[This post was written for the 3rd edition of the "Where Were You?" Carnival]
The efforts of the newly-formed Bureau of Military Intelligence (BMI) ensured the Union Army its victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War. But much of the credit goes to a young African-American boy named Charlie Wright who was able to convey highly detailed information as to Confederate troop activities to my ancestor, Lt. Col. John McEntee who is my 1st cousin 4 times removed. (John McEntee is pictured on the far right in the photo above taken April, 1863 near Brandy Station, Virginia)
John McEntee was born on June 23, 1835 in Rondout, New York, the son of Charles McEntee and Christina Tremper(1). At the age of 26, he enlisted at Kingston, New York as a Quartermaster Sergeant on September 24, 1861 and was part of Company S, 80th Infantry Regiment New York. On February 18, 1862 we was promoted to Full 2nd Lieutenant with Company K. On September 22, 1862 he was promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant. On October 5, 1862 he was promoted to Full Captain with Company A.(2)
In the days prior to June 12, 1863, the Union’s Army of the Potomac was trying to determine whether Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops were on the move north from Culpeper or planning an attack either to the east or northeast. At midday, Gen. Joseph Hooker sent a summary to Gen. John Dix that Lee’s army was stationed along the banks of the Rappahannock near Culpeper and below Fredericksburg, and that Lee’s forces, along with those of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, Gen. James Longstreet and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, had been there for several days.(3)
But Hooker was unable to determine what Lee’s next move would be: stay put, move northward or move eastward. And Lee’s actions to the north or east could have been as a general advance with all his troops, or split into several groups heading out to different routes. On June 12th, John McEntee “. . .found two Negroes who had witnessed the march – one of them a boy, but old enough to carry the organization of the Army of Northern Virginia in his head.”(4)
The boy with the intimate knowledge of Lee’s troops would turn out to be Charlie Wright. It was not until John McEntee had a chance to question Wright in the mid-afternoon of June 12th, that he was able to gather vital information from the boy who had been living in Culpeper for some time: "[he] saw Ewells (Jacksons) corps pass through that place destined for the Valley & Maryland. That Ewells corps had passed the day previous to the fight & that Longstreet was then coming up.”(5)
Now it could be seen that Lee’s forces were actually on the move northward and not stalled at Culpeper or planning an attack to the immediate east.
As was common with these types of interrogations, Wright and another young man were turned over to a different intelligence officer to see if the story could be corroborated. In this second session, not only was the information confirmed, but Wright gave exacting details such as how many days’ rations were cooked, what days the troops marched, etc. In fact, Wright’s knowledge has so good and committed to memory, that some have called him a “walking ‘order of battle’ chart.”(6)
With this information, Hooker determined that Lee’s forces were either going to turn east up through Manassas Gap and threaten Washington or go further north to Philadelphia. In any case, on June 13, Hooker’s forces were on the march in a parallel route to that of Lee who was looking to have his troops shielded by the Blue Ridge Mountains so that he could proceed on course uninterrupted.
Without this valuable information based on Wright’s knowledge, “. . . the pursuit of Lee probably would have been delayed until the force that captured Winchester [in the Second Battle of Winchester] was firmly identified as a major element of Lee’s Army. That could scarcely have been done before the 17th and a pursuit that began that late might not have been able to prevent the enemy from coming through the gaps leaning to Manassas and Washington . . . departure from the Rappahannock was in time to save the army from being off balance for the rest of the campaign and that Lee therefore had a much less free hand than he was striving for.”(7)
Through McEntee’s efforts, and his ability to recognize the value of Wright’s information, the battle at Gettysburg was not just an “accidental collision” of both sides. The Union Army could protect Washington from Lee’s forces and force the Confederates to group at or near Gettysburg.
On December 19, 1864 John McEntee was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was discharged from Company S on April 16, 1866.(8) He died in Kingston on December 19, 1903(9) at the age of seventy-eight. He is buried in Montrepose Cemetery, Kingston, New York next to his wife, Ann Eliza Dibblee.(10)
Photo taken March 10, 2008 at Montrepose Cemetery, Kingston, New York by Thomas MacEntee.
(1) 1850 US Census, <http://www.ancestry.com>
(2) Fishel, Edwin C., The Secret War for the Union – The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996, p. 293.
(3) Id., p. 437.
(4) Id., p. 535.
(5) Id., p. 438.
(6) Id., p. 444.
(7) Id., p. 535.
(8) Id., p. 293.
(9) "The New York Times," New York, New York, Obituaries, December 21, 1903.
(10) Personal inventory of New Paltz Rural Cemetery on March 10, 2008.