Rollin O. Sanford died on July 29, 1864 while a prisoner of war at the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. His only son, Rollin J, was born that very same day in Hopkinton NY, twelve hundred miles to the north, in what is now the Adirondack Park. While there are countless stories of tragedy and heartache that occurred during the Civil War, this story seemed especially poignant, since it involved our family.
Rollin O. Sanford, described as a large and powerful man, was the tenth child and youngest son of Jonah and Abigail Greene Sanford. He was a farmer in Hopkinton, married to Ermina Roberts, with whom he had two daughters, Lillian and Jeanette. “Nettie”, the younger daughter, died in November 1863 at age two, one month before Rollin went off to war. Years later Lillian wrote about the death of her little sister and how her father “held Nettie in his arms as her little life went out”.
In late 1863, the Civil War was well into its third year. A military draft was enacted to fill the depleted ranks of the Union Army. Those drafted would join the infantry, which was renowned for long marches, primitive living conditions and a high casualty rate. An alternative was to enlist in one of the Heavy Artillery regiments. These regiments manned the heavy guns in fortifications around Washington DC, providing defense against Rebel attack. Recruitment posters for heavy artillery regiments boasted “Now is the time to procure the bounty and avoid the draft. No long marches, no heavy knapsacks to carry or shelter tents to sleep in, but fine barracks for quarters.”
Rollin, along with three other Hopkinton men – all relatives – enlisted in the NY 7th Heavy Artillery and in December, 1863, a 26-year-old Rollin left his wife and remaining daughter to join the fight.
The Overland Campaign
The Army of the Potomac had a mostly disappointing record to this point. Despite having superior numbers of troops and supplies, they had often been outmaneuvered and defeated by the Confederates. Ulysses S Grant however, had achieved success in the western theater. This included the capture of Vicksburg on July 4th 1863, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Lincoln elevated Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General making him supreme commander of the Union forces. His task was to employ all the forces at his command and win the war.
Grant’s strategy to end the war was to destroy the rebel Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee. The military offensive to accomplish this would be called the Overland Campaign and would include the battles at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. The offensive began on May 4, 1864 with the crossing of the Rapidan River, a tributary of the Rappahannock.
Shortly after crossing the Rapidan, Grant’s army encountered Lee’s forces, first at the Wilderness and then at Spotsylvania. These were two of the bloodiest battles in the war and resulted in horrific losses – 36,000 Union and 24,000 Confederate. Grant could replace Union losses with fresh troops, but Lee could not, so Grant called out some of the Heavy Artillery regiments, including the NY 7th Heavy Artillery, from their fortifications around Washington to join the fight.
Rollin and the 7th marched from Washington on May 15, to meet up with the Union forces in Spotsylvania. On May 19, as Grant was shifting his forces south, the rebels mounted a rear guard attack on the right flank of the Union Army. The Heavy Artillery regiments, just arriving from Washington, were immediately thrown into the fight at a place called Harris Farm. The term “seeing the elephant” was a 19th century term used to describe a soldier’s first experience in battle. Rollin and the 7th would “see the elephant” that day. In a brief but hard fight, they emerged victorious, but not without suffering significant casualties.
The 7th was attached to the Army of the Potomac in the Second Corps, First Division under Generals Hancock and Barlow. After the engagement at Harris Farm, the 7th was heavily involved in most of the battles that would take place during the next several months, including Cold Harbor and Petersburg.
Snatching Defeat From The Jaws of Victory
Cold Harbor was one of the most costly and lopsided defeats for the Union army during the war. The frontal assault against entrenched Confederate troops on June 3rd was ill-advised and resulted in a slaughter of the attacking Union troops. From June 3rd through the 12th there were approximately 13,000 Union and 5,000 Confederate casualties. It was a decisive victory for Lee, though it would be his last. Grant recalled in his memoirs: “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. No advantage whatsoever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained”.
There was one small victory for the Union Army on that terrible day of June 3rd as the 7th was the only group that actually breached the Confederate defensive line. They engaged in hand-to-hand combat, took three hundred prisoners and captured two artillery pieces. Unfortunately, they were not supported by reinforcements and had to withdraw to the Union lines after being overwhelmed by Confederate reserves with significant loses to the 7th. When they marched from Washington they numbered 1,850 strong. Following the assault at Cold Harbor only 932 remained, half their original strength. One of the Hopkinton men, Ashford Roberts, was seriously wounded in the fight.
Following Cold Harbor, the Union army continued their march south. The objective now was Petersburg, VA, whose capture would strangle supply lines to Richmond, possibly ending the war. As so often occurred during the Civil War, there was poor communication and coordination between Union commanders in the field. The Second Corps, with Rollin and the 7th, endured a long, forced march from Cold Harbor, arriving outside Petersburg on June 15th. At that time, Petersburg was sparsely defended and was ripe for capture. Confederate general Beauregard wrote later that Petersburg “at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.” Even at noon the following day, it appeared that the enemy redoubts were unmanned. However, there was a delay before a general assault was ordered. At four in the afternoon on June 16th, whistles were heard from trains arriving in Petersburg. Shortly after, rebel troops were seen filing into their positions. With these formidable defensive positions now fully manned, frontal assault became nearly suicidal.
On June 16th, elements of the Second Corps were chosen for a frontal assault on the Confederate line. The slaughter at Cold Harbor was still fresh in the soldiers’ memories. At 6 pm the order was given. The First Division, with Rollin and the 7th, marched across an open field into heavy rifle and artillery fire against an entrenched and hidden foe. Scores were killed or wounded during their march through sheets of deadly cannon and rifle fire. Rollin’s company took refuge in a shallow depression fifty yards in front of the enemy. This provided some relief from the cannons, but they were still exposed to continuous rifle fire. Death awaited them whether they advanced or retreated. Their situation was hopeless, and with no prospect of being reinforced or rescued, they chose to surrender.
In the month since Rollin left the defenses of Washington, he had been either marching or fighting nearly continuously. He would only live for another six weeks.
“Can this be Hell?”
Rollin and the two remaining Hopkinton men – brothers Ira and Eli Brown – were transported in cattle cars, to central Georgia and the small town of Andersonville. They were then herded from the rail cars and through the North Gate of Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville prison.
One of the survivors of the prison described the experience: “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect – stalwart men, now nothing but skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men exclaimed with earnestness: Can this be hell?”
The prison camp had been constructed in an isolated area in rural Georgia on the sandy, red soil of the region. It was built in January 1864 and designed to hold 10,000 prisoners. By late that summer however, there were over 33,000 occupying this space. The days were brutally hot and no shelter was provided from the elements. Water was scarce and what was available was often fouled by human waste. Food was nearly non-existent. Nearly 13,000 Union prisoners died at Andersonville.
Rollin and Eli lasted about a month before succumbing to malnutrition and dysentery. Nearly half of the 486 prisoners from the NY 7th who were imprisoned in Andersonville would die. The dead were buried in long trenches with a numbered, wooden stake as the only marker. Of the four Hopkinton men who enlisted in the 7th that December, two would die in Andersonville, one would be seriously wounded at Cold Harbor and one, Ira Brown, would survive his prison experience and live to celebrate his 90th birthday.
After the war ended, Clara Barton and Dorance Atwater traveled to Andersonville to identify and mark the graves of the dead. Barton was known for her tireless work ministering to the battlefield wounded and as the eventual founder of the Red Cross. Atwater, a former POW, had served in the prison hospital and was one of the survivors of Andersonville. He compiled an accurate list of those who died during their internment. After the war, he wrote to the families of the dead: “I feared that neither you, nor the Government of the United States, would learn the fate of your loved ones whom I saw daily dying before me. I could do nothing for them, but I resolved that I would at least try to let you sometime know when and how they died.”
It is in large part due to their efforts that today’s marble markers reflect who is buried beneath. Of the 12,920 graves in the cemetery, only 460 are marked as “unknown”.
Closing The Circle
In April 2012 I followed the route that Rollin traveled nearly 150 years earlier. We traveled to Washington and from there we visited the sites where Rollin and the 7th toiled and fought so long ago. We read about the battles, studied maps, talked with and learned from the Park Rangers at each site.
We also spent a good deal of time in quiet reflection. As we sped along the highway, we tried to imagine how soldiers in 1864 traveled these same routes; marching in heavy woolen uniforms, carrying their packs, guns and supplies in the sweltering heat of the Virginia summer, often with inadequate food and undrinkable water. Their marches sometimes went on for days with little rest and often ended only when they were thrown into battle.
The battle sites now are peaceful and quiet, so it’s hard to imagine the noise, chaos and horror that Rollin and the other men who fought there endured. We ended our journey at the site of Andersonville prison and stood in that place where such cruelty and misery was visited upon so many. As our nation remembers the Civil War through sesquicentennial events, we should not fail to remember those who suffered, died and are buried in places like Andersonville prison, far from their homes.
Before leaving New York, we collected some sod from the base of Ermina’s grave in Hopkinton, NY. We carried this with us and planted this small piece of soil and grass at Rollin’s grave in Andersonville. We then removed some sod from Rollin’s gravesite to be placed at Ermina’s grave in Hopkinton. We felt this might serve as a small symbol of her husband, finally back home, full circle, reunited. Ermina’s obituary in 1913 reads in part: “The grief that her husband could not be brought here for burial was one that she ever felt, was almost more than she could bear”.
On July 29, 2014 it will be exactly one hundred and fifty years since Rollin O. Sanford died and his son Rollin J. Sanford was born. The Civil War narrative is filled with tragic endings for North Country boys and their families. This is only one of many.
Illustrations, from above: Rollin O. Sanford, farmer; Sanford in the NY 7th Heavy Artillery; Map showing the series of battles resulting from the Overland Campaign; Alfred Waud’s sketch of the 7th breaching the Confederate line June 3, 1864; and Rollin O. Sanford’s grave in Andersonville, GA.
Bill Bradley is a cardiologist practicing in Plattsburgh with an interest in history and a camp on Lake Ozonia near Hopkinton.
This essay first appeared at Adirondack Almanack.