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Above the Call of Duty – Washington Daily News


Above the call of duty

Posted at 16:16, Thursday, November 10, 2022

In recognition of Veterans Day, I want to honor a Union soldier, Corporal Wilson Smith, who was a member of the occupation forces in Washington during the Civil War. He hails from upstate New York, near the village of Oriskany Falls. He volunteered to join the New York Light Artillery as a member of Battery H. On September 6, 1862, a dark and foggy morning and a day before his 21st birthday, Smith and his fellow soldiers found themselves encamped on the streets of Washington. Several Union gunboats, incl Louisiana and Picket, anchored in the river opposite Washington. The soldiers stirred after a peaceful night’s rest when the order to “come in” came. The expedition, consisting of Battery H, four guns, a troop of cavalry and infantry, and a supply echelon, was forming to proceed north of the city to some point unknown to the troops.

The column had advanced no more than six or seven blocks when loud shots were heard in the west. A mounted officer appeared, shouting that the town had been surprised by a large number of Confederate troops. Chaos ensued, and the stampede into the city immediately began. The column was in complete disarray, and the commander’s order was clearly heard: “Shut up, people.” In the confusion, the lieutenant, who was in charge of one of the guns, disappeared. In addition to being called to duty, Corporal Smith assumed command and quickly moved with the gun crew to fire.

Smith and his team raced down Market Street until they arrived at the intersection with Main. There, unsupported by infantry, the cannon were dismounted (or dismounted and prepared for use) and placed to cover a field of fire down West Main Street toward Bridge Street. As the fog began to lift and the men finished loading the cannon, about 600 men appeared on Main Street, rapidly closing in on Smith and his men. In his own words, Corporal Smith describes what happened next: “I hesitated, not knowing who they were. At that moment Giero, adjutant of the Third New York Cavalry, rode up and said, “Young man, why don’t you shoot?” I replied, “I don’t know who they are.” “Absolutely,” he said. “I’ll see soon.” He moved towards the people, but in an instant he turned and shouted: “In the name of God, fire!” Then I gave the order to fire, and in a few minutes fifteen rounds of canister were thrown at the advancing men, who at first halted, and then retreated rapidly in the direction from which they had come. So far none of my little band has been wounded, except myself, a bullet having cut my ear a little.’

In disarray, the Confederate troops retreated down Main Street toward Bridge Street while their officers attempted to rally the troops and re-form the line. Smith’s men hitched their guns to their horses and followed the retreating army until they reached the foot of the bridge over the River Thar.

From here I will let Corporal Smith tell the rest of his story: “We again tried to untie the gun, but the horses, making a short turn at the entrance to the bridge, stopped, and the gun remained fast. At this point the Confederates fired a volley, some of which struck the wheel horses, causing them to dive and turn. Now ours were able to untie the gun. Before it could be charged, however, the Confederates fell upon us with their bayonets, and a hand-to-hand fight ensued in front of the gun. During this fight, John Malone and John McGrahan were loading a gun with a canister. We immediately disbanded, and after a few shots the street was quickly cleared of the enemy. But their rifle fire outside was terrible. In a few minutes all the men holding the gun were killed except me and John Malone. Two soldiers from Battery G, one named Lincoln, the other Albert Willard, three members of Potter’s North Carolina infantry, and three members of the Third New York Cavalry then joined us and assisted with the gun.’

“A large body of Confederates, meanwhile, entered the grounds of ex-Governor Grice’s residence and poured volley after volley into our detachment. The last remaining charge was a solid shot. All our comrades who had just joined were killed or wounded, and Malone and I loaded the gun one last time. Just before the shot was put into the gun, a bullet shattered my knee, and as I fired Malone was shot through the body, completely paralyzing his leg.’

“He put his arms around me and I carried him on my back to the steps of the bridge, limping with the help of my saber. How they managed to get to the water’s edge alive is a mystery to me. The cutter then took us both, with the wounded Lincoln, to the gunboat Louisiana. When our gun ceased firing, the Louisiana came into action, her guns covering the position we had left, and soon after the Confederates completely retreated.’

The following day, September 7, Corporal Smith’s 21st birthday, his leg was amputated above the knee. Lying in a hospital in New Bern, Major General J. B. Foster, Corps Commander, and Col. J. H. Ledley, the regimental commander, met at his bedside. The actions of Smith’s rifle squad prevented the Confederates from taking Washington from Union forces, the colonel said. On February 1, 1863, Wilson was discharged of wounds at Utica, New York.

For his actions during the battle in the streets of Washington, Wilson Smith was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery on April 24, 1896.

The second Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded for service in the Civil War in Beaufort County to Lt. William B. Avery of the 1st New York Marine Artillery for his bravery at the Battle of Tranters Creek on June 5, 1862. that he “handled his battery with great coolness in the midst of the hottest fire.”

Ray Midgett is a local historian and past president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.

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