B.F. Batcheler, 26th Michigan and 28th U.S.C.T., Union spy/scout writes of dangerous business of spying

B.F. Batchelor Papers, 1862-1866. 26th Michigan Infantry and 28th U.S. Infantry (Colored). Ca 250 items, nearly all war date, including 100 soldier’s letters, two diaries.

Auction realized $11,500 (2006)

Excerpt from Cowan’s auction online:

A friend, Dick Sarshads, was one of the scouts used during the ill-fated Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond. Sarshads, Batcheler wrote, with ten other[s] disguised as rebel cavalry went within ten miles of Richmond and back passing through many rebel camps. Going towards Richmond they claimed to be sent to inform the authorities there of the raid in order that they might be ready to meet the ‘Yanks’ coming to cut off their supplies by making a break in the railroad. Their real business was to destroy bridges out of the line of march of the main force. They burned three large bridges and tore down telegraph wires. Acting the spy is rather dangerous business but if pay is to be considered in such matters they get well remunerated…

Civil War Manuscript Archive of B.F. Batcheler, 26th Michigan and 28th U.S.C.T.

Civil War Manuscript Archive of B.F. Batcheler, 26th Michigan and 28th U.S.C.T.

Full description from Cowan’s online:

B.F. Batchelor Papers, 1862-1866. 26th Michigan Infantry and 28th U.S. Infantry (Colored). Ca 250 items, nearly all war date, including 100 soldier’s letters, two diaries.

When the war erupted, Newton Kirk (a friend from Howell, Mich.) wrote to Batcheler to describe the stirring scene and rising tide of union sentiment in a classic of early-war sentiment: You speak of the great excitement there on account of the Southern troubles. Here, it exceeds any thing of the kind known since the Revolution, nearly every man you meet on the streets has on the regimentals, and regiments are marching and drilling all the time in the Park, on the Battery and every other available spot. … Billy Wilson, a noted prize fighter has been getting up a novel company, all persons of like character with himself. All of the are the worst cases that N.Y. contains. They say he offered a reward for all the thieves and pickpockets they could find. After his company left, a man came to the office to enlist, he asked him where he came from, “I have just got out of the states prison,” he says, “You’ll do,” says Billy, pass on… There never was known, in the whole History of Modern times, so unanimous a feeling, a people, forgetting all party ties, all political distinctions, as at the present times, all political animosities, all feelings of self interest. Every other feeling is lost and swallowed up in the one great idea, “The Union, It must and Shall be preserved.

A fine writer, Batcheler’s letters provide feeling as well as fact, filling in details on the course of a Civil War soldier’s life. His description of the departure from home is typical in its attention to detail: There was quite a large collection of people in the street to witness the novelty of the scene, and to bid us God speed as we passed. All went off pleasantly as we marched threw the city bidding adieu to those who only regarded us as friends in the same common cause, the putting down of this wicked rebellion. But as we were about to step into the cars a different scene transpired, friends of a stronger tie than that which binds us together from love of country were to part. Those that long had shared the same fireside comforts and the hospitalities of the same table even fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers were made to bid each other a good bye for a time at least and perhaps forever. It was quite a feeling time for one to take the parting hand of home friends. I for one was glad that I did not have to take a part in this personally, Not because I would not have been pleased to have seen you all again before going south but for reasons above mentioned…

Having arrived in Virginia by mid-December and assigned to duty in Alexandria, Batcheler’s Co E was assigned to keep whiskey shops in subjection and they soon gained a reputation for the ability to clean out more grog holes than any other company in the Regt. The upstanding Batchelor volunteered for special duty: The Lieut. got me some old cloths which I put on that I might have the appearance of a citizen. In this way I found two shops by pretending to be a workman and calling for something to drink which they set out thinking all was right. But the floor caught the most of it, it being beer, and in a short time the rest was running off on the ground. His rectitude and sense of wartime propriety extended to other areas as well. Batcheler was clearly irked by his roommate’s letter to the Howell Democrat, which he claimed contained mostly falsehoods, and entirely so where it speaks of the negro being better used then the soldier or that the Union soldiers are not well cared for… He reaps his rewards however, as his letter was sent to his Lieut. who reported him and the other day he received a written order from Brig. Gen. Slough to report to his company for duty immediately. I tell you that any one with ‘secesh’ sympathies has to keep his tongue between his teeth.Batcheler does not say whether he brought the letter to the attention of his Lieutenant.

Although the 26th did not perform exciting duty during the spring and summer 1862, Batcheler’s descriptions make for interesting reading. From Alexandria he offered some stereotypical descriptions of the first “darkies” he encounters in the south, an interesting start to service for a future officer in a Colored regiment, and his descriptions of their work building entrenchments around the beleaguered city of Suffolk in May include some valuable information about the operations there. Arriving there in April to reinforce the union forces, Batcheler spent his first night grumbling as the scene before him seemed to take an ominous turn: Our Regt. in connection with some others were ordered to take position behind the breastworks which form a portion of the defences of the south while a battery a few cavelry and some infantry made the advance. While the above mentioned were advancing two forts sent shells into the woods ahead of them. There was little over a mile of a beautiful plain to pass over when the battery took position behind the woods and commenced to throw shell in advance of the advancing infantry… From the men that went out from the point where we were stationed 31 were brought in, two killed and the rest wounded. At least that was the report. Some were wounded by our own shell…

His second letter from Suffolk provides additional detail as the fight continues: The 25th was sent out to patrol across the Nansemond, he wrote, but just before reaching the place of crossing a whole rebel brigade made its appearance and the order was countermanded. Just then there forts opened fire on the rebs throwing shell at a rapid rate among them which must have done fearful execution. The 99th [NY] still charged on under a murderous fire until they had about gained the rifle pits when finding they were contending against great odds, a retreat was ordered. They fell back having met with a loss of 45 killed and wounded. Never did men go into the work with more earnestness. The rebel loss is not known but must have been heavy… but it cannot be otherwise than that the rebels lost a large number unless they are proof against shell, for our men could see them thrown into the air as the irons bursted. The collection includes three more, excellent letters from Suffolk siege and others for their time near Yorktown and on the Chickahominy River.

In keeping with his patriotic motivation and unforgiving attitude, as early as February 1862 Batcheler was complaining about the failure of the men at home to support the war effort and particularly about their response to the draft. Irritated at news of draft resistance in Michigan, he wrote: What can they be thinking about? Do they think they are doing that which will be a benefit to themselves or to those in the future? Do they not know they are doing that which sanctions rebellions? And in case there should be a division of these sister states are they aware that their property will diminish greatly and their national safety be impaired? How I ask can any who regard their own welfare think of a division? I say it is better for us all to unite and fight it out at once and save the Union for where can the line of separation be drawn?…

Ironically, the 26th was among the regiments sent to quell the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, during which duty Batchelor wrote two excellent descriptions of the scene in the streets. As we were passing along to broadway, he wrote, the irish women assailed us with threats, groans, & nicknames calling us Abolition Lincoln Soldiers and telling us we were not wanted here. No notice was taken of them however… They have been having a serious time here for a few days back, considerable of fighting has been going on between the mob and the military. Policeman are about in great numbers, some soldiers and a large number of the rabble have been killed…. Last night the military engaged the mob and dispersed them after killing about thirty and taking the leaders prisoners, 15 soldiers were killed…. The draft is claimed to be the cause of the riot, but Policeman say that all the black legs in the country are here and are making this stir for the purposes of plundering…. In his next letter, he described the aftermath of the riots, how the priests implored their parishioners to remain loyal and stay calm. To help maintain the peace, the 26th remained in New York until mid-October, when they were attached to the Army of the Potomac for the first time.

The first major combat in which the 26th took part was during the Mine Run Campaign, from which Batchelor wrote an excellent, long crosshatched letter.  The skirmish line is but a short distance from where I am now seated and an occasional ball can be heard whistling over our heads…As I now write the cannon is roaring at a fearful rate on the right. Yesterday morning at four oclock we were ordered to march before we had time to cook our breakfast. We were marched at almost double quick over a rough muddy road for 8 or 10 miles. Our brigade was then thrown forward as skirmishers. The rebels were taken by surprise and driven into their trenches though they were many more in number…We went up in sight of the rebel works and they opened on us with shell. We fell back out of sight of the rebs where we saw our boys charge on the rebels which was a fine affair. The shells and balls tore the ground up among them wounding some, but the boys not in the least daunted pushed forward driving the rebels of superior numbers before them.

After Mine Run, the regiment remained in their winter camp at Stevensburg except for playing a diversionary role for a cavalry raid in early February 1864: The air was very foggy so it afforded us a good chance to take them by surprise, which we did driving hem inside of their works. After dark our men charged and took one line of works loosing 280 men in wounded. The Corps commander was highly displeased with the movement as he intended to have us skirmish with them enough to keep them from marching against the Cavalry… A friend, Dick Sarshads, was one of the scouts used during the ill-fated Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond. Sarshads, Batcheler wrote, with ten other[s] disguised as rebel cavalry went within ten miles of Richmond and back passing through many rebel camps. Going towards Richmond they claimed to be sent to inform the authorities there of the raid in order that they might be ready to meet the ‘Yanks’ coming to cut off their supplies by making a break in the railroad. Their real business was to destroy bridges out of the line of march of the main force. They burned three large bridges and tore down telegraph wires. Acting the spy is rather dangerous business but if pay is to be considered in such matters they get well remunerated… With less panache, Batchelor describes the highs and lows of camp life: the stirring antislavery lectures of Grace Greenwood, two cases of drumming out of the military (for drunkenness, for theft), the arrangement of a winter camp, the organization of a brigade and field responsibilities, and his none too favorable opinions of copperheads.

In April, Batchelor and his friend Newton Kirk went to Washington to take the exam to become officers in a “colored” regiment, Kirk passing as Captain, Batcheler as 2nd Lieutenant. You may think it a foolish move in us, but we came to the conclusion that while we were soldiers we might better do the best we could. This branch of service (or rather the Officers) are much superior to the volunteers. No person is allowed his position unless he is qualified for it, which you know has not been the case in volunteer service, not as much so as it ought to have been…. The return to his regiment to await his commission could not have come at a tougher time, as he reunited with the 26th just as they moved into the grinding campaigns of Mary 1864. Batchelor was wounded in the regiment’s famed charge at Spotsylvania Court House on May 12, 1864, and he described his wound for the folks at home: My wound is on the left shoulder. It is about five or six inches in length and large enough to lay a finger in it. It is but a flesh wound and is by no means dangerous. I received it in the great charge of the 12th inst. Got within about a rod of the rebel breast works when I fell. Was carrying the flag at the time. What troubles me more than any thing else is I can hear nothing from Newton. He was missing after the charge and when I left the front he had not been heard from. No one saw him fall. .. Our regiment was badly cut up…. We took from six to eight thousand prisoners and 49 pieces of artillery… From hospital ten days later he writes that he dreams every night of Kirk, that he returns to his regiment and is told that Kirk was wounded and in hospital, though no one he asks knows.

At Patterson Park Hospital, Baltimore, Batcheler healed slowly through the heat of summer until September, when he finally accepted the offer of a commission in the 28th USCT. Not an abolitionist, Batcheler saw an opportunity for advancement and better pay and took it, joining the 28th, a regiment that had been recruited in central and northern Indiana and among freed slaves from Kentucky in April 1864 and that had been one of the units devastated by the debacle at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. On October 4, Batcheler wrote that 9th Corps, to which the 28th had been assigned, was again in the midst of fighting, and his regiment, to whom he had yet to report, were at the front, though having taken his time to join them, he wrote: Don’t know but I am keeping out of some of the fighting by staying in the rear. When he finally joined his company (A), he became one of its two officers, each of whom could boast their own waiter. Many of the darkies are excellent cooks, having been brought up to do the like. Since I have been here we have been busily at work building forts and breast works. You would be astonished to see how quick large and strong works can be erected. In a few hours after getting into position a strong line of breastworks will be before us and all busily at work on forts. The whole army may be considered engineers, or one would think them such…

In other letters, Batchelor provides interesting accounts of non-combat-related incidents of a military life. In addition to the drumming out, he was witness to a double execution of deserters: There were three regiments formed in line and the prisoners were then marched aloud under guard keeping step with the music and in rear of their coffins. They looked very solemn. After marching past us they were marched to their graves (which were dug) where the coffins were placed. (A few moments were allowed them to make preparations for eternity. One of them mad a good prayer. They then took their seats for their coffins, were blindfolded and at a signal given a volley of musketry was heard and their spirits had departed for regions unknown to mortals. This seems very hard but it is necessary to have discipline in the army. They were brothers and had not seen each other for years until about eight months ago. Before they took their seats to be shot they shook each others hands. (March 11, 1865). He was coincidentally in Washington on the 15th of April: A great excitement prevails in this City at present caused by the assassination of President Lincoln. He was shot in Ford’s Theater by a man by the name of Booth. Was shot last night at half past ten and died some time this forenoon. Sec. Seward and son were also at about the same hour assassinated in their own hous. The latter I understand has since died…. They seem to feel the loss in this City very much. Nearly all business has been suspended today and buildings draped in mourning. Sadness seems depicted in nearly every countenance. The murderer is well know in this place and will without doubt ere long be arrested…. I never has anything of the kind shock me so in my life as when I heard the truth of the report. Our nation will miss so able a statesman as President Lincoln…

With the cessation of fighting in the east, Batchelor considered whether he wanted to remain in the military, Provided we colored folks are allowed to. The regiment was sent to Texas in June, however, and remained in the service until well into 1866.

The collection includes a full suite of letters to Batchelor from throughout the period of his service, many of which provide interesting details on the home front in Michigan. On July 4, 1865, his sweetheart Sarah wrote that her father had visited Howell at noon: of course the [fourth of July] address was over with — but Father has said he wouldn’t hear that. It was delivered by Prof. Taft of Fentonville — a new revision of a formerly boastful Copperhead — Disloyalty is a very unpopular element at present — ‘tis entirely out of date, at least a month or two behind time — any person with any pretensions to honor, patriotism, or popularity has certainly ere this trimmed his unsightly, thread-bear coat with luxuriant drapery of the latest and most attractive style. If a man is a man let him show himself manly. If he is a cowardly traitor, assume his own garb, that he may lay claim to the last remaining spark of honesty which is so nearly and effectually extinguished from his soul… From Ann Arbor in May, 1865: The President’s assassination cast a deep and almost impenetrable gloom over the entire North. The churches now without exception in so far as I know draped in the deepest mourning upon the following sabbath as well as upon the funeral day. College adjourned and did appropriate honors to the departed. Dr. Haven pronounced a eulogy which has been highly spoken of by men of all parties…

Finally, the collection includes a small account book with some records of ordnance stores for 28th USCT and a list of men in hospital, 1865; a pocket diary for 1864 (including a second record of Spotsylvania), and a diary for 1865, which includes a section of autographs of Confederate POWs.

An unusually large and varied collection from a highly motivated Michigan soldier, made all the more important by his service with the 28th USCT, one of the most active colored regiments in Virginia. Collections of this size and quality are disappearing from the market. 

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