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“At any cost”: Prominent officer from York recalled Cold Harbor: Part 3

2011 photo by Scott Mingus
2011 photo by Scott Mingus

On June 1, 1864, Lieutenant Colonel James A. Stahle, a West Manchester Township native, and the veterans of the 87th Pennsylvania had occupied a forward position well in advance of their Sixth Corps comrades after a successful charge, but they were isolated and could not easily withdraw without attracting enemy fire. Major Noah G. Ruhl of Shrewsbury Township slipped to the rear after dark, received orders for the 87th to fall back, and made it back to the regiment to inform Stahle. The York and Adams County soldiers finally returned to their lines under the cover of darkness.

C0ntinuing his postwar June 1893 account of the Battle of Cold Harbor,  Stahle turned his attention to the rest of the battle, including the 87th’s significant losses the next two days.

1864 Timothy H. O'Sullivan photo of Burnett Tavern near Old Cold Harbor
1864 Timothy H. O’Sullivan photo of Burnett Tavern at Old Cold Harbor

“Col. E. H. Kellogg, of the 2d Connecticut Heavy Infantry, was the first of nine colonels to be killed in this battle. The loss in our corps in this brief but sharp engagement was 1,200 killed and wounded. Our lucky star seemed to be over us, as the loss in our regiment was very slight, but in the following two days, June 2d and 3d, we lost nearly one-third of our men.

“Col. [John W.] Schall [the 87th’s normal commander], acting a brigade commander, received a ball in the arm, and subsequently withdrew to be placed under the surgeon’s hand. How we all regretted that our brave and kind hearted commander was injured, and many a sigh and God speed went after him to his Pennsylvania home. Capt. Thaddeus Peiffer, of Company I, New Oxford, Adams county, Pa., was killed on June 3d, on the skirmish line — together with nine others out of the fifty who were detailed to relieve other pickets. Life and death followed close, with only ten minutes interval. Among those killed at the time was a tall, strong, well built man from Company F, named Sheads; what a soldierly bearing he had, and with what a firm determined step he marched out with the detail, only to be brought back to fill a soldier’s grave.

“But that scene on the night of the 3d of June has left an impression that may never fade. Gathered along and resting with their backs against the breast works were ten of a possible thirty officers.  A little hard tack and some hot coffee had been secured in some way, and in a subdued tone the conversation turned to our losses during the last three days; names were called over, characteristics of each spoken of, not a word of unkindness for the gallant dead, and whilst they were talking, a small detail were digging a little trench in which with their martial robes on, they laid our honored dead. Men shed tears that night, unused to such weaknesses, because some of their own were no more.

“Some idea of the hardships endured and the terrible nature of the campaign may be gathered from the losses incurred during the great struggle from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. Wilderness: killed, wounded, and missing, total, 13,948; Spottsylvania [sic], 13,601; North Anna, 1,143; Totopotomoy, 509; Cold Harbor, 10,058; grand total, 39,59. This does not include the loss of the 9th corps at the Wilderness and Spottsylvania nor the 18th corps at Cold Harbor.

“But this paper has already exceeded the limits proposed, and in closing [I] feel that whilst it is being prepared millions of our countrymen are gathering flowers to strew the graves of our noble heroes who bore so much that Old Glory might forever float over the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“He who cares for all, permits the bluets and the marigolds and the violets to bloom over the graves of our unknown dead whose bones are still lying among the swamps of Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy [River].

“Greetings from an old ’49-er to the boys of the Worth Infantry and the York Rifles [two prewar local militia companies from York County], that at last, through the efforts of Senator Brown and his fellow members of the senate, their claim to being the first defenders is being recognized, proving that from Cockeysville [, Maryland, where the two companies that formed the nucleus of the 87th Pennsylvania first served as railroad guards] to Appomattox the brave and heroic of the ‘Old Keystone’ were enlisted during the war.

“And now with a warm side for all the boys in blue of whatever name or regiment, and with an open gate to all, I remain ‘Comrades,’ yours very truly, J. S. Stahle.”

Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
James A. Stahle, R-PA.  An Illustrated Congressional Manual, The United States Red Book (Washington: James B. Lyon, 1896)

A couple years after writing this letter, Stahle, then living on an estate near Emigsville north of York, won a congressional seat. He served one term in the 54th Congress in 1895-1897 but did not run for re-election. He died at his estate in 1912 and is buried on York’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.

His official congressional biography reads as follows: “STAHLE, James Alonzo, a Representative from Pennsylvania; born in West Manchester Township, York County, Pa., January 11, 1829; attended the common schools and York Academy; learned the printing trade; later became a merchant tailor; organized the Ellsworth Zouaves in 1861 and in August of that year, together with his company of forty recruits, enlisted as Company A in the Eighty-seventh Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, and served until his discharge October 13, 1864; deputy collector of internal revenue at York, Pa., from May 3, 1869, to July 3, 1885; engaged in agricultural pursuits; elected as a Republican to the Fifty-fourth Congress (March 4, 1895-March 3, 1897); was not a candidate for renomination in 1896; resumed agricultural pursuits; died on his estate near York, Pa., December 21, 1912; interment in Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pa. “