Pyers, William (Sergeant)

Alternate Spelling of Surname: Piers

 

Born in Pennsylvania, William Pyers was the husband of Matilda (Heddings) Pyers, daughter of John Heddings. At the dawn of the Civil War, they were engaged in building a life together while raising two sons: Samuel Hunter Pyers (1848-1931) and Franklin Pyers (1853-1899).

Civil War

Enlisting on 23 April 1861, at the age of 41, as a Private with Company F of the 11th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (also known as the “Sunbury Guards”) , William Pyers became one of the early Pennsylvania responders to answer President Lincoln’s 15 April call for 75,000 troops “to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured,” which was issued following the surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces.

He and his fellow Sunbury Guardsmen saw action during the Battle of Falling Waters, as well as at Martinsburg and Bunker Hill. After honorably completing his Three Months’ Service with the 11th Pennsylvania, William Pyers mustered out at Harrisburg, Dauphin County on 31 July 1861.

He then promptly re-enrolled at Sunbury, Northumberland County on 19 August 1861 with Company C of the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (also known as the “Sunbury Guards”), and was mustered in under Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin, the commanding officer of C Company, on 2 September 1861 by Captain Hastings. William Pyers’ son, Samuel, would follow in his footsteps less than two years later, mustering in as a drum boy with Company C on 27 March 1863. Known as the “Sunbury Guards,” C Company was drawn largely from the men and boys of Sunbury and its surrounding farms and communities in Northumberland County.

Early Days of Service

Following a brief training period in light infantry tactics during which time they were housed at the reportedly pleasant Camp Curtin No. 2 (located on the field next to the main camp), William Pyers and the men of Company C were sent by train with their fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers to Washington, D.C. where, beginning 21 September, they were stationed roughly two miles from the White House at “Camp Kalorama” on Kalorama Heights near Georgetown.

The next day, Company C Musician Henry D. Wharton penned the following update to their hometown newspaper, the Sunbury American:

After a tedious ride we have, at last, safely arrived at the City of ‘magnificent distances.’ We left Harrisburg on Friday last at 1 o’clock A.M. and reached this camp yesterday (Saturday) at 4 P.M., as tired and worn out a sett [sic] of mortals as can possibly exist. On arriving at Washington we were marched to the ‘Soldiers Retreat,’ a building purposely erected for the benefit of the soldier, where every comfort is extended to him and the wants of the ‘inner man’ supplied.

After partaking of refreshments we were ordered into line and marched, about three miles, to this camp. So tired were the men, that on marching out, some gave out, and had to leave the ranks, but J. Boulton Young, our ‘little Zouave,’ stood it bravely, and acted like a veteran. So small a drummer is scarcely seen in the army, and on the march through Washington he was twice the recipient of three cheers.

On 24 September, they were formally mustered into federal service with the U.S. Army. Assigned to the 3rd Brigade of W.F. Smith’s Army of the Potomac on 27 September and armed with Mississippi Rifles supplied by their beloved Keystone State, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ordered to Camp Lyon, Maryland on the eastern side of the Potomac River. Arriving during the late afternoon, they joined the 46th Pennsylvania in charging double-quick across a chain bridge before marching on toward Falls Church, Virginia.

Arriving at Camp Advance around dusk, the Sunbury Guardsmen pitched their tents in a deep ravine near Fort Ethan Allen, a new federal military facility still under construction. Here, as part of the 3rd Brigade and General Smith’s Army of the Potomac, they helped to defend the nation’s capital.

On October 11, after having been ordered with the 3rd Brigade to “Camp Big Chestnut” (so named because of a prominently located chestnut tree and later renamed as Camp Griffin), the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers marched in the Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads. Eleven days later, they participated in a Divisional Review, described by historian Lewis Schmidt as massing “about 10,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty pieces of artillery all in one big open field.”

Half of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, including William Pyers and his C Company comrades, were next ordered to join parts of the 33rd Maine and 46th New York in extending the reach of divisional picket lines, which they did in November – to “a half mile beyond Lewinsville,” according to a letter home by William Pyers’ commanding officer, Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin.

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

Springfield rifle, 1861 model (public domain).

The morning of 21 November, they engaged in a divisional headquarters review by Colonel Tilghman H. Good, followed by brigade and division drills all afternoon. According to historian Schmidt, Union generals praised the 47th as “the best regiment in the whole division,” and rewarded the regiment with brand new Springfield rifles.

1862

Having been ordered to move from their Virginia encampment back to Maryland, the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers left Camp Griffin at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 January 1862. Marching through deep mud with their equipment for three miles in order to reach the railroad station at Falls Church, they were sent by rail to Alexandria, where they boarded the steamship City of Richmond and sailed the Potomac River to the Washington Arsenal. There, they were reequipped and marched off for dinner and rest at the Soldiers’ Retreat in Washington, D.C.

The next afternoon, the 47th Pennsylvanians hopped cars on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and headed for Annapolis, Maryland. Arriving around 10 p.m., they were assigned quarters in barracks at the Naval Academy. They then spent that Friday through Monday (24-27 January 1862) loading their equipment and other supplies onto the steamship Oriental.

By the afternoon of Monday, 27 January 1862, William Pyers and his fellow 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers had commenced boarding the Oriental. Ferried to the big steamship by smaller steamers, the enlisted men boarded first, followed by their superior officers. Then, per the directive of Brigadier-General Brannan, the Oriental steamed away for the Deep South at 4 p.m. They were headed for Florida which, despite its secession from the Union, remained strategically important to the Union due to the presence of Forts Taylor and Jefferson in Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

1862

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War. (Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.)

Woodcut depicting the harsh climate at Fort Taylor in Key West, Florida during the Civil War. (Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.)

In early February 1862, they arrived at Fort Taylor in Key West. On 14 February, the regiment made its presence known to area residents via a parade through the city’s streets. That weekend, a number of the men also mingled with residents as attendants at local church services.

On garrison duty, they drilled daily in military strategy, including heavy artillery tactics. Their time was made more difficult by the presence of yellow jack and other tropical diseases, as well as the always likely dysentery from soldiers living in close, unsanitary conditions.

Next ordered to Hilton Head, South Carolina from mid-June through July, they camped near Fort Walker and then quartered in the Beaufort District, Department of the South. Often assigned to hazardous picket detail north of the main camp, the soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania became known for their “attention to duty, discipline and soldierly bearing,” receiving “the highest commendation from Generals Hunter and Brannan” according to historian Samuel P. Bates.

Illustration of the Union Navy's base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

Illustration of the Union Navy’s base of operations, Mayport Mills, circa 1862 (public domain).

On 30 September 1862, C Company and the 47th Pennsylvania were sent back to Florida where they participated with other Union forces in the capture of Saint John’s Bluff from 1 to 3 October. Under the command of Brigadier-General John M. Brannan, the 1,500-plus Union force left gunboat-escorted troop carriers at Mayport Mills and Mount Pleasant Creek and, with the 47th Pennsylvania on point, pushed through 25 dense miles of forests and swampland in order to capture the bluff and pave the way for the Union’s occupation of Jacksonville, Florida.

From 21-23 October, Company C and the 47th engaged Confederate forces in the Battle of Pocotaligo, South Carolina. Landing at Mackey’s Point under the brigade command of 47th Pennsylvania founder, Colonel Tilghman H. Good, and regimental command of Lieutenant Colonel George W. Alexander, the 47th led the way once again. This time, however, the Union’s luck failed. Bedeviled by snipers, the brigade faced massive resistance from an entrenched Confederate battery, as well as withering fire as they entered a cotton field. Those headed for the Frampton Plantation’s higher ground were pounded by Rebel artillery and infantry from the surrounding forests.

Undaunted, the Union Army charged into the fire, and forced the Rebels to retreat four miles to the Pocotaligo Bridge. The 47th then relieved the 7th Connecticut but, after two hours of exchanging fire while attempting to take the ravine and bridge, the 47th ran low on ammunition and withdrew to Mackey’s Point. Two officers and 18 enlisted men from the 47th were killed during the expedition; two officers and 114 enlisted were wounded.

On 23 October 1862, the 47th returned to Hilton Head, where it served as the funeral Honor Guard for the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South, General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, who had succumbed to yellow fever 30 October. The 47th Pennsylvania was given the high honor of firing the salute over his grave.

1863

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida, Harper's Weekly, 1864 (public domain).

Rendering of Fort Taylor, Key West, Florida, Harper’s Weekly, 1864 (public domain).

By 1863, Captain J. P. S. Gobin and the men of C Company were once again based with the 47th Pennsylvania in Florida. Companies A, B, C, E, G, and I were housed at Fort Taylor in Key West while Companies D, F, H, and K were sent to garrison Fort Jefferson. Remotely located off the coast of Florida in the Dry Tortugas, Fort Jefferson was accessible only by boat.

On 11 October 1863, William Pyers was Honorably Discharged at Fort Taylor, per General Order No. 191, in order to re-enlist for another three-year term of service as a Veteran Volunteer, which he did that same day, joining up again with Company C, 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

1864

On 25 February 1864, William Pyers, his son Samuel, 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 across Louisiana 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,” Samuel Pyers recalled in 1928 as he recounted the Civil War experiences he had with his father for the Lebanon Daily News.

Sailing aboard the steamship 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 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. There were many days the men went hungry.

Then, on 8 April 1864, Lieutenant Alfred Swoyer of the 47th Pennsylvania and 59 others were cut down during the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads (also known as the Battle of Mansfield).

Battle of Mansfield-Sabine Cross Roads (8 April 1864)

Map of the Mansfield-Sabine Cross Roads Area in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, April 1864. (Public domain from the official report on the Union Army’s Red River Campaign by Union General Nathaniel Banks.)

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.

First State Color - 47th PA Volunteers  First State Color, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Presented by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin on 20 September 1861. Retired 11 May 1865. Source: Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee.

Conspicuous Bravery

Wounded the next day, 9 April 1864, while serving with the 47th at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, Sergeant William Pyers’ uncommon valor was lauded in Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865 as follows:

…after joining up with the Second Brigade of the First Division, XIX Army Corps, Union forces reached Pleasant Hill the night of 7 April and engaged the enemy in brutal fighting over the course of several days. On April 9, “the Forty-seventh was ordered from the right to the left of the line, and while passing by the flank, in the rear of the One Hundred and Sixty-fifth, repelled a charge made against that regiment, and before which they had fallen back. Then the Forty-seventh made an impetuous counter-charge, and a desperate encounter ensued, in which the rebels were driven back and several pieces of artillery captured. Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander was severely wounded, and Color-Sergeant Benjamin F. Walls was wounded, as was also Sergeant Pyers, of Company C, who seized the colors when Walls was obliged to relinquish them.

William Pyers continued to serve even after being wounded. According to his son, Samuel, the regiment returned to Missouri Plain, where it fought another battle. From there, the 47th Pennsylvania made the Cane River crossing on 23 April via a pontoon bridge, and headed for Alexandria, Louisiana, where it was assigned to build a bridge across the Red River to enable Union gunboats to more easily traverse the river’s rapids.

The 47th then moved to Morganza on 13 May and to New Orleans 20 June. On the 4th of July, William and Samuel Pyers learned that their fight was far from over as the regiment received new orders to 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. Beginning 7 July 1864, the men from Companies A, C, D, E, F, H, and I sailed for the Washington, D.C. area. Following their arrival in Virginia and a memorable encounter with President Abraham Lincoln, they joined Major-General David Hunter’s Union forces in the fighting in and around Snicker’s Gap.

On 24 July, Captain J.P. Shindel Gobin of Company C (“Sunbury Guards”) was promoted to the rank of Major with the regiment’s central command staff. 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.

Image of the victory of Philip Sheridan’s Union army over Jubal Early’s Confederate forces. Kurz & Allison, circa 1893. Public domain, courtesy of the Library of Congress: LC-DIG-pga-01855 (digital file from original print) LC-USZC4-1753 (color film copy transparency).

Victory of Philip Sheridan’s Union army over Jubal Early’s Confederate forces. Kurz & Allison, circa 1893. Public domain, U.S. Library of Congress.

Of the experience, Samuel Pyers later recalled it was the 47th Pennsylvania’s “hardest engagement.” Inflicting heavy casualties during the Battle of Opequan (also known as “Third Winchester”) on 19 September, 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. These Union victories helped Abraham Lincoln win a second term as President.

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

On 19 October 1864, Early’s Confederate forces briefly stunned the Union Army in a surprise attack at Cedar Creek earlier in the day, but Sheridan was able to rally his troops once again. Tragically, though, as the Union Army slowly turned the tide in intense fighting that raged for hours across a broad swath of Virginia farmland, Sergeant William Pyers was killed during the fighting at the Cooley Farm in Frederick County.

“He was mowed down during the fight and buried on the battle ground,” Samuel Pyers recalled in 1928 for a reporter from the Lebanon Daily News, who noted that Samuel Pyers still appeared to be so traumatized 64 years later that he was unable to speak further about what had happened to his father.

Weakened by hunger wrought by the Union’s earlier destruction of crops, Early’s army had gradually peeled off, one by one, to forage for food while Sheridan’s forces fought on gallantly, and won the day.

Afterward, Sergeant William Pyers and the other Union dead were buried right where they had fallen on the battlefield. William Pyers’ rank was listed in muster rolls at the time as Fourth Sergeant, but son Samuel confirmed in his 1928 interview that his father had been a Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. Sergeant Pyers’ surname was misspelled by O. E. Ross as “Piers” on the U.S. Register of Deaths of Volunteers, but the ledger entry does clearly document Pyers’ regiment, company, and combat-related death at Cedar Creek. Above and below the Pyers/Piers entry, Ross also listed others from the 47th who died that same day at Cedar Creek: Sgt. F.A. Park (Co. E), Private Daniel Powell (Co. D), Private Jno. Price (Co. A).

Final Resting Place

The remains of Sergeant William Pyers and other members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers who fell at Cedar Creek on 19 October 1864 were later exhumed and reinterred at the Winchester National Cemetery, which was dedicated by the federal government on 8 April 1866. His marker simply gives his name, rank, date of death, and broad designation as a member of the U.S. Army without any hint of the valor that had been displayed by the man who rests there, far from home.

 

Sources:

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

2. Civil War Muster Rolls and Related Records in U.S. Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs Record Group 19, Series 19.11. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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

4. Death Certificates (Pyers, Matilda and Pyers, Samuel H.). Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Vital Statistics.

5. Death and Burial Records, in Records of Zion Lutheran Church, Sunbury, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania (Reel 233), in Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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

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

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

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

10. U.S. Census. Washington, D.C.: 1860, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930.

11. U.S. Civil War Pension Index. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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