With the outbreak of war, the 34th NY was recruited in Herkimer County in June 1861. A mere year later, Lincoln called for even more troops, and Herkimer, along with Otsego County, contributed enough volunteers to raise the 121st NY during July and August 1862. Governor Edwin Morgan appointed Richard Franchot, then a member of the 37th Congress, as the Colonel of the 121st NY on July 19. Franchot was the son of a French immigrant. He attended local schools and Polytechnic Institute in Troy. Franchot established a wool and cotton factory in Morris while dabbling in local politics. He became President of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad and then later a US Representative on March 4, 1861. (1)
After receiving his appointment as Colonel, Franchot dove into his work to raise a regiment. In neighboring towns and counties there was a contest to see which could fill its quota first. Franchot tapped into this excitement and in less than 25 days had a full volunteer regiment. He successfully mustered the 121st into service on August 23rd and received an array of gifts from the proud citizens. On the 30th, the new regiment left Camp Schuyler and via Albany-New York City-Philadelphia-Baltimore, the regiment arrived in Washington on September 3rd. It was assigned to Fort Lincoln (currently a cemetery on Bladensburg Pike, MD), seven miles from the city. (2)
On September 7th, in response to the Confederate invasion of Maryland, the 121st was ordered to Hall’s Hill VA where it was to be attached to the V Corps. During this march, Franchot’s ineptitude as a commander surfaced. Franchot misunderstood the marching orders and headed in the direction of Hallstown MD. Luckily for Franchot, he was found by General Henry Slocum, who just happened to be a personal friend, and arranged to have the 121st attached to the 2nd Brigade (Bartlett), First Division (Slocum), VI Corps (Franklin). (3)
If wandering around the Maryland countryside wasn’t bad enough, Franchot had told the regiment to leave everything in camp except for what the men could carry on their backs because they were “going out for a fight and would be back in two days.” As a result of this blunder, Dr. Daniel Holt stated “from that hour our distress began. Unprovided with tents, blankets, mess utensils, we were compelled to sleep without a roof...eat our food as best we could prepare it...endure chilling blasts and storms of rain until one-half the regiment were upon the sick list...I do not wish to reflect upon Col. Franchot’s humanity, but never had a regiment a worse commandant (unwittingly perhaps) than he. Unnecessary ‘double quick’ and forced marches, when no enemy was in sight or hearing, and when rest imperatively demanded for the life of the men, were made, until his name became a reproach and stench among the men of his command.” (4)
Isaac Best also shared a similar story about this first march when he wrote “this march to the front was unnecessarily severe. On the first day it was continued until late in the evening, and the men were too weary to even eat, and as they had left their knapsacks behind and had not yet been supplied with shelter tents, the night was spent most miserably, and in many cases the health of the men was so shattered that they never recovered from the effects of their excessive fatigue and exposure...the ambition of Col. Franchot to report at the front as soon as possible, led him to resume the march at 2am the next morning, thus only giving the men three hours for rest and sleep”. (5)
Overcoming these obstacles, the 121st arrived near Burkittsville on September 14th. Holt wrote that “the marches through Maryland were severe enough for old soldiers, but ours being new recruits, suffered beyond all calculation. Our Colonel thought that because he could stand it in the saddle, the men ought to stand it equally as well afoot.” This quote is a perfect reminder how new this regiment was and that the men were not in any way ready for the rigors of an active campaign, particularly under the command of Colonel Franchot who had no prior military experience and lacked reason on how to treat new soldiers. Another noteworthy point about this three week old regiment is that these men, who had yet seen no battles nor bloodshed, were about to witness two extremely violent engagements at South Mountain and Antietam. (6)
Clinton Beckwith’s account of the initial curiosity and bewilderment of the 121st at South Mountain probably sums up what all the men felt. In a letter to Best, Beckwith wrote “some of the men pointed out the position of the enemy on the mountain side. As we hurried down the side of the valley we could see a line of our troops filing off in the fields towards the village of Burkittsville; and farther up the side of the hill, a thin line of men, skirmishers, were moving towards the wooded slope of the mountain side. These were soon fired upon from the timber and returned the fire, and we could see for a short time the puffs of smoke from their rifles. A turn in the road hid them from our sight but but we were interested in the another feature of the entertainment. The battery which we had seen on the mountain crest farther up, evidently had us in view, for in addition to its report we heard a strange sound, a whistling, singing noise in the distance, and a solid shot flew over us and buried itself in the soft earth across the creek along side which we were now marching. Instantly many inquiries were made as to what it was, and all about it, and we were told that it was a shot from a Confederate battery fired at us, and that we were now under fire and within range of the enemy’s guns, and might be struck at any moment or instant, with one of those projectiles.” (7)
A few minutes later the regiment was halted and told to lie down so that they would be out of the Confederates view. As the 121st got comfortable in the dirt, the 96th PA passed them and moved to the front. They soon found out General Slocum had decided not to use the 121st because they were new and untrained even though Franchot had offered, and then pleaded, for the regiment to take the lead or make a charge. Anything for glory! Although most men stayed put, others fell prey to natural curiosity and moved slightly forward to watch the battle. (8)
Holt also wrote about his experience at South Mountain. The day after the battle, the 121st passed through Crampton’s Gap. The regiment stayed in the vicinity with orders to guard the gap and the prisoners as well as collect arms and munitions left on the mountain. During the march through the pass, Holt wrote “I have seen what I never once expected to see--- a battle field---a field of blood and carnage...hardly two weeks have elapsed since the regiment left home and here we are in the thickest of fray...it is indeed a strange and awful transition...to be thus transferred from scenes of quiet where the effects of war are not perceptible to these fields of slaughter and to become participants in the deadly contests is something which never, in the most extravagant flights of fancy can extend into my head.” He described the ghastly sights in order that he encountered them, “first in the road, lay a dead horse, his federal rider having been killed and removed to the rear shortly after the engagement, then knapsacks, canteens, cartridge boxes and accoutrements of all kinds strewn the ground. Shortly a rebel with his brains blown out, arms extended, and eyes protruding from their sockets---still on, others in all manners of positions---some not yet dead but gasping the few remaining breaths away in utter unconsciousness of surrounding circumstances---others mortally wounded calling for water, knowing that eternity was separated only by a hair’s breadth.” (9)
On the morning of the 17th, the regiment received orders to advance to Antietam with haste. By the time it arrived, it was too late to participate in the battle and was again assigned the task of collecting arms and munitions. Walking the battlefield, Beckwith stated “that the enemy suffered terribly from our fire may be gathered from the fact that for more than one mile I could have walked on their dead bodies, while in some places they lay in groups, and in others as many as fifteen lying in line close together. Mounted officers lay under their horses both dead. A great many dead horses were on the field. Near the church in the edge of the woods, by the sunken road and edge of the cornfield, the conflict by its results seem to have been the fiercest...I had before these battles and their real story, no conception of the vast number of soldiers engaged, or of the magnitude of the battles, and how small an atom one little chap like myself was in the great whole...I felt the awful horror of war upon me, and I again felt thankful that we had been permitted to see and know what we were coming to.” (10).
And, of course, Holt weighed in on the battle of Antietam and the various assaults against his senses at the things he witnessed on this field when he wrote that one week after the battle “the dead were almost wholly unburied...at least a thousand blackened, bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads. Such sights, such smells...then add the scores upon scores of dead horses---sometimes whole batteries lying along side...every house, for miles around, is a hospital and I have seen arms, legs, feet and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of a Southern sky unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work adding to the putrid mess.” (11)
After three weeks of dismal field command, Franchot resigned on September 25th and went back to Congress. His resignation was accepted immediately and not a tear was shed over his departure. As pleased as the regiment was to see Franchot go, they did have cause to thank him for one small military favor, in which Franchot pulled one small political string, and placed Emory Upton in command of the 121st NY Volunteer Infantry. Unlike Franchot, Upton was a competent leader. Under his command, the 121st became one of the greatest regiments in the Army of the Potomac and was thereafter known as "Upton's Regulars". (12)
1. Subdued by the Sword: A Line Officer in the 121st New York Volunteers by James M Greiner, 2003. Pg 6-7.
2. Greiner pg 7, 11.
3. Surgeon's Civil War: The Letters and Diary of Daniel M Holt, MD edited by James M Greiner, 1994. Pg 3.
4. Holt pg 3-4.
5. History of the 121st New York State Infantry by Isaac O Best, 1921. Pg 9.
6. Holt pg 14.
7. Best pg 16-17.
8. Best pg 17.
9. Holt pg 20-21.
10. Best pg 23-24.
11. Holt pg 28.