Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Gatlin Was No Stranger To Tragedy

Richard C. Gatlin (1809-1896), former US Army officer and Confederate general from Kinston, NC was a man of the 19th century, an age when personal tragedy was commonplace and childhood death visited many families. During his long and fulfilling life, Gatlin endured his share of low points and heartbreak as outlined below.
o    After graduating from West Point in 1832, Richard C. Gatlin reported to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory as a brevet 2nd lieutenant. In his first month on active duty, a percussion cap from his gun exploded into his left eye leaving a metal shard that surgery could not dislodge. He went on medical leave in New Orleans then back in Kinston until October 1833 when, after the "inflammation subsided", he returned to Fort Gibson. He appears to have never regained the sight in his left eye.

o    On December 28, 1835, Gatlin's older brother, Assistant Surgeon John S. Gatlin was one of the last of 106 men killed in the infamous Dade Massacre in Florida. Seminoles ambushed a column of 108 men under Major Francis Dade near present-day Bushnell, Florida. Only two soldiers survived and one of them died just days after the attack. John S. Gatlin fell in a hail of bullets after firing all four shots from his two double-barreled shotguns. Six months later, Gatlin's father died, reportedly despondent over the death of his older son.  

o    On September 23, 1846, while leading his 7th Infantry Company F in house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat in the streets on Monterrey during the Mexican War, Gatlin took a bullet through the shoulder. The wound knocked him out of action for several months. Gatlin did however earn a promotion to brevet major and a commendation for "meritorious service".

o    In July 1849, Gatlin married for the first time, at age 40, to 22 year-old Scioto Sandford. Their first child, Johnny, was born in July 1850. On December 27, 1851, while Gatlin commanded the post at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Scioto gave birth to the couple's second son, Alfred, but a week later on January 3, 1852 Scioto died followed by the newborn baby on January 11, 1852. Scioto and Alfred were interred in a single crypt at Fort Smith.

o    On February 16, 1854 in St Louis, Gatlin and 3 1/2 year-old son Johnny boarded the steamboat Kate Kearney for a short trip upriver to Alton, Illinois. As the big boat backed out of its slip, a boiler exploded spewing steam and shrapnel. The explosion slightly injured Gatlin but severely scalded Johnny who, after a ten-day hospital stay, died from his burns.

o    Gatlin's career low point came on March 15, 1862 when, as a Confederate general, he was relieved of command of the North Carolina Department, ostensibly due to "illness", following a Union invasion of the North Carolina coast and their occupation of the town of New Bern in Gatlin's department. The local press excoriated Gatlin, falsely accusing him of drinking and cowardice when an illness prevented him from leading his troops at the Battle of New Bern. The press later recanted and absolved him from blame.

o    The 48 year-old Gatlin married for the second time in January 1857 to 20-year-old Mary Ann Gibson at Fort Smith. During their 39-year marriage, the couple had seven children of which five died before reaching the age of ten. One-year-old Sallie died in Raleigh in 1864, while in Arkansas infant Robert died in 1866, nine-year-old Richard died in 1869, three-year-old Louis died in 1871, and nine-year-old Bettie died in 1880. Scarlet fever and respiratory diseases appear to have been the cause of all the deaths. Only their oldest daughter Susie (1857-1904) and youngest daughter Mary (1875-1973) lived to adulthood, but neither had children of their own. The youngest child, Mary Knox Gatlin, was born in 1875 when Gatlin was 66 years-old. Mary died in Chapel Hill, NC in 1973 just shy of her 98th birthday.

While perhaps not entirely typical, Gatlin's experience with death and tragedy was certainly harsh. The deaths of his children were particularly distressing to Gatlin, but he seems to have taken each experience in stride, and he did not succumb to depression nor immerse himself in strong drink as did so many of his contemporaries. 

 Richard Caswell Gatlin Richard C. Gatlin Jr Tombstone, Fort Smith, AR

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