An American Family Sampler, The Founding Generation 1814-1908
William Prescott 1861
The splatter of blood hit A. William Prescott’s right trouser leg as he turned to look at General Philip A. Kearny. He saw the man fall off his horse and gasp on the ground but had little time to react as rebel infantry poured fire at the three other horsemen who followed their leader into Confederate lines.
It was September 1, 1862, and the battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill) was coming to a close. This dirty little indecisive battle had just cost the Union one of its best-prepared and most competent generals.
William had no time to think but rode back to what he thought were the Union lines with Minié balls passing him in his flight. One ball hit his horse and another bit deep into his left leg. The pain was sharp, and blood began to pour down into his boot.
Another ball hit his horse, which jumped, almost throwing him to the ground.
He held onto the pommel and kicked the animal viciously.
The horse responded by going faster when another missile knocked William’s hat off.
On his right, Major Ebenezer Closter was hit by two balls simultaneously and fell from his horse.
The staff sergeant to his left lost the general’s flag as he too was hit. The flag and pole fell onto William’s horse, causing him to go even faster.
The two men made it into a copse of trees just as another barrage of shots hit the leaves and trees around them.
It was then that William fell from his horse and lain stunned and bleeding on the ground.
Voices shouted at him to stay down as still a third barrage hit the woods.
The voices sounded familiar, and he was conscious enough to realize they came from his men of his New Jersey regiment.
All of sudden, the roar of howitzers blasted away, deafening everything around him.
It was the Franklin Division artillery hammering the rebel position.
A man in the distinctive red uniform of his brigade bent over him.
“Stay down, Major, this isn’t over yet.”
William stayed where he was, recognizing the pain in his left leg.
I wonder if I will lose it, he thought.
William stayed where he was for another hour or more. He never knew how long he was in that copse, for he suddenly passed out from loss of blood.
When he woke up, he was on a wagon jostling him to God knew where.
There was a rude tourniquet around the leg wound, but blood still seeped out.
He fainted again.
When he woke, a man in a bloodstained white apron was looking at his wound.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood, and your bone is shattered,” the man said to him.
“Please don’t take it,” William managed to blurt out as he grimaced in pain.
“I doubt you’ll ever walk on it again,” the man replied.
“Don’t do it,” William said again through the pain.
“Gangrene can happen if I don’t.”
“Pour some liquor over it, put on a bandage, and take care of the others,” William said in his most commanding voice.
“You’ll die if I don’t.”
“Send for my orderly, Sergeant Sam Gilbert.”
“I don’t have time to do that; we have these other wounded men.”
“Just get Sergeant Gilbert and leave me alone.”
The man shrugged, said something to an orderly, and did as William asked. The pain was doubled as the doctored poured the liquor over the wound and left.
William passed out again, awakening only when Sergeant Gilbert poured some brandy from a silver flask into his mouth.
“Get me home, Sam,” was all William said before passing out again.
William never knew how and in what fashion Sergeant Gilbert managed to get him from Fairfax County, Virginia, home to East Orange, New Jersey. Nor did he learn how the man got permission and transportation all in four days.
All William knew was awakening in his own bed with a small, wizened man looking at his leg and clucking quietly.
His mother, Rebecca, was behind him, and his father stood at the bottom of the bed.
“William, you had to go to war,” his father, Henry, said. His father never used his first name, and his mother had long given up getting him to respond to Abraham.
Rebecca had insisted on the name for a dead grandfather, as was the custom of her people. The son accepted Henry’s desire to use the name William. It was the only issue he ever saw his parents continue to bicker about.
“I could have kept you out of the war. But you had to go fight,” his father continued.
His mother shushed him quiet while the doctor continued to examine the leg.
“You will never walk properly again,” he said.
Dr. Abraham Strauss was Rebecca’s cousin, twice removed. He had a thriving medical practice among the Jewish community in Newark and its immediate suburbs. It thrived because he was the best doctor in the area.
Occasionally, when Christian doctors were baffled by an illness or could not determine a course of treatment, they would bring him in to consult, but normally only Henry’s family used him on a regular basis.
Sergeant Gilbert stood quietly in the background.
Dr. Strauss worked on William’s leg for more than two hours. He then encased it in some plaster of paris after first splinting the leg.
Each time he moved the leg, William wanted to scream but didn’t. His parents looked on but said nothing.
William finally fainted again, with sweat beading his forehead.
For three months, Dr. Strauss worked on his leg, which gradually responded to these ministrations.
William did not lose his leg, but it withered, and only after another two months was he able to walk with the help of cane. The cane would remain with him his whole life and was buried with him when he finally passed away in 1903.
Throughout his convalescence, Sergeant Gilbert was at his side. First, the quiet orderly took to carrying him when he went to the bathroom or downstairs for part of the day.
It was not until the spring of 1963 that William found himself well enough to talk with his father about the future.
“What do you do now?” his father asked.
“I have an idea on how to make money. Lots of money.”
“I thought you’d come into the business with me,” his father said quietly.
“Oh, I intend to, but not as a junior partner and not to just run a group of stores.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“There is a lot of money to be made in this war, and I intend to make it.”
“How can we make more than we’re making now?”
William proceeded to tell his father his plan. Simply put, William intended to outfit a group of sutler’s wagons and follow the troops.
“These soldiers need a lot of things that they don’t get from the army,” William said. “There are a lot of people following the Union armies all over the country. They rob, they cheat, and they take advantage of the troops. I intend to offer fair prices for the supplies I offer and buy things that soldiers everywhere pick up,” he went on, excited by his audacious scheme.
His father looked at him sternly.
“You can barely walk and you want to go back to war!”
“I have had enough of fighting. I can’t tell you how scared I was after General Kearny was shot. I don’t intend to have that happen again. But I have seen how there is much money to be made. With your connections, I can get as many sutler licenses as I want. We go into business and help the Union while making a fortune for us.”
William and his father discussed his plans over the next few weeks. In the meantime, William asked for and got his discharge from the army, arranging for Sergeant Gilbert to be released as well.
William laughed on finding out he had been given a brevet promotion to colonel and had even been put up for a medal. Putting on his uniform for the last time, he went to Washington to receive his medal. He laughed harder when the medal was pinned on his tunic and he was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln.
A little embarrassed by the medal, he spent the time in his private moment with the great leader revealing to him the fact that his first name was also Abraham.
William brought Sergeant Gilbert with him to the White House, eliciting stares from the crowd of onlookers who every day stood outside its grounds.
With his medal on his uniform, William then made the rounds of army commissary officials, gaining their respect and, more importantly, the licenses he wanted.
William and Gilbert joined the Army of the Potomac on June 12, 1863, while it was encamped just south of Washington, DC.
As a former officer, William was welcomed by Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, the Army of the Potomac’s commander. He received a less cordial reception from General George Meade.
The latter did not particularly like sutlers; he felt William should be back in uniform and not following the army, providing goods and services and getting rich from the troops.
It was here that he began to use his brevet title of colonel. It was ironic to him but gave him stature with other officers. In time, he came to enjoy being addressed in this fashion.
The first day that the two men set up shop, they were approached by a woman in fine but tattered clothes.
“Do you need help?” she asked.
“We’re all right here,” William replied.
“You’re new here and don’t know the rules. Big Ox runs the sutlers, and he assigns girls and a place to each wagon.”
“Not this wagon and not you,” William said.
“You don’t understand; those are the rules.”
“Have Big Ox come see me,” William said.
“No, you go see him.”
“Tell him to see me.”
She walked off in a huff and spat at them as she left.
William reached under the wagon seat and pulled a revolver from its holster. Gilbert did the same from the back.
An hour later a group of men approached William’s wagon. A giant of man, six and half feet tall, weighing more than 250 pounds, and in a faded blue army uniform with sergeant stripes, approached the wagon.
“I understand you don’t know the rules.”
“I have a license and the right to be here. Outside of that, there are no rules.”
“There’s army rules, and there’s my rules, and everybody follows them,” he bellowed back.
“We’ll see,” Big Ox bellowed louder and strode towards William.
The former major drew his pistol and fired at Big Ox four times, hitting him twice.
Big Ox staggered back, clutched his belly and screamed.
The crowd surged forward.
Gilbert drew his gun and fired once in the air.
The crowd stopped and watched as Big Ox slowly sank to the ground.
The blood pumped from his body, and he began to whimper.
A provost guard detachment hurried up.
The sergeant in charge looked at William, looked at Big Ox, spat, and walked away.
William looked at the crowd and spoke in a loud voice.
“Any more rules I should know about?” he yelled.
The crowd moved back, and the woman who had come to them earlier rushed out to claw his face.
William butted her with his gun, and she moaned as she sank to the ground.
“Anyone interested in helping that fellow?”
The crowd murmured and edged further away. William turned to a group of soldiers from I Corps and said in a quiet voice, “I am Colonel William Prescott, and these are my wagons. From them you will get an honest deal from me and any other wagon you see with the name ‘Prescott.’ My father has run an honest group of stores for years, and he sent me here to give you an honest deal. What’s more, if you have any goods you want to sell, come see me or my people. We will pay top dollar.”
From then on, soldiers quickly learned the Prescott name on a wagon meant fair treatment and no rigged scales.
When the war ended, Prescotts was a name soldiers remembered when they needed to buy or sell anything.
With more than fifty wagons operating throughout the country, Prescott’s sutlers were welcomed in almost every army camp.
The following year, William, sensing a real opportunity, had taken some of his wagons to Atlanta and followed General William T. Sherman march through Georgia. That move added more than a million dollars to the company coffers from the buying and selling of “liberated” items taken from Georgia plantations.