Thursday, May 1, 2014

In Memory: George Remington Beach fighting for union 1862-1865

    O beautiful for heroes proved 
    In liberating strife. 
    Who more than self their country loved 
    And mercy more than life! 
    America! America! 
    May God thy gold refine 
    Till all success be nobleness 
    And every gain divine! 
               A verse of “America the Beautiful” (poem by Katherine Lee Bates 1895)

Memorial Day, a time of remembrance, fast approaches (26 May). This tradition of remembrance began soon after the close of America's Civil War, as a way to remember those who died in that war -- northerners and southerners alike.

Today on Memorial Day we honor those who sacrificed their lives for their country at any time in our nation’s history. The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who gave their lives so this country might “long endure.”

To my knowledge, none of my ancestors lost their lives in any battle since America began. But they did serve their country.
The original "Old Glory"
We are now in the middle of the sesquicentennial of America's Civil War. Throughout all of the nation, north and south, we are remembering the war that pitted brother against brother. This spring, as in all other springs, thousands of school children participating in forensics competitions will choose to recite the famous Gettysburg address. Indeed, all of the living U.S. presidents recently participated in the "Gettysburg Address Mash Up," and we are encouraged to “learn the address” ourselves.

Another interesting thing happened this spring. On 14 April 2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a political party "Resolutions Committee voted in favor of a proposal that says the state party 'supports legislation that upholds Wisconsin's right, under extreme circumstances, to secede.'" [Update: on 3 May 2014 the resolution supporting possible secession was, in my opinion wisely, rejected at the state convention...thank you!]

Given that I live in Wisconsin and am writing a family history blog, it seems appropriate that in this posting I pause to ask myself what my great-grandfather George Remington Beach (1838-1931) was fighting for when he joined the 130th New York Volunteer Infantry in 1862 and spent the next three years fighting secessionists in Virginia. 

On 19 November 1863, President Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. His short speech began: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." By the time those words were spoken, George had been in the Union army for more than a year.

Beach was born 24 April 1838 in Beachville (a hamlet located in the Town of Dansville, in Steuben County, New York). He was the son of Robert Beach and Rhoda Douglass Beach. According to his father, George’s health was “very poor during a part of his boyhood,” but he grew to be a strong man. On 5 August 1862, after a call from President Lincoln for more men to fight, the twenty-four year old enlisted in the 130th New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment was later converted to a cavalry unit known as the 1st New York Dragoons.

Battle of the Wilderness" (1887 lithograph)
The Dragoons were one of the 300 Union regiments that suffered the greatest casualties during the War. Of a total regimental enrollment of 1414 men, there were 461 casualties (killed in battle, death by wounds, death by disease or accident, and death in Confederate prisons). During the Battle of the Wilderness (5-7 May 1864 at Todd’s Tavern), the Dragoons suffered the heaviest loss of any Union cavalry regiment in any one action during the war. The regiment ranked high in the estimation of its various brigade and division generals, as a regiment of superior discipline and efficiency. See Fox, William, “Regimental Losses - The American Civil War 1861-1865” (Albany, New York 1889).

I have very little in writing left by George Beach. One writing he left reveals that he was at one time the Post Commander of the Pontiac, IL Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a veterans’ fraternal organization. But he wrote very little of his Civil War service itself. 

Fortunately, however, in 1900 at the urging of comrades and in conjunction with regimental reunions, the Reverend James Riley Bowen, who served as the regiment’s chief musician, wrote “The Regimental History of the first New York Dragoons.” Bowen gathered information from military records and his fellow soldiers. He collected old letters (and had some of his own), reviewed maps, and read other accounts of the war. The result is a detailed and well-written first person account of the Dragoons. Bowen’s work is not a history of the war, nor is it a particularly objective account. It is, however, an excellent narration of incidents connected with the regiment, as seen by members of that regiment. To my knowledge George Beach did not contribute to the book or attend the reunions, but he was with these men in battle and shared many of their experiences. 

I do have a photograph of an older George, on horseback, wearing his Dragoon badge. And given that he commanded the Pontiac IL GAR post, he must have participated in at least one Memorial Day or 4th of July parade!

Our family also has George’s saber and carbine. They hang on a wall in my cousin’s home. My father (Judson Hause Peterson) and uncle (Sidney Beach Peterson) used to “play” with the saber, and indeed I grew up with a picture of a deer painted by my great grandmother (George’s wife Elizabeth (Libbie) Hause Beach), with a tear caused by that saber. I can only imagine what my grandmother—George and Libbie’s daughter Buena Vista Beach Peterson—had to say to her sons about that!

Back to the real war. The First New York Dragoons was fairly unique. Organized in 1862 in Portage, New York as a voluntary infantry regiment, in 1863 it was converted to the 19th N.Y. Volunteer Cavalry after the soldiers agreed to fund one-half of the necessary horses themselves. (Yes, they themselves paid for half of their horses!) It was thereafter known as the 1st N.Y. Dragoons, fitting for a regiment filled with men expected to fight on both horse and foot. Bowen writes (at 7): “After our transfer to the cavalry branch of service, we became not simply ‘mounted infantry,’ but full-fledged cavalrymen, having changed not only our regimental name, but exchanged everything pertaining to infantry—our Enfield rifles, together with all accouterments and clothing, for the carbine, saber, and revolver, as well as full cavalry uniform… [But] so far as the men were concerned, the One Hundred and thirtieth Infantry and the First Dragoons were the same.”

One of the Dragoons was “Beach, George R. Age, 24 years. Enlisted, Aug. 5, 1862, at North Dansville; mustered in as private. Co. K, Aug. 20, 1862; appointed sergeant, Sept 1, 1863; mustered out with company, June 30, 1865, at Clouds Mills, Va. [Now living in] Pontiac, Ill.” (Bowen at 333). Enlistment papers reveal that George was 6 feet tall and had dark eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion. He was a clerk residing in North Dansville when he enlisted.

George was a sergeant through most of the war—I imagine this tall, dark, and, I would say from later photos, handsome man must have looked quite dashing in his Union cavalry sergeant’s uniform. Here's a 1866 hand-colored photo I found of a Union cavalry sergeant in full dress uniform. This photo is from the collection of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, VA.

Frederick Phisterer’s “New York in the War of the Rebellion” (3rd ed. 1912) lists all of the regiment’s enemy confrontations with casualty lists. The Dragoons took part in more than 70 battles, raids, etc. From Fox’s data, we know that almost one-third of the regiment died during the War. George Beach was lucky. According to his father, George “passed through many battles and much severe service without either wounds or sickness.”

For three years Beach fought the “secesh” in Virginia. He was at the Siege of Suffolk. He was part of the Overland Campaign and Sheridan's Shenandoah campaign. He fought in the Battle of the Wilderness, at Totopotomoy Creek. At Cold Harbor. And Trevilian Station. The Third Battle of WinchesterFisher’s Hill, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar CreekFive Forks and the Fall of Petersburg. He was at Sailor’s Creek and Appomattox Station. Bowen's narrative serves as an eye-witness account of the horror of this war between brothers. 

My great-grandfather no doubt shot secessionists and cut them with his saber. He must have burned barns, destroyed bridges and dams, confiscated horses and livestock, and helped wreak general havoc throughout much of Virginia. Kill or be killed and scorch the earth behind you so the enemy cannot survive. War is not pleasant and these brothers were fighting against each other with all their might. The 1865 photo (left) is of African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed at Battle of Cold Harbor (1864), which involved 167,000 men (including George) and resulted in 18,024 casualties. Read more here.

Surrender at Sailor's Creek
At Sailor’s Creek a Confederate soldier from the 16th Georgia Infantry named J.A. Reynolds was captured. His diary ended up in George Beach’s possession and is now in mine. When my sister and I were growing up, we envisioned that the diary was taken off the body of a dead Rebel, killed by our heroic great-grandfather, maybe with the saber my dad or his brother had used when he (accidentally) killed the deer in the picture his grandmother painted! The diary has brown spots, which we just knew were blood stains.

Records show that Reynolds lived through the war and surrendered at Sailor’s Creek, VA. Having now read Bowen’s accounting of the war, I wonder if Beach and Reynolds swapped diaries after the battle. Because at the same time the north and south were fighting one another, there were also many incidents of camaraderie between northern and southern soldiers. Until I read Bowen’s book, I didn’t know that in 1900 writers used the phrase “stranger than fiction,” but when he wrote of the enemy soldiers’ relationship he used that phrase. I think I like the “swapping diaries” story more than the “dead rebel” story. 

My father tried to return the diary to Reynolds’ family years and years ago when it came into his possession, but he didn’t know why his grandfather had the diary and could not trace Reynolds’ family. I haven’t been able to either, but perhaps some day this precious diary will go to Reynolds’ descendants or to a museum in Sailor’s Creek. For now it sits safely in my study.

Finally, George was at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865 when Lee surrendered, the South’s hopes for secession took a fatal hit, and union preservation became inevitable. Bowen writes: “The blue and the gray sat side by side munching hardtack and pork from the same haversack, and drinking from the same canteen…. We [the Dragoons] all remember how like a dream it seemed to go into camp that Sabbath night, in sight of the rebel army, with no picket firing, and all hostilities ended.” (At 296-97).

One short week later (16 April), the Dragoons felt the “great mantle of sorrow and horror” when they learned that Lincoln had been assassinated. (Bowen at 298). The Regiment was in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. on 23 April, mustered out in late June, and boarded a rail car heading north, reaching Rochester, N.Y. 28 June, where they were paid off and discharged. (Bowen at 300). 

George Remington Beach lived a long life, surviving his wife Libbie (d. 1917) and marrying again at the age of 90. When George died in 1931 he had lived 92 years, 10 months and 25 days. My father was then 12. 

My father (far right in this photo, next to his brother Sidney) grew up with stories his grandfather told him. I wish I knew them now. But I do have in my possession a favorite photo of my great-grandfather Beach, sitting with his young grandsons at their summer cottage at Lake Koronis, Minnesota. At some point my father wrote on the photo: “Tell us another!” Did George tell his grandsons tales of the Civil War? I bet he did. The two boys went on to serve their country in the Navy in the Second World War, and then returned home after that service, just as George Remington Beach had done 80 years earlier.

If you can, take time to follow and read some of Bowen's narrative about the Dragoon’s Civil War experiences on this Google map. I am not Civil War buff, but found Bowen's accounting fascinating, and watched my Google map develop as the Dragoons road through Virginia brandishing their sabers and using their state of the art carbines. I had no idea this regiment had the reputation it did (not just through Bowen's self-serving account but from other sources as well), or suffered such great losses, or brought such destruction to Virginia. My arm chair adventure also revealed how difficult it was for soldiers from different parts of the “same country” to fight one another. They fought as soldiers, but they also shared stories, song and food across enemy lines. (Read more here.) Today this writer finds this fight among brothers – and the concept of secession from America -- unimaginable. 

Grandpa George, this posting is for you, from a descendant proud to call you one of my many “dead relatives” and glad to be an American. A descendant who lives in Wisconsin and is not at all interested in seceding from our United States, regardless how imperfect that union may seem from time to time. This Memorial Day, I plan to fondly remember someone who fought for union.
Winslow Homer sketch -- Wounded Soldier

Come back to this blog in mid-May, to learn the rest I know about George and his wife, Elizabeth Sunderlin Hause Beach (1847-1917), who was, I understand, quite an independent woman! Find George and Libby at my family tree (searchable by name). 

Want to learn more about the First New York Dragoons? This is how Fox describes them in his 1889 study of Union casualties (at 183): 

Organized at Portage, N. Y., as the One Hundred and Thirtieth Infantry, and served as such at Suffolk, Va., and in Keyes’s Peninsular campaign. On July 28, 1863, it was transferred to the mounted service under the designation of the First New York Dragoons. Colonel Gibbs, who belonged to the United States Cavalry service, drilled the men in their new duties, and on the night of October 17, 1863, the Dragoons made their first fight as such at Manassas Plains. The regiment started on Grant’s campaign of 1864 with about 400 carbines, and in the Wilderness (at Todd’s Tavern), having dismounted, made a desperate fight, sustaining the heaviest loss of any cavalry regiment in any one action during the war; its casualties in the Wilderness amounted to 20 killed, 36 wounded, and 35 missing. At Cold Harbor, the wearied troopers were sleeping on the ground, bridle-rein in hand, when they were awakened and ordered into the breastworks, which they gallantly defended while their band played gaily during the entire fight. At Trevilian Station, the remnant of the Dragoons were actively engaged, their casualties in that action amounting to 16 killed, 61 wounded, and 8 missing. After fighting under Sheridan in his famous Shenandoah campaign, and sharing the glories of the final scenes at Appomattox, the regiment was mustered out, June 30, 1865. The Dragoons ranked high in the estimation of its various brigade and division generals, as a regiment of superior discipline and efficiency. During all its mounted service the regiment was in the First Cavalry Division, Army of the Potomac. 

Flag photo from the New York State Military Museum's website, which has a short summary of the 1st Regiment of Dragoons, plus links to newspaper clippings, books and diaries containing further information. As to the war in Virginia, take a look at Civil War Traveler: Virginia. It's a great website.

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