The rebellion is nearly played out

On 16 Feb. 1865, Union Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds — a soldier in my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment — wrote an optimistic letter to his wife from Bermuda Hundred, Va., saying, “The war news with us are favorable.”

He, Arthur and other Union soldiers at the front could plainly see that the Confederate Army was disintegrating — and they followed orders not to shoot at Southern deserters coming into federal lines.

“We here think that the rebellion is nearly played out & that another vigorous campaign will finish it up if the Rebs do not sooner give up,” he wrote, describing for his wife the steady increase in Confederate desertions.

August 2014: Union reenactors on Governors Island, N.Y. During February 1865, Union soldiers were ordered not to shoot at Confederates defectors crossing over into federal lines. Photo by Molly Charboneau
August 2014: Union reenactors on Governors Island, N.Y. During February 1865, Union soldiers were ordered not to shoot at Confederates defectors crossing over into federal lines. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Johnnies continue to come into our lines. Last night fifteen came into the lines where our battalion was posted. How many come in on other parts of the line I have not yet [discovered]. Three companies constitute a battalion and about one third are on picket at a time.

The Rebel soldiers are deserting and coming into our lines now, more or less every night. I think this state of things can’t be very encouraging to the rebel leaders.

Pvt. Reynolds — and likely my great, great grandfather as well — continued to stand picket duty. But the nature of that duty changed as the war moved steadily toward a Union victory. Again from Pvt. Reynolds’ February 16 letter.

Night before last the bullets whistled about our ears pretty lively for a few minutes. However, no one was injured. The firing was occasioned by the Rebs deserting and coming into our lines.

It seems that the two who came in had an understanding with their comrades on the post that they would let them get near our lines and out of immediate danger before they called halt and fired.

In cases of this kind our men do not return fire. Our orders are not to fire unless the enemy are advancing. I am well satisfied that many of the rebel soldiers do not want to fight us any longer, and would not if they could help it.

As you will read in the next post, Pvt. Reynolds’ experience was echoed in the diary of Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA regiment — an experience likely shared by my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull, who was stationed with them.

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