Men Visible and Invisible

mssEC_03_040 - first engagement of monitor and merrimack

Telegram to William B Franklin. 1862, Mar. 8. (Ledger EC 3, p. 38).

Camp Williams Mar 8th 62 –
Gen WB Franklin
Washn
Jonathan Roberts says he could
not procure the two guides
he spoke to you about _
one has gone north &
the other is sick but
he recommends a man named
Myron Gregg who knows the
country well & he would
like to go himself. Gregg
is a New Yorker but
has lived here several years
E Sparrow Purdy
AAG

This seemingly routine and insignificant communication is a good example of how the communications in the Eckert ledgers can open new insights into those largely invisible corners of the Civil War. On March 8, 1862, the field operator at the headquarters of Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division of the Army of the Potomac at Camp Williams, Va. tapped out a message to the commanding general. The message had to be sent to Washington as Franklin had traveled there the day before, summoned by George B. McClellan.

On March 7, Lincoln had informed McClellan about doubts by some in Washington of McClellan’s loyalty. There were fear and suspicions that McClellan’s plan to shift the base of operations from Washington to Urbanna, a small tobacco port in the Lower Chesapeake, was designed to leave the Capital exposed to a Confederate attack. Furious, McClellan told the President that he would call a council of war and let the generals decide on the course of action.

Thus, Franklin’s arrival in Washington. McClellan’s plan was approved by the council of war, and on March 8, Lincoln gave his formal approval. As with many of the officers from the Civil War, we know quite a bit about the recipient of the telegram, William Buell Franklin. But who were the rest whose names appear in the telegram?

The man who sent Franklin the message, his AAG or Assistant Adjutant General, was Erastus Sparrow Purdy (1838-1881).  A New Yorker turned Californian and son of the Golden State’s third Lieutenant Governor, Purdy had had a rather colorful career before the war. Among other things, he was involved in the Charles P. Stone’s survey of the Sonora, which ended with an open confrontation with Mexican authorities. Later Purdy would end his career as an officer in the Egyptian army of Khedive Ismail.

But what of the subjects of the telegram, the local guides assisting the Union army? These are the ultimate invisible men of the Civil War. Like telegraph operators, they were civilians employed by the United States Army as scouts, guides, or spies. That distinction was somewhat arbitrary; guides and scouts could act like spies. And because the dealings between the army command and civilian scouts were kept off the books, there were no records kept, nor were the civilians entitled to any of the army benefits.

But who were these men? Was Jonathan Roberts the same man mentioned in the Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s report of about six hundred Union infantry “piloted by Jonathan Roberts” (OR, Series 1 – Volume 5, p. 950)? Perhaps. But what of Myron Gregg? This telegram is so far the only record of this other invisible man, the civilian willing to work with US Army in hostile territory. Myron Gregg, a New Yorker who had “lived here for several years,” is forgotten no more.

 

William B. Franklin

William B. Franklin. Hand colored lithograph. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Ehrgott, Forbiger & Co., ca. 1863). The Huntington Library

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One response to “Men Visible and Invisible”

  1. Craig says :

    Great new insights – thank you!

    Like

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