Guard duty in the Valley

When my great, great grandfather Union Pvt. Arthur Bull arrived in the Shenandoah Valley with his unit in October 1864, the Union command considered the Valley Campaign to be essentially over.

Union cavalry had burned crops, removed livestock and leveled barns and buildings to deprive Confederate forces of food, shelter and supplies — and the Confederates had not advanced.

Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y. When not on guard or picket duty in the Shenandoah Valley, my ancestor Arthur Bull and his 6th NY Heavy Artillery unit passed time in camp in early October 1864.  Photo by Molly Charboneau

So in early October, Arthur and his regiment — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — primarily played a supportive role.

They escorted Union supply trains and encamped between stints of guard or picket duty — forming part of the federal lines that ranged across the Valley to prevent the Confederates from again menacing Washington, D.C.

My ancestor’s comrade-in-arms Sgt. William Thistleton described their activities in his diary and noted the return of their 6th NYHA commander:

Oct. 10th We started at sun-rise this morning with the supply train for Winchester arrived and halted at 8 P.M. one mile south of town. Oct. 11th Started at 7 a.m. and arrived at Middletown at 3 P.M. and camped this is a little town with a fine country around it remained here on the 12th inst.

Oct. 13th Off again at 7 a.m. for front royal about 12 miles distant arrived at 2 p.m. and found the rest of the division here pitched our tents and supposed we were going to stay here for a few days. Compy”I” on Picket about 1 1/2 miles from the camp in the afternoon the cavalry brought in a large drove of cattle, horses, mules, sheep and swine which they had confiscated, our boys had plenty of mutton.

Oct. 14th…Col. J. Howard Kitching joined us today he was home on leave of absence when we left Washington he brought with him 600 men for different regiments of Sheridans Army recruits and convalesents [sic].

While in camp, Union combatants — my ancestor among them — were also busy casting their absentee ballots in advance of the 8 Nov. 1864 presidential election.

Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s re-election was in doubt after the high loss of life during the Overland Campaign with no clear Union victory. But the fall of Atlanta to Union forces in September bolstered the civilian electorate in the North — and Union soldiers’ votes would be crucial in the first wartime election since 1812.

On 15 October, wrote Sgt. Thistleton, the 6th NYHA encamped near Cedar Creek about one mile closer to the front and settled in.

We had good time in the camp foraging every day and plenty of chickens and vegetables the men would draw rations and threw them away except coffee and sugar.

All seemed relatively quiet, until one morning when my ancestor’s regiment woke to sharp gunfire from their pickets.

Then suddenly — out of a nebulous fog — Confederate cavalry came charging through their camp.

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Freedom and safe haven

The Union Army in which my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull served was much more than a fighting force. It was a symbol of freedom and a tangible safe haven for emancipated African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates.

May 2014: 23rd Infantry Regiment USCT re-enactors at Spotsylvania Court House. More than just a fighting force, the Union Army was a symbol of freedom and a safe haven for African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates. Photo: Libary of Congress
May 2014: 23rd Infantry Regiment USCT re-enactors, Spotsylvania Court House, Va. The Union Army was a symbol of freedom and a safe haven for emancipated African Americans and anti-slavery non-combatants who were fleeing the Confederates. Photo by Molly Charboneau

During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, many civilians were evacuated north to safety by Union troops. My great, great grandfather — part of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — likely experienced the social impact of the federal army while he was on duty in the Valley.

On 2 Oct. 1864 when his unit was stationed in Harrisonburg, Va., one of Arthur’s fellow soldiers — Sgt. William Thistleton — wrote in his diary about the arrival of a train from the front “laden” with religious pacifists and freed African Americans.

[T]he majority of the former were of a set called “Dunkers” a species of the Quaker persuasion some of them had been living in the hills and woods for a month past hiding from the relentless conscription of the Davis government.

The German Baptist Brethren — known as Dunkers for their full-immersion baptisms — opposed slavery and refused military service. Now that Civil War combat had come to the Valley, they were moving out of harm’s way.

Sgt. Thistleton also wrote about the determination of the emancipated African Americans to go north.

[T]heir soul [sic] aim and object seemed to be to escaped [sic] from the rebels dominion…and considered the Potomac river their “Jordan’s” [sic] and the country north of it their Promised land.

As the Civil War progressed, hundreds of thousands of African American workers left the slaveholders’ plantations, workshops, kitchens and nurseries in what W.E.B. Du Bois characterized as a “general strike” — many joining the Union Army if they were able to (more than 100,000 altogether by the end of the war) or seeking its protection if they were not.

These particular migrants had passed through the Shenandoah Valley where the Union Army was destroying the Confederate breadbasket, wrote Sgt. Thistleton.

[T]he Cavalry were engaged to day in burning all of the barns, granaries and stacks they could find the men were allowed to forage and we fared very well every day.

The Burning took a heavy toll on the Valley in October 1864. But in the process of clearing slavery’s defenders from the land, the Union Army’s purifying fire — much like a naturally-occurring conflagration — left fertile space in its wake, opening the way for new post-war social, political and economic growth.

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Marching on

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Aug. 2014: Union reenactors on Governors Island, N.Y. On 23 Sept. 1864 my ancestor Arthur Bull and his unit left Washington’s forts for the front. They were marching on to the Shenandoah Valley. Photo by Molly Charboneau.

In late September 1864, my great, great grandfather Union Pvt. Arthur Bull departed from the forts of Washington, D.C. with his unit and headed back to the battlefront.

My ancestor’s fellow combatants from the 6th New York Heavy Artillery logged their progress — Sgt. William Thistleton in his diary and Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds, a new recruit, in letters to his wife.

On 24 Sept. the regiment debarked from Boston and Ohio Rail cars at Sandy Hook, Md. They crossed the Potomac, marched through Harper’s Ferry — scene of the 1859 anti-slavery raid organized by abolitionist John Brown — and camped until 27 Sept. at Bolivar Heights, Va.

There they were combined with the 10th NYHA into the 2nd Brigade Provisional Division under Col. J. Howard Kitching. In a diary entry, Sgt. Thistleton captured the mood:

Sept. 27th Ordered to leave at 8 a.m. but did not get off until 4 p.m. we were engaged in guarding the supply train going out to Gen. Sheridan’s Army at Harrisburg halted at 9 p.m. near Charlestown for the night, Charlestown is a small place but has gained some celebrity as being the scene of the execution of John Brown whose soul is a marching on.

Yes, marching on with these Union soldiers — my great, great grandfather among them — as they headed for the Shenandoah Valley where an offensive was underway by the Union Armies of the Shenandoah and West Virginia against the Confederate Army of the Valley.

In late September, Union forces routed the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester, Fisher’s Hill and Woodstock — then for 10 days burned out the Valley to deprive the Confederate Army of food, supplies and shelter.

My ancestor’s 6th NYHA reached the Valley toward the end of “the Burning” after long, hard marching through enemy territory, as described by Sgt. Thistleton:

Oct. 1st Started at day-light through Edenburg and New Market and halted near Harrisonburg at 8 P.M. very hard marching it rained all day rendering the pike very slippery made 29 miles we have traveled 123 miles in four and a half days averaging nearly 30 miles a day the regiment lost nearly 100 men on this march who fell out and were captured by guerrillas…

My ancestor Arthur Bull must have weathered the march — papers in his pension file list him as “present” in October.  Union forces, including his unit, were being positioned for the final Shenandoah Valley showdowns.

What battles would Arthur fight in? How would he fare in combat? Would his health hold up? I’m headed back to my research files to find answers. Stay tuned.

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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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