Among the ranks of common soldiers are those who, perhaps for only a fleeting moment, display uncommon valor above and beyond the call of duty and are singled out for the nation’s highest aware for combat heroism, the Medal of Honor.
Deep in the archives of the U.S. Army lies a yellowed scrap of paper bearing the citation for a coveted Medal of Honor. I treads “To Charles W. Anderson, Private, Company K, lst New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, for capturing a Confederate flag at Waynesboro, Virginia, March 2, 1865”
Among Civil War Medal of Honor citations this one is unremarkable. Hundreds of Union soldiers earned the decoration for capturing enemy battle flags. But the tale of Private Anderson makes his Medal unique.
The story begins in late February, 1864 while the 1st New York “Lincoln” Cavalry is in bivouac near Winchester, Virginia. Little interest is stirred when a stranger rides into camp; citizens always come and go among the various campsites dotting the landscape.
The slightly-built man reins his horse up in front of the regimental headquarters tent. To the soldiers idling in front of the tent he says he wants to enlist. Again this announcement generates no unusual interest. Although the unit has its roots in New York City its members are from throughout the Union, one company from Pennsylvania, another from Michigan. Since the regiment has been on the move during the war recruits have joined up all along the way. The stranger is directed inside.
The regimental sergeant major eagerly greets the recruit. Because battle casualties and illness have weakened the regiment most companies are well below strength. Here is a healthy-appearing young man who even has his own mount.
To the sergeant major’s questions the recruit answers briefly. He is Charles W. Anderson, born in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 15, 1841 (though his tombstone gives 1844). He is 5’7″, with grey eyes and black hair He says he is local farmer who has stayed out of the war until Rebels foraged through his land, stealing crops and livestock. Now he wants his revenge.
The sergeant major eyeballs the recruit. It is obvious the man’s hair is dyed and he doesn’t sound like he is from Louisiana. The officer has his suspicions but the man looks fit. He extends his hand an says, “Welcome to the lst New York.” Anderson is assigned to Captain Edwin F. Savacool’s Company K; Savacool himself, a Michigan native, will earn a Medal of Honor at Sailors Creek.
To the other members of the company Anderson is somewhat of an enigma. He is friendly, for sure, and does his share of work, more than some in fact, but he never talks much. To polite questions he answers briefly, making it apparent he doesn’t want to reveal much of his past.
Sergeant Charles Warren feels Anderson is trying to conceal his true identity, but doesn’t push the matter – there are others in the company who want to “lose” themselves. He considers Anderson a good soldier who bothers no one. Warren decides Anderson’s past doesn’t matter.
For the next year Anderson and the rest of the 1st New York Cavalry spar with Confederates in skirmishes up and down the Shenandoah Valley Anderson proves himself a competent, able soldier Not foolhardy, he nonetheless pushes boldly forward while other hold back. He quickly develops a well-deserved reputation for coolness under fire.
On February 27, 1865, General Philip Sheridan begins his march from Winchester to Petersburg, Virginia, intending to destroy the Central Railroad and James River Canal in the process. Opposing him are troops under General Jubal A. Early. To stymie Sheridan, Early places his forces in the hills just west of Waynesboro, Virginia, 13 miles east of Staunton.
I has be raining hard to two days when, On March 2, at Fishersville, about midway between Staunton and Waynesboro, the advance scouts of General George Custer’s command clash with Rebel vedettes and drive them back to Waynesboro. Ordered to form up for an attack, Custer opts to commence battle immediately rather than wait for a reconnaissance of the enemy’s positions He sends three cavalry regiments, including the lst New York to the enemy’s left flank. With two brigades he charges directly at the enemy’s lines, driving right through them and into Waynesboro itself.
Completely disorganized by the boldness of the attack the Confederates break and run. In the melee that follows 1800 officers and men, a train of 200 wagons, 14 pieces of artillery, and 17 Confederate battle flags are captured.
Among those capturing an enemy standard are Private Charles Anderson. Riding hard through the rain-soaked timber Anderson spurs his horse onward. He bears down on a Rebel color guard, gives a yell, and fires his revolver into the air.
Before the Confederates can react to Anderson’s daring charge he is in their midst, his excited horse rearing and pawing the air. Anderson grabs the enemy flag. He pulls it toward him. A brief tug-of-war ensues. Anderson wins. With a whoop he rides of, clutching his prize to his chest He quickly stuffs the Confederate flag into his shirt and rejoins his comrades in rounding up enemy stragglers.
A week later, soldiers who captured enemy flags are sent to Washington, DC. On March 19, 1865, they present their trophies to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. It is the largest group of enemy flags every captured in one battle. As a reward for their gallantry Stanton directs that each man be given 30-day furlough and a Medal of Honor. It isn’t hard to imagine which reward is more welcome to the war-weary soldiers.
By the time Anderson rejoins his unit the war is over The 1st New York Cavalry moves to the Washington, DC area for mustering out. On June 27, 1865, his Medal of Honor in his pocket and his true identity still a well-kept secret, Charles Anderson takes his honorable discharge at Alexandria, Virginia.
Anderson goes to Baltimore, Maryland, working at odd jobs. After six months as a civilian he realizes the military life held many pleasant memories for him. That, and because the post-war employment situation is not promising, prompts Anderson to enlist in the Regular Army.
Because his Medal of Honor is in the name of Charles Anderson he continues using that alias when he enlists in Company M, 3rd U.S. Cavalry at Baltimore on January 11, 1866.
Anderson spends 12 years in the 3rd Cavalry, eight in Company M and four in Company A. During those years he sees considerable action against hostile Indians in the Southwwest and the Northern Plains.
Few posts require as much stamina as those in the American West. Isolation, poor rations, disease, and loneliness plague the troops. After 12 hard years Anderson has had enough of army life. He writes his sister, Mary in Staunton, Virginia, asking her to begin the correspondence necessary for him to receive a hardship discharge. It comes April 4, 1878.
Anderson returns to Staunton. For the first time in over 13 years he assumes his real name – George Pforr. When he marries Sally Smith Garber on September 18, 1878, it is under the name Pforr. Their 11 children bear the name Pforr. All the townspeople in and around Staunton know the quiet farmer by his true name, George Pforr.
It isn’t until 1905, when Pforr is in his 60’s and applying for a Federal pension for his Civil War service, that the true story of his false identity is finally revealed.
According to documents he files with the government in support of his application, Pforr was actually born in Baltimore, Maryland, not New Orleans. When the Civil War began, Pforr like many Marylanders, initially had Southern sympathies. As a result he had enlisted in Captain Jonathan H. McClanahan’s battery, a part of General John Imboden’s Confederate cavalry brigade.
Pforr later decided he no longer supported the Confederate cause He made up his mind to join the Union forces. One night in February, 1864 he did just that. He slipped out of camp and made his way through Union lines and eventually to the 1st New York Cavalry’s camp. His sergeant in McClanahan’s battery, James W. Blackburn, reported Pforr as a deserter and promptly forgot about him – until asked to confirm the incident in 1905.
Based on statements from his comrades in both the Union and Confederate armies Pforr is granted his pension in 1906. Though he had at last admitted to his alias the army did not change his name on the Medal of Honor roll. To this day he is shown as Charles W. Anderson.
Pforr dies quietly at his farm in Annex, Virginia on February 25, 1916. He is buried at Thorn Rose Cemetery in Staunton.
Long forgotten in the passage of time, George Pforr is the only enemy deserter to earn America’s highest honor.
Written by Edward F. Murphy- Past president of the Medal of Honor Historical Society.
Originally Published in Blue & Gray Magazine– Columbus, Ohio. Re-Published with permission.