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The Second Mass and Its Fighting Californians

A Reference site of images, articles, artifacts of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry including the Cal 100 and the Cal Battalion.

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From R. James McLean

The first Humphreys emigrated from England settling in Dorchester in the mid-17th Century. Charles Alfred was born on April 1, 1838, the second son of Henry and Sarah Blake Humphreys. He attended Dorchester High School and was admitted to Harvard in 1856. He excelled in college and was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. With an older brother slated to take over the family business it was decided that Charles would go into the ministry. After completing his bachelor’s degree he went on to the Harvard Divinity College and was ordained on July 14, 1863.

While he was in Divinity School, Major William Forbes suggested he apply for the post as Chaplain of the newly formed Second Massachusetts Cavalry. His application was approved by the officers of the regiment; many of whom knew him at Harvard. He was appointed Chaplain by Governor Andrews and joined the regiment, commanded by his classmate, Casper Crowninshield in August 1863, while the regiment was encamped at Vienna.

The chaplain’s principal duty was to conduct weekly church service. Humphrey wrote it was the hardest to organize “by reason of the difficulty of finding any convenient and comfortable place of meeting.”  At one time he had a large hospital tent but it was requisitioned for a court martial and he never got it back. He tried clearing a small amphitheater in a nearby wood but the weather often intervened. At Vienna an old barn near the camp served as the site for the services, but it was often too cold. The hospital however, was divided into three wards and Humphreys was able to conduct services in each on most Sundays.

Humphreys came with a library of donated books which he lent out to the men. He visited the sick in the regimental hospital and distributed mittens and caps knitted by a group of Boston women organized by Major Forbes’ mother.

Humphreys described his religious services; “I have the help of a good brass band in the service, and oftentimes the exercises have an unwonted (sic) solemnity with that help. I believe music may be made the handmaiden of religion.” He kept his sermons short, perhaps in deference to the men from California. “I always speak without notes though never without full preparation, and never more than fifteen minutes”

When William Ormsby was captured and tried for desertion he asked that Chaplain Humphreys serve as his counsel. Humphreys, “pleaded in extenuation, his youth and the blandishments of the Southern Beauty, but to no effect.” The next morning Ormsby leaned on the chaplains’ arm as he walked to the firing squad.

Humphrey often accompanied detachments on scouts and became used to the hardships that were common to the troopers. He enjoyed visiting the country outside of camp and “talking with officers and men as we rode along.” One of his outings included the scout that Herman Melville participated; another was the trek to the Wilderness battlefield to gather up wounded Union soldiers.

          In July, 1864 he was invited to accompany Major Forbes and one hundred and fifty men on a scout toward Aldie and Leesburg.  Mosby with about 200 men and a twelve pound cannon attacked the Union troopers at Mount Zion Church on the Little River Turnpike. Forbes put his troops in a line of battle but Mosby charged when confusion broke out among the Union troops. The battle became a rout. Humphreys, along with Forbes and others, tried to rally the troops to no avail. The Chaplain escaped though, thanks to a speedy horse, although he was chased relentlessly by a group of Rebels led by Mosby himself. After the war he learned his horse was the same color as a horse ridden by Yankee Davis, a Virginian acting as a guide for the Regiment; the guerrillas thought he was Yankee Davis, a man they wanted to catch and hang.

After eluding his pursuers he went back along the road trying to help any wounded. He found two men and with the help of a local farmer he got the two back to the farmhouse. In the morning he went out looking for his hat which he had lost during the chase. He discovered his horse had been stolen during the night so he took off on foot. After going a short way he was met by a rebel, on his roan horse and was promptly made a prisoner. Normally medical types and chaplains were immediately paroled but because he had been seen attempting to rally the troops he was held and eventually ended up in prison with the other officers taken in the fight.

He became one of a group of officers who were sent to Charleston by the Confederates and confined in a brick building within the range of the federal guns bombarding the city in an effort to force the Federals to cease the bombardment. General Foster commanding the besieging troops protested then decided to retaliate. He ordered 1000 Confederate officer- prisoners to be relocated to a stockade just in front of one of his batteries The1000 became part of a Confederate myth after the war called the “Immortal Thousand.”  The Federal prisoners were conveniently forgotten by post-war Confederates; in fact none on either side were hurt by any enemy action.

Humphreys was finally recognized as a chaplain and paroled on September 2, 1864. He spent the next week gathering his back pay and goods and then took the train back to Boston. He spent the next month visiting the families of some of the regiment’s officers. On October 17th he started for Washington and his regiment. He arrived on the 24th and found a different regiment. With Lowell dead from a wound at Cedar Creek, Casper Crowninshield was temporarily in command of the brigade and Captain McKendry commanded the regiment.  

Humphrey’s accompanied the December 1864 raid towards Gordonsville and is a classic account of the hardships of fighting in the Virginia winter. Students of the Second Massachusetts will recall Sergeant Corbett and the regimental band missed this raid by showing up with broken down horses for the pre-raid inspection.

Humphrey served with the regiment through the next months as they moved down the Shenandoah Valley, marched across Virginia to Petersburg and then the war ending Appomattox campaign.

He was discharged on April 16, 1865 and returned to Dorchester. His first church was a small Unitarian congregation at Springfield Massachusetts where he was ordained on June 15, 1865. During his tenure there he raised the huge sum of $100,000 for a new building. He married Kate J. Humphreys, a distant cousin, on April 15, 1868. His first child, a son, died in infancy, but a daughter named Sarah came in 1870.

He resigned the post at Springfield in January 1872 and moved to Boston where another daughter named Catherine was born on August 1, 1873. In September of 1873 he took the position of Pastor at the First Parish Church in Farmington. Another daughter was born in 1877 but once again died after only a year and 10 months. Humphreys’ final tragedy struck when his wife died at the age of 33 in 1879.

In 1884 his widowed mother-in-law came to live with him to help raise the two surviving daughters. In 1893 he resigned to take a post at the Congregational Church in Randolph, Massachusetts, serving there until his retirement on September 1, 1899.

The next eighteen years were spent writing “Field, Camp, Hospital and Prison in the Civil War, 1863-1865” and attending veterans’ events throughout the state.  His book is the only published history of the Second Massachusetts written by a member of the regiment. Unfortunately he attempted to write a popular history of the Army of the Potomac as well which has been better handled by many writers. Some of the appendices are interesting though, particularly a portion of his incomplete diary.

He became seriously ill in 1919 with pneumonia and cataracts in both eyes. Unable to care for himself, he moved in with his oldest daughter and her family in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  He became bed-ridden the last two years of his life and died on November 22, 1921