Answering the Call of Duty Wikimedia Commons
The call of duty in 1861 must have deeply echoed within the hearts of the Howell family of New York. On September 16th, 1861, three sons enlisted in the 76th New York Volunteer Infantry. Tappan Howell was the youngest, being 19, while Byron was 21 and Hannibal was 34. Hannibal had already moved out of his parents’ home and established a family in Groton, Tompkins County, New York. As a painter, he was doing fairly well in 1860, having married his wife Charlotte Wickham in 1849, and having fathered four children– Martha, born April 9th, 1852, DeWitt, born October 28, 1855, Jennie, born May 28, 1857, and Lafayette, born August 29th 1859. His wife was also pregnant with their fifth child, Harriet, who would be born January 28th, 1862. What would compel a married man with young children and a pregnant wife to enlist? Maybe he had long listened to his younger brothers eagerly talk about the glories of war, and felt he needed to join them to keep them safe. Perhaps the entire family was filled with patriotic fervor following the defeat at First Bull Run, or perhaps they felt pressured by Victorian expectations of duty and manhood. They all enlisted together in the same regiment, and company, though Byron was made a Corporal, potentially because of the higher education he had received. Following Hannibal’s enlistment, Charlotte picked up her family and moved closer to Hannibal’s parents in Hector, Schuyler County, New York. This move meant she could receive help raising her children while also allowing her to help her in-laws cope with the fact that three of their sons were now at war.
One can almost imagine the three brothers making jokes and finding great comfort in each other as they learned to adjust to the rigors of army life. The 76th’s regimental history, History of the 76th New York Volunteers by A. P. Smith, is filled with stories of how the men felt almost as if they were on vacation as they paraded through Albany, Philadelphia, and Baltimore as they made their way to the Army of The Potomac. By February 1862, the unit had made their way to Washington DC, and on the 19th of that month the realities of the war first became clear as the regiment suffered their first casualty of disease. “It is a solemn reality to die, even among friends,” wrote Smith (44), “The solemnity is greatly heightened by the absence of those we love to smooth the dying pillow.” These words were surely on the mind of countless 76thers as the war carried on and more and more of their friends succumbed to wounds or disease. The deaths they witnessed were a far cry from the Victorian ideal of the “good death” where one peacefully passed away in bed at home, surrounded by loved ones. The 76th saw their first military action in April, though it was bloodless. A whiskey shop had popped up near town, and officers determined that it must have been the creation of rebel spies hoping to glean information from drunken soldiers. Thus, a force of 300 men were sent out to capture both the alleged rebel… and the whiskey. The commanding officers secured the whiskey, then sent it to a hospital for medicinal use. Despite the humorous occurrences, disease was still whittling away the regiment. In April, the army discharged Byron for disability, and he returned home to New York.
In May, the regiment finally left camp around Washington. While occupying Fredericksburg, many men of the regiment saw President Abraham Lincoln when he visited Chatham Manor to meet with Union generals. This was surely a momentous occasion for enlisted soldiers to witness, just as a President visiting soldiers is in the modern day. Lincoln’s visit helped to restore morale and inspire soldiers that had been away from home for months with a renewed sense of purpose. Later, the 76th left Fredericksburg and joined General Pope in the Army of Virginia. Hannibal had gotten sick, and was sent to Alexandria to recover. He was absent from July to August 18th, arriving back just in time for combat. On August 21st, the regiment was under fire for the first time near the Rappahannock River, though the infantry took no direct part in the fight. Two of the regiment’s sharpshooters who had been in front of the regiment’s position had been killed and horribly mangled, harshly introducing the unit to the horrors of combat. The 76th New York’s first full engagement was the Battle of Gainesville, also known as Brawner’s Farm on August 28th , 1862, during which the regimental history credits the 76th NY with the volley that led to Confederate Major General Richard S. Ewell losing his right leg.
Following the reorganization of the army after the defeat at Second Bull Run in August, 1862, from which the regiment was spared engagement, the 76th marched northwards, through Washington and Frederick, receiving cheers and adulation that replenished the spirits of a regiment worn down by campaigns and sickness. Unfortunately, the upcoming battle at South Mountain on September 14th would surpass any of their previous combat experiences. On the extreme left of the Union Line at Turner’s Gap, the regiment collided with Confederate forces and fought until it was so dark that the soldiers could merely aim at the muzzle flashes of the enemy. Somewhere in the chaos of this battle, Tappan suffered a mortal wound. He survived until September 26th. Perhaps Hannibal was there when his brother was wounded, or perhaps he was able to visit Tappan at the hospital to offer some comfort. Regardless, anxious concern for his brother’s health likely hung thick over Hannibal’s mind during the ensuing battle at Antietam. Doubtless, Hannibal knew that that his brother was wounded, and perhaps felt guilty that he had been unable to protect his younger sibling. Eventually Tappan passed away, and he was later laid to rest at the Antietam National Cemetery. With Byron discharged, and Tappan dead, Hannibal was left alone to try to complete the remainder of his three-year enlistment without the support of his brothers. The 76th fought through many more battles, being in the worst of the fighting at Fredericksburg, yet Hannibal was spared each time.
Gettysburg: First on the Field Town of Gettysburg, from the west, along Seminary Ridge. Photo by Matthew Brady. Library of Congress
As the 76th once again marched north to repulse an invasion by the Army of Northern Virginia, the regiment passed through many towns that greeted them heartily and restored their worn-down morale. On a more solemn note, they also encamped within a mile and a half of the battlefield of South Mountain, where Hannibal must certainly have reflected upon the somber events of nearly a year prior. On June 30th, the regiment marched merely six miles, a respite from previous days of over twenty-five miles, and rested to draw their pay. For many, this would be the last time they did so. Awake by 6:00AM on July 1st, the 76th found itself as the lead regiment in the lead brigade of the lead division. This position would grant them the claim of “First on the Field” of the Union infantry regiments, but that laurel would cost them dearly. Only a few hours later, the 76th arrived at McPherson’s Ridge to support John Buford’s battered dismounted cavalry. Most of Lysander Cutler’s brigade was deployed south of the Chambersburg Pike, but the 370 men of the 76th NY were placed on the north side with only the 56th Pennsylvania beside them. Placed on the far right of the Union line, the 76th soon needed to refuse their flank, bending their line into an L-shape to fight off the 55th North Carolina, which was closing in on their right side. Confederate forces pressed the front of the regiment while simultaneously trying to work around their rear, and the order was given for Cutler’s regiments to fall back to Seminary Ridge. In only a half hour of fighting, the 76th New York had lost approximately 30 killed, including their commanding officer, Major Andrew Grover, and over 140 wounded, many of whom the regiment was forced to leave behind.
This withdrawal did not offer much rest for the regiment. As the rest of the Union I Corps arrived, Cutler’s brigade returned to the ridge they had recently retreated from. There, they fought another desperate battle within sight of their own dead and wounded from the first engagement. Allegedly, some wounded propped themselves up and cried “give it to them boys, never mind us,” as the 76th returned. Briefly falling back due to brutal Confederate artillery fire, the brigade was then able to flank a new attack by Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson’s Brigade; in this counterattack Union forces captured a flag from one of the Confederate regiments. Despite this minor victory, the Union forces eventually found themselves flanked, retreated to Seminary Ridge in early afternoon, and then fled through town towards Cemetery Hill, to the south.
We may never know whether Hannibal Howell died during the initial engagement or during the 76th NY’s ensuing counterattack. Nevertheless, the regiment was absolutely decimated at the Battle of Gettysburg. Going into battle with 370 men, records indicate that approximately 230 men were killed, missing, or wounded– a 62% casualty rate. Hannibal Howell was one of the approximately 30 that had been killed in action, while an additional 15 had been mortally wounded and 70 were missing, mostly from the first engagement. Nearly 120 additional men were wounded but ultimately recovered. These numbers place the 76th NY within the top 20 Union regiments in number of fatalities in the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Costs of Duty Unknown graves of the 76th New York, Gettysburg National Military Service. Photo by the author.
Hannibal’s death was far from the end of his wife’s anxieties. A thirty-page pension record details the many troubles Charlotte encountered as she sought to receive a pension to help her raise her children. Despite a fourteen-year marriage, she struggled to prove to the government that she and Hannibal had indeed been married. Part of the trouble was bureaucratic. Hannibal and Charlotte married in a town that was a part of Tompkins County in 1849, but had later been shifted to Schuyler County, potentially causing some documents to be lost in the transfer. While trying to clear this issue up, Byron, having recovered from whatever had led to his discharge, went on an exhaustive hunt for Reverend Richards, who had performed the marriage. Regrettably, Byron was unable to find Richards, and concluded that no public or private record of their marriage existed in March 1864. This, of course, didn’t dissuade Charlotte. Several people, including long term neighbors and respected townspeople, wrote affidavits confirming her marriage as well as the ages and parentage of her five children. This bureaucratic nightmare of the government must have added immeasurable stress to an already tumultuous life. She did finally receive the 8$ a month widow’s pension in Spring 1864, backdated to July 1st, 1863.
Of course, eight dollars was not enough to support five children, several of whom were extremely young. After the war, Congress passed legislation in 1866 entitling widows to a pension increase of two dollars for each child under the age of sixteen. By then, Byron had completed his schooling, and worked for free as Charlotte’s attorney to help her procure the additional funds. Examination of the pension records reveals that Byron used his new status as an attorney to help fight for pensions for the dependents of numerous Union soldiers, especially those who had fought in the 76th. Perhaps Byron saw this as a way to continue serving his country; although he could not complete his military service, he could serve the families of men who had given the ultimate sacrifice.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the Howell family had laid a costly sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Enlisting together in September of 1861, Hannibal, Byron, and Tappan could never have anticipated the things they’d see and the cost they’d pay. Byron, having returned home due to an unlisted disability, was likely wracked with guilt for the rest of his life, potentially feeling that he had abandoned his brothers while they continued to fight. Tappan, the youngest, had been mortally wounded at South Mountain in what many called most chaotic fight the 76th experienced, but held on for nearly two weeks, most likely in agony, before he finally passed. The circumstances surrounding Hannibal’s death may never be fully known, except that he was killed at some point during July 1st. Perhaps since he did not linger, wounded, for days, he suffered less. Of course, this would have been little comfort to a wife who now had few resources to raise five children under the age of sixteen. It is unclear where Hannibal now rests. His regiment was forced to leave his body behind when they withdrew, and the position where he fell was far behind Confederate lines for the remainder of the battle. He is listed as being buried on the battlefield, likely in a mass grave, and is never explicitly mentioned as being interred in the National Cemetery. His name is also placed on the stone where Charlotte is buried in Hector. Perhaps Charlotte was able to secure someone to travel to Gettysburg and return Hannibal’s body home. Or, maybe placing his name on the stone while he rested in an unknown grave far away was a way for his family to cope with the lack of closure. The memorial stone could have served as a way for the Howells to finally “reclaim” their son and have a physical place to pay their respects, though he could indeed rest there. Alternatively, Hannibal may now lie among thousands of other soldiers in the National Cemetery who gave the last full measure of devotion for Union and freedom, but who now quietly rest under a simple stone with an even simpler inscription: “Unknown.”
Busey, Travis and John Busey. Union Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive Record, Volume 1. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2011.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Howell, Steven. Hannibal Howell. Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=111496937 (Accessed October 18th.)
Murray, R.L. First on the Field: Cortland’s 76th and Oswego’s 147th New York State Regiments at Gettysburg. Wolcott: Benedum Books, 1998.
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – The First Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Smith, A.P. History of the 76th New York Volunteers. Reprinted Gaithersburg: Ron R. Van Sickle Military Books, 1988.
Narrative and map by Jonathan Tracey, Gettysburg College.