Atlanta: Glorious news

On 2 Sept. 1864 — just as my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to active duty — Union forces captured Atlanta after a prolonged siege.

This incredible victory in the fight to abolish slavery and preserve the union gave an electrifying boost to the Union Army — and strengthened popular resolve in the North to press on.

Union soldiers defending Washington in Sept. 1864 drilled daily on the big guns, but disliked standing for inspection. Shown: Union reenactors on Governors Is., N.Y.  Photo by Molly Charboneau
Aug. 2014: Union reenactors on Governors Island, N.Y. Union soldiers defending Washington in Aug.-Sept. 1864 drilled on the big guns, but disliked standing for inspection. Photo by Molly Charboneau

“So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” wrote Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — commander of Union forces in and around Atlanta — in a telegram to Washington on 3 Sept.

Arthur’s 6th NY Heavy Artillery commander, Col. J. Howard Kitching, summed up the euphoric mood in a 5 Sept. letter: “The news from Atlanta is glorious, is it not? O, for a decisive victory in the East!”

When they arrived in Washington from Virginia the month before — marching from the 6th St. pier past the U.S. Capitol,  up Pennsylvania Ave. to Georgetown then on to Tenleytown — my great, great grandfather’s unit took up positions in Fort Reno and the other forts protecting the city.

That’s where Arthur was stationed — I was surprised to discover — when news reached him of the fall of Atlanta.

I lived in Washington, D.C. for four years. Yet I was unaware — until researching his wartime movements for this blog — that my ancestor had served during the Civil War right near my home.

In his diary, Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA described the Union artillerists’ renewed desire in September 1864 to be battle-ready on the big guns — and the rank-and-file’s dim view of constant inspections.

The men became interested in heavy artillery drills and perfected them-selves so rapidly that in two weeks time they were fully competent to take charge of and handle the guns in any emergency.

The only drawback to our enjoyment being that great bug-bear. to any soldier, ‘Inspection.’ every day a lot of officers would arrive at the fort and the order would be turn out for inspection at one time we thought that we were to be inspected by every officer in the service as no doubt we would if we had remained there six months longer.

Yet remain there they would not. The victory in Atlanta was pivotal, but the Civil War was not over.

On 23 Sept. 1864, wrote Sgt. Thistleton, my ancestor Arthur Bull and his unit received new orders to pack up and be ready to move by 11 p.m. that night. They were headed back to the battle front — this time to the Shenandoah Valley.

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Back on active duty

Serving on the defenses of Washington, D.C. — 150 years ago this month — gave Union soldiers a brief respite after the harsh battlefield conditions in Virginia.

This assignment likely eased the transition back to the ranks for my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull — just returning to the 6th NY Heavy Artillery in September 1864 after two months in hospital.

Union artillerists who fought as infantry in the Overland Campaign resumed artillery duties in Washington in Aug. - Sept.1864. Shown: 1864 artillery piece on Governor's Is., N.Y. Photo by Molly Charboneau
An 1864 artillery piece on Governors Island, N.Y. Union cannoneers like my ancestor, who often fought as infantry in the Overland Campaign, resumed artillery duties in Aug.-Sept. 1864 to defend Washington from Confederate attack. Photo by Molly Charboneau

Arthur’s commander Col. J. Howard Kitching — in letters reprinted in his biography and excerpted below — captured the sense of relief felt by Union troops sent in August 1864 to defend the capital :

My officers and men are delighted to get into nice barracks after living as they have. I have a little cottage, two rooms, which I can clean up and make very comfortable, My head-quarters are about four miles from Washington City.

It seems so queer to be able to lie down at night in quiet, without the danger of being blown to pieces by a mortar shell. I appreciate it, I assure you…the absence of suffering and death which has accompanied our campaign in the field.

It seems singular to be in a city again after the past summer’s experience.

In a 5 September letter, however, Col. Kitching mentioned a downside of barracks life:

My worst trouble is that many of my officers and men are getting sick. It is invariably so, when troops return from the field to the barracks.

The men having been so long in the field, eat everything, and do everything foolish, so that my hospitals are full.

Documents in his Civil War pension file list my great, great grandfather as “present” in September — so he probably did not get sick. He may even have been assigned to non-combat duty as described by Col. Kitching:

The works on my lines…have been suffered to get into exceedingly bad condition, requiring a great deal of extra labor to repair damages and get them into shape.

Without direct evidence from my ancestor, there is no way to know exactly how Arthur passed his time in Washington. But writings by his fellow artillerists describe his unit’s movements and give voice to the view from the ranks.

More in the next post.

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Battle of Fort Stevens

In July 1864, while my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was laid up in hospital, a thwarted Confederate attack on Washington marked an important turning point in the U.S. Civil War.

t. Stevens in 1864. My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to duty on the defenses of Washington, D.C., after the July 1864 Battle of Ft. Stevens. Photo: Library of Congress
Fort Stevens in 1864. My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to duty on the defenses of Washington after the Battle of Fort Stevens. Photo: Library of Congress

At the Battle of Fort Stevens, north of the city, Confederate forces from the Shenandoah Valley were repulsed by a hybrid mass of Union combatants — irregulars who were holding the fort reinforced at the eleventh hour by battle-hardened 6th Corps troops sent north from the Virginia front.

As shots whizzed by, Pres. Abraham Lincoln observed the battle from the parapet of Fort Stevens. Washington’s defenses were beefed up after the failed assault.

The Union’s Army of the Shenandoah was also reorganized to definitively drive the Confederates out of the Valley — and block further threats to the capital as the 1864 presidential election drew near.

As part of this strategy, my great, great grandfather’s unit — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — was recalled from Virginia in mid-August and attached to the 1st Brigade, Hardin’s Division, 22nd Army Corps, Dept. of Washington.

Col. J. Howard Kitching, the 6th NYHA commander, was put in charge of the 1st Brigade when he arrived in Washington. He described where things stood in a 17 August 1864 letter to his father, reprinted in More than Conqueror:

I reported to General Augur, and was at once placed in command…There has been no system of management of the command till everything has gotten wrong end foremost. I have relieved the former staff and am trying to get matters regulated.

The command is large, comprising thirteen forts with their garrisons, extending about eight miles. I have not yet been able to ride over my line, and see what I have jumped into.

When my ancestor Arthur Bull returned to his artillery unit in September 1864 — after his discharge from De Camp Hospital — he reported to the capital.

Arthur, 29, had survived the bloody spring battles of the Overland Campaign in Virginia, then recuperated in July and August from war-related illness. Now he would be stationed north of the Potomac to defend Washington.

I wonder about my ancestor’s experience returning to active duty. What was the atmosphere in the capital? How was Union troop morale? Where would his unit be dispatched next? And how would Arthur hold up in the battles to come?

More in future posts as the research continues.

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Pension file epiphany

Sixth and last in a series on how I found my Civil War ancestor Arthur Bull.

More than a century ago my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull applied for a Civil War pension. He later requested increases as his health and his ability to work declined. After his death, his wife Mary E. applied for widow’s benefits.

Pension Records
Some documents from the Civil War pension file of my ancestor, Union Pvt. Arthur Bull. Photo by Molly Charboneau.

Their applications, along with supporting documents, sat tucked away in a file at the National Archives for five generations. There they remained — mute testimony to Arthur’s life and his family’s — until the day I arrived and asked to see them.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Research Room, I followed the procedures for accessing Arthur’s pension file. Sunlight filtered in through tall, paned windows gently illuminating the table where I waited.

When the archival folder was finally delivered, I caught my breath as I opened it. Inside were original documents my ancestors had actually touched, filled in, dictated and signed.

I carefully leafed through page after page of delicate records — medical reports, military service details, affidavits from family members, rejections and reapplications for an invalid pension, widow’s pension paperwork.

Here at last was the story of my ancestor’s Civil War years. But even more, here was the story of my own family and our direct connection to the fabric of U.S. history – a legacy once lost to us, but now restored.

What if I hadn’t searched for my ancestor? Would Arthur and Mary’s story have languished and been forgotten? And how would future generations learn about the family stories I was collecting?

I photocopied the documents to bring home with me. They were my steady companions for several years as I tracked Arthur’s movements with his military unit and fleshed out the lives of my Bull ancestors. Those precious papers provided evidence that I am still learning from and sharing on this blog.

Looking back, I realize that holding Arthur’s pension file in my hands also marked an epiphany in my genealogy research, a subtle turning point after which my quest for names, dates and evidence broadened into a search for narrative — a way of resurrecting my ancestors through story so future generations could meet and get to know them.

Now it is September. The days grow shorter, the air cooler and the leaves begin to color and fall – much as they did in 1864 when Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was sufficiently recuperated to return to active duty on the defenses of Washington, D.C.

That is where we will meet up with my  great, great grandfather again as his Civil War saga continues.

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An enlightening envelope

Fifth in a series on how I found my Civil War ancestor Arthur Bull.

In early February 1996, I opened my mailbox to discover an envelope from the National Archives and Records Administration.

“At last!” I thought. I had waited two months for copies of documents from the pension file of my Union Army ancestor Arthur Bull.

NARA Pension Info
This pension document sent by the National Archives identified a new residence for Arthur Bull. Photo by Molly Charboneau

Carefully unsealing the envelope, I took out the papers — eight pages in all — and studied each new nugget of information about my great, great grandfather and his family.

The first document was pure gold: an 1883 report from the War Department Adjutant General’s office listing Private Arthur Bull’s presence, or absence due to illness, during his Civil War service with 6th New York Heavy Artillery.

There was also an 1888 declaration, completed when Arthur applied for a pension increase due to war-related debility, giving his residence as Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, N. Y. — an entirely new location.

“How did he end up in western New York?” I wondered.

An application for a widow’s pension by Mary E. (Blakeslee) Bull said she married Arthur on 11 August 1856 in Brookdale, Pennsylvania — cornfirming earlier research.  Sadly, she also provided the date of Arthur’s death — 30 January 1890.

A general affidavit signed by Mary in 1890 said she had two children under age 16, both born in Moose River, Lewis County, N.Y. — Alice I. Bull in 1876 and Waples H. Bull in 1878. A “family record is hereto attached,” she said, but there was no copy of it.

Mrs. Carrie A. Graff, identifying herself as “a daughter” of Mary, signed a supporting affidavit saying she was present at the birth of her two young siblings — they were delivered by a midwife who had since passed away.

I spread the contents of the enlightening envelope across my kitchen table and sat back to absorb their message.

They outlined Arthur’s Union Army service in the Civil War, his wartime illness, his declining health, and his death at age 56 — leaving Mary a widow with two minor children.

But they also spoke of happier times — my ancestors’ marriage, the growth of their family — as well as their geographic mobility.

Wouldn’t Arthur’s complete Civil War pension file tell me even more? There was only one way to find out. I would have to travel to the National Archives and see it for myself.

To be continued.

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