Saturday, February 18, 2023

Billy the Cook



      During the Civil War, Colonel Joshua Blackwood Howell had several personal assistants who attended to his needs in the field. Some were military personnel, like his aide, Lieutenant George A. Edson of the First Massachusetts Cavalry. Edson was with Howell in the summer of 1863 on Morris Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, when a Confederate shell scored a direct hit on the bombproof from which Howell was directing trench-digging operations. Howell was knocked unconscious and buried under a pile of rubble. Edson immediately pulled Howell out from under the debris and took him to a hospital, thus saving his life. 

       Another attendant known only as "Sam," an African-American who served as Howell's valet during the war. It is not known how Sam and Howell met; most likely, it was during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia when the 85th regiment met many displaced former slaves. It was Sam who led a riderless horse during Howell's military funeral procession in September of 1864.

       The following description of Howell's funeral is from Luther S. Dickey's official 1915 history of the 85th Pennsylvania.

"On the 17th, the Regiment was temporarily relieved from duty at Fort Morton, and escorted the  remains of the Colonel from the brigade hospital to division headquarters.  The ambulance that served  as a hearse was immediately followed by 'Old Charley,' led by 'Sam,'  a faithful negro servant of the  deceased. 'Old Charley'  the horse was then aged about ten years, and had accompanied the Regiment  from Camp LaFayette, Uniontown, Penna., in November, 1861. He had been presented to Col.  Howell  while he was recruiting the Regiment by Jasper Thompson, Esq.,  of Uniontown, who had been a  staunch friend and admirer of the Colonel...'Old  Charley'  [was not the] horse  that  caused the  fatal mishap; [it was] a horse that had belonged to Capt. Loomis L. Langdon, 1st  U.S.  Artillery. On account  of some infirmity of  'Charley,'  the  Colonel considered him unsafe to ride at night, and therefore had replaced him by the horse responsible for his death, and  'Sam' is the authority for the statement that this horse had a bad reputation as being vicious and tricky among the members of Capt. Langdon's battery, information he  acquired after the fatal accident. However, Capt. Langdon's  description of the horse is perhaps the  most trustworthy; that 'it was exceedingly tender-mouthed.'  Capt. Langdon was a warm friend and admirer of Col. Howell, and according to his statement, had presented the horse to the Colonel some time previous to the fatal occurrence, the latter having expressed a liking for the animal."

Colonel Joshua B. Howell
From L.S.Dickey's 1915 History of the 85th Pennsylvania

     A third personal  attendant, the subject of this article, was William C. Chism. Chism was born around 1838 or 1839 and died in 1910 at the age of 70. The historical record of his life is quite sparse, but this article intends to explore what is known about Chism and speculate about the role he played in Howell's life.

     The only reference to Chism in Dickey's history of the 85th Pennsylvania is found on page 308. The date is February 23, 1864. The regiment has just returned to Hilton Head, South Carolina from Whitemarsh Island, near Savannah Georgia. This one-day amphibious operation was to conviscate around 300 African American slaves who were building defensive positions for the Confederates in the area around Savannah.

      The expedition, led by Howell and involving parts of several other regiments, started well enough. His two groups of assaulters swept through the island but were stopped by an unknown Confederate battery that had just been built on the other side of a bridge to Oatland Island. The 85th PA became pinned down and the Confederates maintained the bridge as a possible avenue for re-enforcements.

Whitemarsh Island
February 22, 1864     Map Courtesy of Craig Swain

    Howell's forces were forced to scurry back to their transports. No one in Howell's unit was killed, athough three men (Captain John E. Michener, Corporal James Bailey and Private Eli Shellenberger) were captured. 

    This reference to Chism in Dickey's regimental history picks up the story once the men returned to Hilton Head the next day. 

"The Regiment disembarked and arrived in camp at Hilton Head at 1 a.m.; the men were immediately  dismissed and were permitted to rest in camp the entire day; it was discovered that  the Colonel's cook, William Chism, known in camp as 'Billy  the Cook,'  was missing, left on Whitemarsh Island."

      The loss of Chism through probable capture or possible desertion is curious and leads to a series of questions to which the author could find no answers.

1. Since the expedition was intended to be a one- or two-day affair, was it really necessary for Howell to bring his personal cook along? Did Chism provide other personal services to Howell other than food preparation?

2. If Chism were captured that day, what was he doing off the transport Mayflower, Howell's flagship? There doesn't appear to be any reason for him to disembark or not stay close to the ship. Howell stayed either on the boat or close to the shore during the operation. Chism was not listed as having been with Michener and the others when they were captured, so if he were in fact taken prisoner, it had to have been in a separate incident.  

3. Did Chism desert to the enemy? This seems unlikely. Chism seems to have been a lifelong resident of the North with no known ties to the Confederacy. Even if he did desert, why would be abandon a somethat cushy job of cooking Howell's meals?

    Captain John E. Michener

   It should also be mentioned that in 1867, the aforementioned Captain John E. Michener, one of the three soldiers from the 85th Pennsylvania captured on White Marsh Island, wrote a brief but detailed treatise (along with author T.J. Simpson) of his war experiences called "Prison Life." Michener wrote of his own capture along with Bailey and Shellenberger on Whitemarsh Island and their subsequent moves to prisoner-of-war camps. Michener made no mention of Chism.

      There is no other found government reference to Chism's life until the 1890 Veterans Schedule, a special census of Civil War soldiers. Chism, around 50 at the time, is listed as being a member of Company C of the 85th Pennsylvania. This came from Chism himself, who may have been passing himself off as a mustered-in soldier. But no other roster of regimental members has Chism listed as being a soldier of the regiment. Of course if Chism travelled with the regiment for two years and was captured during a military engagement, he probably felt he had the right to feel he was a legitimate member of the regiment.

    The 1890 Veteran's Schedule states that Chism joined the regiment in May of 1862. Although there is no record of Chism's enlistment, this could be true. Again, this was during the Peninsula Campaign as "Sam" had probably done. Chism, who was white, was therefore in Virginia for an unknown reason. Howell and Chism could also have first crossed paths in western Pennsylvania during training camp, or in Washington, D.C. where the regiment was stationed for four months.

         The Veteran Schedule has two other interesting notations. One is that although it is stated that Chism "mustered in" to the regiment in May of 1862, there is no muster-out date listed, only that Chism's regimental records are under the heading of "papers lost." This notation is not unheard of in the Veterans Schedule. Several other former soldiers in 1890 did not have documentation, usually due to memory issues or perhaps a fire that destroyed personal records in the 25 years since the war ended.

    In Chism's case, however, it may be that he had no documentation to start with, due to his apparent role as a non-military personal assistant. Although Chism was with Howell during many battles, he likely told the examiner that he lost his papers when such papers never actually existed.

    The second interesting notation in the Veterans Schedule regarding Chism is listed as a side note. This was usually written on the line on the form in which the examiner listed any Civil War maladies that came from the soldier's war service, such as an amputation, heart troubles, etc.

    For Chism, the doctor simply wrote, "nine months in prison."

   This claim again came from Chism. It would suggest, in a very tenuous way, that he indeed was captured on Whitemarsh Island in 1864. However, I could find no record of his release anywhere among Union POW records. This may mean that he had convinced the Confederates that he was not a soldier and became more of a political prisoner. He may also have been used for his specialty -- preparing meals -- for Confederate officers or privates the way captured Union doctors were put to use by southern armies when they were confined. 

       Here is an article that appeared in a Gloucester County, New Jersey newspaper in 1885 that has some interesting claims regarding Chism's relationship with Colonel Howell.

       The 85th Pennsylvania did indeed fight at Kinston, North Carolina in December of 1862. It was during a two-week foray called the Goldsboro Expedition that a Union strike force of 12,000 soldiers attempted to disrupt the Confederate supply chain into Virginia. But if Chism were captured on Whitemarsh Island and held for nine months, he would have been released around November of 1864. Colonel Howell died as the result of a fall from his horse two months earlier in September of 1864. This raises several more questions.

1. If Chism were accurate about he period of confinement, he was not with Howell when he died in September of 1864. How would he know, as the article stated, that the Colonel used the North Carolina law book as his pillow "until the time of his death."?

2. If Chism were in prison when Howell died, how would he have acquired the law book from among Howell's personal possessions, assuming they were sent back to his adopted home in Uniontown, PA to his family or to his boyhood home in New Jersey with his body for burial?

3. Would Colonel Howell have really used a law book to rest his head upon at night for over two years during the war? It seems a book would have made an exceptionally hard surface to try to sleep on. 

         In  reviewing census records, it was unusually difficult to otherwise track Chism's life. It does not appear that Chism ever married or had children. There were many William Chism's among the census records of the late 1800's, although most lived in the South. Chism was only found in the 1890 Veterans Schedule because of the reference to the 85th PA. 

          A decade later, according to the 1900 census, Chism may have been employed as a coachman for soap manufacturer Emma M. Thomson and her family in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This census, however, states that Chism and his parents were all born in Pennsylvania. The next year, he seems to appear as a gardener in a city directory for Atlantic City. 

        Chism does appear ten years later in the 1910 U.S. Census, This was also the year of his death. Chism at this time lived in Deptford, Gloucester County, New Jersey, which is only two miles from where Howell was raised in Woodbury. Howell also was buried in Woodbury. .

      In the 1910 census, it is stated both Chism and his parents were born in New Jersey. This connection could be a clue regarding Chism's employment by Howell during the war.

      [There is also a hint in the 1860 federal census that Howell and Chism may have met at the start of the war. This census, lists a 23-year old carpenter from Pittsburgh (who was born in Pennsylvania) named William Chism. At least one company of men trained in the Pittsburgh area before joining the 85th Pennsylvania at their base camp in Uniontown, Fayette County. This could be the connection between Chism and the 85th regiment.]

      Under occupation in the 1910 census, it is stated that that elderly Chism was a military veteran living on his own and was a "private pensioner." Could Chism have been granted a personal endowment by the Howell family for his loyal service during the Civil War? Did the Howell family employ Chism after the war, since he at least in his final years lived near the Howell family in New Jersey?

      The author was looking forward to answering some of these questions when he began this enquiry. But his investigation has only led to more questions. If Chism were a loyal servant who was captured by the Confederates while serving his mentor during the Civil War and was rewarded for it with a "personal pension" from the Howell family after the war, it would have been nice to find confirmation of such a relationship. 

     Here is a picture of Chism's headstone in the Almonesson United Methodist Church Cemetery in Gloucester County, New Jersey.



Saturday, September 17, 2022

Milton Chase Writes a Letter Home

Milton B. Chase of Company E, 85th PA
Courtesy of Sherry (Chase) Reinhardt

   When the war began, the 85th had a number of reliable chroniclers whose writings became valuable primary source material in telling the story of their regiment. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Purviance was part-owner of the Washington (PA) Tribune and Reporter and wrote half a dozen lengthy letters that were published in his own newspaper.

    Likewise, Private Robert Roddy was the brother of Edward Roddy, who owned the Genius of Liberty newspaper in Uniontown. Roddy's letters appeared every few months in his brother's newspaper.

   Most soldiers of course wrote letters home to family members, some of which have survived. Other soldiers in the regiment penned letters that were published in newspapers around western Pennsylvania and even Wheeling, West Virginia. These soldiers included  Lieutenant John Acheson, Private John F. McCoy, Captain John E. Michener, Corporal George W. Dales and others.

   But by the end of 1864, the number of potential sources in the 85th PA had dwindled. Purviance was killed by friendly fire, Roddy went home with a medical discharge, and Michener was captured by the enemy, Acheson transferred to another command, and McCoy and Dales went home when their three-year enlistment ended.

  Only about 150 men were left in the regiment by the end of 1864, those who had joined in 1862 or later or those who had re-enlisted. The pool of potential sources was limited.

   One newspaper from the Civil War era that survives is the Washington Reporter and Tribune, found online in the Google News Archives. Unlike some other online newspaper sources that require a fee, this archive is free. The catch is that there is also no reliable search button. One must look through each edition page by page in the hope of finding information.

   So I went to the newspaper and began in November of 1864, scanning each weekly edition for a potential letter from the front, or perhaps something written by a returned soldier.

    Low and behold, eventually a letter from an 85th PA soldier appeared. It was on page 1 of the Reporter and Tribune from February 8, 1865. It was written by a soldier still in the regiment who called himself 'M.B.C." His identify was easy to find. Of the remaining men in the regiment, only Private Milton B. Chase of Company E had that set of initials.

   Chase was 31 years of age at the time. A native of Washington County, PA, he was married and living in Iowa when the war broke out. After serving for three months in an Iowa regiment, he decided to go home to enlist for three more years, joining Company E of the 85th PA, which had many men from Washington County, PA. He enlisted into the regiment in April of 1862, which meant he still had a few months to serve when he wrote the following letter in 1865.  Chase worked as a teacher before and after the war, which indicates why his letter seems to be fairly well written.

   Milton went home in December of 1865 from City Point, VA and was reunited with his wife, Margaret Franks Chase, whom he had married in Iowa in 1855. The growing family soon moved from one side of the Mississippi River to the other to live in  Hampton, Illinois. Unfortunately, Chase did not enjoy a long postwar life. On April 25, 1874, he ws killed in a coal mine cave-in. Chase was buried in the Old Rapid City Cemetery in Rapid City, Rock Island County, Illinois. He was survived by his wfie, Margaret, and four children. A fifth child, Margaret, was born two months after his death.

Moline [Illinois] Review-Dispatch  May 1, 1874, page 2

    His Civil War letter, written on January 25, 1865 from the camp of the 85th PA just below Richmond on the north side of the James River, first gives a review of the regiment's activities for the last nine months. These include the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the Battle of Second Deep Bottom, the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, the Second Battle of Darbytown Road, and a description of the Battle of Trent's Reach the previous day on the James River. His letter appeared in the Reporter and Tribune on February 8, 1865.

Winter Quarters along the James River   LOC

   His letter answers a few questions that were previously unknown. The acting commander of this detachment of the 85th PA was Lieutenant James Nichlow. Lieutenant Absalom Dial of Company E was the nominal head of the detachment, but records indicate that Dial was away on a special detachment for a prisoner-of-war exchange. Chase reveals that Dial was actually on convalescent leave due to wounds received at Second Deep Bottom.

   Chase also explains that during their time as provost guards at division headquarters, the 85th PA was tasked with supervising Union prisoners, some of whom were awaiting execution for desertion. 

    Milton Chase includes a cryptic paragraph about 'Mat,' 'the young one,' turning in his gun for a drum. I could find no one with the name "Mat" or "Matthew" among the 150 who remained in the regiment in 1865. The closest was Matthew C. Axton of Brownsville, Fayette County. Like Chase, Axton was from Company E; but he is listed as having gone home two months earlier in December of 1864. 

Camp of the 85th Pa Vols.

Before Richmond, VA., January 15, 1865

Dear Reporter and Tribune:

   Knowing the interest felt by many of your readers, especially by the returned veterans of the Regiment, in the detachment of the noble old 85th still in the field, permit me through your columns to communicate to them some of the changes that have taken place since they left, as well as some other items that may prove interesting to our friends generally.

   The Detachment known as the 85th Pa. Volunteers, is now doing duty as Provost Guard at Headquarters, 1st Division, 24th Army Corps, Gen. A.H. Terry's old Division, now commanded by Gen. J. R. Rawley. The 85th is commanded by 1st Lieut. acting Col. James Nichlow, formerly Sergeant Co. H, Captain R.P. [Robert] Hughes having been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 199th Pa. Vols. 1st Sergeant Charles E. Eckles, Co. E, has been promoted to Captain Co. K, 199th P.V. Sergeant W. C. [Walter] Cravin Co. C [to] Captain, Co. K 199th P.V. and Sergeant O. [Oliver] Sproul is Lieutenant Co. B 199th P.V. Lieutenant [Absalom]  Dial is abroad on sick leave occasioned by wounds received in action last August. Captain R.W. [Richard] Dawson, Assistant Inspector General on Gen. [Adelbert] Ames' staff, was so careless as to put himself in the way of a rebel ball at Fort Fisher, N.C. and consequently got shot in the right arm seriously.

    'Mat,' the 'young one,' desires his friends to know that he has got rid of his 'shoot stick' and has gone to playing the drum for a living. 

   The aggregate strength of the Regiment is about 150 men; there is 110 present for duty and the remaining 40 are absent on detached service  -- sick, wounded, etc.

   In order that you may know what part we have taken in the last campaign, I will give you a hasty and brief synopsis of our movements during that time.

   Our regiment was withdrawn from the Department of the South last April and formed part of the force that accompanied the then popular, but now fallen, Gen. [Benjamin] Butler in his operation at Bermuda Hundred, VA. [above] where we landed May 5th, 1864 from which time until August our headquarters were on that front, we being almost constantly under fire duing picket duty, or working on the various defenses of that line. We participated in several engagements and many lively lttle skirmishes on that line, including the Battle of Ware Bottom Church, May 20th, battle near the same place, June 17th, and also on the same line June 18th, expedition to north side of James River, which resulted in establishing works there June 29th, second advance from Deep Bottom August 14. Severe engagement near Malvern Hill August 16th in which our brigade led the charging column led by intrepid soldier General [Alfred] Terry, then in command of our division, the 1st of the 10th Corps. The old 85th led by Captain R. P. Hughes under whose gallant leaderhip we hurled back the rebel horde from their strong works [at Second Deep Bottom], taking a number of prisoners almost equal to our number, and capturing two rebel battle flags. Near this place we quietly entrenched ourselves, having advanced as far in that direction as was thought to be either prudent or healthy, and awaited the Johnnys' assault, which they made with a considerable show of determination on the afternoon of the 18th: they found us there and promptly skedaddled. Soon after this object of the expedition being accomplished, we were ordered to the Petersburg front, where we remained in the trenches a month, constantly under fire, though the nature and completeness of our works there was such that we suffered but few casualties.

   While here we were called to part with our heroic and almost idolized Col. J.B. [Joshua] Howell, in whose loss we are depirived of a much esteemed officer and long to be remembered friend, in whom the country loses a patriot, gentleman and true soldier that it could illy spare these troublous times. Our next move was the grand advance toward Richmond on the north side of the James from Deep Bottom and Aikin's Landing, September 28, which after a bloody struggle resuled in pushing back the rebel lines almost to the suburbs of the Rebel Capitol, the capture of strong works on 'Chapin's Farm,' Fort Harrison now called Fort Burnham, and many other important Rebel works establishing our present line within seven miles of Richmond. On this line the rebels advance on our immediate front a heavy Rebel force [on] October 7th [at Darbytown Road]. A severe engagement ensued in which the rebels were repulsed with heavy loss and driven within their main works. Our next move was the reconnaisance in force [on] October 12th and 13th [also at Darbytown Road], resulting in a series of brisk little dashes on the rebel lines and extending as far as the old battle ground at Fair Oaks, the scene of McClellan's nearest approach to Richmond , in which the 85th participated under him 'in his wanderings on the Peninsula.' On the 14th of October, the time of the original organization of the old 85th having expired, all except the reenlisted Veterans and those whose time was not out were 'mustered to the rear' and in due time mustered out and permitted to return to their homes 'laden with laurel,' long may they wave, while we lonely enough but not weary in well-doing were left in the field. October 15th, we were temporarily attached to the 199th Pa. Vols., a splendid 'one year organization' raised in Philadelphia and second to none in the corps, owing to the untiring energy, strict discipline and efficient instructions of the able and energetic officers in command, for which to the skill and experience of their acqusitions from the 85th they are in a great measure indebted. The 199th already attracts the admiration and excites the envy of many other organizations. About the 1st of December, our old corps, the 10th, was consolidated with the 18th and called the 24th Army Corps; the colored troops of the 10th and 18th corps were formed into a separate organization and called the 25th Corps. On the 15th of December, we were detached from the 199th and ordered to report for duty as Provost Guard at Hd. Qrs., 1st Div. 24th A.C. and here we are in pretty snug winter quarters, enjoying ourselves as well as possible. We have charge of about one hundred prisoners, mostly in for minor offenses while a few are charged with desertion. Two courts martial are disposing of their cases as rapidly as possible. Some have already been shot and others will doubtless ere long share their hard fate. The weather is somewhat cold at present, though we have seen but little snow this winter. The Johnnies made a demonstration on the left of our line this morning with their gunboats and rams and a cooperating land force. Our monitors and batteries in the vicinity of Dutch Gap are said to have demolished two or three of their boats and the excitement over an anticipated attack has subsided. For fear that this may be disapproved, like our applications for Furlough, on account of its length I will for the present desist, promising that if our scribbling is acceptable, you shall hear from us again when anything happens worthy of note.

I am very respectfully yours, for three years or during the war,


85th Regt. P.V.V.

    Chase promised to write again should future events prove newsworthy. Fort Gregg and Appomattox were certainly meaningful events in April of 1865, but I could find no more letters from Chase in the April or May editions of the Reporter and Tribune. Most of the news in late April concerned Lincoln's assassasination, so if Chase sent a letter, there simply may not, from the newspaper's point of view, have been as much space or interest in such events. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

In Search of Captain Lewis Watkins


Captain Lewis Watkins of the 85th Pennsylvania
Property of Ronn Palm Museum of Civil War Images
Gettysburg, PA

        A few years ago, I started a virtual cemetery on for those men who served in the 85th Pennsylvania infantry during the Civil War. Whenever I visit southwestern Pennsylvania, I try to visit a cemetery or two in search of more gravesites for members of the regiment. I want to point out that almost all of this work has already been done by intrepid genealogy lovers who have photographed and cataloged a high percentage of cemeteries around the country and the headstones for the people buried there. My job is to add to their good work, tracking down headstones for those whose cemeteries have been identified.

   Some headstones and burial sites have been difficult if not impossible to find. First of all, some men's final resting places has been lost to history. These are veterans whose bodies were not recovered after a battle, or perhaps were laid to rest by their comrades with just a temporary marker near the place where they fell. Others never married, were orphaned, or died during shortly after the war, their life records sparse or their headstones now impossible to read.

   This was a problem I faced recently in trying to track down the headstone of Private Christopher Anderson of Company B. Records indicate that he was buried in the Lone Pine Cemetery in Washington County, PA. Anderson served for three years in the regiment, but died at a relatively young age in 1877. I walked the entire cemetery and found this Civil War headstone, but the name was almost completely unreadable. I wished that I had brought a large piece of paper and a pencil to do an etching, but I did not. I strongly believe this is Anderson's gravesite. 

        This presumed headstone of Christopher Anderson clearly states "Co. B 85th PA. INF" across the bottom. Anderson was a member of Company B. The beginning of the lengthy name above the "8" seems to be the start of "Christopher." The last three letters of the surname above the "F" in "INF" seems to be "son," the end of Anderson. But not being reasonably sure, the next step is to contact the church across the street to see if they have any records to confirm the site of his burial.

       The next search for a veteran whose death occurred at least one and a half centuries ago was for the gravesite of Captain Lewis Watkins of Company E from Washington County. Watkins was severely wounded at the Battle of Second Deep Bottom near Richmond on August 16, 1864. The 39-year old sustained wounds in the arm and leg. He was taken to a hospital in Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he died about six weeks later on September 28, 1864.

Modern View of Confederate Earthwork 
Stormed by 85th PA in Battle of Second Deep Bottom
Where Captain Lewis Watkins was Mortally Wounded

       Unlike most soldiers who died in the Civil War, Watkins' body was shipped home for burial. He was interred in a family plot in western Pennsylvania in the community called Malden. This neighborhood is part of West Brownsville on the Washington County side of the Monongahela River. 

    Watkins enlisted in 1861 into Company E as a lieutenant. Just six months before his death, he married Mary Eliza Crissinger on March 31, 1864, presumably while home on a furlough. 

    Earlier on this blog, I wrote an article around a letter that Watkins had written in July of 1864 from Virginia. It was penned to U.S. Representative James Kennedy Moorhead and was published on August 17 in a Pittsburgh newspaper, the day after Watkins was severely wounded. 

   Records indicated where the Watkins' gravesite was located, but it was not in a cemetery but at a spot on private property.

Location of Watkins' headstone in Washington County, PA

      I had a personal reason for the search of Lewis Watkins' resting place. Watkins' descendant, Dr. John Pierce Watkins, had been my youth baseball coach. [Dr. Watkins great grandfather, John, was the brother of Lewis Watkins]. Furthermore, Dr. Watkins was the president of the college where I graduated in the 1970's. I still have the photo of Dr. Watkins shaking my hand and handing me my diploma on graduation day. Dr. Watkins, who passed away last year, was a fine man and dedicated educator. 

        Luckily, a member of my family came through in the search for Lewis Watkins' headstone. My sister and brother-in-law live in the community where Watkins was buried. My brother-in-law, Mark, said he had knowledge of a prominent gravesite in a neighbor's back yard, a few streets away from his residence. Mark and I drove to the sight and sure enough came upon an impressive ten-feet high obelisk that was clearly a burial site nestled in the backyard of one of the people in the Malden community. 

The writer at Watkins' gravesite

   Upon first glance, I thought I might not be able to confirm this as Watkins' burial place because the much of the markings on the obelisk had become nearly impossible to read over the the last 158 years.

"Watkins" and "Monroe" are visible

Near the top of the statue
         But at the bottom of the statue, I could make out Watkins' last name as well as "Monroe." This was clearly a reference to Fort Monroe where he died. Also, the name "Watkins" was legible near the top of the obelisk. There was also a G.A.R. marker and American flag at the site, probably placed their a few days earlier in remembrance of Memorial Day. In addition, there were other veteran markers there, including one for World War II, which indicated that there may be more Watkins' family members buried there.

    I took a few photos and added created an entry to the 85th Pennsylvania Virtual Cemetery for Captain Watkins. I actually had to create the "cemetery," called the Watkins Burial Ground, before I could entire Lewis Watkins photos and captions. Like his comrades, he was a brave soldier who deserves to be remembered.

     Rest in peace, Captain Watkins.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

More on Book Talks

   As mentioned in my previous post, I am going to conduct a series of Book Talks around southwestern Pennsylvania in June to promote my history of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment in the Civil War. The men from this regiment hailed from the counties of Greene, Washington, Fayette and Somerset.

    The dates are as follows:

June 13       Amwell, Washington County           Amwell Municipal Buidling                 7 p.m.

June 14       Waynesburg, Greene County         Cornerstone Genealogical Society    7 p.m.

June 15       California, Washington County        Center in the Woods                         7 p.m.

June 16       Connellsville, Fayette County          Crawford Cabin                                 6 p.m.

   In order to focus more intently on the local history aspect of the regiment, at each talk, I am going to highlight a soldier or soldiers from that particular town.

Amwell: I will feature James and Moses Smith, brothers who served in Company B. Both survived the war, although Moses was captured and had to endure the deprivations of the Andersonville prison in Georgia. Both James and Moses [shown here] were two of the longest living members of the regiment.

Waynesburg: The  focus here will be on Lieutenant Marquis Lafayette Gordon of Company G. Gordon served for a time with his father, Adam, the first school superintendent for Greene County. M.L. Gordon survived the war. He earned advanced degrees in medicine and theology and spent many years as a medical missionary in Japan.

California: The spotlight will be on William Mahaney of Company C. He ran away at age 17 to join the Union army. Mahaney has the distinction of being the longest living member of the regiment. He died in 1944 at age 99 and is buried in the Highland Cemetery.

Connellsville: This town was the home of Henry L. Regar. He served as a drummer boy in the Mexican War and was the principal musician for the 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War. When he passed away, he was the longest living Pennsylvanian who served in both wars.

I will post more details about these book talks in the near future.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Book Talks

 I have scheduled four speaking engagements in the middle of June to talk about my history of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment. The books will be available for a discount. These events are listed on my speaking/page on this blog. More information will be available soon. Thanks.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Review: Such Hard and Severe Service

 Here is a facebook page that has a link to a full review of my book about the 85th Pennsylvania entitled, "Such Hard and Severe Service." It is written by Brett Schulte, who has a comprehensive website about the Petersburg, VA front during the Civil War.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Volume II is now available!

 It's ready!

Volume II of my history of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment is available for sale at the following:

This volume picks up the story of the 85th PA at the beginning of 1864. They are stationed on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina for basically a few months of R & R. Then in the spring it's back to the war in Virginia in the Bermuda Hundred. This is followed by the Appomattox Campaign where the remaining men in the regiment play a crucial role in Lee's surrender.
There are a few chapters of which I am particularly proud. Volume II has a chapter on a large-scale POW exchange at the end of 1964 in which 55 men from the regiment serve as guards. There has not been a lot written about this aspect of the war by historians.
The Appomattox chapter also has some relatively new scholarship. Most historians have written about the pursuit of Lee from the rear. My chapter mainly concerns the Army of the James (including the 85th PA) which was tasked with speed marching around Lee to cut off his last avenue of escape to the south and west.
Volume II has an in depth look at the diary of Captain Richard Dawson of Uniontown, who provides an inside look at the officers and actions of the regiment, particularly in 1864.
I have included a chapter on regimental reunions that took place around western Pennsylvania between 1872 and 1928.
Finally, I have included a set of appendices at the end of the book that charts the soldiers' service, sources, and lists of those who died during and after the war.
I would like to thank the following: Travis Snyder for reviewing my books, historians Will Greene and Patrick Schroeder for valuable advice and input, and publisher BJ Omanson of Monongahela Books for valuable guidance and efforts.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

George S. Fulmer and the Reunion Gavel

Pittsburgh Press
12-23-1894   P.16

          Several members of the 85th Pennsylvania regiment had highly successful careers following the war. Captain Robert P. Hughes of Little Washington, who enlisted as a private, rose the rank of major general in the army. Entrepreneur Norman Bruce Ream from Somerset County became one of the wealthiest men in the country. Edward Campbell became a judge in Uniontown, Fayette County.

         Another member of the regiment who prospered was Sergeant George Sisson Fulmer of Company D, who moved to Pittsburgh after the war and became a highly successful building contractor. 

         In addition to his business, Fulmer became a driving force in the 85th Pennsylvania Regimental Association and as its president, organizing reunions from 1882 to 1905.
         At the 1887 reunion in Uniontown, Fulmer displayed a gavel which was used during the formal meeting at the start of the session prior to the dinner, campfire and parade which ensued.
        A local newspaper reported that, "President Fulmer read an interesting history and statistical report of the old regiment, comprising the number of men at date of muster in and discharge; number of killed, wounded and discharged in each company, and other statistical information which he himself had complied. At the conclusion of the reading he gave an interesting description of a trip which he took during the past summer to Fair Oaks and adjacent places over which the regiment had tramped in the war of the ‘60’s. On the battlefield of Fair Oaks, he cut a limb from a hickory tree and on his return home made a gavel from it on one end of which is the inscription “85th Regiment Penna. Volunteers” and on the other “Fair Oaks.” He presented it to the Association to be used at their meetings. On motion of Secretary [James T.] Wells, the relic was received with a vote of thanks. [Washington (PA) Weekly Reporter, 9-1-1887]
Weekly Courier, Connellsville, PA, 11-     17-1905      p.9

           The Battle of Fair Oaks, also known as Seven Pines, in May/June of 1862, was the first battle in which the regiment participated. It was also the costliest in terms of killed and wounded. About 25 men were killed and another 50 or so were wounded. Fulmer's Company D was on picket duty when the Confederates under General Joseph Johnston launched an attack. Against at least 2-to-1 odds, the 85th Pennsylvania and their division held their ground long enough for reinforcements to arrive. The three day battle ended in a draw with over 10,000 combined casualties.

        Following Fulmer's death, the regimental gavel presumably continued to be used until 1928 at the 56th and final reunion. In 1905, failing in health, Fulmer was for the first time unable to attend a regimental get-together, which in that year was held at Connellsville, Fayette County. A resolution was read in his honor. 

       Shortly after the 1905 reunion, Fulmer died on February 21, 1906 and was buried in the Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh. At the 1905 reunion,  Fulmer was paid the following tribute by his fellow veterans, who stated, "He has been untiring in promoting the welfare of the regiment and in arranging for the annual reunions…He has always been generous of his means in helping to defray the expenses of the reunions and in meeting all obligations incurred by the association." [Daily Notes, Canonsburg, PA, 11-22-1905]

          The current home of the gavel, if it still exists, is unknown. Fulmer became president of the association in 1882, held at the Pittsburgh Grain Exchange Building, and held the position for nearly a quarter of a century until his death at the age of 66. 

          He also served as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic McPherson Post Number 117 in Pittsburgh and attended several national encampments of the G.A.R. during his lifetime. As such, he travelled around the northeast to various G.A.R. encampments. In 1886, he was among a train car load of Pennsylvanians who attended a gathering of 11,000 Union veterans in Topeka, Kansas in 1886. (The Daily Commonwealth, Topeka, 7-25-1886, p.4)

    Fulmer was born in Mifflin Township in Allegheny County. His family moved to Beallsville, Washington County, and from this township, Fulmer enlisted into Company D of the 85th Pennsylvania along with his brother, Harry. [Pittsburgh Daily Post, 2-22-1906, p.1]

Schmidt Building

          After the war, during a career as a building contractor, Fulmer was credited with constructing the first skyscraper in Pittsburgh. (This interpretation may depend on one's definition of a high-rise structure by 19th century standards). The building was the eight-story Schmidt Building on Fifth Avenue. Fulmer also won a reputation as the premier church builder in Pittsburgh, one whose work included the Park Avenue Presbyterian Church (above, which Fulmer attended), the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church and the Sixth Avenue United Presbyterian Church [The Daily Notes, Canonsburg, PA, 2-16-1906, p.7]


        Fulmer worked diligently for the regimental association for over 30 years. When the association was created in Uniontown in 1873, Fulmer was voted to the position of secretary. 

     Due to his failing health, Fulmer was replaced as president of the regimental association by Sergeant James Swearer in 1906. In the early 1920's, the aged Swearer handed the presidency over to Captain Charles E. Eckels, the last president of the association. Efforts by the writer to find a descendant of Eckels on the remote chance that the gavel is in his family's possession , have so far proven to be unsuccessful. 

            Below is a letter that Fulmer wrote to a friend, Mollie [last name unknown], probably from Beallsville or the immediate area. The regiment had just moved from Folly Island to Hilton Head, South Carolina in early 1864.

                                                                                                                Camp 85th Pa Vols

                                                                                                                Hilton Head S.C.

                                                                                                                Jan. 11, 1864

Friend Mollie,

I received your kind letter a few days since and was pleased to think that you must not have forgotten her dear friend and school mate in the 85th though far from home and among strangers. My mind still wanders back to the pleasant days. That old school house on yonder side hill is still within my view where we spent much happiness friends in the days. Little did I think which was to happen.

              Some of my school mates are ? more others are scattered throughout the country never to meet
again in the pleasant schoolroom.

                But enough of this and now I will give you a short history of what has happened? Since I last wrote to you. We have been on Folly Island within the reach of the sound of [Fort] Moultrie’s cannon, not knowing what minute we might be placed within the reach of their destructive contents. We received orders to leave there on the 5th of Dec. and started on the 6th for this place where we landed on the 7th but we did not expect to stay here any time as there was some talk of an expedition. Out here for to go to Savannah but I believe it has fell through for the present. I do not think there will be anything more done

Here until spring as we have not enough force to do much at present. There are a great many soldiers reenlisting in this department but there is not many from the 85th. I have not much notion of it for my part. I think I will try it at home a short time before I go soldiering again especially under some of the officers that we have in this Regt. I am not tired of soldiering but I am tired of some of our officers. Eight months and eight days will get me out.

              I heard a few days since that ? Bane was married. Good God I think some of the ladies are getting hard up for a man when such men as [Bane] can find a wife.

             Well Mollie, I suppose you will wait for some brave soldier boy who has fought, bled and died for his county, will you not?

              [Thomas] Harford sends his compliments to you in return. Harry [Fulmer, George’s brother was had earlier received a medical discharge] was well when I heard from him which was only a few days since. It is now time to call the roll and I must close. Hoping to hear from you soon.

            I remain your friend as ever.

                                                                              Geo. S. Fulmer

                                                                               Give my love to all inquiring friends.

                                                                               Direct to Co D 85th PA Vols

                                                                               Hilton Head S.C.

Fulmer Death Cerrtificate