The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues. The more I research, the more I become convinced that we need to remember and honor the men who served in that conflict, the defining one for our nation. The nation and our state have done little, in my opinion, to celebrate the 150 year milestone, missing a great opportunity to introduce the lessons of the conflict to a new generation. At least I can do my part. My columns about the big spring battles of the East will run a little past the actual 150th anniversary, in May. So if you are interested in seeing reenactors and standing on the ground where the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor happened on the date 150 years later, I would suggest a trip to Virginia in May! The National Park Service has installed a new exhibit at the Chancellorsville Visitors’ Center, which covers the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. I will set the scene for our local boys, the men of the 125th and 169th NYS Volunteer Infantry Regiments.
When we left our Rensselaer County soldiers, they were dug in for the winter of 1863-1864, the men of the 125th N.Y. Infantry in Virginia, those of the 169th N.Y. on Folly Island in South Carolina. Over the winter, both regiments sent their Colonels home to Troy to recruit. The regiments were sadly depleted by death and disease. The Troy newspapers reported the presence of the recruiting parties, and ads sought men to enlist, offering bounties up to $965 for veterans of other units, and urging recruits to join their friends. The 169th even offered a bounty to people who brought recruits to enlist, $15 if the man was a new recruit, $25 if he was a veteran. The 169th recruiting party returned to the regiment by the end of March. An article about the 125th quoted a letter from a soldier of the regiment: “the regiment is small and the boys wish for speedy reinforcements in the way of recruits. So hurry up the young men from Troy…the officers of the regiment are very much liked, but the Colonel more than the rest…he is brave and cares well for his men..” Colonel Crandell and his recruiters did not return to the regiment until early May.
President Lincoln announced a further draft, seeking 200,000 more men countrywide to join the 300,000 drafted the previous summer. There has been much written about the draft, with its provision that men could buy their way out for $300 or hire a substitute. But as with the earlier draft, Rensselaer County met its quota of about 2100 men with volunteers, so that no one was actually drafted.
The Troy “Times” newspaper included many accounts of maneuverings of both the Union and Confederates over the winter, with speculation about the South- did it remain committed to rebellion or was it ready to rejoin the Union? Increasingly, articles debated what would and should happen to the Southern states and to the slaves once the Confederacy had been defeated. This certainly shows that the North fully expected to win, it was just a question of when. On the other hand, I just read a book called Lee’s Miserables by J. Tracy Power, detailing this time period for the Confederates. Much as it would seem unrealistic to us today, Southerners in general were equally confident of victory as 1864 began.
In winter and spring 1864, the “Troy Times” newspaper reported on international, national, and local news, but the emphasis was on the upcoming campaign season, as the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies prepared to resume fighting the Civil War.
The Troy paper was also full of the activities on the home front of the war. Nationally, the Sanitary and Christian Commissions had organized as volunteers to provide needed amenities to the troops and to care for the wounded. Rensselaer County had its own branches of both of those organizations. Sanitary fairs, concerts, and church socials were held in Albany and Troy during the winter to raise money for the national organizations. On the local level, there were two articles in the paper praising a Mrs. Haskell and her group from Lansingburgh who had made knitted mittens and night caps for the men of the 125th New York State Volunteers, one of the local regiments. A thank you letter from the regiment noted that the mittens warmed both the hands and, as evidence of the caring of those on the home front, the hearts of the recipients.
On February 2, 1864 the Troy “Times” reported that the 3rd Army Corps had had a grand ball at the headquarters of General Joseph Bradford Carr of Troy. He was based in a house near Brandy Station, Virginia. For the occasion he had a “dancing hall” erected behind the house, “tastefully decorated and brilliantly illuminated.” Regimental bands from Carr’s division provided the music for the affair, and ladies came from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The supper cost $1500, a huge amount, and the paper stated, “it cannot be better described” beyond stating the cost. The ball was part of “a new system of pleasure to beguile the tedium of camp life during the inactivity of the Army.” I question how much this relieved the boredom of the average soldier, as it seemed to be aimed at the officer corps.
George Bryan, the Lieutenant in the 125th whose letters written home to his friend Jennie in Schaghticoke have informed much of my writing about the regiment, wrote on February 22 that “there is going to be a grand military ball at our corps headquarters tonight. There is a few of our officers going to attend it. I shall not myself.” He did attend a ceremony that day honoring General George Washington on the occasion of his birthday, which he said was wonderful. The illustration is a drawing of the celebration of the 2nd Army Corps for Washington’s Birthday on February 22, 1864.
This drawing shows a grand ball of the 2nd Corps in February 1864.
The 169th NYS Infantry Regiment, the other Rensselaer County Infantry regiment, had spent much of 1863 besieging Charleston, South Carolina from a base on Folly Island . From February 7-12, while their Colonel was recruiting in the North, the regiment marched to nearby Kiawah and Johns Island, South Carolina, burning a plantation and fighting with the Confederates based there. The purpose of the attack was to keep the Confederate soldiers there and prevent them from reinforcing Jacksonville, Florida, which had just been seized by a Union force. The Union army still was defeated at the battle of Olustee, and the 169th was then part of a force moved to reinforce those forces, camping at Jacksonville on February 23rd. At first the men were sad to leave their settled winter encampment near Charleston, but like many after them, they soon discovered the delights of Florida. They were ordered to Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, on April 20 1864, getting ready for the spring campaign season.
The “Troy Times” described one small action of the 125th Regiment, the regiment with our Schaghticoke boys, which interrupted their time in camp. On February 9, 1864 the men were ordered to form up and march from winter camp, just west of Washington, D.C. in Virginia, to cross the Rapidan River at Morton’s Ford and attack the Confederates behind their earthworks. The river was four feet deep and rapid- so the men had a rough time crossing, but took the Confederates by surprise and pushed them back, taking some captives. After spending a night sleeping on the ground, cold and wet, the men recrossed the river and returned to camp. The “Times” reported that the purpose of the attack was unknown, but George Bryan, our local boy, writing home to his friend Jennie Ackart, said that the purpose was “to find out the strength of the Rebel Army in our Front.” He did not participate, he was “sorry to say,” as he was on picket duty. He added, “The Schaghticoke Company done better than ever before, there was not a man but what was in his place and eager to press in. Schaghticoke may feel proud of her Company for they are good and brave men and fear no danger.” The paper reported that at least no men in the 125th were killed or wounded. Bryan added that the cold and wet men were issued whiskey when they returned to camp, and “it caused no trouble save a few felt ‘golly’.”
At some point in the winter, George Bryan got to go home. The timing is unclear from both the dates and the content of his letters. On February 10 he wrote to Jennie, “I am sorry I could not make you a visit while at home but you know that my time was so short that I could not see half of my friends. I did not make a visit at home….I hardly saw my mother an hour.” He said his “orders were not to be trifled with,” and he didn’t dare divert to visit everyone. This seems amazing to me. He was home but didn’t have a minute to see his friends and faithful correspondent Jennie? Especially as he adds that he had a fine time on the trip back to camp. He stopped in Baltimore and visited W.M. VanSchaick, a fellow officer from Company K, who was there recovering from wounds. Plus there was a gap in his otherwise regular letters to Jennie from February 22 to May 14, 1864. I really don’t know where he was all that time.
Jennie must have written to George that she was sad not to see him and afraid she would never see him again. He reassured her on the last point, but indeed, they would not meet again. She must also have written him about girls at home he might like. George is rather coy, saying they are all fine ladies. He writes that his friend Bratt was “a foolish boy to get married, although I may yet be as foolish…” This is the only letter which indicates that either he or Jennie may have considered the other as anything more than a friend. George also asks permission to burn Jennie’s letters to him, as they were starting to take up so much room in his limited pack.
Because of the big gap in George Bryan’s letters, my sources of my information for the upcoming battles are the 125th’s Regimental History, written by Chaplain Ezra Simons after the war, and the “Troy Times”. The 125th was part of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which was reorganized during the winter. The commander of the 2nd was General Winfield Scott Hancock, known as “Hancock the Superb.” The 125th was specifically under General Barlow and Colonel Frank- for reference when looking at maps of battles. Everyone, soldier and citizen, seemed to realized that with General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command of the Union Armies that this campaign season would be different. There was tremendous confidence in Grant. His order to General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”
General Winfield Scott Hancock, “the Superb”
General Hancock at the battle of the Wilderness
This spring my husband and I went to walk over the territory of the battles of the 125th in the spring of 1864 in Virginia. The overwhelming impression is that Virginia was one big battleground throughout the Civil War. With the Confederate Armies working to capture Washington, D.C. and defend Richmond, Virginia, and the Union Armies working to do the opposite, this was inevitable in retrospect. Richmond and Washington are just about 110 miles apart. We went to Fredericksburg, Virginia to begin our trip. A measure of the overlap of the fighting is that the National Park Service brochure for the area covers the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Chancellorsville in 1863, and the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. There isn’t a separate park headquarters for each battle. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House come under the aegis of the “Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Battlefield Park” with the headquarters at the site of the battle of Chancellorsville. The battlefields are a patchwork of modern residences and shopping malls interspersed with protected sites of battles sprinkled with granite monuments erected over the years by veterans’ groups. The National Park Service couldn’t possibly protect all of the battlefields. At this point the Wilderness is threatened by construction of a Walmart.
So at the beginning of May 1864 the 125th moved out of winter camp with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, marching from winter camp south, crossing the Rapidan River, heading for General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The Union Armies passed over the site of the battle of Chancellorsville the year before and clashed with the Confederates in an area known as “the Wilderness,” just a few miles to the west. The area had been logged over the years for fuel for a local iron industry, so was covered with a dense tangle of second growth forest, making visibility very poor.
The first day of the Battle of the Wilderness was May 5 and the 125th did not participate. On May 6 they were on the left of the Union Line, with all but 104 men on picket duty on the very end of the line. Those men, along with soldiers from two other regiments, moved forward through the thick brush under Lt. Colonel Aaron Myer of Troy, substituting for Colonel Crandell, who was still in recruiting back home. In fierce fighting, Myer was wounded in the thigh and the Regiment had to fall back when they ran out of ammunition. 34 of the 104 had been killed. “The fighting here..was terrific..far more severe than even at Gettysburg…the firing sounded like the roaring of the ocean.” The woods caught fire and burned some of the dead and wounded. Myer died a couple of days later and was first buried on the battlefield, then reinterred back in Troy. The “Times” reported that “the medical branch of the service has greatly improved since last summer. Hospital tents and food adapted to the wounded are brought with the Army and kept near the troops.” The Army had indeed made improvements, but two civilian organizations, the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission had organized nationwide to provide food, clothing, and nursing to wounded soldiers.
Aaron B. Myer, killed in the battle of the Wilderness
the 125th NY was with Barlow and Frank, labelled on the right of the map
Park Service panel showing the conditions in the wilderness.
Photo taken spring 2014 near the junction of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads, near where the 125th fought. Monument to Vermont regiments.
In prior years, the Union Army paused after each major battle to regroup, but not this year with General Grant in charge. Though the Union Army had suffered 20,000 casualties and the Confederates 10,000 in the two days of the Wilderness, Grants’ generals pushed on after Lee the next day.
By May 8th, 1864 the 125th had marched a few miles south, reaching Todd’s Tavern, on the right of the Union line. They moved forward again on the 9th and crossed the Po River, marching until midnight. Sometime in the confusion of marching, digging, and fighting, five men of Company K, the Schaghticoke boys, were captured by Confederate cavalry. They were Aretus Loomis, Archibald Fisher, Andrew Doty, Stephen McPherson, and Timothy Fields. The men were sent to the notorious prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Archibald got there just a few weeks before his brother Douglas died. Douglas had been there since February. The camp was closed in the fall, as the Army of General Sherman approached, and these five, along with the other prisoners who were still well enough to be moved, were sent to the new stockade at Florence, South Carolina. Stephen was shot “on the dead line” there. . There was an elevated wooden “line” a few feet from the prison stockade. If a prisoner crossed the line, he would be shot dead by the guards. This is what happened to Stephen. The other men were exchanged December 31, 1864. Aretus, Andrew, and Timothy survived their ordeal, though Aretus had several long term health issues as a result Archibald died on the ship en route to the hospital at Annapolis after his exchange, so close to salvation. The Fisher family of Schaghticoke had five sons, four of whom enlisted in Company K of the 125th. Two, Archibald and Douglas, died as a result of imprisonment, and two, John and William, survived. John is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Schaghticoke.
On May 9, the Troy “Times” reported, “Glory, glory, a complete victory. Rebels on the run, Grant vigorously pursuing.” Both Union and Confederate officers and men immediately realized that this campaign would be different than the previous two years. Then, there would be a battle followed by several weeks of regrouping by both Armies. Under U.S. Grant, the Army of the Potomac just kept fighting. The “complete victory” was certainly an exaggeration. Both Armies were suffering horrible casualties, and Lee certainly wasn’t ready to give up.
site of Todd’s Tavern today.
store and gas station across the road from the site of Todd’s Tavern
map of the battle of Spotsylvania..the 125th charged the mule shoe with Barlow and Miles
Another innovation was that both sides began to build earthworks. As soon as they stopped, the infantryman began digging trenches and cutting down trees to form barriers to shield themselves. This became a common practice in later wars, but had not been done very much in the Civil War before this bloody year. The 125th had dug earthworks on the 8th, only to abandon them the next day. May 10 they fought the Rebels again, and again the woods caught fire, causing them to fall back. May 11 they marched all night. Chaplain Simon of the 125th said the men were exhausted from the marching, digging, and fighting.
May 12 was the decisive day of the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, which occurred just a few miles south and east of the Wilderness. The opposing Armies had been facing each other for a couple of days. Much of the Confederate Army was arrayed behind earthworks in the shape of a mule shoe- a salient- subjecting them to attack from two directions. The 125th was in the brigade of the Army of the Potomac which attacked the tip of the mule shoe, again suffering 50-60 casualties, including the death of almost all of its lieutenants. The Union Army succeeded in overcoming the Rebels, but by that point they had built another series of trenches to their rear, flattening out the shoe, so that the battle just continued on a new line. The part of the battlefield including the “mule shoe” is preserved as a National Park Service site. It was so dug up into defensive trenches of all kinds that farmers never replowed it after the war. The trenches survive until today.
me standing in the trenches at Spotsylvania, the 125th charged toward my back
The Armies fought on for a few more days until Grant moved his men on South, trying to slide around Lee to Richmond. From May 8th to the 21st, the Army of the Potomac suffered 18,400 casualties, the Army of Northern Virginia 13,000.
At that point our letter-writer George Bryan finally writes to Jennie again. On May 14 he reported the results of the battle of the Wilderness and the death of Colonel Myers. “I do not know of any of the Schaghticoke boys being killed. There is lots of wounded officers to be seen here but not many dangerously wounded. I look at them I cannot help but think how long will it be before I am either killed or wounded. But if either you know that it will not be while running away from the enemy, and you know it is glorious to die in such a cause,..” This confirms what I have read elsewhere- that officers were especially liable to wounds and death as they led their men. The men had more opportunity to stay in the trenches and keep their heads down.
By the next battle of the 125th, May 23, Colonel Crandell had returned to his regiment, which had very reduced numbers, just 130 present for duty rather than the 1000 men they began with. He brought some new recruits, who were certainly thrust into fighting with no training. Our correspondent George Bryan reported to his friend Jennie on May 31 that he had twenty men in his company, which should have had 100. He added, “we have to build earth works at night and fight during the day.”
The Regiment crossed the North Anna River on May 23 on a pontoon bridge and attacked the rebels again. The North Anna battlefield is a historic site of Hanover County, Virginia, rather than the National Park Service. When I visited there, I was lucky enough to meet the local historian, who directed me to the area where the 125th would have fought, not within the park borders. They crossed the North Anna River almost precisely at this point, next to the modern road north and south. Today the river seems shallow enough to ford. After another inconclusive battle, the Army of the Potomac continued to march south and east, actually passing the Confederate capitol, Richmond, to the east, and ending up near Petersburg, Virginia, just south of Richmond. Like the Wilderness, this was also near a previous battle, this time that of Gaines Mill, part of a series of losses by Union General McClellan in his Peninsular Campaign of June 1862. On May 27 the Troy Times correspondent reported, “ I never saw the army in better spirits for all they have been marching and fighting for the last 24 days. It has every confidence in Grant and there has been scarcely any straggling. Marched 125 miles in a week. “
the 125th crossed the Po River just behind me.
The 125th reached Cold Harbor, to the east of Richmond, on June 2, 1864. They quickly learned that the 169th NY, the other Rensselaer County Regiment, was relatively nearby. Where had they been? They had been in the Army of the James, commanded by General Benjamin Butler. That Army had landed on the coast of Virginia, near where the James River entered the Atlantic Ocean, just to the east of Richmond around May 1. This was land that had already been fought over in the war in the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. The 169th participated in a series of unsuccessful battles against the Confederates in May, with just a few casualties, called the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. A new tour map of the sites of the campaign, beginning at the National Park Service Headquarters in Richmond, has been produced for the 150th anniversary.
Unfortunately for its men, the 169th had reached Cold Harbor by June 1, when it participated in the first phase of that very bloody battle. On the battle map of Cold Harbor on June 1, the location of the 169th can be found near the Beulah Church. They were in the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Division of the Army of the James, under Colonel Devins. Their Colonel, John McConihe of Troy, was killed in the assault that day, shot three times, dying instantly. The mortality for Colonels in the Civil War was very high, leading as they did from the front and on horseback. The casualty total for the regiment was about 80.
Colonel McConihe’s body was returned to Troy for burial. The Troy paper reported, “ a painful gloom has been thrown over the city… he has fallen, sword in hand, bravely leading his noble comrades…”, then detailed all of the funeral preparations, including the order of the units which participated in the funeral cortege from downtown to Oakwood Cemetery, where he was buried. The body, despite being “in a poor state of conservation” lay in state at the County Courthouse. The funeral was June 8 from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Among the attendees was retired General John Wool and the Governor of New York State. McConihe has a very modest tombstone at Oakwood.
When the battle continued June 3, the Confederates were well entrenched, so that in the initial Union assault it is estimated that about 6000 Federals were killed or wounded in one hour. Thankfully for our men, neither the 125th nor the 169th were in the forefront of the battle that day. On the map of the battle for June 3, the 125th would have been at the far left of the Union line, in the reserve. The Troy “Times” reporter in the 125th stated, “From all appearances the armies here are gathering for the life and death struggle. We are to besiege the rebel works.. Our men can charge, they have done it..but we hope victory may be gained in other ways.” The men were willing to fight, but they saw very clearly the carnage that resulted from charging the entrenched foe.
The National Park Service Battlefield for Cold Harbor includes only a small section of the original site. The area is just to the northeast of the city of Richmond, and though it is not extensively built up, it is not rural like the area around the Wilderness. The Park Service ranger directed us to the area where the 125th was located during the battle, which was to the East of the park headquarters, a non-descript area near a gas station, now wooded.
After the initial fighting on June 1 and 3, the Union and Confederate Armies remained in place. The brochure from the Park Service notes that the battle of Cold Harbor showed that well-entrenched Armies were virtually “impregnable to frontal assaults,” a fact that was the story of World War I in the 20th century. A June 9 report in the “Troy Times” from the 125th, dated June 5 at Cold Harbor stated “so close are our lines to those of the enemy that a soldier might throw his hat into the works of the confederates.” There were a few casualties every day, as snipers shot careless men. The total Union casualties for Cold Harbor were about 10,000 men. So the total Union casualties from May 1 to June 12 were about 40,000 men. One can only imagine the trail of dead and wounded men scattered over Virginia from Fredericksburg to Richmond.
this map shows Hancock’s men in reserve- including the 125th
General Grant made one more attempt to end the war in 1864, stealthily moving his Army on June 12 to try to take the vital Confederate transportation and supply hub of Petersburg, just about 25 miles to the south. Though the Union Army had been unable to take Richmond, but if they could take Petersburg, Richmond could not last long. Unfortunately the initial Union assaults on the city were not pressed hard enough and Lee was able to get the Army of Northern Virginia into the city to defend it. The Armies settled down into a nine-month siege.
Where was the 125th in all of this? The Regimental History reported that they marched from Cold Harbor, boarded transports to cross the James River on June 12, marched and countermarched, and arrived at Petersburg in the middle of the night on June 15. On June 16, they were marched from one end of the Union line to the other, then charged the rebels in the vanguard, over hilly terrain on Shand’s farm, under Confederate fire the whole time. They lost 44 men, 14 of whom were killed, “the proportion of loss in killed was greater than in any battle in which the regiment had taken part.” Among the wounded was their Colonel Crandall, who was struck in the face by a piece of artillery shell.
“After the first rush of the charge was over,” a group of officers were conversing in a ravine when “a company of rebels brought a cross-fire to bear upon (them), and Lieutenant (George) Bryan fell. He lingered about a half hour in agony and then passed from earth.” This was George Bryan, our Schaghticoke correspondent. In his final letter to his friend Jennie Ackart, written May 31, he wrote, “I have escaped thus far, but may fall at any moment….it will not be running away from the enemy.” George is buried in Hudsonview Cemetery in Mechanicville.
tombstone of George Bryan
Lt. George Bryan
On June 19, the 125th marched six miles further south, near the southernmost part of the siege at the Weldon Railroad. Skirmishing continued through the whole period. On June 22, they were part of a poorly planned and executed attack to try to cut the Weldon Railroad. The attack failed badly, with the loss of three more of the regiment’s lieutenants. The Regimental history also reports that “the hot weather combined with the poor water…tended to fill the hospital at City Point (the Union headquarters) and to send men home, either temporarily or permanently.” The 125th was again so decimated that it was recombined with a few other units under the command of its own Colonel, Levin Crandall.
Both Confederate and Union armies constructed elaborate fortified siege lines, and settled in for the long haul by the end of June. Ezra Simons in the Regimental History reports that the 4th of July was the first day the men had not heard weapons firing since the first of May. If you have ever been in southern Virginia in the summer, you can imagine the difficult time the soldiers had on both sides through the hot summer. It was dusty when it was dry and muddy when it rained, added to the unrelenting sun and humidity.
I will return to Petersburg later in the year, as the Sesquicentennial continues.