Saturday, January 24, 2009

Remembering American Civil War Soldier
1st Lieutenant William Kirkland Bacon

My annual Memorial Day visit to pay respects to American war veterans found those hero's gravestones bathed in the warm afternoon sun. The unadorned, seemingly forgotten gravesite of twenty-year-old 1st Lieutenant William Kirkland Bacon was discovered during that visit in late May to Forest Hill Cemetery, Utica, NY. Barely visible, the monument inscription reads: “William Kirkland Bacon: Late Adjutant of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of New York State Volunteers, slain at Fredericksburg, December 16, 1862.”

Adjutant William Kirkland Bacon was affectionately known as “Willie” to his family and friends. Willie’s military life can be summarized by stating that in late April 1861, as he finished his sophomore year at Hamilton College--and following the attack on Fort Sumter--he answered his country’s call by enlisting as a private with Company A of the notable Fourteenth Regiment of New York State Volunteers (NYSV). Company A was the first contingent of Central New York Oneida County residents to volunteer for Union Civil War military service. The Fourteenth New York was first posted to protect and defend Washington D.C., where the regimental officer community recognized Willie’s quick intelligence, attainments, and talents. Later in 1861, Willie accepted a transfer to the Twenty-Sixth Regiment NYSV as Military Clerk. A vacancy occurred several weeks later and Willie was offered an officer’s promotion and assignment as the Twenty-Sixth New York Regimental Adjutant. Now a commissioned officer, Willie engaged in several skirmishes and a couple of major battles leading up to December 1862 at Battle of Fredericksburg. In combat during the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas), August 30, 1862, Willie suffered his first wound, wounded-in-action to the left leg. Confederate fire hit him just above the heal while leading a party of Company F fighting men. The shot's impact knocked him from his wounded horse, and Willie struggled to painfully walk from the battlefield with aid provided by a few of his “Boys”. Unable to walk without assistance, he eventually made his way to an Alexandria, VA Union Army hospital. Willie’s father, William Johnson Bacon of Utica, found him in Alexandria about a week later and accompanied him to his boyhood home in Utica for convalescent leave. In October 1862, after six weeks rest and medical recuperation, Willie returned to his regiment with his painful Manassas combat wound still not fully mended.

Then, at mid-afternoon, Saturday, December 13, 1862, during savage combat at the Battle of Fredericksburg--and while leading front-line Union fighting men from General John F. Reynolds' Corps--Willie was mortally-wounded-in-action by Confederate fire to his upper left leg. With his leg shattered, and under heavy fire, two of his boys removed Willie from the battlefield. There a wagon ambulance delivered him and other wounded soldiers to a rear medical facility. His left leg was amputated later that evening (very high on the leg near the pelvis). Willie was drugged with available painkillers, and without much doubt he never regained a fully conscious state. He died early Tuesday morning on December 16, 1862, just two months short of his twenty-first birthday.

Adjutant William “Willie” Kirkland Bacon was born to a prominent Utica, New York Family, where his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were lawyers and all served in elected state office in Massachusetts and New York and as U.S. Representatives. Willie’s father, The Honorable William Johnson Bacon, served nearly two decades as an elected New York State Supreme Court Judge. Willie was the only son of Judge William and Mrs. Eliza Kirkland Bacon. Adjutant Bacon’s middle name--Kirkland--honors his beloved mother’s maiden name. Mrs. Bacon’s father was the Honorable General Joseph Kirkland, a well-known Utica-area lawyer, the first mayor of the new city Utica, and a New York State and federal elected politician. The Bacon family was emotionally crushed by Willie’s Civil War combat death at Fredericksburg, and never fully recovered from their deeply shared grief on his passing. No military medals were evidently ever awarded to recognize Adjutant Bacon’s heroism. Medals of Honor were awarded to enlisted personnel only at the time of Willie’s 1862 Civil War combat death. Furthermore, it was rare that medals for heroism were awarded to officers posthumously. In fact, many senior Union generals--including then Commanding General Burnside--felt that medal awards emulated too strongly the practices of European Aristocrats. A 1932 congressional award re-authorization, The Purple Heart, recognizes combat-related wounds or death for military service on or after April 5, 1917--and just in this new millennium finally recognizes those who perished as POWs. Published words in letters and books seems to be the preferred method to recognize officers killed-in-action during the American Civil War. One such letter, as sent to Willie’s father from Brigade Commander, General Zealous B. Tower states “…My short acquaintance with Adjutant Bacon prepossessed me greatly in his favor. It is a pleasing duty to inform you that in this battle your son was distinguished for gallant services at the head of his regiment. At Fredericksburgh he was conspicuous for manly bravery and cool determination, till he fell mortally wounded on that never to be forgotten battle-field.”

Bacon Post No. 53 of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was chartered in Utica, NY, October 24, 1867. G.A.R. Post 53 was named to honor the memory and Union Civil War service of 1st Lieutenant William Kirkland Bacon. Medal of Honor (MOH) recipient Joseph Keene—who won the MOH for valor at the Battle of Fredericksburg––annually joined former comrades from the 26th Infantry Regiment NYSV for many years on "Decoration Day", holding memorial exercises at the grave of William Kirkland Bacon. They each held a warm affection for Willie Bacon…"their Little Adjutant."

A memorial book authored by Willie’s father Judge Bacon, "Adjutant Bacon: Memorial of William Kirkland Bacon, late Adjutant of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of New York State Volunteers" served as a major reference for this log-of-remembrance. Judge Bacon’s work is preserved by Goggle digitizing and is available by Internet search.

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