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.