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Question of the Day
Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.
During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).
Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.
When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.
He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semihostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.
On the march
Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.
“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”
As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”
During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”
After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”
A town pillaged
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