Amidst a firestorm of Confederate shells, just as his brigade was heading into the hell of Antietam’s Cornfield, Colonel William Christian suddenly muttered “I’ve always had a great fear of shelling.” And with that, he simply vanished…
By David A. Welker
William Henry Christian was born on April 9th 1825 in Utica, New York. Although his childhood experiences were not recorded, he clearly received an education and was a bright, ambitious young man. With the advent of war with Mexico, he enlisted as a private in the 1st New York Volunteers, Company K and after spending two months training on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, boarded a ship with the rest of his regiment on 27 September, 1846 for the voyage around Cape Horn to their destination in California. Private Christian and the 1st New York were there as part of was the campaign devised by their commander—Colonel Johnathan D. Stevenson, a former New York State legislator—to occupy California and wrest away what remained of Spanish and Mexican influence there, particularly in Baja California. Although some companies of the regiment participated in the Siege and Battle of La Paz, Company K wasn’t one of those units and William Christian saw no combat during his Mexican War service.
Nonetheless, Christian’s military skills and service was good enough to get him promoted to the rank of first sergeant before the war’s end in 1848. When the rest of his company returned to New York, William remained behind in California to take advantage of the economic boom created by California’s gold rush that was just then getting underway. Working as a teacher in California’s first English school, William also learned the science of engineering and may have worked as a surveyor during this time. When he returned to New York in 1856, William Christian was appointed Utica’s city surveyor. While his civilian career wasn’t tremendously successful, it was nonetheless prosperous – but not so much so that it would keep him from returning to military service. [i]
Once back in Utica, William renewed his ties to the New York militia and served as drillmaster for the local Utica unit in the years leading up to the Civil War. With the advent of the war Henry Christian seemed the ideal candidate to raise a regiment of volunteers—being a drillmaster with Mexican War experience—and when the call went out from Albany for regiments and men, William Christian answered. New York’s Governor Morgan personally granted William permission to raise a regiment and within weeks he had set up a recruiting station to raise the 1,000 or so men necessary to form the 26th New York Infantry. Given his prominent role in its very existence and his prior military credentials, William Christian was easily selected as the regiment’s first commander. [ii]
Newly-minted Colonel Christian proved to be as strict a disciplinarian as he was a skilled drillmaster. He worked his new soldiers hard in drill but their training paid off and soon the raw recruits of the 26th New York began to function as well-drilled, if inexperienced, soldiers. Their commander also hewed a tight line in the camps. Knowing that alcohol led to disorder and a breakdown in military discipline, he forbade the consumption of alcohol and insisted that his officers sign a temperance pledge. In camp and on the drill field, the 26th New York under Colonel Christian was a tight-run ship.
Even so, translating drill and discipline into fighting ability was a tougher task that Christian and his men imagined. Arriving at the seat of war in the Washington, DC area on April 22, 1861, Colonel Christian and the 26th settled into their new camp at Meridian Hill and they quickly discovered the tedium of soldier life. Weeks and months passed in a dull routine until late July, when the 26th and Colonel Christian marched into Virginia for the first time. But while the First Battle of Bull Run was a disaster for the Union and many of its men and units, for Christian and the 26th men it was hardly a test of their nascent military skill because they were used only to cover the retreat of the fleeing Union troops. Even so, William Christian received praise from President Lincoln for his handling of the regiment; while the colonel hadn’t done much to justify this praise, perhaps it was that there was so little else in the Union army’s actions for Lincoln to applaud. [iii]
Colonel Christian had been in the army for six months and still hadn’t tasted combat. But this would change when the 26th New York was assigned to the newly-created Army of the Potomac and attached to Brigadier General Henry Slocum’s brigade, which took Christian and his men to a new camp in Alexandria. William’s moment arrived on October 21st, 1861 when General Slocum assigned him command of a 350—man force and sent them to the area of Pohick Church to capture Confederate cavalry operating there. But Colonel Christian’s first combat experience quickly proved a disaster when their target escaped unhurt. Making things worse, the discipline he’d sought to instill unraveled on the return trip when some of his men slipped away to pillage homes and farms. Even worse, one of his men was accidentally killed and the whole series of command lapses had William Christian facing the prospect of being dragged before a Court of Inquiry that General Slocum ordered convened. But before this could happen, Slocum found another way out of the matter – he transferred Christian and the troublesome 26th to another command. Colonel Christian and the 26th New York soon found themselves posted to Fort Lyon—one of the many forts ringing the national capital—and being the senior officer, William Christian was placed in overall command. Though his first combat experience had ended in failure and shame, William’s career remained intact and he even found new responsibilities. [iv]
The five months that Christian and the 26th were at Fort Lyon must have been a happy time because on November 6th, 1861 William married Mary Timmerman, who joined him in residing at the fort. Though eventually they would have three children together, the couple remained blissfully united at Fort Lyon until May, 1862 when orders arrived assigning the 26th New York to Irvin McDowell’s III Corps in the newly-created Army of Virginia, all under the command of General John Pope. Along with this new assignment came transfer from the comfort of Fort Lyon to field camps, first at Falmouth and then near Manassas, Virginia. Here they would endure the heat of summer performing various guard duties until late August, when they marched to join the rest of Pope’s army, which had located Stonewall Jackson’s Command of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on ground nearly atop the Manassas battlefield of a year before. [v]
Once again, William Christian was to be tested as his men marched into their first major fight in what became the Second Battle of Bull Run. But their colonel wasn’t with the 26th men as they marched west to hold a position along Chinn Ridge on the Union left flank. When Longstreet’s Command appeared unexpectedly to smash this line, Colonel Christian was lying under a tree and wrapped in a blanket, being attended to by a surgeon. He’d left his command, Christian later explained, because he suffered from both heat stroke and a severe case of poison ivy on his hands. Late in the battle’s course, though, Colonel Christian seemed to have experienced a miraculous recovery when as senior colonel he found himself in command of the brigade in place of the wounded General Zealous Tower. By nightfall, as the brigade was falling back toward Centreville, the newly-minted brigade commander rode among his ranks, waving the brigade flag and encouraging “his men.” Understandably suspicious, the officers of the 26th New York gathered in a secret meeting that night to consider bringing their concerns to Christian’s superior, division commander General James Ricketts. Probably considering the implications for all concerned if they were mistaken, the group decided against raising their concern. As it would turn out, this was the wrong decision, one that would have grave implications only two weeks in the future. [vi]
Not engaged in the fighting at Chantilly and playing only a supporting role in the fighting at South Mountain, Colonel Christian settled into the business of managing his brigade as it marched into Maryland along with the rest of McClellan’s army in search of Lee’s Confederate force. As dawn emerged on September 17th, though, Colonel Christian found himself in a very difficult situation.
Late the previous night, Christian and his brigade had marched across Antietam Creek and advanced nearly to the Confederate line that Lee had established north of the tiny town of Sharpsburg. Skirmishing the night before had made it clear that the morning would bring battle, but when and for whom remained in doubt. But the tension of this uncertainty wasn’t what must have gnawed at Colonel Christian’s mind, nor was the pressure facing him to rise to the difficult role of brigade command. Rather, it was something more human and fundamental…
Having been ordered by General McClellan to open the Union’s assault on Lee’s forces by attacking and breaking the Confederate left, during the night General Hooker settled on a plan in which two of his three Union I Corps divisions would strike toward a single point. While Meade’s division would remain in reserve, Doubleday’s division would strike due south along the Hagerstown Road and Rickett’s division would march across the seemingly-open fields of D.R. Miller’s farm – all to converge at the Dunker Church, where they would presumably attack and break Lee’s left flank. Christian’s brigade’s role in this plan changed slightly in the early morning hours for rather than remaining behind in support of Ricketts’ two attacking brigades—Duryee’s and Hartsuff’s—they were suddenly ordered to join the opening attack.
For William Christian and his brigade this attack meant marching through the worst of the Confederate artillery fire for nearly a half-mile, enduring death from above that they could do nothing about until nearly on top of the enemy. Waiting in the North Woods, Christian’s men knew this would be difficult and deadly but they prepared as best they could for this fate. And if many of the officers and men in Christian’s brigade were uncertain if they could face this test, apparently no one was less sure of his ability than their commanding officer.
Because he’d missed the fighting at Second Manassas due to “sunstroke” this fight would be the first major test of William Christian’s skill as a senior commander and now, in the midst of this terrible shelling, another kind of illness overtook him. He’d moved his brigade out of the relative safety of the North Woods only after prodding from General Ricketts, through a staff officer, and once again safely in the cover of woods, he appeared reluctant to leave. So while Duryee’s men were fighting for half an hour in the Cornfield, Colonel Christian held his command—and himself—in the relative safety of the East Woods.
Meanwhile, Hooker’s attack by Ricketts’ force wasn’t going well. General Hartsuff’s wounding on the eve of their advance had left that brigade immobile and without orders, while poor Duryee’s brigade had advanced alone into the face of a larger, prepared, concealed Confederate force on the southern end of the Cornfield. By the time Hartsuff’s brigade got itself into the fight, Duryee’s men had had enough and were retreating – now Hartsuff’s men stood alone before the enemy. Hartsuff’s replacement, Colonel Coulter, saw Christian’s command waiting in the far edge of the East Woods and begged for help.
Christian’s brigade, however, was being sucked into a situation that few of the brigade’s officers and men would ever fully understand. At least some of the officers knew they were supposed to be moving down the Smoketown Road in support of Hartsuff and Duryee’s attacks in the open field on the opposite side of the East Woods. Few, if any, of the men in ranks had any idea what they were supposed to be doing just then but within a few minutes, nearly all of them knew that something was horribly wrong. While the battle raged and as Hartsuff’s men passed to their right, Colonel Christian decided that now would be a good time to run the men through the manual of arms. As the men stood in ranks moving unnecessarily from “Right Shoulder, shift!” to “Support, arms!” and back, Confederate batteries on Nicodemus Heights and the Dunker Church ridge poured a continual stream of missiles into the woods, sending huge, sharp chunks of wood flying through the air and felling entire trees with one blow. Perhaps to avoid these missiles, Colonel Christian suddenly ordered the brigade to move. But soon enough, it was clear to the men that they were going nowhere fast. “First it would be “Forward, guide center,” then “By the right flank,” and then “Forward, guide center,” again,…and then we would oblique to the left, and so on, complained Private John Vautier of Christian’s 88th Pennsylvania. Something was horribly wrong, but what? [vii]
As the brigade returned to the swale in the woods from which they’d started their maneuvers, up dashed Colonel Coulter. He immediately found Colonel Christian and begged “For God’s sake, come and help us out, our ammunition is exhausted!” [viii]
With that, the officer turned and ran back toward the corn, showing Christian the way to go to provide that aid. But Colonel Christian stood glued to the spot as if he’d grown roots and become a part of the forest that now marginally protected him and his command.
Perhaps knowing that this plea meant he could no longer carry out the elaborate charade of the past half hour, William Christian snapped. He simply turned and led his horse away, muttering something that would later be recorded as “he’d always had a great fear of shelling.” Had he been Irish, the men’s prejudice would have told them he was drunk but they’d seen him now acting stranger than any drunken man and could find no explanation. The colonel would later explain that his sunstroke had again overtaken him at that moment and two days later, this once-gallant soldier would resign in disgrace. Few of the men would ever know that William Christian would spend much of the rest of his life in various sanatoriums and homes, battling what today would almost certainly be diagnosed as some form of mental illness. Or, perhaps it was simple cowardice… But what mattered right now, in the middle of this terrible fight, was that Colonel Christian abandoned his brigade and the men of Coulter’s command to their own fates. [ix]
As William Christian raced away from the fighting, he left in his wake a nearly complete leadership vacuum. His subordinate officers must have been stunned; the brigade’s commander had simply left without saying why, where he was going, or when he’d be returning. They had no idea at that moment of just what had happened and so, as men often do when faced with such confusion and disorder, they did nothing, waiting for the situation to sort itself out.
But not every commander in Christian’s brigade was willing to sit by. Colonel Peter Lyle of the 90th Pennsylvania had personally heard Coulter’s plea for help and knew someone here had to act. “We received no orders what to do and the balance of the brigade was at a standstill in the hollow of the woods,” recalled Major Alfred Sellers, “…without waiting for any command from anyone, for certain reasons, Colonel Lyle marched the 90th out of the East Woods into a pasture or rock ledge field. Soon enough, with command order restored the rest of Christian’s brigade would march into battle in the southern end of the East Woods. Christian’s men would redeem themselves there in battle, even if their now-former commander would not. [x]
That evening, General James Ricketts called Colonel Christian to his headquarters and demanded he resign or face charges of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Christian chose to resign and two days later left the army claiming that “business of importance” required him to return home. Back home in Utica, New York, William told everyone that his departure from the army had been caused by intrigue among some of his fellow officers.
Eventually, however, the truth caught up with him, both in local talk and in his own mind. Christian actively sought new commands—offering to serve without pay—but all to no avail. One bright moment in Christian’s post-war life occurred on December 8th, 1868 when President Johnson nominated him for promotion to brevet brigadier general for “gallant and meritorious services during the war” dating from March 13th, 1865.
But as time passed and the truth of his actions spread, William’s behavior became increasingly unstable. No longer was he able to work as a surveyor and civil engineer. Once he was seen placing a saddle over the banister of his front porch, mounting it, and delivering orders to a nonexistent group of soldiers. The kindhearted veterans of the 26th New York regularly included their former commander in reunions but at some of these events Christian erupted into uncontrolled fits of laughter. Madness seemed to have set in… [xi]
By early 1886, Mary Christian had endured enough and had her husband committed to the
NY State Lunatic Asylum in Utica. He would remain here the rest of his few days on earth, which ended on May 8th, 1887. William was 62 years old. Although his death was officially due to “dementia,” local obituaries charitably attributed his demise to effects of the “heatstroke” he suffered at Second Bull Run in 1862. A few days later, Mary and the children buried him at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Utica. [xii]
Mary Christian applied shortly thereafter for a widow’s pension, citing as proof the claims of his service listed in the newspapers upon his death, but her claim was denied. The rejection of Mary’s pension claim is odd because there could have been little doubt that William had served in the war, suggesting that after enduring routine paperwork and sufficient time, her claim would have been approved. The rejection almost certainly was influenced in some way by William’s reputation and forced resignation in the face of cowardice charges. It seems that even after death William Christian couldn’t escape what he’d done when facing the hell of Antietam’s Cornfield. [xiii]
[i] Taylor, Paul Glory Was Not Their Companion: The Twenty-Sixth New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War (McFarland and Company; Jefferson, North Carolina, 2005), p. 6.
[ii] Taylor, Glory Was Not Their Companion, p. 6.
[iii] Sifakis, Stewart Who Was Who in the Union, Vol. 1 (New York: Facts on File Press, 1988). p. 77, p. 121.
[iv] Taylor, Glory Was Not Their Companion, pp. 30-32.
[v] Taylor, Glory Was Not Their Companion, pp. 33-38.
[vi] Taylor, Glory Was Not Their Companion, p. 63, p. 71.
[vii] Vautier, John D. History of the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War for the Union, 1861-1865. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1894), p. 74, p. 109.; James Durkin, The Last Man and the Last Life (Glenside, PA: J.M. Santarelli, 2000), pp. 84-87.
[viii] Vautier, History of the 88th Pennsylvania, p. 74.
[ix] Carman, The Maryland Campaign, p. 224.
[x] National Archives, Record Group 94, Antietam Battlefield Studies, 31 December 1894 letter from Alfred Seller to Gould, p. 2; 5 January 1895 letter from Alfred Sellers to E. A. Carman,. 2; Durkin, The Last Man and the Last Life, p. 87.
[xi] Journal of the Senate, Including the Journal of the …, Volume 40, Issues 2-40 United States Senate.
[xii] The New York Times, May 10, 1887. The full obituary read in part: “Gen. William H. Christian, one of the first volunteers in the Union Army, died in the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, on Saturday morning. He had been in the asylum since 1885, when his mind became affected as a result of a sunstroke which he received at the second battle of Bull Run.”
[xiii] Taylor, Glory Was Not Their Companion, p. 63,