Let’s take for example the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Which also happens to be the regiment my ancestor fought with. Now I know my ancestor joined 19 July 1864 and joined the 81st in November of 1864 after two months training. He mustered out of the infantry on 25 June 1865. So let’s take a look at movements of the 81st Pennsylvania during those eleven months.
My ancestor, George W. Lowery would have joined up with his regiment, the 81st at Petersburg, VA. In November 1864 Petersburg was under siege. The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac were entrenched around the city. Months of fighting had resulted in a multitude of deaths and eventually Grant’s army successfully cut off the Confederate’s supply lines resulting in the fall of Richmond. Without the very basics like food, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia moved west across the state in early April 1865, pursued by Grant and Union forces, which included my g-g-grandfather.
Following this trail, outlined in the regimental history, I can now “march” along with my Civil War ancestor. I’ve made this trek twice. Once with my husband and another time with my genealogy-minded sister.
I picked up the trail traveling west out of Petersburg to the little known Battle of White Oak Road. I’ve walked the paths there through trees and underbrush imagining troops bursting through the foliage. Making my way back to the small graveled parking lot I slipped a pine cone in my pocket. It was a physical connection for me. I was standing where my Civil War ancestor had been.
The next stop following the 81st Pennsylvania route is Sutherland Station. The regiment played a significant roll in this Union victory. Standing at this crossroad, reading the historical sign and looking at land my ancestor fought on was a humbling experience. Here my g-g-grandfather’s regiment fought a hard battle. I closed my eyes to “feel” the experience. In my mind’s eye I tried to imagine the rifle fire, smoke and shouts of captains to their men. Just the idea that my g-g-grandfather fought here made him very real to me.
As good soldiers do, I followed the path ground out by the 81st, to my next stop at Sailor’s Creek. This was the site of a brutal battle. It was the last major battle of the Civil War. The Union army captured more than 7,000 Confederate soldiers including six generals here at Sailor’s Creek, Ewell and Custis Lee were two of them.
As I parked my car to walk the battlefield it was anything but a battlefield. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful, lush green countryside. Low hanging trees that produced wonderful shade, a small artery of the Appomattox River nearby. April 6, 1865 had to feel much like this quiet setting until the calm was shattered by cannon fire and grape shot. Men yelling, smoke hanging, blood spilling across the spring’s new grass. When I close my eyes I see flashes of blue and gray in my mind. Men exhausted by the days of marching, famished, still rise to the defense of their cause. Hundreds died here, right where I stand. My g-g-grandfather witnessed some of his life’s worst moments right here.
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