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.
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.
© 2015 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.