My Ancestor Wore Gray?

pvt-thomas-c-birchWith six great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War, that conflict has always been very personal to me.  Although all six fought for the Union, for a time I believed that one – Thomas C. Birch – was Confederate.  This was a mystery that took some time to unravel.

I first learned of Birch, my third great-grandfather, from my paternal grandmother.  She gave me the only photo of him and told me he was a Confederate soldier.  That is all I had to go on.  But I was puzzled by the fact that he was from northern New York and a rebel.  It did not make sense to me.  But a little digging revealed that he instead wore blue.  My grandmother and her family had believed he was Confederate because he fought in Virginia and was buried there.  Knowing little about the war, they simply assumed he wore butternut.

Thomas Chapman Birch, born July 24, 1830 in Vermont, was the only child of Rufus C. and Mercy (nee Burdick) Birch.  Living in Macomb, St. Lawrence Co., NY, and working as a tanner, Birch was married with six children under the age of ten at the outset of the Civil War.  His wife, Mary (nee Williams) had bore the last, Anna, in 1859.

With a large brood of young ones at home, Birch was drafted into the Union army in July 1863.  Although he was probably heavy of heart to leave with so many responsibilities, there was the example of his own father, Rufus – who lived nearby – a veteran of the War of 1812, which probably convinced him that he must do his duty for his country.  Moreover, with his own parents nearby Mary and the children would not be alone.

So it was that Birch mustered into Co. F, 83rd NY Volunteer Infantry for a three year term of service.  It was a heady time to be joining the Union army.  Northern morale was at an all-time high that summer after great Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Disembarking from New York City to join the Army of the Potomac, it is possible that Birch and his fellows were called on to help quell the New York City Draft Riots.  In any case, the city would have been reeling from the mayhem caused by that ugly event.

Attached to the 2nd brigade, 2nd division, and 1st army corps, the 83rd NY would join Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia as that general was trying to decide how to come to grips with CSA Gen. Robert E. Lee again.  Guarding the line of the Rappahannock River through the fall and winter of 1863-1864, Birch was on hand when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the newest Lt. General (and only the third to hold that lofty rank in the service of the United States – George Washington was the first and Winfield Scott, who retired in 1862, was the second) joined the Army of the Potomac in the field.

thomas-c-birch-grave-in-alexandria-va Unfortunately for Birch, he would be wounded shortly after Grant put the Army of the Potomac in motion.  At the Battle of the Wilderness, May 1864, Birch was wounded in the foot.  Like so many, Birch survived the amputation of his foot and part of his leg, only to die of mumps in an army hospital in Alexandria on June 9th, 1864.  He was buried in Alexandria National Cemetery nearby.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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