The Boys From Grab Gut
The Early History of French Creek, NY and
The Civil War Letters of a Family that
French Creek is one of the extreme west townships in New York State, within Chautauqua County. The actual stream of French Creek, running through the township is so named after the French Military expeditions through the area and the use of the creek as a navigating waterway before the American Revolution. The little burg of French Creek came to be called “Grab Gut” in the early to mid 1800’s. The thriving community of Grab (French Creek) also became known as Bunville in 1865. This area once contained a sawmill, tannery, blacksmith shop, hotel-tavern, bank, gristmill, and the first Post Office. Grab was sometimes called Grab Gut because the prices at the store were often so high that the expression, “Grab Gut” was used in referring to the storekeeper as being willing to charge enough to “grab the very guts” from a store client. This area is the valley at the intersection of Reagan Rd. and County Rt. 4….or the French Creek Mina Rd. As the Railroad passed by French Creek in the years during the Civil War, residents moved on and the many houses and businesses in Grab Gut no longer exist.
Grab Gut (French Creek) Post Office and Store. 1880's
Just to the east, is Cattaraugus County. Both Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties became significant as the Civil War raged, and the need for men arose.
A historical waterway, French Creek was named in 1753 by young George Washington as he journeyed to Fort LeBoeuf (now Waterford, Erie County, PA ) to warn the French that they were on British territory. French Creek provided early settlers with abundant natural resources, including a waterway for transportation. The town has many farms to this day, and lumbering is also a staple in the economy.
As the westward movement of settlers extended beyond the Great Lakes, the area of French Creek was unsettled until just before the War of 1812. The first settler in French Creek was a man by the name of Andy Nobles in 1810, shortly after in 1812/13 came the third, Roswell Coe. Roswell Coe was the son of Robert Coe, Revolutionary War veteran, and Chloe Thrall Coe of Winchester, CT. Roswell married Polly Porter in 1804 in Torrington CT, and moved to Genesee County, NY. Roswell came to French Creek with his family looking for the newly purchased land. They had just begun to start a family when they left Chenango Co. for French Creek, and continued their family once arrived. One of those children was Birdsell Coe, born Aug. 23, 1814 (The first white child born in French Creek). Birdsell stayed in French Creek, and continued working the farm his father had obtained from the Holland Land Co., and in the mid 1800’s he wrote the “early history of French Creek” as he recalled from his memory, and the stories and tales told by his father and mother. One brother, Robert G. Coe moved westward to Illinois.
Birdsell Coe married a young woman by the name of Sarah Jane Skellie, from the town of Mina. Mina is a Township directly north of French Creek, and within the township is the town of Findley Lake.
Birdsell and Sarah had 2 children, Robert L. Coe and Emma Coe. Robert is the author of the majority of letters, they inspire this work, written to both his parents, and his sister Emma.
Before the war, Robert farmed with his father, and was a School teacher in Quincy, NY. A town renamed Ripley at some point in time. As a teacher, Robert had fairly good grammar and writing skills. His spelling is mostly correct and he is able to put his thoughts into word that tell a good story. I have transcribed his letters exactly as written, spelling and punctuation is original.
Sometime in the mid to late 1850’s James Rhodes of Cranberry Township, Venango Co., PA moved to French Creek, whether looking for work, or for the affections of Emma Coe. After the war, James Rhodes returned to French Creek and married Emma Coe, Jim was courted by his brother, Dr. John Rhodes to come to Callaforna or the Nevada territory….but James married Emma and they are my Great Great Grandfather and Grandmother. Robert Coe and James Rhodes enlisted together in the summer of 1862 at a meeting at Chautauqua, NY into the newly forming Regiment. Their Government Bounty was $25 dollars. Corporal Robert Coe and Private James Rhodes were best of friends through the war, were tent mates, shack mates and just good friends. The letters they wrote and were written about are in the following pages. A good many of the letters were written by William (Bill or Billy) Skellie, a cousin of Robert and Emma as their mother was a Skellie. William Skellie and another cousin Ebenezer(Eb) Skellie are mentioned many times being in the same Regiment and cousins of the Coes.
Also cousins were Edward, Harrison, Henry, and Roswell (Ros) Coe, all fought in the war. Harrison and Edward served in the sister Regiment of the 112th, the 154th NY (the Hardtack Regiment) because when the call for the organization of Regiments was made from Chautauqua Co., the 112th filled and the over flow became Co.’s E and F in the 154th. Henry and Roswell somehow ended up westward in Illinois….probably with Uncle Robert G. Coe mentioned earlier, and Henry served in the 65th Illinois. Roswell enlisted into the 7th Regiment Missouri Infantry while in Chicago, Ill June 3, 1861 for 3 years. He was in General James B. McPhersons XVII Corps in the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. He was mortally wounded May 12th 1863 at the Battle of Raymond, Miss., removed to a field hospital and died. Harrison Coe was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville May 2, 1863 and confined at Richmond, VA May 9, 1863. Paroled at City Point, VA May 15, 1863 and returned to his regiment in time for the Gettysburg Campaign. Harrison was promoted to Sergeant Nov. 13, 1864, and was killed near Snow Hill, N.C., March 26, 1865 while foraging. Sergeant Harrison Coe and Corporal Job Dawley were caught by the 6th Georgia Cavalry in a home (of Union sympathizers) and executed. The Confederate motto “Death to all Foragers” after the Union armies rampage through the south made the southern soldier and citizen bitter with reason. The 154th NY served in Sherman’s army during the “March to the Sea”. Private Edward Coe was wounded in Gettysburg July 1, 1863 at the Brickyard on the North side of Gettysburg, when Confederate General Jubal Earlys Army was attacking the 11th Corps from Carlisle the first day of the battle. Known as the Coster / Hays-Avery fight, Ed was wounded and taken prisoner by Confederate forces, held 2 days and escaped upon Lee’s withdrawal from Gettysburg. Edward made his way to the Philadelphia Hospital and was later transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps.
When Colonel Avery attacked Colonel Costers’ regiments at the brickyard north of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, the North Carolina regiments overwhelmed the 27th PA and 134th NY on each side of the 154th NY who refused the line. Having their flanks collapse, the 154th slowly withdrew.
The National Park Service describes the fight this way:
Having received orders to support the right flank of Barlow's 1st Division engaged in the fields north of the county poor farm, Coster's three regiments- the 27th Pennsylvania, 154th New York, and 134th New York- raced through Gettysburg from Cemetery Hill and stumbled into the brickyard where they loaded their rifles and waited for the inevitable attack. From this point, Colonel Coster saw that Barlow's men were already heavily engaged and his line crumbling under the weight of the Confederate assault. The anxiety running through the ranks of the men must have been terrible to witness. Ahead of them was the spectacle of the 1st Division of their corps being pounced upon and breaking into a rout by what appeared to be thousands of Confederate troops. It was not long before the tops of Confederate battleflags rose from the ground in front of Coster's soldiers. Surrounding each flag were determined southerners who moved up the gentle slope of the knoll toward the brickyard, finally raising their "Rebel yell" when they spied the Union troops. Charles McKay, a soldier of the 154th New York remembered, "I shall never always remember how the Confederate line of battle looked as it came into full view and started down toward us. It seemed... they had a battle flag every few rods... their formation in solid column. However our fire did good execution when we opened, and their line was stopped in front."*
Positioned on the left of Coster's men, Captain Lewis Heckman's Battery K, 1st Ohio Light Artillery was just then pulling into position. "The enemy was already in range," Heckman reported as his Buckeye artillerymen went to work. "I unlimbered and commenced firing as soon as possible, as the enemy were close to me and advancing. My battery was engaged thirty minutes... (and) expended 113 rounds of ammunition, mostly canister."
Despite the artillery fire on these Southern formations, the fields around Coster's Brigade quickly filled with yelling, shooting Confederates. These were men of Hoke's Brigade, commanded at Gettysburg by the dashing Colonel Isaac Avery. "Colonel Avery now gave the order to double quick," reported Colonel Godwin of the 57th North Carolina, whose regiment was one of three to strike Coster. "The brigade gallantly dashed... up the hill to the fence, the enemy stubbornly holding their position until we had climbed over into their midst." First to be thrown back was Coster's right regiment and then the left gave way, leaving only the 154th New York Infantry stubbornly holding onto their section of fence. Racing forward, the 21st and 57th North Carolina regiments charged and lept over the fence. Nearly surrounded, the New Yorkers began to slowly fall back before turning to run with other fleeing soldiers toward Gettysburg.
Heckman's Ohio Battery was now in a bad fix, exposed to a flank attack by Avery's victorious Carolinians. Seeing that his battery was about to be overrun, Heckman ordered the gunners to limber up and retreat, though it came too late for two guns and their crews who fell into the hands of the 6th North Carolina Infantry. Drivers of the four remaining cannon frantically lashed the horses and drove the caissons and limbers into the growing throng of Eleventh Corps troops crowding Carlisle Street, blood from some of the wounded horses spattering the men as they passed. The horrible sight and warm blood panicked several men who dashed ahead screaming of imagined disaster, spreading confusion and panic to others. Orderly columns deteriorated into a mob as the Eleventh Corps stormed into the streets of Gettysburg. As one survivor put it, "The few that did get away were the best runners."* Troops of the First Corps, which had been fighting west of town, were just then beginning their retreat through town and the streets of Gettysburg were quickly filled with a milling mass of blue-clad soldiers, exhausted and confused- only a few had been told to rally on Cemetery Hill and even fewer knew were that was.
*(Quotes are from Mark Dunkelman's The Hardtack Regiment, An Illustrated History of the 154th New York Regiment, Farleigh-Dickinson Press, 1981.)
I never realized how difficult it would be to transcribe the letters, not so much trying to figure out what had been written all those many years ago, but knowing that Robert had been killed June 1, 1864 in the battle of Cold Harbor. There is no marker at Cold Harbor for him, and the records say he was “buried on the field”. The army to which the 112th NY belonged, arrived on the field at Cold Harbor the afternoon of June 1st and assaulted the Confederate works, many of the 112th died there, including its commanding officer Colonel Jeremiah Drake. He was shot in the abdomen and lived, suffering, a day before dying. The horrible slaughter that most recognize as Cold Harbor actually took place two days later on the morning of the 3rd. It was this attack ordered by General Grant, that he later said he regretted ever issuing. The survivor pension applications and certificates that Birdsell and Sarah had for the pensions they received from the government for Roberts death, state that he was “shot through the head”. Knowing he died that date made reading his letters difficult…. I guess it’s a good thing we don’t know when that moment comes for all of us.
The boys that grew up in French Creek and Mina, were farm boys, some probably worked in saw mills or grist mills, but they never had the exposure to the populations of cities that exposure to virus and disease helps a body build immunities too….and the 112th paid dearly for that. You will see many died of disease and suffered from many afflictions. Neither did they grow up knowing colored people, and you will be introduced to their reactions to seeing colored people for the first time. The feelings they recount to being around colored people and colored soldiers for the first time. And Robert describes Union Army’s treatment of the colored soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiments while they fought together at Fort Wagner and in Florida after the Battle of Olustee.
It is evident from the letters, the boys did not join the Union army to abolish slavery. I think you will get the impression they simply wanted to help save the Union and put down a rebellion they considered treason. I don’t know if any of them are racist, I suspect so. However, the times were different and the terms used are their words….not mine. This is a work of their time and experiences. They were farm boys and they did their own work with their own hands without the need for slaves. The abolitionist movement probably did not affect them much, and the emancipation proclamation was not yet announced when they volunteered. They simply answered the call from President Lincoln for 300,000 volunteers to help save the Union.
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