All posts by Molly C.

Wartime illness

Union Field Hospital 5th Corps SCH, Va. 12 May 1864 Forbes 20692r_2
Union Army field hospital, 5th Corps, Spotsylvania, Va. 12 May 1864 by Edwin Forbes. Source: Library of Congress

My ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s unit — the 6th NY Heavy Artillery — was attached to the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps from May to July 1864.

Leaving the bloody fields of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Union forces trekked through difficult Virginia terrain in relentless pursuit of the Confederate Army — engaging in skirmishes and battles all along the way at Harris Farm, North Anna, Totopotomoy and Cold Harbor.

The march to Cold Harbor was one of the worst — kicking up ankle-deep dust that choked off the air, darkened the sun and coated bone-tired Union troops from head to toe in a ghostly residue as they trudged past the decaying carcasses of dead cavalry horses.

Sometime during those grueling days in May, the fighting, the marching and the exhaustion took their toll. My great, great grandfather — along with a large number of his comrades — collapsed on the march to Cold Harbor.

Arthur says he “gave out” and was “attacked with pain & difficulty of breathing in left side in cardiac region,”  according to doctors’ notes in his pension file — sick enough to be “sent to hospital” by his regiment, joining the steady flow of ill and wounded Union soldiers evacuated from the Overland Campaign battlefields.

I feel grateful that by 1864 an ambulance corps, field hospitals and general hospitals were set up to rescue and treat wartime casualties. Their presence and the timing of his illness — coming as it did before the deadly confrontation at Cold Harbor — may very well have saved my ancestor’s life.

But, as I would later discover, Arthur’s wartime illness continued to affect his health through the remainder of the Civil War and long after.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

Mother of three

While my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull was in the Union Army (1864-65), his wife Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull was left in charge of their household in Conklin, Broome Co., N.Y.

Union Reenactors 4 May 2014
Union Army reenactor and his wife, Spotsylvania Court House, Va., 4 May 2014. Photo by Molly Charboneau

What was life like for my great, great grandmother during the Civil War years?  It’s hard to know with few records to go by.

Elizabeth, as she was called, was 27 in 1865 and a mother of three young children — Emma, 7, born in Pennsylvania; Carrie, 5, born in Delaware Co., N.Y.; and Milo, 3, born in Broome Co., N.Y. The family had moved several times since her 1856 marriage to Arthur in Liberty, Susquehanna, Pa.

Arthur received a $300 bounty when he enlisted — equivalent to more than $5,000 today — so there would have been money to live on. But for Elizabeth, as for many women of that era, her husband’s absence also brought new responsibility to run things as she thought best.

Census records show she had family living nearby to turn to for help — her older sister Rhoda Ann (Blakeslee) Whitney, Arthur’s parents Jeremiah and Mary Bull and Arthur’s sister Mary Emma (Bull) Tamkins, whose husband Edward was also away in the 137th Regiment N.Y. Infantry.

Mary Bull signature
Signature of Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, 53, on 9 May 1892 affidavit in Civil War widow’s pension application file. Photo by Molly Charboneau.

But I have inherited no diary or letters from Elizabeth to illuminate her inner life. I have only her signature on documents from her application, decades later, for widow’s benefits.

What were her thoughts, her hopes, her worries as a young woman during the U.S. Civil War? How did she cope with having a husband in harm’s way? What did she tell her children?

How I wish she had found the time to leave answers to those questions.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

 

Dad joins the journey

This Memorial Day, I’ll be remembering my dad Norm Charboneau — a WW II veteran and my enthusiastic travel partner on many family history road trips.

“Where are we going this time, Mol?” he would quip when I visited him and Mom each summer.

Norm Charboneau USN
Family photo circa 1946 of Norm Charboneau, 22, a U.S. Navy ETM3c. Scan by Molly Charboneau.

Dad joined the journey in 1992, and for years we combed upstate New York together, or strategized by phone, in search of our elusive ancestors. But it wasn’t always that way.

Dad grew up in the small Adirondack town of Otter Lake in Forestport, Oneida Co., N.Y., where he admired those in uniform — postal workers, bus drivers, train conductors — who saw more of the world than he did.

The first in his family to go to college, Dad interrupted his engineering studies at Clarkson University in 1944 to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He served in the Pacific until  1946 as an Electronics Technician Mate, Third Class (ETM3c) — in the wider world he longed for.

My college years in the 1960s were interrupted in a different way when I gave up my studies and joined the peace movement to end the Vietnam  War. I was not sure I could ever heal the rift that caused with Dad.

But as years passed, we both mellowed. I eventually finished college and began researching our family. One day I realized that our time together was slipping away, so I called Dad.

“What would you say to a trip to Otter Lake, so you can show me everything and tell me all about it?” I asked him.

Dad — who inherited the gift of gab from his mother’s Welsh-Irish side — loved the idea. And with that trip, the first of many,  he and I finally moved beyond what divided us and started enjoying the legacy we shared: family, ancestors, heritage.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

Artillerists’ voices

Two members of the Union Army’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery — my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s unit — kept diaries of their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. Their journals give voice to what he and his comrades endured on the march and in battle 150 years ago.

Artillery Line Bloody Angle
4 May 2014: Army of the Potomac artillery line at Battle of the Muleshoe reenactment. Photo by Molly Charboneau

Part of the Civil War Diary of Captain John Gedney (1862-1864) chronicles the successive battles of the Overland Campaign my ancestor participated in — the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House,  Harris Farm, North Anna.

His short entries speak volumes: “we left the Works after dark and marched all night through the mud knee deep” (13 May 1864) — “had a sharp fight which lasted about 3 hours__when we drove the enemy off the field” (19 May 1864) — “we laid in the field all night strengthening our Works” (30  May 1864).

Was my ancestor one of the heavy artillerists assigned to infantry in some of the Overland battles? Maybe so. Capt. Gedney’s 18 March 1864 entry says “the Regt received new Springfield Muskets.”

Letters from Col. J. Howard Kitching, commander of the 6th NYHA, appear in the book More than Conqueror. On 31 May 1864 he wrote from a rifle pit, “My brigade was assigned permanently to this division yesterday morning as an infantry command.”

The detailed accounts in the Civil War Diary of William Thistleton (1862-1865) may have been written after the war from notes and memory. But for me, Sgt. Thistleton’s first-hand descriptions of everyday camp life and the later battles of the Civil War add depth to my ancestor’s experience.

Taken together, these writings help fill in the gaps in Arthur Bull’s story — the next best thing to having my great, great grandfather tell it himself.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

 

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.