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. 

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