Monday, December 24, 2012

A Gathering of Brothers

Piecing together the Civil War experiences of my six ancestors with only the official record and the memoirs of other participants care must be taken not to embellish the events being written about.  So phrases, such as ‘he might have done …,’ ‘it is possible that…,’ ‘it would be normal if…’ ‘imagine if you will…,’ are used to maintain the historical accuracy while still telling their stories.  Never the less, when an entry in a diary or a line in the official company record converges with a specific point on the historical timeline becomes so overwhelmingly powerful, I want to believe the event actually took place.        

December 1863, the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Rappahannock River.  The Mine Run campaign was over; the last attack had been cancelled due to the nature of the terrain and the concomitant bloodshed such an attack would cause.  General Meade ordered the Army of the Potomac into winter quarters at Brandy Station and the surrounding areas of Culpepper County, Va.  The Daily Report for Company M  2nd Massachusetts Cavalry on December 6, 1863 states “Corporal Beal on pass to Brandy Station for 4 days.”   The Second Mass Cav. had gone into winter quarters at Vienna, Va. which is 85 plus miles from Brandy Station.  

Question, why did Merrill travel 85 plus miles on a four day pass when he could have gone 15 miles to Washington D.C.?  What reason did he have to spend precious leave time with the Army of the Potomac?  The answer is simple this was a chance for all four brothers and their cousin to get together for Christmas.

Merrill Beal, 30 year old butcher, volunteered February 1863;  Eleazar Beal, married, shoemaker, 36 years old when he volunteered in August of 1861,  was in the 22nd Mass Volunteer Infantry;  William H. Beal single, farmer,  22 years old when he volunteered in August of 1862, was in the 39th  Mass. Volunteer  Infantry;  Jesse Beal, married, 32 years old, shoemaker,  was drafted in July 1863 into the 12th Mass Volunteer Infantry; Selah Alden,  their cousin, 32 years old, shoemaker when he volunteered in July of 1861, was with the 13th Mass. Volunteer Infantry,  all these units were in the Army of the Potomac.  The 39th, and 13th were encamped at Mitchell station.  The 12th was encamped in the area of Kelly’s Ford and the 22nd was encamped at Beverly Ford. 

When the Army went into winter quarters, it was a time of rest and refit.  The routine of picket duty, patrols, inspections, and parades were kept up, but there would have been plenty of free time.  The military railroad connected Vienna, Va. with Brandy Station so Merrill could have made the journey in a half day on the military railroad.  The historical records strongly suggest that the brothers were together for a few days in early December of 1863. What was this gathering of brothers like?

     The romantic in me imagines a poignant gathering of brothers who had seen the realities of modern war and realized the odds were against all of them coming home alive.   Who did Merrill look for first?  Were the brothers all able to get together?  What did they talk about?  Did they have a group picture taken by one of the many sutlers  contracted by the Union Army to serve the Army of the Potomac while in winter quarters?  Again only theory and logic can answer these questions.  There is no factual evidence, at this time, to definitively say they were together that Christmas season of 1863.   Consequently, theory, logic, and imagination, along with some common sense must tell the rest of the story. 

Imagine if you will, Merrill riding the U.S. Military Railroad train down the Orange and Alexander railroad. Sitting in his seat, or in one of the freight cars, gazing upon the devastation, mile after mile, the war had brought to Virginia.  The weather is cold the leaves are off the trees and signs of war are everywhere he looked. Union soldiers on picket duty guarding the railroad against attack, by Mosby’s Rangers, can be seen from the train warming themselves by a fire.

As the train headed for Brandy Station, Merrill would inevitably have thought about the last Christmas with his family back in 1859.  He had not seen any of his brothers, except Jesse, or his cousin Selah Alden for three years.  Surely Merrill was remembering past Christmas celebrations when his parents, Calvin and Sally Beal, were alive.  Did the family adopt the custom of having a Christmas tree?  Was he remembering how they made the decorations for the tree and the Christmas dinners his mother Sally made for the family?  Merrill would have to have been inhuman not to have those memories playing like a movie in his mind, as he traveled to Brandy Station to find his brothers.  

Merrill’s older brother Eleazar, one of the original volunteers in August of 61, was on detached duty with his division’s ambulance corps at that time.  Did the Gods of Christmas conspirer to make this reunion happen by having Eleazar at one of the depots in his ambulance transferring wounded soldiers onto a train bound for one of the General hospitals in Washington D.C.? It is not out of the realm of possibilities. The Mine Run campaign had just ended a few days before so Eleazar’s duties would have had him constantly going back and forth to the train depot transporting wounded men.  Merrill could have spotted his brother at a train depot.

Let’s say that is what happened. Eleazar would have told Merrill where to find the encampments of their other brothers’ regiments.  Once all the brothers, and their cousin Selah Alden, gathered together, what happen? 

Well since Merrill was in the cavalry, his brothers probably ribbed him about never having to walk anywhere and having an easy time of it.  To which Merrill’s response might have been, ‘Yup, real easy, except at the end of the day. While the infantry is sitting around the fire drinking coffee the cavalry is tending to their horses.  Before we can get warm and have anything to eat or drink, the horses have to be taken care of first.’  

Merrill might have continued with, “But, promotions are fast in the cavalry. You guys are still privates.  I’m already an acting sergeant.’ 

And then the laughter would have started and the individual stories would begin to unfold.  Questions such as what is San Francisco like? Where you were at Gettysburg?  How bad was Antietam? What kind of fighters are Mosby and his men?  Each brother would tell his story while the others listened.  No embellishments with individual heroic deeds just brothers comparing their common experiences of their temporary profession.  There was no sibling rivalry just a common atmosphere of respect.  Each brother had proved himself in the crucible of war there was no need for embellishments.           

 I’m sure they talked about their brother George, who was 35 and married with a ten year old son, and how smart he was to stay out of the war.  (George would enlist in the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry a month later)  Eleazar and Selah would have talked about their enlist time coming to an end in the fall of 64. They might have good naturedly taunted the others with the fact they still had two more years to serve.  They might have shared letters from home and talked about old friends who enlisted but where gone. 

 The stories from Christmas past and old songs might have been sung while they sat on hardtack boxes around a camp fire drinking coffee trying to stay warm during the cold Virginia night. The glow of the fire hiding the emotions each brother felt for the other.  The log huts of the winter quarters were most likely still being built.

The following day they would have visited the sutler’s store and purchase some delicacies for a soldiers feast. If the sutler had a traveling photography studio, they might have had a group picture taken that they could have sent home to their wives?  But all too soon, the gathering would have come to an end.  Each brother would go back to his regiment and fight his war.  Each brother separately wondering if this was to be the last Christmas they would have together.  

As I stated previously the documentation I found, though slim, strongly suggest that Merrill, his three brothers; Eleazar, Jesse, William and his cousin Selah spent a few days in early December of 1863 together at Brandy Station Va. This story is how I imagined it would have been.   They were celebrating a Christmas far from loved ones and home, at a miserable army camp, in the middle of war torn Virginia. It was a gathering of brothers for Christmas.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chapter III; Merrill Beal

“…we are fighting for our country, its honor and its preservation,” (Rodgers p. 133)

At some point during Merrill’s transit from California to New York, he was informed that he had been promoted to corporal. His CMSR indicated that he was promoted to Corporal, per General Order No 18. on April 1, 1863. 1. (Beal CMSR) Merrill most likely was informed of his promotion during their layover in New York. Merrill’s responsibilities would now include supervising a squad of twelve men as well as the other duties of a corporal. In modern terms, Merrill’s learning curve, which was steep to begin with, became a rapid vertical ascent.

Kautz' Customs of Service for Non Commissioned Officers and Soldiers explains in detail the duties of the soldier and the non-commissioned officer. Besides learning all the duties of a private soldier Merrill also had to learn the duties of the corporal. Kautz opens the section on the Duties of a Corporal with the following statement “The corporal is usually selected from the most intelligent privates, who have been longest in the service, and who are noted for their military appearance and attention to duty.” 2. (Kautz 1864) In a war time, armies are made up of volunteers, the longest servicing aspect, obviously, would not be a factor in his promotion.

Merrill not only had to learn the duties of a corporal; he also had to learn the duties of a corporal in a cavalry regiment. As a corporal, he was expected to help train the privates in learning their duties and responsibilities by doing everything a private was required to do - but doing it perfectly.

The steamer Plymouth Rock carried the California Battalion to Stonington Connecticut. The trip took 9 hours. At Stonington, the battalion was off loaded and transferred to a train which would take them to Camp Meigs located in Readville, Massachusetts. George Buhrer recalled the atmosphere of the trip as being “sultry” and “the weather rainy and disagreeable. 3 (Buhrer Ap 16, 1863)

The battalion arrived at Camp Meigs at eleven o’clock in the morning April 16th. Merrill had been away from New England for almost three years so his memory of a New England spring was still fresh in his mind. And the New England weather did not disappoint him. Private Buhrer noted in his diary that the weather was “disagreeable; a fine penetrating rain.” In April, this is the type of New England weather which causes the sky to have a gray murky overcast. This in turn makes the air raw and damp. The penetrating rain gets into everything clothes, skin, equipment, inadequately heated quarters become damp and chilled. It is a completely miserable feeling.

There were five cavalry barracks at Camp Meigs. They “were one story buildings. They would shed rain, but the wind made itself at home inside the structure… The bunks were double-decker arranged for two soldiers in each berth.” 4. (Allen 1893) The barracks were cold and uncomfortable for the men from California who were used to a more temperate climate. Three of these barracks were assigned to Colonel Lowell and the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. This was Merrill’s home for the next month.

One of the first things Merrill probably did was go to the sutler’s store and purchase copies of Kautz,’ Customs of the Service and George B. McClellan’s;Regulation and Instruction for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War. Both books no doubt became his constant companion over the next few months.

The training began immediately. Over the next three days, Merrill and the battalion would do foot drills while each company received its equipment. This would consist of the accoutrements of a cavalry trooper. The Cavalry trooper during the Civil War was outfitted with the following equipment:

Carbine, carbine sling and swivel, cartridge box,… cap pouch,...wiper … to keep your carbine clean,… screw-driver,… revolver,… holster and pistol cartridge box,… smaller straps and waist belt,.. Saber and scabbard,. P. 40 saber knots. Horse furniture, 1 bridle, 1water bridle, 1 halter, 1 saddle, 1 saddle bag, 1 saddle blanket, 1 surcingle, 1 pair of spurs, 1 curry-comb, 1 horse brush, 1 picket pin, and 1 lariat, 1 link and 1 nose bag.” 5 (Allen 1893) Unlike the common infantry man who only had to look after himself after a days march, the cavalry trooper had to make sure his mount was cared for before he could even think about himself thus the reason for the extra equipment . (6 Allen 1893 )

The record is not clear whether Merrill received his equipment before or after he received his 7 day furlough. What is clear is the morning report for April 19th states “Corp. Beal absent with leave.” Then on April 25, 1863 the Morning reports states: “Corp Beal returned from furlough.” So where did Merrill go for seven days? The most likely place would be home to Natick, Massachusetts. 7 (Beal, Company M daily Reports)
Follow Central from the left of the Town square. Mrs J. Beal then E. Beal are on the right and side.
In the 1860’s Natick, Massachusetts was transitioning from an agricultural community to a manufacturing community. In the 1850s, the Beal family moved from Lyme, New Hampshire to Natick Massachusetts. Natick was becoming a major supplier of brogans; a cheap working man’s pair of shoes. All of the brothers, except the youngest, William, listed their occupation as shoemaker on the 1850 census. By 1860, the Beals had settled into Natick and would remain there for over 100 years.

Camp Meigs was approximately 16 miles from Natick by train so the probability of Merrill going home to see his family is almost 99.999 percent; without a letter or newspaper article definitively stating he was home for a visit that is as close to placing him there on furlough as can be assumed.

Merrill’s homecoming would have been bitter sweet. By April of 1863 his older brother Eleazer C. Beal was serving in the 22nd Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment . His little brother William Beal was serving with the 39th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his cousin Selah B. Alden was serving in the 13th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment and his niece Delia Beal Gilson’s husband Charles E. Gilson, had gone home to New York to enlist in the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry regiment. Eleazer answered Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers in the summer of ‘61. William, Selah, and Charles answered Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers in the summer of 1862. 8 (Beal, E; Beal, W; Alden, A; Gilson, C CMSRs)

They left behind their wives and children. There were only four brothers left at home: Cyrus H., James M., George W. and Jessie N. Beal all of them married. Jesse was still a newlywed having been married in February of 1861. The reunion was bitter sweet because after the war only four of these nine men would be alive.

Did Merrill’s brothers even know he was in the Army? Was this going to be a surprise for them? What was Merrill feeling as he walked down Central Ave in Natick to one of his brothers houses? A report from the Evening Boston Transcript wrote, “Quite a number of our boys have received furloughs… I have already witnessed scenes that would bring tears from stones.” Was this to be that type of reunion? 9 (Rogers et al 2001)

The closest house would have been either George or Eleazer’s as they lived right next to each other. However, Merrill most likely went to George’s house first since Eleazer was in the service. James’ and Jesse’s houses were one block away on Forest Street. Calvin’s was even further away. It just makes sense that he would go to George’s home first.

Merrill would have walked up the long drive way at the end of which was a large barn/ carriage house. To his left was the large 3 story mansard roof home. Walking up the three steps of the back porch, his cavalry boots echoing with each step, he would have gone to the back screen door and knocked. Only strangers and peddlers went to the front door, relatives, friends and neighbors always went to the kitchen door. *

Since it was a Sunday, who answered the door was it Julia? Was she in the kitchen preparing Sunday dinner? Was Merrill smiling? Did Julia drop the pot of whatever she might have been holding when she saw her brother – in- law standing on her back porch in his gold braided cavalry uniform? Or did George answer the door? If he did, I wonder what his reaction was? Did they hug? Did they shake hands? Or was everybody at Church. If so, did Merrill let himself in and help himself to some decent food.

( these were the days when you didn’t have to lock doors in a small town.) Was he sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee waiting for everyone to return from church? The numerous ways his homecoming could have played out are endless. However, since it was a Sunday, a day of rest, the Beal families and the Alden families were at home after church services. So it is likely to have been an impromptu celebration.

The conversation would have revolved around where Eleazar, William, Charlie and Selah were stationed. Questions about what it was like in San Francisco. What was it like crossing the continent in a wagon train? What did those exotic places in Mexico and Central America look like? The stories would have gone on long into the night.

The next 7 days would have gone by in the blink of an eye. Did he have time to play with his nieces and nephews. Was he able to hold, my great grandfather, 3 month old Charlie Gilson (later changed to Beal see Charles Gilson’s story ) in his arms? Questions that we will never have answers to because the stories were never re-told to succeeding generations. Stories which are not in the official records. Stories we can only imagine.

April 25 “Corp Beal ret. From Furlough” 10 (Company M Daily Reports)


  1. Beal, Merrill C. Compiled Military Service Record National Archives and Record Administration
  2. Kautz , August . Customs of Service for Non- Commissioned Officers and Soldiers. Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott & Co. , 1864.
  3. Buhrer, George. " The Daily Journal of George N Buhrer." The Second Mass and Its Fighting Californians. Michael Sorenson Collection . Web. 10 Nov 2012. <>.
  4. Allen , Stanton . Down in Dixie Life in a Cavalry Regiment in The War: From The Wilderness to Appomattox . Boston : D. Lothrop Comapny , 1893. (accessed December 3, 2012).
  5. Allen; p. 39-40
  6. Allen; p. 39-40
  7. Beal, M. CMSR
  8. National Archives and Records Administration Compiled Military Service Records
  9. Unknown. Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, Tuesday, June 2, 1863 as told in Rogers , Larry and Rogers, Keith. Their Horses Climbed Trees: A Chronicle of the California 100 and Battalion in the Civil War, From San Francisco to Appomattox . Atglen : Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001. 125. Print
  10. National Archives and Records Administration; Company M 2nd Mass Cavalry Daily Report book; April 1863
*The Home of George and Julia Beal is still standing today. By an amazing twist of fate the home became the property of my sisters’Godparents, Aunt Ann and Uncle Joe and currently remains within their family. Neither side of the families, parents or godparents, knew of the history of the home. I have been in the house many times.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tabulations and Numbers: Regimental Histories

The cold facts of numbers, the anonymity of the number, the nice neat final total at the bottom of the ledger sheet, an integer in a rectangle which sanitizes the record.   The record that was paid for in blood and lost dreams.   Though I am loathed to quote him, Stalin said you kill 100 people it is murder; you kill a million people it is a statistic. Regimental histories are statistical summaries of a unit’s service record.  Valuable, to be sure, to the historian and the genealogist; however what about those men the numbers represent?
                          View in Arlington National Cemetery, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865 (source NARA)

                My sister Cheri and I were talking on Skype the other day; I told her about a possible lead to tracking down photographs of our Civil War ancestors.  She checked one of the databases from her My Favorites list and came up with a PDF file from the Internet Library Archives.  The file, “Civil War Camps At Readville… Camp Meigs Playground & Fowl Meadow Reservation Preliminary Historic Data Compilation,” was a report commissioned by the MDC to preserve the historic recorded of one of Massachusetts largest Civil War training camps.   Included in the report were abstracts of “Massachusetts in the Army and Navy During the War of 1861-65.”  On pages 161 and 162 are the statistical summaries for KIA by engagement, read on line version.

                We perused the report for 2nd Mass Cav. Vol. Regiment and the 3rd Mass Cav. Vol. regiment.  At the end of the statistical summaries for each regiment, a summary of Casualties by Engagement (KIA) was listed.  Across the top of the page from left to right listed the companies.  Running down the left hand side of page were the engagements in chronological order.  For some companies there is just a dash other companies a number 1 or 2 is listed. 

                I pointed out to my sister the date of October 19, 1864 and the column for company M.  In that small little rectangle was the number 1, I told her that number 1 is Merrill Beal our ancestor.  There was dead silence.  Cheri did not say anything for a moment or two.  On the following page was the statistical summary for the 3rd Mass Cav. Vol. Regiment.  I told Cheri to scroll down to May 15-18 Yellow Bayou engagement.  The column for company H had a 1 in the small little rectangle.  “That is George Beal,” I said.  Again silence for a moment.     Cheri final said, “That’s not right.  The names Merrill Beal and George Beal should be there not a number.”  I know what she meant. 

The number does not tell the story of the person.   That is why I want to recreate the lives of my ancestors.  Tell their stories through their eyes.  Tell what they experienced so that when someone wants to know who was that number it is no longer a statistic but a person.  A person who had hopes and dreams.  A person who interrupted his life to fight and die for a cause he believed in.   A person who left family behind.  A living breathing human being who had people that loved him and prayed for the day he would returned.   That day never came.  No it is much more than an integer in a rectangle.   

Photogaph:  National Archives and Records Administrations

Record Group 111:Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 985Series:
Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, 1921 - 1940

New York Public Library Internet Archives:



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Charles Gilson Chapter II: The Rookie

             The martial music had faded away; the patriotic parades were a memory; the job of soldiering began. The regiment was marched off to Capitol Hill’s camp Chase.  Upon arriving, Charlie was given his first of what would become a monotonous diet of army camp rations.  The men were marched to the commissary shed for the “banquet.” (1)  The rations “consisted of beef, rice, beans, bread, coffee, sugar, salt and vinegar. (2) Charlie was most likely also issued “candles and soap” which were part of the allowable ration for soldier. (3)  Once the rations had been distributed Charlie and the regiment were “issued their guns and accoutrements.” (4 )   Charlie Gilson was about to begin his formal education as a warrior. 

            The regiment marched to their assigned area of camp Chase. The officers laid out the company streets.  “Each man was issued a tent cloth, and with these strips of cloth were directed to construct shelter tents; ‘dog tents’ was the name given them.” (5)   John Billings wrote of the dog tent, “I can imagine no other reason for calling it a dog tent than this, that when one is pitched it would only accommodate a dog, and a small one at that.  (6)     Henry Welch gave a very good description of the dog tent in a letter home.  The piece of cloth was “four feet square with buttons on three sides.” (7)  If two men joined their pieces together you had an eight foot square tent that would be hung over a ridge pole.  The only problem was that both ends were open to the elements.  If you wanted to close off one end, you asked another man to be your tent mate and used his shelter half to cover one end. This made the sleeping accommodation rather cramped.  Who did Charlie join up with to make a shelter?  Did they become lifelong friends?  Did this person survive the horrors of battle?  If so, did this person leave a diary of his experiences?

            The day following their arrival at camp Chase, the men of the regiment would get a taste of their company cook’s culinary ability.  The cooks for each company “were appointed” most likely by their officers . The meal was the same for each company; “a spoonful of boiled rice, a square chunk of salted pork, and one slice of hard tack” and a cup of “dark fluid that was called coffee.” (8 )    The culinary skills of each company’s cooks decided the quality of the meal.  Private Bull’s critique of this first repast prepared by the cooks of company D was scathing. “The rice was badly burned and inedible; the hard tack…seemed like biting into a wooden shingle and had not much taste.  The pork very salty and the coffee was not made by an expert.” (9)  Henry Welch of company K had similar feelings about the food but did not go into detail about the meal.  He was so disgusted with the food that he refused to go into any detail about its quality in his letter home on October 11, 1862.  I wonder how Charlie described the food when he wrote home?    

Charlie and his comrades had their first lesson major lesson in practical soldiering with in forty- eight hours after their arrival at camp Chase.  The ground the regiment occupied was neat and level.  “The tents were new… white and attractive”; however “a hard thunderstorm” erupted and they were “washed out of house and home.” (10)  The men had forgotten to dig a trench around their tents for water drainage. I wonder if Charlie, a shoemaker by trade or his tent mate, was smart enough to “ditch” their tent?  I tend to believe that they were in the majority of the men in the regiment standing their soaked through to the skin in wool clothes and leather brogans with no change of dry clothing to be had.  I can just imagine Charlie standing out in that deluge his wet hair matted against his skull, his uniform water logged weighing twice its normal weight, his knapsack with his extra clothing laying in a puddle of mud, and his growling due to lack of decent food  yelling to no one in particular ‘I volunteered for this!’ 


            The regiment spent a week at camp Chase adapting to military life.  They would drill and do camp guard duty. Once the regiment and the men had been equipped with all their necessary accoutrements, the “orders came to strike tents” “prepar (sic) for heavy marching immeadly(sic).” (11)  (12)  The men packed what they believed to be the bare necessities.  On September 17, 1862 the regiment began its “long march” approximately eight miles into Virginia to camp near Fort Albany.  The day was extremely hot. “Every soldier was loaded down with many things then considered indispensable”, the new recruits quickly became exhausted and began “falling out by the wayside.”  It was here near Fort Albany the new regiments of the army were drilled and trained in the art of soldiering.   

Arlington Heights
            The camp was located on Arlington Heights, Virginia The men began the dull routine of drill, drill, drill. They did regimental drills of changing front and brigade drills of changing front. The brigade drills could become “tiresome” when the regiment was on the “extreme flank and had to make the long swing to get into line.” (13)  The men were becoming use to the army food and the army way of doing things. Rice Bull noted in his memoir; “A certain length of time was required to bring us to the starvation point and found it at this camp. When we had taken to army ration we had no further trouble.” (14)   It was here at Camp Arlington, that Charlie and his comrades passed through an unseen portal. They transformed from naive patriotic volunteers, eager to get into the fight immediately and whip the rebels, to soldiers accepting the army and all of its conditions.  This is not to say that they became disenchanted with the Union. On the contrary, they were still very eager to get into the fight.  Their letters home tell of their devotion to the Union cause.  They had just become accustomed to the machination of the Union Army.

While the regiment was stationed at Arlington Heights camp, President Lincoln paid a visit to a Massachusetts regiment which was heading to the front.  “Soldiers crowded around his carriage cheering calling for a speech. ” (15) The speech, unfortunately, went unreported. Rice Bull stated the President “looked thin and worn and one could see that he was troubled an anxious.” (16)  President Lincoln “impressed upon the men that it was their efforts alone that would save the country”. (17)

After his speech, President Lincoln remained to shake hand and greet the soldiers who were now part of the effort to restore the country.  Was Charlie among the crowd of soldiers gathered around President Lincoln’s carriage cheering him, calling for a speech?  Did he shake President Lincoln’s hand? Did the President talk with Charlie?  Well, we don’t know.  Charlie could have had guard duty at that time. But the chance of Charlie not being on guard duty on the same day that Lincoln visited the camp are in his favor. 

On September 29 1862 the regiment received Marching orders.  Their time at Arlington Heights camp was over.    



Source notes


1.      Bull , Rice . Soldiering The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull. San Rafael : Presidio Press , 1977.  11     (Bull 1977)


2.      Morhous, Henry. 123d Regiment, N.Y.S.V. Giving a Complete History of Its Three Years Service in The War . Greenwich, N.Y.: People's Journal Book and Job Office, 1879. November 21, 2012). 11   (Morhous 1879)


3.      John Billings , Hardtack and Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life, (Boston : George M. Smith & Co., 1888), 111   (Billings 1888) 

4.      Morhouse  p. 11

5.      Bull  p. 10

6.      Billings  p. 52

7.      Welch , Henry . Hamilton College Library , "Hamilton College Library Digital Collection ." Accessed November 21, 2012.  Oct  11, 1862

8.      Bull  p. 11

9.      Bull  p. 11

10.  Bul  p. 11

11.  Morhouse  p. 12

12.   Welch   9/16/1862

13.  Bull  p. 15

14.  Bull  p.  15

15.  Bull  p. 14

16.   Bull  p. 14

17.  Bull  p. 14


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Are You My Great-Great Grandfather Charles Gilson?

One of the maddening things about researching my family history is that I have no pictures of my ancestors. It seems like everybody else has pictures of their Civil War ancestors, but my family had a particular ability to not have their pictures taken.  I do not know if this is a family trait, I don’t like having my picture taken, or their masterly ability to be anywhere else when the pictures were being taken.   At one time I’m sure there were pictures but they have been lost to the ages.   However, there is an outside chance that, a slim chance that there is a picture of my Great, Great Grandfather Charles Gilson 

                At the United States Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pa. the online research digital photo collection, Civil War, has a picture of an unknown corporal  from Company A 123rd New York Volunteer infantry.   Could this be my ancestor?  I do not know but maybe someone can identify him.   Even if it is not my great-great grandfather, it would be a mystery solved for one descendant of the 123rd NY Vol. Inf. searching  for a photograph of their ancestor.

                The 123rd NY, Vol. Inf. has a joint website with the 28th Georgia Vol. Inf.   This website has the rolls by company of the 123rd.,  as well as a page of pictures of the men.   Of the fourteen corporals-there were eight originally appointed when the company was formed  and six promoted from the ranks during the war. In Company A  four corporals can be identified in the website by their picture.  

                Richards, John; Tanner, Albert;  Durham, Richard; LaPoint, Joseph

Which means, the unidentified corporal in the photo could only be one of ten possible men.

Bosworth, Harvey N,;  Cowan, Eugene;   Cook, Albert;   Dobbin, John;  Gilson, Charles;  Hyatt, Arnold; Janes, Roswell; Manning, William;  Rice, Hiram; Tucker, Charles
                                          Photo is from the U.S. Military History Institute Key word search
                                          123rd New York Infantry   

                So who is the unnamed corporal?  There is a one in ten chance that this is my great-great-grandfather.  It is also 10 to 1 against.  I’m going for the long odds.  If no one claims him in thirty days he’s  mine.  No, I’m only kidding.  I can’t do that; can I?     

Civil War Pension Files: The Ultimate Text Message

I used the pension file of my great,-great grandfather in my English III class.  I wanted my students to understand what research is and to see how a primary source document sheds light on an era.  The students were impressed until they asked if I paid for it.  I told the class the cost of obtaining the file.  They were shocked.  One student remarked that he could pay two month on his IPhone contract and I was crazy to pay that much.  Text messaging was more important to him than his family history.   They did not realize that I had the ultimate text message.

  These documents contain a wealth of information which gives the researcher a glimpse into the lives of the men who fought the civil war and the women who loved them.  Family skeletons long buried are just waiting to be unearthed. Stories of devotion and government red tape will touch your heart and cause your blood to boil; all this waiting to be unwrapped. Your family history is just waiting to be rewritten.   

                So what did I find in my family’s pension files? Well, answers to questions and questions to be answered.  For example, my great,- great grandmother Delia was not a sweet innocent young lady, a devoted wife of a soldier fighting for the Union, a wife praying for the day when her husband would come home safe and their life together could resume.   In this file, I found depositions from their children stating they were raised by their maternal grandparents and they believed their mother was their older sister until one day a cruel teenage friend told them it was not true.  

              Then there is the story of my great,-great -great  Aunt Julia widowed at 30,with a ten year old son,  applying for a widows  pension on the same day that her brother in-law was killed in action. The file is closed out, many years later, upon her death with a request by her son Lewis for government burial benefits under her widow’s pension.  Julia and George had been married ten years when he volunteered to fight for the Union in January 1864.  He was killed in action 5 months later in a rear guard action during the closing days of the ill-fated Red River Expedition.  She never remarried. 
Pension records obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration


The story of how the men of Natick, Massachusetts stood by my great- great- great Aunt Lucinda because she stood by her husband when he came home fatally debilitated because of his service in the Union cause.  Lucinda and Jesse Beal were married in February of 1861.  Jesse was drafted in 1863. He died in April of 1870 from TB contracted while in the service.  The last five years of his life Jesse slowly and most likely agonizingly wasted away while his wife Lucinda cared for him.   Four years later she married George Sleeper which caused her to lose her widow’s pension.  She states in a letter that he was immoral, cruel and abusive and that his daughter tried to murder her.   But Sleeper was a prominent citizen of Natick and was able to cover up his indiscretions. 

 National Archives and Records Administration

To The Honorable Washington Gardner

of Pension Bureau

I, the Widow of Jesse N. Beals, ask for a few minutes of your valuable time to hear some of the facts in my case – as you have rejected my claim for the Pension.

I suffered 5 years of cruel and abusive treatment from my second husband – Geo. L. Sleeper and he allowed his daughter to choke me nearly to death – then I screamed murder – he pushed her off and took me by the arm and flung me out in the hall and said for me to go to my room- but instead I went out doors, where two of my neighbors came to my rescue and took me in their home and gave me stimulants to revive me, and then took me to Sister’s home,  I suffered all this because I would not live the immoral life he lived. He paid me fifteen hundred dollars to keep it out of court and then in about three years he got the divorce because I did not contest it, my friends advised me not to – on the grounds that he was so dishonest that he would cause me more trouble.  In 1894 I married Easman Alexander and lived happily 17 years.

I am 84 years old – and very deaf and my eyes are failing and I am needy and beg and pray that  you will deal kindly with me , and consider my claim and restore my name to the pension rolls.

May 18, 1921                                                  Your Humble Servant

                                                                        Lucinda Alexander

                                                                        70 Hampshire St., Methuen, Mass

The layers of the onion just keep peeling away and questions are answered and new questions arise.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chapter II Merrill Beal “…with banners flying and martial music. We embarked…” George Buhrer, Cal. Battalion


Monday morning March 23, 1863, Merrill and his comrades of the California Battalion prepared for their final parade through San Francisco.  Every man in the battalion made sure his buttons were shined, his leather polished, his saber gleamed, and his uniform was perfect.  As the Battalion formed in companies preparing to leave Platt’s Hall, seven companies of the local militia prepared to escort the Battalion to Folsom Street Wharf.  

            The city turned out to see their Battalion off to war.  The route of the parade was known before hand; “all the thoroughfares along the line of march were crowed with people… some on foot many in vehicles.” (1) The band from the local militia played martial music. Three hundred and seven cavalry men marched in step through the streets of San Francisco. As the California Battalion made its way to the wharf, the crowds “continually cheered, while the ladies waved their kerchief…” (2)  

By the time the Battalion reached the wharf, “it was densely crowed” with the people of San Francisco. (3) “Every nook and post” was utilized by the citizen of San Francisco to get a glimpse of the men of the Cal Battalion as it departed for the East to  the Union cause. (4)     

            The crowd was so thick and congested that the escorting militia “with some difficulty forced a passage through the dense crowed.”  (5)  Once a passage was cleared, the local militia formed an honor guard along the wharf to the S.S. Constitution.  As the Cal Battalion marched along the wharf to the gang plank, the honor guard saluted.  This outpouring of patriotic pride and raw emotion, from the local citizens for the Cal Battalion, must have made Merrill and his comrades march smartly and stand taller.  Merrill and the men of the Cal Battalion answered the call to save the Union voluntarily. California was not required to send men east to fight.  The citizens of San Francisco understood what the men of Cal Battalion were voluntarily giving up.

            Once on board the S.S. Constitution, the American flag and the company guidons were flown from the stern of the ship.  Merrill standing at the rail along with the rest of the battalion waited while the crowd cheered and the band played. “After a delay of about an hour”  the order was given to cast off all lines.  “The band played Home Sweet Home,  the artillery fired a salute,” and  the crowd cheering as the SS Constitution began its journey south to Panama. (6)

             The fourteen day trip down the west coast of California, Mexico and Central America was probably the first time Merrill had seen these far away exotic lands. George Buhrer of company E kept a daily account of the trip. Buhrer noted in his entry for March 24 that one of the men had fallen overboard and was lost at sea.  As the ship sailed down the west coast, land was always insight. On the 29th of March, the Ship landed at Manzanilla.  To Merrill and his comrades the tropical “greenery was picturesque and… romantic”   However, upon closer inspection the place had a “few houses and some miserable huts.”  In the opinion of Buhrer “the natives were indolent and slovenly in the extreme.”  (7)    
Manzanilla 1947

            On the evening of the Thirtieth of March, the steamer made port in Acapulco.  Compared to their previous stop Acapulco was an exotic tropical paradise.  For Merrill, this was most likely the first time he saw a tropical paradise. The night air was “cool and laden (sic) with the fragrance and perfume of thousands of tropical flowers.”  When Merrill looked up into the clear  evening sky, the luminescing glow of the stars were overwhelmingly beautiful.  (8) 

Two days later the weather changed.  The steamer encountered bad weather.  Between the “stormy weather” and the “ rough seas” the “boys … became sea sick.” (9)  The S.S. Constitution was a side wheel paddle steamship approximately 150 feet in length.  By today’s standards, this ship was small.  It was probably tossed about the ocean like a rubber life raft in moderate seas.  I’m sure Merrill was one of the men standing at the rail holding on for dear life as he prayed to God to end his misery but save his life.   Finally “during the night” the storm abated and the sea calmed down. 
Steamer Commodore a typical steamship that worked the West coast in the 1860s

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The Battalion arrived on the west coast of Panama at 4am on April 6, 1863.   By 10 am the Battalion was loaded into “the cars of the Panama Rail Road Co.” and “ …. transported across the Isthmus to Aspinwell” on the east coast of Panama.  (10)

On Tuesday the 7th of April, the Battalion embarked on “the Ocean Queen escorted by the naval gun boat Connecticut.” (11) The reason for the escort was due to the fact that rebel pirates were prowling the area looking for prize vessels.  The conditions on the Ocean Queen were “miserable” compared to the Constitution.  Thankfully the passage was short; however the weather became “cold and windy” throughout the voyage. 

The Battalion arrived in New York Harbor on April 14th at 2 pm.   Waiting at the pier was the “state agent for Massachusetts Col. Howe”   Howe proceeded to” escort the Battalion to the Park Barracks” where they would spend the night. (12)  The Men were fed after which, Governor Nye of Nevada gave the troopers a speech commending their patriotism.   The New Yorkers did not disappoint the men from California.  After their long tedious ocean voyage the Battalion was “extended an invitation” to the New Bowery Theatre for an evening of entertainment.  (13)
Park Barracks

  New York City was not done showing its appreciation to the Cal Battalion.  The following morning the Battalion was escorted to their ship by the “Sons of New England and New York along with the Seventh Regimental Band …”  From there, the Battalion marched down a patriotically festooned Broadway.  In “every windows,” there “young girls or women” cheering and “waving handkerchiefs” as the Battalion began its march into history.  (14)
By the time the Battalion reached the pier, it was late afternoon.  The men boarded the steamer Plymouth Rock to the “sweet strains of music” by the accompanying band. (15)  As he was getting closer and closer to home, I can’t help but wonder what was going through Merrill’s mind.  Dressed in Union blue cavalry uniform, trimmed with gold cavalry piping, marching in formation down, what would later become known as the Canyon of heroes, Broadway  Merrill must have had a sense of patriotic pride, a sense of satisfaction at being able to fulfill one’s duty, a sense of adventure, a sense destiny.  


1.      Rogers , Larry , and Keith Rogers . Their Horses Climbed Trees: A Chronicle of the California 100 and Battalion in the Civil War, FromSan FRancisco to Appomattox . Atglen : Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001. 112-113. Print

2.      Rogers and Rogers 112

3.      Rodgers and Rodgers 111

4.      Rodgers and Rodgers 112-113

5.      Rodgers and Rodgers 112-113

6.      Rodgers and Rodgers 111

7.      Buhrer, George. " The Daily Journal of George N Buhrer." The Second Mass and Its Fighting Californians. Michael Sorenson Collection . Web. 10 Nov 2012. <>.

8.      Buhrer

9.      Buhrer

10.  Buhrer

11.  Buhrer

12.  Rodgers 123

13.  Rodgers 121-122; Buhrer

14.  Rodgers 123

15.  Buhrer
Picture Credits 
Manzanilla, Mexico:  www.aquaticsportsadventures...
Park Barracks: