Fort Brady: Artillery sounds the alarm

On 23 Jan. 1865, my great, great grandfather Pvt. Arthur Bull’s regiment — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — was stationed at Fort Brady in Virginia. But was my ancestor on duty with them or in hospital?

Fort Brady on the James River in Bermuda Hundred, Va. My ancestor's 6th NYHA regiment was stationed here during the last naval battle of the U.S. Civil War. Image:  Library of Congress
Parrot guns at Fort Brady on the James River in Bermuda Hundred, Va. (1864)  My ancestor’s 6th NYHA regiment was stationed  here in Jan. 1865 and engaged with Confederate forces before the last major naval battle of the U.S. Civil War. Image: Library of Congress

The U.S. War Dept., Surgeon General’s Office, Record and Pension Division provided a report on 27 Jan. 1884 for his pension application, which says:

He entered hospit. Point of Rocks, Va. Jan’y 16, ’65 with Heart Disease, and was returned to duty Jan’y 30, ’65. He also appears as admitted to that hospit. Jan’y 24, ’65 with Boil…

If Arthur was already in hospital at Point of Rocks on 16 January, why would he need to be “admitted” to the same hospital on 24 January?

If he was discharged for a time — then readmitted — could he have been stationed with the 6th NYHA at Fort Brady during the last major naval battle of the Civil War?

Fort Brady was part of a string of Union Army fortifications near Richmond, Va., that extended north from the James River to Fort Harrison. It was built after the battles of September 1864 to blockade the Confederate fleet upriver.

On 22 Jan. 1865 — while the bulk of the Union Navy was engaged at Fort Fisher in North Carolina — the Confederate navy began testing the federal blockade. Sgt. William Thistleton of the 6th NYHA described the events of that day and the next in his diary:

Jan. 22nd: about 9 P.M. the rebels made another attack in force on the right of our line near the James river and at the same time three of their iron-clads attempted to pass the obstructions just above “crow-nest” battery the infantry attack was easily repulsed not lasting more than half an hour but the batteries and the rebel fleet kept it up all night.

Jan. 23rd: at 9 a.m. a shell from our batteries entered the rebel ram Jamestown and exploding in her magazine blew her up and of the crew of 64 men but 11 escaped…the [6th NYHA] regiment which had been under arms all night were returned to their quarters at 10 a.m.

Sgt. Thistleton provides no further details of 6th NYHA involvement in subsequent events at Fort Brady. But on the night of 23 Jan. 1865, a large Confederate flotilla tried to ram its way down the James River in the darkness. Their aim: to destroy the Union supply base at City Point, Va.

Union lookouts spotted the flotilla, and the batteries at Fort Brady fired sonorous rounds at the passing fleet. The big guns, aimed at the opposite shore, could not stop the Confederate ships.

But their booming salvos alerted Union forces downriver. Thus began the Civil War’s last significant naval confrontation — the Battle of Trent’s Reach — in which Union forces prevailed on 24 Jan. 1865.

Records indicate that my great, great grandfather was admitted that day to hospital at Point of Rocks, Bermuda Hundred, Va., for treatment of a boil — no small medical matter under wartime conditions in the days before antibiotics. He likely remained there until he was returned to duty on 30 Jan. 1865.

I can’t be sure, 150 years later, what role my ancestor Pvt. Arthur Bull played at Fort Brady. But I like to think that he may have been stationed with his regiment — however briefly — when Union forces repulsed a land attack and confronted the Confederate fleet’s advance guard ahead of the last great naval battle of the U.S. Civil War.

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A Civil War peace overture

On 12 Jan. 1865 — while my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was in hospital at Bermuda Hundred, Va. — Jefferson Davis, head of the Confederacy, wrote a letter to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proposing talks to secure peace for the “two countries.” In reply to the overture, Lincoln said that he would only discuss a peace settlement for “one common country.”

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Point of Rocks in Bermuda Hundred, Va. (1864). My ancestor was transferred to the General Hospital at Point of Rocks, at left, on 16 Jan. 1865, as plans for peace talks were being made. Image: villagenewsonline.com

Troops were still on the ground and battles were still being fought — but the Confederacy was unravelling.

Confederate soldiers were deserting in increasing numbers. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution — abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude — was headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. And on 15 Jan. 1865, the Union Army successfully stormed Fort Fisher in North Carolina — cutting off Confederate access to the sea.

So in late January 1865 plans were made for peace talks to be held, stirring hopes among combatants, civilians and convalescents — one of them my great, great grandfather — that the Civil War might at last be nearing its end.

Pvt. Orson Reynolds, from my ancestor’s 6th N.Y. Heavy Artillery regiment, captured the sentiment of Union Army soldiers in an 18th Jan. 1865 letter to his wife:

All has been quiet along our lines for a few days past. I hear today a gun occasionally. We are inclined to think the rebellion is about played out. One hundred guns were fired here yesterday on the taking of Fort Fisher. Our soldiers would like to have the rebellion cease as they are heartily tired of the war…

I have dreamed of being at home for the last two nights…The Johnnies continue to come into our lines whilst our soldiers scarcely ever desert to them. This is a good omen.

Similar dreaming and discussions were likely also going on in military hospital wards among ill and injured soldiers, including my ancestor Arthur Bull — combatants on whom the war had taken a toll.

The movement of the peace delegation through the battlefields ushered in a brief respite from the fighting and offered a fleeting glimpse of the Civil War’s end.

But before the talks began, my ancestor’s unit — the 6th New York Heavy Artillery — had another important battle engagement. More in the next post.

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Bermuda Hundred patient

How was my ancestor Union Pvt. Arthur Bull transported to Bermuda Hundred, Va., where he entered hospital on 3 Jan. 1865? And what was this new hospital like?

Researching to find answers, I discovered excerpts from an illuminating letter in a Bulletin of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Six months before Arthur arrived at Bermuda Hundred, Dr. Joseph Parrish, M.D. — in a 19 June 1864 letter — reported from the field on USSC facilities and staff operating near the James and Appomattox Rivers:

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Hospital ship, Nashville (1861-1865). My ancestor Arthur Bull may have traveled to Bermuda Hundred, Va. on a hospital ship such as this, operated by the USSC Hospital Transport Service. Image: Library of Congress

The Commission has three stations in this department…at City Point, Bermuda Hundred and Point of Rocks. There are thirteen relief agents, who feed the wounded as they come in; and when they are not coming, visit different regiments and garrisons to ascertain the wants of the men and supply them, read and write for them, and hold religious meetings among them.

At Point of Rocks, there is a provisional and a depot Hospital…At Yorktown and Bermuda there are hospitals also…Each regiment has a hospital for the sick only, the wounded being carried from the front where their wounds are first dressed, to Point of Rocks. There they receive a second dressing, and are sent to Fortress Monroe.

Since my great, great grandfather was ill, rather than wounded, I wondered how he was cared for. Dr. Parrish detailed the USSC protocol in the same letter.

I have referred to a provisional Hospital; the term may need some explanation. As the General Hospitals at Washington and other points become crowded for room, those who are in condition for it are sent to Convalescent Camps, where they remain in process of recovery, and as these in turn become crowded, such as are the nearest well are sent to provisional Hospitals, and kept till they are able to rejoin their regiments.

Being often feeble men, or men with wounds partially healed, scarcely sick enough for hospital or well enough for service, they frequently suffer from want of proper kind of supplies, and the Commission may be especially serviceable under such circumstances. This is one of the peculiar cases, of which but little is know by the public.

The USSC may also have been responsible for my ancestor’s transport to Bermuda Hundred in tandem with his regiment. The Commission operated a Hospital Transport Service — established at the request of the Union Army — to move ill, wounded and convalescent combatants from point to point.

I felt a sense of relief after learning more about how Union casualties were handled in the field — because the USSC had an established system for providing services to ill soldiers by the time my great, great grandfather reached Bermuda Hundred in 1865.

In particular, I was grateful to learn about their hospital network because Arthur ultimately spent time in hospital at three of the locations mentioned by Dr. Parrish — Bermuda Hundred, Point of Rocks and Fortress Monroe.

More on this future posts.

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Growing family trees one leaf at a time