Howell, Charles

2nd New York Cavalry
Company C

Charles R. Howell
2nd NY Cavalry, Company C

Charles R. Howell was born in Yaphank on August 1, 1840. He lived with this widowed mother, Deborah, and his brother, Edmund, at the time of the 1850 U.S. census. Both Charles and Edmund were farmers.

On December 19, 1855, Reverend William Lake conducted Charles' marriage to Betsy Homan at the Methodist church in Port Jefferson. Charles and Betsy had a son in 1857, Charles Edmund Howell.

On August 27, 1862, at the age of 31, Howell enlisted with the 2nd NY Calvary for three years. The 2nd NY cavalry was called the Harris Light, named in honor of Senator Ira Harris of Albany, N.Y.

Howell joined the regiment in October and was sent to Aldie, Virginia. The new recruit knew that life as a soldier would not be easy, but there were some difficulties Howell and others did not anticipate. In an undated letter, he wrote:

Today I bought the NY daley times for 5 cents. The first time I have seen it out hear… I cannot aford to pay 5 cents for a paper when money is so scers with me. We don't get but $13 per month and we don't know when we will get paid off. The old men here is got 4 months pay coming to them now and they don't know when they will get it.

While based in Aldie, Howell and the 2nd Calvary participated in some skirmishes. They were then moved to Fredricksburg to join General Burnside, who amassed over 100,000 men for an assault against the 70,000 men of Robert E. Lee. General Burnside ordered an attack upon Marye's Heights. The Confederates occupied the top of the hill, however, and were protected by stone walls. The Union attack was futile. By the end of the day, they suffered 7,000 casualties; the Confederates had 1,200. Lee, while watching the carnage below, told his officers, "It is well war is so frightful otherwise we should become too fond of it."

After the terrible defeat at Fredricksburg, Union forces were moved back across the Rappahannock. The 2nd NY Cavalry was moved to Belle Plain, Virginia, where they were assigned picket duty on the Rappahannock. In a letter to his nephew dated January 20, 1863, Howell describes camp life at Belle Plain:

I have not got well yet. I feel week and clomsey… I got cold out on picket we had no tents with us and we had a snow storm. We maid a thing of a tent with pine brush and bilt a fire in front but it was too damp for me. I feel like an old man now.

Howell, Charles

Union Cavalry after crossing Pontoon Bridge across the Rappahannock.

Union and Confederate pickets were posted on either side of the river. The pickets had reached an informal agreement not to fire on each other. They began a lively exchange of Union coffee for Confederate tobacco. It was not uncommon to see Union and Confederate soldiers together on either side of the river engaged in lively debate.

Meanwhile, Burnside, horrified by his loss at Fredricksburg, resigned. President Lincoln replaced him with General Joseph Hooker, who inherited an army that was in disarray. They had not been paid in six months, they did not have proper shelter or food, and dysentery and scurvy made thousands of men sick. His biggest problem was troop morale: the men were discouraged after the defeat at Fredricksburg and desertions were rampant. In a letter to his nephew, Howell did not hide the discouragement that he and others felt:

Tomorrow we have got to leave hear to cross the Rappahannock River to get whipt again as we did before. The rebbels is plenty thair. Thair is about 70,000 over thair for us to whip or whip us.

General Hooker set out to transform a downtrodden army by improving food and medical care for his troops. As morale improved, Hooker felt confident enough to invite Lincoln to review the troops. On April 6, 1863, Howell was proud to stand there as Lincoln reviewed the Cavalry troops. This was a definite morale-booster. The men followed this formal occasion with an exciting game of baseball three days later, between the 14th Brooklyn and the Harris Light.

On June 2, 1863, the 2nd Cavalry engaged the Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station, Beverly Ford, and Aldie in Virginia. There were 91 casualties.

In July, Howell and the 2nd were in Gettysburg. They were at Round Top on July 3, 1863, pursuing Lee after his retreat from Gettysburg. While chasing Lee, they captured two thousand prisoners and Confederate General Ewell's entire wagon train. Howell and the 2nd NY pursued Lee's retreating army until October. In November, they were stationed at Stevensburg, and remained there until the famous raid on Richmond.

In February of 1864, Howell was one of one hundred men chosen for a daring raid. Colonel Judson Kilpatrick, the flamboyant leader of the 2nd NY Cavalry, had devised a plan that he felt would shorten the war. News of his plan reached President Lincoln, who met with Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick felt that the Confederate Capital of Richmond was not guarded heavily enough and could be taken by a swift cavalry raid.

The plan had a number of objectives. They were to free the Union soldiers who were suffering at Belle Island, a prisoner of war camp in Richmond. Another goal was to capture Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis. Additionally, Lincoln wanted Kilpatrick to distribute copies of an amnesty proclamation for secessionists who wanted to come back to the Union

On February 28, 1864, Kilpatrick left with 3,500 men to strike Richmond from the north. Howell was attached to a group of 500 led by the one-legged colonel, Ulrich Dahlgren, which was to attack from the south. Kilpatrick and Dahlgren met with little resistance as they headed toward Richmond. They destroyed railroad tracks, mills, and generally anything in their path. By the evening of February 29, Confederate leaders in Richmond had learned of the raid. They supplemented a lightly guarded city with wounded soldiers and civilians. Kilpatrick approached Richmond and lobbed about forty shells into the outskirts of the city. Overestimating the Confederate strength, however, he withdrew and waited for Dahlgren. Dahlgren, meanwhile, had split his force in half. Captain Mitchell crossed the James River and approached Richmond from the north, while Dahlgren crossed and approached from another direction. Howell was still with Dahlgren as they attempted to cross the James River. Dahlgren retained the assistance of a young black man to show him a place where his men might cross the river. Whether by ignorance or treachery, no one knows, the young man led Dahlgren to an unfordable part of the James River. Outraged, Dahlgren had the young man hanged.

They finally crossed the river and were less than three miles from the city, but nightfall forced them to withdraw. With Confederate cavalry pursuing them, Dahlgren made an attempt to join Kilpatrick. Confederate cavalry, anticipating the retreat, set up an ambush at Old King and Queen Courthouse. At 11 p.m., an unsuspecting Dahlgren and his men entered the trap. Dahlgren was killed and Howell was captured. He was sent to Belle Island, the same prison that he was sent to liberate. He was later sent to Andersonville, Georgia, on May 31, 1864.

Mill on James River destroyed by Kilpatrick during the raid on Richmond.

Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, was near the small town of Americus, south of Macon, Georgia. Americus had less than thirty people and was close to a rail line. This, along with the fact that the prison was deep in the south, made it an attractive site for a prison. The twenty-seven acre prison was built to hold 10,000 prisoners, but it eventually held more than 32,000 men. Over 13,000 men died at Andersonville from exposure, disease or malnutrition. When the prisoners died, they were buried shoulder-to-shoulder in shallow graves. The Confederate government did not have the resources to provide proper housing or medical care for its prisoners. Without shelter, the men constructed "shebangs" made from items such as cloth, mudbricks, and tree limbs. Fruits and vegetables were rarely. Charles Howell, lacking the vitamins from fruits and vegetables, was one of many who developed scurvy.

Worse than the lack of food was the condition of the water. A small stream called "Sweet Water Branch" flowed through the prison compound. The water source served as a garbage dump for the camp hospital and cookhouse. This was their only water supply for drinking, washing clothes and bathing. A prisoner latrine was built alongside the stream. After heavy rains the latrines overflowed, sending the contents of the latrine into the stream. This caused thousands of cases of typhoid fever and dysentery, since this was their only water supply for drinking and bathing.

Prison latrine runs right next to the stream used for drinking water.

As Howell's condition worsened, he was sent to the camp hospital. He did not recover from his illness, and on October 17, 1864, Charles Howell died. The cause of death was listed as scorbitus (scurvy) and malnutrition. Howell was buried in the camp cemetery. Ninety-two other members of the 2nd NY Cavalry also perished in Confederate prisoner of war camps.

At the end of the war, Clara Barton and Dorence Atwater, a former prisoner and member of the 2nd NY Cavalry, returned to Andersonville. While a prisoner, Atwater had recorded the deaths and burials of the Union prisoners by name and number. Barton and Atwater returned to Andersonville to identify and mark the Union graves. Through their efforts, the Andersonville National Cemetery was dedicated in 1865.

Graves of Union prisoners at Andersonville.

Atwater's records also assisted widows in filing for pensions. In 1866, Betsy Howell filed for a widow's pension with the government. Dorence Atwater provided her with the following affidavit:

This is to certify that I Dorence Atwater of late a private in Co. D second NY Harris Light Cav. was a prisoner of war at Andersonville Georgia and while there kept the record of deaths of Federal prisoners. And I do further certify that the name of C R Howell CO. C 2nd NY Cav does appear upon the death register as having died Oct 17, 1864 of Scorbitus and the number of his grave is 11,064
Dorence Atwater
April 19, 1866
Washington City

Betsy Howell collected $8 a month and an extra $2 for her son until he reached the age of sixteen. She never remarried. Betsy Howell lived with her son, Charles, and his wife, Matilda, until her death on November 4, 1899.

The younger Charles Howell grew up and to become a stagedriver. He eventually opened Howell's General Store on Main Street in Yaphank, and was a very successful merchant until his death in 1940. 

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