Remembering Charles Phelps on Memorial Day

On Saturday, my wife and I went hiking in the Joe English Reservation in Amherst, NH (which I highly recommend) and, afterwards, on the spur of the moment, we decided to take a look at Amherst Village. As we drove around, we saw an old cemetery where Courthouse Road joins Main Street. I recalled that a number of men from Amherst had fought in the 5th New Hampshire, and I hoped to see some of their tombstones. We got out and looked around, but it didn’t take long to realize that this cemetery was too old. Most of the headstones were those tall, thin, rectangular slabs one associates with late 18th and early 19th centuries.

To make a long story short, when I got home, I looked up some of the men from Amherst I was thinking of and realized they were buried in Meadow View Cemetery which was fairly close to where we’d been. And it was then that I decided that I’d visit Charles Phelps’s grave the next day—Memorial Day.

I often see memes on Facebook at this time of year declaring that we should “never forget” Americans who died in the armed services. What exactly we should never forget about them is not always clearly articulated. Part of the reason is that Facebook favors brevity. Another reasons is laziness; “never forget” is a throwaway phrase that doesn’t require much intellectual effort. What exactly are we supposed to avoid forgetting? People sometimes mention words like “sacrifice,” “nation,” and “freedom” without explaining their significance. That brings us to yet another reason why people stick to the simple “never forget.” A thorough explanation of the relationship between sacrifice, nation, and freedom is political. And unless one lives in a total social media echo chamber, a meaningful discussion of these terms is bound to cause heated debate. So people keep it vague, simple, bland—and also meaningless. And as they apply these words to all American servicemen who ever died, they reduce the dead to a gigantic abstraction.

That’s why I’d like to talk about somebody real like Charles Phelps, a young man who fought and died for a good cause in America’s greatest and costliest conflict. I can think of nothing and nobody more pertinent to Memorial Day which was created specifically to remember those Northerners who died in the Civil War.

Charles H. Phelps was born in Amherst, NH, in 1842. His parents, Horace and Betsey (née Ober), were people of moderate means whose families had been long resident in the town.[i] The Census of 1860 reveals that Horace Phelps (51) was a farmer with $1600 in real estate and $300 in his personal estate. The rest of the household consisted of Betsey (47), her widowed mother Sally (78), her spinster sister Martha (37) who worked as a teacher, Sophia E. Phelps (22) (also a teacher), Frank Phelps (10), and Charles Phelps (18) who was a “Painter’s Apprentice.”[ii] One obtains the impression from these facts of a sober, well-educated family that was neither rich nor poor.

Charles H. Phelps

On April 22 or 23, 1861 (accounts vary), with Barnabus B. David in the chair, Amherst held a town meeting in response to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men to put down the rebellion (the call had been issued a week before in response to the bombardment of Fort Sumter). Patriotic speeches were given, and a Finance Committee appointed “to secure and disburse contributions for the support of the families of those who volunteered to fight the battles of the country.” In addition, the committee “voted to raise the pay of the volunteers from Amherst to eighteen dollars per month, and furnish each one with a Colt’s revolver.” Fourteen men came forward to offer their services, including young Charles H. Phelps who spent the next three months in the Milford Volunteers.[iii]

“Our First Volunteers”: An image of 11 of the 14 men from Amherst who volunteered for service in April 1861. Phelps is seated second from right in the front row. From the frontispiece of Edward D. Boylston, Amherst in the Great Civil Conflict of 1861-1865 (Amherst, NH: E. D. Boylston, 1893). 

An image of 11 of the original 14 volunteers was taken at the time. The men, most of whom were young, appear jaunty and proud. Would they have been so cheerful had they know what lay before them? Of the 14 , six later went on to serve in the 5th New Hampshire: James B. David, George W. George, Daniel A. Peabody, George W. Russell, George Vose, and Phelps. It is instructive to learn what became of them.

  • David was a hapless 1st Lieutenant discharged for incompetence in February 1862 after a lamentable performance before a brigade board of review (more on that in a later post). In 1863, he found a captaincy in the 7th Iowa Cavalry which was organized to fight Native Americans in the Dakota Territory. Although he was appointed major of the regiment, controversy dogged him even here; he received a dishonorable discharge in May 1866 before wrangling an honorable one a couple of months later.
  • George was mustered in as a 1st Sergeant and appointed 2nd Lieutenant in August 1862. His career as a commissioned officer lasted but a short time; he lost his leg at Antietam.
  • Peabody was mustered in as a Corporal but obtained a disabled discharge in October 1862.
  • Russell was mustered in as a private but was promoted to Sergeant in October 1862 and then 1st Sergeant after he re-enlisted in February 1864. He was killed in action during fighting outside of Petersburg in June 1864.
  • Vose was mustered in as a Corporal and was wounded at Antietam and Fredericksburg before obtaining a promotion to Sergeant and then 2nd Lieutenant in October 1863. He was mustered out in October 1864 after completing his three years of service.

In other words, war would mean hardship and suffering for these men.

Discharged at the end of his three-months’ service in mid-July, Phelps must have spent a couple of months kicking around Amherst before enlisting in a company of the 5th New Hampshire that his neighbor, Charles Hapgood, was beginning to recruit and would eventually lead as captain.

As you can see from the enlistment form (signed by Hapgood), Phelps was 19 and described himself as a carpenter by occupation. We shouldn’t be surprised that this occupation doesn’t jibe with the one he gave on the census the year before; farmer’s sons often worked at different jobs to earn money for their families. Phelps was described as having blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion. At 5’ 8 ¾”, he was just above average height. Perhaps because of his experience with the Milford Volunteers, Phelps was mustered in as a sergeant.

Phelps’s war was eventful. He fought in all the major actions of the 5th New Hampshire from the Peninsula campaign to Gettysburg. Eventually, he was wounded in the side at Fredericksburg and spent four months in the hospital recovering before rejoining the regiment in time for Chancellorsville. It is for his actions at Gettysburg that Phelps is remembered.

By the time of this battle, Hapgood was now the regiment’s commander, and Colonel Edward Cross (the regiment’s original leader) headed the brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged. On July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle, as part of John C. Caldwell’s division, the regiment was rushed to the southern part of the battlefield to halt Longstreet’s massive assault that threatened to crumple the Army of the Potomac’s left flank. While Cross’s brigade headed into the Wheatfield, the 5th New Hampshire and three companies of the 148th Pennsylvania advanced into the Rose Woods to cover the brigade’s left flank. With the brigade coming under fire from the Confederates who sat behind a stone wall at the southern end of the Wheatfield, Cross decided to launch an attack to clear them out. By this point, the 5th New Hampshire had encountered the 1st Texas and 15th Georgia which had advanced from Devil’s Den into the southern part of the woods. The Confederates, who were only a “stone’s throw” away, started taking potshots at their foes. As he walked toward Hapgood to explain that the brigade would soon be attacking, Cross was struck by a bullet in the stomach; a Confederate sharpshooter behind a boulder only 50 yards away had found his mark. Cross was knocked to the ground, and experienced soldier that he was, Hapgood must have realized the wound was mortal. He ordered several soldiers to carry Cross to an ambulance at the edge of the Wheatfield. Hapgood then turned to Phelps, his neighbor and a member of his old company, and ordered the young sergeant to kill the sharpshooter. When the Confederate next poked his head from behind the boulder, Phelps was ready and shot him.

Cross’s planned attack never occurred; by the time Boyd McKeen, the senior colonel in the brigade, found out that Cross was incapacitated, the Federals had taken heavy losses and were in no position to charge the Confederates before them. Cross’s brigade withdrew just as Caldwell threw Colonel John Brooke’s brigade forward in an attempt to dislodge the Confederates from the southern edge of the Wheatfield. The 5th New Hampshire and the three companies of the 148th Pennsylvania were not withdrawn because they were needed to protect the left flank of Brooke’s assault. As the 5th New Hampshire kept abreast of it to the east, Brooke’s brigade moved quickly through the Wheatfield and almost pushed the Confederates entirely out of the woods beyond. The attack was a victim of its own dramatic success. The brigade, along with the 5th New Hampshire, had advanced so far to the southwest that they were outflanked to the east. And when Daniel Sickles’ III Corps collapsed in the Peach Orchard to the northwest, Brooke’s position—indeed, that of Caldwell’s entire division—became untenable. Caldwell’s command—first slowly, and then with greater and greater rapidity—began falling to pieces. His soldiers started withdrawing pell-mell to avoid envelopment. A number of men in the 5th New Hampshire because casualties as they sought to extricate themselves from the disaster. One of them was Charles Phelps who was shot in the back and mortally wounded.[iv] I can only assume that some of his friends brought him off the battlefield and got him to a field hospital; the bodies of those in the 5th New Hampshire who were killed outright in the Rose Woods were buried on the spot and never sent home. Phelps died on July 4, 1863; he was 21.

Somebody in Amherst, probably his father, made arrangements to have Phelps’s body embalmed and shipped back home. Embalmers did a roaring business during the Civil War, and this practice was quite common. Phelps was buried on July 23, 1863 in what is now referred to in Amherst as the Meadow View Cemetery but was then called the West Cemetery. According to the Farmer’s Cabinet, the local newspaper, which gave a full report of the proceedings, Phelps’s service was a big event:

The remains of Sergt. Charles H. Phelps, who fell in the battle of Gettysburg, July 3d, were interred in this place, on Thursday last [July 23, 1863], with military honors. The Milford Band were in attendance, and a detail of the Nashua Cadets did escort duty on the occasion. The Lawrence Engine Co. of which the deceased was a member were present, in uniform, and also four members of his own regimental Company. The exercises at the Congregational Church were of very impressive character, consisting of Chant; Reading of Scriptures, Quartette, “Bear them home tenderly”; Address by Rev. J. G. Davis; Prayer by Rev. Wm. Clark; and appropriate closing hymn.

The church was appropriately drapped [sic], and the galleries displayed the names of those whom Amherst has given up as sacrifices to her country’s cause—viz: SAWTELLE, HOLT, OBER, PARKHURST, SLOAN, VOSE, McCLURE, MACE, GUTTERSON, JOHNSON, DAMON, and PHELPS.

The exercises throughout were of the most impressive character, and the remains were followed to the grave by a larger numbers [sic] of true mourners than we have every witnessed at a burial here—an honor that all felt was due to the deceased alike for his devoted patriotism, and as a representative of these devoted and worth young men who have fallen in their country’s service.[v]

In December, the same newspaper reported on the erection of Phelps’s headstone:

A beautiful tablet, from the manufactory of David Nichols [in] Lowell, [MA,] has been recently erected in our burying ground by Mr. Horace Phelps, over the grave and to the memory of his son, Sergeant Charles H. Phelps, Co. I, 5th N. H. V. It is of Italian marble, bearing at its head as a motto, the expressive words uttered by the pastor at his funeral, ‘A young man but an old soldier’, an allusion to the number of battles in which he had engaged. Beneath it and above the inscription is a figure of a soldier in uniform. On the sides of the tablet are the names of eleven battle in which the deceased participated, as follows: Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Savage’s Station, Peach Orchard, White Oak Swamp, Charles City, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. The deceased received his death wound in the last named battle. His parents have reason to be proud of their dead son, who has left them in inestimable legacy in the record of his brief life and briefer services in the defence of his country.[vi]

When I walked through the cemetery on Memorial Day, Phelps’s memorial was easy to spot. It was whiter than just about every other stone, and it sat alongside the main path through the cemetery. It looks like the stone was broken in half at some point and repaired (see the two bolts in the center).

At the top of the memorial is the quote from Reverend J. G. Davis’s address that I have always found touching when I contemplate Phelps’s photograph.

Below is a small soldier in bas relief with chevrons on his sleeves that represents the young sergeant himself.

On either side of the main inscription are written the battles in which Phelps fought. To the right of the stone was a flag, and to the left was a GAR marker that looked brand new.

The headstone is an impressive testimony to Phelps, and his sacrifice was not soon forgotten among his neighbors. When Amherst obtained a Grand Army of the Republic post in 1879, it was named after Phelps.

Reading about Phelps makes one realize that our wars have been waged by fragile human beings who carry the memories of their highs and lows as they expose themselves to lead and iron. I think about how much Phelps must have been loved by his parents and neighbors. I think about how elated he would have felt in the heady days of April 1861 when Amherst, like the rest of the North, was effervescent with excitement and patriotism. I think about how his letters to his older sister Sophia reveal the extent of his homesickness during the war.[vii] I think about the good cause for which he was ready to sacrifice himself in 1863: a restoration of the Union based on extending the promise of 1776 to all men. I think about the steadiness and concentration required to pick off that Confederate sharpshooter. I think about that terrible moment when he and his comrades realized their position in the Rose Woods had been outflanked. I think about how he was surrounded by pain and agony on an enormous scale as he himself suffered for two days—knowing full well the entire time that he was going to die. Most of all, I think about his youth and how much of his life was unlived. It is concrete things like these that we ought to remember on Memorial Day.


[i] Daniel F. Secomb, History of the Town of Amherst (Concord, NH: Evans, Sleeper & Woodbury, 1883), 711, 728-729.

[ii] “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WJ-T1Y : 14 December 2017), Charles Phelps in entry for Horace Phelps, 1860.

[iii] Secomb, 415.

[iv] Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 239-241.

[v] Farmer’s Cabinet, July 30, 1862, 2.

[vi] Farmer’s Cabinet, December 10, 1863, 2.

[vii] These letters are part of the Mike Pride Civil War Collection at the New Hampshire Historical Society, Accession Number 2015.001.

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