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The Civil War, the battle for Richmond

Updated on July 6, 2012

A man named William Southwell

Many Americans think of the Civil War ending shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg was a huge turning point in the war giving the advantage to the north there after, however, it was certainly not over. It would be two more long bloody years before America would know some peace.

My great great grandfather, William Southwell was one of the brave young men who fought in the Civil War. He fought in the 91st infantry of New York State towards the end of the great conflict. I knew very little about his life until one fine day when I learned about this man by total accident. I was searching the internet for no apparent reason and something came to mind. It was Willliam. I typed his name in the computer not expecting any result what so ever. The man died in 1900. I never thought he would have a web site. You know what? He did!

I knew very little about William Southwell until then. I knew he was born in Ireland in 1846 during the Great Famine and his mother died when he was about four years old. He was raised by two sister's ( who were not related to him ) in Hudson N.Y. My great aunt had died promising I would inherit a stack of letters she saved in a box in the upstairs bedroom of her tiny Rensselaer, N.Y. home. It was once the home of William her grandparents. She told me her grandmother, Mary Law Southwell gave her these letters. They were from her grandfather. He had written them during the war. One of the letters contained a ring in the envelope. William Southwell had no money to buy a wedding ring so he carved a ring out of one of the buttons on his Civil War uniform. He mailed it to his childhood sweetheart, Mary Law.

Unfortunately, my great uncle Frank was a bit of a conartist. He never passed the letters on to any of my siblings or my cousins. After my great aunt died, he sold the letters to an antique dealer as Civil War memorabilia and made a few fast big bucks at the expense of our family. But, that is not the end of the story. While surfing the web I found William Southwell. He was on a web page for the New York State Library. Decades later, those incredible letters that were sold long ago were eventually purchased by art collectors working for the New York State Museum. The letters of my great great grandfather, William Southwell were preserved in special collections in the New York State Library. All of them were written to his wife Mary Law.

I learned from the museum records and these letters that William enlisted in the Union Army in July of 1864. He was only 18 years old. For many months after, he was stationed at Fort Marshall until 1865. Exhausted troops coming in from previous battles and the horrors of war were brought in for relief. Most of the 91st were redirected elsewhere. William was sent with a chosen few to march to Richmond. He fought in the Battle of White Oak Road and in the battle Five Forks. At one point his flank was ambushed. Two hundred and fifty men were shot before his eyes within minutes of the attack. Fifty men died right then and there. Many were wounded and in need of amputation of their limbs. William could hear their screams as his general called out, 'each man for himself !'.

From there they marched to Richmond to take the city, and take the city they did! The Civil war was coming to an end. Richmond was about to fall.

The August 1862 Battle of Richmond ended quite differently. From August 29-30 the second largest battle of the Civil War took place in Richmond and was a victory for the Confederacy. Back in 1862, it seemed that the capital of the Confederate States was invincible. Two more years of horrifying battles were finally taking their toll on the south. By April 1865, a Confederate Richmond would see it's last days. The fall of Petersburg became known as Evacuation Sunday. While Lincoln remained near by in City Point waiting for the big news, Richmond lay burning. Finally, the long wait for the fall of Richmond had come and much of the city was left in ruins.

The Infantry Divisions did not ride on horses. That was of course, the Calvary Division. Infantry men walked to war. They marched day after day week after week in the rain and in the cold. The records show these young men marched through forests and wetlands, through fields and swamps, by day and by night. Could you imagine walking from Baltimore to Richmond? After Lee's infamous surrender and the signing of a treaty at Appotomox Court House, the boys marched back to Washington. They were sent to Washington D.C. to watch the parades of galant northern troops pass by and be part of the parade themselves. William was in Washington D.C. at the time of Abraham Lincoln's assasination. Celebration soon turned to remorse as the news of Lincoln's death spread over the land.

He returned to Hudson, N.Y. in July of 1865. William married Mary Law of Hudson and moved to Rensselaer, N.Y. where he became a carpenter by trade. William and Mary Southwell had nine children. Tragedy would strike the young couple again. How they survived...I will never know. After a visit with family in New York City, the Southwell children became ill. In the entrance to Beverwyck Cemetery in Rensselaer, N.Y. are five little grave stones. They are the graves of five of the nine Southwell children who died of Diphtheria.

The museum historian made copies of the many letters of William Southwell to Mary Law and gave them to me. I will never forget their story of courage and survival and every time I feel that life is getting to me, I think of them. I know that there is nothing I could experience in this life an horrid as a famine, a war, and the loss of five children at once. For those readers who think that our lives and our country is falling apart, I would like to ask them to search their own family records. For there is a story like William's just waiting to be found in every family record. You may find that we are pretty lucky compared to our ancestors and we should all remember how hard they all had it, give thanks and praise our blessings.

By Joanne Kathleen Farrell, author of Liberty for the Lion shield

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    • iaxu profile image


      7 years ago from Fort Worth, TX

      Being an immigrant myself, I read American history with glee, and reading it from the hem of the garment of one of it's progeny is special. Thanks


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