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Silas Cummings Civil War Experiences

Submitted by Wilma JOHNS Sakowsky

Dear Joyce

It has been several years since I've tried my hand at non-technical writing but I am in receipt of evidence worthy of the task. To be honest, I can't resist the temptation to share the imagery. And, these newly discovered facts may be useful to add to the Silas Cummings Family in the Sullivan-Rutland Project.

To begin, if there is a Civil War flag on Silas J. Cummings' grave,--it is in error. The Civil War Veteran was Silas Cummings, the father. This is evidenced by Muster-in roll, dated Feb. 24, 1862, which states, "Silas Cummings, Pvt., Capt. Hoard's Co., 101 Regt. Pa. Infantry. Age 40 years. Harrisburg, Pa., Roll dated Feb. 24, 1862. Muster-in date Feb. 13, 1862. Joined for duty and enrolled: Jan. 31, 186[2] , Mansfield, Penn."

Silas Cummings is enumerated in Rutland, Tioga Co., in "The 1890 Special Census of Pennsylvania" where his length of service is given as six months, twenty-six days. Additionally, Silas appears on the on-line Roster of the 101st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry maintained by 101st PA Historian Quartermaster Edward Boots, President of the Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendants Society.

It is unfortunate that since the Plymouth Pilgrims Descendants Society appears to primarily focus on the Battle of Plymouth, N.C., I experienced disappointment in my ancestor's part in our wartime history. But I did,--because his service record precluded his participation in the April 1864 Battle of Plymouth. And, in view of the fact that other members of the 101st were captured and imprisoned at the infamous Andersonville, I felt shamed to claim his fraternity with what I believed to be his more deserving, somehow more fortuitous, longer-serving counterparts. After all, how much honor can be gained in six months, twenty-six days? Thankfully, I delved further into the service record of this pioneer ancestor. Perhaps this rendition of one veteran's experiences will promote a clearer image of the hardships of the times and the intestinal fortitude of our seemingly insignificant forefathers. Please note that I have relied upon text from the Regimental Service History of the Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendants Society and Civil War Cards relating to the Peninsular Campaign, 1995 Atlas Ed., Durham, CT.

Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, PA

From time to time during the recruiting process, men were sent forward to Camp Curtin from Camp Freemont in Pittsburgh and various other places around the state. The time spent at Camp Curtin was filled with drilling, camp instruction, organizing the regiment and the selection of non-commissioned officers. After great rivalry between the companies for position in the line, it was settled that they would stand in the following order across the line from left to right: B, G, K, E, H, C, I, D, F, A.

In December of 1861 these men were given their regimental number, becoming the 101st PA Volunteer Infantry. The 101st were issued their arms, Harper's Ferry Muskets, around the 10th of February 1862. Governor Curtin presented their regimental flag on the 26th of February and they left Camp Curtin on the 27th for Baltimore, MD, en route to Washington, DC. They remained one night at Baltimore at McKim Barracks before proceeding to Washington, D.C.

Washington, DC & Alexandria, VA

The 101st arrived at the old Baltimore & Ohio depot near the Capitol on 1 March `62. They marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and arrived at Meridian Hill around noon. They then went to camp there in Sibley tents. The next month was filled with drilling, guard duty, dress parades, etc. Also during this time they exchanged their Harper's Ferry Muskets for Austrian Rifles. Companies A & B received Hungarian Rifles of the same caliber as the Austrian rifles.

While in DC, members of the 101st had the opportunity to meet President Lincoln and see such sites as the Smithsonian, the Patent Office and the unfinished Capitol Building & Washington Monument.

The 101st PA was assigned to General Keyes' 4th Army Corps, General Silas Casey's [3d] Division, Second Brigade. The Second Brigade was commanded by Brig. Gen. W. H. Keim and consisted of the: 85th PA, Col. Joshua B. Howell; 101st PA, Col. Joseph Wilson; 103d PA, Col. Theodore F. Lehmann; 96th NY, Col. James Fairman.

Peninsular Campaign

On March 17, 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan's Union Army of the Potomac started a massive invasion, the magnitude of which had never before been seen in North America. Almost 400 ships of various shapes and sizes transported the entire army 200 miles from Washington to Fort Monroe, on the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers. The ships carried 121,500 men and all of their camps and equipment, pontoon bridges, ambulances, artillery, horses, cattle, feed, rations, wagons, and tents. The feat was accomplished in three weeks, and was truly as a British observer described it, "the stride of a giant." Few countries in the world could mount such a display of power and resolve.

Casey's Division left Meridian Hill on 28 March `62 for Alexandria, VA to be transported by ship to Newport News & Fortress Monroe, VA. The 101st PA boarded the transport ship Georgia on the evening of the 30th during a violent storm. In the morning, they found that the Georgia was too heavily loaded, and five companies of the 101st went ashore. Companies G & H were among the companies who went ashore. About 5000 men from Casey's Division boarded the steamer Constitution and left around 6 am. The Georgia left at 9 am. About noon, Companies G & H embarked on the steamer State of Maine with a total of about 1500 men from Casey's Division. The remaining three 101st companies left last on the steamer Hero.

The State of Maine passed the Constitution & Georgia and arrived at Fortress Monroe first during the morning of the 2nd of April. Part of the Brigade, including Co. K of the 101st PA, landed at Newport News instead of Fortress Monroe. There were a lot of vessels at Fortress Monroe; including the Monitor. The troops arriving at Fortress Monroe would spend the night in the Cavalry barracks at Camp Hamilton located about a mile from Fortress Monroe and would march the following day to Newport News.

Fortress Monroe & Newport News, VA

The peninsula was 50 miles long, no more than 15 miles wide, low, flat, sandy, and heavily wooded. McClellan's plan was to march his army up the peninsula and capture Richmond, 70 miles away. His only opposition was a force of 11,000 Confederates stretched in a thin line between Yorktown, where they had built defensive works on the old British fortifications, and the Warwick River, which they had dammed at several places to make it more difficult to cross. McClellan started his advance on April 4, 1862, and stopped it on April 5.

On April 5, 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan's Union army outnumbered their Confederate opposition on Virginia's peninsula by 10 to one. However, based on bad intelligence reports that inflated the enemy's numbers, McClellan decided not to attack and overrun the weak Rebel line at Yorktown. Instead he subjected his men to the terrible strain of digging entrenchments and hauling huge cannon over roads filled with knee-deep mud in order to lay siege to the position. As McClellan's men toiled in Virginia's low-country, their camps became pestilential death traps, with the hospitals filled to overflowing from a myriad of debilitating diseases.

During their short stay at Newport News, companies A & B of the 101st exchanged their Harper's Ferry muskets for Austrian rifles. Once their force was assembled, they marched towards Yorktown, VA on the 16th of April to commence a siege.

Siege of Yorktown, VA

Kiem's Brigade was ordered to the front and joined Casey's Division at Camp Winfield Scott on April 17th. They stayed at Camp Winfield Scott until the 3d of May, during which time they were called into the line of battle once or twice every night.

A Lot of Work for Nothing

As the Union soldiers worked throughout April, substantial Confederate reinforcements arrived to bolster the line. Eventually, McClellan's advantage in numbers fell to about two to one. Rebel artillery occasionally bombarded the Union soldiers and slowed their work, but gradually more than 400 Union cannon were emplaced and protected by earthworks. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who had taken over command of the line from Gen. John B. Magruder, had no intention of allowing his army to be subjected to a devastating bombardment and made arrangements to withdraw his army before the Union batteries were completed.

The tremendous labor of moving and entrenching the cannon was finally completed and McClellan scheduled the great bombardment to begin on May 5. But on the morning of the 4th, when the Union soldiers peered over their new earthworks, they found the enemy had vanished. Johnston's command had stealthily withdrawn from the line during the night and was rapidly retreating up the peninsula looking for a more favorable location from which to confront the huge Union army. After a month of drudgery and toil, the siege was over. They left in pursuit of the enemy, passing the deserted fortifications and moved on by way of Burnt Ordinary, over muddy roads in pursuit of the Rebels, ending up 6 miles East of Williamsburg, VA.

Battle of Williamsburg, VA

Early on the morning of the 5th of May 1862, General Hooker engaged the enemy. The 101st arrived at 4:30 pm and were formed in line and moved to the front. They were held under fire as a reserve until the close of the engagement. Their position fell opposite of Fort Magruder and were exposed to heavy fire. Shielded by a strip of woods, there were only five 101st soldiers wounded; including Samuel Dile, Co. A; James Wiley, Co. C; Abner Wesley Leonard, Co. F & Alexander Miller, Co. K. The fighting ceased at dark and the regiment moved forward and to the left of the woods, being kept in line under cold rain until 11 pm. The Confederates retreated and the next day the regiment was ordered to the south bank of the York River. On the 7th, they were ordered to return and passed through Williamsburg and six miles forward on the Richmond Road; still holding the advance of McClellan's army.

Battle of Fair Oaks / Seven Pines, VA

On the 10th of May 1862 the Army of the Potomac began their march towards Richmond, with General Casey's Division, including the 101st PA, leading the way. They camped on the 13th near the New Kent Court-house and remained there until the 17th of May when they began their march towards the Chicahominy River. They arrived at the residence of General Lee called the White House. McClellan used the house as his headquarters. The White House stood on the site where the Custis mansion once stood where George Washington had spent the night and met Martha Custis, who later became his wife. During this time, many soldiers of the 101st PA saw McClellan for the first time.

On the 19th, Casey's Division headed onward to the Chicahominy River, arriving on the 21st. On the 22nd, companies D & I of the 101st PA crossed the Chicahominy and began digging rifle pits and slashing timber. The following day, Casey's Division, with the 101st in advance, crossed the river and encamped a few miles west of the Chicahominy. During the march from Williamsburg to the Chicahominy, many soldiers had become sick and several were left behind at various points. Colonel Wilson was one of the unfortunate ones to become ill, and was left at Roper's Church with Lieutenant Colonel David B. Morris now being in command of the regiment. Gen. Keim, commanding the 2nd Brigade to which Casey's Division was attached, also became disabled by disease, with the command of the brigade being held temporarily by Colonel Howell, of the 85th PA, but eventually the command of the Brigade was assigned to General Henry W. Wessells.

On the 24th of May, an artillery engagement took place near Savage's Station with the 101st PA and other infantry regiments being called in as reserves. However, the 101st never engaged the enemy. On the 26th, Casey's Division marched to Seven Pines, VA and on the 29th to Fair Oaks. Upon arriving at Fair Oaks, efforts were made immediately to dig rifle pits due to the fact that the rebels were directly in front of them, with whom shots were occasionally exchanged.

On the 30th, the entire 101st was on the picket line, with Company B engaging the enemy. At the time it appeared nothing more than a skirmish, but the following morning, May 31st, the Confederate forces, under the command of General Joseph Johnston began their full attack. The battle lasted approximately 3 hours. Colonel Morris was wounded in the leg early in the battle and had to be carried off of the battlefield. Captain Charles W. May gained command of the regiment. It was seid, "He fought like a tiger!". Casey's Division, being out in front of the rest of the Ermy of the Potomac had less than 6,000 men, compared to an estimated Confederate force of 30,000 to 40,000. The 101st PA held their ground as long as they could. Losing many men in the process, they were forced to retreat. Marching back about two miles, they lost all of their belongings, except what they were carrying with them when they went into battle. To top it all off, the men learned of the death of Colonel Wilson, who had been left behind due to illness. He died at Roper's Church, VA on the 30th due to Typhoid fever.

Wounded in Action

War Department Notation, dated June 68, 1878, states, "Silas Cummings, Pvt., Co. B, 101st Regt. Pa. Vols. was wounded in foot in action at Fair Oaks,`Va., May 31, 1862, and admitted to St. Joseph's General Hospital, Philadelphia, Pa., June 4, 1862, with gun shot wound left-foot and transferred. Admitted June 10, 1862 to hospital at Camp Curtin near Harrisburg, Pa. Furloughed June 17 to Aug 17, 1862 when he was re-admitted.

The End of the Peninsular Campaign

Union Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular campaign, the great attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by driving up Virginia's peninsula from Fort Monroe, suffered a terrible blow on June 1, 1862. The setback did not result from that day's end of the Battle of Seven Pines, which as a draw, but from the decision of President Jefferson Davis to appoint Gen. Robert E. Lee to the command of the Confederate army defending the city. While McClellan continued to inch his army closer to the gates of Richmond, Lee set his army, which he named the Army of Northern Virginia, to work digging entrenchments to aid in the defense of the city. He also dispatched Gen. Jeb Stuart, his cavalry commander, on a reconnaissance mission to look for a vulnerable place in the Union position.

Stuart and his command rode all the way around the Union host and informed Lee that McClellan's right flank north of the Chicahominy River was unsecured. On June 26 Lee launched an all-out attack on the Union right; the next day he won a hard-fought victory in the Battle of Gaine's Mill that forced the Union force to retreat to the south side of the Chicahominy. The defeat of his forces north of the river unnerved McClellan and he abandoned his attempt to capture Richmond. He ordered his huge army to retreat southward to the James River and the protection of Union warships at Harrison's Landing. The Confederates attacked the retreating columns almost daily, but Lee was never able to inflict on McClellan's men the decisive, crushing blow that he sought.

July 1 brought the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last of the series of battles known as the Seven Day's Campaign, and the next day the Union army reached the safety of the James River. McClellan tried to convince his superiors that his Peninsular campaign had not been a failure and that he was ready to mount another drive on Richmond. But, having lost confidence in McClellan, authorities in Washington ordered the Union army on the peninsula returned to northern Virginia, and gave the command to another general.

Fascinating Fact

To put the best face possible on his retreat from the gates of Richmond, McClellan decided to call it not a retreat but a "change of base."

Silas Cummings Discharged
Muster-out roll, dated June 25, 1865 states, "discharged September 1863 by reason of disability. Bounty due $100.00."


Wilma Johns Sakowsky

Silas Cummings' Descendant