Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Patriotism, premonition, valor and death

The setting sun was illuminating a giant, and dying, poplar tree behind Stanton Millan's cenotaph Tuesday evening on that slope at the far western end of the Chariton Cemetery. Turn to face the sunset here and the view from this hilltop, masked by trees in the fence line, is down across the Chariton River bottoms.

Four hundred and fifty miles to the south, somewhere near Sylamore and not far from the White River in north central Arkansas, that same sun was setting on the field or hilltop where the remains of the young soldier commemorate here rest --- lost for more than 150 years now in a lone unmarked grave dug hurriedly by his friends in 1862.

His is a story of patriotism, premonition, valor and death --- and was the stuff of legend for so long as his comrades lived to tell it.


Stanton was a native of Palmyra, Missouri, born during 1838 in that small town just northwest of Hannibal, the latter made famous by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, born three years earlier. During 1845, when Stanton was 7, the Millan family moved upriver to Canton, midway between Hannibal and Keokuk.

His parents were Henry S. and Caroline (Farr) Millan, a couple of modestly distinguished lineage  and accomplishment who brought their young family west to Missouri from Fairfax County, Virginia, during 1835. He was the fifth of their eight children and the first born in Missouri.

Henry Millan was a farmer, a lawyer and a justice of the peace, widely respected but never especially affluent.

By 1860, as war clouds were gathering and a federal census was being taken, Henry, at 21, still was living in Canton with his parents and six siblings. Only the eldest in this family, Susanna, had married. She, along with husband, James Brafford Custer, had moved northwest to Lucas County, Iowa, in 1848, the year after their marriage. It was their practice to return to Canton for a visit every fall after crops had been harvested. This was a closely knit family.

Soon after the 1860 census was taken, Stanton headed for Iowa, too.

By this time, James and Susanna as well as Edward K. Gibbon, widowed uncle of Stanton and Susannah, had moved into Chariton from their first land claims along White Breast Creek in Liberty Township, just southwest of Newbern. That mighty hill now crowned by the old Newbern Cemetery would have been a part of their view toward sunrise.

Edward, however, still owned a Liberty Township farm and it appears that Stanton settled there to work the land. By trade, he may have been a harness and saddle maker, although that is speculation that cannot be verified. The few personal accounts that survive describe him as a fine-looking, energetic young man.

We know for sure than on Sept. 3, 1861 --- a Tuesday --- he rode into Newbern where recruiters for Company K of the new 3rd Brigade, Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, were at work and enlisted as a private. Later that month, after the 3rd Brigade had been mustered at Keokuk, he was promoted to sergeant-saddler and joined the brigade's non-commissioned staff.

Saddlers were responsible for maintaining the saddles, harness and other leather gear of cavalry units and generally worked behind the lines.

Later that fall, the 3rd Iowa headed south to fight in campaigns then underway in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.


Stanton apparently was a memorable young man and certainly made an impression on Cyrus Bussey, who ended the war a brigadier general but began his military career as organizing colonel of the 3rd Iowa and went on to command the regiment.

Nearly 30 years later, Bussey still remembered this young Lucas Countyan and told a little of his story during a speech at Columbia University in New York City upon the occasion of a July 8, 1888, flag presentation ceremony.

After praising the valor of the men he had commanded, Bussey began to speak of some who had feared going into battle, then transcended those fears:

"I had one such man in my regiment at the beginning of the war," Bussey said. "He was one of the finest looking men in the command, but would not go where any fighting was to be done. This weakness was observed by the men, who frequently made remarks in his presence calculated to wound a sensitive nature.

"This caused Millan, for that was his name, to come to me one night, when I was ordered to send out a part of my command to march againist a force reported in camp about fifty miles distant, and ask permission to go on the expedition.

"I said to him, 'Millan, it is something new for you to want to go where there is any fighting to be done.' He answered, 'I know that the men of the regiment have questioned my courage, and it is for that reason I come; I have always believed that I would be killed the first time I went into an engagement, and have not been able to drive that feeling out of my mind. At the same time, I have made up my mind to go, be the consequences what they may. I expect to be killed.'

"He then gave me instructions how to communicate with his family, and left with me some articles which were to be sent them in the event of his death. I made light of his presentiment, and told him he would come back all right. He left me to get ready to march with the expedition at daylight the next morning."

Col. Bussey learned of the outcome of the expedition --- and of Stanton's fate --- via a dispatch written by Horace D.B. Cutler, then adjutant, dated May 31, 1862, and written from Headquarters, Third Iowa, Batesville, Arkansas:

"Col. Bussey: The detachment from your command for the recent expedition has returned. Major Bower, as commander of the expedition, has made his report to the proper authorities, and I transmit the following as a matter of record of the doings of the detachment of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry in the expedition.

"In obedience to your order, the detachment of 150 men, under command of Major Drake, reported to Major Bowen, at the ferry, on the morning of the 28th and were crossed over White River without delay, and soon after were on the march. Major Bowen's battallion consisted of about the same number of men, and two mountain howitzers.

"During the second day's march we captured one of the enemy's pickets, and learning from him that a band of guerrillas were encamped on the Kickapoo bottoms, we were induced to vary from our instructions and turn from our course, to endeavor to kill, capture, or disperse them before proceeding onward.

"Consequently we turned off to the right for Slyamore, which place we reached about dark, a distance of sixty miles from Batesville. The camp was about two miles up the river, and Major Bowen determined upon a surprise. After proceeding to within half a mile of the camp the men were dismounted, and directions given to surround the rebels; but, owing to the extreme darkness of the night, we were not able to hit upon the exact locality, and while cautiously feeling our way we were fired upon by their pickets of 25 or 30 men. We returned the fire, and for a few minutes nothing could be heard but the rapid shots from our revolvers. 

"The enemy had run, after deliverinig their fire. Pursuit was made, resulting in the capture of twenty-five prisoners, forty horses and mules and forty stand of arms. Other property found in their camp was destroyed for want of transportation, we having no wagons.

"Our loss was: Stanton B. Millan, Battalion Saddler Sergeant, killed; Captain Israel Anderson, Co. C, shot through thigh; Private Joseph T. French, Co., A, shot through thigh.

Sergeant Milan was buried the next day (30th) on the field. The wounded we brought with us with great difficulty --- having no means of transportation --- till we were able to press a buggy."

The Union detachment involved in this engagement had spent what remained of the night of May 29-30 in the rebel camp, tending to the wounded, wrangling prisoners and livestock. The next morning, property that could not be carried away was destroyed and Stanton's remains were buried by his comrades in a lone grave somewhere in the vicinity of the camp, where they remain.


Col. Bussey, after learning of Stanton's death, arranged to have his belongings forwarded to his family, still living in Canton, Missouri. Then, a letter from Stanton's father, Henry, addressed to his son, arrived. Bussey opened it, read it and held onto it for the remainder of his life.

"A few days prior to this time," he told that crowd at Columbia University during 1888, "Millan's father, who lived at Canton, Missouri, wrote his son a letter which I have in my possession. He, too, seemed to have had a presentiment that his son would never receive the letter. After addressing it, as he had always done before, to the regiment, division and Army of the Southwest, he wrote (on the envelope): 'If General Bussey sees this letter, and the one to whom it is addressed cannot see it, he will confer a favor by opening the letter and informing the writer of the facts.' No such endorsement had ever been made on any of Millan's letters."

Cutler concluded his May 31 report to Col. Bussey with the following:

"Of Millan it is unnecessary for me to speak, for his well-known morality and attention to his duties must have long before this commended him to your notice, as well as to that of the regiment at large. Poor fellow! It was his first and last scout, and his loss is sincerely mourned by all who knew him."


Later in the year of Stanton's death, Henry and Caroline Millan sold out in Canton and moved their family to Chariton, where the remainder of their lives were spent.

The large stone that commemorates Stanton probably was erected after the 1888 deaths of Caroline and Henry. Inscriptions for the senior Millans are located on its south face and one for their daughter, Levinia, who died during 1864 at the age of 15, is carved into its east face. The lines commemorating Stanton face the sunset.

Horace D.B. Cutler's report to Col, Bussey may be found on pages 947 and 948 of Report of the Adjutant General & Acting Quartermaster General of the State of Iowa, Jan. 11, 1864-Jan. 1, 1865; Des Moines: F.W. Palmer, State Printer, 1865.

The text of Gen. Bussey's 1888 remarks were published on pagess 386 and 387 of Julia M. Crowley's Echoes from Niagra; Buffalo: Charles Wells Moulton (Bigelow Press), 1890.

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