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Sunday, November 27, 2011

“Come On, You Brave Yank”


The Civil War, the bloodiest battle in our nation’s history, is also known as the war that divided families, with brother literally taking up arms against brother.  History records a number of stories about brothers fighting on opposite sides of the conflict, one brother dressed in Union blue and the other in Confederate gray.  At the Battle of Front Royal, Captain William Goldsborough of the Confederate First Maryland Infantry captured his brother Charles Goldsborough, a Union soldier fighting with the Union First Maryland Infantry and took him prisoner.  Another Confederate, a brigadier general, James B. Terrill, was killed at the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek, while his brother, William R. Terrill, a Union brigadier general was killed at the Battle of Perryville.  The Gammell family was one of many families who faced the same predicament.

Henry Wylie, half brother of James Gammell, was employed at Sanford Blackinton’s woolen mill when the Civil War began.  A government contract for blue wool cloth for army uniforms kept the mill open day and night to fill the orders.  In October 1861, the mill was earning a profit of about one thousand dollars a day.  Henry soon left his work at the mill to serve in the Union army, 1st Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.  That same year Henry’s half brother Andrew F. Gammell, who was living in Texas, joined the Confederate army, Second Texas Infantry.  Fortunately the two brothers never faced each other on opposite sides of the same battle.

In contrast to the unbelievable carnage that resulted from the four-year war, there were also some inspiring stories of compassion and camaraderie between enemies.  At times during the fierce fighting, the soldiers stopped to remember that they were all brothers.  One of those well-known incidents occurred at the Battle of Vicksburg.  Andrew Gammell and his fellow Texas Sharpshooters were defending the Confederate fortification known as the Second Texas Lunette.

The assault upon that part of the embankment at Vicksburg was made by the Ninety-ninth Illinois and four other Union regiments.  On May 22, 1863, Private Thomas Higgins, a big, strong, athletic Irishman, requested the privilege of carrying the flag for the day in place of the color bearer, who had been wounded.  The captain gave him permission and handed over the standard, telling him, “Don’t stop until you get into the Confederate works.”  Higgins obeyed this order literally.

Charles I. Evans, an ex-Confederate soldier of the Second Texas, later recorded how bravely Private Higgins carried out the order of his superior officer.

The following is Charles I. Evans' account:

After a most terrific cannonading of two hours, during which the very earth rocked and pulsated like a thing of life, the head of the charging column appeared above the brow of the hill, about 100 yards in front of the breast works, and, as line after line of blue came in sight over the hill, it presented the grandest spectacle the eye of a soldier ever beheld.  The Texans were prepared to meet it however, for, in addition to our Springfield rifles, each man was provided with five additional smooth-bore muskets, charged with buck and ball.

When the first line was within fifty paces of the works, the order to fire ran along the trenches, and was responded to as from one gun.  As fast as practiced hands could gather them up, one after another, the muskets were brought to bear.  The blue lines vanished amid fearful slaughter.  There was a cessation in the firing.  And behold, through the pall of smoke which enshrouded the field, a Union flag could be seen approaching.

As the smoke was slightly lifted by the gentle May breeze, one lone soldier advanced, bravely bearing the flag towards the breast works.  At least a hundred men took deliberate aim at him, and fired at point-blank range, but he never faltered.  Stumbling over the bodies of his fallen comrades, he continued to advance.  Suddenly, as if with one impulse, every Confederate soldier within sight of the Union color bearer seemed to be seized with the idea that the man ought not to be shot down like a dog.  A hundred men dropped their guns at the same time; each of them seized his nearest neighbor by the arm and yelled to him: 'Don't shoot at that man again.  He is too brave to be killed that way,' when he instantly discovered that his neighbor was yelling the same thing at him.  As soon as they all understood one another, a hundred old hats and caps went up into the air, their wearers yelling at the top of their voices: 'Come on, you brave Yank, come on!'

He did come, and was taken by the hand and pulled over the breast works, and when it was discovered that he was not even scratched, a hundred Texans wrung his hands and congratulated him upon his miraculous escape from death.  That man's name was Thomas J. Higgins,(1) color bearer of the Ninety-ninth Illinois.

Private Higgins was then taken before General Pemberton, the rebel commander, who asked him where General Grant's headquarters were.  "I do not know, as he is moving them every day, but they will be here tomorrow," came the ready response from the quick-witted Irishman.

"How many men has your general got?" the rebel leader inquired.

"Oh, not many, only about seventy-five thousand," Higgins replied.

"How far back do his lines extend?"

"As far as Cairo, Illinois, and they are still being formed in the state of Maine."

"Well," General Pemberton observed sarcastically, "we'll have Grant in here as a prisoner tomorrow."

"I know," was the doughty Yankee soldier's reply, "General Grant will come in here tomorrow to ship you and your command to Altona, Illinois, where he has a big boarding house."

At this, General Pemberton got angry.  "Sergeant," he exclaimed, "take this man away.  He is insulting.  He is impudent.  He is insolent."

Thereupon, Private Higgins was led away, a few days later paroled, exchanged, and subsequently he returned to his regiment, where he remained until the end of the war.(2)

His Medal of Honor was awarded him at the request of the very Confederates who captured him at the assault. Higgins received the Medal of Honor on April 1, 1898. The citation reads: “When his regiment fell back in the assault, repulsed, this soldier continued to advance and planted the flag on the parapet, where he was captured by the enemy.”(3)
  1. Thomas J. Higgins, Private, Company D, Ninety-ninth Illinois Infantry, born in Franklin Co., New York, June 3, 1831.
  2. Deeds of Valor: from records in the archives of the United States government; how American heroes won the Medal of Honor, Vol. 1, Perrien-Keydel Co., 1907, pp. 198-200.
  3. See Medal of Honor Recipients, Civil War at  

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