Fraternization at the front

After the February 1865 peace talks failed to end the U.S. Civil War, Union soldiers at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed — did what they could to move things along.

May 2014: Confederate reenactors' encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau
May 2014: Confederate reenactors’ encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, enchanging battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Union Army was marching irrevocably toward securing the Union and — together with the African American population and the valiant U.S. Colored Troops — destroying the brutal slave system.

With the war’s end in sight and longing for peace, soldiers from North and South began to fraternize across the battle lines.

My great, great grandfather’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment arrived at Bermuda Hundred in January 1865. They were promptly heckled by Confederate soldiers who had opposed them at Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA recorded one such incident in his diary and described the effect of this battlefield banter on Confederate troops:

January 1st, 1865: …as our lines were only about 150 yards conversation was easy as soon as they discovered that the 6th N.Y.H. Artillery was in front of them one of the rebs jumped up and sang out, ‘I say boys here is the Big Six come all the way from Cedar Creek for their knapsacks you had better get ready to hand them over,’ then turning towards us he inquired, ‘Say Yanks aint you been cold this winter without your over-coats and blankets?’

As may be imagined they had the laugh on us until one of our men replied, ‘ “No Johnny” we haven’t been cold we kept warm by drilling on those eighty pieces of artillery you left in the valley.’

Chaffing was the order of the day on both sides yet quite friendly relations were kept up. Our men would go out  half way between the lines and invite the rebs to dine with them the result of this intercourse tended to swell the number of deserters but at last the rebel officers smelt a mice and would not let their men to talk with us.”

My ancestor Arthur Bull fell ill at Cedar Creek in November 1864 and was admitted to hospital at Bermuda Hundred on 3 Jan. 1865. In poor health, he may not have been on the barricades with the 6th NYHA when this exchange took place. But records in his pension file indicate he returned to his regiment from hospital on 30 Jan. 1865.

Which leaves me wondering: As more and more Confederate soldiers crossed over to federal lines during February 1865 — steadily weakening the South’s army — was Arthur among the Union soldiers who encouraged them?

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Peace rumors: Castles in the air

On 2 Feb. 1865 — while my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed with his 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment near Dutch Gap in Virginia — the James River froze solid near Richmond.

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General Hospital at Point of Rocks, Va. (1861-1865) On 30 Jan. 1865, my ancestor Arthur Bull was released from this hospital and rejoined his 6th NYHA regiment as rumors of peace swept through the camps. Photo: Library of Congress.

Yet even in the bitter cold, the Union Army and its works were kept in fighting shape. My great, great grandfather’s 6th NYHA compatriot Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds described the situation in a 5 Feb. 1865 letter to his wife.

My time is now nearly all occupied in picketing, shoveling, dirt drilling, etc., Sundays not excepted….Our duties are very heavy which begin to tell on our men in the filling up of the hospitals. I have had a bad cold but am getting over it and am nearly as well as usual. It has been a very bad time for colds but very few escaped.

Conditions must have been difficult for my ancestor Arthur, who suffered from heart and lung complaints. He had just returned to his regiment from hospital on 30 Jan. 1865 when the cold weather intensified.

After the Hampton Roads Peace Conference failed to end the war, fighting resumed where it left off — though a longing for peace still permeated the ranks. Again, from Pvt. Reynolds’ letter.

Day before yesterday there was very heavy cannonading on our left towards Petersburgh. The results I have not learned. We are situated on the West side of the James River near Dutch Gap.

Our camp is occasionally filled with peace rumors which may be like castles in the air, pleasing to think of but soon vanish away. However, I hope and pray it will be otherwise….Some men here are confident that we shall have peace by the first of May next….I dream often of being at home, or home on a furlough…

Like Pvt. Reynolds, my great, great grandfather was a family man with a wife and three small children at home. Surely Arthur also longed for peace and a chance to see his family at the end of the war.

And there were growing signs — amid the roar and smoke of battle — that the Civil War was entering its final phase. Chief among these was the steady flow of Confederate troops deserting to Union-held territory and the way the Union troops — likely including my ancestor — helped them to cross over.

More on this in the next post.

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Hampton Roads peace talks

On 31 Jan. 1865 – the day after my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to his 6th N.Y. Heavy Artillery regiment from hospital – an expectant hush fell over the battle lines outside Petersburg, Va., as rumors of peace talks swept through the ranks.

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Sidewheeler River Queen, at the wharf. Civil War peace talks took place on this ship in Hampton Roads, Va., in early February 1865. Image: Wikipedia

That day in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude.

And at the front, troops from North and South massed behind their parapets to watch a three-man Confederate delegation make its way by carriage to meet the Union ambulance that would transport them to the peace conference with the U. S. government.

Cheers rang out from both sides as soldiers spotted the carriage — a tangible symbol that the U.S. Civil War was marching inexorably to an end — even if the shape of that end was not completely clear.

The peace conference was held aboard the River Queen steamship anchored at Hampton Roads, Va., near Fortress Monroe — known as “Freedom Fortress” for sheltering so many African Americans since the Civil War began.

On 3 Feb. 1865 — two days after he approved sending the 13th Amendment to state legislatures for ratification — Pres. Abraham Lincoln , along with Sec. of State William H. Seward, represented the federal government at the meeting with the Confederate representatives.

Political, economic and military developments clearly pointed to a victory for the North. But the South’s delegation would not yield on ending slavery or rejoining the Union — so they went back the way they came with no agreement. And the troops went back to the trenches where the fighting resumed in earnest.

What was my great, great grandfather’s view on all of this? I can’t know for sure, since I have inherited no journals or correspondence. But his fellow artillerists from the 6th NYHA — Sgt. William Thistleton who kept a diary and Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds who regularly wrote home — were silent about the conference while it was taking place.

Almost as if they sensed that the talks would come to nothing and that the great victories of the Civil War — abolishing slavery and preserving the Union — would only be won by fighting the war to  the finish.

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Fort Brady: Artillery sounds the alarm

On 23 Jan. 1865, my great, great grandfather Pvt. Arthur Bull’s regiment — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — was stationed at Fort Brady in Virginia. But was my ancestor on duty with them or in hospital?

Fort Brady on the James River in Bermuda Hundred, Va. My ancestor's 6th NYHA regiment was stationed here during the last naval battle of the U.S. Civil War. Image:  Library of Congress
Parrot guns at Fort Brady on the James River in Bermuda Hundred, Va. (1864)  My ancestor’s 6th NYHA regiment was stationed  here in Jan. 1865 and engaged with Confederate forces before the last major naval battle of the U.S. Civil War. Image: Library of Congress

The U.S. War Dept., Surgeon General’s Office, Record and Pension Division provided a report on 27 Jan. 1884 for his pension application, which says:

He entered hospit. Point of Rocks, Va. Jan’y 16, ’65 with Heart Disease, and was returned to duty Jan’y 30, ’65. He also appears as admitted to that hospit. Jan’y 24, ’65 with Boil…

If Arthur was already in hospital at Point of Rocks on 16 January, why would he need to be “admitted” to the same hospital on 24 January?

If he was discharged for a time — then readmitted — could he have been stationed with the 6th NYHA at Fort Brady during the last major naval battle of the Civil War?

Fort Brady was part of a string of Union Army fortifications near Richmond, Va., that extended north from the James River to Fort Harrison. It was built after the battles of September 1864 to blockade the Confederate fleet upriver.

On 22 Jan. 1865 — while the bulk of the Union Navy was engaged at Fort Fisher in North Carolina — the Confederate navy began testing the federal blockade. Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA described the events of that day and the next in his diary:

Jan. 22nd: about 9 P.M. the rebels made another attack in force on the right of our line near the James river and at the same time three of their iron-clads attempted to pass the obstructions just above “crow-nest” battery the infantry attack was easily repulsed not lasting more than half an hour but the batteries and the rebel fleet kept it up all night.

Jan. 23rd: at 9 a.m. a shell from our batteries entered the rebel ram Jamestown and exploding in her magazine blew her up and of the crew of 64 men but 11 escaped…the [6th NYHA] regiment which had been under arms all night were returned to their quarters at 10 a.m.

Sgt. Thistleton provides no further details of 6th NYHA involvement in subsequent events at Fort Brady. But on the night of 23 Jan. 1865, a large Confederate flotilla tried to ram its way down the James River in the darkness. Their aim: to destroy the Union supply base at City Point, Va.

Union lookouts spotted the flotilla, and the batteries at Fort Brady fired sonorous rounds at the passing fleet. The big guns, aimed at the opposite shore, could not stop the Confederate ships.

But their booming salvos alerted Union forces downriver. Thus began the Civil War’s last significant naval confrontation — the Battle of Trent’s Reach — in which Union forces prevailed on 24 Jan. 1865.

Records indicate that my great, great grandfather was admitted that day to hospital at Point of Rocks, Bermuda Hundred, Va., for treatment of a boil — no small medical matter under wartime conditions in the days before antibiotics. He likely remained there until he was returned to duty on 30 Jan. 1865.

I can’t be sure, 150 years later, what role my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull played at Fort Brady. But I like to think that he may have been stationed with his regiment — however briefly — when Union forces repulsed a land attack and confronted the Confederate fleet’s advance guard ahead of the last great naval battle of the U.S. Civil War.

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A Civil War peace overture

On 12 Jan. 1865 — while my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was in hospital at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — Jefferson Davis, head of the Confederacy, wrote a letter to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proposing talks to secure peace for the “two countries.” In reply to the overture, Lincoln said that he would only discuss a peace settlement for “one common country.”

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Point of Rocks in Bermuda Hundred, Va. (1864). My ancestor was transferred to the General Hospital at Point of Rocks, at left, on 16 Jan. 1865, as plans for peace talks were being made. Image: villagenewsonline.com

Troops were still on the ground and battles were still being fought — but the Confederacy was unravelling.

Confederate soldiers were deserting in increasing numbers. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution — abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude — was headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. And on 15 Jan. 1865, the Union Army successfully stormed Fort Fisher in North Carolina — cutting off Confederate access to the sea.

So in late January 1865 plans were made for peace talks to be held, stirring hopes among combatants, civilians and convalescents — one of them my great, great grandfather — that the Civil War might at last be nearing its end.

Pvt. Orson Reynolds, from my ancestor’s 6th N.Y. Heavy Artillery regiment, captured the sentiment of Union Army soldiers in an 18th Jan. 1865 letter to his wife:

All has been quiet along our lines for a few days past. I hear today a gun occasionally. We are inclined to think the rebellion is about played out. One hundred guns were fired here yesterday on the taking of Fort Fisher. Our soldiers would like to have the rebellion cease as they are heartily tired of the war…

I have dreamed of being at home for the last two nights…The Johnnies continue to come into our lines whilst our soldiers scarcely ever desert to them. This is a good omen.

Similar dreaming and discussions were likely also going on in military hospital wards among ill and injured soldiers, including my ancestor Arthur Bull — combatants on whom the war had taken a toll.

The movement of the peace delegation through the battlefields ushered in a brief respite from the fighting and offered a fleeting glimpse of the Civil War’s end.

But before the talks began, my ancestor’s unit — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — had another important battle engagement. More in the next post.

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