The 96th Pennsylvania in the Overland Campaign: May 1, 1864

At six o’clock on the morning of May 1, 1864, the 96th Pennsylvania awoke to the sound of bugle calls. Following reveille, the tune of a march played. For the first time since December, the 96th and the rest of the First Division of the Union’s VI Corps were to take to the roads. The long-awaited opening of General U.S. Grant’s campaign into Virginia was getting under way.

The orders for this segment of the Army of the Potomac were to cross Hazel River, located a mile from their winter camp. The entire VI Corps, made up of nearly 50 regiments, went into winter camp in the Hazel River area at the beginning of December 1863.1 The Hazel, sometimes referred to by its older name Aestham, wound its way through Culpepper County to the Rappanhannock River nearby.2

Winter camps of the VI Corps near Hazel River. (LOC)

The winter of 1863-64 was a cold one in Central Virginia. While the corps headquarters quartered themselves in the spacious estate of Dr. William Wellford nearby, the enlisted men tried to stay warm in the hastily designed and built shelters. Crafted from nearby supplies of wood, stone, and mud, these cabin-like structures became home for the chilly winter months.

Throughout the winter months, it became time for many soldiers in the army to go on furlough to their homes across the North. This, too, was true of the 96th Pennsylvania and in Company G many men found their way to the nearest railroad depot for the trip home to Dauphin County. Corporal Henry Keiser and about 20 other men from the company hailing from Wiconisco Township spent a much needed month of veteran’s furlough with friends and family at home in the Lykens Valley region.3

By the end of April, however, most men were back in the ranks and reenlisted in the Union cause. When the plans for marching came down at the end of the month, the men of the 96th stood ready to cross the river and do battle once more.

The pontoon bridge over the Hazel River at Wellford’s Ford. Note the camp on the background at right. (LOC)

After being rousted from their beds at 6 a.m., the men of Company G set out with the regiment and the division as they crossed the pontoon bridge set up across Hazel River at Wellford’s Ford. Among the last  to cross the bridge, the regiment were stopped a short distance from the river and ordered again to make camp. Their brief march served only to allow the engineers to tear up the pontoon bridge and move it farther ahead where it was needed for the coming campaign. Here, only a mile from their winter quarters, the VI Corps set up temporary camp in a rainstorm while it waited for orders to cross the Rapidan River into enemy territory.

Union pickets on the riverbank by the pontoon bridge seen above. (LOC)

Corporal Henry Keiser’s entry for Sunday, May 1, 1864.

At six this morning we were routed up and had orders to march.  At seven we left Camp and only marched one mile across Hazel River, where we went into camp.  We were merely brought across the river to allow the pontoon bridge to be taken up.  Received a paper from father.  It was fine all day until this evening, when we had a heavy shower.

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers: 1861-65; Volume III. (Harrisburg: State Printer, 1870.) 388.
2. Clark B. Hall. ““Wellford’s Ford: The most significant military crossing on the Hazel River.” Brandy Station Foundation. Web. Accessed 21 April 2014.
3. Henry Keiser Diary: Veteran Furlough lasted for 30 days. However, several men in the regiment, including Keiser were allowed to stay for a few extra weeks before returning to the front. February 22 – April 15.

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