by Michelle Arnosky Sherburne
PEACHAM—It’s the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War and there is so much interest in anything Civil War. People want to know about the battles, the generals, the strategies and artifacts. Letters, diaries, and memoirs give us a real glimpse of what it must have been like to be a soldier fighting in the War of the Rebellion.
What an opportunity to read a diary that was written by a soldier in camp while firing can be heard in the distance, and the soldier just finished guard duty. In a Civil War diary, we can get real stories from people who were there.
At the beginning of 1864, a Peacham native, First Sergeant Isaac Watts journaled the daily events of soldiering. He was faithful to fill two diaries for 1864 and 1865. Short and concise, Watts’ entries were about camp life, drills, inspections, guard duty, brigade dress parades, marches, and events that unfolded.
The diaries are pocket-size leather diaries, 6 inches long and 3.5 inches long. The diary entries are brief because of a daily entry of two inches to write in so there was not a lot of room for ramblings. His letters home were more eloquent and descriptive, giving the recipients a colorful account of events that took place. He kept family and friends apprised of war news and his well-being. The letters he wrote as well as the two diaries, other documents, and photos were kept in the family until 1984. Mary Morrison, Isaac Watts’ granddaughter transcribed the diaries and letters. She then donated the Watts collection to the University of Vermont’s Bailey-Howe Library Special Collections Department.
Watts’ writings tell the story of a soldier who was dedicated to fighting a rebellion but came right from the farm to the military scene just like all the other young men who enlisted.
Along with his diaries and letters, he wrote “Company Roll of the 1st Vermont Artillery Regiment,” which he recorded his regiment’s officers and privates names in August 1865. The Vermont Historical Society has the small bound book in its collection.
Who was Watts? He was the youngest son of 12 children in the combined Watts-Walbridge family. He was born in 1842, the son of Lyman and Roxana Watts.
When Vermont started sending troops in 1861, Watts was 19 and not allowed to join. His two half brothers were ten years his senior and his other half brother was seven years older so they went off to war, leaving Isaac to help his father with the family farm.
Watts stayed in Peacham and finished his education, then planned on college. But when talk of the 1863 draft hit Peacham, he changed his mind. Watts’ father was against him enlisting and offered to pay $300 commutation so Isaac could stay and work the farm and continue his education.
But Watts went against his father’s wishes. He wanted to contribute like his brothers and fellow Peachamites in the War of the Rebellion. Right after he turned 21 in August 1863, he left Peacham and traveled to Brattleboro, Vermont, to enlist.
On Oct. 9, 1863, he was mustered into the Battery M, 1st Regiment of the Vermont Heavy Artillery which was based at Fort Slocum, Virginia, guarding Washington, D.C. The troops were considered “Abe’s Pet Lambs” because duty was lighter than in the thick of the battles. But as the war progressed, Watts’ battery saw plenty of action.
Because his unit was guarding the capitol city and not on the move all the time, Watts’ diaries describe camp life for soldiers. He wrote of hanging around camp, cleaning his gun, reading, cleaning tent area, doing chores, washing clothes and writing letters. In his entries, he often wrote: “Nothing of importance to do to day.” There was a lot of waiting for soldiers. Watts wrote of receiving orders to pack up camp and wait to march, but nothing would happen for a day or so.
In his January 18, 1864 diary entry, Watts wrote, “I have drilled about half an hour in the barracks today, attended roll call, eaten my rations and that is all I have done for the U.S. today.”
Watts wrote often about missing home, family, and Peacham. “Should like to spend a Sun. in old Peacham with the dear friends round the old home circle.”
When the mail arrived in camp, Watts was always anxious to receive letters from home. He pined in his entries about not receiving letters. “I don’t see the reason why I don’t get some letters from home but suppose they are all busy there and can’t write often.”
Watts wrote in his 1864 diary that “It is like cold water to a thirsty soul to hear from friends after a long silence.”
During the war, Watts stayed relatively healthy. In January 1864, he spent five days in the hospital but after that he suffered only minor ailments. When the troops were marching in August 1865, he suffered from exhaustion but he managed to keep up.
Watts advanced quickly, impressing his superiors in a short time. Having joined in October 1863, six months later he was promoted to corporal.
At the beginning of January 1865, he wrote his sister Alice M. Watts of his next promotion: “I came back to the Co. about a week ago and was made Sergeant at that memorable time. I shall get a little more pay and perhaps not have quite so much to do, that is if I don’t get myself into a scrape and get reduced. This is strictly confidential you know.”
He noted in diary entries of dignitaries visited like Vermont Governor John Gregory Smith, Secretary of War E.M. Stanton, and General Philip Sheridan.
In May 1864, Battery M was assigned to join the 6th Army Corps and they were involved in action at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and in August were transferred to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Watts’ battery spent most of the 1864 summer marching and getting closer to the battles to be backup forces. The soldiers were wearing down and exhaustion was winning. Watts suffered poor health during the march and ended up falling behind with other sick soldiers. Watts recorded how miserable the weather was and how the troops marched from crack of dawn to late at night.
They marched from Bunker Hill to Belle Plain close to Fredericksburg and then crossed the Rapahannock River. They crossed the North Ana River and then the Pamunkey River making it to Cold Harbor June 2. After almost an entire month of marching, his battery arrived and worked on entrenchments and breastworks near the battle.
The enemy was nearby and they had to be careful even while in camp, He noted in one entry that the bullets were “flying freely” and he wrote his sister that his hat had a bullet hole in it. Also he wrote in his diary about “Abel Hinds, one of our cooks, was shot through the head while bringing coffee to night, and almost instantly killed.”
But there was a short truce and then the troops were ordered to leave, and they were on the move marching north starting June 13.
He marked anniversaries of the two major battles he participated in, the Battle of Opequan in Winchester on September 19, 1864 and the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864.
He witnessed General Philip Sheridan’s famous rally ride that marked the highlight of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia. Confederate forces under the leadership of Lieutenant General Jubal Early attempted to invade Washington, D.C. The battle was one of the final battles of 1864, which ended Confederate strategies to hit the capitol.
Early began the campaign successfully with his troops attacking before daylight, taking Union forces by surprise. They gained the upper hand and captured hundreds of Union prisoners. Nearby at Winchester, Virginia, General Philip Sheridan heard news of the battle and rode to Cedar Creek to take command. Reaching the battlefield late morning, he rallied the Union forces and the tides changed with the Union army breaking the Confederate line. Many of the Confederate troops surrendered and the Union soldiers took artillery and supplies from them.
“Sheridan’s Ride,” a poem written by Thomas Buchanan Read, immortalized Sheridan’s famous ride forever.
Interestingly, the Vermont Brigade held a place of honor because more Vermonters participated in Cedar Creek than any other states during the war.
Watts’ retelling of the famous battle was in his October 20, 1864 letter to his sister Alice. He wrote, “We have fought and won another great battle and by the blessing of God I am safe and unharmed, though we have lost pretty heavily not only in our own reg. but also through the entire army. Yesterday morning our pickets were attacked about 5 o’clock and by daylight the rebels had worked their way around in rear of the 8th and 17th Corps, capturing arty. and about everything else that there was to be had, completely routing both Corps and leaving it for the 6th to check their success or give them a complete victory. We went out on the double quick and fought them, falling back in the mean time about three miles. Our lines were then formed so we made a permanent stand (and) were not compelled to relinquish it again. Gen. Sheridan rode on just then and his presence was as good as a force of ten thousand. As he rode along he said never mind we’d give it to them yet before night. We gave him some good rousing cheers and things looked brighter immediately. At 4 o’clock PM we charged and after a hard contest to get them started, in which many fell on both sides, we didn’t give them a chance to stop till they were across the Creek and then the Cor. followed them up, taking prisoners and cannon by the wholesale. It was an all day fight lasting till dark. In the morning we lost lots of arty. the number is variously estimated, and at night they were all retaken and twenty pieces beside….
“… It was a hard fought battle and though commencing bad for us turned out pretty well. During the day I fired about eighty rounds at them and others accordingly. So you can imagine it was pretty warm work. I don’t believe they will try to surprise Sheridan again, for it is a hard thing to do.”
The war experience prematurely aged young men who left home. Watts marked his birthday, he writing, “I who was the youngest boy, the baby as it were, of the family, am getting to be quite old, and am a dirty, ragged soldier.” He was only 22 and felt like an old man.
Death was all around the soldiers and the reality of the casualties of war were new experiences for the young soldiers. A gunshot wound could be the demise of a soldier as it was for Watts’ half brother Dustin Walbridge who died from a wound in the arm.
In the November 5, 1864 letter, Watts shared that their captain had been killed during a battle: “We made a stand on a hill to check the enemy. They came right on and as everything broke to right and left we were obliged to fall back. He was struck by a solid shot or shell…in the breast and killed instantly. I did not see him after he was shot. He was left on the field and fell into the enemy hands but his body was found and buried the next morning….”
The war was winding down when Watts wrote in March 1865, “Speed on the time when peace, just and honorable shall return. Then I’ll be a soldier no more.”
He noted when his troops got word that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered and also reports of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He noted that he hoped it wasn’t true but then noted shortly after about Lincoln’s funeral and burial. Watts was able to visit Washington, D.C. in June 1865 and noted in his diary that he “visited the Capitol and went to the trial of the ‘conspirators’ this forenoon.”
After the April 1865 surrender of the Confederate army, it was a slow pullout, troops were still in place to keep the peace and collect artillery. On August 25, 1865, Watts’ unit was officially mustered out—“A day we have all been looking for a long time.”
But it wasn’t until September that Watts was discharged. In his September 1, 1865 diary entry, he wrote: “Am a citizen at last. Was discharged and paid this afternoon and will be all ready to go home in the morning. Bully for this. It is just what I have looked for a long time and have got at last!”
Watts returned to Peacham at the end of 1865 and eventually took over the family farm. He married two times and had two daughters. Watts was involved in town as Sunday school superintendent, selectman, and town representative. Watts felt a duty to honor Peacham’s fallen soldiers and was instrumental in getting the Peacham Civil War monument erected in 1869.
His dedication to journaling left a record for us to get a firsthand account of a Union soldier defending his country. One hundred and fifty years later, one of Peacham’s own Civil War soldier’s story exists for us today.