It is difficult to write about Thornton Chase's involvement in the Civil War because he never describes it, besides mentioning the basic facts. We never hear about the excitement he felt as he left the Northeast for the first time, or about his thoughts before his first battle, or his feelings when he saw a dead soldier for the first time, or about what he learned from the entire war experience. Fortunately, the United States Government has fairly comprehensive records regarding his role in the Civil War, although they contain no description of what he felt.
Thornton Chase never tells us why he chose to become involved in the Civil War, but some of his motivation can be surmised. The northern evangelical Protestant middle class, after the late 1850s, was strongly Abolitionist and solidly Republican; Thornton Chase, Jotham Chase, and Samuel Francis Smith were members of that class. Boston was perhaps the greatest center of Abolitionism in the country. Furthermore, Smith's sister went to North Carolina to teach in a school for blacks after the war, suggesting an active concern for Abolitionism in the Smith family.
The tendency of adolescents to become attached to causes, especially those perceived to be righteous, would have further strengthened Thornton's desire to fight in the war. Family oral tradition suggests that he did feel a strong commitment to the Union cause: one story states he was involved in recruiting for the Army. If true, most likely his efforts began after his decision to apply to Brown University, in the spring of 1863, and that fall, when he should have started his freshman year of school.
Thornton did not simply join a local regiment being raised for the Union Army; he instead decided to obtain the training necessary to be a white officer of a black army unit. Possibly he was motivated by a desire to associate with and elevate blacks, or perhaps he desired to achieve quickly a military rank above private, or to prove himself to his family.
Thornton may have heard of the "Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops" through his involvement in recruiting. By 5 February 1864--a few weeks before he turned seventeen--Thornton made the decision to attend the Free Military School. On that day he received a haircut at his father's house in Springfield; a lock of his hair was kept for posterity. He left for Philadelphia and the war on the next day.
Presumably, he found a boarding house in Philadelphia where he was able to rent a room. He enrolled in the school on 10 February; he was the 186th man to sign its register. The school had been established because there was a severe shortage of officers for black army units. Most white army units were raised locally, and each one's organizer--who was usually wealthy--became its commanding officer, or the new soldiers elected their officers; then the entire unit would be mustered into the army. There was little or no officer training done. This procedure was not followed with black army units because the government did not want blacks to be officers. Furthermore, it was felt that blacks would require special training to make good soldiers, and the best way to provide it was to train special officers to lead them. Consequently, the Philadelphia supervisory committee for recruiting colored regiments established a free military school in Philadelphia in December 1863. It offered basic courses to prepare its students for the examinations administered by the army; the student's military rank was a function of the score he achieved. As a result of such a system, black infantry units probably had officers of better quality than most white units.
On an average day the school had 194 students. Thornton was far from typical. Of the 198 students listed as attending the school on 31 March 1864, fifty-eight percent were soldiers on furlough from the army, and many of the civilians had previously seen some military service. Only two were seventeen years old; one of them was Thornton. Teenagers were extremely rare; most students were between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven. The largest number came from Pennsylvania and New York, although New Englanders were numerous.
The school was a combination of military life and course work. From 9:00 A.M. to 10:30 A.M. the students attended classes; for the rest of the morning they marched, drilled, and performed a dress parade. For this purpose they were divided into a battalion of four companies, to one of which each student was permanently assigned. The afternoon began with an hour and a half of classes at 2:00 P.M.; there followed more drills and another dress parade. After supper, an evening class on mathematics was held. Strict military discipline was enforced; disobedience, disrespect, or refractory comments against a superior officer warranted expulsion or severe punishment. One could also be dismissed from the school for "conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman."
The course of study was described thus:
[the student]. . . should understand and be able to explain the elementary principles laid down in Casey's Infantry Tactics, as found in the school of the Soldier, Company, and Battalion [three successive courses the students had to take]. He should comprehend the duties of sentinels, guards, &c., as contained in the Army Regulations. He should know all about Muster and Pay Rolls, Descriptive Lists, and how to keep Company books.
The students were also taught about the particular problems of commanding black soldiers:
A Regiment of Colored Troops, when turned over to the command of its white officers, consists of a thousand or more unlettered black men, often late slaves, dressed in the soldier's uniform and armed like soldiers. They will be expected to do a soldier's duty, but as yet they are profoundly ignorant of that duty. To organize this mass, to provide for it, to instruct it, to drill it, to march it, to lead it into battle and make it fight, will require an aggregate of various kinds of knowledge only possessed by superior white men.
These officers should be selected with the greatest care--officers who shall know how to instruct these unlettered men--officers who shall inspire their confidence, and hold them up to a high sense of duty, and make them feel that now, for the first time in the history of their race, they are called upon to vindicate, on the battlefield, their title to the honored name of soldier. Under such direction, black men will make excellent soldiers; whereas if badly officered, they will be badly taught, badly cared for, badly led, and the whole experiment of putting colored troops in the field will prove a failure.
To help its students acquire experience, especially after they passed their examinations, the school encouraged them to work at Camp William Penn, a nearby training center for black troops.
The school claimed that as a result of the classes it provided "the position [of lieutenant] is attainable by any bright young man having a fair common school education," and it published statistics that showed this to be true. By 29 March 1864 the examination board in Washington had tested 1,867 men for their fitness to command black infantry units; ninety-four had come from the Free Military School. (Most of the rest were from the regular army.) The Board rejected almost half (848) as inadequately trained, but only four of the rejects came from the Free Military School. The remainder of the school's students divided very evenly in their achievements, roughly a third achieving the ranks of second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and captain respectively. Thornton went to Washington to take the exam on 8 March, just a month after beginning the school, and was awarded the rank of first lieutenant, the higher of the two grades of lieutenants. Thus he fell in the middle of his class in terms of performance, a remarkable feat considering his age and lack of military experience. Such an achievement speaks highly of Thornton's innate abilities, his self-discipline, and his desire to better himself.
Thornton was informed that he had passed the examinations on 23 March. Apparently he stayed at the school for a few weeks--he is listed as still present on 31 March 1864--possibly to work at Camp William Penn. Then he went home to Springfield to await an assignment. On 26 April he was appointed First Lieutenant of Company K of the Twenty-Sixth United States Colored Troops. The news reached him by 2 May; on that day in Springfield he swore an oath of allegiance to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." He signed the oath of office as "James B. Chase," at first adding the "T." but then scratching it out, thereby dropping the "Thornton" from his name. Undoubtedly at that time in his life he was known as "James" and possibly as "Jim," but not as "Thornton."
His infantry regiment had just been created and was on its way to South Carolina. The Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T. (United States Colored Troops) had been recruited in New York City by the Union League Club in January 1864. It consisted of ten companies of about one hundred men each. The men of Company K, of which Chase was to be second in command, came from New York City, Brooklyn, Jamaica (a city on Long Island), and Albany. The unit, after organization and preliminary training, was sent by ship to Fort Duane, near Beaufort, South Carolina, arriving on 15 April. It had few officers; Company K had neither a captain nor a first lieutenant until Chase arrived on 18 May. Rather, it was commanded by Second Lieutenant Abraham U. Vangelder, a New Yorker who accompanied the unit south. The little that is known about him suggests he was a tough character; in September 1864 he was placed under arrest and was dismissed from the service in December.
Once Thornton had arrived he was, technically, in command of one hundred men. He claimed he was nineteen, but actually he was only two months past his seventeenth birthday. One wonders what a tough New York officer and one hundred black men from the slums of New York thought of having as a superior officer a beardless teenager (who still had two inches to grow) from a prosperous family. The company record books hint at the answer. Apparently Vangelder remained in charge, for the morning reports--which listed the men sick or present for duty, and important events that affected the unit each day--continued to be signed by him, until a captain arrived and took over the task on 31 May.
The Twenty-Sixth was put in charge of guarding the forts and batteries defending Beaufort, presumably while their training proceeded. Our one glimpse of Thornton Chase suggests that he was not ineffective as an officer; the morning report of 26 June notes that he had arrested a soldier for an assault.
Chase must have quickly learned about the history of the war in South Carolina as well. In early November 1861 the Union had occupied Hilton Head Island and the neighboring town of Beaufort, both on the Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. The Sound was an enormous natural harbor, capable of holding an entire Union navy, and Hilton Head Island--one of hundreds of islands along the South Carolina coast that was separated from the mainland by tidal channels--could be defended by the navy itself. Hilton Head became one of a string of northern naval bases established to maintain a blockade of the South's coastline, thereby preventing the export of cotton and the import of military supplies from Europe. The blockade was slowly strangling the Southern economy. Hilton Head was situated halfway between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, and forced the Confederacy to maintain a considerable number of troops in both cities to defend them. Beaufort was within striking distance of one of the two railroad lines that connected Virginia and the Carolinas to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; if it were cut, the South's transportation system would be seriously weakened. However, the unwillingness of Northern generals to risk their troops in the field and their bad luck or incompetence when they left the safety of their islands had prevented them from severing the rail link. They preferred the less glorious but more important task of maintaining the North's blockade of the Southern coast.
The arrival of the Twenty-Sixth coincided with a change of plans from Washington. It was decided to make an attack on what was psychologically the most important target in the South: Charleston, where the war had begun. The plan involved attacks on John's Island and James Island, two large sections of land bordering Charleston harbor on the south, an assault on Fort Sumter, and another attempt to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. On 2 July the commander, General Q. A. Gillmore, committed a large fraction of his 18,000 to 19,000 men to the campaign. The Twenty-Sixth was committed to the effort against Battery Pringle, a fort defending the Stono River, one of the main tidal channels connecting the Charleston area to the maze of rivers and tidal channels in the Union-occupied Sea Islands.
Thornton Chase and 5,000 other Union soldiers--a thousand of whom were the ten companies of the Twenty-Sixth--battled high humidity and heatstroke as they marched up John's Island; by 5 July they had reached Battery Pringle and established a camp in a secure position. The commanding general left six companies of the Twenty-Sixth along the road on which his army had marched in order to secure it; two of the companies, apparently including Company K, were attacked by a strong Confederate force and driven back. Thus, on 5 July 1865 Thornton Chase took part in his first battle.
Perhaps the commander was impressed by the fighting ability of the Twenty-Sixth, because on 7 July he committed the Company to battle again--against the enemy lines defending the Battery. He later reported that
the troops behaved very handsomely, advancing steadily in open ground, under heavy fire, and driving the enemy from the line. Had the advance been supported, the enemy's artillery would have been captured; as it was, both artillery and infantry were driven from the field.
Confederate reports of the battle agree that the Southern troops were driven back several hundred yards. However, the Union general made no effort to reinforce the Twenty-Sixth, and its victory came to naught. Apparently, the reason was that the attack on Battery Pringle was not the main objective of the campaign, but a diversionary effort that sought to distract the defenders of Charleston from other targets. The next day, 8 July, Battery Pringle opened fire with its artillery on the Union camp; on 9 July the Confederate forces attacked. That night the Union forces retreated without making additional efforts to reduce the fort.
The Twenty-Sixth suffered twenty-five deaths as a result of the fighting, and 108 more deaths from sickness, drowning, and sunstroke during the campaign. Approximately one hundred men were wounded, and the unit had forty-nine desertions, thus losing almost one-third of its total strength. Company K suffered less severely than the others, having no deaths in battle and twelve deaths from other causes. Thornton himself may have been among the wounded; a later summary of his life reports that at some time during the Civil War he was "wounded by an explosion of a cannon and made deaf in his left ear."
We have only one hint at Thornton's reaction to the blood, pain, and terror of battle. Eighteen years later, in 1882, he wrote a poem about the Civil War. Two stanzas in particular seem to reflect his personal experience:
Gettysburg and Vicksburg's trenches,Records are unclear whether Thornton Chase subsequently participated in any battles. In early July the Twenty-Sixth was readied for a campaign on the Florida coast, but the records are unclear whether the unit was actually sent. The rest of the summer the regiment guarded Beaufort and sweltered in the heat of the Sea Islands; the area was known for its tropical temperatures and oppressive humidity. The soldiers also followed the war news, and it was very good for the Union. General William Tecumseh Sherman was leading his army of a hundred thousand from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, and made progress toward that city all summer.
At whose memory courage blenches,
And the dreadful Wilderness;
Carolina's swamps, and Georgia,
Like a hydra-headed Borgia,
Send their armies bodiless.
From the beds of rolling rivers,
From the woods where moaning quivers
Thro' the shivered, creaking trees;
From each battlefield and prison,
Myriad martyr-souls have risen,
Risen to an endless peace.
Sickness was the most serious problem that the men of the Twenty-Sixth faced throughout the war. By October almost half of the unit was sick. Captain Pettit, commander of Company K, fell ill almost at the same time as Thornton Chase; and Second Lieutenant Vangelder was placed under arrest at the same time, leaving no officer in charge of the company. Chase's illness was serious enough to send him to the Officer's General Hospital in Beaufort on 20 September; he was suffering from a "remittent fever." He had recovered sufficiently to return to his unit on 4 October but suffered a relapse; on 12 October he was brought back to the hospital in a delirious state. After two weeks his health was only a little improved. As the surgeon in charge of the hospital wrote:
There is danger of a relapse if he should return to his camp or remain in this climate as his system is so prostrated & susceptible of a return of fever that he will not be able to do any duty until he has the benefit of a northern climate.
On 24 October Thornton Chase wrote a letter requesting a leave so that he could recover his health at home. Permission was granted on 26 October. Apparently recovery took a bit longer than expected, for he did not return to his unit until 11 December.
During his illness and recovery, several events occurred that proved extremely important to the Twenty-Sixth regiment. On 2 September Sherman occupied Atlanta; after burning the city, he started his march to the sea in November. Two days after Chase returned to South Carolina, Sherman reached a Union fort outside Savannah, Georgia. Having marched to the sea, he then turned north, to devastate South Carolina.
While Sherman was marching from Atlanta, the Union forces in the Sea Islands had made another attempt to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. The Twenty-Sixth fought in another battle, but the railroad was not taken. When Thornton returned to his regiment he learned that Colonel Silliman, its commanding officer, had just died of wounds sustained in the battle.
The year 1865 began with a feeling of victory in the air. The South had been cut in half when the Union had taken control of the Mississippi, and cut in half again by Sherman. The central Confederate states of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia had been occupied. With Sherman marching north from Georgia and Ulysses S. Grant south from northern Virginia, it was only a matter of time before Robert E. Lee and the last viable Confederate Army would be forced to surrender. In the Sea Islands, Thornton Chase and his company would see no more military action after January 1865. Rather, there was guard duty to carry out, camp facilities to maintain, and cannon placements to repair.
There were also new soldiers to train. South Carolina slaves were flocking to the Sea Islands and freedom; many of them wanted to join the army. As a result, new regiments of the United States Colored Troops were being formed in Beaufort. In February 1865 the 104th U. S. C. T. was created, and it needed officers. On 2 May Thornton Chase was put on detached duty with the 104th; on 14 June he was promoted to captain and assigned to command Company D of that regiment. He was now in charge of one hundred men; although he claimed to be twenty years old, in fact he was a few months past his eighteenth birthday.
The war was now essentially over. Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the Confederacy, fell to Grant on 2 April, Lee surrendered to Grant on 9 April, and President Jefferson Davis was arrested by Sherman's army on 5 May. However, the Union army was not disbanded, for it was needed to serve as an occupation force. After another bout with illness, Chase assumed his full duties as commander of Company D. He filled out all the daily reports and gave classes for the soldiers and non-commissioned officers. One glimpse of him comes in a note in a regimental record book, dated 3 August 1865: Chase stated "in reply to communication of Col. D. Frazer, why Non. Com. Officers School was not held this p.m., that he was deep asleep and did not hear the Drum beat for school." In September, apparently he was in charge of the Union occupation of McPhersonville, a small South Carolina town near the railroad line:
The Commanding Officer of the 104th U. S. C. T. upon receipt of this order will dispatch as soon as possible Co. "C" of his command with its full complement of Officers to McPhersonville to relieve Co. D. same reg[imen]t now stationed there. . . .
Capt. Stone will appoint an Officer as Quartermaster who will receipt Capt. Chase.
Capt. Chase will march his Command as soon as relieved to Fort "Duane" and report for duty to Lieut. Col. Wilson. He will for the present leave 6 good men of his command to inform Capt. Stone about the inhabitants and country, the same to be relieved, and sent to Fort "Duane" within 10 days time.
It would seem that by September discipline was becoming lax in the occupation army; Chase completely stopped filling out the company's morning reports. Apparently he had grown tired of the military, for on 12 October he tended his resignation. His commanding officer eagerly accepted it, in spite of a shortage of officers in the regiment. Thornton Chase left his company on 14 November. He was a civilian again, a war veteran, and free to plan his life anew.
Telephone Interview with Charles Lawton (grandson of Thornton Chase), 16 September 1985, author's personal papers.
Thornton Chase Nelson to the author, 24 September 1980, 3-4, author's personal papers.
Register of the Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops, located in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Penn.
Prospectus of the Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: King and Baird, Printers, 1864) 9, 33-43.
Prospectus of Free Military School 18-19, 10, 21.
Prospectus of Free Military School 4.
Extract from a letter from a member of the Board of Examiners to the Chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the Free Military School, quoted in Prospectus of the Free Military School 16.
Prospectus of Free Military School 4, 27, 43. The date Chase went to Washington to take the exams is given in the Register of the Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops, entry for Thornton Chase, located in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (notes in author's Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.7).
Letter from the Washington Examination Board to thirty-nine men, including James B. Chase, 23 March 1864, notes by author in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.10; Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops 33, 7.
The date of Chase's appointment is given in James B. [Thornton] Chase to A. F. Rockwell, 3 June 1864, United States Government Archives, Washington, D.C.; accompanying the letter was a copy of the oath of office that Chase swore.
C. W. Foster to George Bliss, 4 January 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900), Series 3, 4:4; C. W. Foster to George Bliss, 27 January 1864, in Series 3, 4:55.
Notes by author on the Regimental Descriptive Book, United States Government Archives, Washington D.C., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.12).
Notes by author on the Morning Reports of Companies A through K of the Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.15).
Notes by author on the Morning Report Book of the Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.15.
 Notes by author on the Morning Reports of Companies A through K., Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.16.
Chase's lie about his age is contained in James B. Chase to A. F. Rockwell, 3 June 1864, United States Government Archives.
C. R. Brayton to W. L. M. Burger, 29 May 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891), Series 1, vol. 35, Part 2, 106; notes by author on the Morning Reports of Companies A through K of the Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.15.
E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 (Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1970) 284-95.
Report of Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch to Headquarters of the United States Forces, 12 July 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891), series 1, vol. 35, part 1, 84-85.
Report of Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch to Headquarters of the United States Forces, 12 July 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891), series 1, vol. 35, part 1, 85.
Report of Major R. A. Wayne, First Georgia Volunteers, of skirmish on John's Island, 10 July 1864, in The War of the Rebellion, series 1, vol. 35, part 1, 263-64; Q. A. Gillmore, Engineer and Artillery Operations against the Defenses of Charleston Harbor in 1863; Comprising the Descent upon Morris Island, the Demolition of Fort Sumter, the Reduction of Forts Wagner and Gregg. With Observations on Heavy Ordnance, Fortifications, etc. (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1865) 21; Burton, Siege of Charleston 292-93.
Notes by author on the Descriptive Book of the Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, pp. 5.13-5.14. The total number of wounded is not given, but J. G. Foster to the Headquarters, Department of the South, 12 July 1864, in The War of the Rebellion, series 1, vol. 35, part 1, 16-17, gives the total dead and wounded from the campaign as thirty-three and 133 respectively, and most of the dead (twenty-five) were members of the Twenty-Sixth; thus most of the wounded must have been as well. Thornton's war injury is mentioned in the obituary of Thornton Chase in Brown Alumni Monthly 13.7 (Feb. 1913): 190-91. However, there is no evidence in the government records that Chase had to be hospitalized as a result.
Thornton Chase, "Decoration Day," The Colorado Chieftain, 21 May 1882, 4.
W. L. M. Burger to Brig. Gen. E. E. Potter, 30 July 1864, in The War of the Rebellion, series 1, vol. 35, part 2, 200-201; William Birney to Major-General Foster, 30 July 1864, in Series 1, vol. 35, part 2, 201.
Notes by author on the Morning Report Book for Companies A through K., Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.16.
Recommendation of a leave of absence for James B. Chase by A. V. Dalrymple, Surgeon in Charge of the Officers U. S. A. General Hospital, 25 October 1864, United States Government Archives. Chase's presence or absence in Company K was recorded daily in the unit's Morning Report book (notes in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, pp. 5.15-5.17.
James B. Chase to Captain William L. M. Burgher, 24 October 1864, United States Government Archives.
Special orders issued by W. L. M. Burger, 26 December 1864, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893) series 1, 44:818.
J. G. Foster to Edwin M. Stanton, 2 February 1865, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895) series 1, vol. 47, part 2, 209; Company Muster Roll for May and June 1865, United States Government Archives; Individual Muster-out Roll of the Twenty-Sixth U. S. C. T. for James B. Chase, dated 21 June 1865, United States Government Archives.
Special Order 55, dated 28 September 1865, notes by author on the Regiment Letter, Indorsement, Order and Guard Report Book of the One Hundred-fourth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, pp. 5.17-5.18.
James B. Chase letter of resignation, and accompanying comments, United States Government Archives; notes by author on the Regiment Letter, Endorsement, Order and Guard Report Book of the One Hundred-Fourth U. S. C. T., in Thornton Chase Research Notebook, p. 5.19.