Battlefield birthday

During October 1864, while he was stationed in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull marked a special, personal event — his 30th birthday.

He was still young by today’s standards, but closer to middle age in those days when average life expectancy for white men was just over 40  years of age.

Since I did not inherit any of his correspondence, I can only imagine how my great, great grandfather felt to be spending his birthday on the battlefield so far from home and family.

Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y. In October 1864, my ancestor marked his birthday on the battlefield far from home and family. Photo by Molly Charboneau

From my research, I know that Arthur was married and the father of three small children when he enlisted. So he may have felt much like his fellow soldier Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds did when he wrote this to his wife:

9 Oct. 1864: A soldier in the army has no intimation of what is to take place one hour hence. He is liable to be ordered away at any time….I think of you and the children often and hope that I may see you all again.

28 Oct. 1864: I can assure you that I miss the society of my wife and children very much and that there is none in this world that I prize so much. I hope all is for the best and that I shall yet return.

Through postal service to the front, Union soldiers received gifts from home — hand-made clothing, baked goods and the like. So his wife, my great, great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, and other family members may have sent him something.

He would also have enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers to cheer him on his special day — which came during a month of victory and high spirits for the Union Army.

I think of Arthur there in the Shenandoah Valley with a sense admiration and affection — a young man fighting for higher ideals and celebrating his birthday on the battlefield 150 years ago.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Union troops vote for Lincoln

On 23 Aug. 1864 — before the Union victories at Atlanta and Cedar Creek, where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed — Pres. Abraham Lincoln asked members of his cabinet to sign a folded note. Then he tucked it away in his a desk drawer. It said this:

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probabl[e] that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.

Oct. 1864: Pennsylvania soldiers in the Union Army of the James cast their ballots.
Oct. 1864: Pennsylvania soldiers in the Union’s Army of the James vote in the presidential election.  My ancestor’s state, New York, allowed Union troops to vote in the field and mail their ballots to their home county for tabulation. Photo: Library of Congress.

There was war weariness in the North. Tremendous loss of life in the Union Army’s spring campaigns — which sent my ancestor to the hospital — had not yielded victories. And in July, the Confederates marched down the Shenandoah Valley and attacked Washington.

This was also the first wartime ballot since 1812. No president had won a second term since 1832. Yet the outcome of the U.S. Civil War — and the country’s future — hung in the balance.

Then the tide turned on the battlefield. Union forces took Atlanta in September and defeated the Confederates at Cedar Creek in October — and a new offensive began at the ballot box. Here, too, Union combatants — among them my great, great grandfather — played a vital role.

Arthur’s home state of New York adopted a law allowing soldiers to vote in the field — the result of a political struggle described on the Lincoln Institute’s website Mr. Lincoln and New York.

Once the law passed, New York faced the daunting tactical challenge of delivering ballots to nearly 400,000 New York State combatants stationed throughout the South.

But delivered they were — giving my ancestor the amazing opportunity to vote for President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and mail his ballot to his home county.

How did my great, great grandfather vote? I have no way of knowing for sure. Yet circumstantial evidence suggests that Arthur probably cast his ballot for “Old Abe,” as Union combatants affectionately called the president.

On 27 Oct, 1864, his compatriot, Sgt. William Thistleton of 6th NY Heavy Artillery Co. I, wrote this in his diary:

Soldiers were busy sending off their votes. McClellan and Seymore are evidently not favorites with the soldiers.

Lincoln won the vote by 60 percent in Broome County, N.Y. — where Arthur was from — and he received 78 percent of Union soldiers’ and sailors’ votes. In two close states — New York and Connecticut — it may have been the troops’ votes that pushed Lincoln to victory.

In the end, Lincoln garnered 55 percent of the popular vote throughout the North and was reelected with 212 electoral votes against McClellan’s 21 electoral votes — a decisive mandate to press on with the fight to end slavery and preserve the union.

I couldn’t be prouder that my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was a participant — at the front and at the ballot box — in that historic moment.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Cedar Creek: Union victory

The Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley — where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was on duty with 6th New York Heavy Artillery Co. L — ushered in a wave of optimism and celebration among Union troops.

It was the next great Union victory after Atlanta and assured the reelection of Pres. Abraham Lincoln just two weeks later — on 8 Nov. 1864.

May 2014: Artillery reenactors at Spotsylvania Courth House, Va.
May 2014: Union artillery reenactors at Spotsylvania Court House, Va. Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant ordered  the firing of “a salute of 100 guns from each of the armies”  after the 19 Oct. 1864 Union victory at Cedar Creek. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The day after the battle, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent a telegram from City Point, Va., to Sec. of War Stanton in Washington commending Gen. Philip Sheridan for “[t]urning what bid fair be a disaster into glorious victory” at Cedar Creek.

“I had a salute of 100 guns from each of the armies here fired in honor of Sheridan’s last victory, “

The roar of those 100-gun salutes also paid homage to rank-and-file Union soldiers — like my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull — who were on the front lines and rear guard of a battle that changed U.S. history.

For without them, there could have been no victory and no glory — and Sheridan acknowledged as much in his 20 Oct. 2014 telegram to Grant:

We have been favored by a great victory — a victory won from disaster by the gallantry of our officers and men.

Their bravery was brought home in a 28 Oct. 1864 letter from Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds, of 6th NYHA Co. M, to his wife after his sobering visit to the Cedar Creek battlefield:

The next day I spent in walking over the battle ground and viewing the effects. Most of the dead had been buried. I saw only one dead rebel and two of our soldiers that still remained unburied. War is a dreadful thing and one only has to see its effects to realize it.

There had been valor and mortal sacrifice at Cedar Creek amid the thick fog and clouds of gunsmoke — and when the air cleared and the battle had ended, the sun shown down on a country that had made up its mind to decisively march in a new direction.

The 1864 presidential election hinged on this: Would the North press forward in the fight to end slavery under Pres. Abraham Lincoln or would it slide back to accommodating the southern slaveholders by electing George B. McClellan?

I am proud that my ancestor was there when the Union victory at Cedar Creek answered that question: There would be no turning back.

More in the next post on the role of Union troops, including my great, great grandfather, in Lincoln’s reelection.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Cedar Creek: Supply guard

After a morning retreat on 19 Oct. 1864 by Union troops, including eight companies of my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early mistakenly assumed that the Battle of Cedar Creek was over.

Believing the Confederates had won, he called a halt to their advance down the Shenandoah Valley — a fateful move that allowed the Union Army to regroup.

Union supply train in the Shenandoah Valley (1864). Image: Library of Congress
Oct. 1864: A Union supply train in the Shenandoah Valley. With no railroads in the Valley, vital supplies were transported by wagon trains that had to be guarded against Confederate raids. Image: Library of Congress

As famished Confederate troops helped themselves to still-warm breakfasts from Union campfires, Gen. Philip Sheridan arrived at the front on horseback — just in time to turn a rout into a Union counter-offensive.

I’m not sure where my great, great grandfather’s 6th NYHA Co. L was stationed that day — at the front or guarding a supply train. But either way, Arthur was on duty in the Valley at a crucial juncture in the Civil War.

During the fierce firefight, Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds of 6th NYHA Co. M was stationed with a Union supply train. He described his experience in a letter to his wife dated 28 Oct. 1864:

On the day the battle was secured between Gen’l Sheridan and Early [I was] some 12 miles from Winchester and within plain hearing distance for Artillery…Co. M and two others were here at the time and did not participate in the action. Had I gone to the regiment one day sooner I should probably have been in it.

There were no railroads running through the Shenandoah Valley. The Union Army instead used wagon trains to transport vital supplies to the troops — and they had to be guarded to fend off Confederate raids.

If my ancestor was on train-guard duty during the Battle of Cedar Creek, he may have been among the soldiers at the rear who, wrote Pvt. Reynolds, were eventually drawn into the Union’s battle efforts:

Things looked rather dubious at Winchester on the 19th in the forenoon the waggon [sic] trains came in in great haste besides many straggling soldiers and troops soon began to form in lines about our camp. Soon we were ordered to strike tents and were marched two miles from town and constituted as outer line of Pickets and were ordered to be ready for action at a moments notice.

The fighting raged on all day. Then, in the late afternoon, the Union cavalry and infantry launched a blistering counterattack against the Confederates that sent them running for cover.

After that, the battle really was over, and the Confederate forces were finally driven from the Valley — marking a major turning point in the war just two weeks before the presidential election.

What was the political impact of the Battle of Cedar Creek? What would come next for my great, great grandfather and his Union compatriots? More in the next post.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Cedar Creek: Surprise attack

On 19 Oct. 1864, Union forces encamped in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley near Cedar Creek — including the 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment of my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull — were surprised at dawn by a Confederate attack.

Aug. 2014: Union reenactors in battle stance, Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union reenactors in battle stance on Governors Island, N.Y. Surprised on 19 Oct. 1864 by a Confederate attack near Cedar Creek, Union forces quickly regrouped to repel the assault. Photo by Molly Charboneau

One minute Union soldiers were cooking breakfast over their campfires, the next they were racing for their rifles to repel Confederate infantry and cavalry overrunning their camps — an inauspicious start to the Battle of Cedar Creek.

So unexpected was the Confederate advance that when it began Gen. Philip Sheridan — commander of the Union Army of the Shenandoah — was enroute back from Winchester, Va., on horseback following a meeting in Washington, D.C. with the high command.

My great, great grandfather’s unit was part of Col. J. Howard Kitching’s Provisional Division at Cedar Creek — which is  not always shown on battle maps.

They were on the Union left with two divisions of Maj. Gen. George Crook’s 8th Corps — commanded by Col. Joseph Thoburn and Col. Rutherford B. Hayes — when rebel yells and gunfire pierced the morning stillness.

The left flank bore the brunt of the initial assault, and the Union lost many artillery pieces. Sgt. William Thistleton of 6th NYHA Company I described the chaotic events in his diary:

Oct. 19th We were awakened just before day-light this morning by sharp picket firing in front of our camp and the first we knew the rebels cavalry were charging in among our tents we seised [sic] our muskets rushed out and each man on his own responsibility commenced firing a few shots drove the rebels back…we were ordered to fall in formed a line in the rear of our camp and two companys [sic] sent out on the skirmish line..

Then, wrote Sgt Thisleton, 8th Corps troops collapsed under the Confederate assault — leaving 6th NYHA soldiers to try and hold the battle line.

… the rebels advanced in two lines of battle and before they came within fair musket range the 8th corps jumped up and run to the rear without firing a single shot in a few moments the rebs were on us and we stood up and commenced firing but it was useless in an instant we were nearly surrounded and were receiving fire on our front, flanks and rear obliged to fall back contesting every foot of ground rallied in a piece of woods but the enemy was too strong for us and we fell back to Middletown.

Their commander, Col. Kitching, was severely wounded by a shot to the foot while trying to rally the division and had to be taken from the field. After that, the 6th NYHA was out of the action.

But the battle continued as other Union forces stepped up — most notably the soldiers of the 8th Vermont. They lost 70 percent of their unit during the half hour they held off the Confederates while the Union Army regrouped.

I wondered where my ancestor’s Company L was stationed — but Sgt. Thisleton indicated the 6th NYHA had been divided up.

…there were but Eight compy present four companys [sic] having gone to Martinsburg with the supply train…

Was Arthur in battle with the eight companies at the front? Or was he serving as a supply train guard at the rear as the historic confrontation unfolded. If so, what was his experience there?

More to come as the Battle of Cedar Creek continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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