No, I’m not predicting the end of the world, but of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. The commemoration is almost over. Of course the Civil War ended more or less with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865. I have not written about the war, or our local regiment, the 125th NY Volunteer Infantry, since the fall. This is because after months of hard fighting and many, many casualties in spring 1864, the tempo of the war changed. The Union Army was trying to take the Confederate capitol of Richmond, but failing in that, ended up in siege lines around Petersburg, the key Confederate transportation hub just to its south.
The Union Army spent the nine months from the battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864 to April 1865 in siege lines around Petersburg, but the Army didn’t just sit there waiting for spring. Right at the beginning of that time, the 125th NY participated in a botched Union attempt to cut the Weldon Railroad, south of Petersburg and one of the life lines for the Confederates, on June 22, 1864. Several long-time officers died in the battle, and the regiment found it did not fight as before, with many new and inexperienced recruits. This was a shock to the old-timers. In the wake of the hard spring campaign, the Union Army took stock of its men, and a number were discharged for illness or disability, including several officers of the 125th. They were just worn down by almost two years of fighting. Throughout the Army, regiments had become so small due to death, injury, and illness, that consolidation was necessary. Four regiments, including the 125th, were made into one, under the command of the Colonel of the 125th, Levin Crandell. This means that what had been 1000-man regiments now numbered 250 or less.
I have neglected Levin Crandell, who became Colonel of the 125th upon the death of George Willard on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg. I need to tell you about him especially, as he was almost from Schaghticoke. Levin was born in 1826 in Easton. His parents were Otis and Eliza Crandell, of Rhode Island. The little hamlet still called Crandell’s Corners on Route 40 in Easton is named for them. His father bought a farm and the family moved to Milton in Saratoga County in 1836. Mr. Crandell made sure Levin got a good education. He was elected Captain of the local militia regiment when he reached 18, surely indicating a strong interest in the military. He never served, however, as he moved to Troy in 1845, first working as a clerk in dry goods stores, then becoming the bookkeeper at the Central Bank of Troy in 1854. This was a prestigious and demanding job. The 1860 census showed him as a bookkeeper in Troy, aged 34, with wife Caroline, 30. In 1856 he joined the Troy Citizens’ Corps, one of the most prominent local militias, and the 24th Regiment, N.Y.S. Militia., a predecessor of the National Guard. He was elected Colonel of the 24th when Joseph Bradford Carr became Colonel of the 2nd NY Regiment in 1861. The 2nd was the first regiment recruited in Rensselaer County for the Civil War.
Levin Crandell, second Colonel of the 125th
When the 125th Regiment, the second Rensselaer County regiment, began recruiting in August, 1862, the Rensselaer County War Committee asked Levin to act as its Colonel. They expected George Willard to become Colonel in the end, – and Levin knew that- but were awaiting his transfer from the Regular Army. So Levin was the Colonel in charge with the tough job of training the new recruits, as Willard didn’t arrive until just before the Regiment left for the field. At that point, the committee approached Levin again, first asking if he was consumptive- he was so thin- and having learned that he wasn’t, asked if he would become Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment. He did, and served in that position, stepping in to substitute for Willard as needed, until Willard died and Levin finally became Colonel in his own right.
Levin went on to lead the Regiment through many battles. He was home recruiting during a couple of months in the winter and spring of 1864, but returned in time for the battle of North Anna in May. He was slightly wounded on several occasions, and hit in the face by a shell fragment on June 16, 1864, at the start of the Petersburg campaign. He stayed in service until that December, when he resigned. The Regimental History states that he was a “manly man,” “calm in battle,” and that he resigned “due to home conditions.”
By 1870, Levin lived in Brooklyn, where he was a dry goods merchant with real estate worth $18,000, and a personal estate of $10,000. He and wife Caroline had two Irish servants. She died at some point before 1878, when Levin married another woman named Carrie, who was twenty years younger than he. The 1880 census showed them still in Brooklyn. He was 53, Carrie 33, and they had two children, Carrie, 8, and Albert, 6 months old. They had a second son later.
Colonel Crandell was very involved in the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, a member of the post in Manhattan. He applied for a pension in 1891. Levin was very involved in the writing of the “Regimental History of the 125th,” and was present and active at the local reunions of the regiment. He and Carrie moved to Jamaica, Queens around 1900, when he retired from the dry goods business. He had a stroke and died in 1907 at age 80, and is buried in Cyprus Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Returning to Petersburg, July 4, 1864 was the first time the soldiers had heard no gun fire for two long months, and many, many miles of walking and fighting. The 125th stayed in place until July 26th, then marched north, toward Richmond, as part of the 2nd Brigade. Some of General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry accompanied the infantry. It turned out their goal was to distract the Confederates from the detonation of a huge mine, designed to blow a hole in the Confederate defenses around Petersburg, leading to victory by the Union. The Confederates were distracted by the relatively small battle of Strawberry Plain, but the attack around the mine detonation on July 30 turned into a fiasco for the Union- a disaster for this big opportunity for the new colored troops to test their mettle. But that event, called the Battle of the Crater, has been much written about, and I am trying to focus on the 125th.
Shortly after returning from Strawberry Plain, on August 22, 1864, the 125th marched back south, again part of a Union attempt to cut the Weldon Railroad. This time the soldiers destroyed track for two days. The rails and ties were pulled up, the ties burned with the rails on top of the fire until they were hot enough to bend, rendering them unusable. The Confederates moved to attack, at what is now called the battle of Ream’s Station. As Colonel Crandell was now in command of the larger unit, the brigade, which the 125th was part of, Captain Nelson Penfield commanded the regiment. After two assaults and a lot of cannon shelling, the Union lines, filled with inexperienced recruits, gave way. In his history of the 125th, the regimental chaplain Ezra Simons is obviously humiliated by this retreat, but it occurred all along the line. Captain Joseph Egolf, a veteran of the 2nd NY who reenlisted in the 125th, was badly wounded at this time and about ten men of the old 125th were among 2000 Union troops captured by the Confederates, spending the rest of the war in Libby Prison in Richmond. The old camaraderie of the Regiment was gone, the men didn’t know each other anymore, with each passing day yet another old comrade left the ranks, one way or the other. Perhaps it was this change, more than “home conditions”, that led Colonel Crandell to resign his commission and go home in December of 1864. Chaplain Simon describes the Colonel in his last battle: “..in a fight lasting (all day)- he was in the saddle all the time, directing and inciting, except as he dismounted to creep up near the enemy to better determine their position. Three times was he shot at while seeking to reach one of our men wounded at the extreme front of the fighting.” Not bad for a man of forty after two years of war.
Now both Armies settled in for the winter, about 150,000 men. For the Confederates, though they had enough munitions, the food supply was patchy. Many of their supply lines had been severed, either by the Army of the Potomac, or by Union victories in other theaters of operation. Men deserted and went home, especially when they found out that their homes had been invaded by Union armies. They needed to know what had happened to their property and families.
siege mortar at Petersburg
While the Union Army had plenty of food and supplies, they were still uncomfortably situated in siege lines. The battles of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor had introduced the defensive advantages of trenches; now both Armies worked to build the best earthworks possible. The earthworks were trenches, tunnels, and bombproofs- designed to allow the minimum exposure possible to the enemy. Both sides fired mortars and howitzers at each other randomly day and night. When a soldier could hear that a mortar shell was going to land nearby, he would run for a bombproof, a shelter dug into the ground and covered with sandbags, to make it fulfill its name. Soldiers also built winter quarters. The correspondent for the Troy “Daily Times” in the 125th (H.S.- I’m not sure who he was) stated that the troops made “winter quarters” several times. They would just get settled, then be moved again, for reasons they never understood. Each time they would cut down the once-plentiful Southern pine and make 7’ x 11’ log cabins, with walls about five feet high, a small doorway, and a chimney. The roofs were of canvas, the heat source either a fireplace or a small cast iron stove. Four men lived in each cabin. They had adequate space only because two of them were usually on picket duty at any time. Sometimes there was enough firewood and decent water to drink, sometimes not, but the newspaper correspondent seemed quite content.
But not all soldiers were “comfortable.” Some years ago, my mother came across the probate file of a soldier of the 16th NY Artillery, also besieging Petersburg. Lyman Brimmer of Troy had named his sister as his heir in his will, which his father contested. In the file was a letter he wrote home to his sister on September 12, 1864. I have corrected the spelling. “We are now right in front of Petersburgh, one mile from it. The shot and shell fly over my head every day as thick as hail stone and if you raise your head above the parapet, a small ball will take it. There is men killed and wounded every day. I have been out on picket five days. I got in last night. I have to lay on the ground with my rubber blanket over me rain or shine. …My hand trembles so I can hardly write.” Lyman didn’t add that the trembling hand was because he had had fever and ague for a month. On October 7, he was shot “in the bowels,” and the doctor told him he could not live. A fellow soldier reported, “He appeared to be suffering great pain, hollering all the time.” Thankfully, he died that night and was buried. The story has even a sadder end. Though his sister won the probate fight, the legal costs ate up most of the inheritance. And Lyman was a Union soldier, living in better conditions than the Confederates, before winter chill had really set in. So I guess the conditions depended upon the unit, the situation of the camp, and the original health of the soldier.
reconstruction of siege lines at Petersburg.
reconstruction of siege lines at Petersburg
While the Confederate headquarters was naturally in Petersburg, the besieged city, the Union Army under General Grant built an extensive headquarters at City Point, on the James River to the northeast of Petersburg and southeast of Richmond. During February, Grant extended the Union lines westward, around the southern side of Petersburg. His Army now numbered 110,000, while the Confederate Army was reduced by desertion to 60,000. In March, General Lee made a last attempt to break the Union line at Fort Steadman, one of the closest Union strongpoints to City Point. The Rebels were initially successful, but the Troy “Times” reported that the Rebels began looting food and equipment as soon as they entered the fort, so that the Union was able to retake it quite quickly, the Rebels then surrendering.”
NPS sign with illustration of Fort Steadman
Meanwhile the other Rensselaer County regiment, the 169th Volunteer Infantry, was in North Carolina. In Mid-January they had participated in the amphibious Union attack that captured Fort Fisher and closed the last Confederate port, Wilmington, North Carolina. From there they were in the force that captured Wilmington itself in mid-February. The war ended in that region when General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army surrendered to General William T. Sherman and his Union forces on April 16, 1865. The 169th was part of the garrison that stayed in Wilmington. They were mustered out there on July 19, 1865.
Returning to our other local boys, the 125th broke camp at Petersburg on March 29, 1865, and marched westward around the southern end of the siege lines. The Confederate loss at Fort Steadman had gotten everything moving. The 125th’s new Colonel was Joseph Hyde. The 125th was part of the final Union push, which forced the Confederates to abandon their trenches in Petersburg and try to escape westward. In the Regimental History, Chaplain Simons describes some days of on and off advances, with pauses to entrench, intermittent fighting, and walking on. By April 2, after the tired soldiers he was with were able to force Confederates to abandon good fortifications with ease, Simons writes that the men began to realize that the end of the war was near.
They heard of the surrender of Petersburg, and of victories elsewhere. The Confederates were running in disorder, abandoning equipment, or surrendering. Walking west about thirty miles over the next four days, the 125th was in the reserve at the battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6, though Simons says they captured the supply wagons of the retreating Confederates. This was the last real battle for the Army of the Potomac. Sailor’s Creek is about 45 miles east of Appomattox Court House. There was more fighting on the 7th and 8th, though on the 8th Simons says the men knew that a letter had passed among the generals of the opposing armies. We can only imagine the excitement and anticipation among the men. The 125th marched some more on the morning of the 9th, but paused at noon. According to the National Park Service Ranger at Appomattox Court House, they were about two miles northeast of that hamlet. Appomattox Court House was and is the name of a small settlement, not of a building. The whole settlement is now a National Park Service site, with the small, more modern town of Appomattox about a mile away.
the courthouse at the hamlet of Appomattox Courthouse
Meanwhile the newspapers at home were following developments very closely. On April 7 it was falsely reported nationally that Lee had surrendered. Celebrations began immediately in Troy, and probably everywhere, with disappointment following. News of the real surrender, on April 9, was reported almost as it happened to the waiting populace of the North.
McClean home, site of Lee’s surrender. In the hamlet of Appomattox Court House
Chaplain Simons wrote of that day,” We could scarcely believe the rumors that came to us of the surrender by General Lee of the rebel army; but about four o’clock the glad news was given that it was really true….Soon General Meade himself rode along the line, with head uncovered, and such cheers as went up to the skies we never heard before, lasting over an hour without any interruption. Thus, with cheers, and waving banners, and also with booming cannon and playing bands, was greeted this greatest triumph of the war. …the 9th of April, 1865 will always be remembered by our men…The writer has seen ..that General Grant ordered that there should be no demonstrations of joy; but, if the orders were delivered, they came too late to prevent the spontaneous expression of gladness just described.”
The 125th marched from Appomattox to Burksville, Virginia on April 13. There they heard of the assassination of Lincoln. At the end of April, they headed north, marching via Richmond and Fredericksburg to Arlington Heights, opposition Washington. They participated in the Grand Review on May 23, 1865 when 80,000 men of the Army of the Potomac marched through Washington, D.C., then left for home on June 5. Finally, they were on a train, rather than walking. They reached New York on the 7th of June. Word of this arrival was telegraphed to anxious relatives and friends in Troy.
On June 8th the Troy “Daily Times” reported in detail the fiasco of their arrival home. People assumed they would be on the “night boat”- the overnight steamship from New York to Troy, and hundreds thronged the dock at 5 a.m. When the “Rip VanWinkle” arrived, the soldiers were not on it. The crowd immediately assumed they were on the train and ran across town to the train station. When the Montreal express arrived, there were still no soldiers. At this point the Captain of the “Rip” reported the men were still at Castle Garden in New York. Apparently commercial steamships were reluctant to transport the regiments as the soldiers got drunk and rowdy (what a shock!) Finally word came that the regiment was on a hired steamship. They arrived in Albany about 11 a.m. and would be marching for home on the Troy Road- up the west side of the Hudson. The trip up the Hudson was about 8-9 hours, so they must have left about 3 a.m. The West Troy ferry generously agreed to carry them gratis across the river.
Meanwhile feverish preparations were being made to greet them at Washington Square, where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is in downtown Troy- at the corner of River, Broadway, 2nd, and 1st Streets. A grandstand was built, the alarm of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church sounded, citizens began to hang flags on their houses, Congressman John Griswold got ready to speak, the 24th NY National Guard Regiment made ready to meet them. Once the men got to Troy, they went to the Armory to have a bite to eat- having had no food since the afternoon before- Evidently the newspaperman was surprised to see only 200 men. At first he explained that some had gone right home, but later in the article realized that the original 1000 man regiment numbered only 214 at this point. Finally 3 p.m. was named as the time of ceremonies. After the speeches, they were entertained at Harmony Hall, and returned to camp “on the Albany Road”. They were finally paid off on June 15 and mustered out of service.
There are some of the final records of the 125th in the archives of the Rensselaer County Historical Society. Lt. George Petit prepared the final inventories of the equipment of each of the Companies. Of the original 100 men, he listed just 27 in one inventory of Company K, the “Schaghticoke boys,” and only fourteen in another taken in May, 1865. I think that the longer list included men who returned in mid-April from imprisonment, hospitalization, and service with detached units, just to be discharged with their original company, plus a few newer recruits. Petit was trying to collect the government’s equipment, but obviously having a hard time. All but two of the fourteen turned in Springfield muskets, though many were missing parts of the repair kits that accompanied each gun. Most men had haversacks and their half of a tent (two halves were put together to make a whole tent for two men), but no one had a camp kettle or mess pan, and quite a few marks for individual items are crossed out later. Of about 75 men in the original Company K who were from Schaghticoke, seventeen were discharged in June 1865. Others had survived but had changed units, been dismissed for disability earlier, or deserted sometime along the way.
Now the rest of their lives began for the veterans and their families. Nationwide, about 3,500,000 men had served in the war. About 600,000-800,000 had died from various causes. One in thirteen veterans were amputees. Just for comparison’s sake, about 400,000 American soldiers died in World War II. As with veterans today, some men were improved by their service, some physically and mentally handicapped for life. We are still feeling the political repercussions of the war.
Reading the Troy newspaper just after the war, I am struck by the way the veterans stuck together, right from the start. The paper is full of notices of meetings of the veterans of the 125th to organize attendance at funerals of their fellow soldiers, of men going to call on fellow veterans who were ailing. The official organization of Civil War Veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, was organized in 1866, but the 125th NY Regimental Association was also active right from the start. There were lots of veterans. I feel at first they wanted to maintain their brotherhood, then to help each other. As time went on, they also flexed considerable political muscle, and erected many monuments to their service, all over the country.
G.A.R. post Hartshorn in Schaghticoke, c. 1910
The sources of information for this article were primarily Ezra Simon’s History of the 125th,
the Troy “Daily Times”, and National Park Service materials on Petersburg and Appomattox Court House.