Larry Pearce, his grand-nephew
1/11/03 Rev. 12/30/03 & 2/27/16
We all know from books and films that the battlefields in the American Civil War (1861-1865) were laden with brothers and other family members fighting side by side for their respective causes. This was actually the case in our own family when my Great-great grandfather William Sylvester Gray (1816-1879, my Great-grandfather Robert Patterson Gray (1844-1928), and my Great-great uncle Samuel Alexander Gray (1942-1919) all fought for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Northern side. William and Samuel enlisted for the same term and served in the same company, while the younger Robert enlisted after father William returned home early on a medical discharge and served in a different regiment. This three-part series begins with these unlikely situations and later, in Part II, presents Samuel’s own words from a letter he wrote to his mother from a prisoner of war camp. Later, in Part III, we’ll follow Samuel, after his discharge, and his young bride west to Missouri. There we’ll relate a unique family narrative about life on the post-Civil War American frontier written in 1987 by his grandchildren and entitled “The Gray Family.” We begin by providing some background on the two Gray brothers, Robert and Samuel, although a separate account follows this series on the action that Robert saw in his heavy artillery unit. We’ll also mention father William, although very little is known about him at this time.
As we said in earlier articles, Robert and Samuel were two of seven children produced by William Sylvester and Elizabeth Leslie Gray (1818-1895) in West Deer Township, northern Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Also in William and Elizabeth’s household were daughters Sarah Jane “Jennie,” who lived with her parents and died unmarried; Nancy, called “Nanny” who married the Rev. Robert M. McKinney; and Martha Ann, also known as “Aunt Mattie,” who married the Rev. Robert Edmonds. Sons George Leslie and William Jr. died in childhood.
My Great-grandfather Robert Patterson Gray was born in 1844. [See “Memories of My Mother Ruth: Part II” for some impressions of him in his last years.] We don’t know anything about his early years but that he enlisted with the Union cause on August 30, 1864, toward the end of the struggle. He would have been only 19 years old at the time and served with Company A, 6th Pennsylvania Regiment, Heavy Artillery. The online records from Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Hall list four Robert Grays, but none confirms those details. We do find confirmation in Samuel Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers and at least one Internet site. We’ll provide additional detail about Robert in the future article, “Robert Patterson Gray & the American Civil War.”
There are also five Williams listed at Soldier’s and Sailor’s Hall, one of whom was not directly related, that we know of, according to the “Introduction: Our Gray Family.” One of the others was surely our William, the boys’ father. It’s curious that military service is not inscribed on his stone at Bull Creek Cemetery. He would have been in his mid-40s with major obligations to farm and family when he served. Bates, however, says that William S. Gray was recruited at Pittsburgh September 8, 1861, for a three year period, but that he was “discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate – Date unknown.” Now we know that William was honorably discharge on November 15, 1863. But, this is all we know about William and probably all that we will ever know, but we can’t help wonder what his health problem was, especially when he lived to be 63 years of age.
My Great-great uncle Samuel was born February 18, 1842 on the family farm in West Deer Township, Allegheny County, PA. The Missouri Gray family narrative claims he served in the 63rd “Virginia Infantry, CSA [Confederate States of America].” This has been proven incorrect. The phrase “Virginia Infantry” was no doubt a misunderstanding of Samuel’s service to the Northern Army of the Potomac, GAR, and that Samuel spent most of his time fighting in Virginia.
There are three Samuel Gray’s listed in the Pittsburgh Soldiers and Sailors Hall online database, and two of them are “Samuel A.” Bates lists Samuel A. Gray, 63rd Regiment, Company E, Pennsylvania Volunteers. This Samuel enlisted on the same date in the same unit as a William, his father. This was September 9, 1861, for a three-year period. Unlike his father William, Samuel served his full three-year obligation and mustered out with the rest of his company on September 9, 1864, just 10 days after brother Robert joined the PA Volunteers in a difference regiment. As with his father and his brother, little is known of Samuel’s actual experience in the Civil War except that, according to several hand-written letters, he was captured and eventually released. Bates only records the general military reports for each unit filed with the Defense department. A newly published article, “The Grays in the Civil War book Under the Red Patch,” goes into more detail about our family’s service to their country.
What would inspire a father in his mid-40’s and two brothers in their late teens enlist in such a monumental struggle as the American Civil War? U.S. President Abraham Lincoln eventually emancipated the slaves, but believed that the most important cause was the preservation of the Union. CSA President Jefferson Davis represented States’ rights over Federalism. Pennsylvania’s governor Curtin feared for the safety of the Commonwealth’s citizens after the beginning of the conflict and created the “Reserve Volunteer Corps” on May 15, 1861. The state legislature initially approved and funded 13 regiments, each containing 10 companies of 101 men plus commanders and staff [a total of 1,046 persons]. These regiments usually each came from one or two counties. By the end of the war Pennsylvania had supplied over 200 regiments to the cause. William and Samuel’s 63rd Regiment was one established several months later, July 22, by President Lincoln’s requisition and approved by an act of Congress. These troops were to be raised by September 25, for a term of three years, and Governor Curtin was given control. One source says, “Regiments rarely fought at full strength, as disease, disertion, sickness, and casualties pulled numbers down by 20 to 30 percent of full effectiveness.” Though they were called “Volunteers,” most of these men were conscripted, or drafted as we would say today.” Another source says, “Compulsory service embittered the public. Volunteers soldiers despised conscripts. Conscription nurtured substitutes, bounty-jumping, and desertion.” It is said that, in some cases, older men, perhaps fathers and grandfathers, would trade places with their sons and grandsons and make themselves available to this sacrifice so that the younger, more able-bodied ones could stay home with wife and children to farm and protect them if necessary. By early 1864 all men between the ages of 17 and 50 were required to serve. Many of the conscription loopholes were closed, and so not even the younger Robert could avoid the sacrifice of going to war, although we don’t know that he ever wanted to. [Some of the towns and locations mentioned in the following narrative are very familiar today, while others cannot be found on contemporary maps.]
According to Bates, sometime in early August, 1861, Colonel Alexander Hays of Pittsburgh, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, was given orders to raise the 63rd regiment. Before the late September deadline an Army directive was received that “All men who had been enlisted, whether in companies or singly, should be sent to Washington without a moment’s delay.” The first group of about 400 men didn’t even have arms, uniforms, or equipment. All proceeded by rail to the capital. William and Samuel’s Company E was recruited in Allegheny County, where they lived. We assume that they were better equipped, but by early October they were ordered across the Potomac River and camped at Fort Lyon on the road from Alexandria to Mount Vernon. Several camps where the Grays stayed, including Camp Shields and Camp Johnston, match this description, so we’re not sure which might have been designated Fort Lyon at that time. Bates continues that the 63rd spent the entire winter months in camp drilling and guarding the nation’s capital [picket duty]. He says, “There were probably few regiments in the service more thoroughly and accurately instructed than this, and to the knowledge thus acquired is due the good reputation which it subsequently had for drill and discipline.” By November of that year, both Grays and probably a host of others were deathly sick with Typhoid Fever, and their captain, John Danks wrote to their wife and mother that they were in good care and recovery was assured. That letter can be seen in the Under the Red Patch article.
The first mishap occurred the night of March 5th, 1862, when the enemy attacked and a captain and quartermaster were killed. Some days later, the 63rd was moved south toward Yorktown, of Revolutionary War fame, on the peninsula, in an attempt to surround Richmond, the Southern capital. They settled in a “low swampy wood.” Bates says, “A worse camping ground could hardly have been selected. Much sickness prevailed and many died. Encounters were frequent upon the picket line attended with some loss, but small compared with that from disease.”
On the 4th of May the rebel soldiers retreated to Williamsburg, and the Union soldiers followed. The following morning two regiments, the 63rd and the 105th, were ordered to pursue. The 63rd marched orderly into town behind the skirmishing 105th. Over the next few weeks both sides apparently took positions along the Williamsburg Road. Bates relays the following description of the surroundings into which the 63rd went:
The wood into which the regiment had advanced was filled with masses of the enemy, and every tree along his line covered a sharpshooter. A heavy fire was at once opened, and until long after nightfall the crash of musketry was unbroken. Many of the bravest fell, and the ranks were soon sadly thinned.
The Union regiments managed to hold their position for another month and then moved westward along the James River where they again met the enemy at Charles City Crossroads and again suffered serious losses. General Kearny, in charge of the first division [about 12 regiments, including the 63rd], reported:
At 4 p.m. the attack commenced with determination and vigor, and in such masses as I have never witnessed. Thompson’s Battery literally swept the slightly falling open space with the completest execution, and mowing them down by ranks, would cause the survivors to come to a momentary halt. But almost instantly after, increased masses came up and the wave bore on. These masses coming up with a run, covering the entire breadth of the open ground, would alone be checked in their career by the gaps of the fallen. Still no retreat, and again a fresh mass would carry on the approaching line still nearer. If there was one man in this attack, there must have been ten thousand, and their loss by artillery, although borne with such fortitude, must have been immense. It was by scores, with irrepressibility of numbers; on they persisted. It was then that Colonel Hays, with the 63rd Pennsylvania, and half of the 37th New York Volunteers, was moved forward to the line of the guns. I have her to call to the attention of my superior chiefs, this most heroic action on the part of Colonel Hays and his regiment. The 63rd has won for Pennsylvania the laurels of fame. That which grape and canister failed in effecting, was accomplished by the determined charge and rapid volleys of this foot. The enemy at the muzzles of our guns, for the first time, retired fighting. Subsequently, ground having been gained, the 63rd was order to ‘lie low,’ and the battery once more reopened the ceaseless work of destruction.
General Berry, in a complimentary note to Colonel Hays, said:
I was ordered by General Kearny to have myself and command ready at all times to render aid to the First and Second Brigades. This being so, I watched the movements of the enemy and our own men with the most intense interest. You, sir, and your brave men were placed near to and ordered to support Thompson’s Battery. Never was task better done or battery better supported, and it is a great pleasure to me to say, and it is also my duty to say it, that I have not in my career in military life seen better fighting and work better done. I should fear to try to do better with any troops I have ever seen. ‘Tis enough to say your fight was a perfect success.
The troops arrived at Malvern Hill on July 1 to fight what Bates calls “The last great battle of the campaign.” But, he also says that the 63rd “had not so prominent a part.” They were posted behind the great guns in a support position. Bates says, “The only annoyance during the day which the men experienced was shot and shell screaming over, or falling near them. The casualties were few and slight.” This would have been enough to unnerve most of us, but after the earlier military engagements, this must have seemed like a day off.
After this victory, the 63rd retired with the rest of the divisions to Harrison’s Landing until the end of August, at which time they were ordered north in support of General John Pope at the second Bull Run battlefield on the Rappahannock River. The Confederates, in the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, had repulsed the Union troops from their advance on Richmond. When this second battle began, the 63rd was ordered to advance with their brigade. General Kearny instructed Colonel Hays to move the regiment to the left and charge, saying, “I will support you handsomely.” The men fixed bayonets and as Bates says, “Moved boldly forward at a rapid pace.” But as the 63rd approached the Confederate entrenchment, they were “saluted by a murderous fire from the concealed foe, which caused the line to reel and fall back a short distance.” As the men rallied, Colonel Hays, Major Kirkwood, and the Adjutant were all wounded. Under Captain James F. Ryan, himself twice wounded and as many as one-third of his men killed or wounded, the 63rd retreated. As night fell, 10 men were ordered to the front to retrieve the dead and severely wounded, but enemy fire prevented that. By the end of the next day the only thing the Union forces could do was contain the enemy. General Kearny’s official report said, “The 63rd Pennsylvania and the 40th New York Volunteers suffered the most. The gallant Hays is badly wounded.” Several days later, at Chantilly, both sides amid a “terrible thunder storm” again met, and this time Kearny was killed.
Without a commander, the division was ordered back to defend Washington. After Antietam it was moved to Poolsville, Maryland to act as mountain scouts before rejoining the rest of the army at Leesburg. By this time Hays had been promoted to Brigadier General in charge of four regiments and 4,000 men. Morgan, Kirkwood, and Danks were all promoted to replace him.
On December 12, 1862, the 63rd arrived on the riverbank facing Fredericksburg. The following day it watched as other Yankees engaged the Rebels in a field outside of town under General Burnside in a second major attempt to take Richmond. Just as in the film Gods and Generals, the 63rd soon crossed the Rappahannock and moved “double quick under a fire of artillery.” The smoke from the firing was so intense, according to reports, that “When the firing had ceased and the smoke cleared away, it was discovered, that a considerable number of the enemy, as well as our own men, had taken shelter in a ditch midway between their two lines, friend and foe huddling together.” As the sun went down, the Union was able to take the enemy therein as prisoners without complaint, but according to Bates:
The wounded of both armies, exposed to the frosts of a winter night, filled the air with their agonizing cries. But the enemy [afar] was vigilant, and no aid could be extended to them. At daylight their groans were drown by the roar of artillery and the crash of small arms. In the afternoon the dead were buried under the flag of truce, and the wounded cared for.
The 63rd, after 48 hours on the front line, was relieved and returned to the other side of the river where it remained until January 20, 1863. A that time, General Burnside tried to cross upstream and engage the rebels another time, but foul wintry weather caused everyone “unparalleled suffering” for three days until the plan was given up.
One of the most famous of all the Civil War battles began at the end of April about five mile below Fredericksburg under General Hooker. After several days of positioning, they found themselves near General Birney’s headquarters. Captain Ryan’s official 63rd Regiment report reads:
In the afternoon [May 2nd] our lines were advanced under very sharp skirmishing, and in the evening with the 20th Indiana Volunteers, the 63rd occupied a commanding position at the extreme right and front on a hill nearly two miles in advance of where had been in the morning.
From that angle other Union troops continued under heavy fire. Ryan continues, “We assisted in rallying fragments of regiments, which had been demoralized, even at the point of the bayonet.” Unfortunately, early the next morning, a Sunday, the 63rd became the first troops engaged in a new assault by the enemy. “Our left flank, being unprotected, the enemy gained it and poured a most destructive fire, without our being able to reply effectively,” reports Ryan. Only after “a large number had been struck” did the 63rd fall back. From that position Lt. Col. Kirkwood was wounded and Ryan took command. After back and forth skirmishes all day, the regiment was forced back across the river. When the battle began, they numbered 330 men. By the end of that Sunday, 120 were either killed, wounded, or missing. After being wounded twice, Col. Kirkwood died, while five other leaders were either killed or mortally wounded also. The 63rd’s Major Danks was taken prisoner, along with our Samuel Gray. General Lee’s defeat of Hooker at Chancellorsville in May of 1863 was one of the greatest for the Southern cause, but that period also saw the death of one of her greatest heroes, “Stonewall” Jackson.
Bates reports that on the 11th day of June, 1863, the call came to head north to counter suspected Confederate movement and what would be the horrible Battle of Gettysburg. The South, under Lee, would lose 20,000 men in three days. He says, “The march was long and wearisome.” Sometime during the first day of July cannon fire was heard and the pace quickened. The men bivouacked along the Emmitsburg Pike around 10:00 that night. He continues the dramatic account of the battle witnessed by our William:
But scarcely had the men laid down to rest when an order came for the 63rd to go upon the picket line, and the men were soon posted along the road, where they passed a sleepless night. On the morning of the second, the brigade was brought into position on the pike, to the right of the crossroad leading to Round Top, the 63rd being thrown forward upon the skirmish line, which rested at a fence, parallel to the pike, in read of Joseph Sherfy’s house.
Early in the day the pickets were fired on, and a company of sharpshooters were ordered to advance to a piece of wood in front and feel the enemy. The order was promptly obeyed; but upon approaching it they discovered that it was swarming with the enemy. Until 3:00 in the afternoon skirmishing was kept up between the two line, the enemy’s skirmishers having stealthily approached and taken shelter behind a stone fence, but a short distance in front of the line of the 63rd. At that hour the enemy advanced in force and opened a heavy cannonade, one of his batteries being posted a short distance to the left of the regiment. The battle raged upon the left with great fury, and the brigade was obliged to yield. At 5:00, the ammunition having been exhausted, the regiment was ordered to the read to replenish it and to rest, after having been nearly the entire day at the extreme front and uninterruptedly engaged since 9:00 in the morning. At night the regiment was again ordered upon the picket line, and was posted to the right of Little Round Top, where the dead of our enemy lay thickly strewn about. At 10:00 on the following morning it was led at double-quick to the support of a battery posted directly in front of General Meade’s headquarters, where it remained until the battle closed, and the rebel army withdrew. Its loss considering its exposed position, was comparatively light.
William’s rank was that of “teamster,” so we don’t know where he was positioned, only that he survived. We don’t know if he was discharged four month later for medical reasons associated with this battle. If one can be thankful for a soldier taken POW, we are, as Samuel sat in a parole prison probably near Alexandria until his release in the late summer of 1863. We know he was exchanged, under a pledge not to fight again, but we don’t know exactly when that was. His letter from there is dated the third week in July. Though his tour of duty was over in September of 1864, the war would rage on until April 9, 1865. We continue our coverage of the 63rd Regiment not knowing whether Samuel broke his vow, as so many others did, and rejoined his unit. We do know, according to the Gray family narrative [in Part III], that Samuel married and headed to Missouri in late February of 1865, after he was mustered out but before the war was over.
After victory at Gettysburg, the Union troops chased the retreating Confederates back through Maryland and into Virginia, with the 63rd resting opposite Manassas Gap, not far from Washington. Moving again that summer to a camp in Culpepper, the 63rd was joined by 300 draftees. Bates says that these new men “behaved gallantly” in their first time under fire in a battle a Auburn Mills, though 18 were wounded.
On November 8, during a skirmish at Kelly’s Ford, Captain Timothy Maynard of the regiment’s Company B was shot and killed while offering his canteen to a wounded rebel officer. Within several weeks the regiment settled into winter quarters near Brandy Station. By the end of February, the regiment marched south again to James City on the James River near Yorktown, where it had been two years earlier, but returned without finding any sizeable rebel force. At this point, with the end of the war in sight, the 63rd was attached, in a major Army reorganization, to the Second Brigade, under now General Hays, the Third Division, under General Birney, and the Second Corps.
In early May of 1864, with less than a week’s worth of rations, the 63rd moved back to Chancellorsville. Bates says, “The skeletons of the dead in that [earlier] battle still lying unburied as they fell.” At 3 p.m. on May 5th Birney’s Division advanced to the front. “They were immediately engaged and the battle continued to rage with great fury until after dark,” according to Bates. General Hays was killed and Colonel Danks was wounded. Their replacement, Major McCullough, was mortally wounded the next day as, at first, the division was able to drive the enemy backwards three-quarters of a mile. But, in an open field, the Confederates counter charged and put the Union in retreat. McCullough died the next day, and a total of 186 yankees were killed or wounded in the two-day battle.
On May 7 and 8 the division crossed the Cole River to further engagements. In the early morning of May 12, Bates recalls, “It charged upon long lines of heavy earthworks, and before the astonished rebels had fairly awakened out of their morning slumbers, carried them at the point of the bayonet, capturing 5,000 prisoners, including General Edward Johnson and 16 pieces of artillery.” By June 14, after many smaller skirmishes, the division and the 63rd arrived for a third time at the James River. They crossed and occupied a Confederate fort near Petersburg that had been captured by “colored troops.”
Further skirmishes along the James continued. Bates reports that on June 22 the 63rd “lost heavily in prisoners.” No additional details are given until September 9, 1864, when the original term of enlistment had expired. By this time the veterans and recruits had been transferred to the 99th and eventually to the 105th Pennsylvania Regiments before being mustered out. Of the original 1, 046 soldiers, officers, and staff in William and Samuel Gray’s 63rd Pennsylvania Regiment, only 64 soldiers and 3 officers remained at the mustering out. The “cursed war,” as Samuel would call it in his letter home, had taken a dreadful toll. That letter and my commentary follow in Part II.
Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1994.
“The Civil War.” The 1988 Information Please Almanac. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
“The Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C.” 1/13/03
“Parole of Civil War Prisoners” and “Conscription in the Civil War.” 1/13/03
“The Pennsylvania Enlistment.” 5/5/03