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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Alfred von Kleiser's "other" gun lost at New Market

The 30th New York Battery, commanded by Capt. Alfred von Kleiser (pictured), has the distinction of losing one of its guns to the Cadets of Virginia Military Institute at the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864. However, this was not the only gun von Kleiser’s battery lost in that battle, nor was the loss of that particular piece what would almost bring an abrupt end to von Kleiser’s military career.

Five pieces of artillery were lost by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s army at New Market. Three of these came from Capt. John Carlin’s Wheeling, West Virginia, battery. The other two were from von Kleiser: the one famously lost to the cadets, and another which had been disabled earlier in the fighting and in its damaged condition was unable to be brought off the field after the collapse of Sigel’s line. In the wake of the loss at New Market, von Kleiser would face accusations of “ignorance of drill, or else from utter carelessness” in allowing this damaged piece to fall into Confederate hands, and that von Kleiser himself be held responsible for the cost of a replacement gun: $625. An inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the loss of this particular cannon would go all the way to the desk of the Secretary of War.
A report on the issue by 1st Lt. George W. McKee to the Ordnance Department in Washington, dated May 28, 1864 reads [spelling and punctuation per original in von Kleiser’s Compiled Service Record, RG-94, National Archives]:

“There were five pieces of Artillery lost in an engagement at Newmarket: four of these were taken by the Rebels after the horses had been shot down, and no blame can be attached to the commanders for their loss.

“Of these four pieces, three belonged to Capt. [Ephraim] Chalfant’s [Carlin’s] and one to Capt. Von Kleiser’s battery. Capt. Von Kleiser’s battery afterwards lost another piece on account of the carriage breaking down. This piece (light 12 pdr) was thrown on the side of the road, and might very easily have been slung under the limber of a piece or caisson. I saw it being there for some fifteen or twenty minutes and, have no hesitation in saying that I could have slung it in five minutes, had I had any limber and six men to assist me. Lt. [L.A.C.] Geary of Capt. [Alonzo] Snow’s battery made a gallant attempt to take off this piece, when the Rebels had approached to a short distance, but it was then too late to sling it, and the piece had to be left on the field. Capt. [Henry] Dupont Battery “B” 5th U.S. Artillery, agreed with me at the time, that this piece might have been easily saved had Capt. Von Kleiser’s men known how to sling a gun.”

Brig. Gen. George D. Ramsay, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance, forwarded Lt. McKee’s report to the Adjutant General’s office apparently convinced of von Kleiser’s incompetence. Ramsay’s cover letter reads in part, “It appears that Captain A. Von Kleiser, Comd’g 30th New York Battery, lost one of his guns, a Light 12 Pdr, from ignorance of drill, or else from utter carelessness. To prevent such acts in future, I respectfully recommend that the value of the gun, ($625) be charged to him, and that his pay be stopped until the U.S. be reimbursed the value of the gun thus lost.”

The matter was shuffled around Washington and Department of West Virginia headquarters for the next few weeks, (during the Piedmont Campaign) no doubt leaving von Kleiser rather concerned about his future. The performance his battery turned in at Piedmont on June 5 however left no hint of “ignorance of drill,” as his gunners inflicted considerable losses on the Confederate forces engaged there.

Von Kleiser himself responded to the charges on June 13, in a two-page letter to Capt. Dupont, who had been promoted to Chief of Artillery following New Market: [spelling and punctuation as original]

“In regard to the recommendation of the Chief of Ordnance to have the value of a light 12 pdr gun, lost at New Market Va May 15th, 1864 charged against my pay, I have the honor to state, that the in the report of Lieut. McKee Ordnance Officer, mentioned piece, was not lost by carelessness or by want of drill, but, the right wheel of the piece having been entirely knocked off, while in position soon after the commencement of the battle, not by breaking down of the carriage, as reported by Lieut. McKee, the piece was ordered to proceed to the pike, join the caissons there, the aforesaid piece proceeded on the pike about ¾ of a mile, when the axle of the broken wheel became wedged in the stones on the pike. Extra horses were hitched before, all the men on hand put to work with Handspikes to get the axle loose – but all to no avail; the Carriage being obstructing the retreating column, the Lieutenant in charge of the Caissons was ordered to throw off the piece, clear the road by a Field officer of Cavalry, which was accordingly done, the carriage taken then out of the road. The piece was not abandoned, but, the Battery having during this time taken up 2 other positions, not men enough being with the Caissons to remount or sling the gun. The battle having ceased somewhat, Lieut. [Michael] Lang of my battery proceeded with a limber and detachment of men to bring off the piece. He would have succeeded if the Prolonge had not broke in several places, and if Capt. von Blucher of the 31st N.Y. Indept Battery having been ordered there by me on his own request to bring away the gun, had not countermanded Lieut. Lang’s orders, who had borrowed another Prolonge by this time, thereby caused a delay of time, the enemy advancing, the men were recalled by Order of Brig. Genl Sullivan. I here take the liberty to state, that no attempt was made by any other battery to bring off the gun, was reported by Lieut. McKee, but by my own and Lieut. Lang did not otherwise interest himself in the bringing away of the gun than by sending a Prolonge. As regards myself I do not think that any blame can be attached to me, as I have been with the rest of the battery in other positions and not near the disabled piece from the time of the knocking away of the wheel; if any blame is to be attached, it is in my opinion due to Capt. G. von Blucher, as the piece would have been brought away, if it had not been for him. Capt. A. Snow, the then Chief of Artillery, and 1st Lieut. Geary of Battery B, 1st Md. Arty. will certify to this as they both were present.”

At this point, the fortunes of war intervened, as von Kleiser was captured June 21 on the retreat from Lynchburg, and he would remain a prisoner until the following March.

Dupont, acting in his role as Chief of Artillery, then had to resolve the issue. On June 29, he sent his recommendation to Dept headquarters:

“The within report though not signed by Captain A. von Kleiser, Cdg 30th N.Y. Indt Battery was prepared by him and was awaiting his signature. Captain von K. has been missing since our affair with the enemy near Salem Va on the 30th inst. and is supposed to be a prisoner.

“Though only in command of my own Battery at the Battle of Newmarket, I am personally cognizant of the facts in relation to the loss of the gun referred to and am of opinion that no blame whatever should be attached to Captain von Kleiser whom I regard as a most efficient officer and as one particularly noticeable for gallantry and good conduct in the Battles of Piedmont and Lynchburg. I consider Captain G. von Blucher, 31st N.Y. Ind’t Battery (a fragmentary organization attached to the 30th N.Y. Ind’t Batt’y) as responsible for the loss of the gun.”

Department Commander Maj. Gen. David Hunter concurred with Dupont’s opinion, and sent the matter back to Washington for the official verdict. By the beginning of August, von Kleiser had been exonerated, and blamed for the loss of the Napoleon was placed on von Blucher. Von Kleiser would be paroled March 1, 1865, and officially discharged from the Army May 15, 1865, one year to the day after New Market.