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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Growing family trees one leaf at a time