I have known Sheldon Appleby, my great-great-great grandfather, only through his handwriting—and only that through a single letter handwritten from February 1863, and only that through a photocopy of a photocopy. The great aunt who’d given me a copy of the letter admitted that “We never knew much about the Applebys.”
I’ve come to the National Archives to find out what else I can about Sheldon beyond the single letter that’s been circulated through parts of my family. We knew Sheldon served in the 85th New York volunteers. A subsequent look at the regimental roster told me he was 18 at the time he enlisted on September 9, 1861, serving in Company I.
I request copies of his pension files and medical records and a few other odds and ends—the regimental enlistment record; the pension application by his widow, my great-great-great grandmother, Mary; the muster rolls. I sit in the Archives’ digital “innovation hub” to work, scanning the materials as I go.
And there, when I open the first folder, I come as close to my ancestor as I have yet gotten: Sheldon’s hand-written applications for a pension—his own handwriting, not a copy of a copy (of perhaps a copy), recounting his own story:
Soon after I got to Washington in the fall of 61, I had the diptheria and was treeted in the Hospital for it. I was very bad with it. I then went back to the company for a short time and caught a heavy cold and had the inflammatory rheumatism. The Hospital was full and I lay on the ground in a tent an [meridin hill?] an the straw with my limbs swollen up and helpless. I finally got well and went on the Peninsula with McLelan [sic] was in front of Yorktown in the swamp and got the malerial feevor. Got over that and was with the company at Suffolk where I went in the regular army was with them two years without being sick. finally in front of Peetersburg just before my time was out I got the fever again and was sent to the Hospital at Fort Monroe where I as discharged Oct. 1st. 1864.
I read slowly, carefully, following the scribbles of his black pen as though they might disintegrate into chaotic hieroglyphics if I’m not careful. This is my chance, as it were, to sit down at the breakfast table with a Sheldon, each of us sipping a cup of coffee as he tells me his story for the first time.
In fact, his story will unfold over the course of a long morning and some thirty documents. Aside from his own pension application, there are applications for increases, results from health exams, affidavits from neighbors, and later testimony from Mary.
Medical records confirm his “malerial feevor” of the spring, where he was hospitalized from May 19 through June 7, 1862, with what doctors described as “Febris Typhoides.” He went right back in on June 7 with “Debilitas,” remaining there until June 16, at which time he was furloughed until July 11 to finish his recovery. The muster roles I find list his furlough as 30 days and account him present at the end of that period.
The Innovation Hub allows researchers to make their own hi-res digital scans of records rather than the traditional transcriptions, photocopies, or photographs typically permitted in the upstairs research room. The Archive keeps copies of the scans, too, allowing them to get their collection digitized a little faster than they otherwise would through their more traditional systematic scanning. That, in turn, will make the documents available free online (as opposed to some of the material available, at a fee, through Ancestry.com). So, as I read each document, I make a scan. That way, other family members who might later want to see Sheldon’s story for themselves, will be able to access the documents.
We knew Sheldon served in the 85th New York volunteers. The Feb. 1863 letter places him in Suffolk, where the 8th was stationed at the time. Family lore also has him serving time in Andersonsville. Most of the 85th was, indeed, captured at the battle of Plymouth in 1864.
But the regimental roster indicated Sheldon had been discharged on October 23, 1862—well before the debacle at Plymouth. “[C]ause and place not stated,” the regimental record says.
So why was he still in Suffolk where the rest of his regiment had been stationed?
They key lay in his phrase “where I went in the regular army.” Elsewhere, one of his records explains that, on the 24th of October, “under an order to recruit the regular army of the U.S.,” he enlisted in Battery L of the 4th U.S. artillery “to serve one year and 11/12 of a year.”
Battery L of the 4th U.S. artillery, as it turned out, had a fairly storied history up that point in the war. It first saw service on March 8, 1862, in Newport News, Virginia, when it was deployed against the Confederate ironclad Merrimac. It then relocated to Suffolk and, when the Army of the James was formed, the battery was folded into its VII Corps, into the division of Maj. Gen. James J. Peck. That’s where Sheldon came across them in the fall of 1862.
Just three days after Sheldon joined the battery in October, the artillerists went into action at Blackwater, Virginia, and again on December 13 at Joiner’s Ford. They remained in southeast Virginia through the winter, and they were among the defenders of Suffolk when Confederates laid siege on April 10, 1863—a contest that lasted through May 3, when Confederates had to withdraw to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia, then embroiled in the Chancellorsville campaign.
After the siege of Suffolk, Company L departed for adventures in North Carolina and elsewhere in Virginia. More army reorganization eventually put the Battery in the army’s XVIII Corps under Maj. Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler for the spring campaign of 1864. That of course explains Sheldon’s presence “in front of Peetersburg” come fall.
I don’t have time, as I scan the documents, to puzzle all this out. But now I at least have some material to go on. My next goal will be to sort through all the information I’ve accumulated and see if I can pull together a coherent narrative. That will also help me figure out what holes I still need to fill.
To be continued….