In the fall of 1864, officials in upstate New York announced plans to form a new regiment for the Union Army, offering a bonus for men who agreed to a one-year enlistment. The money must have looked pretty good to 29-year-old Orrin Reed. Like most of the other residents of Cortland County, Reed was a farmer with a small plot of land, little money to feed a growing family, and a few debts.
Orrin started his own family early. He was just shy of his 19th birthday when he married 28-year-old Mary Ann Russell in Delaware County. Mary Ann already had a five-year-old son named Erastus and was pregnant with another son, Melvin.
By the time Reed enlisted, the couple had two more children. Sherman was 7 and little Clara Elida was 4. Both Sherman and "Lida," or "Clatty" as her father sometimes called her, had been delivered by Dr. A. D. Reed, one of two physicians among Orrin's siblings.
The new infantry regiment being formed in Syracuse was the state's 185th and was comprised of men from the city and surrounding counties. Each county had a quota of recruits to produce and if they couldn't fill it with volunteers, they would draft the rest. A man could buy his way out of the draft for about $300, but that was more money than most could afford.
The bounty was around $300 and might have been much more, with some of the money coming from the federal government and some from the state, the county and even private individuals. In Poughkeepsie, the bounty was $700 and one of the Cortland volunteers, Elisha Crosby, got $1,000. A man who took the bounty could pay his debts and leave some money with his family, but there was no money for draftees.
The Syracuse area had a proud history of turning out volunteers for the great war. Three years earlier, Cortland County had provided many of men who formed the 76th New York Volunteer Infantry. That regiment fought in the Second Bull Run but was best known for its performance at Gettysburg where a monument to the 76th now stands. It held the extreme right flank of the Union line and lost almost one-third of its men in repeated Confederate attacks. Many of the men in that regiment had enlisted for three years and would soon be returning home.
Reed may have been inspired by the hometown heroes and lured by the money. He also may have thought the war could end before his enlistment did. The North and South had been fighting for four years and everything was looking good for a Union victory. After his defeat at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had retreated back to Virginia. Now Ulysses S. Grant had Lee's army bottled up in Petersburg, a transportation hub a few miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Whatever motivated the new recruits, they were quick to sign up. In his book "Under Chamberlain's Flag," Jeffrey Wood wrote that Cortland County filled its quota in just five days. Reed enlisted at Marathon, a small town south of Cortland, and he became a private in Company G of the 185th New York Volunteers. He was joined by his stepson, Erastus, who had enlisted as a substitute on August 12, joining Company D of the 24th New York Cavalry.
The Captain of Company G, Alben H. Barber, led the men to Syracuse on Sept. 8 where they joined the rest of the regiment in a temporary camp at the Syracuse Fairgrounds. Basic training lasted a mere two weeks as they learned how to march, drill and form battle lines, but not much about using their weapons. They wouldn't get their new muskets until weeks later when they reached New York City.
They did, however, get their commanding officers. Edwin Jenny was selected as the regiment's colonel. Jenny had been a Major in a New York artillery unit when he was taken prisoner aboard a captured steamer. He was sent to a North Carolina prison, but had been released under terms that said he would not be active in the Union Army. The War Department later ruled that Jenny's parole was invalid and allowed him to take command of the 185th.
Second in command was Lt. Col. Gustavus Sniper, a German immigrant who had organized one company from Onondaga County earlier in the war and had brought a second company to the 185th. Today a monument honoring Sniper overlooks Schlosser Park in Syracuse. Capt. Barber would be with Company G until the end of the war. Two of his lieutenants, Daniel Minier and Hiram Clark, would not.
Jenny and the regiment left Syracuse by train on Sept. 23 and stopped in Binghamton where the men had to spend the night sleeping in boxcars until another train could be found. Early on Sept. 25, the regiment marched into New York City from Jersey City and on to barracks in the Bowery area. In one of the first of his letters home, Reed told Mary Ann that he was comfortable living in barracks "on the banks of the sea" and that he was looking forward to his steamship voyage on the 27th to City Point in Virginia.
|Grant's military railroad|
Reed had little time to appreciate his new surroundings. After leaving the ship and resting for a few hours, the regiment was rousted in the middle of the night. They troops were loaded aboard open rail carts on a special military line that linked City Point to the camps near Petersburg. When the train reached the end of its line at Warren Station, the men were funneled into camps on the far left flank of the siege line around the city. Their tents, rations and ammunition wouldn't catch up to them for another day, but they were definitely now in the war and they could hear the siege guns shelling the city and the rebel trenches. In less than four weeks, Reed had been transformed from a farmer in the bucolic New York countryside to a soldier on the front lines of the Union Army.
The camp for the 185th was on the west end of the Union's fortifications, which formed an arc just below Petersburg. In a letter to the Syracuse Daily Journal, a soldier in regiment said "our camp is splendidly located close behind the breastworks in a beautiful pine grove." And life in the camp seemed to agree with Reed. He told Mary Ann that the soldiers build their own shanties using logs from the nearby forests. Like many others, Reed's shanty was 16 feet long and 8 feet wide with a door at one end and a chimney at the other. The Army-issued tent, suspended from a crossbeam, formed the roof.
|A Union camp at Petersburg|
Reed also reunited in camp with his stepson Erastus, who was with his cavalry unit a few miles away. Reed later reported that Erastus had contracted diarrhea, a common disease among soldiers drinking bad water. Erastus was sick in camp for a while and later sent to the hospital in City Point where he would stay through much of the Petersburg campaign. Reed said his regiment, however, was in great shape. "Not but a few on the sick list and most of them got their disease in Syracuse you can guess what that is."
In another letter, Reed complained that a cake Mary Ann sent had been stolen and that he had also lost his gloves. "There is not anything I can keep unless I keep it on." Reed also learned that Mary Ann was now sharing a house with her sister, Fanny, who also had a husband in the army. He offered the bachelor women some advice: "Mary you and Fanny must be good girls and not keep company with more than three boys apiece."
|Siege gun at Petersburg|
October: Burgess Mill
The first serious engagement for Reed's company came late in October when Grant ordered an attempt to capture the South Side Railroad. The line ran from Petersburg into Western Virginia and it was keeping the besieged Confederates supplied with food, ammunition and troops. If the rail line stayed open through the coming winter, the rebels would be stronger in the spring when the Union planned to make a major assault on the city.
But the fortifications at Hatcher's Run turned out to be stronger than the Union had anticipated and Warren's men were soon pinned down. The 185th took up a position behind the lead units, but still within musket range. Reed said he and his company spent most of the fight lying flat on the ground while bullets and shells flew overhead. His Captain, Alben Barber, had a similar description in a letter to his mother. "The bullets whistled in our ears lively but we laid flat on the ground and most of them went over us," he said.
While the Union troops in front of Reed's company were exchanging fire with the Confederates, others tried to detour around the rebel positions and many were scattered and lost in the dense woods. Fighting continued into the night, even as a cold rain began to fall. But the Federals got low on ammunition and with roads turning into an icy muck, there was little chance of a resupply.
At 1:30 on the morning of the 28th, the 185th got orders to pull back. They joined the march back to camp, leaving behind scores of dead and wounded. Also left behind were regiments from Michigan and Minnesota that didn't get their orders the previous night. The two regiments held their ground in a morning shoot-out and eventually found an open escape route.
The Burgess Mill battle -- sometimes called the First Hatcher's Run -- was a dismal failure. No new ground was gained, about 1,700 Union soldiers were lost with almost 170 killed, and the South Side Railroad would remain open throughout the winter.
At Gettysburg, Chamberlain's troops were placed at the far end of the Union line on a hill called Little Round Top where they held off repeated charges by Confederate units trying to capture the high ground and the Union flank. When his men ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain led them in a desperate bayonet charge down the hill, directly at the oncoming rebels. The startled Confederates were overwhelmed. Those who didn't surrender hightailed it back to the safety of their line. The left flank held, the Union pushed Lee out of Pennsylvania the next day. Chamberlain later received the Medal of Honor.
In June of 1864, Chamberlain was leading troops from Pennsylvania in one of the many attacks on the Confederate defenses when he was shot in the hip. Though seriously wounded, Chamberlain fought on until he collapsed. Grant rewarded him by giving Chamberlain only battlefield promotion he would issue during the war. Chamberlain took four months to recuperate. When he returned to Petersburg that fall, he was a Brigadier General and was given 5th Corps' 1st Brigade, which included the raw recruits of New York's 185th.
December: The Weldon Raid
With the Virginia weather still mild, Grant decided to make another attack on the Confederate supply lines. This time the target was the Weldon Railroad, which was bringing food and arms from Georgia and North Carolina to Petersburg and Richmond. On Dec. 6, Chamberlain's regiments were dispatched with other units on a long march west. The men weren't told where they were going or how long they would be away from camp but they were in good spirits and happy to be on the move. The weather was warm and sunny when the regiment set out and many of the men, including Reed, lightened their load by tossing away blankets and coats.
After two days they reached the rail line and after the cavalry cleared pockets of Confederate defenders, the troops began pulling up rails and ties. It was hard work, but at least no one was shooting at you. The ties were stacked in squares and set on fire with the rails placed on top. When the flames get hot enough, the rails would bend and become useless. The men moved south down the rail line, working into the night, even after a cold rain arrived.
On their last night before returning to camp, the men were rewarded with a ration of beef for supper, supplemented by food liberated from nearby homes and farms. Among the spoils were casks of fermented apple cider and bottles of apple brandy. The men stayed up late carousing, drinking and dodging the provosts who would pour the spirits on the ground to maintain order. The Weldon march would later become known as The Apple-Jack Raid.
On the morning of Dec. 10, the troops found their camp covered with light snow and ice and, although they didn't know it, A. P. Hill's Confederate troops were hurrying south, hoping to catch the raiders before they returned to safety. Advance elements of Hill's forces would nip at the heels of the Union troops, hoping to make them turn and fight. But the Federals pressed on and, after five days in enemy territory, they returned to their camp below Petersburg.
Reed summed up the events in a letter home on Dec. 13. "We tore up about 30 miles of their road. The rebs had to flee before us. We did not get into any fight with them." He also told Mary Ann that on the next march, he would probably hold on to his blanket. "After I laid on the ground without one I made up my mind that it was cold business for me."
|Mary Ann Russell|
He told Sherman and Melvin that the photograph of them "is laying before me as I am penning these lines and it seems as though I can almost talk with you. But you must be good boys and I hope I shall get back and talk with you again and Clatty."
In other letters, Orrin assured Mary Ann that he was healthy and ready to serve the rest of his term. "I have never been sorry I enlisted," he said. But Mary Ann wanted him home, at least for a visit, and she pressed Orrin to try to seek a furlough. Some men were able to get away by pleading a family or business emergency, but in general, there were no furloughs for one-year enlistees.
But nothing in Reed's letters indicate that a furlough ever came through for him. The closest he would get to his family were dinners with Erastus, who had finally returned to his cavalry unit after a long stay at the City Point hospital. Reed told Mary Ann that one evening Erastus visited Orrin's camp and let his stepfather cook for him. "He said it seemed like home for us to eat together again."
February: Hatcher's Run
But even a trickle of supplies was too much for Grant and ordered another sortie directed at the Confederate rail lines. On Feb. 5, a force that included New York's 185th and Pennsylvania's 198th regiments left camp and headed once again toward Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher's Run.
This time, they were without Chamberlain. Their general had gone to Philadelphia for surgery on his wounded hip, so Col. Horatio Sickel from the Pennsylvania 198th was taking his place. Again the regiments marched through the Virginia countryside, raiding and burning plantations before stopping to rest. When intelligence reports indicated that rebel troops were in the area, the Federals quietly slipped away just before midnight. As the last of the Union troops were leaving, they heard a rebel yell and turned to see attackers swarm into their now deserted camp.
On the morning of the 6th, Sickle's 1st Brigade took up positions along the stream with the 185th occupying the earthworks. When another division nearby came under attack, Sickle's men joined the fight and helped put the rebels on the run. "Our onset was so furious I guess they thought the whole Yankee army was after them," Capt. Barber said in one of his letters. Reed said his regiment "engaged about an hour when the rebs gave way. We chased them for a mile and they got into some woods and we had orders to fall back."
The 185th lost about 20 men that day, with a couple of the casualties coming from Company G. Col. Sickel was among the wounded. At one point in the battle, he raised up in his saddle just as a musket ball tore through the seat of his pants, nicking his thigh. The fighting continued after dark, but eventually an icy rain put an end to the shooting. Troops on both sides hunkered down for the night and as the sleet turned to snow, some of the Confederates slipped out onto the fields to strip coats from the dead.
The next day, Confederate reinforcements arrived and the Union troops withdrew. The story of the Second Hatcher's Run became a familiar one: bad weather, poor communications, heavy Union casualties and no serious damage inflicted on the Confederate supply lines. When the 185th returned to the Union lines, it was told to start building a new camp - it's third that winter.
March: Lewis Farm
In the new camp, Reed shared his shanty with two men from back home. Lorenzo "Ren" Adkins and Arthur Terpening both had families that communicated with Mary Ann. Reed reported that he was still healthy and that he had gotten paid on March 1. "I got most four months pay but not any more of my bounty," he said. He asked Lt. Hiram Clark to take some of the money back home to Mary Ann along with a pistol he had gotten from Erastus. In a letter, Reed told Melvin and Sherman they will all "have a fine time shooting it" when he returned.
One day in early March, the regiment turned out for a formal review. A group of civilian visitors watching the men perform their drills included three young ladies. "Almost every soldier's eyes was upon them," Reed said. "Women is a rare thing you know down here. I could not look at them too long for the reason I guess I better not tell."
The Union soldiers all knew that the parades and drills would soon give way to more fighting and a fresh attempt to break through the Confederate defenses. There were rumors of a possible peace, but Lincoln refused any deal that would leave the Southern states as part of a separate country. As Grant was preparing to march again, it was Lee who struck the first blow. His troops overran Fort Stedman on the Union line and a few units pushed south toward City Point. Their target was the military rail line that had delivered Reed to the front lines six months earlier. But a counterattack recaptured the fort while other troops halted the rebel raiding parties. By nightfall, the Confederates had retreated back behind their lines and Lee had lost another 4,000 men.
Reed described the attack in his last letter home. "We had a severe fight here yesterday though our regt was very fortunate as we did not get into the engagement but lay in reserve all day." Reed could sense that the end of the war could be approaching. The rebs, he said, "are getting in a tight place and are trying to break through as Sherman is a moving up his army in the rear of them and Sheridan is on the left and we are in the front." When all of the Union forces meet, he said, "the rebellion is gone up."
All through the winter, Grant had poured troops into the siege line around Petersburg. Mile by mile, he extended the Union line further east and west, building a noose around Lee and forcing him to extend his thin and fraying defenses. Now Grant planned another push to the northwest, again trying to get behind the rebels and open a route to Richmond. Chamberlain returned from Maine and resumed command of the 1st Brigade and the 185th. On March 28, Grant met with President Lincoln on a ship anchored off City Point to outline his plan and Lincoln gave his approval. Grant's luck, Lincoln said, would be "the luck of all of us. Except for the poor fellows who are killed. Success won't do them any good."
Chamberlain, naturally, was in charge of the advance party. When troops from the 198th reached Gravelly Run, they found a wrecked bridge over a creek swollen from spring rains and rebel troops dug in on the opposite bank. Without waiting for engineers to build a makeshift bridge, companies from the 198th crossed the cold and muddy stream, through waist-deep water, and charged up the opposite bank. Soldiers from the 185th were right behind them.
The Confederates fled their earthworks and retreated into nearby woods with Union soldiers chasing them. As the Federals advanced through the brush, groups of rebels would rise up from hiding places, fire volleys at their pursuers, then fall back. Eventually the woods opened to a large clearing with the Lewis farm house on the right near Quaker Road and a large pile of sawdust from a portable sawmill farther on. Confederates under the command of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson gathered in the woods at the north end of the field while some collected around the house and dust pile. When the Union troops advanced into the field, the rebels opened fire.
The battle see-sawed back and forth with each side capturing and then losing the open field and the dust pile. Chamberlain was leading his troops in a charge when his horse reared up and was struck in the neck by a bullet aimed at the general. The ball went through the horse, hit Chamberlain's left arm and chest where it bounced off the brass backing of a pocket mirror before exiting through a seam in his coat.
Covered in blood, most of it from his from his wounded horse, Chamberlain slumped in his saddle and appeared to be dead. But when another officer rode to his aid, he sat up and resumed organizing his men. The Confederates were getting reinforcements and they continued to charge out of the woods to attack the Union troops holding the field. Col. Sniper was holding the regimental flag of the 185th while the New Yorkers and the Pennsylvanians were firing the last of their ammunition.
As Chamberlain was considering a retreat back to the woods, an aide arrived to tell him that an artillery battery had finally crossed Gravelly Run and was now moving quickly up Quaker Road. Chamberlain shouted to Sniper and his men to hold their ground. "Once more! Try the steel! Ten minutes of hell and we are out of it." As promised, four brigades and a four-gun battery arrived in about 10 minutes and quickly began firing on Confederates massing at the tree lines. The rebels stopped their charges and the Union troops were safe.
In Pennsylvania's 198th regiment, 228 men were down, including most of its officers. The 185th counted 180 killed, wounded or missing. Reed's friend Arthur Terpening had been wounded and captured. Lt. Minier was also gone. A soldier who was near him during the fight said Minier passed down a canteen saying "Maybe we will never drink again together." A few minutes later he was killed.
Other casualties from the 185th included Elisha Crosby from Company F and three men from Company G: Ezra Carter, Charles A. Bunnell, and Orrin C. Reed. The official record says Reed was shot in the abdomen on March 29, but it offers no details about where, when or how. One clue comes from a newspaper account published in 1935 that quoted a member of the regiment. Entitled "The Battle of Gravelly Run," it suggests that Reed may have been shot after the 185th stormed across creek and while it was pursuing the retreating rebels toward Lewis Farm.
"The Confederate fire was close and rapid. About 180 men in the 185th were hit and over 30 killed. Company G. had perhaps more casualties than other companies. I think they carried the flag. Among the killed in Co. G. were 2nd Lieutenant Miner, color bearer Ezra Carter, Charles A. Bunnell and ___ Reed. One man who was in the battle said they were marching through the brush and one line of men rose and fired then dropped. Then another line rose and fired and dropped, and a third line also. One veteran who had been through the war said the Confederates fired a regular blizzard of bullets into the unsupported 185, the worst that he had ever seen."
The story said both Bunnell and Carter were killed in the brush and both were buried near where they fell. Reed was sent to the Union hospital at City Point where he died on March 30. Elisha Crosby from Company F was also taken to City Point and also died there.
In a 1998 magazine article, Elisha Crosby's great grandson, Alfred Crosby, speculated on what wounded men like Crosby and Reed must have endured. "He was dragged from the field during battle or picked up later and carried by stretcher as carefully as tired men stumbling over broken ground in the dark could manage. The first stop would have been the field hospital set up at the Spain House about a half-mile down Quaker Road from Lewis Farm.
"By seven the next morning the wounded were on their way to the main hospital at City Point. The surgeon T. Rush Spencer and the assistant surgeon Charles K. Winne recorded that the roads were almost impassable. It rained the night following the battle and all the next day. The land was flat and drainage poor, the soil sandy and underlaid with clay. The roads, torn up by the heavy wagons and marching men, turned into troughs of mud. They could be made passable only by corduroying—that is to say, by being paved with logs, even captured muskets, laid side by side across them. The jolting ride back to City Point, where Elisha’s death was recorded, must have been agonal if he were still conscious."
In his book "The Passing of the Armies," Chamberlain also described how rain and darkness hampered attempts to tend to the wounded. "All night the dismal rain swept down the darkness, deep answering deep, soaking the fields and roads, and drenching the men stretched on the ground, sore with overstrain and wounds, -- living, dead and dying all shrouded in ghastly gloom. Before morning the roads were impassable for artillery and army-wagons, and nearly so for the ambulances, of our Corps and the Second, that crept up ghostlike through the shuddering mist. Under the spectral light of hovering lanterns hundreds of helpless patient sufferers were loaded in; to be taken from this scene of their manly valor, now so barren of all but human kindness, in long procession for the nearest hospital or railroad station, -- and for what other station and what other greeting, what could they, or we, foreknow?"
A soldier with a wounded limb had a chance of recovering at City Point. Over four years of treating the carnage of battle, doctors had become adept at amputation. But a stomach wound was another matter. With only primitive anesthetics and no antibiotics or the skills to perform surgery, they could do little more than make the soldier comfortable until the end.
Reed and Crosby were among the thousands buried at City Point. After the war, Mary Ann had her husband's body sent home to a plot in the Marathon Cemetery. Today, his name appears with those of other men killed in the Civil War on a monument in the city of Cortland.
Despite heavy casualties and bad weather, this time the Union forces did not return to camp. After a rest, they pressed on, aiming for White Oak Road and the town of Five Forks on the Confederate flank. Waiting for them were cavalry divisions led by Lee's son and infantry directed by Maj. Gen. George Pickett, the man who led the infamous Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. After a daylong fight, Five Forks was in Union hands on the morning of April 1. The next day, the Federals stormed Confederate trenches around Petersburg, forcing Lee into a wholesale retreat. In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis loaded his government into boxcars and fled west toward North Carolina.
Grant and Sheridan's cavalry, including Erastus, chased Lee's army for seven days before finally boxing him in near Appomattox Court House, a tiny crossroads a east of Lynchburg. When Lee had had enough, he sent an officer carrying a white flag and a message for Grant out across a field toward Chamberlain and the men of the New York 185th. Watching from behind a fence row was Lt. Hiram Clark, the man who had carried Reed's pistol back to New York a month earlier. As the Confederate officer approached, an artillery shell sailed out from behind him. The shell skipped under the fence and slammed square into Clark's chest, killing him instantly. He would be the last man to die in the Army of the Potomac.
Eleven days after Reed was shot and seven months after he enlisted, the war in the East was over. On April 12, a delegation from both sides met at Appomattox Court House to set the formal terms of surrender. Grant, who didn't attend, chose Chamberlain to be the chief representative of the Union Army. The New York 185th lined the road to the Court House along with other units from New York, Michigan, Maine and Pennsylvania. When Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon and his officers approached the house, Chamberlain gave a signal and thousands of men snapped their muskets to their shoulders in the "salute of arms." Gordon answered by touching his sword to his toe. "It was honor answering honor," Chamberlain said.
Erastus survived the war, was mustered out of his cavalry unit and went on to marry three wives before he died in 1912 in Painesville, Ohio. He named one of his many children Sheridan and another one Oran.
Orrin's children all remained in the Cortland area where they married and raised families. Melvin and Sherman are buried along with Orrin in the Marathon cemetery. Clara, Orrin's little "Clatty," married Charles Underwood, a descendant of one of the county's earliest settlers and a member of a family that can trace its roots back to the Mayflower. Charles managed a feed store in McGrawville and Clara worked in the area corset factories. Their daughter, Lula May, married Albrose Bingham, whose grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War. Together, Albrose and Lula May raised seven children. Their first was Marjorie Marleah Bingham, my grandmother.
Sources and references
The inspiration to write a story about Orrin Reed's brief Civil War experience came from another of his descendants, Roberta Judith French. Her mother and my grandmother were sisters. Roberta gave me the text of Reed's letters and her friend, Harry Miller, provided additional information on Reed's family, including Mary Ann and Erastus. In 2010, the full text of the letters were posted in PDF form on the Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site.
For details about New York's 185th Infantry Regiment, there is no better source that Jeffrey Wood's book Under Chamberlain's Flag. Wood follows the 185th and its sister regiment, Pennsylvania's 198th, from their creation to the end of the war. Quotes from Alben Barber's letters to his mother came from Wood's book.
Kenneth Wooster has posted many documents related to the Cortland area and its Civil War history on web pages at SUNY Cortland. They include Charles E. Bunnell's text from a newspaper story describing the ambush that likely killed Reed and two other soldiers. Wooster's website also has a link to a discussion forum where descendants of soldiers who served in the 185th can share information.
Alfred Crosby, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote the story Consequences of the Skirmish at Lewis Farm that appeared in American Heritage in 1998. Elisha Crosby, his ancestor, was also killed at Lewis Farm.
The USGenWeb Archives contains a list of all members of the 185th Regiment.
Other helpful resources included these books:
April 1865: The Month That Saved America
by Jay Winick
Battle Cry Freedom: The Civil War Era
by James M. McPherson
The Civil War Day By Day: An Almanac, 1861-1865
View Civil War sites in a larger map