An icy departure

In the winter of 1863, Civil War combatants in the East — among them my ancestor Arthur Bull and his 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment — remained in winter camp and resumed battle in the spring. Not so in 1864.

Wounded at Savage Station, Va. (1862).
Wounded at Savage Station, Va. (1862). In late Dec. 1864, my ancestor’s 6th NYHA travelled  overnight to Washington, D.C., in freezing weather on open rail cars like these. Image: Library of Congress.

The Union Army was waging a siege at Petersburg, Va., that would not stop for the weather. So in late December 1864, Union troops not needed in the Shenandoah Valley, including the 6th NYHA, were transferred south. My great, great grandfather’s fellow artillerists described the icy departure.

In his journal Sgt. William Thistleton, of 6th NYHA Co. I, wrote about leaving Winchester..

Dec. 20th Received orders to pack up and be ready to move. Dec. 21st left Winchester 9 a.m. en-route for Washington. rained, hailed and snowed very bad marching. arrived at Stephenson station were packed on open air platform cars and at 1 p.m. started off. many of the men were badly frozen during the night.

On 23 Dec. 1864, after they arrived in Washington, D.C., Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds, of 6th NYHA Co. M, wrote a brief letter to his wife.

Last Wednesday we were ordered to strike tents and report at Washington. We took the cars, after marching five miles from Winchester, and arrived here yesterday morning…

The winter trip from the Valley to the capital was difficult for the Union troops, Pvt. Reynolds wrote.

One thing I can say that I never knew what it was to suffer until the last five days. It has been cold winter weather for a few days past. When we left Winchester we were put into a few platform cars and crowded so that we could hardly sit down and had to stay on them from noon until the next morning exposed to storm and cold.

Reading their accounts, I wondered about my ancestor.  Arthur told doctors years later that he became ill again around 10 Nov. 1864. Did he have to make this trip while in ill health? Were there perhaps covered cars for the infirm?

Or could my great, great, grandfather — recalling events from decades before — have been mistaken about the exact date? These questions will remain unless I find answers in further research.

However, existing evidence reveals that conditions grew worse for Arthur’s regiment after they boarded a steamer in the frigid waters near the harbor at Alexandria, Va.

More on their journey south in the next post.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Uncle Fred’s letters

I have no memory of meeting my Uncle Fred — Frederic Mason Charboneau — who was born on 3 March 1918.  Yet I found myself thinking about him this holiday season.

He was the youngest of my dad’s four older brothers and died after an illness on 12 Dec. 1952 when I was just a toddler.

Family photo circa 1946 of Frederic Mason Charboneau, 28, in his U.S. Army uniform. Scan by Molly Charboneau
Family photo circa 1946 of Frederic Mason Charboneau, 28, in his U.S. Army uniform. Scan by Molly Charboneau

Growing up, I remember hearing that Uncle Fred was a U.S. Army veteran who received a Purple Heart for an injury during WW II. He married Jean Bastow, but they had no children.

That was about it — until 1992 when Dad and I began exploring our roots together and went on a two-day genealogy trip to Otter Lake, Dad’s hometown, in Forestport, Oneida Co., N.Y.

We stayed overnight with my Aunt Aline who still lived in the area. She was French-Canadian and the widow of my dad’s oldest brother Owen Albert Charboneau. We all called her “Gig.”

After wise-cracking around her kitchen table over a Pitch card game — which Aunt Gig won as usual — we got talking about family history. Aline and Dad shared stories about their youth in Otter Lake and fondly reminisced about our mutual ancestors.

Something about that visit must have touched them both — because the next time Dad went to see Aunt Gig, she gave him a cardboard box containing a treasure trove of family photos and documents.

Among the items in the box was a stack of Uncle Fred’s letters — written to his mother (my grandmother) during the war — along with some photos of him and his obituary.

When I read his letters for the first time I was struck by two things. Uncle Fred’s handwriting was amazingly like my dad’s. And much of his writing was not about the war but about family events back home.

Somewhere in England, October 21, 1942: Dear Mom, …You should be getting my allotment some time the first of next month, which will be $40.00 per month so I should have a nice bank account by the time I get out of the Army. By the way I want you to take some of this money and buy everyone a Christmas present. Even if I can’t be there, I want to keep up the family tradition of everyone exchanging presents. I will collect mine at some future date….Your loving son, Fred

In the spirit of the holiday season, I take a moment today to remember Uncle Fred and to express my gratitude for his letters from the front — which are helping me better understand the life of my dad’s family of origin.

I will share more about Uncle Fred, along with excerpts from his letters, in future posts.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Winter hits Winchester

Winter began to settle over the Shenandoah Valley where my ancestor Arthur Bull’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment was stationed. In early December 1864, temperatures dropped, snow fell and Union troops hunkered down as the days shortened.

Camp of 2nd Maine Infantry, Camp Jameson (1861-1865). Photo: Library of Congress
Camp of 2nd Maine Infantry, Camp Jameson (1861-1865). In camps like this in the Shenandoah Valley, where my ancestor Arthur Bull was stationed, temperatures dropped and snow fell in Dec. 1864.  Photo: Library of Congress

On 9 Dec. 1864 between 10 and 11 p.m., Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds of 6th NYHA Co. M took out pencil and paper to write his wife while he stood watch.

Well to begin with the fire is burning nicely in our fireplace…and we are warm and comfortable. It has been snowing very fast since dark and the ground is covered to the depth of several inches. This is the first snow we have had here of any amount this season…

There is no talk of our regiment moving at present and I may remain here all winter at least. I hope so as I now have a first rate place although it is storming hard without still…

I am on duty sitting by the fire occasionally looking out to see that all is right…All remains quiet in the Valley.

I find myself wondering about my great, great grandfather’s accommodations. Were they as comfortable as those described by Pvt. Reynolds? Was he also able to sit by a fire while on duty?

Or was he exposed to the brutal cold that Sgt. William Thistleton of 6th NYHA Co. I described in his journal?

December 10th Intensely cold and a severe snow storm last night and some of the men on picket were severely frost bitten snow eight inches deep.

I wonder about the weather because around this time, my great, great grandfather appears to have fallen ill again. In two separate documents in his pension file, Arthur told two different doctors he developed heart and lung disease around 10 Nov. 1864 at Cedar Creek, Va.

Yet he was listed as “present” with his regiment in Nov. and Dec. 1864. Did Arthur soldier on despite his illness as he had in the spring?  If so, the winter conditions may have proved to be too much.

More on this in subsequent posts as Arthur’s saga continues.

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Building winter quarters

During November 1864, the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull’s regiment — prepared to set up winter quarters near Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

The big battles were over, but Confederate guerillas like Mosby’s raiders were still active and a portion of the Union Army needed to remain in the Valley.

Building Winter Quarters
Building winter quarters (1861-1865). In November 1864 the 6th NY Heavy Artillery, my ancestor Arthur Bull’s regiment, began building winter quarters in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo: Library of Congress

In his journal my ancestor’s fellow soldier Sgt. William Thistleton, of 6th NYHA Co. I, wrote about the building of winter quarters as well as the regiment’s military duties.

Oct. 27th drew new tents blankets and clothing which were greatly needed as the weather was growing quite cold.

Nov. 1st marched to Winchester encamped on the northeast side of the town and began to build winter quarters wood pretty scarce but plenty of Bricks some of the mens [sic] quarters are very cosy [sic] with brick floor and plank bunks and plenty of them had mahogany or maple doors plenty of unoccupied dwellings in town from which they procured boards &ec. [sic]

The duty here was very hard on both men and officers on picket every other day about the 20th drills were inaugurated about ten men in each company to drill the rest being on picket or forage duty regimental and dress parade every alternate day.

In a Nov. 20 letter to his wife from Winchester, Va., Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds of 6th NYHA Co. M — who had been in the army only a couple of months — described a more leisurely experience of camp life.

Well we had beef steak with gravy boiled potatoes and bread and a plenty of it…and have been pretty busy in fixing up our quarters. We have a shanty 7 by 10 ft. made of boards and covered overhead with our tent cloths. We have [a] fire place to warm us and cook by in our tent.

Our duty is to guard the horses and mules at night and to see that they do not get loose and go away. We divide the night into three tours of three hours each and go out of our tent and around and among them every ten minutes…This is all I have to do 3 hours in twenty four with the exception of going out into the country some three miles with a team once in three or four days after a load of rails for wood.

In the same letter, Pvt. Reynolds also wrote this about the Confederate forces and the prospects of renewed fighting.

One thing is certain the rebel army cannot winter in this part of the valley. It has been stripped almost entirely of all forage and eatables.

Mosby with about 500 men hangs about and gobbles up a few of our men now and then. I don’t expect any fighting this winter. However I may be disappointed. I hope I shall be spared to return to you.

How did my ancestor Arthur Bull, of 6th NYHA Co. L, pass his time in the Valley 150 years ago? Probably in much the same manner as his fellow Union soldiers — building winter quarters, doing guard duty, drilling and parading, and foraging for food.

And all the while recuperating from earlier battles, anticipating confrontations to come and wondering whether he would survive to return to his home and family.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Battlefield birthday

During October 1864, while he was stationed in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull marked a special, personal event — his 30th birthday.

He was still young by today’s standards, but closer to middle age in those days when average life expectancy for white men was just over 40  years of age.

Since I did not inherit any of his correspondence, I can only imagine how my great, great grandfather felt to be spending his birthday on the battlefield so far from home and family.

Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y.
Aug. 2014: Union encampment on Governors Island, N.Y. In October 1864, my ancestor marked his birthday on the battlefield far from home and family. Photo by Molly Charboneau

From my research, I know that Arthur was married and the father of three small children when he enlisted. So he may have felt much like his fellow soldier Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds did when he wrote this to his wife:

9 Oct. 1864: A soldier in the army has no intimation of what is to take place one hour hence. He is liable to be ordered away at any time….I think of you and the children often and hope that I may see you all again.

28 Oct. 1864: I can assure you that I miss the society of my wife and children very much and that there is none in this world that I prize so much. I hope all is for the best and that I shall yet return.

Through postal service to the front, Union soldiers received gifts from home — hand-made clothing, baked goods and the like. So his wife, my great, great grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Blakeslee) Bull, and other family members may have sent him something.

He would also have enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers to cheer him on his special day — which came during a month of victory and high spirits for the Union Army.

I think of Arthur there in the Shenandoah Valley with a sense admiration and affection — a young man fighting for higher ideals and celebrating his birthday on the battlefield 150 years ago.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.


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Growing family trees one leaf (and road trip) at a time