About The Book

Orrin Getchell

"Nothing was heard but the mournful cries of the wounded and dying mingled with the plaintive song of the whippoorwills in the woods. The moon rose in the east and shone over the bloody field as sweetly as though all was peace and quiet below”   writes Private Orrin L. Gatchell immediately after the Battle of Chancellorsville May, 1863 in the United States Civil War. The poetic intensity of this quotation reveals that the contents of this book titled “Orrin’s Story: Patriotism and Love of Country. The Union Now and Forever” is a deeply personal account of one soldier’s journey during the Virginia campaigns from the time of his enlistment during August, 1862 through Appomattox, in April 1865. Who was Orrin L. Gatchell? Orrin was born in Anson, Somerset County, Maine in 1831 and moved to Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, New York in the 1850s with his first wife and 2 young children where he was a carpenter and farmer. He enlisted in the Union Army at Dunkirk, New York during August, 1862 and was assigned to the 72nd New York State Voluntary Infantry Regiment that was a unit of the elite Excelsior Brigade organized by General Daniel E. Sickles in 1861 with recruits mainly from the New York City and western New York State areas.

During the Virginia campaigns, Orrin wrote 24 distinctly different letters to his sister Sarah, her husband Ebenezer Witherell, their daughter Melissa, and his brother Charles Getchell who lived in Anson, Maine that affirmed the strong familial bonds among them. The letters, while personal in character, are set against the backdrop of military, political, and social transformations resulting from the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Manassas Gap, Mine Run, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, Hatcher’s Run, the siege of Petersburg, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The letters are presented in chronological order in Orrin’s own words and supplemented with historical and explanatory annotations so that the reader can experience the transformation of a young man from upstate New York into a battle hardened soldier as his 3-year enlistment progresses. Pictures of Orrin, his family members, their homes in Anson, Maine and his Army documents complement the vitality of his letters.

Within 6 months of enlisting, Orrin’s temperament cascades from a crescendo of intense loyalty for the Northern cause of preserving the Union in a letter to his niece Melissa in September, 1862 to a decrescendo sinking to near-despair in a letter to his sister Sarah when learning of his younger brother Calvin’s death at the Battle of Fredericksburg during December, 1862. He wrote: “As the smoke lifted from the field we could see our columns charge the enemies works line after line moved on some of their batteries and but few of them ever came back to tell the tale of their failure.” The counterbalancing themes of patriotism and anguish are interwoven throughout Orrin’s letters. Orrin’s feelings of patriotism and loyalty reach a pinnacle in a letter to Ebenezer in March, 1864 when he writes a fervent discourse based on the Declaration of Independence, emphasizing that the greatness of America based on freedom, liberty, and equality for all has been corrupted by the practice of slavery for which the country must atone through the bloodshed of civil war. Likewise, in a January, 1864 letter to Sarah and Ebenezer he writes: “… and if we fail in putting down the rebellion we will justly be branded as a nation of avaricious money loving cowards.” The theme of anguish reaches a nadir of despair when Orrin writes to his brother Charles in March, 1864 “…the way the war has been conducted here in Virginia has only been a system of wholesale murder.”

On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that among other sections read: “… I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforth shall be, free; …” Granting immediate freedom to the slaves had a profound effect on both Union and Confederate soldiers. In a letter dated February, 1863 to Ebenezer, Orrin writes for the Army of the Potomac: “… the army is completely disheartened as may safely be set down as greatly demoralized. The Soldiers since the abolition proclamation of the president was made feel as though they were no longer fighting for the old Flag but for the Nigger.” Also in a letter to Ebenezer dated June, 1863, Orrin writes about the Confederate perspective: “While on picket I was talking with a rebel captain … he also said that they had rather be in the union today than out of it but they would fight to the last drop of blood against the abolition proclamation of our president. And why should they not do so? Could we expect a people possessed of intelligence and the resources which they possess to do any other way than fight against an army or power that was seeking to destroy their wealth and their whole social system. Immediate emancipation is nothing else to the south but the destruction of their property and their whole social fabric.” Orrin was clearly an abolitionist as he wrote to Ebenezer in June, 1863: “I have said that I was an abolitionist but not an abolitionist enough to vote for Abraham Lincoln. When he was elected … felt duty bound to support him.” Orrin also espoused a policy explored by President Lincoln by relocating slaves to Africa, a Caribbean country, or Columbia in South America when he wrote that he wished the Negroes well “… and thousands of miles beyond the limits of our country.”

Following the promotion of Ulysses S. Grant to Lieutenant General and Commanding General of the United States Army by President Lincoln in March, 1864, the Overland Campaign was initiated with an incursion into eastern Virginia. The stage was set for Orrin’s letter to his sister Sarah in July, 1864 that begins: “I will devote this letter to a short account of my adventures with the rebels ...” The Army of the Potomac under the command of General George G. Meade crossed the James River at Wilcox’s Landing into Prince George County in preparation for an attack on Petersburg, Virginia. On June 14th Orrin was ill and became a straggler near the end of the soldier’s marching column. After protecting local Virginians from marauding Union soldiers, Orrin was captured by Confederate guerillas “… and to escape them I fully made up my mind.” He was befriended by local Negroes and supplied with food, information, and protection as he was “… passed along to some other with a God bless you …” After a harrowing row back across the lower James River in a leaky boat he made it to Union lines at Williamsburg, Virginia and ultimately reunited with his unit on about July 10th. During Orrin’s great adventure he was reassigned to the 120th New York Volunteer Regiment due to the consolidation of regiments comprising the Excelsior Brigade.

Following the siege of Petersburg, the surrender of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia and the chase of the Confederate army to Appomattox, Orrin writes his last letter on April 10, 1865 as a participatory eye witness to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army, thus effectively ending the Civil War. Orrin ends his description of his three year soldier’s journey with the beneficence that General George G. Meade and the Union officers in general showed the Confederate soldiers by writing: “The first act of our commanders after the surrender was to send rations to the almost starved rebels.” that helped to set the stage for reconstructing one United States of America.

Orrin was fortunate to survive the murderous battles of the Civil War with only shrapnel wounds to the hand and face at Chancellorsville and to the ankle at Gettysburg. Like many soldiers, his wounds were not only physical but also psychological, resembling symptoms of traumatic stress disorder including feelings of discouragement, abandonment and loneliness so evident in his letters. Following the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac on May 23, 1865 in Washington, D.C., Orrin was discharged from the Union Army on June 2, 1865. Orrin rejoined his second wife Eliza and five children in Anson, Maine and moved to western New York State and Erie County, Pennsylvania to reestablish his family and legacy. The United States Civil War was a foundational American war in that it transformed American culture, society and politics and was firmly embedded in Revolutionary War ideals of patriotism and love of country and family.