May 15th, 2013: 17th New York Independent Battery in Washington, D.C.

Posted on: 05/08/2013

While the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia recovered from the Battle of Chancellorsville, a Union battery of artillery took the time to have some photos made.  The 17th New York Independent Battery was recruited in August of 1862 in northwestern New York State, and assigned to the XXII Corps in the defenses of Washington, D.C.  By the spring of 1863 they had not seen action yet, but were on standby should a Confederate force assault the capital.  Today we’ll examine the photos taken around 150th years ago today and meet some of the men featured in them.

The first photo we’re featuring is an often reproduced one that shows the six napoleons of the battery unlimbered and ready for action.

One of the neatest things about this image is its view of the capitol dome, then still under construction.  The officer on horseback in this zoon is Captain George Tobey Anthony, who we’ll catch up with later.  Also notice the cow behind and to the left of Captain Anthony standing in the field.  We’ll catch up with her again in a bit as well.

To the left of the image shows the guidon of the battery.  While the exact location of the photo isn’t known, we’re thinking it’s a view looking along an east-west axis, which means there was either a northerly or southerly wind blowing that day.  Southerly winds are more common around here, so we’re thinking this is a west facing view of the capital.

To the right of the photo is a good view of a section of guns.  Batteries, usually of 6 guns in the Union Army, were like companies in the infantry.  Several batteries made up a regiment of artillery, although batteries from the same regiments rarely operated together.  Sections were like platoons in an infantry company, usually comprised of two guns commanded by a lieutenant.  The battery commander would usually be a captain.  This view also gives a great view of the depth of a battery, with the limbers and caissons behind the guns, showing the sheer muscle power that it took to move these guns around.

Above is a second image probably taken the same day which, although it doesn’t show the capital, is more interesting.

The photo shows a great profile of a napoleon limbered up and ready to move.  In battle, here’s what that would have looked like:

Above: Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery going into action at Gettysburg, just hours before being completely overrun near the Trostle Farm after the collapse of the Peach Orchard.

Back to the 17th New York in May 1863, here we see the guns of the battery maneuvering out of a firing position.  The limbers came forward to the guns, limbered them up, and are filing back to the rear.  A maneuver like this would have shook the ground, and have been extremely unnerving for those not used to the presence of around 100,000 pounds of horse, men, guns, and equipment moving at once.  The officer gesturing with his sword is likely Captain Anthony again.

These spectators were no doubt fascinated by the spectacle.  They look like young boys, possibly from the nearby farms, who came out to watch the artillery drill.

This photo also gives a great view of a garrison camp.  The large tents and static lifestyle would have seemed luxurious to units on campaign, but by modern standards were obviously lacking in comfort.

A third photo was taken around this time of just the officers of the battery:

The Library of Congress caption for this reads “Photo shows (left to right): Unidentified man, 1st Lieut. Irving Meade Thompson, 2nd Lieut. Edwin Joel Barber, Capt. George Tobey Anthony, 1st Lieut. Hiram E. Sickels, and 2nd Lieut. Hiram D. Smith. (Source: Tom Taber, 2008).”  Now, let’s take for granted that these photos were all taken in one day, and the officers didn’t alter their appearance through the course of the photo series.  With that assumption, we think we’ve identified some of these men in the other views.

Here’s a close-up of the unidentified man, wearing a Hardee-style hat and a long private purchase sack coat.  In our first image of the battery in line in front of the capital, he may have been standing on the left side of the photo.

Next to the right of the officer’s photo, is First Lieutenant Irving Meade Thompson.  Thompson was 31 when he enlisted in August 1862, and served through his three year enlistment to be discharged in June 1865.  In 1864 the 17th New York Battery was transferred to the XVIII Corps of the Army of the James to serve around Petersburg.  It was there that on July 25 Thompson was wounded, although we couldn’t find the extent or nature of his injury.

Next up is Edwin Joel Barber.  He actually enlisted in August 1862 as a private, but must have had some talent as within a year he was an officers, something not all that common in the artillery.  He was discharged in June 1865 and wasn’t wounded at any point.  We couldn’t get a good match for him in the capital photo, but think the mounted figure one the left might be him.

At the head of the battery was Captain George Tobey Anthony.  Anthony was a 38 year old tinsmith when he received his commission in August 1862.  He survived his three year enlistment unscathed and received a brevet promotion to major at war’s end.  After the Civil War he moved to Kansas where he was elected governor in 1876, and served one term until 1879.  As another side note he was a second cousin of suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

Sitting to the right of Anthony in the officer’s photo was First Lieutenant Hiram D. Sickles, of no apparent relation to Union General Daniel Edgar Sickles.  Sickles was 35 years old when he was commissioned in 1862 and survived the war to be discharged in June 1865.

Lastly, at the right of the group, was Second Lieutenant Hiram D. Smith.  He was the youngest of the group at age 25 or 26 when this photo was taken.  He served with the battery from August of 1862 to June of 1865 unharmed.

Above we see the group of six officers numbered by their order of appearance from left to right in the portrait photo.  They are (1) Unidentified man, (2) 1st Lieut. Irving Meade Thompson, (3) 2nd Lieut. Edwin Joel Barber, (4) Capt. George Tobey Anthony, (5)1st Lieut. Hiram E. Sickels, and (6) 2nd Lieut. Hiram D. Smith.

One last figure we wanted to circle back to was this cow, who it seems managed to get captured in both images of the battery during its drill.  Not realizing she was being photographed, she moved while grazing the short grass around the battery, and therefore came up blurred because of the long exposure time of 1860’s photography.  There were large numbers of black cows in the United States during the Civil War, making it difficult to identify this individual.

In all seriousness, however, photos such as the ones we’ve examined today might seem mundane, not capturing famous figures or a particularly important moment in time, but what they can tell us about what it was like to experience the Civil War when looked at closely is truly fascinating.

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