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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