Nathaniel Frederick Marsh was an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. On the morning of July 1, 1862, the Honesdale resident found himself standing center stage with a group of men destined to become legends in the annals of American military history. Although the encounter lasted only a few minutes and was uneventful in every regard, an unusual turn of events caused the details of his innocuous conversation to be preserved for the ages, an inadvertent footnote in history.
In the summer of 1862, Dr. Marsh was serving as a surgeon in the Army of the Potomac attached to the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. Between June 26 and July 1, the army clashed with General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Richmond in a series of pitched battles known as the Seven Days. On June 30 the Pennsylvania Reserves were one of four divisions detailed to cover the retreat of the Union army to the James River. Their lines were drawn near the village of Glendale, where about mid-afternoon they were attacked by the divisions of James Longstreet and A.P. Hill. It was a severe, prolonged contest that seesawed back and forth, at times falling into savage hand-to-hand combat. The greater part of the attacking column fell against Pennsylvania Reserves who were fighting their third battle in five days, and who on this day suffered the loss of three generals amongst its eleven hundred casualties – General Simmons was killed; General Meade, wounded; and division commander, General George A. McCall, captured. The rearguard held its ground until nightfall, slipping away before daylight. When his comrades marched off to join the rest of the army, Dr. Marsh remained behind to care for the wounded and was captured.
By mid-August Dr. Marsh was released from captivity and home again on furlough. On August 14, 1862 The Honesdale Democrat, a local newspaper of that era ran a brief article regarding his return, stating that he and a number of other prisoners had been held under guard crammed into an old, lice infested tobacco warehouse and subsisted on rations of one pound of beef per day – a meager diet his captors “excused on the ground that the Confederate troops were treated no better”. Upon the expiration of his furlough Marsh was fit enough to return to duty.
Were it not for the contentious nature of the Army of the Potomac – more renowned for intrigue and infighting amongst its officers than for victories on the battlefield – Dr. Marsh’s story would never have come to light. His account of the July 1st incident emerged the following November when the Honesdale man was dragged into a dispute of honor between his commander, General McCall, and General Joseph Hooker.
The dispute began following McCall’s return to the Army of the Potomac in early August as part of a prisoner exchange. A month long stint in Libby Prison had proven hard on the sixty year-old general, and he was granted a leave of absence to recover his health. Returning to his farm in West Chester, Pennsylvania he was mortified to learn that during his captivity newspapers throughout the north published General Hooker’s official report of the battle at Glendale, an account bearing allegations of cowardice on the part of McCall’s command. Hooker stated that McCall’s troops had been completely routed by the enemy, had run end to end through Hooker’s lines in a state of panic, and in their confusion had even fired upon and killed a number of his troops. Heaping insult upon injury Hooker implied his command was in greater danger of being overrun by the Pennsylvania Reserves than by the enemy.
Infuriated, McCall launched a determined campaign to retrieve the honor of his besmirched troops. The two generals exchanged heated correspondence even while the armies marched and fought battles at Manassas, South Mountain and Antietam – where many of the defamed men now lay dead. As the controversy raged on it drew in an ever widening circle of officers and threatened to become a divisive issue within the army. Generals Meade, Seymour, and an endless procession of colonels submitted depositions refuting Hooker’s charge; Major General Fitz John Porter, commanding the corps in which the Reserves served, forwarded statements to General McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, stating the services of the Reserves had been “distinguished,” and that “had not McCall maintained his position” a large portion of the army would have been cut off from its retreat to the James River.
It was to no avail. Not only did General Hooker refuse to retract the allegation, he fanned flames higher by appending his original report, stating the Pennsylvania Reserves “nobly redeemed” themselves on the battlefields of South Mountain and Antietam. McCall was not at all satisfied by this compromise; it was his contention that his troops had never been in need of redemption to begin with.
After all else had failed in this clash of titans, McCall produced his star witness. Ironically, the man he turned to as a last resort was not a general or even a colonel, but a mere surgeon in the medical corps by the name of Nathaniel Frederick Marsh.
From a hospital in Washington, Dr. Marsh penned a letter to his former commander on November 25, the last person to weigh in on the controversy. He wrote:
After the battle of 30th June I remained at Willis’ Church with a large number of our wounded. The next morning I was directed by General (Stonewall) Jackson to report to General Lee. I found General Lee in company with Generals Longstreet, Magruder, and Hill on the New Market Road. I addressed General Lee, and informed him that I was a Federal surgeon, and had remained to care for our wounded, and wished protection and supplies for our men. He promised supplies, and directed General Longstreet to write the necessary permit.
At the time I approached they were discussing the battle of the previous day, being then on the ground. General Longstreet asked me if I was present. I replied I was. He asked me what troops were engaged. I replied, I only knew the division I was connected with, McCall’s, which fought just where we then were. General Longstreet said, ‘Well, McCall is safe in Richmond [captured]; but if his division had not offered the stubborn resistance it did on this road we would have captured your whole army. Never mind; we will do it yet’.
On Thursday, July 3, General Roger A. Pryor came into the church (hospital), and we had a long conversation. He repeated, in substance, what Longstreet had said, and spoke in the highest terms of the ‘pluck displayed by McCall’s Pennsylvania troops’.
The interest I felt in the Reserve Corps made me careful to remember these acknowledgments of the rebel generals.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant, N.F. Marsh, Surgeon, Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry.
A better endorsement could not be had than accolades from the enemy against which he fought. When McCall submitted the testimonials to be added to the official record in December 1862, his cover letter singled out Marsh’s report above all others as definitive proof regarding the behavior of his troops.
But McCall failed in his campaign to elicit a retraction, and having no further recourse than to allow the record to speak for itself he let the matter drop.
For George McCall the Glendale affair was a sad final chapter in a military career that spanned four decades. He never fully recovered his health and after an eight month leave of absence resigned his commission on March 31, 1863. It would have been a great consolation to the general to know that history would remember his Pennsylvania Reserves in a more favorable light than it did his antagonist.
General Hooker came by the handle of “Fighting Joe” accidentally, but it suited him perfectly. He was a capable field commander who fought hard battles both on and off the battlefield. Quarrelsome and ambitious to a fault, the episode with McCall helped to solidify his reputation as an intriguer and earn the distrust of many of the army’s senior officers. When Hooker replaced Ambrose Burnside as commander of the hapless Army of the Potomac in January 1863, General Darius Couch would later write that he and a number of other generals who “had abundant opportunities to study Hooker’s military character . . . believed that Mr. Lincoln committed a grave error in his selection”. Hooker’s promotion came only a month after the book had closed on the McCall flap, and to which controversy Couch was undoubtedly referring in forming a low opinion Hooker’s character. It was Couch’s assertion that he was not alone in believing Fighting Joe had advanced his own cause at the expense of a fellow officer.
Hooker did not remain at the helm of the army for long. In May of 1863 he led it to disaster at Chancellorsville and was removed from command. It is with no small sense of poetic justice that the man he handed the reins to, and who would ultimately lead the army to victory at Appomattox, was General George Meade of the Pennsylvania Reserves.
Of Nathaniel Frederick Marsh little is known. Naturalization records place him in New York City in October of 1847. By 1850 he was in Honesdale Borough, boarding in the home of Elephete and Elizabeth Wood. Census records state he was then twenty-six years of age, a native of England and listed his occupation as chemist – nineteenth century vernacular for a pharmacist. Prior to the 1860 census Marsh had elevated his station in life to MD and had started a family; records for that year identified his wife and daughter only as M.E. and L.P. Marsh, ages twenty-five and three, respectively.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Marsh traveled to Harrisburg to offer his services, and in June received a commission as a surgeon in the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. He resigned his commission on December 6, 1862, less than two weeks after penning his letter to General McCall. What became of him after that is a mystery. He does not appear on the 1870 census rolls for Wayne County or anywhere else; nor can a record of his death be found.
In 1884 the Government Printing Office reproduced the Marsh letter in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 11, part II, p. 397. To a Civil War researcher the letter is an interesting tale of a common man’s chance encounter with men immortalized in American history. But to the thousands of men who fought, suffered and died in the ranks of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, the Honesdale man’s page in history is an enduring tribute to the valor with which they fought in the battle at Glendale.
[This article appeared in the March 29, 2002 edition of the Wayne Independent, Honesdale, PA].
- War of the Rebellion: Official Records of Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 11, Part II. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884.
- Bates, Samuel P., History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65. Volume 1. Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.
- Sypher, J.R., History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, 2 Volumes. Lancaster, Pa: Elias Barr & Co. 1865.
- Sears, Steven W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992.
- ohnson, Robert U. & Buel, Clarence C., eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III. Secaucus, NJ, Castle Books.
- Honesdale Democrat. Issues: June 20, 1861; August 14, 1862.
- Immigration and Naturalization Record: Reel 28, no. 1102.
- Wayne County Census, 1850.
- Wayne County Census, 1860.
- Wayne County Census, 1870.