Orrin’s Story: Patriotism and Love of Country. The Union Now and Forever is the saga of one soldier’s transformation from a young man in upstate New York to a hardened war veteran through the hard-fought battles of the Virginia campaigns during the United States Civil War told through his letters written from the battlefields to his family back home in Anson, Maine. How did Orrin L. Gatchell come to Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, in western New York State with his family and subsequently enlist in the United States Army in 1862? Orrin was born on November 28, 1831 in Anson, Somerset County, Maine where he learned the shoemaker’s trade as a teenager. In 1853, he married Martha W. Bartlett, and they moved to Groveland, Massachusetts that was a center for boot- and shoemaking. Two sons, William and George, were born there in 1854 and 1856. The family then moved to a farm in Dunkirk, New York, where Orrin worked as a carpenter. Another son, Eugene, and a daughter, Alice, were born in 1858 and 1860. Following Martha’s untimely death in early 1861, Orrin married Eliza Ann Decker who worked as a dressmaker. Their first child, Martha, was born during the spring of 1863.
In response to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Orrin enlisted on August 12, 1862 at Dunkirk and was assigned to Company D of the 72nd New York State Voluntary Infantry Regiment, which was a unit of the elite Excelsior Brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Orrin’s letters contained not only vivid descriptions of the battles and military activities of the Virginia campaign, but they also revealed Orrin’s deep concerns for his family at home. For example, Eliza, feeling lonely and isolated during the summer of 1863 with Orrin in the army and the older children in school, decided to move with their five children, ranging in age from four months to eight years, from Dunkirk to Anson to be with Orrin’s family. Orrin’s anguish over Eliza’s decision and worry over the difficulty of her harrowing journey was expressed with heartfelt emotion in Orrin’s letters. When the 72nd Regiment was mustered out in June, 1864, Orrin and other soldiers from his regiment were reassigned to Company G of the 120th New York State Infantry Regiment for their remaining 3-year enlistment. Orrin fought in several key battles including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Manassas Gap, Mine Run, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, Hatcher’s Run, the siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox. Orrin survived the war but sustained shrapnel wounds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, experienced capture and escape from Confederate guerrillas, and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that were evident in his letters.
After his discharge on June 2, 1865, following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Orrin returned to Anson to gather up his wife Eliza, their five children and traveled through Chautauqua County to establish their home in Erie County in northwestern Pennsylvania. Between 1866 and 1880, Orrin and Eliza had six more children, Emma, Charles, Calvin, Helen, Cassandra and Gertrude. The familial bonds established during the trials of the Civil War were renewed in 1895 when Orrin and Eliza, Orrin’s sister Sarah Getchell Witherell, his brother Charles Getchell and wife Caroline held a reunion with other family members in Providence, Rhode Island, where Sarah’s daughter Josephine had moved with her husband. Orrin continued in his trade as a carpenter and retired in 1902 from the Pennsylvania Railroad as a passenger car mechanic. Following his death in 1905, Eliza received a pension from the United States Government for Orrin’s military service of $8 per month, which was increased to $30 just prior to her death in 1920. Both are buried in the Erie Cemetery, Erie, Pennsylvania together with several of their children where they rest eternally as a family.