|Charles H. EAGER - the biography
Researched and written by Paul McCray
|When Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000, three-month volunteers
and then 42,000, three-year volunteers in the spring of 1861, the men of Worcester County,
Massachusetts were ready. In response to the secession movement in the South, the Ninth
Regiment of the Massachusetts Militia had already reactivated. Five companies were
organized, each mostly made up of volunteers from a particular town in Worcester County.
In many cases, young men of that county who were no longer living in the area returned to
join a company with their friends and relatives. After changing their structure to match
that of the regular army, three of these companies, A, B, and C, were made part of the
Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was mostly made up of Worcester
recruits. As the Fifteenth was not as complete as other regiments, it was not part of the
first call for three-month volunteers but was mustered in on June 12, 1861 as three-year
One example of these volunteers was Charles Henry Eager. Eager, a native of Worcester, was working in Baltimore for a hardware dealer in early 1861 and was appalled at what was happening to his country. He was a self-described patriot and Union man who, on April 19th, may have witnessed the attack on the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment as they passed through Baltimore on their way to defend the nations capital. The secessionist atmosphere of the city afterwards was shocking to Eager. In an April 27, 1861 letter to his brother Alfred, Eager wrote that "for several days a Union Man did not dare avow his sentiment, it really seemed they were never to be found and the glorious old Star & Stripes were no where to be seen ." About this same time, Eagers employer, Mr.DeYoung, had begun laying off his staff, leaving only Eager in his service. Perhaps because of the violence in the city and the unsettled nature of his job, Eagers wife, Libbie, left Baltimore at the end of April and he soon followed.
Charles Eager joined the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers on July 12, 1861 as a Sergeant in Company B, a unit recruited at Fitchburg, but mostly made up of men from other Worcester towns. During the month of July, the men of the Fifteenth received supplies, including overcoats, knapsacks, canteens and a shipment of muskets on the 26th. These muskets were of the smoothbore variety and were well used. Eventually, many of the weapons were found to be unfit for service. The regiment spent much of their time at Camp Scott drilling and preparing for battle.5
On August 1, 1861, Eager received a promotion to Second Lieutenant of Company B.6 He and the rest of the regiment left Camp Scott and traveled by steam boat and train to Baltimore, where they marched through the city on the same route as the Sixth Massachusetts when they were attacked. With that incident fresh in their minds, the commander of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, Colonel Devens, ordered ammunition passed out and loaded. As the men began to load their weapons, a crowd gathered to watch and when one of the firearms accidentally discharged, a stampede took place.
|After their destination was changed from Harpers Ferry to Washington, the
regiment again boarded a train, this time riding in freight cars. They spent the next few
weeks three miles outside the nations capital at Camp Kalorama, continuing to drill
and earning praise for their proficiency. 7 The gravity of their impending
involvement in the war was beginning to weigh heavily on Charles Eager and he wrote his
wife on August 12 telling her "
I will appropriate the surplus of my first
months pay to an insurance on my life."8
On August 25, the regiment marched to Poolesville, Maryland where they joined General Charles P. Stones Corps of Observation. Company B was assigned to the line of pickets guarding the Maryland shore opposite Leesburg, Virginia and had their first glimpse of the enemy. The soldiers of the Fifteenth Massachusetts learned at this time how poor their firearms were when they and the Mississippi pickets began trading shots across the river. A Massachusetts soldier wrote that the Confederate pickets could shoot across the river and three hundred yards further while his musket could barely put a ball past the other shore. After agreeing to cease the ineffective shooting at one another across the river, the two sides started to meet in the shallow areas of the river to trade food and newspapers.9
Mail call was an important event to the soldiers as six hundred letters were, on average, either arriving at or departing the camp. Eager was a prolific writer, sending out an average of one letter per week to either his wife or brother and complaining when he hadnt heard from his wife.10
On October 20, 1861, the relatively peaceful time on the Potomac for the Fifteenth Massachusetts would come to an end. The Union army wanted to try to drive the Confederates out of Leesburg and planned a multi-part movement to accomplish this. General Stone knew that General McCall, with 12,000 infantry, would be advancing west along the Leesburg Turnpike from Dranesville. He hoped that they would occupy the attention of the army occupying Leesburg and to further draw their focus, he ordered Colonel Gorman to feint an attack at Edwards Ferry, on the Potomac northeast of Leesburg. The main force to move on Leesburg would be crossing at the shallow area called Smarts Mill Ford, north and upstream from Edwards Ferry. On the night of October 20, Stone sent a small reconnaissance party, headed by Captain Chase Philbrick of Company H, across the river at Balls Bluff, about halfway between Edwards Ferry and Smarts Mill. This area had a steep embankment with a single, narrow path climbing to a small field and cart path. Philbrick reported sighting a small unguarded camp and the decision was made to send part of the Fifteenth Massachusetts back across to destroy the camp, while the remainder of the forces now gathered on the Maryland shore would cross at Smarts Mill.11
Just after midnight on October 21, Colonel Devens of the Fifteenth Massachusetts marched his men from their camp near Poolesville to the Potomac River opposite Balls Bluff. They had to cross one side of the river to Harrisons Island and then from there to the Virginia side. With only a few small boats, this difficult crossing meant that the first four companies did not begin climbing the bluffs until 8 a.m. When Devens reached the area of the enemy encampment, he discovered that what Philbrick had thought were tents were actually rows of haystacks. During this time, soldiers from the Seventeenth Mississippi posted at Smarts Mill heard the invading troops and attacked them about a mile from the river. Within a short period of time, two companies from the Eighteenth Mississippi and three from Jenifers cavalry joined the fight.12 At this point, Stones plan was still working as the Confederates had been pulled away from Smarts Mill. The rest of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, along with the Twentieth Massachusetts, the 71st Pennsylvania and the 42nd New York, would be able to cross and flank the Confederate troops.
Major John Kimball and Company B of the Fifteenth were preparing to move to Smarts Mill to join Col. Ward and the second battalion when they were told that Ward had ascended the bluffs to join Col. Devens. Lt. Howe, adjutant to the regiment, had crossed back to the Maryland side and given a false report that Devens was in trouble and that the rest of the Union forces should cross at Balls Bluff immediately. Company B went up the bluffs and was sent to the front lines to relieve Company A as skirmishers. Eager held back his platoon as a reserve while Capt. Simonds engaged the enemy. Simonds platoon was soon overwhelmed and Eagers reserves brought up.13
Later in the day, the field commander, Col. Edward Baker was killed and the Union forces, which included the New York and Pennsylvania troops, were overwhelmed. The price of bringing most of the force into battle at a difficult spot on the river was that the lines of retreat were even more difficult. Many soldiers were shot as they made their way down to the narrow shelf along the river while others drowned trying to swim the river. Col. Devens had ordered his men to throw their weapons in the river to keep the enemy from getting them and to make their way across the river as best they could. Charles Eager found himself with others of his company who could not swim and suggested that they stay together, make their way up the river and try to find a boat. A nearby group of soldiers from the Fifteenth were getting ready to try the crossing and convinced Eager to let them take him with them. Col. Devens appeared just as the group was starting out and they assisted him across as he also could not swim.14 The party made it across safely, although many others were not so fortunate.
The Union losses at Balls Bluff were heavy and shocked the nation. The casualty list showed that out of 1720 Union soldiers in the battle, 49 were killed, 158 were wounded and 553 were prisoners. There were also 161 missing and likely to have drowned in the river. Bodies of the soldiers were found as far downstream as Washington D.C. The Fifteenth Massachusetts sustained more casualties than any other regiment in the battle, with an estimated three hundred and thirty-four, while Company B suffered the most of all the companies within the regiment.15 For the rest of the war, the losses at Balls Bluff would be the mark against which every other battle would be measured.
After reading Charles Eagers letters describing in detail the horror of the battle, his wife Libbie apparently became very concerned with the danger her husband had been in and probably would experience again. In his letter of November 8, 1861, he asks her to not " mourn over the result of the fight on the 21st." He takes her to task for wishing he would come home, saying that he is in this for the war and would feel " sorry to leave as long as there is anything left of the 15th Mass." He reassures her that "You may bet your life we shall not get into another place where we cannot retreat "16
After the debacle at Balls Bluff, the Fifteenth Massachusetts stayed in camp at Poolesville and then moved to the Harpers Ferry and Bolivar Heights area. The commander of Company B, Captain Simonds, had been captured at Balls Bluff, so its leadership fell to Lt. Eager and he received the pay of company commander for November 1861 through March 1862. On December 5, the regiment was issued new Springfield rifled muskets to replace the smooth bore muskets that many blamed for the loss at Balls Bluff.17
In late March, Eager sought out Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson to try to get a commission as an officer in the regular army. He found Wilson to be friendly and sociable, but ultimately, unable to help him. Wilson told Eager that Secretary of War Seward had adopted an unjust rule requiring volunteers to serve their three year term before receiving a commission.18
This did not totally ruin Eagers ambitions for the war. A few weeks later, he wrote his wife from the siege of Yorktown to tell her that, due to a transfer of Adjunct Baldwin, he was now the Acting Regimental Adjunct. The Regimental Quartermaster was also being transferred and Major Kimball told Eager that if it was left up to him, he could have either position.19 On May 11, 1862, Eager was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, given the position of regimental quartermaster and transferred to the Colonels staff.20
The Fifteenth Massachusetts saw little action during the siege of Yorktown. They were typically on picket duty, guarding other units building roads, skirmishing with a retreating enemy or supporting the Third Rhode Island Battery. During the entire siege, the only casualty in the regiment came when Second Lieutenant John Hall of Company D received a flesh wound in the thigh during picket duty.21
The regiment did not come under fire again until the battle of Fair Oaks when , on May 31, 1862, they fought in support of Kirbys battery. A story often told about this action said that when General Sumner asked General Gorman if he shouldnt get more support for the battery, Gorman replied that they had the support of the Fifteenth Massachusetts and " all hell couldnt take that battery."22 The Fifteenth was later part of an advance that drove the rebel army from their positions. The total loss to the regiment was five killed and seventeen wounded, five of those mortally. After the battle, General Gorman offered high praise to the governor of Massachusetts for bravery of the Fifteenth.23
|The Fifteenth saw light action for the rest of the summer but in the
middle of September, found themselves on the road driving the Confederates towards
Sharpsburg, Maryland. Hard marching and little sleep left Lieutenant Eager in poor
condition as he wrote his wife:
In the battle of Antietam, the Fifteenth Massachusetts was part of an advance of Gormans brigade that led the division across the Antietam creek and through the west woods. The brigade was met with fire from three sides and the Fifteenth Massachusetts ended up with the greatest losses on any regiment in the battle. They went into the battle with six hundred and six in the regiment and suffered a loss of three hundred and forty-four killed, wounded and missing. This was a casualty toll of over fifty-two per cent.25 This battle also marked a turning point in Charles Eagers military career as one of those killed was the commander of Company B, Captain Clark Simonds. Eager was charged with the duty of preparing the body to be shipped home and was frustrated by not being able to find a surgeon to embalm the body in Sharpsburg. Bowman Simonds was able to have a coffin made and Eager decided to send the remains of Captain Simonds home to Worcester in the coffin with the lid cemented down.26
Eager was in line for the promotion to commander of Company B, but he was reluctant to take it. In a letter to his wife, he wrote "My own inclination from the first was not in favor of taking it from the fact that I felt about disgusted with everything, there was so much interference with McClellan by the outsiders and politicians generally that I felt as though I was working for them & they playing tomfool with the whole affair, all they wanted was to accomplish their own selfish ends, and to do that were ready to see the whole of us sacrificed rather than that McClellan should succeed and for that reason I proposed to myself to get along just as easy as I could and do as little of their dirty work as possible. " He had thought that by taking the regimental quartermasters position in the spring of 1862, he would have an easier time in the army, but he found that he was busier then ever.27 Eager was eventually persuaded by the regimental commander and the men of Company B to take over and he was promoted to Captain on October 10, 1862.28
For the rest of the fall, the regiment had picket duty in the Bolivar Heights area and then moved south along the Blue Ridge Mountains. They occupied Gregorys Gap and Snickers Gap and saw action at Ashbys Gap, with companies A and B being deployed as skirmishers. By the second week of December, the Fifteenth Massachusetts was in Fredericksburg and participated in the battle there starting on December 12. They missed the worst of the fighting and the slaughter of Union soldiers and had a loss of only four killed, twenty-five wounded and two missing.29
The regiment wintered in the Falmouth, Virginia area and saw no action until the Chancellorsville campaign in early May. Even then, the Fifteenths role in that battle was small. They remained at Falmouth during the battle, but on May 1st were called upon to guard a part of the Thirty-fourth New York Infantry, who had refused to take up arms. The reputation of the Fifteenth Massachusetts as a tough, hard fighting unit received notice when Division Commander General John Gibbon chose them to confront the mutinous troops. He ordered the Fifteenth Massachusetts, " a regiment he considered one of the best in the army " to go with him armed and ready. He told the New York soldiers that if they did not take up their arms and take their place with the army, he would instruct the Fifteenth Massachusetts to open fire " and kill every man it could ." One by one, the New York men stepped forward to return to duty and the Fifteenth Massachusetts did not have to perform the terrible task of firing upon their fellow soldiers.30
By this time, Captain Eager was beginning to show signs of fatigue and weariness of the war. He was prone to colds and headaches,31 and had taken a leave of fifteen days to go to Rindge, New Hampshire (which was near his home) and Baltimore, Maryland. He planned to take care of unfinished business from before the war, and to visit friends during this trip.32 He was also given leave on June 18, 1863 to enter Douglas Hospital in Washington in order to recover from the effects of sun stroke.33 He remained in Washington until sometime in August, missing the battle of Gettysburg and its horrible impact on the regiment. The Fifteenth Massachusetts was part of the Second Corps, which suffered more killed and wounded than any other corps, their division had more losses than any other and their brigade more than any other brigade. Only four other regiments at Gettysburg had a higher percentage of loss than the Fifteenth Massachusetts, which suffered almost 62 percent killed, wounded and missing. These losses were smaller in number than those at Balls Bluff or Antietam, but greater in porportion.34
After rejoining the regiment, Eager spent the Fall in the Shenandoah Valley, participating in the Battle of Bristoe Station and fighting in the Mine Run Campaign. During this engagement on December 3, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Joslin, then in command of the regiment, was captured and the responsibility of leading the regiment was given to Captain Eager.35 The regiment wintered at Stevensburg, Virginia and Eager had a fairly uneventful command. He did respond in writing to Massachusetts Governor Andrews plan to consolidate the regiments who were low in numbers. This was an unpopular plan with the Fifteenth as their regiment had been raised from a single county. Eager also spoke of the pride the regiment had, which would be lost if it were to be combined with another.36
Part of the effort to consolidate the Fifteenth Massachusetts with another regiment was the perception that it had been commanded by inexperienced line officers, including Eager " who hesitated to assume, as we have seen, while acting temporarily for others, the responsibility of initiating measures which might have been for its good."37
On January 4, 1864, Eager asked for and received five days leave to again go to Baltimore, Maryland to transact business.38 After returning to camp near Stevensburg, Virginia, Eager resigned as Captain in the Fifteenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers. The two reasons for the resignation were the unsettled condition of his business from being absent for so long and the ill health of his wife, who had " been confined to the house and a greater portion of the time to her bed for the last five months."39 His resignation was accepted and Charles Eager was mustered out of the Army on February 4, 1864.
The 1880 census showed Eager living in the city of Boston. He was working as a clerk in an express company and boarding in a house with his wife, his ten year-old daughter and eleven others.40 Eager had been born in Northborough, a suburb of Boston, and spent most of his life in that area. In 1896, Eager applied for an Invalid Pension under the act of June 27, 1890, which did not require that the disability be the result of the war, only that it not be from a "vicious habit." He was granted a pension of $6 per month due to rheumatism and disease of the heart. In 1901, he applied for, and received, an increased pension for further disability as he had not been able to work since 1899. Charles Eager died on January 30, 1903 in Newton, Massachusetts.41
|In the years after the Civil War, Eager took pride in his service for his country. He was listed among the veterans of the Fifteenth Massachusetts who embarked on an excursion to the battlefields where they fought during the war. The group toured Gettysburg, Antietam and Balls Bluff and Eager was accompanied by Mrs. Frederic W. Eager of Fitchburg, his nephews wife. It is likely that his nephew was there also, but left off the list.42 In 1900, Eager also joined the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Massachusetts Commandery with his membership passing to his nephew, Frederic W. Eager, in 1904.43|
Ford, Andrew E., The Story of the Fifteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, (Salem, Massachusetts. Higginson Press, 1997).
Earle, David M., History of the Excursion of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment and Its Friends on the Battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa., Antietam, Md., Balls Bluff , (Worcester, MA: C. Hamilton, 1886),
Holien, Kim Bernard, Battle At Balls Bluff, (Alexandria, Virginia, Publishers Press, 1995).
Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Register of the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts Register, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The University Press, 1912).
Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville, (New York, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1996).
U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, D. C. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series I, Volume XXXIII,
Census; 1880; National Archives Building, Washington D.C.
Compiled Service Record; Richard H. Eager; July 12, 1861-July 28, 1864; National Archives Building, Washington D.C.
Lewis Leigh Collection, United States Army Military History Institute (USAMHI), Carlisle, PA.
Pension Records; Charles H. Eager; January 9, 1896-January 3, 1903; National Archives Building, Washington D.C.