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Brave Federal leads charge that saves 97 Confederates
An act of great courage during the Battle of Gettysburg has been all but forgotten. However, Sgt. C.H. Willett’s daring
maneuver, saving the lives of 97 enemy soldiers on a bloody afternoon on Little Round Top, has been recorded in the regimental history of the 44th New York Volunteers. This writer hopes the following story will bring long-overdue recognition to the heroic deed of this Civil War veteran buried in Chicago’s beautiful Oak Woods Cemetery.
The day after Thanksgiving 1986, Nov. 28, dawned cold and cloudy as my brother Don and I continued our search with metal detectors in a large Civil War campsite near Lappan’s Crossroads in Washington County, Md. Two Federal corps — the 3rd and the 5th — camped on this ground in 1863 during the retreat from Gettysburg.
At the time of the Civil War, this intersection was known as Jones Crossroads. By noon, the fur lining of my Army parka and hood was more than welcome, as a cold northern wind increased. Perhaps it was the dampness of the soil, but the detectors seemed to be working better than normal, and we filled our pockets with buttons, bullets, knapsack hooks and other Civil War artifacts.
Late in the afternoon on the edge of the campsite, my trusty machine picked up a good “positive sound.” From past experience, I knew the sharp, clear sound indicated the object was close to the surface. To get a more accurate reading, I leveled off the ground with my insulated boot, and a small piece of shining metal appeared.
Picking up the thin piece of metal about the size of a postage stamp, I noticed it was bent in the shape of a triangle. At first, because of its brightness, it resembled a piece of folded aluminum — perhaps part of a soft-drink can. Fortunately, as I was about to discard the piece of “mere junk” — so I thought — the sun broke through the heavy cloud cover, and I noticed something engraved on the inside of the folded metal: “Co. E.” Then it hit me: Could this be a Civil War identification badge?
It started to make sense why the small artifact buried underground more than a century was still so bright. It was not aluminum, as I originally thought, but solid silver. During the Civil War, there were no official army “dog tags.” These small keepsakes, purchased from soldiers’ pocket money, were more symbols of patriotism.
Immediately, I headed toward Don, who was hunting just up the ridge. Unfolding the piece of metal and taking full advantage of the evening sun coming over our shoulders, we could read the clear-cut inscription: “Sergt. C.H. Willett, Co. E, 44th Regt., N.Y.S. Vol.”
How did the ID tag get bent? Maybe the attachment hook on the back broke and Willett simply bent it and tossed it away. Or perhaps it was damaged during the fighting at Gettysburg. I’m grateful that the delicate silver didn’t snap or break when flattened out.
Who was Sgt. Willett? What was his full name? Did he survive the war? Where was he buried? Finding answers to these questions became an obsession resulting in hours — years — of research.
First, a trip to the library at the Gettysburg Visitors Center led to a regimental history of the 44th New York Volunteers. Of course, I had some idea what the “C” in Willett’s first name might stand for — names such as Charles, Calvin, Carl or even Clayton came to mind. What a surprise when I read one name I had never considered … “Consider.” Like it or not, there it was — Sgt. Consider Heath Willett. The origin of that name is still a mystery.
Consider Heath Willett, born Dec. 12, 1840, at Onondaga, N.Y., was the only son of William and Tryphosa Jackson Willett. Onondaga County, named for an Indian tribe, is located in central New York. On Aug. 14, 1862, after graduating from Albany Normal School, Willett enlisted in Company E, 44th Regiment, New York State Volunteers.
The 44th New York was a unique outfit. Unlike most Civil War regiments recruited from local communities and surrounding areas, the unit consisted of members handpicked by the state. These soldiers were required to meet certain standards: “Good moral character, 5 feet 8 inches in height and not exceeding 30-years-of-age.” The state also armed this elite group with the finest military equipment available.
Enlisted as “sergeant,” Willett caught up with his regiment, already in the field after the Battle of Antietam. At this time — October 1862 — the 44th New York was attached to the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, camped just southwest of Sharpsburg, Md. During the coming months, Willett would become well acquainted with warfare during bloody engagements at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Va. However, his ultimate test would come in July 1863 at Gettysburg.
On July 2, the second day of the battle, the Union Army of the Potomac’s extreme left flank rested on a small rocky knoll called Little Round Top. This was Col. Strong Vincent’s Brigade of the 5th Corps, combining regiments of the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, 44th New York and 16th Michigan.
Late in the afternoon, Confederate infantry of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division initiated a furious attack against Vincent's Brigade. The Rebel yell sounded through the hot, humid air as Southern soldiers, mostly from Alabama and Texas, stormed the heights of Little Round Top. The boys in blue were concealed behind well-fortified breastworks of stone; in a matter of minutes, gray granite turned crimson red.
“I pray God that I may never witness such a scene again,” remembered one Union soldier who took part in the blood bath.
Scores of Confederates, out of ammunition, hugged the ground or crawled behind boulders to avoid accidentally being shot in the back by their own men. To prevent needless slaughter, a Federal officer requested volunteers to come forward to gather — or capture — the battle-weary souls.
Under heavy musket and artillery fire, the sergeant from Onondaga, N.Y., was the first to vault the stone breastworks and start downhill on this mission of mercy, with several assistants. The 44th regimental history gives the following account: “Sergt. Willett found a large number of the enemy concealed behind the rocks and a depression in the field, lying prone upon the ground. They were taken by surprise at his appearance among them and he quickly had them in motion and conducted to the rear. From his standpoint he counted 97 prisoners.”
In an article titled “Incidents at Gettysburg,” Willett wrote: “Our musketry firing left the dead piled so thick that it was almost impossible to walk over the ground without stepping on the Rebel dead.” This lifesaving endeavor never received appropriate credit or respect. However, this compassionate act on Little Round Top would be forever etched in the minds of 97 grateful members of Hood’s division.
Duty in Florida
Heavy rain soaked man and beast as the armies withdrew from Gettysburg. A massive sea of humanity, covered with mud and blood, slowly drifted south through Pennsylvania into Maryland. These days of misery and grief found the44th New York camped near Jones Crossroads in southern Washington County, where the sergeant’s personalized badge would be discovered 123 years later.
On Aug. 8, 1863, one month after losing his ID badge, Consider H. Willett was promoted to captain in command of Company G,2nd U.S. Colored Infantry.
By mid-August, Capt. Willett and the 2nd Colored Regiment were ordered to report for duty in Florida. Official documents indicate his campaign in the South added to an already outstanding record.
Sickness and disease took more casualties than bullets during the War Between the States. Capt. Willett contracted yellow fever in the swamps of Key West. He was admitted to an Army hospital at Fort Taylor and placed on a disabled list. Too weak for duty, he was honorably discharged on Sept. 12, 1865. The war was over, and so was the military career of Consider Willett.
The veteran officer was transported back to New York, where he recuperated slowly. The year after the war, he was granted an Army pension because of physical disability caused by yellow fever. Knowing he could never perform manual labor, the retired captain studied law at Albany, graduated from the University of Michigan and was admitted to the bar.
A lucky break
On Nov. 5, 1867, Consider H. Willett married Lois A. Wilder of Ann Arbor, Mich. The Willetts relocated to Chicago, a city with an exploding population and a great need for experienced lawyers. There, Lois Willett gave birth to six daughters and two sons.
Willett served for several years as Cook County attorney in Illinois. During the Great Chicago Fire — Oct. 8, 1871 — his law office and library were gutted. However, this man had been held to the fire before. While the smoke was still clearing, he was organizing committees to rebuild the Windy City.
In March 1997, 11 years after finding the Willett ID tag — which I still have — I received a phone call from Edward H. Lane Jr. of Bedford County, Va. Mr. Lane’s father founded the renowned Lane Cedar Chest Co. in 1912. After reading one of my ads in a Civil War publication searching for “any information on Consider H. Willett,” Mr. Lane thought about a dining room suite he had purchased more than 40 years earlier. Pulling the solid cherry buffet away from the wall, he was surprised to read an inscription on the back: “Manufactured by The Consider H. Willett Furniture Company — Louisville, Kentucky.”
After Mr. Lane’s informative call, and with the use of a Kentucky phone book, I was able to contact Elizabeth “Dixie” Willett Welch and Lois Willett Ross, granddaughters of Capt. Willett living in Louisville.
Elizabeth Welch recalled going to Chicago as a young girl to visit her aunts. When her “Yankee” relatives — Capt. Willett’s daughters — met their niece from Kentucky, they jokingly dubbed her “Dixie.” The nickname stuck. The Lane connection produced extensive Willett family genealogy and two more unpublished images of the soldier-turned-lawyer.
The captain’s youngest son, Consider H. Willett Jr., left Chicago in 1907 to join forces with his older brother, William, already living in Kentucky. There the brothers went into partnership in the lumber business. Consider Jr. branched out on his own in 1934, opening Willett Furniture Co. in Louisville.
During World War II, the factory built bunk beds for the Army. At peak production, the company employed 230 workers while gaining national prominence as the largest manufacturer of solid maple and cherry furniture in the world. Consider Willett Jr., the proud son of a Civil War veteran, died in Louisville in 1944 at age 54. The company continued production for a period, but being plagued with financial problems, closed its doors for good in 1964.
True and firm
On Oct. 12, 1912, at age 72, Capt. Consider H. Willett fought his last battle. A small granite stone marks his grave beside a peaceful lake in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Lois Willett was placed by her husband’s side at Oak Woods on July 12, 1936.
At the battle at Fredericksburg — Dec. 13, 1862 — Willett described the action in a letter to a friend in New York: “Today I am on my knapsack for a seat, on the brick sidewalk on Main Street, Fredericksburg. The batteries are playing around us, and musketry occasionally throws in its voice to make the din of war complete. The boys of Company E crossed the Rappahannock on Saturday at 3 P.M. We were marched directly through town along or near the railroad.”
The correspondence from Fredericksburg ends by revealing the cruel reality of war, along with trust in a higher command: “As we neared the outskirts of town, a destructive fire poured upon us. Many of the 44th fell wounded and our Color Sergeant was killed. We are having a terrible battle here, but have high hopes in the Ruler of all things that we will ultimately succeed. I remain as true and firm in battle as I hope to be in the battle of life. Yours truly, C.H. Willett.”
Following the War Between the States, this hero of Gettysburg did remain as true in life as in battle. Now, through the recovery of a small silver badge lost more than 143 years ago in Maryland and a piece of antique cherry furniture from Kentucky, Willett’s distinguished story can be published and finally receive the recognition it so richly deserves.
Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to this page.
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