The weight of war–a 150th musing on Manassas

From John Hennessy (a Manassas musing on the 150th anniversary of the battle–newly updated with an additional image):

No photograph I have ever seen conveys more vividly the weight of war on those who struggled through it than this one.

This is an image of Lt. Colonel Joseph McLean of the 88th Pennsylvania–his shirt unbuttoned, shoulders slumped, face heavy with sadness or fatigue. Precisely 150 years ago this afternoon–almost to the minute as I write this–McLean fell in the swirl of fighting on Chinn Ridge, at Second Manassas. About most who fell in this war, we know little beyond the official record–little of their life, their being, or their death. But of this man, Lt. Colonel Joseph McLean of the 88th Pennsylvania, we know a good deal.

Compare that image with this one, taken just before the Civil War, newly provided by McLean descendant Tim Perella (I am grateful for his sending it along and helping to share the story of Joseph McLean).

The purpose of war is to inflict hurt and suffering and destruction and death in quantity and intensity enough to compel the other side to yield the effort. Every death sent a pulse of pain through a family, community, and nation that in some way challenged their will to continue.

Back in my Manassas days, the family of Joseph McLean came to the battlefield, bearing his pictures and letters. Mike Andrus took them to the place where “Uncle Joe,” as they called him, fell. The pain from his death lingered still.  It was a tortuous, compelling experience for the family, made more so by the crushing blow McLean’s death was for his wife and family.

Joseph McLean was born in Philadelphia but moved to Reading Pennsylvania, where he ran the machine shop for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. He and his wife, Elizabeth Doyle McLean–he called her Lizzie– had nine children after their marriage in 1843; at the start of the war, seven of them still lived at home–the youngest just two years old.

The 88the Pennsylvania served in the First Corps of John Pope’s Army of Virginia, commanded by the much-loathed Irvin McDowell. Before Second Manassas, they had been lucky enough to avoid combat, though they had marched over much of Northern Virginia. McLean was a congenial, even friendly commander. When spirits and the pace lagged in the ranks on a march, he did not ride the column as Jackson did, urging his men to “Close up!” Instead, he tended to find the slowest or weakest and tell stories to lift their spirits. His son Daniel served in the 88th; Daniel recorded in his diary that “Pops” would often give him rides on the back of his horse when the march became too much for the teenager (you have to wonder what others in the regiment thought of that little indulgence). You can find Daniel’s diary for 1862 here.

As events gathered momentum in mid-August, McLean’s letters reflect his growing anxiety and concern. After witnessing battle at a distance at Cedar Mountain, McLean told his wife, Lizzie don’t put any faith in reports of my death till you hear it from an officer of our Regt. But I don’t think it will come to this. So good bye till I write again.

A few days later he told her, ….Don’t be alarmed about me! but, like a soldiers wife keep a stiff upper lip, and face the worst….Read yesterday’s Inquirer.  You will find a full statement of bounties and pensions that may be of use to you. We may as well look this matter full in the face, and coolly calculate what is best to be done in case I should fall….But recollect I am not dead yet.

He wrote his last letter from Rappahannock Station on August 22.  His closing: Kiss my dear little ones for me, and assure yourself I will do all I can to save myself consistent with honor. I feel first-rate, my trust is in God.  But a the same time I want to keep my powder dry. Farewell.  

The last letter among McLean’s papers is not from him, but to Lizzie McLean from Lieutenant William J. Rannells of the 75th Ohio. In the chaos of the fighting  around Leppien’s Maine battery on Chinn Ridge on August 30, 1862, Rannells found himself beside Joseph McLean.

It is my painful duty to inform you dear madam that your husband is dead.  He fell near me while doing all that a brave man could do to hold his men to the support of a Battery. He fell from his horse, his foot fastening in the stirrup…but I caught him and took his foot out of the stirrup[,] laid him on the ground.  I found him to be severely wounded high up on the thigh, the ball rupturing the main artery.  With a strap the Lieut. Col. gave me I succeeded in stopping the hemorrhage  of the wound, [and] with the assistance of three of the 88th men, we was about to carry him to the Hospital when the Col. saw the charging foe[.]  He said ‘Boys drop me and save yourselves for I must die.’ The three became excited, left him fall and ran.  This caused the strap to slip below the wound. It commenced to bleed as freely as ever…They fought over us for about 5 minutes in which your poor husband was wounded again, in the same leg below the knee.  They would not help me take him to some surgeon.  They made me leave him, when he said, ‘tell my wife she will never blush to be my widow. I die for my country and the old flag’….I sympathize deeply with your loss and hope God will bless you and aid you in raising your little ones….

McLean’s son Daniel wrote of his father’s death, “All is sorrow stricken in this large family. I hope I may yet avenge his death.”  McLean’s body was never recovered.

His family would place a monument to him in the Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading.

In mid-October, Lizzie started the process of claiming her widows pension–the only apparent support she had for raising seven now-fatherless children.  For the rest of her life, until he death in 1916, she received $30 a month. She, like so many war widows, never remarried.

On an anniversary like today, it’s a good thing to just stop for a moment and ponder such people caught in such events, with such profound implications for them and our nation. It’s the least we can do.

The site of Joseph McLean’s death today.

Notes:  McLean died very near Leppien’s guns on Chinn Ridge–probably not far from the monument marking the fall of Fletcher Webster of the 12th Massachusetts, Daniel Webster’s son.

Transcriptions of McLean’s letters are in the files at Manassas NBP, as is the photo. Both were donated by Bonnie McLean Youhas. I wrote a short article about McLean for Blue and Gray Magazine, in the August 1992 issue. For anyone interested, I have compiled a fair amount of material on McLean from newspapers and Lizzie McLean’s pension file. Just let me know….

11 thoughts on “The weight of war–a 150th musing on Manassas

  1. Great article about a subject we often loss sight of. Its not all grand charges and heroic defenses. People, and animals as well, suffer and endure things that we, in the comfort of our families can barely imagine.
    And, outside of their families few will ever remember.

  2. Thank you for writing this article. Lt. Col Joseph McLean was a great man and is my Great-great-great Grandfather. I transcribed Daniel McLean’s diary that you reference in this article. Both Joseph and Daniel are still sources of pride in my family even though 150 years have passed. I remember my Grandmother taking me to visit Joseph’s monument in Charles Evans cemetery in Reading, PA and her telling me stories about my ancestors. I still visit his memorial whenever I get home to Reading.

      • My dad has a tin type that I believe is Lizzie, but I am not 100% sure that it is her. I have a pre-war photo of Joseph and it looks like a different person. I would be glad to share it with you, if you’d like. Do you happen to have a photo of Daniel McLean? I have never seen a picture of him.

      • Tim, i am giving a commemorative talk at Manassas NB this afternoon, and plan to talk about Jos. McLean a good deal. I would love to see and use the prewar image of Joseph, and that of the likely Lizzie. The 88th site that holds Daniel’s diary (thank you for making that available to the world, by the way) has a grainy late-life image of Daniel, but that is all I have seen. Thanks much for your generosity. John.

  3. His eyes seem to cry out of fatigue and loneliness from being away from the family. Have always loved this photo too.

  4. This post is great history for me as my mother was Doris McLean, from Reading, PA. She recently passed away and we have begun researching our past. If you could see me, you would think I was his son, based on how much we resemble each other. If anyone has more information on our family history, please post here and we can talk….

    • Hi Gary, I am also a descendant of Joseph McLean. I’d love to get in touch. I have information about Joseph you might be interested in seeing.

  5. Hi Tim…I live in Exeter Township in Berks County. You can find me on Facebook. I am currently the Superintendent of Daniel Boone School District. Let me know how we can get in touch. I would love to learn more about all of this.

  6. My grandfather Thomas McLean had this picture for as long as I can remember. We traced lineage back to Wilmer McLean of Virginia. I would love to talk to anyone who has more information on the McLean side of my family.

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