By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
Charms, talismans and other trinkets often dangled from the ends of pocket watch chains worn by veterans long after the Civil War. The object that hung from Sam Wright’s chain never failed to capture attention—a minié bullet housed in a small basket of gold.1
Though the origins of the lead chunk traced back to a single battle, it might easily have represented Wright’s entire combat record, which included 30 battles and five injuries.
Wright’s service became the stuff of legend from the start. Born Samuel Cole Wright in Plympton, Mass., he “was actually plowing his father’s field when he left the work unfinished in order to enlist in the Plymouth Rock Guards on May 7, 1861,” according to one report. Wright, then 18 years old, was easily one of the biggest of the recruits in the militia company, a strapping six-footer with a natural military bearing and determined look on his youthful face.2
He and his comrades became known as the Minute Men of ’61 and joined the 3rd Massachusetts Infantry for a three-month term.3 Wright served his time, then, before the end of 1861, re-enlisted in the Union army as a private in the 29th Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment earned a reputation over the next three years for hard-fighting in numerous operations with the Army of the Potomac and in the military departments of Ohio and Tennessee.
Early on, Wright established himself as a leader in the ranks. One source noted that his “intrepidity and fine soldierly qualities were readily conceded by his superior officers,” and led to promotions as corporal and sergeant.4
Wright’s combat record underscores the regard in which his superiors held him, and leaves an impression that he was indestructible. He refused to leave his comrades after a shell fragment struck him in the head during the Battle of White Oak Swamp, part of the Peninsula Campaign, in June 1862. A few months later at Antietam, he led a force of 75 men to pull down a fence at the Bloody Lane under heavy fire and suffered gunshot wounds through both legs at the end of the successful mission. A six-mule team trampled over him during the autumn of 1863, and the wagon to which the animals were tethered narrowly missed killing him.5 A musket ball ripped into his left arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. The following month at the Battle of the Crater, he suffered his fifth and final wound of the war when a bullet destroyed his right eye and lodged in the back of his skull. Medical personnel dug the one-and-a-quarter ounce lead slug out and upon examination determined it to be from a Belgian-made gun.
This is the bullet that Wright encased in gold and carried with him as a remembrance of his service. In February 1865 he received a disability discharge and returned to Massachusetts.
Wright became best remembered not for his multiple wounds, but for his courage at Antietam. Long after the war he shared his story of that day with Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel, editors of the book Deeds of Valor: “Some 200 yards in advance of our position, which we were holding at a terrible cost, was a fence built high and strong. The troops in advance had tried to scale the fence and reform under that hell of fire. They were actually torn in shreds and wedged into the fence.”6
He continued, “The cry came to us for volunteers to pull down the fence. Instantly there sprang from the long line, fast being shortened as the ranks closed up over the dead, seventy-six volunteers. We ran straight for the fence amid a hail of iron and lead, the dead falling all about us, but to reach the fence was our only thought. A part of the force reached it, and, as one would grasp a rail it would be sent flying out of his hands by rifle-shots.”7
Wright added, “The fence leveled, we made the attempt to return, and it was as hot for us on the retreat, as it had been on the advance. Few escaped death or wounds. I had almost regained my regiment, when I was hit. The line then successfully pressed on, and the ‘Sunken Road,’ or ‘Bloody Lane,’ as it is now known, was within our lines.”8
In 1896, Wright received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry. By this time, he had moved from his hometown of Plympton to Boston, where he had worked his way through the ranks of the city’s U.S. Customs office. He also became deeply involved in veterans' affairs on the state level through his regimental association and a commission appointed to erect Massachusetts memorials at Antietam. Wright also served nationally with the influential Grand Army of the Republic. He held various posts in these and other groups.9
Wright also had a passion for collecting relics. According to one source, he owned autographed letters from top Union generals, a letter described as the last written by Andersonville’s Capt. Henry Wirz before his execution for war crimes, the shackles and handcuffs used on Dr. Samuel Mudd after his arrest for treating the leg injury of John Wilkes Booth following his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, field glasses that belonged to abolitionist John Brown and more.10
After his death in 1906 at age 63, the relics were purchased by dealer Norm Flayderman. He sold some items in 30 lots in his catalog #56 in 1962. Other items were retained.11
Wright’s wife, Mary, and two daughters survived him.