Aunt Katy's Civil War Tale

The story of my family during the Civil War is based on actual letters and diaries of a real soldier in that war. All characters with the exception of historical figures, are fictional.

I dedicate this tale to the men of my family who fought in the War Between the States.

Copyright by
Phyllis H. Beebe
2000 - 2013

Chapter links
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My Ma and Pa, Wesley and Louise, were married in 1859. They lived in rooms over Uncle Wes' store where Pa worked. In the fall of 1860, their first baby, Wesley Keane, was born, only to die the next spring of diptheria. They were both grief stricken and the national crisis seemed far from effecting their lives. But as the summer wore on and the news became more grave, Pa began to make plans to join the Union forces.

In October not only Pa but also Uncle Lonzo and Uncle Bert, the first two 19 and the later 20, set off to join the Second Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac. They were delayed at Buffalo until a company was formed and officers elected. Pa, having been a storekeeper, became Quartermaster Sargent, Uncle Bert a bugler.

When they finally arrived at Washington early in December, Pa wrote:
"It is very nice weather here now and it is quite warm today. We have not got our horses nor arms yet and I don't know when we shall get them. Our regiment drills three hours per day but Bert and the other buglers have to be on hand to sound the different calls so they don't have as much time to spare. Yesterday it sounded like thunder and some of our boys thought there was a battle over there but I suppose they were just practicing with their guns.

"Washington is nothing very extra for a city, but the Public Buildings are very nice or will be when finished. The principal part of the city is down on low ground and shows off from a great distance.

"We had rather a hard time when we moved from Albany here. We did not get much to eat and had to ride in freight cars from Baltimore here and what was worse than all it rained when we got here and was about dark and we had our tents to pitch and had to lie on the ground without any straw."

A few days later he mentions good weather but says they have buit a fireplace to their tent, they were able to tent together, in preparation for colder weather. Some tent-mates bought stoves for $3.50 but they felt this an extravagance since they were't sure of being able to take them when they moved. Then he tells of their eating arrangements.

"We have each of us a tin cup, plate, knife, fork and spoon. We take turns washing the dishes, you needn't laugh, they are washed clean but some of the boys don't wash their dishes a-tall. We have two cooks which we pay two shillings a month apiece to cook for the whole company and they give each man his share. We each draw a loaf of bread per day and have to take care of that ourselves. Our bread is good and so is the coffee, but the other cooking is not very extra. The loaves of bread are about five or six inches square and not very light so there is not many that would eat any more if they had it.

"We are not equipped yet and we don't know as we shall be as there has been a report that all of the cavalry that was not equipped was to be disbanded. It seems as though I would hate to go home now without having a chance to do something for the cause of the Union but if we are not needed so much the better for the government."

Back home, Ma had taken her sister Min, the older of the twins, to live with her in town. Ma took Pa's place in Uncle Wes' Store and Aunt Min worked in the inn. There was a courtyard common to the buildings, the third side of which was a large stable where Uncle Wes kept his horses and the stage-relay horses were housed. There was a big well in the courtyard where Ma drew her water as did the girls at the inn, so she got to see Aunt Min once in a while during the day. It was there she met a girl who became a great friend of theirs and later married Uncle Lonzo to become my Aunt Bea.

Through the winter and into the spring, the Second Cavalry took part in the campaign dismounted. March 18, 1861, Pa wrote from Alexandria, Virginia:
"I was down to the city this forenoon and saw Gen. McClellan giving directions about the embarkation of the troops. He is going to command the expedition himself and I suppose its destination is Richmond but of course nobody only the leaders know where it is going.

"I went into the house where Col. Ellsworth was killed. It has been cut up a good deal by visitors to carry off a piece. The door to the hall where he was shot is left without a panel. This must have been a beautiful country around here before the war commenced but you have no idea what distructive work it makes to have such an army winter in one place. There is hardly a sign of any fence left and nearly every house is deserted and has been damaged more or less by the lawless soldiers while beautiful groves and shade trees and even fruit trees have almost entirely disappeared. A century will hardly bring the country back to its former condition but they have brought it upon themselves and they must bear it."

In April 1862, they moved through Fortress Monroe, Va., to a camp near the village of Hampton which the Rebels had burned the August before. They had rain for days, indeed rain was much more noticable when you slept on the ground and were expected to go about your duties in it with no cozy house and fire to return to. While in this camp they heard the battle at Yorktown, the sound of the cannon and puffs of smoke being perfectly plain to them. Another bit of excitement was afforded by the arrival of the Merimac and several gunboats in the waters nearby. Pa says:
"Some of our vessels commenced firing upon them which they returned and there was quite an excitement for a while but there was not much damage done on either side. I was on duty so I coud not go down to the beach and see the fight but I could see some of the shells burst in the air. Most of the boys went down to the beach where they could see the whole thing."

During all this time, it was now the end of May, the company was still unmounted and served as guards for ammunition trains and some of them served with artillery units. However the men had enlisted as cavalry and they wanted either horses or discharges. Finally they were ordered back to Washington where they were to return to Albany for discharge, but May 31st Pa wrote:

"I expected to bring my next letter myself but how little do we know what a day may bring forth. While we were congratulating ourselves upon the certainty of going home and seeing our loved ones again, another dispatch came ordering us to Washington to be mounted and equipped. It was a terrible disappointment to us all after being so certain that we were going to be discharged. But our army had met with a reverse and the government was calling for more men and of course they would not discharge any more at present. We have got all our equipments now but our horses and I don't know when we shall get them but I presume it will be soon.

"We have not yet been called upon to go on to the field of battle but there is no knowing how soon we may be when we are fully equipped. If it should be my fate to fall, let it be a satisfaction to you to know that it was in a good cause and we shall meet in a better world where we shall never part."

April passed and the men became restless and dissatisfied as there were no horses forthcoming yet. Finally horses were supplied near the last of June and early in July the regiment marched to join General Sturges' Brigade at Fairfax Courthouse. Interest and enthusiasm mounted with the arrival of the horses and men who had grumbled and reported sick suddenly became soldiers, cavalrymen at last.

In July and August they moved down into Virginia, fighting Stonewall Jackson's troops, patroling roads, doing picket duty and engaging in skirmishes whenever they met the enemy. Fighting was fairly constant and heavy during this time, the first battle of Bull Run was fought and it began to be realized that this war was not going to be over in a few months.

Many men were wounded horribly and treated horribly because the surgeons had little equipment and less knowledge of how to treat them. Field hospitals were unspeakable and permanent hospitals not much better. Many men were down with fevers and other illnesses as well. Pa got a fever and was laid up in a Washington hospital for some time.