The Face of War

Albert De Cost Burnett of Skaneateles was 16 years old when he enlisted in the Union army, and was much heralded as the village’s youngest volunteer. He was mustered in as a Private in Company I of the 101st Infantry, and on March 9, 1862, left New York for Washington, D.C. On June 9, 1862, he joined with the Army of the Potomac, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 3rd Corps.

The young man was fortunate in that the commanding general of the 3rd Corps was Gen. Philip Kearny, a soldier’s general, a man endowed with both bravery and common sense in generous proportions. But Albert Burnett was unfortunate, in equal measure, that the commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac was Gen. George B. McClellan who entered every battle thinking he was vastly outnumbered.

The Army of the Potomac’s goal that spring was to march on Richmond, the Confederate capitol. By the time Albert Burnett arrived, the Army of the Potomac was backing up. Albert Burnett’s “baptism of fire” was to be the Seven Days’ Battles, three engagements, each farther from Richmond.

At Oak Grove, on June 25th, Kearny’s troops fought well, but were ordered to retreat by McClellan who was managing the battle by telegraph from 3 miles away. Upon arriving at the front, he saw that the situation was not so bad and ordered his men to retake the ground they had already fought for and then abandoned. Nightfall ended the attempt.

At Glendale, on June 30th, Kearny’s men counter-attacked to save the Army’s line of retreat. And at Malvern Hill, on July 1st, the Union infantry looked on while the artillery did the work. From formidable defenses, the Union Army inflicted grievous damage on the attacking Confederate forces. So, of course, McClellan called for a retreat, all the way to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. This became known as “The Great Skedaddle.”

Albert Burnett had survived these three battles, but now faced a march of 25 miles through swampland, in Virginia, in the middle of the summer. An Army surgeon, Jonathan Letterman, later wrote, in part:

“The army when it reached Harrison’s Landing was greatly exhausted. The malaria from the borders of the Chickahominy [River] and from the swamps throughout the Peninsula to which it had been so freely exposed now began to manifest its baneful effects… the troops, just previous to their arrival at this point, had been marching and fighting for seven days and nights in a country abounding in pestilential swamps and traversed by streams greatly swollen by the heavy rains, which made that region almost a Sarbonean bog…*

“They were called upon to subsist upon a scanty supply of food, and but little time even to prepare the meager allowance. They had little time for sleep, and even when the chance presented itself it was to lie in the rain and mud, with the expectation of being called to arms at any moment. The marching and fighting in such a country… could not have other than the effect of greatly increasing the numbers of sick in the army after it reached Harrison’s Landing…

“Scurvy had made its appearance before its arrival there, the seeds of which had doubtless been planted some months previously, and was due not merely to the want of vegetables, but also to exposure to cold and wet, working and sleeping in the mud and rain, and to the inexperience of these troops in taking proper care of themselves under difficult circumstances.”

And he added:

“The [medical] supplies had been exhausted almost entirely or had from necessity been abandoned; the hospital tents had been almost universally abandoned or destroyed.”

The troops now arrived at a place wholly unprepared to deal with them. A writer for Harper’s Weekly (July  19, 1862) noted:

“The large Berkeley mansion, and the two smaller houses adjoining, as well as several negro huts in the vicinity, are all occupied as hospitals… our wounded officers and soldiers are now lying closely crowded together. Two of the rooms down stairs are used for amputations, and in this department of surgery the surgeons have been busy all day. For the want of space, the sick and those slightly wounded are made to go outside the house, there being room inside for the severely wounded alone.”

For those falling sick, “camp disease” was the diagnosis given, because often the doctors could not tell what a man might have, or which of his many ailments was actually killing him. The swamps on the Chickahominy River were full of mosquitoes, which spread malaria from infected troops to healthy arrivals. Men with malaria were driven by thirst to drink dirty water in bogs and thence come down with dysentery or typhoid, or dysentery and typhoid. Men who might survive one disease could not cope with two, three or even four at the same time. Diseases such as measles and mumps, which we think of lightly today, were killing weakened young men who had never been exposed to them before. And Albert Burnett was one of those weakened young men, one of thousands.

Dr. Letterman wrote:

“It was impossible to obtain proper reports of the number of the sick in the army when it reached Harrison’s Landing… After about 6,000 had been sent away on the transports, 12,795 remained…

“The rain began to fall heavily early on the morning of the 2d, and continued with little interruption until the evening of the 3d… The absence of tents prevented shelter being provided, and the vast majority, being slightly wounded, were obliged to find protection from the rain as best they could…

“The deadly malaria was now producing its full effects, and, together with the want of proper food and the exposure to the rains which had fallen so continuously, and the fatigues endured, was now being fully manifested in the prevalence of malarial fevers of a typhoid type, diarrheas, and scurvy.”

Among the thousands of sick men, Albert Burnett, 16, was battling typhoid, without shelter, without medicine. He held on until August 4th, when he breathed his last.

A doctor named Thomas Holmes had established an embalming depot in a large barn at Harrison’s Landing, making it possible for the remains of hundreds of young men to be sent home for burial. On August 14th, the Skaneateles Democrat ran two notices:

“As we go to press the bells are tolling out their requiem over all that is mortal of Albert D. Burnett, as he is being conveyed to his last resting place. But a few short months since, he gallantly volunteered in defence of his country, and has surrendered his young life upon the altar of the same for his country’s good. His remains reached this village Tuesday evening – close upon the announcement of his death. Requiescat in pace.”

“Died; At Harrison’s Landing, Va. August 4th, 1862 of camp (typhoid) fever, Albert De Cost Burnett, of Company I, 101st Regiment NYSV, son of Charles J. Burnett, Jr., of this Village. His body was embalmed, and brought to this place on Tuesday 12th, inst., and the funeral took place on the 13th inst.”

* * *

In the regiment Albert Burnett had joined just months before, 13 men had lost their lives to wounds received in action while almost three times that number, 48 men, had died of disease. Over the war, of the 620,000 men killed, fully 414,000 died of accidents and disease.

* * *

* In his letter above, the learned Dr. Jonathan Letterman alludes to the Serbonian Bog, a lake in Egypt where blowing sand created a quagmire that looked like solid land, in which entire armies were said to be swallowed and lost, as in this quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

A gulf profound, as that Serbonian bog
Betwixt Damiata and mount Casius old,
Where armies whole have sunk.

* * *

In 1864, George McClellan parlayed his incompetence as a General into a run for the Presidency. He lost, again, but with fewer casualties.

* * *

Other Sources: The Union Army: a history of military affairs in the loyal states, 1861-65 (1908); The Story of a Regiment Being a Record of the Military Service of the 57th New York State Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 by Gilbert Frederick; Report of Surgeon Jonathan Letterman, U. S. Army, Medical Director Army of the Potomac, of Operations from July 4 to September 2, 1862; New York in the War of the Rebellion (1912) by Frederick Phisterer.

* * *

My thanks to Laurie Winship, Director of the Creamery Museum of the Skaneateles Historical Society, whose finding and scanning of Pvt. Burnett’s photo sent me on this quest.

* * *

Albert De Cost Burnett is remembered in Skaneateles at St. James’ Episcopal Church by the Burnett window, where the A stands for Albert, and on the Civil War roll of honor.


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