Monday, September 1, 2014

"Obscene and immoral:" Lt. Ezra Ripley and the Court Martial of Col. Ebenezer Pierce

Ebenezer Weaver Pierce, born in 1822 in Assonet, Massachusetts, was a member of an old New England family with some wealth. He attended several local academies, but did not attend college. Instead, he took up sheep farming and joined the Massachusetts State Militia, where he served until the beginning of the Civil War, advancing to the rank of brigadier general in the militia. In the early months of the war, Pierce (right) served with Benjamin Butler and in June 1861 led the Union forces at the battle of Big Bethel in Virginia, with disastrous results. In December, despite the debacle at Big Bethel, he was named colonel of the 29th Massachusetts Infantry. Initially posted at Fortress Monroe, his regiment witnessed the historic naval battle between the Monitor and the Virginia. The 29th Massachusetts would see a great deal more in the coming months and years, including service in Mississippi in 1863. Before the colonel ever witnessed his men in battle against the Confederates, however, he had to withstand a coup attempt from within own regiment. One man in particular was determined to have Pierce removed from command: Lt. Ezra Ripley.

Ripley, born in 1826, was one of seven children born to Samuel and Sarah Ripley. Samuel Ripley, his father, was a Harvard divinity school graduate and a prominent Unitarian minister in Waltham, Massachusetts. His grandfather and namesake, Rev. Ezra Ripley (below left), was an even more prominent Puritan preacher in Concord. When the elder Ezra's first wife died, he married the widow of William Emerson, the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thus, Ralph Waldo Emerson became Rev. Ripley's stepson. When the elder Ezra died (he was, as an aside, a witness to the Revolutionary War fight at Concord), Emerson wrote a memorial to him, in which he described his stepfather as "a perfectly sincere man, punctual, severe, but just and charitable, and if he made his forms a strait-jacket to others, he wore the same himself all his years." Samuel and Sarah Ripley, meanwhile, operated an academy in Waltham where they trained young men to enter Harvard. Sarah was herself classically educated and taught Greek, Latin and German to both the students and her growing family. She was also tolerant, if not supportive, of the Transcendental movement espoused by Emerson and was one of the few women who regularly attended their meetings. In 1846, having raised her brood of children, Samuel and Sarah retired to the Old Manse in Concord to escape the "dreary passage of constant labours and homesick boys." Unfortunately, Samuel died the next year; Sarah lived for another twenty years. The Old Manse in Concord (above left), built in 1770, where both the Emersons and Ripleys lived, is now a National Historic Landmark. Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived there for about three years, and composed some twenty works at the Old Manse.

Ezra Ripley, like his father, graduated from Harvard in 1846 and practiced law in the years before the Civil War. Seized by patriotic fervor, however, the 35-year-old Ripley enlisted in the fight to save the Union and to free the slaves (he was an avowed Abolitionist). Hardly an ideal candidate for the army, he was described as "slender, delicate, sensitive, and [a] peculiarly unwarlike person" with less than robust health. Perhaps due to his family connections, however, Ezra Ripley secured an appointment as a lieutenant in Co. B, 29th Massachusetts Infantry. It was during the regiment's stay at Fortress Monroe that the trouble erupted between Ripley and the colonel of the regiment, Ebenezer W. Pierce. In the spring of 1862, Ripley and several others brought charges against Col. Pierce for several reported indecent activities, including forcing several privates to give a concert composed of "certain improper, vulgar and indecent songs," during which the commanding officer "did laugh and encourage them while singing." Specifically, his accusers claimed the song 'The Farmer's Daughter' was "very vulgar." In addition, the colonel was accused of having in his possession (in a locked drawer) "obscene and immoral literature" containing "low and bawdy" pictures and engravings. Finally, he was accused of leaving his post to consort with some of the local slave women at a nearby plantation. Almost as an afterthought, the colonel was accused of incompetency as an officer and with assaulting a private without cause. Clearly, there was bad blood among many of the officers of the 29th Massachusetts. The resulting trial lasted eight days, during which a host of witnesses, both in support and in opposition to Col. Pierce, were paraded before the judges' panel. After hearing copious testimony concerning the nature of the song 'The Farmer's Daughter' and the contents of a "vulgar" book entitled Frances Hill, the colonel was found guilty on three counts and recommended for dismissal from the service. However, Gen. John Wool, a 78-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 and Mexican War in charge of the Norfolk and Fortress Monroe area (in fact the oldest general on either side), vacated the ruling, judging the whole affair to be an internal disagreement over rank and privilege rather than morality. With Col. Pierce cleared and back in command, things would not go well for the chief accuser, Lt. Ezra Ripley, who would remain a lieutenant while others advanced in rank. In a memoir of Ripley published at Harvard, the biographer wrote that "some reasons interfered with his promotion, which were in a high degree honorable to him, but they cannot properly be mentioned here."

After serving throughout the Peninsula Campaign and the horrific battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry, as part of the IX Corps, moved to Kentucky and then to Mississippi, where they arrived in the midst of the Vicksburg Campaign. By the time the regiment arrived in Mississippi, Col. Pierce was no longer with his unit, having lost his right arm to a Confederate cannonball at White Oak Swamp, Virginia. After recovering, he requested a return to active service and was assigned a brigade command in the IX Corps. Although he remained in Kentucky, his old regiment - including Lt. Ripley - arrived in mid-June at Vicksburg. The sweltering heat must have been a shock to the Eastern seaboard troops, who had never been farther south than the Bluegrass state. For the men who were already in poor health, the conditions were not favorable. According to the unit's historian, "Deaths were very frequent among the troops here during this time, burial parties were almost constantly engaged, and the funeral notes of the fife and drum could be heard nearly every hour in the day. None save the strongest came out of that campaign in sound health." Indeed, the "delicate and sensitive" Lt. Ezra Ripley would not survive the sojourn to Mississippi. When the 29th Massachusetts marched with the rest of the IX Corps to participate in the siege of Jackson in mid-July, Ripley was unable to make the march, though he tried to reach the unit in the back of an open wagon, no doubt hopeful that he might finally advance in rank through some heroics. By the time he arrived in Jackson, however, the week-long siege had ended and the unit was returning to Vicksburg. He returned in an ambulance, stricken further by the excessive heat. The 29th Massachusetts was one of three Massachusetts regiments to serve in Mississippi during the Vicksburg and Jackson campaigns. All three are memorialized by the Massachusetts monument (above), located on Grant Circle in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Massachusetts monument was the first such monument to be erected, at a cost of $4,500, and was designed by sculptor Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson.

With his health declining, Ripley decided to go home and boarded a steamer on July 28 bound for New England. As the boat passed the city of Vicksburg, he "spoke of the many comrades who had fallen there, and sadly asked that he might be lifted up to look once more upon that fatal spot." Too sick to even sit up without assistance, he died at 11:00 that night on board the boat while "a cool night breeze...was blowing through the open doors of his room." Before he died, he dictated a letter to a comrade to deliver to his wife. Lt. Ripley's body was left at Helena, Arkansas, and buried in the military cemetery there. Later, his remains were moved to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, joining his his father and grandfather in death. Inscribed on his monument is the following:

"In memory of Ezra Ripley, Lieutenant of the Twenty-ninth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers - born at Waltham, August 10, 1826 - died on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, July 28, 1863. Of the best Pilgrim stock, descended from officers in the Revolutionary army, and from a long line of the ministers of Concord, he was worthy of his lineage. An able and successful lawyer, he gave himself with persistent zeal to the cause of the friendless and the oppressed. Of slender physical strength, and of a nature refined, sensitive, and delicate, he was led by patriotism and the live of freedom to leave home and friends for the toilsome labors of war, and shrank from no fatigue or danger, until, worn out in her service, he gave up his life for his country."

When news reached his mother, Sarah Ripley, she was naturally distraught. She died a couple of years later in 1867. Ripley's widow never remarried and lived until 1917. *  Meanwhile, Col. Pierce, despite losing his right arm, served with his regiment during the siege of Knoxville, where he had some rather harsh observations about the women of East Tennessee. In a letter from January 1864, Pierce observed that "... The greatest difficulty with which East Tenn has to contend [...] its women, its lazy, nasty, slip shod, tobacco chewing, pipe smoking and snuff dipping women. Bring to East Tennessee a race of men in intellect equal to Daniel Webster and Henry Clay and any other great men of whom our country can boast to have raised since the discovery of this continent and let those men intermarry with the she apes of East Tennessee falsely called women and the progeny will still continue to be a smock faced, pug nosed curly haired, unmeaning clam water closed eyed, half asleep, demi-idiotic race as at present." After leaving Tennessee (no doubt at the delight of both Col. Pierce and the local women), the 29th Massachusetts saw action at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, where Pierce commanded a brigade. He was discharged on November 4, 1864, however, for "general nervous debility" and returned to Assonet, Massachusetts. After the war, he tried unsuccessfully to make money in real estate and then, according to one source, "passed the remainder of his days in no especial business," although he successfully published several books on local history and genealogy, including one with the very long title of Indian history, biography, and genealogy: pertaining to the good sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe, and his descendants: with an appendix (below left). Perhaps due to his inability to find meaningful work, his wife Irene obtained a divorce in 1875. Their only child, a son named Palo Alto Pierce, became an alderman in Freetown, Massachusetts. The old colonel remarried in 1892 and then died in 1902. He is buried in the Assonet Burying Ground in Massachusetts, although his grave does not appear in cemetery lists.

Conflicts among officers in a Civil War regiment, especially early in the conflict, weren't that unusual, as men were often jockeying for position. The trial of Col. Pierce on charges of immorality, however, are a bit unusual, and the reasons for it are still a bit murky. Perhaps he really was a vulgar man (considering his observations about East Tennessee women), but perhaps it was that Lt. Ripley was an equally moralistic and judgmental man, given his background. Perhaps Col. Pierce was an incompetent soldier, considering his handling of troops at Big Bethel. However, his service later in the war does not indicate any particular incompetence or cowardice in battle. Perhaps -- and this is pure speculation -- Col. Pierce wasn't acceptable to Ripley and his supporters because Pierce wasn't an ardent Abolitionist. Or it could be as simple as a class struggle - Ripley may have believed that, due to his prominent family and Harvard education, he should by right have been promoted to command over a sheep farmer (he would certainly not be the only officer during the Civil War to have such patrician tendencies). We will perhaps never know the true cause.

* Although born after his death, one of Ezra's nephews (and named for him) was Ezra Ripley Thayer.  In 1913, Thayer was Dean of the Harvard School of Law. When Cole Porter, the famous American songwriter, enrolled in Harvard Law School that year, Thayer suggested that Porter might be better suited in music and suggested he enroll in Harvard's music school. Without telling his parents, Porter took Thayer's advice.

For more information of the trial of Col. Pierce, please see Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-Martial of Fifty Union Colonel and Lieutenant Colonels by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D. (1997).

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Ebenezer Pierce: From The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time, Volume 11 (1909)
(2) Rev. Ezra Ripley:
(3) Old Manse:
(4) Court Martal:
(5) Massachusetts monument:
(6) Ripley grave:
(7) Book:
(8) Pierce:

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