The cannon reports echoed across the field. The air was filled with smoke as the armies battled for control of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal in South Mills.
That was the scene 150 years ago on April 19 when a young Union infantry drummer from New York City named Julius Langbein would earn the right to become a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.
According to the book, “The Army Medal of Honor: The First Fifty-Five Years,” by Mark C. Mollan, 16-year old Langbein was a drummer with Company B, 9th New York Infantry.
“Because of his girlish looks and slight stature, Langbein was called ‘Jennie’ by the soldiers of the Ninth New York, a name he failed to shake until leaving the unit two years later,” writes Mollan.
However, Langbein would prove himself a strong soldier, so much so that he was invited by the officers to bunk and eat in their quarters.
“Second Lt. Thomas L. Bartholomew became particularly fond of Jennie and promised the boy’s mother that he would personally look after him,” according to Mollan’s book.
The Ninth made their way to Gen. Jesse Lee Reno in South Mills to help confront the Confederate army. On April 19, the battle ensued and in the midst of the chaos of war, Lt. Bartholomew was struck by an artillery fragment above his right ear, knocking him unconscious.
“My first impression on being struck was, that I had been clubbed with the butt of a musket. I lost consciousness almost immediately,” Mollan quotes Bartholomew from records of the event. “When Jennie saw me fall, he rushed upon the field and amid the shot and shell and the din and smoke of the battle, caught me and tenderly led me back to a ditch. … He left but soon returned with Dr. Humphreys.”
Essentially, Bartholomew’s injuries were considered fatal and he was to be left for dead. Langbein, however, had other ideas. Bartholomew later notes that Langbein would defy authority and take the officer to safety despite potential injury to himself, eventually seeing him through the recovery of his near-fatal injury.
“I must say that as a boy he is good and as a soldier he is excellent,” Bartholomew wrote to Langbein’s mother. “Beyond all things I must speak well of his bravery and attention to his duties on the field. … You should be proud of such a son for we all are.”
After the war, Langbein attended law school and opened his own practice. He would become an assemblyman in the New York State legislature and a judge for the Seventh Judicial District Court.