The Military Career of W. W. H. Davis
Article by Laine Blovier, published originally for the Bucks County Civil War Round Table
William Watts Hart Davis was a well-educated man who had extensive schooling in his pre-adolescent and teenage years. His military career began at the early age of ten when he enlisted in a local militia unit called the Liberty Guards. As a young adult Davis attended the Norwich University, a military school in Norwich Vermont. Upon his graduation he was appointed military instructor at the Military School in Portsmouth Virginia.
When the Mexican War erupted Davis enlisted as a private in the 1st Mass Infantry where he quickly rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, due in no doubt to his military training and schooling. During the war his increased, as he was Aide-de-Camp, then Assistant Adjutant General, next he was Commissary Officer, until finally he was mustered out in 1848 as Captain of Co. E 1st Mass Infantry. 13 years later when the guns of war sounded, Citizen Davis again offered his services to the United States. With the rank of Captain, Davis led Co I of the 25th Pa Regiment, a company he raised in the 24 hrs following the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The 25th was also known as the "First Defenders". They were a 3-month unit with the distinction of being the first troops to pass through Baltimore following the riots. Previously rioters in Baltimore, who were Southern sympathizers, violently vented their displeasure on the Union troops marching through town while answering President Lincoln's call for the defense of Washington D.C. The deadly confrontation prompted the army to begin shuttling troops through Baltimore in the middle of the night to avoid anymore-possible bloodshed of civilians or military personnel. The 25th's journey through Baltimore passed without incident. After service on the Upper Potomac, Captain Davis was mustered out of the 25th in July of 1861. Upon his return home Davis began raising the 104th Pa Vol. Regiment composed primarily of Bucks County residents
Davis became the Colonel of the 104th in a way that was, according to the Doylestown Democrat, "unique among commanders of the Civil War." Davis was not mustered in as Colonel in the usual way; instead he mustered himself in by "taking the oath of allegiance before Squire John B. Pugh, of Doylestown." Be that as it may, Colonel Davis quickly gathered and trained the troops he would soon lead into battle. Davis and the 104th were bivouacked in Washington D.C. where Davis was put in command of a Provisional Brigade consisting of the 52nd Pa, 56th NY, and his own 104th Pa. Davis was given the title of Provisional Brigadier General although still officially a Colonel. This would start a trend in which Colonel Davis served as Brigade or Divisional Commander without actually being promoted to Brigadier or Major General. He remained a Colonel throughout his service in the war despite letter campaigns by his superiors to have him promoted to Brigadier General. It wasn't until March of 1865, after his military service ended, that Colonel Davis was Brevetted to Brigadier General.
On Saturday, May 31st 1862 Colonel Davis and the 104th experienced their deadliest encounter of the war. Positioned at the front of George McClellan's Army near the outskirts of Richmond Virginia, the 104th became engaged in a fierce struggle against the counterattacking defenders of that Southern city. Facing overwhelming odds and lacking support, the104th was driven back across the casualty-strewn field. In the confusion the regimental colors were left behind. Colonel Davis seeing this, organized a squad to retrieve the flags before they could fall into enemy hands. A mad dash followed by close combat yielded the colors to the men of the 104th , but not before Davis and others were wounded. A severe wound to the left elbow forced Colonel Davis away from the front for a short period of recuperation. This heroic struggle led to the decoration of Hiram Purcell with the Medal of Honor.
Davis rejoined the 104th in time to be transported with them to Charleston S.C. While assigned to this area of operation, Colonel Davis was stationed on Morris Island, Folly Island, and James Island just some of the many islands that ring the Charleston Harbor. In this theater, Davis would take command of Brigades, Divisions, and at times entire Union forces. One assignment given to Davis and the 104th by General Gilmore, the commander of the Dept. of the South, was to have cut, four hundred 11-1/2 ft long by 5-inch dia poles for the mounting of a gun to be used to bombard the City of Charleston. Known as the "Swamp Angle" this 200 lb Parrot Rifle was to be located in an impenetrable marsh near Morris Island. The poles supplied were driven into the bottomless swamp and became the foundation for the battery that would eventually lob shells into the city. In one of Davis' lectures he tells a funny story concerning the daunting task of working in the muck and mire. "The active work, of building the battery, was assigned to a Lieutenant of the New York Engineers, and when the place was pointed out to him, by his Colonel, he said it was impossible, to which the Colonel replied, "there is no such word as impossible" and said the battery must be built there. This settled the question, and, to encourage the doubting Lieutenant the Colonel authorized him to call for anything he might need; whereupon the Lieutenant made requisition for "one hundred men, eighteen feet tall to wade through mud twelve feet deep." This little bit of pleasantry cost the Lieutenant his arrest, but he was soon released and the battery was built by men of ordinary stature." On Morris Island, he took part in the final and successful assault of Fort Wagner site of the earlier defeat of the 54th Mass Colored Inf. A portion of the 104th which he designated "Boat Infantry" were later tasked with "prowling around the harbor of Charleston trying to intercept the enemy's relief for Sumter." On one instance the men brought back to Davis a brick from the demolished walls of the still Confederate occupied fort. General Davis was later put in sole command of Morris Island and it's nearly 10,000-man detachment. From this post he was transferred to command of the Middle District, a large sector, which included Hilton Head Island and the crucially important Fort Pulaski.
Following a leave of absence, Colonel Davis returned again to command troops stationed around the Charleston Harbor area. While on reconnaissance during the siege of Charleston, Davis was struck in the hand by fragments of an exploding shell. The fingers on his right hand were carried away by the blast. Again he was sent home to recuperate from his wounds. Following his recovery, Davis was ordered to Philadelphia to sit on the General Court Martial board, an assignment he would continue until being mustered out of service.
Following the cessation of hostilities, General Davis' opinions on reconstruction paralleled those of the late President Lincoln. In a letter to the city of Harrisburg's 4th of July celebration committee in 1865 he wrote, "Let conciliation and generosity be the ruling policy; let the people of the South be treated as erring citizens and not as implacable foes. Let there be neither confiscation nor hanging for political offenses; let justice everywhere be largely tempered with mercy." In the years following the war Davis was instrumental in gathering funds for the erection of the 104th Monument in the center of Doylestown. He was also active in the organization of his regiment's reunions. These gatherings were held at various locations around Bucks County; from Quakertown to Bristol and from Hartsville to Frenchtown. As the years marched on and the veterans passed away, the celebrations grew smaller and smaller. General Davis eventually joined his fallen comrades on December 26, 1910. General Davis spilled his blood while leading his men in defense of our nation and because of this and his other contributions to society we remember him here today.