The war forever changed Corporal Robert Bradbury

Eighteen-year-old Robert Bradbury Jr. thought deeply about the fate of the United States in the summer of 1862. Bradbury was of legal age to serve in the military, and his devotion to the American Republic compelled him to enlist in Battery D, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery in late August 1862. Service with Battery D, a unit that had been organized for more than one year by the time of Bradbury’s enlistment, carried Bradbury to the most contested battlefields in Maryland and Virginia until he mustered out in June 1865. Although Bradbury came through the conflict physically unscathed, his wartime experience changed him.

Bradbury completed the self-portrait on June 1, 1865, as his battery waited for discharge in Harpers Ferry. (Courtesy of the Collection of the Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute)

Decades after the conflict, Bradbury’s niece, Harriet, reflected on a conversation she had with her mother, Alice (Bradbury’s sister), about how the Civil War changed the artilleryman. Harriet recalled that “Robert…was a perfectly healthy boy and full of fun until he came back from the army. The life and food there affected his health. It was dreadful as you no doubt know.” Terms used on Bradbury’s Declaration for Invalid Pension in November 1890, “general debility, weakness, and nervousness,” coupled with the observations from family, indicate that Bradbury may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

 Although adversely altered by the conflict, Bradbury carved out a postwar life. Four years after the Civil War, Bradbury married Margaretta Clinton Hart. The couple had two children, Robert Hart (born in 1870) and Mary (born in 1876). Bradbury supported his family in various ways after the Civil War. In addition to working as a clerk at John Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia and serving as a truancy officer, Bradbury earned additional income pursuing his life’s passion, writing.

Bradbury’s press pass from the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Nearly 10 million people attended the event, considered the first World’s Fair. (Courtesy of the Collection of the Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute)

In 1876 Bradbury worked as a correspondent for The Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper, covering the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He also served on the editorial staff of the Philadelphia-based publication, F.C.C. News. Among the pieces Bradbury contributed to the F.C.C. News was a short story titled “A Dream,” which appeared in the May 1886 issue. The story, based on one of Bradbury’s haunting dreams, centered around a torturous experience where “thorns pierced…flesh” of human beings and Bradbury’s character “felt an irresistible impulse to join the other ghosts and wander like them.” Although difficult to interpret a dream, something certainly haunted Bradbury, perhaps the memory of his experiences as a soldier.

By the time Bradbury wandered about Harpers Ferry in August 1863, war’s hard hand had visited the town. The artilleryman didn’t think he had seen “a more wretched looking and dirtier hole” in his life. (Photo by ©CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

 Seven months before publication of “A Dream,” Bradbury joined Philadelphia’s E.D. Baker Post No. 8, Grand Army of the Republic. In addition to being active in the Baker Post, Bradbury enjoyed membership in the Pennsylvania Reserve Association. ¶

Bradbury died on September 30, 1909, after falling “from one of the top stories” of the North American Real Estate Trust Building in Philadelphia. As Bradbury plummeted to the ground, his body struck various obstacles. By the time Bradbury’s body reached the ground, it had been badly dismembered. One newspaper correspondent described the grisly scene: “In his shot like descent his body was torn apart….The trunk was found hanging on the iron picket [fence] while the head and arms fell into South Watts Street…the remains were gathered up and carried to the morgue.”

 Investigators initially believed Bradbury committed suicide; however, interviews with family and co-workers cast some doubt. Bradbury’s son, Robert, 39 years old at the time, believed it accidental. Colleagues at the F.C.C. News concurred when they informed investigators that Bradbury “had been reaching for a ledger on a high shelf and that the step ladder on which he stood had given way suddenly, throwing him headlong through the wide open window.”

 In the spring of 2019, Harriet Johnston, a Bradbury descendant donated dozens of letters, photographs, and other items related to Bradbury’s life to the care of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute. Twenty-nine wartime letters, all of which appear in the recently released “So Much to Say”: The Civil War Letters of Corporal Robert Bradbury, Battery D, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery comprise the collection’s core. The letters excerpted here—eight of which focus on the conflict in the Shenandoah Valley—represent only a small portion of the collection’s rich content. The only non-Valley letter included is Bradbury’s first wartime letter, wherein he explains his deep commitment to the Union war effort.

Spring Valley, New York, August 17, 1862

Dear Sister,

The country is now in great peril and can only be saved by the devotion of its brave citizens. Every person who is over eighteen and under forty-five years of age…has only one manly course before him, he should shoulder his musket and go forth to aid the just cause in the fearful struggle…the republic is the hope of the downtrodden and oppressed of the entire world and this hour its destiny hangs trembling in the balance and everyone should throw his life and fortune into the scale.

If this rebellion succeeds, the nation is ruined and the torch of liberty forever extinguished.

Corporal Bradbury had two sisters, Harriet, left, and Alice. He wrote to both of them frequently about incidents both mundane and the horrors of the battlefield. ((Courtesy of the Collection of the Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute)

We must stand up for the constitution and the union. We owe it to those who endured and braved such hardships and peril to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity and we owe it to future generations whose birthright is to liberty or chains, as we determine and if we do not do our duty they will rise up and call us cursed….The Rebel government is forcing everyone between the ages of 18 and 35 into their army and shall they be allowed to do more to destroy the country than we would to save it, it will be an everlasting shame and disgrace to us.

Don’t forget to write immediately 

Yours Robert Bradbury

The Battle of Berryville, Va., described in Bradbury’s September letter, occurred when elements of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s army attacked Maj. Gen. George Crook’s men as they went into camp

Over the course of the next year, service with Battery D took Bradbury to various engagements in Virginia. In December 1862, Bradbury experienced combat for the first time at Fredericksburg. In the ensuing months Bradbury participated in the “Mud March” and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, all of which Bradbury chronicled in a series of eleven letters which appear in “So Much to Say.” By June 1863 Battery D was sent to Washington, D.C., and from there to Harpers Ferry for service in the Department of West Virginia. The Pennsylvanians spent the remainder of the conflict in the Shenandoah Valley where they experienced battle on numerous occasions from Harpers Ferry in the summer of 1864, described in Bradbury’s letter of July 10, through Union general Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign, including the oftentimes overlooked Battle of Berryville on September 3 that Bradbury wrote about in a letter to one of his sisters, also named Harriet.

Battery D’s most notable engagement not only during this period, but throughout the entire conflict, was the Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864. Bradbury’s letter penned nine days after the battle described the battery’s fight against overwhelming odds. Confederate general Joseph Kershaw’s division spearheaded the opening assault that overran the gunners. The battery, commanded by Lieutenant William Munk, fought tenaciously, but all efforts proved futile as the speed and weight of the attack overwhelmed the Pennsylvanians. In addition to losing all of its cannons, the battery suffered its greatest loss at Cedar Creek, six killed, six wounded, and 18 missing.

On the same day, he wrote, “[T]he only subject I am interested in nowadays is Home.” Artist Alfred R. Waud did the sketch above of thirsty horses getting a drink, a scene Bradbury would have been very familiar with. About 120 horses were needed for each artillery battery. (Library of Congress)

Maryland Heights opposite Harper’s Ferry, Va., August 5, 1863

Dear Harriet

I have been cannoneer for eleven months and know the drill perfectly and before long I will understand all that a driver is required to know also. They generally put an old hand who knows all the ropes on the lead team of the piece as he must know exactly what is to be done and how to do it whenever an order is given. I fully expected that on the first drill we would have I would make some ridiculous blunder. But we had a battery drill yesterday morning and I got along very well.

I got pass from the Lieutenant and went over to Harpers Ferry on Sunday. It is a very remarkable place from the fact that I never saw a more wretched looking and dirtier hole in my life. 

Your Affectionate Brother

Rob

Maryland Heights, December 26, 1863

Dear Father

A portion of the troops in this command have been on scout through the valley for nearly two weeks and our battery has been manning the entrenchments on the other side of the river during their absence. We have been living in good Sibley tents vacated by the 34th Mass[achusetts]…The pontoon bridge across the river has been destroyed by the ice thus cutting off our retreat….I was interrupted yesterday by orders for all hands to go over the river after the battery. We left it there on Christmas Day and came over here to spend the night. Yesterday afternoon we went over, harnessed up, brought the guns & caissons down to the river bank and ferried them over on a raft constructed out of pontoons….The raft was [a] very unwieldly one, and each time it was heavily laden, and our means of propelling it through the water was by a rope stretched from shore to shore, a very slow way of getting along. The river was full of floating ice and the current pretty rapid but we got over without accident. It was Washington crossing the Delaware on a small scale….What do you think of the nomination of McClellan as the democratic candidate for president….I think if little Mac is elected president of this great nation it will be time for decent & loyal men to emigrate. It is a shame that I will not be old enough to vote for Honest old Abe next fall.

Your Affectionate Son

Robert Bradbury

Maryland Heights, January 28, 1864

Dear Harriet

We are grievously tormented by mice in the shanty. No matter where we hang our haversacks we find our bread every morning gnawed and eaten half way. Last night…we commenced a crusade…We set no less than four original traps…They were constructed of stools turned wrong side up with care, two or three blocks of wood put in each one to make it heavier, and one end lifted about two inches off the ground by combination of little sticks, a piece of meat put under them in such a manner that when the meat was disturbed, down came the machine. This morning when we got up we found our trap sprung and a poor little mouse under it….I had my likeness taken three or four weeks ago…One fellow told me it looked like Napoleon. Another said it [looked] something like Abe Lincoln. Some told me it was a first rate likeness, couldn’t be better. And at last somebody that I showed it to told me it looked like some old bar room loafer that had done nothing but drink whiskey all his life. 

Robert Bradbury

Harpers Ferry, July 10, 1864

Dear Harriet

I suppose you have read the papers and know all about the rebel raid into Maryland. Perhaps you do not know since I wrote last the rebels have had possession of Harpers Ferry, ransacked the place, robbed the union citizens, burned the government buildings, bakehouse and all….The rebels have taken possession of Harpers Ferry every fourth of July since the war began….This time they thought they could frighten us away again but we did not go very far. I hardly know how to commence to describe this affair to you. I did not see five hundred rebels all week. I believe if [Gen. Franz] Sigel had only shoved his men on them, we would have captured the whole lot unless they ran away too fast for us….The way good powder was burn[ed] and costly shells thrown away was shameful. If a man in Bolivar poked his head round a corner, the infantry would blaze away at the spot they saw him for ten or fifteen minutes after he had disappeared. If a puff of smoke was seen in the woods a mile off and the report of a single musket heard, 100 lb., 24 lb., 30., and all sorts and sizes of shells would go crossing in that direction like mad. A 10 lb. shell such we fire costs the government $2.50, a hundred pounder about $30.

Your Affectionate Brother

Robert Bradbury

2 miles north of Berryville, September 1864

Dear Harriet

We have followed the rebels up from Halltown and are now entrenching ourselves opposite to them here. I don’t think Sheridan will attack them, his only object being to detain them in the valley till Grant captures Richmond or, demolishes Lee… While halting at Berryville in the afternoon [of September 3], they made a desperate dash on us, coming so suddenly that we hardly time to prepare for them. A portion of our line right in front of the battery gave way and things at one time looked bad enough for our side. The rebels came on yelling….After dark a battery of theirs opened up and we replied to it. The musketry began very rapid. Some of their shells burst pretty close to us and we could hear the musket balls cutting through the trees near us, and whizzing by us….There has been no firing today as far as I can hear. Last night I saw about 80 prisoners brought in, nearly all big able bodied men and well clothed. 

Your Affectionate Brother

Robert Bradbury

Bradbury was a driver for his artillery crew, like the soldier depicted at top. Drivers rode on each of the left horses in the six-horse team that pulled each cannon, and wore guards, as seen above, to prevent their right legs from being battered by the opposite horse and its harness. (©Keith Rocco)

Martinsburg, October 28, 1864

Dear Harriet

Our Battery was captured in the morning and recaptured in the afternoon. The Rebels came in [on] our boys while it was yet dark, too dark to see anyone ten yards off. They came in on our left flank which should have been protected by infantry, a battery not being able to guard its flanks. The boys stood at their guns firing canister till all hope of saving the battery was over, the Rebels knocking down some of them with the butts of their muskets. We lost in all thirty one men including Lieut. [James] Boyle who was wounded in the head and taken prisoner. Four of our severely wounded were carried off the field and are now in hospital in Winchester including the orderly sergeant, two gunners (corporals) and a private. Some of the boys were back in our position after the Rebs were driven across the creek and buried six of our men they found laying there. Among them was corporal John Rogers…He was found at his post. He had been shot in the mouth, the ball passing out at the back of his head. And the scoundrel had run him through three times with the bayonet although he must have fallen with the first shot….Every article of clothing worth taking was stripped from the dead bodies. One was stark naked, the others nearly so….We have come back to Martinsburg to refit, draw clothing and supplies.

Love to all, yours affectionately 

Robert Bradbury

Near Newtown, November 11, 1864

Dear Harriet

Day before yesterday we fell back from Cedar Creek, the principal reason being that the horses were most starved for want of hay, oats being slim diet for them. Unaccompanied by anything else our horses had become so ravenous that they eat up most of their halter straps, gnawed through a brand new picket rope in about twenty places, and spoiled about a dozen caisson wheels by eating clean through the spokes. Besides this whenever one horse could get at the tail of another he chawed all the hair off as clean as if it had been done with a razor. There are about twenty horses here with no hair on their tails, presenting a most ludicrous spectacle. I don’t believe there is a ton of hay in the valley between here and Staunton….[Gen. Jubal] Early is very sore over his recent lickings, and is reported to be laying at New Market…It is vain for Mr. Early to come into collision with this army. Old Jeff [Davis] had better appoint some new commander.

Love to all the folks, your affectionate brother 

Rob

Five of Bradbury’s wartime letters penned from Harpers Ferry in 1865 survive and appear in “So Much to Say.” The letter Bradbury penned on June 1, 1865, included a self-portrait. In the following excerpt Bradbury lamented the death of President Abraham Lincoln and criticized the surrender terms Union general William T. Sherman initially offered Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston. Bradbury was not alone in his censure of Sherman’s initial plan which called for the immediate recognition of state governments, restoration of all individual rights, and prohibition of punishment for anyone who supported the Confederacy.

Harpers Ferry, April 27, 1865

Dear Harriet

The War Press was…full of accounts of the assassination and funeral services of our late dear President….In fact all the papers I have seen since the murder have been principally taken up with accounts and eulogies of the deceased. Poor Abe Lincoln, he deserves them all, and deserves more than we could or can give. His name and his services to this country will never be forgotten as long as the United States is a nation, or as long as it remembered that there was such a nation as the United States, if Time does endure longer than our Union. 

We are all sanguine of being discharged in a month or two. Sherman has put things back a little, I believe, by being too eager for peace, and offering better terms to Johnston than he either deserved or expected. It is a pity that after Sherman had achieved such brilliant reputation as a soldier, he should soil it by such a blunder in diplomacy….After bringing all the ambitious schemes of the Rebel leaders to naught, defeating their armies, and abolishing slavery, at a fearful sacrifice of life and treasure, we are not going to bring back the country to the same state as before the war, pardon all the prominent rebels, and allow them to take their seats in Congress, there to spout treason and secession as Representatives and Senators from Southern States.

Bob

Jonathan A. Noyalas is the award-winning director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute, and co-editor with Charles H. Givens of “So Much to Say:” The Civil War Letters of Corporal Robert Bradbury, Battery D, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery. 

This “War In Their Words” column appeared in the August 2020 issue of Civil War Times.