To me, history is brought alive by research. Of course, not everyone enjoys the work involved. The endless hours spent looking through records, census reports, history compilations and old documents can at times be overwhelming. The research I'm doing on the pictured piece above is a great example of how difficult it can be to research a particular piece. This Civil War hand drawn picture has all the ingredients of a good mystery. I was eager to find information about the people, military units, battles fought, and their Prisoner of War experiences. I began perusing various research materials about the Massachusetts Regiments and the soldiers therein. I wanted to find out, in particular, who Frederick Will was, what battles he fought in, how he was captured, how long he was imprisoned, and, if possible, who this drawing depicted. I needed to find out who G.S. Gilchrest was, his relationship to Frederick Will, and if both died in the camp or were transferred out to fight elsewhere. In doing this research, I uncovered several interesting facts about, not only the people, but the experiences they endured. The writing above the picture reads:
Taken by Frederick Will 1st Serg. Co C 20th Regt. Mass. Vol.
G.S. Gilchrest Co. "B" 15th Regt. Mass. Vol. While Prisoner of
War at Salisbury North Carolina. January 12th 1862
To begin my research, I needed to find out who Frederick Will was, where he lived, and when he entered the Union war effort. Like many soldiers at the time, information and personal statistics such as birth dates, occupations and residences are often obscured or missing all together. In Frederick Wills case, I was able to find out that he was born about 1829. He was 32 years old when he enlisted on July 18, 1861. He was probably from the Boston area as his unit was organized on August 29th - September 4th, 1861 at Camp Meigs in Readville, a neighborhood of Boston. Frederick Will enlisted with the rank of 1st Sergeant to the Massachusetts 20th infantry Company C.
Massachusetts 20th Infantry Regiment (Harvard Regiment)
Frederick Will's 20th Infantry was nicknamed the "Harvard Regiment" because the officers of the regiment were young Harvard graduates. Some of the soldiers themselves had attended Harvard. They were commanded by Col. William R. Lee, a Mexican War veteran and distant relative of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the regiments organization in Readville, they left for Washington D.C on our about September 4th, 1861 where they attached to Ladder's Brigade, Division of the Potomac to October, 1861. Not long after that they faced their first real fight. A terribly bloody battle named "The Battle of Ball's Bluff.
The Battle of Ball's Bluff
On October 21, 1861 Union forces crossed the Potomac River to attack what they believed was a Confederate camp near Leesburg, Virginia. However, it was discovered that their advanced scouts the evening before had mistaken a line of trees as an enemy camp. Even so, Colonel Baker decided to reinforce the raiding party with more men. Unfortunately, a lack of boats slowed down the movement. By the time the extra men had arrived, the Confederates were on the scene, an began to actively drive the men back over the steep bluff on the river bank with heavy losses, including Colonel Baker. It is within this battle that it is believed Frederick Will was captured. More research turned up a letter written by Captain Casper Crowinshield, a fellow soldier of Frederick Will. One can glimpse the severity of the carnage in this letter he wrote to his mother the day after the battle:
Camp Benton, Oct. 22d 1861.
My dear Mother.
I sit down in haste to give you an account of the battle which we have just fought and lost. I had been stationed near the river to support a battery (Ricketts) for about a week. On Sunday at 3 P.M. received orders to march with Capt Bartlett's Company up the canal about 3 miles from Edwards Ferry, and await orders. When we arrived there we met Col' Lee and Major Revere who told us that we were to cross the river with 300 men of the 15th Mass Regt. and surprise a rebel camp which was near the town of Leesburg. So at about 11 o'clock we crossed the river to an island some five miles long: there we waited until 3 o'clk in the morning, and then crossed the river into Virginia. As we had only 3 boats to cross in, it took us a long time. One boat would hold about 16 men, another 8, and a third only 4. The width of the river here is about ¼ of a mile or perhaps not so much. The banks on the other side are very precipitous and rocky; however we managed to get up on to high land by marching in single file and picking our way very carefully. It was bright moonlight, and the scene was in-discribably romantic. When we reached the top of the hill, we found ourselves on a broad field of 10 or 12 acres. Here Capt. Bartlett's and my Company
under Command of the Col. (the Adjutant was also with us) remained as a reserve, and to Cover the 15th in case they should have to retreat. As the 15th advanced, I was sent out on our flank with some men to see if we could discover anything. When we had got about ¼ of a mile, 5 rebels suddenly started up and fired at us wounding one of my men in the arm. We fired and one of them fell, but got up again and ran. We chased them some way, and then returned to where the Col. was stationed. We stationed skirmishers on our flank and awaited the result with much anxiety. We none of us said anything, but I think that all felt, as I did, that we were in a desperate situation, unless the 300 men of the 15th should be completely successful: and then perhaps if we were very quick about it, we might be able to get back across the river. Soon we heard rapid firing in the direction of the 15th. Soon after 2 men Came out of the woods bearing a wounded man in their arms, and told us that the 15th had been attacked by infantry and cavalry, and that they had driven them off, but with the loss of many men, and were retreating to the woods near us. Our Col. now sent a note to Genl. Stone in which he said "if you wish to make a general advance into Virginia, send over a great many more men, if not, we ought to retreat at once". We had before this had orders "not to retreat until orders from Genl. Stone". The whole force we had on the Virginia side at this time was 300 of the 15th and 100 of the 20th.
A short time after the Col. sent this message we heard the 15th firing and more wounded men were brought down the road. In about a quarter of an hour the 15th Came up to where we were. The enemy did not follow. If they had, we should have been cut off to a man. Now some reinforcements Came over, but very slowly, as there were only the 3 boats I spoke about, and a flat scow which had been found. At 1 o'clock the fight Commenced on our right flank, and in a short time the rebels were driven back. Then Came a breathing space of 10 minutes. Then they attacked our left flank. Where I was they made a dreadful noise and fired heavily and rapidly. They drove my pickets in and killed at the 1st fire 2 or 3 men. My men stood firm and fought bravely. I was obliged to bring up my reserve, and we drove the rebels back. An interval of quiet, and they advanced cheering, & attacking our whole line. We met them with a severe fire, and they fell back, but they Continued to fire very rapidly, and killed many of our men. They cheered furiously, as their reinforcements came up, and their fire became fiercer & fiercer. Our gunners were almost all shot, and those who remained could not fire very often. My men fell back and commenced to run. I believe our centre was broken at the same time. I did all I could to stop them and succeeded in stopping about 20 men, with whom I again advanced, and checked the rebels. As they were advancing in great numbers, we could not stop them long however. Here a poor fellow in my Company fell shot through the body. He was standing close to me, and, as he fell he said. "My God. I am shot through". We had to fall back rapidly now, as our Centre was broken, and had fallen back to the woods on the bank of the river.
I was within 6 feet of Col Baker when he fell. He got up once, and then fell again, and 2 men Carried him off. He had 3 or 4 bullets in him they say. He behaved with the utmost Courage and coolness all through the fight. Our guns had now ceased to fire, and 2 of them had, I think been taken and 1 had been brought back to the edge of the woods. All was now confusion, and the horses, attached to the caisson of the gun, ran, and one was shot just as it was going into the woods, so that the other 3 could not draw the Caisson. This made a breastwork for a time behind which I stood. The fire of the rebels was at this time something terrible. The hill was Swept with bullets and the men were in the woods scattered in all directions.
Once, when their fire slackened, I ran out on the hill with the color Sargeant and the color and Shouted to the men to rally round the color. About 40 men ran out, but a sharp fire of the rebels drove them back. I saw our col. last behind the Cannon. He had given the order of retreat, as I heard, but I do not believe it possible; as there Could be no retreat. The ravine and the banks of the river were now crowded with men. Some were sitting down behind trees and stones. Some were carrying the wounded, and some were throwing away their guns and trying to swim across. On the opposite bank were two hundred of our men, who had been
sent to reinforce us, but Could not get over. All this time the rebels were firing volley after volley over the hill, but they did not advance to the woods; why I do not know, as our fire had almost ceased. I went down the ravine and heard that the Col. & major & adjutant had gone up the river with a white flag and were going to surrender. I saw Capt. Tremlett, and he was going to march his men up with a white flag and give up. So I walked round and … called for the men of Co. D, but they had got scattered when we got rallied round the flag and I could only find one or two of my men. The river was now full of men who were drowning and shouting for help; but there was no help to give them except from God. I never saw such a sight and God grant I may never see such another. I was all covered with blood from some one, I suppose who had been shot near me. I felt very faint, and the men seeing the blood supposed that I was wounded, and those who managed to get across the river to the island, which we held, reported me as killed or taken prisoner. It was now about 6 o'clock. I wandered round trying to find my men and went back to the brow of the hill, but there were none of them there.
The rebels were advancing and firing down the ravine. The men were calling out that they would surrender; and the rebels were shooting at the men who were swimming over. So I went higher up the stream and took off my clothes, & taking my watch in my hand (I was too tired to try to take anything else, and indeed I hardly thought I could swim over at all, as the water was cold and the distance great). When I started there were a few men left who could not swim and who were going to give themselves up. By the help of God I got over and ran to a haystack on the island, and there found Some knapsack which we had left, when we started on the expedition. The island was crowded with soldiers who had been sent over to hold it, in case the enemy should attack it. Out of the knapsacks I got a rubber blanket, a woolen blanket, and a pair of drawers. One of the soldiers gave me a coat God bles him! a man named Dennis, one of the Tammany Regt. Co. A. I slept under a haystack, & in the morning went across the river and got to the camp. We had only 418 of our Regt. in the fight. We took out 22 officers and only 9 have returned unharmed I must close this now. The officers - men who were in the fight yesterday & who got back as now in Camp. The rest have crossed the river at Edwards Ferry[.] We now have a large force there & there … will probably be a fight today or tomorrow … shall not be in it. I shall write again soon[.]
Goodbye. Give my love to all & believe that I did my duty.
your affectionate son
P.S. My 1st Lieut. Perry is missing. I saw him at 5 o'clk and he was not wounded then.
*Crowinshield's letter is part of the Charles Pickering Putnam papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. Note that the letter has been broken into paragraphs for easier reading.
As was mentioned earlier, this battle most certainly culminated in the capture of Frederick Will. It also appears that G.S.Gilchrest, the second person mentioned in our picture above was also taken prisoner at that time.
G.S. Gilchrest's Role in the Massachusetts 15th Regiment
G.S. Gilchrest was part of the Massachusetts 15th Regiment Co. B. Before finding the above letter from Captain Casper Crowinshield, I wasn't sure of how the relationship between Frederick Will and G.S. Gilchrest had originated. It appears they had fought in the Ball's Bluff battle together, as the letter clearly speaks of the 15th Regiments involvement. Had they been friends before or did they meet in the Salisbury Prison camp? We may never know. What is known, however, is that Gilchrest and the Massachusetts 15th Regiment played a major role at Ball's Bluff and, those not killed or taken prisoner, went on to fight in many major battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. The regiment lost 227 enlisted men, 14 officers killed or mortally wounded and 1 officer and 121 perished from disease. Gilchrest was first sent to the Richmond prison camp before again being moved to to the Salisbury Prison facility.
Salisbury Prison Camp
Shortly after North Carolina joined the Confederate war effort, it was decided that a prison was needed to house captured Union prisoners. An empty Textile Mill and its grounds was converted into a prison camp. Operations began in October, 1861 when more than 100 prisoners were sent from the Raleigh State Fairgrounds to Salisbury. By May of 1862, 1400 soldiers were housed there and the population was growing by the day. Conditions in the camp were initially good as prison camps go. Inmates were allowed to pass the time writing letters, drawing pictures (as is the case with Frederick Will), working on knickknacks and even playing baseball. Unfortunately, this relative peaceful period did not last long. By October of 1864 the population of the camp ballooned to 10,000 inmates. Conditions became nearly unbearable. Unsanitary conditions were rampant, sickness was commonplace, and food was scarce. The poor sanitation and overcrowding led to a death rate of 25 percent with over 4000 men dying in the camp.
It appears as if both Frederick Will and George Gilchrest were part of a prisoner exchange before having to experience the worst of Salisbury.
What became of Frederick Will and George Sanderson Gilchrest?
Frederick Will survived the war. He mustered out on July 17th, 1865 as a Full Sergeant. His occupation latter in life was listed as a Clerk. Several questions remain to be researched:
After his release from Salisbury, did he return to the 20th Regiment?
What battles did he participate in?
Where did he live after the war?
When did he die?
George Sanderson Gilchrest also survived the war. On February 28th, 1864, George ended his military service with the 15th regiment with a disability. He is mentioned attending commemorative events about the Balls Bluff battle and others of his regiment. On 24 Oct 1881 at "The Fitchburg Sentinel", Fitchburg, Worcester County, Massachusetts, George was reported as attending a regimental reunion where he "gave a very interesting account of his experience at Ball's Bluff, where he was taken prisoner, and remained nearly eight months in Richmond and Salisbury, N.C." In Jun 1886 George Sanderson Gilchrist took part in the regimental reunion Excursion to the Battle-Fields of Gettysburg, PA., Antietam, MD., Ball's Bluff, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
George Sanderson Gilchrest died on January 31, 1887 at the age of 57.
Several questions remain to be researched:
After his release from Salisbury, what further battles did he participate in?
He is said to have quit military service with a disability. Was it from being wounded in battle? If so, which battle?
One question I hope to answer through research is:
Who was the subject of the sketch?
Could it be Col. Lee, who was imprisoned in Salisbury?
Maybe the hat insignia can at least identify the rank of the person.
Any help would be appreciated.
The search continues!