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 uses 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 men 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, from 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 with 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 God's 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 enlistments 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 loves ones and home, at a miserable army camp, in the middle of war torn Virginia. It was a gathering of brothers for Christmas.