Colors

In 1841, newly elected President William Henry Harrison was rushed headlong to his grave by the ceaseless entreaties of job seekers and a bout of pneumonia (or arsenic and lead poisoning; accounts vary) that killed him after just one month in office. But he was remembered by many namesakes.

One of them, William H. H. Crosier, was born in Skaneateles in 1844. Crosier grew up in the Village and in 1862, at the age of 18, enlisted here in the 149th New York Infantry and went off to do battle in the War of Secession. He was slightly wounded in the face at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on November 24, 1863, but continued to serve in his company.

On May 1, 1864, William Crosier was appointed Color Sergeant, perhaps by an officer who noted that “crosier” is derived from the Old French “croisier,” one who bears a cross, and “crossier,” one who bears a staff. And so Sgt. William Crosier came to carry his company’s colors at the Battle of Peachtree Creek in July of 1864.

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was closing in on Atlanta with three armies. One, the Army of the Cumberland under General George Thomas, advanced from the north and began crossing Peachtree Creek on July 19th. Confederate General Joseph Johnston had planned to attack the Union army as its forces were divided by the rain-swollen river. But on the eve of the battle, President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with General John Bell Hood. By the time Hood was ready, the Union army had crossed and taken high ground. On July 20th, Hood attacked. The armies fought continuously for five hours, so close at times that their guns almost touched.

At the height of the battle, the color bearer for the 33rd Mississippi stood directly in front of the lines of the 33rd Indiana and waved his flag back and forth in their faces.

Raised in the modern era of warfare, it may be difficult for us to understand the notion of a color bearer and the passion they inspired. They were unarmed, walking bulls-eyes for opposing riflemen, but provided a visible rallying point in the storm of battle.

In a letter to his wife, Private Mathew Dunn of the 33rd Mississippi wrote, “Our color bearer was killed. Others attempted to get the colors and were wounded. So we lost our colors. The 22nd Reg. had three color bearers shot down, one was Claudy Davis, he was waving the colors when he fell… 7 men were killed and wounded saving their flag. It was a very bloody affair.” In fact, every Confederate color bearer was killed that day.

On the Union side, carrying the colors of the 149th New York, William Crosier was shot through the neck and set upon by Rebel troops. But he did not give up the colors. Fighting not to drown in his own blood, Crosier stripped the colors from the fallen standard and carried them safely back to his line before collapsing.

William Crosier was hospitalized, survived, and was discharged from the army on May 5, 1865. His bravery was long remembered. On January 12, 1892, William H. H. Crosier was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As for the Battle of Peachtree Creek, not all the day’s stories were tales of bravery. The colors of the 33rd Mississippi were captured by W. H. Connor of the 33rd Indiana. After the battle was over, a staff officer, one Capt. Beecher, rode up to Connor and said, “Soldier, let me take the flag and I will take care of it for you.” Connor handed the flag over and never saw it again. Many years later, the flag was returned to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, inscribed, “Captured by the 26th Regt. Wisconsin Vols.” Well, sort of.

* * *

A second Medal of Honor recipient was born in Skaneateles, in 1843;  his name was Irwin Shepard and he went west to Michigan some time after that. When duty called, Shepard enlisted with the 17th Michigan.

On the night of November 20, 1863, near Knoxville, Tennessee, he was part of a small party sent behind enemy lines under cover of darkness to set fire to buildings that had been harboring sharpshooters. The plan, however, did not provide for every contingency.

After setting the first building ablaze, the men suddenly found themselves brightly illuminated, clearly outlined and the object of much unwelcome attention. The indignant rebel troops opened fire with everything at their disposal, including cannons. The order was given to retire and everyone in the party did, briskly, with the exception of Irwin Shepard. While all hell broke loose around him, he remained and set fire to each and every one of the other buildings before sprinting back to his own lines.

For his courage under fire, the committed young arsonist was awarded the Medal of Honor, issued on August 3, 1897.

The Village also cherishes the memory of a third Medal of Honor recipient, General Jonathan Wainwright, born in Walla Walla, Washington, but enlisted out of Skaneateles, a hero of World War II who returned here after the war to a hero’s welcome.

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