All posts by Molly C.

Bloody Angle

4 May 2014: Union forces launch assault on the Bloody Angle during Battle of the Muleshoe reenactment. Photo: Molly Charboneau
4 May 2014: Union forces launch assault on the Bloody Angle during Battle of the Muleshoe reenactment. Photo by Molly Charboneau

During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on 12-13 May 1864, a legendary struggle occurred between North and South at the Bloody Angle — the tip of the Muleshoe salient.

The 4 May 2014 reenactment of this confrontation was powerful. Union soldiers charged uphill into the angle, were repulsed, and then ran up again in the face of Confederate rifle fire. Casualties fell on both sides. Artillery boomed, a steady reminder of my ancestor — Union artillerist Arthur Bull.

The day was sunny, though — not like in 1864 when pouring rain turned the fields to mud, and the waves of attacks gave way to intense hand-to-hand combat lasting nearly 24 hours.

“You know, that’s the actual battleground across the street behind those trees,” said a guy sitting next to me. “I found it even more impressive than the Wilderness.”

So after the gun smoke cleared, taps was played and the soldiers marched off the field — I drove with my friend Jane down the Brock Road to the Spotsylvania Battlefield.

Researching my great, great grandfather’s unit, I spent hours studying descriptions and maps of the battlefield, yet I was totally unprepared for its enormity.

“Where is the Muleshoe?” I asked a park ranger, expecting to see an obvious horseshoe shape somewhere.

Sweeping his arm in a wide arc he replied, “You have to understand, it’s about two miles long.” Two miles long? I was stunned.

Amid gently rustling treetops, faint bird song, sunshine and shadow, I stood at the Bloody Angle and absorbed the sheer immensity of the battleground’s hallowed landscape and the lingering spirit of thousands of soldiers like my ancestor who stepped up that day to change the course of history.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

Saunders Field

Early this morning, I drove south from Fredericksburg, Va., with my friend Jane toward Spotsylvania Courthouse to witness the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Saunders Field — the opening engagement in the larger Battle of the Wilderness that raged from 5-6 May 1864 during the U.S. Civil War.

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3 May 2014: Union army advances, at rear, during Battle of Saunders Field reenactment. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Wilderness confrontation marked the first time the Union Army, now under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, did not retreat; the first time the 23rd Infantry Regiment, U.S.  Colored Troops moved out as part of the Army of the Potomac; and the first time my great, great grandfather U.S. Pvt. Arthur Bull entered the fight. Today, I attended my first reenactment of this pivotal battle.

On Courthouse Road near the battlefield, traffic thinned. We seemed to be alone on the highway when suddenly, there they were.  White canvas tents pitched across the countryside north and south of the road, smoke rising from campfires and Union soldiers everywhere readying to move into battle. And just like that it was 1864 again, made tangible by thousands of reenactors paying homage to those long-gone soldiers who changed the march of history.

Later, we sat under trees beside a stream and watched the Battle of Saunders Field unfold — Union and Confederate regiments advancing and retreating, cavalry galloping to and fro, cannon batteries booming, gun smoke everywhere.

But for me, it was that first breathtaking moment seeing the Union Army bivouacked by the road that brought everything back to life — including my ancestor across the field on duty with the Union artillery.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

Almost like family

Memorial Day weekend last year, I went with friends to a concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings Co., N.Y.

J. Howard Kitching portrait
Posthumous portrait of BBG J. Howard Kitching. Source: Wikipedia

Afterwards, I asked, “Who wants to come with me to visit the grave of J. Howard Kitching?” There were questioning looks all around.

I explained that he commanded the Union Army’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery in which my ancestor Arthur Bull served during the U.S. Civil War. I had just learned he was buried at Green-Wood, and located his plot in the cemetery’s directory. So six of us, maps in hand, set off together to pay our respects.

Brevet Brigadier General J. Howard Kitching is not an ancestor of mine. But because he shared the battles of my great, great grandfather’s unit in the Overland Campaign and later in the Shenandoah Valley, to me he is almost like family. Kitching, 26, was wounded in the Battle of Cedar Creek and later died. Visiting him on Memorial Day seemed fitting.

When I told a genealogy colleague about bringing friends to his grave she was surprised. “How do you convince people to go with you?” she asked. “I can never seem to get anyone interested.”

For some, it was a chance to see old-growth trees and birds along the way. Others were drawn by a sense of history. But as we stood around his small VA headstone, placed through the cemetery’s Civil War Project, and I told them about his role in the war, it was his story that ultimately captured and held their interest. A story that was cut short too soon.

Today I pause to remember BBG Kitching on the sesquicentennial of the Overland Campaign in which he fought.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

“You’re going where?”

A friend invited me to go somewhere with her on May 2. I told her I couldn’t because I’d be headed to Virginia for a U.S. Civil War reenactment.

“Now there’s an excuse you don’t hear very often,” she said.

Reactions to my trip have ranged from “You’re going where?” to “Wow, that’s so cool!” Last week, I ran into a Chilean colleague in the hall who asked me excitedly, “How did the battles go?” I reminded him that the trip isn’t until May. An African American friend said, “Go on down and win the war for us all over again.” And pretty much everyone wants to know if I will be dressing in period clothing.

I’ll admit, it is hard to put into words why I want to visit the battlefields where my ancestor Arthur Bull fought as part of the Union Army. Pride? Awe? Fascination? It’s tough to pin down.

For years, I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for him and the others in the Army of the Potomac as winter faded and, on 3-4 May 1864, they marched out silently during the night for a spring offensive that helped to end slavery and set the country on a new path.

Though the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were fought 150 years ago,  there is still an abiding interest in that landmark period — and sometimes a direct connection. A surprising number of people have said, “You know, I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War,” and gone on to tell me their story.

Best of all was my friend Jane’s reaction, “I would love to go with you!” So on May 2, she and I will embark on our journey. Check back here for dispatches from the field.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

Breaking winter camp

April 1864: Brandy Station, Va. General view of 6th New York Artillery encampment. Source: Library of Congress
April 1864: Brandy Station, Va. General view of 6th New York Artillery encampment. Source: Library of Congress

In April 1864, the Army of the Potomac broke winter camp at Brandy Station, Va., ahead of its final, victorious push south. Leaving their neatly arranged tents the 6th Regiment, New York Heavy Artillery — including my great, great grandfather Pvt. Arthur Bull — prepared to march into history.

Over the next months, Arthur would survive some of the most intense, hard-fought battles of the U.S. Civil War. Yet what do I really know about him?

Census and military records and a printed history tell me Arthur was a tanner in Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y., when his military service began. Married to Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee), he was also the father of two daughters Emma, 6, and Carrie, 5, and a son Milo, 2. Five foot eight, with hazel eyes, black hair and a fair complexion, he enlisted in 1863 and reported for duty on 4 January 1864.

Histories have recorded details of his Overland Campaign battles — the heavy loss of life, the relentless movements of the Union Army south, south, south. But I have inherited no direct record from Arthur. Did he write home? Pose in uniform for a photo? What was the war like for him? How did he survive when so many perished?

On April 19, 1864, Arthur’s brigade and the entire Artillery Reserve were reviewed by Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant — one last exercise before the serious fighting began. This week, as the weather warms and the trees leaf out, I think of Arthur and his comrades breaking camp at Brandy Station.

Soon I will also head south, with my friend and author Jane LaTour, for reenactments of Arthur’s battles, where I hope to find some answers and learn more about his life.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.