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.
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.
Memorial Day weekend last year, I went with friends to a concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings Co., N.Y.
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.
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.
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.
One of my paternal great, great grandfathers, Arthur Bull, served in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. My dad and I made this discovery on a 1995 road trip from Syracuse to Binghamton, New York, in search of information on our Bull ancestors.
“My mother always told me we had family in Binghamton,” Dad said. “I never figured I’d be going back to look for them.” He was in a good mood that day, which was a plus. All I had in hand was a copy of a card from a wedding index file indicating Arthur was married near Conklin, New York. If we didn’t find anything more after the long drive, Dad would not be pleased.
At the public library we scrolled through microfilm of the 1865 NYS Census for Broome County and in the Town of Conklin found Arthur, age 29. There was a check mark in the column headed “Now in army.” I was relieved we had found something — and quite something, at that. Dad, a WWII Navy veteran, was thrilled.
That little check mark led to discovery of Arthur’s military pension file and a record of his service with the 6th Regiment, New York Heavy Artillery in the Army of the Potomac from 1864-1865 — the final years of the U.S. Civil War.
That little check mark is also why I will be in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, on 3-4 May 2014 for reenactments of some of the battles my great, great grandfather fought in 150 years ago. Stay tuned for reports from the front.
Growing family trees one leaf (and road trip) at a time
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