More than 40 years after the American Civil War ended, my great-great-grandfather James “Jimmy” Young wrote a memoir about his experience with the 6th Connecticut Volunteers, Company K, and the months he endured in Andersonville prison. Originally from Aberdeen, Scotland, Jimmy was 14 years old when he immigrated to Montreal with his parents Robert Young and Mary Fyvie and nine brothers and sisters in 1855.
By the time Jimmy decided to join the Union army in Connecticut, it was August 1863. A few weeks earlier, the Confederates had been defeated at the Battle Gettysburg and the tide of war had turned against the them. Jimmy was 24 years old, an unmarried brass finisher, and had been living in cramped housing in Montreal with his parents and most of his brothers and sisters. Like many young men in the city, he had served with the Volunteer Militia.
Jimmy replaced a conscripted man from New York, who likely paid him between $400 and $1,000. According to his obituary, Jimmy enlisted because he had been “fired with enthusiasm for the Northern cause and ready for the great adventure of life.” In reality, it was probably a combination of adventure, beliefs, and money that helped him decide to sign up.
Within a few months, Jimmy was doing duty at Port Royal in Hilton Head, South Carolina. In April 1864, his regiment was ordered to join the Army of the James under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler, who had received orders from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to attack west and cut Richmond, Virginia’s supply lines from the south.
March toward Richmond
By early May, tension had risen on both sides of the Civil War. Grant had been moving his army of 120,000 that included the 6th Connecticut Volunteers to face Confederate Robert E. Lee’s army that numbered 64,000. Soon after the Sixth and others landed at the town of Bermuda Hundred on the James River, they started their march toward Richmond. As part of Grant’s plan, they cut telegraph wires and ripped up the track of the Petersburgh and Richmond Railroad, burning the ties and poles.
Less than a week later, on May 14, the Sixth was ordered to advance to Proctor’s Creek, near Drewry’s Bluff, south of Richmond. When they were unable to move any further, they stayed near the edge of a piece of woods where they could hear the enemy a short distance away. At this point, the war took an unfortunate turn for Jimmy.
During the evening of May 15, while Jimmy was manning a post, Captain Osborne of Company K crept along the ground to order him to change posts. The new post was in full view of the Confederate army. Jimmy told his captain it would be “instant death” for anyone who attempted to reach it. “Well, Cap, I don’t want to disobey orders, but if you will allow me to choose my own men, I will fill the position.” Osborne agreed, and Jimmy took two “tried veterans,” with him, William Gladstone and James Hine.
The three men made a bold dash for their new post. When they reached the post, Jimmy considered they were lucky to still be alive and uninjured. “The Johnnies were so intent firing into the woods where our boys were settling themselves for the night, that they overlooked us.”
The men discovered their post was not much more than a hole in the ground on a slight brow of a hill, built up by a little mound of earth with two rails placed in front. Through the night, they kept watch, staying low to the ground, hidden only by the darkness. Thinking back on the night, Jimmy wrote, “If they had had the slightest idea that we were in such close proximity to them, they would have lowered the muzzle of that gun and scooped us clean out of the ground.” At regular intervals, they heard the enemy fire shot after shot in their direction with many of the shots going close to their heads.
After several hours, three men from the 7th Connecticut Volunteers tried to crawl across the field to relieve them, but a volley of shots forced them to scamper back. Jimmy, Gladstone, and Hine were left on their own.
Just before sunrise, a thick fog covered the battleground. The rebels gathered their forces and charged upon them, shouting with that “peculiar yell so characteristic of the Johnnies.”
Jimmy wrote, “They were on us before they knew we were in front of them, and when we sprang to our feet I suppose they thought we came out of the ground.”
Because of the sheer number of Confederates attacking them, Jimmy, Gladstone, and Hine surrendered.
By noon that day, May 16, the war was over for Jimmy. The Confederates transported Glandstone, Hine, and him along with other prisoners down the James River to Richmond where they were marched to Libby prison.
Sources — Books
Cadwell, Charles K. The Old Sixth Regiment, Its War Record, 1861-5. New Haven, Connecticut: 1875. Reprint, Salem, Massachusetts: Higginson Book Company, 1998. (Online version available through Internet Archive: <http://www.archive.org/stream/oldsixthregiment00cadwrich#page/n0/mode/2up>.)
Macdonald, John. The Historical Atlas of the Civil War. New York, New York: Cartwell Books, 2009.
Young, James. Reminiscences of the Prison Life of James Young. ca. 1920.
Sources — Newspaper
James Young dies, aged eight-four, Montreal (Quebec) Daily Star, 5 September 1923, page 2.
Sources — Online
National Park Service, Washington, D.C. 6th Regiment, Connecticut Infantry, Union Connecticut Volunteers, Regiment Details, Civil War. Online < http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-regiments-detail.htm?regiment_id=UCT0006RI >.
Sources — Photographs
Young, James. Portrait, c. 1861, Montreal, Quebec. Photographer unknown.
Libby Prison. The only picture in existence. As it appeared August 23, 1863. Prints & Photographs Online Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Online < http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645219 >.
Copyright © 2014, Gail Dever.