men suffered defeat, whether flaws of character, errors of judgment, lack of preparation, or circumstances beyond their control.

These seven case studies consider Confederate and Union generals evenhandedly. They show how Albert Sidney Johnston failed in the face of extreme conditions and inadequate support, how Joe Hooker and John C. Pemberton were outmatched in confrontations with Lee and Grant, how George B. McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign and Don Carlos Buell at Chattanooga faced political as well as military complications, and how Joseph E. Johnston failed to adapt to challenges in Virginia. An additional chapter looks at generals from both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg, showing how failure to adjust to circumstances can thwart even the most seasoned leader’s expectations.


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