Pyers, Samuel Hunter (Field Musician)

Alternate Spelling of Surname: Piers

 

A native of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, Samuel Hunter Pyers was born on 13 March 1848, the son of Pennsylvania natives, William Pyers (1817-1864) and Matilda (Heddings) Pyers (1825-1908).

In 1860, he resided with his parents and younger brother, Franklin, in Sunbury, Northumberland County. His father supported the family through employment as a boatman.

At the age of 12, Samuel watched his 41-year-old father, William Pyers, head off to war. They and other Sunbury residents were on pins and needles during that Summer of 1861. The men of the local militia, also known as the “Sunbury Guards,” had just returned from their Three Months’ Service (from April to July) with Company F of the 11th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Company F held the distinction of being “early defenders” and were, in fact, the first unit to leave Northumberland County in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteer troops to protect the nation’s capital following the fall of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces.

Now, many of these same men were re-enrolling for three-year terms of military service just a few weeks later and encouraging their neighbors and friends to join them in the fight with their new unit – the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Still calling themselves the Sunbury Guards, William Pyers and his fellow enlistees officially became part of Company C when they mustered in with the 47th Pennsylvania at Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, Dauphin County from August through early September 1861. While there, they trained in light infantry tactics under the leadership of their company’s captain, John Peter Shindel Gobin, a Sunbury attorney who was respected within and beyond the borders of Northumberland County.

Samuel H. Pyers grew up quickly while his father was away, hearing not only of regimental adventures in far off places, but of the very real hardships and heartaches suffered by soldiers as they battled yellow jack and other tropical diseases in Florida and South Carolina while also engaging in intense fighting and small, but often life threatening skirmishes.

During the Fall of 1861, Samuel’s father and the 47th Pennsylvania helped to defend the nation’s capital. By 1862, they were capturing Saint John’s Bluff (early October 1862). From 21-23 October, they were badly battered during the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina.

Enrollment of Samuel H. Pyers for Civil War Service

Despite the all too frequent news of war casualties from Sunbury and its surrounding communities – and even efforts by his father to dissuade him from joining the fight, Samuel H. Pyers enrolled for military duty as soon as the State of Pennsylvania deemed him old enough to serve. He enrolled at Sunbury on 23 November 1863, and mustered in as a Musician with his father’s company (the Sunbury Guards/Company C) in the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers at Camp Curtin just four days later at the age of 15.

Military records describe him as being the same height as his father (5’8″ tall) with the same light hair, fair complexion and blue eyes.

Formerly a  farmer by trade, he was now a “drum boy.” His first duty station with Company C was at Fort Taylor in Key West, where the 47th Pennsylvania was stationed as part of the 10th Corps, U.S. Department of the South.

1864

On 25 February 1864, Samuel and William Pyers and their fellow members of the 47th set off for a phase of service in which the regiment would make history as the only Pennsylvania regiment to serve in the Red River Campaign mounted by Union General Nathaniel P. Banks from 10 March to 22 May.

“The Red River expedition started and on this we went under General Banks, and marched all the way up to Shreveport and climaxed our long tramp with a battle,” recalled Pyers in 1928 as he recounted his regiment’s Civil War experiences for the Lebanon Daily News.

Steaming aboard the Charles Thomas for New Orleans, the men arrived at Algiers, Louisiana on 28 February and were sent on by train to Brashear City. Following another steamer ride – this time to Franklin via the Bayou Teche – the 47th joined the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Department of the Gulf’s 19th Army Corps.

From 14-26 March, the 47th battled difficult terrain and elements as it headed for the top of the L in the L-shaped state. Complicating things further, there were stretches during the campaign – sometimes  five and six days long, said Pyers – that the soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania went hungry.

19th U.S. Army Map, Phase 3, Battle of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield (8 April 1864, public domain).

19th U.S. Army Map, Phase 3, Battle of Sabine Cross Roads/Mansfield (8 April 1864, public domain).

On 8 April 1864, Lieutenant Alfred Swoyer and 59 others were cut down during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (also known as the Battle of Mansfield). In April 1864, Mansfield, Louisiana was a vital communications hub for the Confederate Army.

After trekking roughly 150 miles up the Red River, Banks’ Union forces were halted in their advance on Shreveport by Major General Richard Taylor, and his Confederate troops. Both sides sparred with each other on and off all morning; that afternoon, Taylor ordered his troops to attack both flanks of the Union Army. The fighting raged until nightfall – after Banks ordered a third division into the fray.

The next day, the regiment’s 68-year-old standard bearer and fellow member of Company C, Color Sergeant Benjamin Walls, was wounded during more fierce fighting. “After the fight at Shreveport we dropped back to Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. But the name of the hill isn’t so fitting for here we had a rough and tumble fight and then went on a march that seemed to take up all over the south, so long did we tramp,” said Pyers.

Among the many members of the 47th wounded in action during the Battle of Pleasant Hill on 9 April 1864 were the regiment’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel George W. Alexander, and Samuel’s own father, Sergeant William Pyers, who was hit by enemy fire as he saved the flag when standard bearer Benjamin Walls fell in battle. Samuel’s father survived, and continued to fight with the 47th.

“From the Hill we came back to Missouri Plain, there we fought a battle. From this place we crossed Cain [sic] River on a pontoon bridge and went to Alexandria, Louisiana.” That crossing occurred on 23 April via Monett’s Ferry.

“At this place we had to stop fighting and build dams. Huge dams to get the gun boats down the Mississippi River. It was a case of the army digging out the navy,” said Pyers of the Red River construction which lasted from from 30 April through 10 May.

Known as "Bailey's Dam" for the Union officer who ordered its construction, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, this timber dam built by the Union Army on the Red River in Alexandria, Louisiana in May 1864 was designed to facilitate passage of Union gunboats along to and from the Mississippi River. Photo: Public domain.

Named “Bailey’s Dam” for the officer who ordered its construction, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, this timber dam (shown here under construction in May 1864) was designed and built by the Union Army on the Red River in Alexandria, Louisiana to facilitate passage of Union gunboats (U.S. Library of Congress, public domain).

The 47th then moved to Morganza on 13 May and to New Orleans 20 June. That 4th of July William and Samuel Pyers learned that their fight was far from over and the regiment received new orders to set sail for further duty.

Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign

Battered by their time in Bayou country, the men of the 47th were still able and willing to fight. Steaming aboard the McClellan for the East Coast, Samuel Pyers and his fellow C Company men arrived in Virginia with soldiers from Companies A, D, E, F, H, and I.

On 12 July, they had a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln before joining up with the Union forces led by Major-General David Hunter and engaging in the Battle of Cool Spring in and around Snicker’s Gap, Virginia.

On 24 July, Captain J.P. Shindel Gobin of Company C (“Sunbury Guards”) was promoted to Major. Attached to the Army of the Shenandoah (Middle Military Division) from August through November of 1864 – under the leadership of legendary Union commander, Philip Sheridan, and Brigadier-General William H. Emory – they were about to display great collective valor.

Of the experience, Samuel Pyers said it was “our hardest engagement.” Inflicting heavy casualties at Opequon (19 September; also known as “Third Winchester”), Sheridan’s gallant men forced a stunning retreat of Jubal Early’s Confederates – first to Fisher’s Hill (21-22 September) and then to Waynesboro, following a successful early morning flanking attack. Their successes helped Abraham Lincoln win a second term as President.

On 23-24 September, Colonel Tilghman H. Good and Lieutenant George W. Alexander mustered out of the 47th, their contributions to a grateful nation more than met.

On 19 October, Early’s Confederate forces briefly stunned the Union Army, launching a surprise attack at Cedar Creek, but Sheridan was able to rally his troops. Intense fighting raged for hours and ranged over a broad swath of Virginia farmland. Weakened by hunger wrought by the Union’s earlier destruction of crops, Early’s army gradually peeled off, one by one, to forage for food while Sheridan’s forces fought on, and won the day.

But it was a costly engagement for Pennsylvania’s native sons. The 47th experienced a total of 176 casualties during the Cedar Creek encounter alone, including: Captain Edward Minnich (killed at Cedar Creek 19 October), Captain John Goebel and Corporal Thomas Miller (both mortally wounded at Cedar Creek 19 October), and Sunbury Guards’ Privates James Brown (a carpenter), Jasper B. Gardner (a conductor) and George W. Keiser (an 18-year-old farmer) – all killed in action on 19 October.

Sergeant William Pyers, father of Samuel H. Pyers and the very same courageous soldier who was wounded while protecting the colors at Pleasant Hill, also departed from the field of battle forever that terribly successful day at Cedar Creek. “He was mowed down during the fight and buried on the battle ground.”

The reporter from the Lebanon Daily News who captured Pyers’ memories in 1928 noted that Samuel was still too traumatized, 64 years later, to talk in depth about his father’s death. (The remains of Samuel’s father, Sergeant William Pyers, were later exhumed by the federal government, and reinterred at the Winchester National Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia.)

After Cedar Creek, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers mourned their dead and recuperated. Stationed at Camp Russell near Winchester from November through most of December, they were ordered to march again – five days before Christmas – for outpost duty at Camp Fairview in Charlestown, West Virginia.

1865

Assigned first to the Provisional Division of the 2nd Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah in February, the men of the 47th were ordered back to Washington, D.C. 19 April to defend the nation’s capital again – this time following President Lincoln’s assassination. “While we were still in Washington, President Lincoln was killed. I am proud to say that I was a guard at the funeral from Washington to the Relay House.”

The Old Nashville (Lincoln Funeral Train Engine, public domain)

Soldiers from an unidentified Union Army regiment guard The Old Nashville, the engine which powered the funeral train of President Lincoln (April 1865, public domain).

 

Letters home from several other members of the 47th document that at least part of the regiment was also assigned guard duty at the prison where the Lincoln assassination conspirators were held and tried.

While serving in Dwight’s Division, 2nd Brigade, U.S. Department of Washington’s 22nd Corps, Samuel H. Pyers and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers also participated in the Union’s Grand Review on 23-24 May.

Matthew Brady's photograph of spectators massing for the Grand Review of the Armies, 23-24 May 1865, at the side of the crepe-draped U.S. Capitol, flag at half mast following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. (Library of Congress: Public domain.)

A series of photographs by Matthew Brady captured spectators massing (above) for the Grand Review of the Armies, 23-24 May 1865, at the side of the crepe-draped U.S. Capitol, flag at half mast following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and an unidentified Union regiment (below) passing the Presidential Reviewing Stand. Source: Library of Congress, public domain.

Unidentified Regiment Passes Presidential Reviewing Stand, Grand Review of the Armies, 23-24 May 1864. (Matthew Brady, Library of Congress, public domain)

On their final swing through the South, the 47th served in Savannah, Georgia from 31 May to 4 June as part of the 3rd Brigade, Dwight’s Division, Department of the South, and at Charleston and other parts of South Carolina beginning in June.

Garrisoning the city with the 47th Pennsylvania were the members of the 165th New York Volunteers, companies of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. The first military unit assembled in the North comprised of black soldiers, the trailblazing 54th was renowned for its gallantry and celebrated in the 1989 movie, Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.

Finally, on Christmas Day, 1865, at Charleston, South Carolina, the men of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers began to be honorably mustered out. Samuel Pyers mustered out on 2 January 1866, and was sent home by steamship and train to Philadelphia where he was paid for his service and given discharge papers.

Not Done

After briefly reconnecting with his family and friends back home in Northumberland County, Samuel Hunter Pyers chose to re-enlist in the military. In late 1866, he mustered in with Company I of the U.S. Army’s 30th Infantry. After initially being stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, Samuel Pyers and Company I were sent to Hot Springs, Utah to guard the Union Pacific Railway as it was being built. “Here we had a number of scrimmages with the Indians.”

He was then sent on to the Black Hills before eventually mustering out for good. “I was through the west fighting for three years and was finally discharged in 1869.”

Return to Civilian Life

Afterward, Samuel Pyers finally returned home to Northumberland County for good and, sometime around 1875, he married Elizabeth Hoover. The couple welcomed a daughter, Jennie Alberta Pyers (1876-1918), on 10 January 1876. In 1880, the family resided in Sunbury, but before half a decade could pass, Samuel’s wife preceded him in death.

On 20 September 1885, Samuel married native Pennsylvanian, Sarah Ann Halderman (1869-1943), in Bellefonte, Centre County. They welcomed their first child, Samuel’s namesake – Samuel H. Pyers, in September 1886, and their first daughter Mary M. Pyers, sometime around 1888. Church records indicate, sadly, that the younger Samuel H. Pyers died on 10 December 1889, and was interred in the lower section of the Sunbury Cemetery.

Following the births of their first two children were sons William (1890-1966), Leroy (1892-1918) and Chester Grant Pyers (1894-1957), and daughter Dorathea Elizabeth Pyers (1897-1974). (Leroy Pyers died at the U.S. Army camp at Newport News, Virginia after becoming ill while serving with Company H of the 48th Infantry. Dora married Camden, New Jersey native, Robert Russell Blair, and passed away in New Jersey. Chester Pyers died in Lebanon, Pennsylvania; his older brother William passed away in Maplewood, New Jersey.)

In 1897, Jennie, Alberta Pyers, Samuel’s daughter from his first marriage, wed William Nelson (1870-1938), a native of Sweden.

On 3 April 1898, Samuel and Sarah welcomed another son, John L. Pyers (1898-1916), but, tragedy struck again when Samuel’s brother, Frank C. Pyers, passed away in Sunbury on 26 April 1899 in Sunbury at the young age of 45 years, 11 months and 13 days.

As the new century progressed for Samuel and Sarah, now in Lebanon County, they welcomed their final son, Nelson. Born in 1901, he survived just one year, nine months and 13 days, and was buried in Lebanon in March 1902, according to the burial records of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Daughters Alice May (1904-1990), Helen Mildred (1909-1989) and Winifred Pauline (1912-1997) completed the family. (Alice May Pyers resided in Whittier, California after marrying and taking the surname Weide. She passed away in Los Angeles County, California. Winifred Pauline Pyers married Henry Frank Boyer, and passed away in Lebanon, Pennsylvania after a long, full life. A former employee of Sowers Printing in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Helen Mildred Pyers never married, and passed away at the Charlton Methodist Hospital in Dallas, Texas.)

In 1910, Samuel and his family were once again living in Sunbury, Northumberland County, but by 1920, he and Sarah had returned to Lebanon County with daughters Alice, Helen and Winifred. They worshipped at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lebanon.

Death and Interment

On 3 November 1931, Samuel Hunter Pyers died in Lebanon, Pennsylvania from uremic poisoning related to the failure of his heart and kidneys. Three days later, he was interred at the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Lebanon.

He was survived by his wife, Sarah, who was residing at the Pyers’ Lebanon home with daughters, Helen and Winifred Pyers; daughters Mrs. Warren Dale and Mrs. George H. Schropp (Lebanon), and Mrs. Robert Blair (Maple Shade, New Jersey); and sons Chester Pyers (Jersey City, New Jersey) and William Pyers (Maplewood, New Jersey), as well as sixteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

 

Sources:

1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Harrisburg: 1869.

2. Civil War Veterans’ Card File. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania State Archives.

3. Death and Burial Records, in Records of Zion Lutheran Church, Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania (Reel 233), and in Records of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Lebanon, Lebanon County, in Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

4. Pennsylvania Veteran’s Burial Cards (Samuel H. Pyers). Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

5. S. H. Pyers Was Drummer Boy in Civil War, in Lebanon Daily News. Lebanon: 16 July 1928.

6. Samuel Pyers at the Funeral of Abe Lincoln (Samuel Pyers’ obituary), in Lebanon Semi-Weekly News. Lebanon: 5 November 1931.

7. Schmidt, Lewis. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown: Self-published, 1986.

8. U.S. Census. Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania: 1860, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930.

 

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