The Rebs do not charge as they once did

By mid-February 1865, the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull’s regiment — had weathered rough wartime conditions, endured heavy marching, fought relentless battles to end slavery and preserve the Union, and at last seen major victories against the Confederates.

Now, they were engaged in a new kind of combat — for the hearts and minds of the Southern soldiers — and they were winning that fight, too. In his diary, Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA chronicled the steady increase in Confederate desertions.

May 2014: Battle of Saunders Field reenactment, Spotsylvania Court House, Va. In Feb. 1865, at the front near Petersburg, Va., where my ancestor was stationed, Union soldiers noticed the Confederates did not charge as they once did. Photo by Molly Charboneau
May 2014: Battle of Saunders Field reenactment, Spotsylvania Court House, Va. In Feb. 1865, at the front near Petersburg, Va., where my ancestor was stationed, Union soldiers noticed the Confederates did not charge as they once did. Photo by Molly Charboneau

He described how he and other Union soldiers — among them my great, great grandfather — refused to fire when the Southern soldiers crossed into their lines along the James River near Petersburg, Va.

February 14th. The rebels made another assault on our picket line at 8 p.m. but were repulsed in about 10 minutes the rebel officers finding that deserting were on the increase and that when they fired on deserters we will not reply have adopted this system of night surprises to induce firing on our side and thus deter their men from crossing the lines but unfortunately that “dog won’t run”…

Our men knew the difference between deserting than a surprise party, after a little brush tonight a Major, a Captain, a Lieutenant and 18 men came into our lines they had joined a surprise party for the purpose of deserting and during the fighting had taken occasion to hide in some bushes until the fracas was over when they attracted the attention the vidette [the mounted sentry on picket or guard duty] who sent him in.

Feb. 17th another dash on our lines tonight lasted about five minutes no-body hurt.

Another of my ancestor’s fellow soldiers, Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds of the 6th NYHA, corroborated this experience. In a letter to his wife, he summed up the demoralization that had set in among Confederate troops.

Feb. 17th – The Johnnies continue to come in as usual. Seven of them came into our regiment on picket last night, and 10 privates and a sergeant in a squad came into the 10th N.Y. posted on our right….

The fact is, the Rebs are getting discouraged and, since the failure of the peace commissioners, they are deserting in greater numbers than previous to the meeting…The Rebs do not charge as they once did.

The 6th NYHA was now made up of seasoned combatants. My ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull had been with the regiment for more than a year, Sgt. Thistleton for longer than that — and Pvt. Reynolds was in the Union Army nearly six months.

Schooled by combat, they became keen observers of the nuances of the battlefield. And there was no clearer sign that the Union cause was prevailing than Confederate troops willing to risk their lives — for they would be executed if caught — to cross into federal lines.

I am amazed and proud to descend from a great, great grandfather who was there to witness this incredible turn of history.

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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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Fraternization at the front

After the February 1865 peace talks failed to end the U.S. Civil War, Union soldiers at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — where my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed — did what they could to move things along.

May 2014: Confederate reenactors' encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau
May 2014: Confederate reenactors’ encampment, Spotslyvania Court House, Va. Toward the end of the Civil War, enchanging battlefield banter with Union troops encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert. Photo by Molly Charboneau

The Union Army was marching irrevocably toward securing the Union and — together with the African American population and the valiant U.S. Colored Troops — destroying the brutal slave system.

With the war’s end in sight and longing for peace, soldiers from North and South began to fraternize across the battle lines.

My great, great grandfather’s 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment arrived at Bermuda Hundred in January 1865. They were promptly heckled by Confederate soldiers who had opposed them at Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA recorded one such incident in his diary and described the effect of this battlefield banter on Confederate troops:

January 1st, 1865: …as our lines were only about 150 yards conversation was easy as soon as they discovered that the 6th N.Y.H. Artillery was in front of them one of the rebs jumped up and sang out, ‘I say boys here is the Big Six come all the way from Cedar Creek for their knapsacks you had better get ready to hand them over,’ then turning towards us he inquired, ‘Say Yanks aint you been cold this winter without your over-coats and blankets?’

As may be imagined they had the laugh on us until one of our men replied, ‘ “No Johnny” we haven’t been cold we kept warm by drilling on those eighty pieces of artillery you left in the valley.’

Chaffing was the order of the day on both sides yet quite friendly relations were kept up. Our men would go out  half way between the lines and invite the rebs to dine with them the result of this intercourse tended to swell the number of deserters but at last the rebel officers smelt a mice and would not let their men to talk with us.”

My ancestor Arthur Bull fell ill at Cedar Creek in November 1864 and was admitted to hospital at Bermuda Hundred on 3 Jan. 1865. In poor health, he may not have been on the barricades with the 6th NYHA when this exchange took place. But records in his pension file indicate he returned to his regiment from hospital on 30 Jan. 1865.

Which leaves me wondering: As more and more Confederate soldiers crossed over to federal lines during February 1865 — steadily weakening the South’s army — was Arthur among the Union soldiers who encouraged them?

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Peace rumors: Castles in the air

On 2 Feb. 1865 — while my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull was stationed with his 6th New York Heavy Artillery regiment near Dutch Gap in Virginia — the James River froze solid near Richmond.

Gen Hosp at Point of Rocks, Va. 33640r
General Hospital at Point of Rocks, Va. (1861-1865) On 30 Jan. 1865, my ancestor Arthur Bull was released from this hospital and rejoined his 6th NYHA regiment as rumors of peace swept through the camps. Photo: Library of Congress.

Yet even in the bitter cold, the Union Army and its works were kept in fighting shape. My great, great grandfather’s 6th NYHA compatriot Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds described the situation in a 5 Feb. 1865 letter to his wife.

My time is now nearly all occupied in picketing, shoveling, dirt drilling, etc., Sundays not excepted….Our duties are very heavy which begin to tell on our men in the filling up of the hospitals. I have had a bad cold but am getting over it and am nearly as well as usual. It has been a very bad time for colds but very few escaped.

Conditions must have been difficult for my ancestor Arthur, who suffered from heart and lung complaints. He had just returned to his regiment from hospital on 30 Jan. 1865 when the cold weather intensified.

After the Hampton Roads Peace Conference failed to end the war, fighting resumed where it left off — though a longing for peace still permeated the ranks. Again, from Pvt. Reynolds’ letter.

Day before yesterday there was very heavy cannonading on our left towards Petersburgh. The results I have not learned. We are situated on the West side of the James River near Dutch Gap.

Our camp is occasionally filled with peace rumors which may be like castles in the air, pleasing to think of but soon vanish away. However, I hope and pray it will be otherwise….Some men here are confident that we shall have peace by the first of May next….I dream often of being at home, or home on a furlough…

Like Pvt. Reynolds, my great, great grandfather was a family man with a wife and three small children at home. Surely Arthur also longed for peace and a chance to see his family at the end of the war.

And there were growing signs — amid the roar and smoke of battle — that the Civil War was entering its final phase. Chief among these was the steady flow of Confederate troops deserting to Union-held territory and the way the Union troops — likely including my ancestor — helped them to cross over.

More on this in the next post.

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Hampton Roads peace talks

On 31 Jan. 1865 – the day after my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to his 6th N.Y. Heavy Artillery regiment from hospital – an expectant hush fell over the battle lines outside Petersburg, Va., as rumors of peace talks swept through the ranks.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hsl-River_queen-neg.jpg
Sidewheeler River Queen, at the wharf. Civil War peace talks took place on this ship in Hampton Roads, Va., in early February 1865. Image: Wikipedia

That day in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude.

And at the front, troops from North and South massed behind their parapets to watch a three-man Confederate delegation make its way by carriage to meet the Union ambulance that would transport them to the peace conference with the U. S. government.

Cheers rang out from both sides as soldiers spotted the carriage — a tangible symbol that the U.S. Civil War was marching inexorably to an end — even if the shape of that end was not completely clear.

The peace conference was held aboard the River Queen steamship anchored at Hampton Roads, Va., near Fortress Monroe — known as “Freedom Fortress” for sheltering so many African Americans since the Civil War began.

On 3 Feb. 1865 — two days after he approved sending the 13th Amendment to state legislatures for ratification — Pres. Abraham Lincoln , along with Sec. of State William H. Seward, represented the federal government at the meeting with the Confederate representatives.

Political, economic and military developments clearly pointed to a victory for the North. But the South’s delegation would not yield on ending slavery or rejoining the Union — so they went back the way they came with no agreement. And the troops went back to the trenches where the fighting resumed in earnest.

What was my great, great grandfather’s view on all of this? I can’t know for sure, since I have inherited no journals or correspondence. But his fellow artillerists from the 6th NYHA — Sgt. William Thistleton who kept a diary and Pvt. Orson L. Reynolds who regularly wrote home — were silent about the conference while it was taking place.

Almost as if they sensed that the talks would come to nothing and that the great victories of the Civil War — abolishing slavery and preserving the Union — would only be won by fighting the war to  the finish.

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