Corporal Osiel Davis

I am leaving the Holborows alone for a bit (at least in terms of blogging – the research continues ever onward – yesterday I had a battle with a series of Israels which I think were beaten into submission, even if I did overlook a very obvious baptism when looking to ‘hook’ a branch onto existing research which had me cursing and facepalming at the same time) and looking at some of my dad’s American side. It has bothered me for a while that I hadn’t looked into any potential military ancestors as I’m sure there must be some.

So I turned, not to the Stanfield/Paynes but to the Davis’ – that is, the family of my great-grandmother, Nellie Davis. Nellie was one of 7 children born to Willis Henry Davis and his wife Martha Mattie Butterfield. Then I noticed something that had escaped me entirely – Willis had lost his father when he was just 10 years old. What happened?

Willis (bottom left) with siblings.

Frankly, the answer had been staring me in the face the whole time.

Osiel (or Ozial) Davis, originally born in New York state, married Persis Cleona Howe in Alexandria, Jefferson, New York in October 1845. They then settled in Keene, Ionia, Michigan where Osiel became a farmer. In 1850, his parents – Amasa and Lois – are their neighbours, along with Osiel’s youngest 3 siblings. In 1860 the family is still there, with Osiel appearing on tax rolls and voter registration lists. Osiel and Persis have 7 children, with the eldest – Nancy – dying at 16 in 1863. I found the family (sans Osiel) in 1870 and after (Willis marries in December 1876, for example).

I had found reference to and recorded Osiel’s death as 17 June 1864, Petersburg, Virginia. Now, I’m a bit rusty on American history, but there are some date and place combos that make certain bells ring and this one was clanging about the American Civil War aka The Great Rebellion (bad timing on my part?!). Now, I’m going to assume that everyone here knows about the Civil War. The reasons for the war are not complicated and – as far as I’m concerned – there are very clear ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, even if in terms of ‘boots on the ground’ it may be a little more nuanced than that. But given that Osiel was from Michigan – a state that had already banned slavery in 1837 when it gained statehood – I hoped that there might be something I could be proud of.

I had a look at what records might exist for a soldier from this time and – as for all things American military – I checked out Fold3 (included as part of my Ancestry World subscription) and I managed to find his pension file – or rather, the pension file produced for his widow.

Is it weird to call your 3 x great-grandfather handsome? (Although dodgy 19th century half-beard isn’t doing him any favours…)

It transpires that he enrolled with the 2nd Company United States Sharpshooters attached to the 27th Regiment of Michigan Volunteers on 19 February 1864 for a period of 3 years, and was mustered on 3 March 1864. Starting as a Private, by May he had been promoted to Corporal.

The fact he joined a sharpshooter regiment implies that he was proficient with firearms and/or other projectile weapons (members had to be able to place ten shots in a ten-inch circle at 200 yards without the aid of a telescopic sight), although they were not used as snipers (as we might use the term today), but rather as scouts and skirmishers. They were considered elite troops, were well equipped and trained, and placed at the front of any column to first engage the enemy. They had been the brainchild of champion marksman Colonel Hiram Berdan in 1861 and he scoured the Northern states for qualified candidates. Apart from monetary incentives to join, they also received distinctive uniforms to wear which would prove to be a huge advantage: dark green caps, trousers, and coats, essential in helping them blend in with the scenery while operating among trees and brush.

The M-1859 Sharps rifle had several advantages: a breechloading design, accuracy, reliability, and a rapid rate of fire

The rifles they were provided – the M-1859 Sharps – differed from most contemporary rifles in that it didn’t have to be loaded down the barrel, standing the rifle on its butt and fumbling with powder, ball, and ramrod etc. Breechloading enabled the men to send up to 10 well-aimed rounds downrange every minute—nearly triple a muzzleloader’s rate of fire. The 1 ounce projectile left the barrel at 1,200 feet per second (compared to the muzzle-loading Pattern 1853 Enfield’s 900 feet per second). As this puts it at supersonic speed, the bullet would find its mark before the sound of the report.

What is also fantastic (for me) is that a letter of his has survived, from April 1864. Written to his “dear wife and children” from the camp “near Annapolis”, he says he has a “few moments leisure to wright”. He comments on how much he is enjoying soldier life, and that the food is good and wishes Persis was there to watch the men at their drills and to enjoy the music. He also entreats his children to behave and be helpful – the daughters to “mind your mother” and Willis gets a mention in that he must help his brother Francis on the farm. Knowing that two months later he would be killed in action makes the last page particularly poignant: “I want to see you all and I want you should wright often to me and tell me what you are doing and all of the news.”

He met his end on 17 June 1864 at the “Battle of Petersburg” – nowadays known more simply as the “Siege of Petersburg” or “the Richmond-Petersburg campaign” which had only started two days prior to his death. More specifically, it seems he was killed at the battle known as “Petersburg II” as part of the 9th Army Corps.

For more details of the 27th Regiment, take a look here at the National Park Service site.

Persis received a pension of $8 a month for herself, and $2 a month extra per month for each child until they were 16 – and she had four minors in her charge at the time of her husband’s death. She would go on to marry again (in 1868), to James Burnett (who died in 1882) and for a third time to Ebeneezer Butterfield in 1893. If that surname sounds familiar, its because his daughter had previously married Persis’ son and were my 2 x great-grandparents Willis and Martha. Persis herself would die in 1897 at home in Grand Eagle, Michigan.

Sadly, Osiel’s body was never recovered from the battlefield so has no official grave.

Gravemarker of Persis Butterfield nee Howe in North Eagle Cemetery, Michigan.

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