Act of Battlefield Chivalry Never Forgotten; Southerner Returns Favor Years Later

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 9, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Act of Battlefield Chivalry Never Forgotten; Southerner Returns Favor Years Later


Chivalry is not a quality that has survived well into the brave new world, but it did exist even during the bitterness of the Civil War. Hilary Herbert, a Confederate officer who survived some of the hardest fighting of the war and became the U.S. secretary of the Navy in the postwar era, granted a pardon based on an act of chivalry on the battlefield of Fair Oaks during the 1862 Peninsular Campaign.

Herbert was born in South Carolina in 1834. His family moved to Alabama in 1846. He attended the universities of Alabama and Virginia but graduated from neither. He "read the law," was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Greenville, Ala., in 1857.

He entered Confederate service in 1861 and became a captain, commanding Company F in the 8th Alabama Infantry Regiment. During the 1862 Peninsular Campaign, he was at Yorktown and Williamsburg and was promoted to major. On June 1, Herbert was wounded at Fair Oaks and captured. As a result of some event occurring after Herbert's capture, Sgt. Ebenezer Allen of the 3rd Maine stopped another Union soldier from shooting Herbert, and Pvt. Jonathan Newcomb of the Maine regiment helped escort Herbert off the battlefield.

Transferred from Fort Monroe, Herbert was imprisoned at Fort Delaware but was exchanged in August. With the regimental commander wounded, Herbert assumed command of the 8th Alabama in time for the Second Battle of Manassas. He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel. At Antietam, he commanded the regiment and was again wounded during fighting around Piper Farm while reinforcing D.H. Hill's division in the Bloody Lane.

During postwar visits to Sharpsburg, Herbert told of the 8th attacking the Irish Brigade and seeing a lone Union soldier who, after firing all his ammunition, turned his back to the Alabamans, patted his buttocks and walked away. Herbert considered ordering his entire command to fire on the contemptuous Yank, but, in recognition of the soldier's audacity, decided not to do so.

Herbert was at Fredericksburg in December 1862. During Chancellorsville in 1863, the regiment fought at Salem Church. Herbert again assumed command after the regimental commander was wounded. Herbert also commanded it at Gettysburg.

In May 1864, permanently disabled by a wound in the arm at the Wilderness, he returned to Alabama, retired a lieutenant colonel and resumed law practice. He was promoted to colonel in December 1864 since he had commanded a regiment (regimental commanders were usually colonels), and fellow officers believed his gallantry warranted the promotion.

From 1877 to 1893, he served in the House of Representatives; as chairman of the House Naval Committee, he helped to revive the Navy. While he served as secretary of the Navy from March 1893 to March 1897, the Herbert-Allen-Newcomb connection from his capture early in the war at Fair Oaks arose. Ironically, all three men were at Gettysburg; two were wounded at the Wilderness.

Allen was one of six brothers, five of whom served in the war. He died in August 1863 after being wounded at Gettysburg. Newcomb was wounded and captured at Gettysburg and paroled at City Point, Va., in August 1863. His record indicates that he was hit in May 1864 in the Wilderness by a "Connical [sic] ball" and that he had "amputation of Middle Tow of Left foot at 3rd Phalangial [sic] articulation." He was furloughed but returned to duty in June 1864.

After the war, Newcomb went to California and worked at the Mare Island Navy Yard. In 1894, Newcomb wrote now-Secretary of the Navy Herbert, inquiring if he was related to a prisoner Herbert captured at Fair Oaks. Herbert responded that he was the prisoner and had been trying to find Newcomb for years.

In May 1894, Herbert visited Newcomb at Mare Island.

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Act of Battlefield Chivalry Never Forgotten; Southerner Returns Favor Years Later


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