“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” wrote Private Orrin L. Gatchell after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863. “Orrin’s Story: Patriotism and Love of Country. The Union Now and Forever” is a personal account of the transformation of a farmer with four young children in upstate New York to a war veteran during the battles of the Virginia campaigns.
Orrin, grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, enlisted in the Union Army at Dunkirk, New York in August, 1862 and was assigned to the 72nd New York State Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Excelsior Brigade. Orrin wrote 24 letters to his family in Anson, Maine reflecting the military, political, and cultural upheavals occurring in society as the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Manassas Gap, Mine Run, Deep Bottom, Strawberry Plains, Hatcher’s Run raged, and during the siege of Petersburg and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. The texts of the letters have been enhanced by historical annotations, family pictures, and Army documents. Orrin’s intense patriotism and torment for the Union were interwoven themes throughout his letters. His patriotic feelings reached a pinnacle when he wrote to his brother-in-law in March, 1864 a fervent discourse based on the Declaration of Independence, emphasizing that the greatness of America had been corrupted by the practice of slavery for which the country must atone by bloodshed. His torment peaked when he wrote to his brother in March, 1864 “…the way the war has been conducted here in Virginia has only been a system of wholesale murder.” Orrin’s letters contain vivid descriptions of the heat of battle, frank evaluations of the abilities and battlefield tactics of his commanding officers, and the conduct of the war by the President. Orrin said that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 led him and his fellow soldiers to feel as though they were fighting for freeing the slaves more than for preserving the Union. His feelings toward the freed slaves changed after his capture by the enemy and the aid he received from Southern Negroes during his escape as he was “…passed along to some other with a God bless you…”. He ranted against the Copperheads and “goose quill generals” who criticized the troops from the safety of home and wrote in December, 1863, “The worst wish I wish them is that Congress will amend the Conscription Law so that some of our Goose Quill Generals will have to come into the field and shoulder the musket.” He wrote most movingly to his family of how he missed them and imagined how they celebrated holidays and enjoyed the comforts of home. In July, 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg, Orrin wrote, “I suppose you folks at home celebrated the Fourth in some pleasant manner. I spent most of the day burying the dead on the battle field, and the horrid sights I there beheld will soon not be forgotten.” On a brighter note, on Valentine’s Day, 1864, Orrin played matchmaker by “introducing” a young soldier in his company to his niece Melissa in an attempt to dissuade the soldier from the evils of whisky. Orrin wrote his last letter on April 10, 1865 from Appomattox following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee. Orrin ended his three-year service to the Union with a description of the beneficence that General George G. Meade showed the Confederates by writing, “The first act of our commanders after the surrender was to send rations to the almost starved rebels.” After the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac in May, 1865 in Washington, D.C., Orrin was discharged from the Union Army on June 2, 1865. He returned to his family and eventually moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1905, leaving a legacy based on his intense love of country and strong family values.