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Between Two Countries: Robert Glass's Civil War

Milestones Vol 27. No. 4

By Roger Applegate, based on the tireless research of Ron Ciani


During the early years of the Civil War while men in both the North and South were sorting out their allegiances and deciding which side to take in the coming conflict, Robert Roland Glass had that decision suddenly thrust upon him. Glass, the second of six children born to John and Maria Glass of New Brighton in 1835, decided to leave the family brick making business and travel through the South in the years just preceding the outbreak of the war. Following a stay in Illinois, the twenty-five year old Glass drifted through Texas and Louisiana until that fateful day in 1861 when his life would change forever.

On May 9, 1961, while in New Orleans, Glass was "pressed" or drafted against his will into Confederate service. Here he was forced to join a relatively new 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery Regiment and was assigned to Company "G" under the command of Lieutenant W. C. Capers. Rebel service must have agreed with Glass as he was promoted to corporal on November 12th of that same year. During the winter of 1861, as the Federal Navy began to threaten a strike at New Orleans, the 1st Louisiana Heavy artillery was assigned to defend forts around the strategically important city. Unsure as to where the Federal blow would fall, the bulk of his regiment was assigned to garrison Forts St. Phillip and Jackson on the Mississippi River, while Company "G" was assigned to Fort Macomb which defended the access from Lake Borgne. At the time, Fort Macomb was still the property of the United States and upon the arrival of Company "G", was peacefully surrendered by the Ordnance Sergeant responsible for the military property there. Below is a copy of his official report to Colonel S. Cooper, Adjutant General U. S. Army in Washington, DC:

Fort Macomb, LA, January 31, 1861

SIR: I have the honor to report myself at this post. I will also report that Lieut. R.C. Capers, with a detachment of the First Regiment Louisiana Infantry, took charge of this post on the 28th instant. I turned over all the property under protest, closed my public accounts, transmitted them to the departments to which they belong and as there is no use at present for an ordnance sergeant at this post, I will request leave of absence for three months to visit my family in Portland, Me.

Respectfully, I am, sir, your most obedient servant,
Ordnance Sergeant, U. S. Army

One can imagine the steadfast Sergeant Wilber standing alone against an entire company of heavily armed rebels and refusing to quit his post until the proper legal paperwork had been completed. These illusions of innocence were soon to be shattered forever.

Following the surrender, Fort Macomb was shipped cannon and powder to prepare for a possible Federal attack on New Orleans via Lake Borgne. The testimony of Captain Capers given during a later inquest into the reasons for the fall of New Orleans, shows us just how formidable their defensive preparations were:

"The additions to my armament were one 8-inch Columbiad, four 42 pounder guns, six 32-pounder smooth-bore guns, one 32 pounder rifled gun, and one 10 inch seacoast mortar ... ... In addition to these, all the timber bordering the pass above the fort, and which would have completely masked the enemy's vessels, thereby rendering my fire comparatively ineffective, was felled, presenting an open field of fire, both by land and water, to the mouth of the pass."

Fortunately for Glass or possibly the Union fleet, the main Federal thrust went up the Mississippi River straight at Forts St. Phillip and Jackson. Following several weeks of bombardment, the Federal Commander, Flag Officer Farragut and his naval force were able to bypass these forts during a fierce night action and move up the river to take New Orleans. Once the Federal fleet passed the two forts, the Rebel garrisons were cut off from supply and reinforcement. Realizing their hopeless situation and in spite of their earlier brave stand, the rebel soldiers mutinied and forced their officers to surrender the forts. Following the mutiny, a large number of both garrisons deserted to join Federal service.

Meanwhile, with the Federal fleet in front of the city, Fort Macomb also became untenable. Despite the fact that no shots were fired either at or by Fort Macomb, Company "G" was ordered to evacuate their post. After destroying their heavy cannon and military stores, Company "G" moved in good order to Camp Moore on the northern shore of Lake Ponchartrain to rest and reorganize. Later in the month, they along with other surviving units of their regiment were ordered to make a forced march to help in the defense of Vicksburg against a Union army led by General Ulysses S. Grant. On May 20, 1862, while marching somewhere between Camp Moore and Madisonville, Louisiana, Glass saw his opportunity and deserted the Southern Cause.

The very next day, Robert Roland Glass officially enlisted in Company "D" of the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, who were then occupying the New Orleans Customs House as a headquarters guard for the Commander-in-Chief of the Gulf, General Benjamin Butler. At night, companies of the regiment took turns guarding the General as he slept and patrolling the streets to keep order. Butler, a controversial figure, became the most hated man in New Orleans as he established military rule in the city. Although the secessionists found many reasons to detest him, one much publicized incident so offended the citizens of New Orleans and much of the south that President Jefferson Davis issued an order that in the event of his capture, Butler was to be immediately executed by hanging. Believing that their sex would protect them, New Orleans ladies had begun to make subtle and some not too subtle efforts to insult union officers. After Flag Officer Farragut had a slopjar dumped on his head by a lady in an upstairs window as he walked along the street below, an enraged Butler declared that any woman who henceforth insulted a Union officer or soldier in any manner would be arrested and treated as a common woman "plying her avocation".

Because of the delicate legal problem of being both a southern deserter and "traitor," Glass was liable to be executed upon capture by any Confederate unit. Therefore, he took the precaution of enlisting under the alias of "Robert Johnson" of New Brighton, Connecticut. According to the, regimental history of the 13th Connecticut Volunteers, an event occurred near New Orleans during the summer following his enlistment that vividly illustrated the danger that Glass faced;

"... during that very summer, several companies of the Eighth Vermont, stationed at Algiers Louisiana, were ambushed and captured by Confederate infantry, and several of their number were recognized as having served in the Confederate ranks. They asserted that it was by compulsion; but the plea did not avail They were taken about five rods from the railroad, a single shallow pit was dug, they were placed on the brink and without respite were shot down; their bodies tumbled into the ditch, and a few shovelfuls of earth were thrown over them...."

Much like Glass, these unfortunates were either foreigners or Northerners that had been drafted into rebel units even though they did not support secession. Although enlisting under another name was a sensible precaution at the time, this action would later cause a great deal of confusion when Glass tried to claim a pension following the War.

As the War moved on, the 13th Connecticut served with distinction under Generals Butler and Banks, in the Department of the Gulf and proudly decorated their battle flags with actions at Georgia Landing, Irish Bend, Port Hudson and Cane River Crossing. It was at Cane River crossing, during the Union retreat from the Red River campaign, that the 13th quickly developed the reputation as an elite infantry unit. Based on their exceptional discipline, leadership and their reliance on the bayonet to take fortified rebel positions, a justly deserved reputation for steadiness under fire and raw courage was born. Despite the desperate battle for the river crossing, the regiment only lost one officer and twenty-four enlisted men killed and wounded. The regimental historian explained that the light casualties were due to the regiment's exceptional courage under fire:

"Our experience here and in other battles proved that the bravest policy is the safest, and the number of killed and wounded is no criterion whatever of the gallantry of a regiment On the contrary, a large list of killed and wounded often indicated the opposite. For nothing is so fatal as retreating. It is while turning the back to the enemy, or running away helpless and defenseless, that the severest losses are suffered and not while marching straight into the face of the foe, giving blows as well as taking them.. "

At the conclusion of the Red River campaign, there followed a short stay on garrison duty and a thirty day furlough in their home state of Connecticut, Following their return from furlough, the 13th Connecticut was transferred to the command of General Phil Sheridan in the fall of 1864 to participate in his famous Shenandoah Valley campaign, where the regiment further distinguished itself in the bloody battles of Winchester, Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek.

In December of 1864, Glass was transferred to the Department of the Northwest and assigned to Company "F" of the 23d Veteran Reserve Corps at Camp Reno in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Veteran Reserve Corps was formed of soldiers who were still fit for some duty, but due to wounds or sickness were no longer able to handle the rigors and hardships of a combat outfit. They functioned as guards in prisoner of war camps, furnished escorts for supplies or were given garrison duty. It is unclear why Glass was assigned to the Veteran Reserves as he never mentioned wounds or sickness in his pension applications. Ironically, in the spring of the next year, while serving in the Veteran Reserves, Glass would be wounded by one of his own men. According to his sworn statement before the District Court in the County of Osage, Kansas, in 1884, while returning to camp:

"... I came across one of the soldiers by the name of Woods about fifteen rods from the entrance, leaning up against the fence. I spoke to him and took holt (sic) of him to take him into camp with me and he pulled out a knife and cut me in the left fore arm which wound severed the muscle of said arm... . "

While still recovering from his wound, Glass was honorably discharged on May 16th, 1865 under a special order from the War Department releasing all convalescing soldiers from duty.

When he returned to his family home in New Brighton, his mother cared for his arm until it finally healed in July of that year. It was also during this time that Robert Glass began the long process of trying to prove to the Federal government who he really was by signing an Oath of Identity. Robert returned to the family brick making business and ran the engine at the brickworks. His time at home was not all work as Glass found time to marry Minerva Craven in 1869 in New Brighton, and began building his family of seven children.

In March of 1876, his wanderlust apparently surfaced again as Glass said "goodbye" to New Brighton and moved with his family to a farm in Lyndon Osage, Kansas. It was here that he continued his long battle with the Federal Government over his right to a pension for his service as Robert Johnson with the 13th Connecticut. As late as 1897, Glass was still submitting documentation to the Pension Bureau. We don't know the exact year of his death, but it was said to be in Oklahoma about 1923 that Robert Glass passed on. Even though his dual names and service long confused the United States government, one can be assured that there was no confusion as Robert Roland Glass alias Robert Johnson stood before his God.