Colonel de Trobriand was unique among the officers of the Army of the Potomac. Photographs taken of him during the Civil War period show a relaxed, romantic, cosmopolitan man of letters--an abrupt departure from the usual stiff, stoic poses in the photographs of other soldiers. He was unique in the army, distinguishable even from other volunteer generals who were sprung from the upper-crust families of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. De Trobriand was an aristocratic Frenchman, the son of a baron of ancient lineage who had been one of Napoleon's generals. Born in a chateau near Tours, he spent his youth fighting duels, studying law, and writing poetry and prose, publishing a novel in 1840. He came to the United States on a dare in 1841 at the age of twenty-five and mingled with the social elite of New York City, where he married an heiress named Mary Jones. The couple were wed in Paris, and lived in Venice for a time, hobnobbing with the available nobility. They then returned to New York and took up permanent residence there. DeTrobriand became one of the city's literary group of the 1850's, while he made a living writing for and editing French language publications.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, deTrobriand became a citizen of the United States and in August 1861 was given command of the predominantly French 55th New York regiment, called the "Gardes Lafayette." DeTrobriand and the 55th did their first fighting in early May 1862 in the Peninsula campaign, at Williamsburg. He showed well there, but by mid-May was left prostrate in a shanty with "swamp fever." Ill, he missed the rest of the campaign, not able to return until mid-July. The next fall, his regiment was placed with Brig. Gen. Hobart Ward's brigade in the Third Corps, and marched to Fredericksburg. However, the regiment was kept in reserve by Ward in that battle and did not fight.
Soon after Fredericksburg, just before Christmas 1862, the 55th was merged with the 38th New York (Ward's old command), and deTrobriand was placed in charge of the combined regiment. He led the new 38th for the first time at Chancellorsville. Though he was not in heavy fighting, deTrobriand was first on Ward's list of commendations after the battle. When the Third Corps was reorganized after its terrible losses at Chancellorsville, deTrobriand was given command of a newly formed brigade, but remained at the rank of colonel. At the time of Gettysburg deTrobriand's record was slight--had had been in regimental command at Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, but his losses in those battles were 17, 8, and 37, respectively. There were many whose combat record carried more weight. DeTrobriand's chances for promotion also suffered, no doubt, from his being so French and so exotic.
Here is an example of his expressive writing, after the Peninsula campaign, from his book Four Years with the Army of the Potomac:
What a contrast between the departure and the return! We had started out in the spring gay, smart, well provided with everything. The drums beat, the bugles sounded, the flag with its folds of immaculate silk glistened in the sunshine. And we were returning before the autumn, sad, weary, covered with mud, with uniforms in rags. Now the drummers carried their cracked drums on their backs, the buglers were bent over and silent; the flag, riddled by the balls, torn by shrapnel, discolored by the rain, hung sadly upon the staff without cover.
Where were the pantaloons? Where were the Zouave jackets? And, above all, those who had worn them, and whom we looked in vain along the ranks to find, what had become of them? Killed at Williamsburg, killed at Fair Oaks, killed at Glendale, killed at Malvern Hill; wounded or sick in the hospitals; prisoners at Richmond; deserters, we knew not where. And, to make the story short, scarce 300 revisited Tennallytown and Fort Gaines on their way to fight in upper Maryland.
And another, after the Emancipation Proclamation:
It was no longer a question of the Union as it was that was to be re-established. It was the Union as it should be -- that is to say, washed clean from its original sin, regenerated on the baptismal font of liberty for all. . . . We were no longer merely the soldiers of a political controversy. . . . We were now the missionaries of a great work of redemption, the armed liberators of millions. . . . The war was ennobled; the object was higher.
DeTrobriand was a distinguished citizen soldier, but he had no battle experience leading a brigade, and even his regimental experience in combat was meager compared to many. On the road toward Pennsylvania he was new to his brigade, in command for less than a month.
| On July 1, de Trobriand's brigade was one of two left in Emmitsburg to
guard the left rear of the army when the rest of Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles's Third
Corps marched toward the battlefield. Following on and arriving at about 10:00
on the morning of July 2, de Trobriand's brigade was posted that afternoon
facing southwest on the wooded Stony Hill, midway between Graham's brigade at
the Peach Orchard and Ward's brigade near Devil's Den. About 4:30 that
afternoon Hood's division sprang savagely out of the woods to the southwest and
crashed into the southern end of Birney's line.|
After detaching three regiments to division commander Maj. Gen. David Birney for emergency duty nearer the flanks, de Trobriand stoutly defended far forward with the three regiments he had left, holding off numerous insistent attacks by Hood's and then McLaws's divisions, even after the supports on both sides had fallen back. Finally, when Caldwell's Second Corps division arrived in relief, Birney ordered de Trobriand to withdraw. De Trobriand and his remaining men moved to the rear and bivouacked east of the Taneytown Road. By that time, every third man in his brigade was down as a casualty.
De Trobriand, along with the rest of Birney's shattered division, was put in reserve on July 3, and supported some batteries but did no fighting themselves.
After the battle Birney wrote:
Colonel DeTrobriand deserves my heartiest thanks for his skillful disposition of his command by gallantly holding his advanced position until relieved by other troops. This officer is one of the oldest in commission as colonel in the volunteer service had been distinguished in nearly every engagement of the Army of the Potomac, and certainly deserves the rank of brigadier- general of volunteers, to which he has been recommended.
De Trobriand had shown at Gettysburg that he deserved permanent command of a brigade, but there was no immediate official response to Birney's recommendation. De Trobriand continued to lead his brigade as a colonel through the fall campaign and was mustered out in November 1863. His promotion to brigadier general came in January 1864, but he had to wait seven months for a command. When Hobart Ward was drummed out of the army for being drunk in battle in July, de Trobriand took Ward's brigade and commanded it until Appomattox. Before the end of the War he was trusted with even higher responsibilities, occasionally in division command during the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns.
For further reading:
de Trobriand, P. Regis. Four Years with the Army of the Potomac. Boston, 1889