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Army Honors Highly Decorated Civil War Soldier
by David Vergun, Army News Service - April 24, 2013

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John Darling Terry, Medal of Honor recipeint - Civil WarArmy Medal of HonorWASHINGTON -- A Union Army war hero and Medal of Honor recipient was recognized recently by the Army for brave and honorable service, when a past injustice to his record was corrected.

That Soldier's story begins in the early days of the Civil War.

In May 1861, young John Darling Terry left home in Montville, Maine, for Boston where, on the 23rd, he joined the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. He was only 15.

Just a month before Terry enlisted, the Confederate guns had fired on Union defenders at Fort Sumter, S.C., signaling the opening volley of the Civil War.

The final chapter of Terry's story was not completed until nearly 150 years later.

This year, the highest echelon of Army record reviewers, the Army Board for Corrections of Military Records, or ABCMR, heard Terry's case and completed that work.

Robert "Bob" Haddon Terry, Terry's great grandson, was instrumental in providing critical documents, obtained from the National Archives, to the board for their review. Much of what follows is a result of his decade of diligent research.

Terry's service with the 1st was short-lived. His father notified the Army that his son was underage; so on July 5, just two months after he enlisted, Terry was discharged.

But he was persistent. On Sept. 5, 1861, just two days after turning 16, Terry joined the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, despite Army policy that a young man needed to be at least 18 to don the uniform.

Six months later, Terry would be tested in combat.


In March 1862, Terry arrived in North Carolina with the 23rd. Since many of his fellow Soldiers came from fishing towns along the New England coast, the Soldiers embarked on Union gunboats and attacked Confederate vessels and forts in a naval engagement and amphibious operation around Roanoke Island near the Virginia border.

Terry's gunboat blew up and his clothing caught fire. He jumped into the water to quell the flames, but survived with minor injuries. The Union forces were victorious.

On March 13, 1862, Brig. Gen. John G. Foster led the 23rd and sister regiments in battle against Confederate forces near the town of New Bern, in northeastern North Carolina.

During that epic battle, Terry was shot in the lower left leg, which later had to be amputated below the knee.

In 1882, Terry was interviewed by John S. Pierson for the book "Sabre and Bayonet: Stories of Heroism and Military Adventure." In one of the passages, Terry said:

"On the 13th day of March, 1862, the 23rd Regiment Mass. Vols., landed some 15 miles below Newbern, N.C., my arm still very sore and lame from a contused wound received in the fight at Roanoke Island, some few weeks before. Company E, in which I was a sergeant, was recruited in the old historic town of Plymouth, Mass., strong, healthy, robust young fellows, all of whom were accustomed to the management of boats, and therefore we were detailed to man the boats and disembark the regiment.

"I had charge of the vessel's 'cutter,' and worked very hard in order to make the most landings. After the regiment was all ashore we took up line of march by the right flank towards Newbern. It came on to rain very hard and the narrow road was in bad condition. Just before dark we went into bivouac in the woods, on the left of the road, having marched about 13 miles that day, very hungry, cold, wet, sore, and tired. My arms became very painful, and to sleep was entirely out of the question, and to make a fire was contrary to orders."

"Daylight, however, broke at last and with a little half cooked coffee and well soaked crackers, we were soon on our way to 'do or die,' and almost before we knew it, were under fire, shooting away for dear life. In going from the road into and up through a little ravine, column of fours, the Col. (John Kurtz) passed us and called to me to go with him. I had been acting as right general guide of the regiment. Soon afterwards the colonel ordered me to go down the rear line and find the lieutenant colonel."

"In obeying this order I saw that the regimental line was very ragged; everybody seemed to be all mixed up with one another, and badly scattered from their own companies. I sought out Company E. and found the men brave as young lions, but in bad order and no officer in command, captain wounded. I immediately reported these facts to the colonel, whereupon to my great astonishment and delight, he ordered me to go back and take command of the company. I did so, and succeeded in getting the men well up and together, and they very soon became steady as old veterans."

"We had been firing some little time when the lieutenant colonel came to me and asked if I saw a single gun (12 pounder) that the enemy had got out in front of Fort Thompson, this fort contained 12 guns. I answered him that I did. This single gun was doing our ranks great injury."

"The lieutenant colonel then asked me if I thought we could charge and take it. We charged, we got the gun, the very last shot from which, before we reached it, got me with seven other comrades, including the lieutenant colonel, killed. My foot was gone, and we were left on the field in very nearly the same spot as where we fell. Our regiment claimed this gun, and (Maj. Gen. Ambrose) Burnside ordered that it should remain with the regiment. Some days after the fight (and my foot had been amputated) Col. Kurtz and Gen. Burnside visited the hospital and the colonel told me that I should have a commission. I got that, and the Congressional Medal of Honor besides."

Terry's actual Medal of Honor citation is terse but telling: "In the thickest of the fight, where he lost his leg by a shot, still encouraged the men until carried off the field."

That would have been the end of the war for many, but Terry had different ideas.

He was sent to Lexington Army Hospital in New York City, where he was fitted with what was described as a wooden "peg leg." He remained in the hospital for rehabilitation, serving as the sergeant of arms until he was discharged as an "invalid" on March 20, 1863.


While remaining in New York, Terry attempted to re-enter "active service." In July 1863, the notorious draft riots broke out. The protestors were angry at Lincoln and Congress for initiating a Civil War draft, since the war at that time was unpopular in many areas of the North.

Protestors took their anger out on African-Americans, killing an estimated 100. Police, augmented by Union Soldiers and volunteer militia, were called in to quell the riots.

Terry, now classified as an "invalid" by the Army, volunteered for service with the outnumbered military forces in New York City, where he was ordered by Maj. Gen. Harvey Brown "to deliver the muskets and ammunition to the Custom House and Post Office authorities for their defense," Terry wrote in a letter.

He continued: "I was assigned to command a body of convalescent Soldiers and ordered on guard duty in Gramercy Park by order of Gen. Brown, where, on the corner of 21st Street and Third Avenue, I was struck a severe blow over the left eye with a club by a rioter and was badly hurt. I was mentioned in orders issued by Gen. John A. Wool, for the 'Very signal service rendered.'"

It was on day three of the riots while reinforcements were arriving from the Battle of Gettysburg that Terry got word of his appointment as a lieutenant in the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers.

Terry headed back south to New Berne to join with his new regiment.

The Army welcomed him back. Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild did the honors of promoting Terry to first lieutenant in the 1st North Carolina, which was later renamed the 35th U.S. Colored Troops in February 1864.

The 1st North Carolina enlistees were former slaves from coastal Virginia and the Carolinas.

Wild too was an amputee, having lost his left arm at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland.

Incidentally, Col. James Beecher, commander of the 1st North Carolina, was the half-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous abolitionist and author of the influential novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a depiction of the lives of African-Americans slaves.


In February 1864, the 1st North Carolina participated in the Battle of Olustee, just to the west of Jacksonville, Fla. Fighting alongside them were African-American Soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, who had previously fought in the Battle of Antietam.

As an aside, men of the 54th were portrayed in the 1989 movie "Glory," based on the true story. The film, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman, was nominated for five academy awards.

Once again, the fighting was intense and Terry was in the thick of it. And once again a bullet struck his leg. Fortunately, the leg that was shattered was his peg leg.

On March 2, 1864, the Hartford Evening Press in Connecticut reported the engagement and Terry's ordeal:

"A lieutenant of the same regiment, who had lost a leg in an engagement in North Carolina, and who had supplied in its place with an artificial member consisting of a stout oaken peg, was present at this fight, and, a rebel sharpshooter put a bullet through his trousers leg and his wooden peg. He felt the blow but escaped the twinge of pain that generally accompanies the passage of a pellet through genuine flesh and muscle, and enjoying a keen sense of the ludicrous, he forgot the battle and its dangers, and gave way to the heartiest and most explosive laughter.

"He pushed along the line and approached the colonel, to whom, after a severe effort, he was able to communicate the cause of his mirth. Almost convulsed with laughter, he exclaimed, 'colonel! By George! The dammed rebels have shot me through the wooden leg! Ha! Ha! Devilish good joke on the fellows!' and he hobbled back to his position on the line, and chuckled to himself immensely over the sell [sic]."

Terry left the Battle of Olustee with his regiment in the trailing troops, who along with the survivors from the 54th, had to push a disabled train by hand for more than 10 miles back to Jacksonville. In the months that followed Terry was fitted with two new prosthetics in order to remain in the active service.

A week after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on Palm Sunday 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated. Then on May 9, 1865, the war was officially declared over and on May 23, Terry accepted a promotion to captain by Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton.

On Sept. 19, 1865, the Army withdrew Terry's promotion to captain, citing his disability and that a captain of a company is expected to march with his command and perform duty on foot with his men.


On Sept. 23, 1865, Terry was assigned to Saxton's staff at the Freedmen's Bureau in Charleston, S.C. Creation of the Freedman's Bureau was initiated by Lincoln in March 1865, with the purpose of assisting freed slaves. The bureau was under the Department of War and played a major role in post-Civil War Reconstruction until it was disbanded in 1872.

In January 1865, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have directed Saxton to provide families of freed slaves "40 acres and a mule" by order of the president.

In October 1865, Terry wrote a letter to a family friend, former New York state Sen. Preston King, asking that he look into restoring his rank to captain. Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, who heard the case, denied the senator's petition. King could not reply because he died shortly after receiving Foster's letter.

On Nov. 25, 1865, Terry submitted a letter of resignation, saying he didn't want to serve as a first lieutenant after having served as a captain. On Dec. 16, 1865, Terry had second thoughts about leaving the Army and withdrew his letter of resignation.

Terry was given a brevet promotion to captain on Feb. 21, 1866.

A brevet rank comes without the additional pay of the higher rank and exercise of authority is limited. The practice was common during the Civil War. For example, George Armstrong Custer was promoted to brevet major general but after the war his rank reverted to captain. He was later promoted to major and then lieutenant colonel and was later killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

On Jan. 23, 1866, Terry was transferred to Headquarters, Department of the South, in Charleston, under command of Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, who was still serving within the Freedman's Bureau.

Like Terry, Sickles lost a leg. It was shattered by a cannonball during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Terry was mustered out of the service on June 6, 1866, with the rank of first lieutenant. On June 22, 1867, the Army officially recognized Terry as a brevet major but his final rank remained first lieutenant.

After the war, Terry had a 50-year career at the Customs House in New York City as a deputy collector in the audit department and he also served as a clerk.

Terry, who was born in 1845, died on March 4, 1919 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York, Plot: Section 141, Butternut Plot, Lot 14454.

Donald Terry MacLeod Jr., the great, great grandson of Capt. John D. Terry, visits his gravesite in New York City. (Courtesy photo, April 5, 2013)
Donald Terry MacLeod Jr., the great, great grandson of Capt. John D. Terry, visits his gravesite in New York City. (Courtesy photo, April 5, 2013)


Donald Terry MacLeod Jr., the great, great grandson of Terry and also Bob Terry's cousin, has a special interest in Terry. He said his grandmother shared memories with him about Terry, since she had conversations with him. She was 18 when he died.

"My grandmother told me that when they were children he would sit on the porch of their home in Westchester County, N.Y., and take off the wooden prosthesis and show it to them," said MacLeod. "He would also apparently bang it on the front steps and make them laugh. He supposedly joked that the South had bad aim because when they shot him in the leg the second time they hit the wooden leg."

MacLeod also shared his thoughts on America's evolving attitudes toward race.

"We do feel strongly that his rank of captain was withdrawn due to the change in attitude after Lincoln's death about the officers who were close to the former slaves and working for their good, masked of course by the premise that he couldn't function as a captain with his disability. This is a larger story that is only exemplified by what happened to John D," MacLeod said.

Bob Terry shared his thoughts as well, in a letter to the ABCMR.

"In a twist of irony, officers who became amputees such as Gens. Wild and Sickles were allowed to remain in service, but enlisted personnel were not," Terry's letter read. "Additionally, Maj. Gen. Foster obfuscated the issue because he not did attempt to revoke my great grandfather's commission, but decided simply to demote him from captain back to first lieutenant on the basis that my great grandfather could not possibly perform the duties of a captain with only one leg."

"Extensive records in the National Archives provide clear evidence that my great grandfather's commission was not fraudulent, that he was already serving honorably as a permanent captain at the time of his demotion, and that he performed admirably as a brevetted major after his demotion. Documentation also shows there was no attempt to hide his disability at the time of his permanent promotion to captain."

During an interview with Bob Terry, he echoed his cousin's thoughts on race as a factor, although Terry himself was not an African-American:

"The idea of correcting the record was his family carrying on a fight that we found he waged up until his death in 1919 to gain justice. The injustice was because John Darling associated with officers like Maj. (Martin) Delaney, the highest ranking black officer in the war and John's commander of the 104th U.S. Colored Troops; Maj. Gen. (David) Hunter and Wild, who recruited former slaves in South Carolina and North Carolina respectively for the Union Army; Saxton and Sickles, the latter who on Grant's recommendation replaced Saxton after President Johnson fired him for refusing to take back land grants awarded to freed slaves."

"My great grandfather and all these officers suffered greatly for the stands they took," he said. "But they stood for what was right and fought the war after the war in spite of having to sacrifice rank, position, and peace."

Bob Terry said as a result of his research, he feels for combat veterans today who are struggling from losses of limbs, other physical injuries, and mental wounds suffered years after.

"Terry lost his limb because he was left on the battlefield for five days and gangrene set in," Bob Terry said. "At the time, there was no ambulatory service and medical care that was provided was appalling by today's standards."

"Also, there was a stigma associated with being an invalid," he said. "But Terry refused to be labeled as such. He was offered positions in the artillery, home guard and even in the newly formed Invalid Corps. But he turned them all down, wanting instead to go back into the field where he would have to move about on his feet."

"I hope Terry's story will be an inspiration for vets who were injured and are struggling today."


Based on evidence that Bob Terry, the great grandson obtained from the National Archives and elsewhere, the ABCMR ruled in favor of Terry.

"Our board has substantial authority and equity and we made the decision that Terry did in fact prove he could serve and lead from the front as a captain, even with the peg leg. Our board felt revocation of his promotion was unjust," said Conrad V. Meyer, director, ABCMR.

"Therefore the board determined that the evidence presented was sufficient to warrant relief and recommended all Army records be corrected by reinstating his permanent rank to captain."

By David Vergun
Army News Service
Copyright 2013

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