Tracing my Civil War forbears

Orrin C. Reed was a Union private
in the 185th New York Infantry.
Published in The Courier-Journal, September 13, 2009

Next month, I plan to travel to Perryville, Ky., where men in blues and grays will fight Kentucky's biggest Civil War battle, 146 years after the original.

I never had more than a passing interest in the War Between The States. But then a few years ago I learned that my family tree was kind of like Kentucky — it had soldiers and sentiments on both sides of the conflict.

Neither of my ancestors fought at Perryville, but their Civil War experience was much like many of those who did. One lost his home and his brother, the other, lost his life.

Pvt. Samuel Chase Woodfin, my father's great-grandfather, enlisted in the Confederate Army in Tennessee in 1862 and fought the Yankees for almost three years.

His unit served under Braxton Bragg, the general who invaded Kentucky, and briefly under John C. Breckinridge, the Kentuckian who was vice president before the war and one of Lincoln's opponents in the 1860 election. And Woodfin was with Gen. Joe Johnston and his ragged band of holdouts in North Carolina when Johnston surrendered in April of 1865, about two weeks after Robert E. Lee gave up the fight in Virginia.

Woodfin survived the war largely by missing out on several major battles. When two of his brothers were captured near Chattanooga and sent to a Yankee prison, Samuel was in a hospital suffering from the major scourge of soldiers on both sides: diarrhea.

He got back into uniform in time to help Johnston try to keep Sherman out of Atlanta and to march back into Tennessee with John Bell Hood. When Woodfin returned home to Fosterville, Tenn., he found that his parents were dead and strangers were living in the family home.

The war was even worse for Pvt. Orrin Reed from my mother's side of the family.

In the fall of 1864, Reed accepted a bounty of a few hundred dollars to join a new regiment formed in upstate New York near Syracuse. His unit was added to the siege lines around Petersburg, Va., and he spent the time eating plentiful army food with occasional forays into the countryside to tear up Confederate rail lines.

“I guess camp life is going to agree with me first rate,” he said in one of his letters to his wife. In another, he said “the regiment has not shot a gun, nor have we had any shot at us.”

But Reed had the misfortune to have one of the war's genuine heroes as his commanding officer. In 1863 at Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had led his troops in a bayonette charge that was the pivotal point in a Union victory. Chamberlain showed the same mettle in Virginia in March 1865, when his troops joined in an attack that forced the rebels out of their trenches and out of Richmond.

While pursuing the retreating Confederates, Reed took a bullet in his stomach. Had he been shot in the arm or leg, Army surgeons could have cut off the damaged limb and he would have survived. But in those days, wounds in the abdomen were nearly always fatal, and so was his.

Eleven days after the attack, Lee surrendered and put an end to the war in Virginia. Most of the men in Reed's regiment were back in New York in a couple of weeks. Reed was buried near the Union hospital at City Point, Va.

When I began researching the stories of my two Civil War privates, I didn't know much more than their names and their unit numbers. But the project turned out to be easier than I expected. The Civil War is probably the most thoroughly documented period in America's history. There are mountains of official reports, histories of almost every regiment and memoirs written by everyone from Grant and Lee to the lowly foot soldiers.

I read a handful of books about the war and even spent a day at the Kentucky Wesleyan College library where they had a short memoir by a man who was in Woodfin's Tennessee regiment.

But most of the details came from the Internet. Enter the name of a battle or an officer in Google and you get a rich collection of articles and Web sites. Geneaology sites like link to an abundance of Civil War information, the National Archives site has digitized photos of soldiers and will even show you images of their original records.

Exploring their stories gave battles like the one at Perryville a closer connection to my life. It let me draw a direct line from my family to obscure battlegrounds like Chickamauga and Gravelly Run. And it gave the war a sharper and far more more personal focus.

That's something I never got from highway markers, coffee table books or PBS specials.


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