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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Saunders Field

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.

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3 May 2014: Union army advances, at rear, during Battle of Saunders Field reenactment. Photo by Molly Charboneau

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.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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Almost like family

Memorial Day weekend last year, I went with friends to a concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings Co., N.Y.

J. Howard Kitching portrait
Posthumous portrait of BBG J. Howard Kitching. Source: Wikipedia

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.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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