Consequences Of The Skirmish At Lewis Farm, March 29, 1865

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In 1863 Congress set conscription quotas for each Northern state, but if sufficient men could be persuaded to volunteer, then no one would be drafted. The federal government offered a bounty to enlistees, and there was more to be made from men liable to the draft who could afford to hire substitutes and from the conscription districts, which bid against one another for volunteers.

The way it went in Amherst was typical of the more prosperous m»tropoles. On May 26,1864, reported a local newspaper, “Amherst has heretofore been rather backward in filling her quotas, but on Tuesday the people put the thing through genteelly, and in town meeting voted to pay back the money spent in filling the quota to those liable to draft last fall; to procure substitutes for the ten men who are yet without them under the present draft, and to procure 50 substitutes for the anticipated draft in July.”

That month William Austin Dickinson bought a substitute for five hundred dollars. He got a bargain: Lincoln’s midsummer call for more troops spurred a bidding war that carried bounties far above previous levels. Poughkeepsie in southeastern New York, for instance, offered seven hundred dollars, Rensselaer nine hundred.

I imagine Elisha and Sarah Crosby by the fire discussing the tempting sums available for a oneyear absence from home, balancing the possibilities of death or mutilation against the weight of the pelf. The daughters were too young to have been included in the talk of death and money. Charles, nearly full grown, may have been included and, still a boy, may have recommended adventure. Elisha joined the 185th New York Infantry Regiment on the twenty-fifth day of August 1864, for a bounty of one thousand dollars.

 

Ulysses S. Grant had ordered the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River in May of 1864 to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia by superiority of numbers and supplies. In one month the Army of the Potomac suffered fifty thousand casualties that it could afford and the Army of Northern Virginia thirty-two thousand that it couldn’t. The advance of the Union Army and the countermoves of the Confederate Army that spring culminated in the siege of Petersburg, the longest of the war. It began in June and lasted nine and a half months.

Experience had finally convinced the generals Grant and Lee and their soldiers that frontal attacks were too costly. In the absence of barbed wire, the soldiers constructed porcupine defenses of sharpened logs and sticks, old-fashioned but effective abatis and chevaux-de-frise. Behind these they dug miles of trenches, built redoubts and bombproofs, and, in order to survive the vigilant sharpshooters and the battering from the heavy mortars—in order to live at all—learned to live below ground level. The Petersburg siege was a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War, the one my father, two generations later in 1918, was training for nearby in Virginia when the armistice was signed.

Grant’s strategy was simply to take advantage of his superiority in numbers, to extend the front westward until Lee ran out of men. The trench line started at five miles, then stretched out to ten, then twenty, and ultimately to thirty-five. Clearly the North would win if it could keep sending new regiments of cannon fodder (at the end of the summer of 1864 we may surely use the term) to the Petersburg front.

On September 28 Elisha’s 185th, 850 strong, anchored off City Point, the “busiest place in Dixie,” the Union’s supply port at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers a few miles from Petersburg. The usual logistical and administrative nightmare followed, what during my turn in the U.S. Army we called “snafu.” All agreed that the 185th was needed in the line, but where, oh, where? After some confusion it was assigned to the V Corps, “with as little delay as practicable.” It reported on the morning of the first of October without tents, rations, or ammunition, all of which were back at City Point. That remedied, the 185th moved into the line and on the third of the month was digging redoubts and rifle pits under the scrutiny of Confederate sharpshooters.

The V Corps’s 1st Brigade, comprised of the 185th New York and the 198th Pennsylvania, participated in sorties around the enemy’s right flank to tear up railroad tracks and destroy whatever Confederates might find a use for. A few men of the 185th suffered wounds, none, it seems, mortal. I conjecture that the regiment, in consideration of its inexperience, was used sparingly. The soldiers of the 1st Brigade, returning from one of these raids, found the corpses of several comrades with their throats slit, and for the rest of their march back to Union lines they burned every house in their path.