A Geneseo Gunner on the Virginia Peninsula

I have had difficulty connecting my hometown to the Virginia battlefields I primarily research. Geneseo, Illinois sent its fair share of soldiers to the western theater but had no formal units in the east. While researching a blog article two years ago I happily stumbled across a series of correspondence to a local newspaper from an Army of the Potomac cannoneer. During his ten months in the service, Henry R. Sleight dueled with Confederates across the Potomac River and saw heavy combat during the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles. His letters share opinions on George McClellan’s strategy, campaigning in historic colonials sites, camping among secessionists, and the fierce battles in which he fought, particularly Williamsburg.

The soldier’s father, Henry C. Sleight (1792-1877), had worked as a printer on Long Island, served in the War of 1812, operated a mercantile business in Kentucky, and briefly lived in Rochester, New York, where he helped start the city’s first newspaper. Henry C.’s first wife died around 1830 and he remarried Jane Keese in April 1832. Henry R. Sleight was born to that couple three years later, around 1835.

In 1844 the entire Sleight family moved to Geneseo, Illinois, a young town founded in 1836 by pioneers from the Rochester region. Mary B. Sleight, a poet and fiction author, later noted that Henry C. made the move as it was “an enterprising village made up of eastern people, with a seminary that afforded the best of educational advantages for his children.”[1]

The 1860 census showed that twenty-five-year-old Henry R. worked as a clerk and, like the other adult children, lived on his father’s Geneseo property. Half a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, the younger Henry returned to his home state. There he enlisted as a private in the 4th New York Independent Battery and mustered into service on October 4, 1861. Captain James E. Smith commanded the artillery unit, which was outfitted at the time with four ten-pounder Parrott rifles and two six-pounder howitzers.

Possibly encouraged or inspired by his father of the importance of local news, Henry R. Sleight maintained contact with James M. Hosford, editor of the Geneseo Union Advocate. He described his own writing process on November 10, 1861, from Camp Duncan outside Washington, D.C.:

“I am on my knees with my paper on a pile of blankets for a table—the candle is suspended from the tent pole, by a long wire, so you must make due allowance for the penmanship of this epistle. Bob [his tentmate] is sitting on the straw beside me, reading texts from Daily Food [a religious tract], and varies the exercise by looking at the picture of his Lady Love, the latter, I imagine, somewhat distracts his meditations on Daily Food.

“…I have upset my inkstand and have but a pen full of ink to finish with, so must say good-bye for the present. My many kind friends in Geneseo are held always in remembrance, and I hope not to be forgotten in my old home.”[2]

Later that month the 4th New York moved through Maryland down the east side of the Potomac River to Budd’s Ferry. They went into position across from a Confederate battery at Quantico, but Sleight noted, “we have such a fine gun pit, and they are such poor marksmen, that we do not trouble ourselves about them, only to send some shell into their midst occasionally.” The Union artillerists fired their own weapons against the enemy for the first time as well, Sleight writing, “we fired eight ten pound shells across, five of them bursting directly among their guns. You can imagine that a scattering was caused by the explosion.”

At the time, the Confederates had them outgunned in the sporadic, long-range duel, Sleight claiming they occasionally received incoming 64-pound shells. He wrote on December 2:

“The other day I was startled by an explosion on the opposite side of the river, and then I heard one of those great shells coming. It sounded like a young hurricane. I expected it would pass directly through our camp, but concluded it would do no good to run, so I sat very still, and a few seconds after heard it explode. I went out to see if any one was injured, but happily no harm was done.”[3]

The battery remained on the Potomac River through the winter and then participated in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s grand maneuver to the Virginia Peninsula in the early spring of 1862. Sleight and his comrades, with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, traveled by boat down their namesake river to the Chesapeake Bay and then disembarked along the Back River in between Hampton and the Confederate stronghold at Yorktown. Sleight optimistically believed they were about to replicate the Revolutionary War victory of 1781 there. He wrote on April 20:

“To present appearances, this bids fair to be the longest and the last heavy battle to be fought during the war. Our army here now occupies the same ground held by the Americans at the time Cornwallis surrendered, and as that was the closing battle of the Revolution we hope that the one in prospect may prove the termination of this very uncivil war.

“Nearly all the heavy guns are now mounted and it is expected that so soon as they are in readiness the ‘Ball will open,’ after which opening McClellan says he will send five hundred shot per minute into the enemy’s works—and quite a number of his guns are one hundred pounders.”

Sleight fully approved of the careful, methodic approach by his army commander, claiming, “it is not the work of a day to prepare to attack a place so strongly fortified as Yorktown—and so we must needs be patient. Rest assured that ‘Little Mac’ has improved his time well, and that before long you will hear the good news of Yorktown being ours.”

He praised the work of the 1st United States Sharpshooters, a specialized unit which included Geneseo transplant Calvin Morse as their chief bugler. Sleight particularly approved of their work against his Confederate artillery counterparts around Yorktown, writing:

“Berdan’s sharpshooters are doing terrible execution among them—they are literally everywhere—in tree tops, under fences and behind stumps, always invisible—and woe to the rebel they chance to sight, he is a doomed man and the doom comes without a warning. A few of them kept the rammer in one of the enemy’s guns all of one day, not a man daring to show himself while the daylight lasted.”

Sleight mocked what he considered a wasted effort by the Confederates in fortifying the lower peninsula and cynically remarked on the attitudes of the civilians he encountered, who he considered “an indolent, thriftless set, with little or no ambition.”

“Yesterday, in the course of a ramble, I visited a large fortification which the rebel soldiers were unable to occupy, our troops just at its completion coming upon them from a different direction than they had anticipated. It cost them much labor, being four hundred yards long and wide enough to allow a carriage drive on the top, outside is a ditch twenty five feet wide, but the whole was labor lost and will long remain a monument to the Southern people’s folly.

“All the natives here talk Union, and one man showed me a small silk flag which he said he had carried in his pocket for the last year—yet one can readily see that the change in their sentiments does not date much farther back than the occupation by our troops.”[4]

On May 3, Sleight caught his first glimpse of General McClellan, who he described as “a small man, but ‘very large for his size.’” Sight of the army commander portended active fighting on the horizon. The Confederates evacuated Yorktown the next day. Smith’s Battery was attached to Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Third Corps division and therefore saw heavy combat while pursuing the Confederate rear guard to Williamsburg on May 5.

Map of the 4th New York Battery at Williamsburg (James E. Smith, A Famous Battery and Its Campaigns)

The battery struggled to keep pace with the infantry as both marched that morning, owing to the rain and obstructions placed across the roads. They briefly rested in the early afternoon until orders arrived to hasten forward. Confederate attacks by the brigades under A.P. Hill, George Pickett, and Cadmus Wilcox threatened to overwhelm Hooker’s line. Captain Smith hurried his artillery into position as the Union infantry fell back under the cover of their guns. Sleight described his first pitched battle and its aftermath in full detail:

“It was with difficulty that the artillery could be moved, by reason of mud. At ten o’clock, on Monday [May 5], we could hear firing of our advance, which had come up with the retreating rebels. We passed on as rapidly as possible, but it was slow work at the best. At one time we were obliged to put ten horses before our guns to pull them through.

“About a mile from the fight we halted to rest, but orders soon came for us to move forward, as our men were falling back—accordingly we made a speedy advance, but our men had been driven off the field into the woods before we reached the scene of action. We immediately unlimbered in the road, and had hardly done so when there was a shower of bullets playing about us like rain. We returned it by a round of canister, which drove the enemy back and gave our men fresh courage, so that they rallied and soon succeeded in clearing the roads—but it was raining, and the long, hard march through the mud had exhausted them so much that the rebels drove them back into the rear of our guns.

“Then our artillery began the work in earnest, for the enemy had possession of the road in front, and were within three hundred yards of us. Two of our men, with myself, worked a brass Howitzer—being very short of hands—my duty was that of three cannonaders, to pick the cartridges, sight the gun and fire. Only about twenty of the artillerymen of our company went into the fight, and five of these, and our driver, were shot down, almost at the first fire.

“Our guns, loaded with canister, did fearful execution among the rebels. I gave them over twenty rounds from mine, and then as the ammunition had given out, owing to the caissons not being able to come up, and the enemy being within three hundred yards, I was obliged to spike it, but just at this time reinforcements arrived, so that the enemy did not advance upon us, and we saved our battery.

“Being thus forced to abandon my useless gun, I procured a rifle and went in as skirmisher, firing whenever I could sight a rebel. We were five hours in the fight, and during all that time the firing never ceased for a moment. All those who were shot in our company were behind me while firing the cannon. None of my gun squad were hit, though several bullets hit the piece, and one passed under me, while another just grazed my back as I was sighting my last charge.

Sketch of the 4th New York Battery at Williamsburg (James E. Smith, A Famous Battle and Its Campaigns)

“The wounded were carried past us by the dozen, and the roads were filled with the dead.

“Hooker’s division suffered more than any other—they took the rebels’ fire for four hours, and were sadly cut up. It is hard to tell the extent of our loss.

“These rebels are perfect fiends—tenfold worse than any Indians. Along the road they had placed torpedoes, made of very heavy shell, with wires so placed that they would catch our feet and explode. Several of our men were killed by them, and very many wounded. It made it necessary for us to look well to our feet.

“Four times during the day our men were driven back, but each time rallied, and when our reinforcements arrived, just at night, it did not take very long to drive the rebels from the field, and gave possession of their forts. After that we made arrangements for camping.

“We had been on the march since Sunday noon, stood five hours’ hard fighting, in a drenching rain with nothing to eat but hard crackers, and most of us had lost our knapsacks, so that we were forced to remain in our wet clothes all night. Making a large fire, I kept near it, sleeping as I could, but too uncomfortable to rest for any length of time.

“In the morning I went back to our forage wagon, a distance of 4 miles, to hurry them forward and to obtain some provisions for us. When I reached them, however, I found the teams fast in the mud and nothing on board but coffee. Sending the men forward with that, I looked about for something for myself, paid a man 25 cents for a cup of hot coffee, and that, with hard crackers, made my breakfast.

“On the way back to camp, I met our Captain, finding how we stood in regard to food, he gave me his revolver and told me to go foraging, taking another man with me, we started on the expedition, and soon had the good fortune to find a fine heard of beef cattle. Shooting down one of them, we took the hind quarters on our horses and returned to camp, where we soon had ready a good dinner of jerk beef. In the afternoon we went back and brought away the remainder.

“As soon as night came on the day of battle, the rebels had begun to vacate, and by morning, were in full retreat with sixty thousand of our boys in pursuit.

“Tuesday and yesterday were spent in burying the dead, but the artillerymen are exempt from that sad duty. The dead were buried just as they fell, with a board at the head of each, telling his name, company and regiment; yet, very many of them, their friends will never find. But one of the wounded in our company has died—he was a fine fellow, a christian, and died happy. Our wounded have been sent North, to hospitals, and are doing well.

“It is quite different here from what it was before Yorktown. There, all was solemn silence, not a drum or a bugle was allowed, while here, there are a dozen Brass Bands playing at once.

“Of the battle, the papers will give a fuller account than I can write.

“Our loss was greater than the rebels’ as they had all the advantage. They had a trap set for us, in the shape of about one hundred acres of fallen timber which they intended to set on fire and confuse us by the smoke and heat, but happily the rain frustrated their plans.

“If they would evacuate a place like Yorktown, so strongly fortified as it was, it is difficult to tell where they will make a stand.

“We are all ready for another fight, and yet, we hope to reach the end without it. One such battle is enough for a lifetime.

“Hoping you will soon hear that we are in possession of Richmond, I remain as ever, H.R.S.”[5]

The Union army’s progress did not match Sleight’s confidence. The remainder of the month was spent slowly tramping up the peninsula toward the Confederate capital. “The advance up the Peninsula was one continued struggle to extricate the carriages from the sticky mud,” recalled Captain Smith. During that time, Sleight’s increased responsibility was acknowledged with a promotion to corporal on May 18.[6]

The battery did not see any notable fighting at Seven Pines at the end of May but did see heavy combat in the Seven Days Battles at the end of June. At its conclusion, Sleight wrote:

“How shall I begin to tell you all that has transpired here in one short week? Of the battle and its attendant horrors the newspapers have given you fuller particulars than I could condense into a score of letters, and yet ‘the half is not told.’ … The past week has been one of the startling events, and for hard fighting has scarcely its equal in the world’s history. Thousands upon thousands have fallen, and alas! for the countless homes throughout the land which have been made desolate, yet it is God’s cause and he will not suffer it to fail.”

The 4th New York Independent Battery had been posted south of the Chickahominy River when the battles to decide the fate of Richmond began. The Confederate assault on June 27 at Gaines’s Mill forced the Union Fifth Corps south of the swamp, where they would be unable to protect the Richmond & York River Railroad. McClellan therefore decided to direct the entire Army of the Potomac on a southward march for the James River to open a new supply line. Sleight echoed McClellan’s language that it was not a retreat, but a change of base, writing, “In consequence of this it became necessary to change the plan of operations, which change had been contemplated before, but the attack of the rebels hastened it somewhat.”

The battery assisted with the Union rear guard defense at Savage Station on June 29. “About noon we were attacked by the enemy, but we held them in check and had only one of our men killed and three wounded,” wrote Sleight, who noted the heavier Confederate assaults occurring as the battery received orders to proceed onward toward the river.

Captain Smith was on sick leave, so First Lieutenant Joseph E. Nairn commanded the battery at the time. Nairn led them on an overnight march to Malvern Hill, where they easily frustrated the effort of Confederate Maj. Gen. Theophilus Holmes to outflank the Union position at Glendale on June 30. “Shot and shell flew thick around us, but God was our protector and not one of us was injured,” wrote Sleight.

The battery occupied a rear position during the battle of Malvern Hill on July 1. “Again we were wonderfully protected and not a man of us was lost,” noted Sleight. Compared to their engagement at Williamsburg, the battery did not see heavy combat. However, constant maneuvering in intense heat with the ever-looming prospect of battle wore on Sleight. Owing “more from the effects of hard work and lack of sleep than from any fixed disease, I was taken quite ill and obliged to be carried to the hospital,” he wrote, “A friend accompanied me and here we spent the night, but the morning brought orders that all who could walk must be up and off, as the army was falling back, and if we remained we would all be made prisoners by the rebels.”

Sleight joined a miserable procession of sick and wounded Union soldiers who marched seven miles “through a drenching rain.” Afterwards he cracked, “I have heard that cold water baths are sometimes good for invalids, but I am not sure that this one benefitted us very greatly.”

Despite repulsing Lee’s attack at Malvern Hill, McClellan continued his plan for the Army of the Potomac to rest and refit at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, the former estate of William Henry Harrison. “The change was for the better,” Sleight noted, “as our present hospital is a beautiful place with plenty of fresh air, and an abundance for a sick man to eat.” He had mixed opinions on the large number of nurses who arrived by boat. “…some of them are of small account, coming I judge, more for the sake of carrying on flirtations with the officers than from any philanthropic or patriotic motives,” he wrote. “Yet there are others, good and noble women, who are indeed blessings to the soldiers and are fully appreciated by them.”

As he wrote his letter to the Geneseo Union Advocate on July 6, Sleight anticipated a speedy return to his battery. “Although still in the hospital, I am convalescent and only remain on account of a sick comrade, who, I hope, will be able to start today for Fortress Monroe, and then I shall leave to join my company.”[7] His health apparently took a turn for the worse, however, as his service records show he was discharged for disability on August 7, 1862.

I have been unable to discover much more of Henry’s story and it is unfortunately a short one that remains. He returned to Geneseo at some point and married Anne Eliza Getty on June 15, 1865. Tragically Henry died just a month and a half later on August 3, 1865. “He died as the christian dieth,” eulogized a newspaper from his Sag Harbor birthplace. “An obedient son, a faithful brother, a devoted husband, a patriotic soldier and a follower of the Lord Jesus, he was ready when his Master called him, and departed with firm reliance in his Savior. None knew him but to love him, and his memory is enshrined in the hearts of many sorrowing ones.”[8]

Henry R. Sleight was buried in Geneseo’s Oakwood Cemetery.

 

Sources:

[1] Harry D. Sleight, Sleights of Sag Harbor (Bridgehampton, NY: The Hampton Press, 1929), 55.

[2] H.R.S. to “Dear Advocate,” November 10, 1861, Geneseo Union Advocate, December 6, 1861.

[3] H.R.S. to “Dear Advocate,” December 2, 1861, Geneseo Union Advocate, December 20, 1861.

[4] H.R.S. to “Dear Advocate,” April 20, 1862, Geneseo Union Advocate, May 9, 1862.

[5] H.R.S. to “Dear Advocate,” undated, Geneseo Union Advocate, May 23, 1862.

[6] James E. Smith, A Famous Battery and Its Campaigns, 1861-’64 (Washington, DC: W.H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1892), 77-78.

[7] H.R.S. to “Dear Advocate,” July 6, 1862, Geneseo Union Advocate, July 18, 1862.

[8] “Died,” Sag Harbor Corrector, August 19, 1865.

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1 Response to A Geneseo Gunner on the Virginia Peninsula

  1. Charles says:

    Very interesting story, especially the mention of the “torpedoes” in the road, which is not something you hear a whole lot about. Thanks Ed!

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