Atlanta: Glorious news

On 2 Sept. 1864 — just as my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to active duty — Union forces captured Atlanta after a prolonged siege.

This incredible victory in the fight to abolish slavery and preserve the union gave an electrifying boost to the Union Army — and strengthened popular resolve in the North to press on.

Union soldiers defending Washington in Sept. 1864 drilled daily on the big guns, but disliked standing for inspection. Shown: Union reenactors on Governors Is., N.Y.  Photo by Molly Charboneau
Aug. 2014: Union reenactors on Governors Island, N.Y. Union soldiers defending Washington in Aug.-Sept. 1864 drilled on the big guns, but disliked standing for inspection. Photo by Molly Charboneau

“So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” wrote Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman — commander of Union forces in and around Atlanta — in a telegram to Washington on 3 Sept.

Arthur’s 6th NY Heavy Artillery commander, Col. J. Howard Kitching, summed up the euphoric mood in a 5 Sept. letter: “The news from Atlanta is glorious, is it not? O, for a decisive victory in the East!”

When they arrived in Washington from Virginia the month before — marching from the 6th St. pier past the U.S. Capitol,  up Pennsylvania Ave. to Georgetown then on to Tenleytown — my great, great grandfather’s unit took up positions in Fort Reno and the other forts protecting the city.

That’s where Arthur was stationed — I was surprised to discover — when news reached him of the fall of Atlanta.

I lived in Washington, D.C. for four years. Yet I was unaware — until researching his wartime movements for this blog — that my ancestor had served during the Civil War right near my home.

In his diary, Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA described the Union artillerists’ renewed desire in September 1864 to be battle-ready on the big guns — and the rank-and-file’s dim view of constant inspections.

The men became interested in heavy artillery drills and perfected them-selves so rapidly that in two weeks time they were fully competent to take charge of and handle the guns in any emergency.

The only drawback to our enjoyment being that great bug-bear. to any soldier, ‘Inspection.’ every day a lot of officers would arrive at the fort and the order would be turn out for inspection at one time we thought that we were to be inspected by every officer in the service as no doubt we would if we had remained there six months longer.

Yet remain there they would not. The victory in Atlanta was pivotal, but the Civil War was not over.

On 23 Sept. 1864, wrote Sgt. Thistleton, my ancestor Arthur Bull and his unit received new orders to pack up and be ready to move by 11 p.m. that night. They were headed back to the battle front — this time to the Shenandoah Valley.

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Back on active duty

Serving on the defenses of Washington, D.C. — 150 years ago this month — gave Union soldiers a brief respite after the harsh battlefield conditions in Virginia.

This assignment likely eased the transition back to the ranks for my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull — just returning to the 6th NY Heavy Artillery in September 1864 after two months in hospital.

Union artillerists who fought as infantry in the Overland Campaign resumed artillery duties in Washington in Aug. - Sept.1864. Shown: 1864 artillery piece on Governor's Is., N.Y. Photo by Molly Charboneau
An 1864 artillery piece on Governors Island, N.Y. Union cannoneers like my ancestor, who often fought as infantry in the Overland Campaign, resumed artillery duties in Aug.-Sept. 1864 to defend Washington from Confederate attack. Photo by Molly Charboneau

Arthur’s commander Col. J. Howard Kitching — in letters reprinted in his biography and excerpted below — captured the sense of relief felt by Union troops sent in August 1864 to defend the capital :

My officers and men are delighted to get into nice barracks after living as they have. I have a little cottage, two rooms, which I can clean up and make very comfortable, My head-quarters are about four miles from Washington City.

It seems so queer to be able to lie down at night in quiet, without the danger of being blown to pieces by a mortar shell. I appreciate it, I assure you…the absence of suffering and death which has accompanied our campaign in the field.

It seems singular to be in a city again after the past summer’s experience.

In a 5 September letter, however, Col. Kitching mentioned a downside of barracks life:

My worst trouble is that many of my officers and men are getting sick. It is invariably so, when troops return from the field to the barracks.

The men having been so long in the field, eat everything, and do everything foolish, so that my hospitals are full.

Documents in his Civil War pension file list my great, great grandfather as “present” in September — so he probably did not get sick. He may even have been assigned to non-combat duty as described by Col. Kitching:

The works on my lines…have been suffered to get into exceedingly bad condition, requiring a great deal of extra labor to repair damages and get them into shape.

Without direct evidence from my ancestor, there is no way to know exactly how Arthur passed his time in Washington. But writings by his fellow artillerists describe his unit’s movements and give voice to the view from the ranks.

More in the next post.

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Battle of Fort Stevens

In July 1864, while my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was laid up in hospital, a thwarted Confederate attack on Washington marked an important turning point in the U.S. Civil War.

t. Stevens in 1864. My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to duty on the defenses of Washington, D.C., after the July 1864 Battle of Ft. Stevens. Photo: Library of Congress
Fort Stevens in 1864. My ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull returned to duty on the defenses of Washington after the Battle of Fort Stevens. Photo: Library of Congress

At the Battle of Fort Stevens, north of the city, Confederate forces from the Shenandoah Valley were repulsed by a hybrid mass of Union combatants — irregulars who were holding the fort reinforced at the eleventh hour by battle-hardened 6th Corps troops sent north from the Virginia front.

As shots whizzed by, Pres. Abraham Lincoln observed the battle from the parapet of Fort Stevens. Washington’s defenses were beefed up after the failed assault.

The Union’s Army of the Shenandoah was also reorganized to definitively drive the Confederates out of the Valley — and block further threats to the capital as the 1864 presidential election drew near.

As part of this strategy, my great, great grandfather’s unit — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — was recalled from Virginia in mid-August and attached to the 1st Brigade, Hardin’s Division, 22nd Army Corps, Dept. of Washington.

Col. J. Howard Kitching, the 6th NYHA commander, was put in charge of the 1st Brigade when he arrived in Washington. He described where things stood in a 17 August 1864 letter to his father, reprinted in More than Conqueror:

I reported to General Augur, and was at once placed in command…There has been no system of management of the command till everything has gotten wrong end foremost. I have relieved the former staff and am trying to get matters regulated.

The command is large, comprising thirteen forts with their garrisons, extending about eight miles. I have not yet been able to ride over my line, and see what I have jumped into.

When my ancestor Arthur Bull returned to his artillery unit in September 1864 — after his discharge from De Camp Hospital — he reported to the capital.

Arthur, 29, had survived the bloody spring battles of the Overland Campaign in Virginia, then recuperated in July and August from war-related illness. Now he would be stationed north of the Potomac to defend Washington.

I wonder about my ancestor’s experience returning to active duty. What was the atmosphere in the capital? How was Union troop morale? Where would his unit be dispatched next? And how would Arthur hold up in the battles to come?

More in future posts as the research continues.

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Growing family trees one leaf at a time