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Henry R. Heath: Union Soldier, Thousand Islands Pioneer

Part I of a two-part biography of Henry R. Heath, a pioneer promoter of the Thousand Islands.  This is the first article published in TI Life that connects an islander with the US Civil War.  Part II is scheduled for March 2011.  See Editor’s note below.

Part I Union Soldier

Henry R. Heath was one of the visionary builders and gracious hosts in the Thousand Islands during the Gilded Age. He was among the first of the summer settlers to recognize the region's charms, building a modern cottage on Nobby Island in the early 1870s. And it was Heath who persuaded numerous others to settle the islands in the Saint Lawrence that would later become known as "Millionaire's Row." However, unlike many that would follow his lead, Heath was not always destined to live the grand island life. Indeed, at a young age he narrowly escaped death and found himself in an infamous southern prison suffering debilitating privation.

Henry Roswell Heath was born on April 1, 1845, in Tyringham (later incorporated as Monterey), Massachusetts, in the picturesque hills of the Berkshires. Descended from prominent, colonial New Englanders, his mother was gone not long after his birth, and his father labored at farming to support Henry and his three older sisters, as well as his maternal grandparents. Young Heath belonged to the First Congregational Church in Monterey, from which he would later say he received all his "good influences and Christian knowledge." When still in his early teens, Heath hired out on one of the many farms in the area, while also attending local public schools.

On April 12,1861, eleven days after Heath's sixteenth birthday, rebellious artillery of the newborn Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, sounding the start of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln sent out a call for volunteers to come to the aid of the Union, and Massachusetts set out to fit its quota of regiments to fill the federal ranks. Underage, Heath nevertheless declared he was eighteen-years old, and on August 26, 1861, enlisted as a private for three-years service in Company A of the 20th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

The Twentieth Massachusetts was nicknamed the "Harvard Regiment" because of the college's numerous graduates serving in its officer corps. The lieutenant of Heath's own Company A was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a recent Harvard graduate (class of 1861) and son of Boston's famous author, physician and professor of the time. Much later in life, young Holmes would become a legendary Associate Justice of the United State Supreme Court. In addition to Ivy Leaguers, the regimental rolls also boasted many officers drawn from the storied elite, with such well-pedigreed names as Revere and Paine.

Upon enlistment, Private Heath immediately joined his regiment at Camp Massasoit in Readville, Massachusetts, and left for Washington. In early September 1861, the Twentieth Massachusetts assumed picket duty on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River, across from Confederate-held Virginia, as part of the Union army's Corps of Observation, commanded by Brigadier General Charles P. Stone. The Corps was to protect Washington's northern flank, about thirty miles from the capital. Heath and his regiment built their camp near Poolesville, Maryland, one mile from the Potomac, where they initially spent their time performing routine picket duty and drilling. However, within weeks, Heath and the Twentieth Massachusetts were to be sorely tested.

On October 20, 1861, Union army commander George B. McClellan ordered General Stone to probe the Confederate lines across the Potomac in Virginia. That evening, Stone sent a detachment of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry across the river. The small force crossed from Harrison's Island, some 400 acres in the middle of the Potomac facing densely wooded and perilously steep Ball's Bluff on the Virginia side, about one mile from Leesburg. In the hazy darkness, an inexperienced officer mistook a stand of trees beyond the bluff for a small Confederate camp, and the regiment was ordered to attack at dawn's first light, with men of the Twentieth Massachusetts joining them from Harrison's Island.

On the morning of October 21, the commander of the Fifteenth Massachusetts discovered the mistake, but nevertheless reconnoitered farther into Virginia, where a small enemy patrol was briefly engaged. Union Colonel Edward D. Baker, Oregon's sitting U.S. Senator and close friend of President Lincoln, took command of the field, under orders from General Stone, while bringing up from Harrison's Island his California regiment and other federal reinforcements. However, it took through the morning and well into the afternoon to move all the men and artillery across the rain-swollen Potomac in a small number of boats, and then up the nearly perpendicular, 100-foot cliff by means of a narrow footpath.

By mid-afternoon, the federals were heavily engaged with a growing force of Mississippians that had gathered in the wooded field beyond the bluff. When Colonel Baker finally had the Massachusetts regiments fully in line on the right flank, with his California men on the left, the raw Union troops were caught in a deadly onslaught -- a concentrated force of Confederates to their front, and the steep bluff to their backs -- that would last well into the evening darkness. Henry Heath and Company A of the Twentieth Massachusetts were at the very center of the bloody maelstrom, with Union troops dying on the bluff or drowning in the swift river current below.

Colonel Baker, Lincoln's former law partner and namesake of his second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, died of multiple gunshot wounds on the battlefield late that afternoon. Heath's lieutenant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, suffered a grievous chest wound that was nearly fatal. And Heath, whose position in line was near that of a federal horse-drawn artillery piece, received a crushing blow to the left side of his upper body by a cannon wheel, after Confederate fire found its mark on the frightened animals. Although the butcher's bill for the chaotic struggle was never fully totaled, some 200 federal troops were killed, 225 wounded, and more than 600 taken prisoner. Many men were lost or captured as they crowded on the narrow river bank, waiting for a seat on one of the few boats available for evacuating the federal force. Listed among the Massachusetts officers and men taken prisoner that disastrous night was Private Henry Heath of Monterey.

The unexpected violence of the engagement, coming only three months after the Union defeat at Bull Run, made a strong emotional impression on the North. The battle engendered a mournful ballad, “The Vacant Chair”,1 which was popular throughout the Civil War. And Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, penned a dirge to those men lost at Ball's Bluff.

At the conclusion of the battle of Ball's Bluff, around midnight, Heath was lined up with hundreds of the other Union prisoners, four abreast, and set off on a two-day forced march through Virginia. The men marched in the mud and rain, with little food or rest, to the Confederate railhead at Manassas Junction. The prisoners were then loaded on railcars, eventually arriving in Richmond on the morning of October 24. Some continued their journey deeper into the Confederacy. Heath, however, remained at Richmond. He was held in the tobacco warehouses and factories near the James River that had been hastily converted into prisons, including Liggon and Mayo, as well as the infamous Libby.

Heath, not yet seventeen years of age, injured in battle and weary in spirit, spent the long winter months confined in Richmond's brick prisons. He had little to eat, filthy rags to wear, and sometimes slept on the floor, jostling with his comrades for a vacant square foot or two. The blow he received while being driven from the bluff was now made worse by the hardships of confinement as a prisoner of war. He developed ailments to his lungs and other vital organs, resulting in a loss of body weight of some fifty pounds. For the last months of his imprisonment, Heath was confined in a prison hospital, barely able to feed himself.

While Heath and his fellow Union captives languished through the winter, President Lincoln's administration negotiated with that of Confederate President Jefferson Davis regarding an exchange of prisoners. Finally, on February 19, 1862, Heath and the other federals were paroled by the Confederate Secretary of War and sent north. For the rest of his life, Heath would tell friends and family that upon return to Washington, his was the first exchanged prisoner's hand to be shaken by President Lincoln.

Heath was furloughed home by an army surgeon to nurse his impaired health. Although he duly returned to duty upon completion of his medical leave, he was discharged from the army on April 14, 1862, because of the deterioration he had suffered at the battle of Ball's Bluff and in Richmond's prisons. The following year he applied for an invalid's pension from the federal government, which he and his family continued to receive well into the twentieth century. However, as things developed, Heath would have little need for the modest monthly payments of a grateful government.

Additional references from YouTube

The Vacant Chair, performed by Kathy Mattea

The Vacant Chair, performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford

The Battle of Ball's Bluff, Leesburg, VA, Loudoun County

Ball's Bluff Civil War Battlefield Leesburg, VA

By Steven Glazer

Steven Glazer recently retired from litigating patent-infringement cases at a Manhattan law firm, but continues to teach at Rutgers Law School. He now spends much of his time researching and writing about the Civil War, especially as it relates to the history of Cranford, New Jersey, where he and his wife have lived for many years. Henry Heath was president and director of the Cranford Realty Company, and one of the principal developers of the town. Although Steve has not yet been to the Thousand Islands, he hopes to visit soon to see the area about which he has heard and read so much.

Editor’s Note:  The following paragraph from Laurie Ann Nulton’s The Golden Age of the Thousand Islands: Its People and Its Castles2, provided an interesting  introduction to Henry Heath.  However, when I first read this important book, I had no idea that Henry R. Heath had a far greater connection to the US Civil War.  We look forward to learning more about this member of the Millionaire Row.

“Since 1871, Henry Heath from Brooklyn had summered at his cottage on Nobby Island. Often entertaining prominent river vacationers at receptions and whist parties.  Heath in 1892 hosted Wallace Bruce, the United States Consul to Edinburgh, Scotland.  While at Nobby Island, Bruce and Heath originated a plan to erect a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Edinburgh to commemorate the Scottish regiment that fought with the Union troops during the American Civil War.  Henry Heath chaired a committee to secure subscriptions for the Lincoln monument , the first ever erected outside the United States.  The fifteen foot granite and bronze statue was unveiled in August, 1893 with Henry Heath in attendance…”









See below for YouTube links.




Written in 1981 as a Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Georgetown University for a Master of Art History.  The book was published by Laurie’s father, Tom Nulton, shortly after her death.  It is considered an important Thousand Islands reference book.

Posted in: History, People
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Kris Pinkney
Comment by: Kris Pinkney ( )
Left at: 6:09 PM Sunday, April 18, 2010
Bravo, Steve! Wonderful to read about Henry R. Heath's youth and experiences in the Civil War. I can't wait for the next installment!