Civil War Profiles — ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ Delaware connection
Jeremiah Millspaugh Crist was born in Montgomery, N.Y., near West Point, in 1843. He joined the Union army in 1862 and served in the 124th New York Volunteers, known as the “Orange Blossoms,” from Orange County. The 124th’s role in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., in May 1863 would be immortalized in a Civil War novel.
Author Stephen Crane published “The Red Badge of Courage” in 1895, relating the fictional Henry Fleming’s exposure to the cruelty and reality of warfare. Evidently, Crane’s renowned episode, recognized as one of the best portrayals of the 19th century conflict, is based on the 124th New York’s experience at Chancellorsville.
Jeremiah “Jerry” Crist’s great-grandchildren live in this area — Ida G. Crist in Dagsboro and Paul B. Marvel in Frankford. Ida Crist shared the information that Jerimiah’s grandson Robert Lewis Crist visited Sussex County several times in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
The Crist family was well-represented in the 124th New York. Jeremiah mustered in as a private on Sept. 5, 1862. His uncle, David Crist, was the commander of Company H, in which Jeremiah and several of his cousins served as infantrymen.
Chancellorsville was a classic battle featuring Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia confronting Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union Army of the Potomac. The latter general had a force of 120,000, facing a mere 60,000 under Lee.
Despite overwhelming odds favoring Hooker, Lee miraculously gained a victory by maneuvering around the flank of the stationary Northern troops. The unanticipated attack from that point panicked the defenders and caused a rout that broke the spirit of the Union troops, as well as their commander.
Counted among the many thousands of casualties on the fateful day May 3, 1863, was 20-year-old Jeremiah Crist, severely wounded in the upper right arm. A surgeon removed 4.5 inches of bone; and while amputation was not required, “Jerry,” as his fellow soldiers called him, lost use of his arm.
After spending several months in the hospital, young Crist’s fighting days were over. He received a medical discharge, and in a surgeon’s opinion, was unable to enlist in the “invalid corps.”
As a youngster, author Crane’s family moved to Port Jervis near Montgomery, N.Y., in 1878, when Stephen Crane was 7. He would listen to old soldiers gathered near the 124th’s regimental monument in Port Jervis to exchange war stories.
Charles J. LaRocca, the regimental historian of the 124th, discussed how the unit’s Chancellorsville experience provides a framework for the fictional Henry Fleming experiencing his first battle in Crane’s classic novel, and notes 124th New York at Chancellorsville closely matched the actions of the fictitious 304th New York in the novel. The tie-in to Crane’s story stems from Jeremiah Christ suffering a wound on May 3, 1863, the same day the battle is believed to have occurred in “The Red Badge of Courage.”
His fighting days being over, Jeremiah returned to Montgomery, N.Y. After his first wife died, he moved to Philadelphia with his children. There he married Emma Poole, a native of the Baltimore Hundred in Sussex County, Del.
Jeremiah and Emma made their home in “Spring Banke,” a Clarksville residence, in the 1890s. The edifice, listed on the National Register of Historic Homes since 1976, is located northeast of the intersection of Route 26 and Irons Lane.
Jeremiah lived until 1898 and is buried in Fernwood Cemetery in Delaware County, Pa. Emma’s body, however, rests in the Ocean View Presbyterian Church cemetery.
In a foreword to the Penguin Books edition of Stephen Crane’s masterpiece about youthful Henry Fleming struggling with his emotions while facing combat for the first time, R.W. Stallman praises Crane as a “great stylist.” He compares him to Henry James, a practitioner of the impressionist school of writing.
Reviewers found “Red Badge,” published 30 years after the North-South conflict, to be the most realistic war novel ever written. The question facing protagonist Henry Fleming was “will he, when faced with the enemy and the possibility of imminent, painful death, stand tall and fight or retreat in shame?”
Young Jeremiah Crist had already answered this question in real life. He volunteered his services for a cause and suffered a severe wound in combat, but survived.
Jeremiah lived long enough to understand, or at least suspect, how unknown writer Stephen Crane had gained fame. He characterized the 124th New York Regiment’s struggles on the field at Chancellorsville in realistic terms to which all mankind could relate.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. His latest book, with co-author Rick Schaus, “Eleven Fateful Days in July 1863: Meade Tracks Lee’s Escape after Gettysburg,” is due out in 2018. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.