June 1862, “President Lincoln called for "300,000 volunteers to serve for three years. The New York quota was 59,705 men, Which was apportioned among the individual counties of the states.” (Bull p.2)
Twenty-Four year old Charles Gilson was one of the volunteers who answered Lincoln’s call. On August 6, 1862, he signed enlistment papers at Greenwich, New York, and became a member of Company A, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry. He enrolled for three years unless sooner discharged. His Compiled Military Service Record states Charles was 5 feet 4 inches tall, light complexion, blue eyes, black hair. He stated on his record that he was born in Canada and his occupation was that of a Shoemaker. (CMSR)
On September 4, 1862 with the regiment’s compliment of enlisted men and officers filled, the 123rd was mustered into Federal service at Salem, New York. There are no surviving letters from Charles to his family; however the historical record and diaries of other men from the 123rd New York Vol. Inf. make it possible to show what Charles experienced.
On the very same day the regiment was mustered into Federal service, the 123rd Regiment received ordered to proceed to Washington D.C. ,by train, the following day. Overnight, thousands of relatives, friends, and neighbors of these newly activated soldiers quickly came to Salem to see their boys off to war. In his Diary Rice C. Bull wrote, “ … late in the afternoon we shouldered our knapsacks and marched to the train, the great crowd following us. Then there was the last handshake and kiss. The train slowly started. The people lining the tracks were so wrought with emotion that they found no voice to cheer. They silently waved their hands while we could see their faces filled with tears.”
Another member of the regiment, Robert Cruikshank, recorded events a little differently, “ At ten pm … As we left the depot cheer after cheer went up from those left behind and was responded to by the regiment again and again until we passed out of hearing, thus covering up our anguish of heart;” two very different accounts of a fateful day. What was Charles thinking, feeling and seeing that day? Was he waving goodbye to his pregnant wife, Delia (Beals) Gilson, of three months and their baby daughter or where they back in Natick Massachusetts. Did Charles family show up to say goodbye?
The men of the regiment where sent off with “haversacks” full of home cooked food, the last they would see for a long while, that their friends and relatives had brought to the camp. Twenty-four hours and two hundred miles later the regiment arrived in New York City. The regiment marched down Broadway, out of step for they were un-drilled, to the barracks at City Hall Park. It was here that the men were first introduced to the army way of cooking meals for thousands of men. As Rice Bull stated we “were unenthusiastic about the meal.” (Bull p.6)
At this point Charles, a long with his comrades, was beginning to realize just what Army life was all about. Hurry and wait, line up and wait. The next morning the regiment marched aboard a steamer which crossed the Hudson River to South Amboy, New Jersey where they boarded a train for Washington D.C. The train stopped in Philadelphia so the regiment could be fed at the Coopers Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon. “The whole regiment was seated at once.” Philadelphia and the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon were fondly remembered by many Union Veterans for their hospitality and decent food. After breakfast, the men boarded another train and continued their journey to Washington. (Cruikshank)
The regiment left Salem, Ny Friday night. They arrived at Baltimore about six pm the following Monday, Their train stopped on the north side of Baltimore city. The regiment had to march through the city to board another train on the south side of Baltimore for Washington D.C
It was here, at Baltimore, that Charles and his comrades saw the first signs of secessionist feelings. There was not “a great deal of enthusiasm displayed by the citizens at seeing us past through the streets.” The march through the city made the men hot and thirsty. The only people who afford the soldiers water along the route were women who were “mostly Negroes.” (Bull p. 7)
By Noon the next day the train had reached the outskirts of Washington D.C. The regiment off loaded from the train and was marched to the Soldier’s Home where they were marched into a holding area that was floored with rough wood and covered in filth and overrun with “vermin and rats.” The regiment was kept there until their dinner (lunch) was ready. (Bull p. 8)
In his diary Rice Bull described the accommodations as “the worst conducted institution of its kind.” The seats and tables where made of rough board. The men ate off of tin and iron plates and drank out of tin cups. They were fed bread, salty pork, and a liquid mixture rumored to be coffee. Rice Bull believed it was a mixture of coffee and tea. Robert Cruikshank’s description of the dining facilities, in a letter to his wife, leaves nothing to the imagination. “The tables were wet with coffee and the bread was thrown into it. The coffee was brought in tin cups which I think were never washed. Coffee was running on the floor and most of the men threw what was brought to them there also.”
Once the men were finished eating, they were marched to the Capital were they stood in formation awaiting orders. While standing in formation the men were able to observe war time Washington. “Hundreds of wagons going in every direction”, wounded soldiers hobbling by on the sidewalks. When they looked up, they saw the unfinished dome of the Capital building, staging set up all around it but empty of workers. The people’s house had been turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. As Charles stared up at the unfinished Capital Dome, while standing in formation, I wonder what thoughts went through his mind. (Bull p. 9)
On that day in Washington, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Atlanta, and Reseca were just names on a map. The horrors of war were in the future. On that day in Washington D.C., Charles Gilson and the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment joined the fight to save the Union.
Bull, Rice C., Ed. Bauer, J. (1977) Soldiering; The Civil War Diaries of Rice C. Bull 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry; Presidio Press San Rafel, Ca.
Cruikshank, Robert, Civil war letters to his wife; http://www.salem-ny.com/1862letters.html (Aug. 20, 2011)
Gilson, Charles E.; National Archives, Compiled Military Service Record (CSRM)