We’ve been talking about Civil War artillery with generalized facts and processes. I approach history wanting to talk about real people, so let’s spend this blog post focusing on some Union artillery commanders. Now, full disclaimer – I’ve picked three of my favorites and three that I’ve spent some time researching. (I’m well aware that they are all eastern theater officers and perhaps we’ll circle back to the subject when I’ve had a chance to read about western theater artillerymen.)
Today, we’ll be talking about Union artillery officers Justin E. Dimick, Alonzo Cushing, and Henry DuPont…
Justin E. Dimick
Dimick’s father was a Mexican-American War veteran general, and the young man got sent to West Point. Unfortunately, Justin Dimick got himself kicked out of the academy two times. He was one of those cadets…
However, the Civil War gave Dimick a chance to rewrite his story and accomplish something built more on his merit than his father’s influence. He started by drilling new recruits in the Federal capital during the summer months and fought at First Bull Run. By February 1862, Dimick served as the adjutant for the 1st U.S. Artillery, mostly on garrison and guarding duties prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg. He learned and had time to rethink leadership. By Chancellorsville, he commanded Battery H of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Influence might have helped with his placement, but he put his skills to work on May 3, 1863, and the praise he won from his superiors that day was his own, not something his father arranged.
During the night of May 2, Dimick and his battery – positioned along the Plank Road – lobbed shells toward the advancing Confederate lines, unknowingly aiming at the exact points where Confederate General Jackson lay wounded near the road and his staff hustled, trying to get him away from immediate danger. The following morning while firing on advancing Confederates and directing his battery, Dimick was mortally wounded.
Dimick managed to rewrite his story during his short lifetime. The Civil War and particularly the Battle of Chancellorsville allowed him to redeem himself from the difficulties at West Point. Any number of factors or excuses could be attempted to explain his abysmal experience at the academy, but that is not the point. He found a way to move forward and reshape his experiences, leadership, and ultimately, legacy. Dimick’s death did not define him. His military service did, particularly at Chancellorsville. In the end, his commander remembered him in the thick of the fight – under fire, directing his artillerymen, untangling horses, and struggling to hide the pain of an injury from his men.
Cushing received an appointment to the West Point in 1857 and graduated in the Class of 1861. He saw action at First Bull Run and later fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and received brevet promotions for his service. By summer 1863, Lieutenant Cushing commanded Battery A of the 4th U. S. Artillery. He was well-respected by his men and had a solid reputation for commanding his battery.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, Cushing’s guns blocked the Confederate’s path to The Angle during Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. Though his battery took heavy fire and casualties, he remained in position, even after he suffering severe and crippling wounds. Determined to stay on the field, Cushing actually ordered his remaining cannons to be moved closer to the stonewall to better defend against the coming infantry attack.
With his sergeant holding him upright, Cushing stayed with the guns, literally holding parts of his body together from the effects of his wounds. When told to leave and seek medical aid, he responded, “No, I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Tragically but perhaps mercifully considering the severity of his wounds, Cushing was killed when a Confederate bullet penetrated his head. He died at his post and as he fell and the Confederates ran for the guns, his remaining artillery blasted the infantry, following the orders and range he had given. Cushing and his battery are crediting with helping to turn back the Confederate assault and aiding the Union infantry to hold the important position along Cemetery Ridge.
After his death, Alonzo Cushing was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel and is buried in West Point Cemetery. In 2014, President Obama posthumously gave the Medal of Honor to Cushing for his courage and devotion to duty with his guns at Gettysburg.
Henry DuPont also graduated West Point in 1861 and started service with the engineers and then as a First Lieutenant of the 5th Regiment of U.S. Artillery. Initially during the Civil War, DuPont was stationed in the defenses of Washington and New York, then served as the regimental adjutant until his promotion to captain in March 1864 when he return to active artillery service in the field.
DuPont fought at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. Arriving late on the field due to poor communication from his commanders, he still came in time for an important part in the battle: covering the Union retreat. To accomplish this, DuPont used an innovative method of “leap frogging” his guns from position to position along the Valley Pike, using the high ground to his advantage to slow and discourage the pursuing Confederate infantry. DuPont was the last officer to cross the bridge at the Shenandoah River and made the decision to burn the structure to protect the army.
Later in 1864, DuPont fought with General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, receiving brevets at the Battles of Opequon and Fisher’s Hill. At the Battle of Cedar Creek, he helped Sheridan score a victory and later received a Medal of Honor for his actions.
Henry DuPont survived the war, leaving his army career in March 1875. For twenty years he was president of the Wilmington and Northern Railroad Company and then served in the U.S. Senate, representing Delaware from 1906-1971. He died in 1926 at age eighty-eight.
All three of these Federal artillery officers attended West Point and where trained in the art of gunnery. Their skills were put to the test of Civil War battlefields, and there, their courage and leadership – as well as their artillery insight – helped win or influence battles for the Union cause. Two of these three artillery officers received Medals of Honor for their valor.
It’s important to understand details about Civil War artillery, but don’t forget to look for the true account about the men and the officers who worked the artillery batteries.