Lt. Colonel McMichael & “the dark beverage of hell”

McMichaelDuring the days leading up to the horrific action at Spotsylvania Court House, the 53rd Pennsylvania was heavily engaged in night marches and skirmishes. The two armies now confronted each other from behind strong entrenchments, and to counter a Union move toward the Confederate right, General Meade passed down orders for an equally strong move against the Confederate right, to hopefully throw Lee off balance. After nightfall on May 9, the Second Corps marched toward the Union right to cross the Po River, with the goald of flanking Confederate General Anderson’s defenses on Laurel Hill. In his book, author Gordon Rhea recounted a strange episode regarding the commander of the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, the original source of which is the Incomplete Memoir of Joseph S. Wicklein, Co. B, 53rd PVI:

“Hancock’s only significant casualty was Lieutenant Colonel Richards McMichael of the 53rd Pennsylvania. Well fortified with drink, he skinned his nose on a tree, complained loudly about being the only man wounded in his regiment, then unsteadily led the way several hundred yards ahead of his troops. Somehow he survived until darkness, when he attracted a crowd by beating his horse to punish it for sniffing conscripts. Such was the drama of our officers who freely indulged in that dark beverage of hell, a witness declared.”

Soon after this episode, Colonel McMichael was relieved of command of the 53rd, and two weeks later was on his way home, discharged from service on May 19, 1864, on a surgeon’s certificate.

From The Battles of Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea, (Eastern National Park & Monument Association, Conshohocken, PA, 1995)