NCO Essay: Amid chaos and calamity, Soldier earns honor
December 8, 2009
- Civil War NCO earns Medal of Honor
- Battle of the Crater tests NCO's mettle
Often we forget in these times of speeding automobiles and busy cell phones how our past has shaped our present. The United States Army is an organization of history; the highs and lows of our storied past crash upon the shore of history like a tsunami.
At the crest of this mighty wave are the Soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for devotion to country and dedication to their comrades. Each medal has its story and I would like to share with you the story of 1st Sgt. William H. Mathews.
Mathews was born in the small town of Devizes, England, March, 3, 1844. Not much is known of his past other than he immigrated to the United States in 1852. William enlisted in Baltimore, Md., in 1861 under the name Henry Sivel. There is no information as to why he chose to enlist under a pseudonym - perhaps to hide his country of birth or his tender age of 17.
Henry, as he was now known, was assigned as a private to Company E of the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry Division. He fought many battles with his unit from Antietam to the Second Manassas, during which time he rose from private to first sergeant of the company. It was at the Siege of Petersburg, Va. - and the Battle of the Crater in particular - that Mathews made his mark in history.
The Battle of the Crater started July 30, 1864, with a bang, literally. Union engineers had been constructing a mine under the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee for a month. Three days after digging ended, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered the tunnel to be prepared for demolition, intending to breach the Confederate line. Eight thousand pounds of gunpowder were placed in the mine and detonated, initiating the Battle of the Crater. The landmark crater is still in existence and can be visited at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
The battle started propitiously for the Union forces, with 350 casualties inflicted on the Confederate troops by the explosion. It was all downhill for the Union from there, due to a last-minute change in assaulting units and poor briefing and training of the troops involved.
Mathews' company was one of the units sent into the crater, where the rallying Confederate troops shot down from the crater lip into Union Soldiers. Mathews was cut off from his company and found himself alone among the enemy. Perhaps seeking cover, he entered the Confederate trenches - where he encountered a squad of enemy troops.
He immediately fired into them, killing one while being wounded himself. Striving forward through adversity, Williams pinned down another rebel squad and forced a sergeant and two privates to surrender. Incredibly, he returned to Union lines with three prisoners, one of the few high points for Union forces in this battle.
All told, Union forces suffered 5,300 casualties to the Confederates' 1,032. Williams would eventually be promoted to captain and assume command of Company E.
Mathews was caught in a situation of unimaginable adversity and, through his dedication to country and duty, accomplished the unimaginable. His actions inspire today's Soldier to ever greater heights and serve as a reminder that it is in the forge of adversity that our true mettle is born. He was awarded the Medal of Honor on July 10, 1892, under the name Henry Sivel. The medal was reissued under his true name of William H. Mathews in 1900.
(Note: This essay is one in a continuing series, authored by Army Sustainment Command noncommissioned officers, marking the Year of the NCO.)